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Ask HN: Solo Entrepreneur, what are my chances and have you done it?
47 points by gdltec 1813 days ago | 60 comments
I decided to apply for the YCombinator program this fall. I am a solo entrepreneur/startup and one of the reasons for doing this by myself is because I see it as a way of bootstrapping my way to success. I am sure I can get another person to be my co-founder, however by doing that I'll be adding more expenses that I cannot afford right now. That does not mean I cannot get people to help me, but they will be helping by me offering sweat equity. What do you think? am I nuts? do you someone who has succeeded applying to YCombinator's program by themselves, without co-founders?



There are 2 single founder startups in the current YC batch. I think there were 3 in the last one. So we do fund them. The odds of getting funded are lower for single founder startups. I once calculated about 5x worse. But that doesn't necessarily mean anything, because the single founder applicants are not simply the same kind of people as the multi-founder applicants, just in quantity one. When people apply for funding for perpetual motion machines and the like, they are disproportionately single founders.

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So once you pass the quack test, is there really a big difference between single founders and co-founder teams?

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There are two types of single founders: those who would like to have a cofounder but can't find one (e.g. because they live in a place where good hackers are rare), and people who don't have a cofounder because they don't want one. The latter type are obviously different. The former type sometimes are too. E.g. if the reason they don't have a cofounder is that they are not persuasive enough.

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Requesting an essay about the latter type.

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Pretty sure he said it's 5x harder for single founders who are accepted.

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"The odds of getting funded are lower for single founder startups"

That's actually encouraging! who does not like a challenge. And does that mean that when single founder startups do get funded is because they have better chances or just a better product/idea/execution?

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I think what he's saying is that the odds look worse for single founders, but this is a little misleading because disproportionately more bad ideas come from single applicants.

The applications that get funded probably have a good background/idea, just the same as the rest.

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"disproportionately more bad ideas come from single applicants" I only agree with the above statement when single founder startups do not take the initiative (and common sense) of interviewing potential users/clients for the app/product that he/she is trying to create, this will tell you at least if the idea is good or not. Thanks.

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Well, if you can get a second or third founder on board, doesn't it mean the idea has been vetted out a bit by definition?

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True... but only a little bit. What's important I think, is to validate your idea with people willing to give you money for it... your clients/users.

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you shouldn't care about the statistics of single founder success rates.

If you have an absolutely dynamite, compelling idea and can communicate it your business will get funded.

Investors do not discriminate against you just because you are solo. If your idea is good and you are solo they might play the entrepreneur match making game and introduce you to people that can assisst you.

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You are wrong.

They discriminate against you just because you are solo.

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Kfool is right. We probably have higher standards for single founders, and I know a lot of later stage investors are reluctant to fund them at all.

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Is the bias still relevant? CBInsights says 37% of recent Seed & Series A goes to single founders (dual founders are 40%).

Stats on slide 21: http://www.cbinsights.com/blog/venture-capital/venture-capit...

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I suspect those numbers include biotech, where single founder startups are more common because they're often spinoffs of research projects with a single principal investigator.

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To clarify, this first Venture Capital Human Capital report only covered Internet companies and does not include healthcare, greentech, etc which we expect to add over time along with longitudinal data.

This first report only looked at founders of internet companies who raised their first round of institutional funding between January to June 2010.

Hope that helps.

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Last time I checked people were still paying money for Wolfram's A New Kind of Science. Maybe some of these "quacks" should get funded.

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I think there is a bit of a difference between Wolfram and your average perpetuum-mobile constructing quack.

Wolfram has an amazing amount of good work behind him and messed up (in the eyes of most, but not of all) on one thing, which I think is mostly linked to naming his book 'a new kind of science' without having the grace to wait for others to make that decision for him and by most likely being wrong about it.

If he had called it 500 interesting things to do with cellular automata there would have been no problem and his reputation would be unblemished.

It probably wouldn't have sold as many copies though.

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I'm pretty sure the people who pay money for it regret it afterwards.

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I'm a single founder (thathigh.com and footprintanalytics.com). Bootstrapped, I've never taken outside money.

Don't pigeonhole yourself into YC. If you get rejected, so what? In fact, why not just build what you planned on building now, in your spare time?

YC will help immensely, to be sure. But it's by NO MEANS a requirement to be successful.

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Agreed. I blogged on that: http://blog.fairsoftware.net/2009/04/07/you-didnt-make-it-to...

Getting into YC brings you money, notoriety and advice. They are great. And they can also be found elsewhere.

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Agree 100% with you and that is exactly what I am doing right now. I am currently developing a prototype and interviewing potential clients to make sure my product will solve some of their problems. I am interested in YC because of all the benefits that offers besides the extra cash, the interaction with other startups, the help incorporating the business, the momentum it can give your startup, etc... Thanks.

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Dropbox is another example of a successful YC solo-founded company: http://files.dropbox.com/u/2/app.html

I am planning on applying as a solo co-founder as well, so you aren't alone. Good luck!

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Not true. Drew's co-founder is Arash Ferdowsi.

My understanding is that he applied to YC (his second application) alone but was told to go out and find a co-founder.

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Thanks for the link to Dropbox YC application. Bookmarked!

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If your plan is good and you plan on bootstrapping anyway (which means that you see YC as a way to speed things up a bit) the best way to get in would be to prove that it stands a chance before applying.

Otherwise you'd just look like one of a hundred (or more) individuals that apply and have to overcome the 'have no co-founder' stigma.

You need to offset that somehow and I think the most concrete way of doing that would be to show you are already on the road to success.

Then if you are accepted you'll be able to move a bit faster and you can benefit from the network and if you are not accepted you are on your way but on a slower path.

Bootstrapping and using investors are not the same path - as has been noted elsewhere in this thread - but I don't see why you couldn't convert a bootstrapped business in to a larger one if you can lay your hands on some capital.

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I conceived, founded, and grew Forrst on my own, working on it for around 3 months before I took a small seed round in March, and am currently generating revenue. I have one part time employee who handles some community moderation stuff. I'm all for the single founder thing; in general, I think it gets too much flak. The one thing I think you need to be cognizant of is to have a razor-sharp focus. Besides, it could be fun.

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you won't know if you don't try. (you'll be fine, if the mint guy can do it, so can you - surround yourself in great mentors/employees/investors/friends)

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You are right about the mint guy, that's a great example! Thanks.

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http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Patzer for those who aren't familiar with him.

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Your chances of succeeding are inversely related to the degree you feel the need to ask permission to work on your idea.

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True... only if I was asking for permission. It is very valuable to me to get feedback (not permission) from as many people as I can, I know I will get many different opinions and each one of them has some value to me and hopefully others.

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There is an interesting dynamic between feedback and permission. In some ways they are the same thing. No one needs permission to launch, but it's good to have feedback saying you can.

No one needs permission to apply solo to YC, but it's good to get feedback that says your app won't be dismissed out of hand.

Think of it as niche market research.

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Are you asking what are your chances of being successful with your startup as a solo entrepreneur, or what are your chances of being accepted into Y Combinator? If the former, I'd say you have about the same chances as you do partnering with other founders, which is not very good. Building a successful startup is hard whether or not you partner with others, and success depends much more on the founder(s) in question, more so than anything else. If you are asking the latter, Paul Graham specifically says chances are lower for getting accepted into YC for solo founders, because building a startup is too much work for one person. (I agree with that for the most part, but would qualify it by saying it depends on what exactly you're building, and even that is not always significant as, again, it depends more on the person) Interestingly, the example given as a successful application to YC was by the founder of Dropbox, who was a solo founder. I believe it is explained why this application was successful. I would suggest you read the "Applying Successfully" section. (more importantly, so does Paul Graham)

I don't know what you mean by adding a co-founder will add to your expenses. A co-founder should be working for equity in a project which may pay off later, the same as you are. If you're referring to the money successful applicants receive from YC that is not very much, only around 20K, and is meant to cover not much other than living expenses in San Francisco while building up a prototype enough to solicit more substantial funding later, after being introduced on Demo Day. I later realized this low funding amount was probably intentional, as it forces founders to be laser focus on finding/doing what it takes to make their product successful, as a money safety net is not there. The nice thing about that particular benefit is realizing that startups that don't make it into YC can be pressed in the same way.

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What I mean by "adding a co-founder will add to my expenses" is that when my application gets approved by YC, chances are that I'll have to find a place not for one but for two or more people if I try to add co-founders right now. Yes the investment from YC is not much, and that is exactly why I would like to use it for anything that makes my startup successful and nothing else. As I mentioned on my question, I can offer sweat equity to other developers to help me out with this, they do not need to be co-founders, at least not in the beginning... unless they have other funds to invest in this company and all of their time :) - thanks for your input!

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Yes the investment from YC is not much, and that is exactly why I would like to use it for anything that makes my startup successful and nothing else.

I think you're missing the point of YC if the only reason you're hesitant to bring on co-founders is to keep down living expenses deducted from initial YC funding. I'm sure PG might correct me if I'm wrong, but the philosophy of YC is that it's the founders themselves which determine a startup's chances of success. It's not saving a few thousand dollars on living expenses. You should be focused on getting your startup what it needs to be successful, and that's the right people first, money second, if at all. Of all the things YC provides the funding is probably the least significant thing influencing a startup's possible success.

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Here's a good post about a successful single founder:

http://www.gabrielweinberg.com/blog/2010/01/will-single-foun...

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I'm lead to believe it greatly reduces your chances of getting in. There are a number of reasons to prefer teams over solo founders, but if you manage to stand out enough it's possible.

It's important to keep in mind that getting into yc does not guarantee success, nor does getting rejected guarantee failure. I applied as a single founder laster year and didn't get in, and probably got more bummed than I should have. I urge you not to make the same mistake.

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I'm pretty sure you will get turned down. YC is in business of collecting promising young companies, growing them under tender care, and reselling them to fat angles or VCs. Do you see yourself being resellable to this crowd? I don't, because bootstrapping is a different route. A successful investment target proclaims "I know how to productively utilize plenty of capital", but what you are saying is "I know how to utilize very little capital, and I plan to spend a lot of effort to keep it lean". That makes you a very bad investment, but a very good bootstrapper.

Here's everything you need to know to pursue your bootstrap dream: http://www.startupbook.net/ These will be the best $24 you have ever spent in your entire life. If you won't take my word for it, know that it's been endorsed by patio11.

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That's not true. All future rounds do is dilute us, the same way they do the founders. So all other things being equal, we'd prefer it if founders could achieve the same level of success on less money.

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Hm. Do you ever invest into self-proclaimed bootstrappers? I was under impression that you don't.

In fact, here's what I remember you told me: "yours looks like a micro-isv in the making, not a startup in the common sense". I took it to mean that you invest into people going after larger markets (which imho requires being able to utilize capital - the antithesis of boostrapping), and specifically avoid people going after smaller niches capable of sustaining only a small group of one founder and a couple of hired employees.

It would help if you clarified that.

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How people fund a startup initially is a separate question from how ambitious their long term plans are. So we would be very interested in investing in the next Microsoft, for example.

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That is exciting to hear. I do not want to build the next Microsoft, I want to build something better! and more useful for people than a word editor ;) (full disclosure, I like and use MS products very much).

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I disagree with you. YC is in the business of doing as much as possible with very little, in my own opinion... the amounts they invest in these startups say it all. Until you can prove your business and then you get a larger investment.

What you described is more towards the type of investments that VCs do... not YC.

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Well, and my point is that VCs are very often down the line from YC, so there has to be a feedback of sorts.

YC has to measure its own success somehow, and I suppose they do that by "exits". Such as a VC round, a real exit (acquisition), or a certain level of prominence and profitability - that which is not compatible with bootstrapping. Boostrapping is only great when you attack a small niche, that is too small for people with more resources to get into. The same smallness will inevitably make meaningful "exits" impossible.

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The fact that I start a business by bootstrapping it does not mean I am after a small niche (not that there is anything wrong with that). My aspirations are much greater than that, bootstrapping is just what I believe works for me, as a start, my next step is to get some angel investment to be able to go to the next phase and applying to YC seems like a good route to take. Thanks for your comments.

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The amount they invest is more: They invest their time, their attention, their connections to investors and their reputation. The money is not what they invest, and it's not what people go to them looking for.

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everything he needs to know about pursuing a bootstrap dream is embodied in your second paragraph. write an ebook and sell it online for $24!! if the bootstrapper thinks along such lines, he is bound to be successful!!!

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You comment is shallow, mean-spirited, and is aimed to derail the conversation with innuendo.

Why not tell us instead what you think about the content of the book or any of the ideas it espouses? Or maybe you could criticize author for not practicing what he is preaching. That is if you were able to demonstrate that, which you won't because he actually did bootstrap several software businesses before writing the book.

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The innuendo exists only in your mind - my words were sincere. I honestly admire anybody who can sell an ebook online for $24, and I for one find think there's much to be learnt from such a business model.

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Well then, you'll probably like me. I've made $45k to fund my bootstrapping with MY ebook: http://jsrocks.com. And I've just started writing about how to do it on my blog: http://unicornfree.com ;)

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I'm a solo founder but I have a full time job and work my business on the side when I have time (beats the hell out of video games). It made sense to me to be a solo founder because I can take things at my own pace and I can call all of the shots. I'm also not looking for any funding either, and if I was going to quit my job to go after something like this full-time, I'd probably try to find someone smarter than me to help out. Good luck.

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I think a critical question to ask yourself is 'why do I choose to go at it alone'? As you venture forward the skills necessary to succeed will increase both in depth and in scope. Being your own lawyer, accountant, marketer, engineer, designer, PR, advertising, support, HR ... will be very challenging. Having that trusted partner to balance the load and give a sanity check is important.

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I don't think you're nuts - committed collaborators can sometimes be extremely hard to find - but as someone who's seen the flipside of being a bootstrapped single founder, I'd say make sure to mitigate the risks you take to yourself.

Just don't let the downside of failing be taking on crushing debt. It happens, and it sucks.

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Are you business or technical? If you're technical, then you have a chance at YC (lower than if you had a team), but if you're missing the ability to build your idea, I highly doubt YC will accept you.

Also, why would finding a cofounder add more expenses? Especially if you find a cofounder willing to work for equity.

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It can be done, your odds at succeeding are just (far) lower. A 2 person startup has 120h a week. You only 60h. Besides you can't possibly unify the required skills in one person.

In summary; I wouldn't do it. I speak from experience, I'm running a one person startup now.

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If you make your startup a matter of hours, either one or two founders lose to publicly traded megacorp with 400 kilo hours per week. Do not compete on this basis.

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Find something that is working, and then ask people you know, trust and admire to join you. Use the success of what you made as your argument.

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A co-founder is someone who is willing to take as much risk as you, not someone you hire. Look at YC as a bonus. You decide if you're going to do your thing or not. Develop your idea as much as you can and meet with relevant people, or even irrelevant people who might be able to give you good advice about the viability of your idea. You might find a cofounder in this process, and if so, great, if not, don't worry about it.

If YC doesn't fund you because you're solo, then go prove them wrong and make it a success anyway.

I've got a cofounder now, but it is because I was unwilling to settle for a "cofounder" and found someone who was a perfect partner.

For most of my ventures they have been solo, and they have done ok on average-- some successes some failures. Doing a startup with a cofounder has psychic advantages, but it doesn't determine success-- for me, anyway.

If you get friends and advisors enough to provide the support system you need then you can do it without a cofounder, just optimize what you work on so that the time you spend building your product is as efficient as possible.

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You need a co-founder. If you can't find one, it just shows that 1) you are not resourceful enough 2) your idea is not good enough

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