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You don’t actually need a co-founder (2016) (techcrunch.com)
175 points by startupflix on May 5, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 73 comments

Whether you need a co-founder or not is not about individuals, it's about the skills. To make a startup successful you need to have the required skills; if you are lucky enough to have those skills in a single person, you don't need a co-founder.

As a side-note, the exact skills you need will depend on which metric you use to become successful (e.g. whether you want to bootstrap a self-sustainable company, or if you are happy with quick growth, raising money and exiting), but generally you need skills to build the product(s), and the skills to sell them. I personally couldn't sell my way out of a paper bag, but could build pretty much anything based on software and Internet. My attempts to build a startup failed precisely because I didn't have a hustler on the team, and I gave given up on trying again unless I can either a) find one, or b) build something that sells itself.

If you are bright(ish) you can figure almost all of the needed skills with a bit of reading and practice. I taught myself everything I needed to make a success of my business from software development, devops, accounting, tax, marketing, sales, etc. Sure I made more than a few mistakes, but I didn’t run across anything insurmountable.

Sales is an interesting skill. People will buy from pretty bad sales people if the sales person is a) knowledgeable and b) genuine. As a founder you should be both so as long as you get out and meet potential clients (or pick up the phone) you will sell as well as any skilled sales person. The skill that good professional sales people have is selling when they don’t know or care about the product.

Don’t ever think you can't be an effective sales person for the company you founded and built. Every founder can sell as long as they try.

> If you are bright(ish) you can figure almost all of the needed skills with a bit of reading and practice.

Fair point, but one should beware the survivor's bias. I've seen so many people who have won the talent genetic lottery, and practising something they're talented for seems so natural and easy to them, and they can't understand why would others have trouble with the same.

Do you have any tips or starting point suggestions for someone who is technical, but otherwise ignorant to marketing/sales?

How would someone learn sales?

Worry about sales before marketing. It is very easy to snow yourself that marketing is helping when a lot of the time it is just ego building - "look Ma we are on Cruchbase".

Sales is really a numbers games. Almost everybody you talk to says no (and often very rudely), but if your product has any value (and sometimes even when it doesn't) someone will say yes. Set a target per day of approaches and don't stop until you reach it.

On the actual sales pitch try to not to overwhelm the potential customers with information (I still do this). You should aim to be listening 60% of the time and talking 40% of the time. Record your pitches so you can review where you went wrong and time how much you are talking.

If you are the founder and built the product you should be able to wing the pitch (it will be more genuine if you do), but roleplay out your pitches with someone you feel comfortable with. What can really work well here is to write a whole lot of scenarios for the other person and have them pull one out at random and use for you to practice against. Each time you come across a new objection or blocking point then added it to the roleplay list.

The most important thing is to just grind through it. Sales is hard and unpleasant (nobody likes being rejected), but the more you do the better you will get at it. Set aside a time every day to do it and just do it.

Great and inspiring comment. Thank you.

Eh, depending on the depth of knowledge required to build your startup I believe the skills required to get your project off the ground can be learned.

Beyond that point you can hire.

> Beyond that point you can hire.

Which is a skill of its own.

"I personally couldn't sell my way out of a paper bag" - Is this an expression you've seen before? First time I've seen it, I like it. It's opposite to idea of someone who can sell pet rocks.

It's pretty common in my experience. Couldn't x their way out of a paper bag. Code, talk, etc. About the only thing that can't get out of a paper bag is a sammich and a kitten.

To build a successful startup, you don't have to get a co-founder. What you need is a team.

If you are able to get things off the ground, doing 0 to 1 all by yourself, then you don't need a co-founder. But doing 1 to N, you need a team.

I had a co-founder in my first company, and we were very unproductive, as reaching consensus took a lot of time.

Then I started my second company without a cofounder. Things get way better this time. I'm an engineer and I get to build things quickly. The only downside of founding company alone is, raising money may take longer. Investors typically discriminate sole founder. But it's not impossible. There are still investors willing to take a bet on sole founders if you are able to prove that you are capable enough.

It's more possible than ever to start a company alone, especially when you know how to write code. Think about this, which is faster: a business person learns coding, or a programmer learns business skills?

Edit: adding this --

It becomes easier to start a tech company as a sole-founder nowadays, e.g., cheaper to bootstrap, commodity of tech stack / cloud infra, tons of advices on the internet, Stripe Atlas... I suspect that when this generation of sole-founders succeed, some of them will become VCs and they'll have more empathy on sole-founders and will bet on more sole-founders like them.

A programmer who learns business skills - who already has money is the next level up to start from, though designers for awhile seemed to be getting their due share of attention/importance validated in the trifecta of design-business-engineering skills.

Instead of looking at the proportion of exited companies compared to all founder buckets, a better statistical approach would be to look at the proportion of successful exits within each bucket to see if to see if a founder bucket has a better "chance" of success.

You can kinda extrapolate the ratio of successful startups / total startups for each founder buckets by looking at the y-axis counts...but in that case, the ratio of successful startups given the startup raised $10M is 80%-90%, which doesn't make any sense. Is this data correct or am I misinterpreting it?

Not just that. Defining a successful startup as a startup that exited is a bit narrow of a definition. A bootstrapped startup that has sustainable growth and can remain independent is successful in my book.

I think a startup you bootstrap to generate a steady stream of revenue is just called a 'business,' or 'small business.' The all-or-nothing drive is, afaik, what makes it a 'startup.'

Not quite. The point of a startup is to get rich and then not think about money. It's why people endure the pain. (It wasn't till I tried starting one that I realized just how painful it is.)

A bootstrapped startup that you stop paying attention to will rapidly stop making money.

The point of a startup is to get rich and then not think about money.

For some, sure. For many others it's to have the freedom to do something they enjoy, or to solve a pain they've encountered, or to help others. YC funds plenty of non-profits that aren't likely to ever make the founders "fuck you money" rich. In fact, most of the founders of those startups could earn much more elsewhere.

> I tried starting one that I realized just how painful it is.

Yup! Then try hitting the wall at 600 mph, after raising $100M. That ain't pretty either.

Once you make enough money you can sell off a bootstrapped business or at worse just run it out for cash.

Or you hire a manager/staff to run it?

To put it differently:

The analysis in the article doesn't normalize for the frequency of a certain founder-number bucket. What if 99% of all start-ups have single founders? Then of course most of the companies that exit have a single founder, even if single founders perform much worse.

Yes, but the article doesn't claim that you're more likely to succeed as a solo founder. It just states that success is possible.

Previous - 166 comments https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12371146

Also Stop Looking for a Cofounder (dontscale.com) https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10060935

is interesting for the comments.

(The article is now at https://web.archive.org/web/20160225043230/http://dontscale.... as dontscale.com seems to have overdone don't scaling.)

The idea is that startups are very hard work and you need someone to bounce your ideas off, do some heavy lifting, who is also completely supportive of your success. Someone who pulls you back up when you hit the floor hard.

My theory has often been that many "solo founders" actually get some very strong support elsewhere - whether it's their spouse or a relative. A lot of the more modern VC companies target very young entrepreneurs in their 20s, who probably have not gotten married yet.

This is not necessarily the case. If you are bootstrapping you can afford to go at a slower pace that is more compatible with life outside of crazy pace of investor backed startups.

I personally bootstrapped mark II of my business while working full time with a wife and family who all thought I was crazy. It just took me a little longer than if I had been working 100 hours a week with a co-founder.

One of the good things about going slower is you have more time to think through problems and you can get by with less feedback from others (i.e. you have the time to solve your own problems).

They absolutely do get strong support elsewhere.

I would argue even teams of co-founders require a diverse support network! Relying on only your team is putting all of your eggs in one basket and superficially restricting the diversity of views you need to be innovative.

Most of the time there are some very serious issues that only the management team can understand or discuss. For example a risky stealth pivot, or having to fire the CTO who has been there since the start. Or a major glitch that may lose all their customers if anyone found out.

It's hard to draw a conclusion from the data unless you have a ratio. If 10x as many companies have a single founder, and 1/2 of exits are single founder exits, then the lack of multiple founders could be a negative signal.

That being said, I agree with the premise of the article and think that people should stop pushing collaboration so much (like open offices, pair programming). A lot of the time collaboration just makes you comfortable while adding lots of communication overhead.

IIRC "Adding programmers to a late software project makes it later" due to the increased communications overhead. Famous remark in computing,

Frederick P. Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, ISBN 0-201-00650-2.

That's true, but that's also talking about something else.

Brooks was saying that if the project is late you can't speed it up by adding more people to it because the current team members then need to spend less time working on production and instead spend that time getting the new people up to speed.

In contrast, if you're digging a ditch and that project is late then you can definitely speed it up by adding more people. They can work in parallel and the new workers already have the skills needed to contribute immediately.

The GP was talking about ongoing communication overhead for people that are already on the team.

It's been a while since read the book. IIRC, you are correct.

Your extra details are good, but we still can take a simpler approach: More people means more communications, of all kinds! So, the whole thing can go bureaucratic with endless lists of requirements, considerations, ....

E.g., my solo, sole founder project code has 24,000 programming language statements in 100,000 lines of typing, and large organizations, even using the parallelism you mentioned, might have taken more person-hours and maybe more elapsed time to do that than I did!

I had one of those situations: About a dozen of us. In the afternoon I heard the horror stories about the weeks of work they had to do to program the rule subroutines. Gads, their implementation would have made a mess out of the feature.

Some of the problem was a run time routine for some RETE logic. The programmers were planning to return from all the subroutines, run the RETE code, then somehow call all the subroutines again -- at best, a disaster. By dawn I had sent e-mail with a clean solution: Carry along an entry variable pointer to the RETE routine, keep it active on the stack of dynamic descendancy, and then invoke it where as needed. I got some sleep and when I got back the production code was nearly done!

How that happen? We had some bright guys, but one guy working alone overnight did better than the results of all the meetings and plannings.

Good cofounder > solo > bad cofounder. Pretty simple.

You put it nicely. Also, working closely with someone makes the process more enjoyable. People often forget that startups are really long journeys and if you're not having a good time for the most part, then it's not really worth it. And I'm not saying that solo founders never enjoy the process, it's just different. Having close people to share the journey with is important. True for life in general.

I have to agree and add this: many solo companies are this way not necessarily out of choice , but because the founders could not, for various reasons, get someone to work with them (overlapping skill set, lack of required skill set, a fear of uncertainty, low finances, incompatible personalities, other commitments, geography etc)

If only you didn’t have to worry about good cofounders turning into bad cofounders.

If a cofounder appears good but ends up bad, it means you misjudged him from the start ;)

Which is obviously hard, see entire industry around hiring games...

It is more complexity than this as the difference between a good cofounder and a bad one is many times is situational. On one path to growth your cofounder is good and on an alternative path they are bad.

Indeed, some times simple rules are hard to follow!

I always suspected that all these arbitrary investors rules were garbage. Probably what happened is that a couple of big prominent VC firms used the two-founder-only strategy and then their fund happened to succeed and they decided to attribute their success to that strategy... Whereas in fact their success was based on other factors that the VC firms did not actually understand.

That could be the case but my theory is that it's about control. Investors funded a solo founder before and then when they said to take some action (sell/pivot/scale up) the solo founder didn't do it.

They said damn this guy owns 70% of the company after Series A, we can't make him do anything we want! Now if there were 2 founders each founder would only own 35% of the company, and if they could convince one of those two founders they could get what they want. All investors want cofounders because they want more leverage. So if some investor is urging you to team up with a cofounder to 'complement your skillset' it might actually be that they aren't confident in your leadership and want an option to override you.

Basic lesson of statistics: If you have one roll of the die statistics don't matter.

Seriously, the individual context of your situation weighs much much higher. I would only use advise in situations where I have zero ideas what to do next, and then only to start brainstorming.

Sometimes you have to do things that might even seem weird to other people. But always remember that other people are there to achieve their own goals, not yours. Even your parents might have goals that are competing with yours. E.g. they want you to be financially save because if you're not then they might need to take care of you again.

More importantly, the common repeated fact that "x% of startups fail" means little.

It's not a die roll. It's more like hundreds of separate die rolls with their own different probabilities and outcomes. It's how good the team is, he good you are at several different competencies (including toilet cleaning) and if your idea of an Uber for hair extensions is the hottest new thing or just dead in the water.

This, in the end, approximates a continuous distribution.

I think one of the key words in the title is "you". All the stats are fine, but it doesn't say much about what "you" need. This depends on what type of person you are, what type of skills you have and lack, how much you know about the industry you are in, what type of business you are starting, how good your network is, etc. I think the stats are nice to have, but the most important thing is being self-aware and knowing what is best for you.

Survivorship bias. What we don't see is the total proportion of failed startups.

If 95% of solo-founded startups fail outright before raising any venture capital, but only 80% of co-founded startups do, these numbers don't really mean anything -- you're better off finding a co-founder in terms of raw career success and entrepreneurial potential.

The only relevant information here is that once startups have gone through some sort of basic fundraising filter, solo-founded startups are more common than not. I would hazard a guess that there are a lot more solo-founded startups at the top of the funnel than in stage two. Let's see attrition rates at each stage (Founded, Angel, Seed, Series A, Series B, [...], Exit).

(That said: I generally agree with the statement that you don't need a co-founder. If you have the ability to execute, build and let a co-founder "find you" if necessary.)

It doesn't matter. You shouldn't pick FOR YOU what works ON AVERAGE.

Say on AVERAGE 50% of 2-man startups win, but only 10% of 1-man startups win. And you are anti-social. YOUR personal win rate may well be higher as a 1-man startup, averages be damned.

Averages are cool to think about a problem. But know yourself. Your correct choice may not be the average best choice.

(That said I started solo and roped in my wife when I needed some gaps filled, but that was a good path for my style. I do not suggest it as a general path others should take).

You might not need one, but I do. I've got a cofounder now, which upped my game immediately as soon as we chose to partner up. The support, the splitting of responsibilities and just being able to relax a bit is worth a lot. I've almost doubled my revenue per head since partnering.

Isn't the #1 reason for startup failure disagreement between cofounders? Although solo-founder companies are harder to build (in the beginning), there is a power structure that makes taking decision easier, and reduces the odds of long-lasting conflicts.

I think, at its core, the reason a co-founder is suggested is a person's internal dialogue is often different than the dialogue they have with others. Probably different parts of the brain (at least in part) get used when we speak with others than when we speak to ourselves.

Anecdotal evidence: How often have you gotten stuck on a problem, but as soon as you start explaining it to someone else you immediately know the answer?

Maybe those who are successful as entrepreneurs without co-founders have learned to exercise both of these dialogues alone?

Just because you don't have a co-founder doesn't mean you can't talk with other people about your startup.

I am a solo founder and I spent a lot of time talking to friends in my industry and early employees.

Point taken, but I think you missed my point.

A lot of companies will start with a prototype by one person who raises a seed round and then takes on a “co-founder.” If you’re a one person operation and you’ve managed to raise money, you need to hire someone anyway, so you may as well find someone who fits the bill of cofounder.

Might as well give them 50% stake in a company you built and might as well dilute your ownership? That makes no sense if you can hire someone to do the job, pay them X% more, and keep 100% ownership of your startup.

I think the reason YC and other incubators want cofounders is because it hedges their risk. If one founder gets sick or goes against YC's advice they can apply pressure through the other founder, and in extreme cases team up with other investors to oust the bad founder. If it's a solo founder they own too much of the company to divide and conquer so they can't make any power plays. I'm not saying that these moves are always bad - in general investors want the company to succeed. They just rather have an option than to put all their eggs in one basket with a solo founder.

It's not about giving 50% of your company, and in a case like that the co-founder would definitely not get 50% (or deserve it from a risk/reward perspective). It's about having a partner and teammate who helps you accomplish more than you could alone.

Is the Crunchbase data accurate? It's not like it's an official SEC report.

I always figured it would be missing lots and lots of data, seeing how it's self reported, and founders are likely to be something left out due to falling out and what not..

I agree you don't need a co-founder, but in case you did, consider pitching at the startup conference open mic[1] (May 17). It's the long lost sibling of the co-founders meetup. I know for a fact that "you never know who you will meet."

[1] http://thestartupconference.com/co-founder/

YC seemed to have reported a different outcome. One factor could be that second/third time entrepreneurs may be more willing to go it alone with easier access to capital whereas younger teams may have more cofounders and without the track record, a harder time raising capital. I also wonder if that would hold here in SV.

You don't need a cofounder.

Don't ever let another person distract you from your vision.

I think the important part is to have skin in the game and you're much less likely to let down someone else than to let down yourself. If this is a cofounder or investor or someone else doesn't really matter.

I thought YC said #1 failure reason for startups was cofounder conflict?

Unknown source.

And that on face value supports the OP article.

Data seems pretty flawed. Looking at exits or more than $10m raised doesn't seem like the correct marker of success.

I think "success" should be measured in exits or ongoing profitable operations, as well as revenue growth over time. Looking at that data set and seeing if number of founders had a positive or negative effect would be very interesting, but perhaps more difficult to gather.

And as long as I am wishing for the perfect data set I would also include founder happiness (maybe using spousal divorce or tenure at the company as a proxy?). Because you might have an exit but have totally destroyed your personal life, and that doesn't sound like success to me.

So... whats the point if you do not consider how many solo founders there were at the begining?

Suitable with me. But it's hard to seek seeds funds. Now I bootstrap my own company

"including some big success stories like Pebble’s Eric Migicovsky"


You need capital. Everything else is far less critical.

Actually if you have a solid amount of spare time, capital might not what you need. Capital is a means to create time, though.

Labor is also a means of turning time into capital. For example, I use my free evenings and weekends from my dayjob to hustle things on the side with the goal of earning capital in order not to need a day job.

Some form yes, but it can be sweat and not cash capital. SaaS apps do not need a large cash bankroll in many cases if founded by developers. Your input could be 1h a day for a year on your commute.

Sure, the majority of companies that have exited had only one founder, but >70% of founders who have exited have had cofounder(s).

isn't that intrinsic to companies with multiple founders?

For example:

you have a pool of 10 companies

6 of them exit

3 of the companies who exited had 2 founders each

3 of the companies who exited had one founder

in this world:

66% of founders who have exited, have had cofounders


if you are a person who is founding a company, does bringing on a cofounder increase your chance of exiting in this world?

Whats thr point without looking at how many solo founders went in. Perhaps there are vastly more solo founders trying.

Get a cofounder.

This screams survivorship bias so loud it hurts my ears.

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