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Absolutely, DO NOT, get a co-founder!
112 points by BitGeek 3517 days ago | hide | past | web | 94 comments | favorite
An oft lamented consern is the difficulty in finding a co-founder. Next to this is the regular discussion of what kind of founder to get, how to know you've got a good one... and all the possible problems that can happen when founders don't agree.

Well, I'm am old man at almost 40 and I've spent the last 18 years working for startups of less than 100 people, many of them successful, and almost all of them founded by more than one person-- and in almost all situations I knew at least one of the founders very well.

The number one thing that caused the unsuccessful companies to fail was fights between the co-founders. And the successful ones-- were ones where the co-founders were very harmonious, because they had worked together for years before founding the company (multiple instances of this.) Of course, there were also instances where co-founders had worked before and they still fought all the time.

A co-founder is not what you need, unless you already have one, and you have as good a relationship with them as the best relationship you've ever had with anyone in your life. If you KNOW you're not going to have a problem, then great.

But for most of you-- those who don't know others who are as entreprenurial or don't already know someone - and have known for quite awhile that they would be a good co-founder-- you should not get a cofounder.

I know that PG says you need a co-founder, but while his intentions are good he's slightly off the mark. Sure, its better to have more than one person in the company... and feel free to call your second thru fourth employees "co-founders" or give them "founders stock"... whatever.

But at the end of the day, if its your idea and you are the one who has decided to dedicate the next several years of your life to this project, then found the company and make everyone else who joins you an employee.

Employees can have good chunks of stock. But you gotta have the authority question out of the way. You have to be a good leader to run a company... and getting people in you don't know too well works much better when you both know they are employees (Even if they are called founders or whatever, how about "founding team" or "founding employees".)

Its better for you to have the ultimate say and make a few wrong decisions, than for you and your co-founders to be fighting.

Nobody will ever have as much passion for the idea than the originator, and genuinely visionary people understand their idea on a level and in a context that nobody else will ever... thus you have to lead.

Next to Venture Capitalist (who force companies to misallocate funds or go after longshots and abandon sure things), co-founders are the biggest reason companies fail. And actually its even worse- when you have co-founders VCs like to get involved and start manipulating things.

Every time I've seen one founder pushed out or marginalized in favor of other founders by the VC firm, the company has not lasted 9 months after that.

For an example of the success of a single founder with founderr employees--look at Amazon.com. Bezos is clearly the founder, and he got engineers in early, they got good stock, but they knew what they were. The company would be much different if these employees had thought they were equal with the guy who had the vision.

So, those who are desperately seeking a co-founder.... stop... employees are much easier to find anyway. And you can find ones who will take stock as compensation. (Just don't be stingy-- I once was in talks with a company who was building out the founding team and offered me %1 stock plus a serious pay cut... I turned them down-- why take the real risk of a pay cut when there's no equity upside?)

Anyway... think about it-- and don't be held up waiting for that founder... start pressing forward without one and when you need to build your team, bring people on who are ready to follow you... and when their egos are not involved, things will go much better.




The fact that most plane crashes are due to engine failure doesn't mean planes shouldn't have engines.

All you have to do is look at the empirical evidence. Successful single-founder startups are so rare that they're famous on that account.

I'm not saying that having a cofounder is so important that you should take someone lame, or someone you don't know well. Maybe if you can't find a cofounder you're just screwed; I don't have enough data yet to say for sure. But someone going into a startup as a single founder should be aware they're doing something that, for whatever reason, rarely works.


The plane analogy doesn't work because dual engine planes are more reliable than single engine planes... unlike founding teams, engine can't decide that they want to go in different directions and engines are not insecure, ego driven, or prone to misunderstanding each other. Nor do engines have investors coming in sowing dissent between them.

If you look at the empirical evidence, you will see that most successful companies are started by an individual. Now, of course, a successful company needs more than one person to be involved-- they need employees. And early employees can be very well rewarded and significant contributors to shaping the idea.

But leadership by consensus does not work, as anyone who has belonged to a high school club or organization knows. In a business environment, it is death- the founders never reach consensus and generally they constantly pull against each other, undermining each other and ultimately undermining the company.

Leadership by consensus is quite literally the absence of leadership.

When there is a leader, and that leader is capable, the company succeeds.

If you have a pair of people who work well together, then as you concede generally one of them will be the clear leader. Dividing the work and having each lead sections of the company is fine- if you know the person who you can do that with. But such people are generally quite rare.

Unfortunately, the advice that you must find a founder in order to start a company is bad advice-- in most cases this will lead to the company failing. There are, of course, examples of pairs of people who co-founded companies together and they are well known because they are the exception. But the vast majority of successful american enterprises are started by an individual with an idea and the dedication to pursue that idea.

Forming a company takes vision. It takes dedication and it takes certainty that there is something there- and opportunity to add value that has not already been seen and seized by other entities.

This is why leaders who start companies are far more likely to success than friends who decide to "do a startup" and "manage by consensus."

If you don't have a cofounder already- you shouldn't be looking for one. Hire some employees.

But you're far from screwed-- simply looking at the history of startups in America and you'll see that single men with vision are most often the ones who succeed.


Leadership by consensus does not work, as anyone who has belonged to a high school club or organization knows.

Worked for us at Viaweb and Y Combinator. Works for most of the 58 startups we've funded.

And btw, you're misinterpreting my analogy about the plane, but I'm out of stock on "no, what I meant was" so I'll leave it as an exercise for readers who care to figure out how.


Your plane analogy was responding to a strawman anyway... thus it was pretty asinine to begin with.

I'm sure concensus management has worked for you-- never said it didn't and haven't said its impossible. However, the problem is that you're saying people must have a co-founder, and that they must manage this way... and there's a big difference between having a cofounder you've known a long time and getting a cofounder because you foolishly followed the advice of a self styled guru.

If my response seems harsh, its because your tone is pretty strong. If you expressed your opinions in terms of preferences it would be one thing-- but you lay them down and defend them like they are religious law, and do not respond to the fact that this religious law does not work in all situations... which brings us back to the plane analogy-- its great for trying to make me look stupid, but its piss-poor (actually irrelevant) for arguing against what I was actually saying.


First, what dual engine and single engine planes have to do with PG's comparison? He was referring to the fact that if a component of a thing statically represents the number one problem (for example the car's engine breaking down), it doesn't mean you should remove that component (the engine).

Secondly, while I agree with you that if you planned everything by yourself and are willing to do it alone, you shouldn't just look for co-founder when you can start implementing by yourself with some employees. But I got to warn you that's pretty extreme and may get you looking like a 70 year old when you are 25 very fast, because of the exhaustion it causes to run a big venture by yourself.

I don't know statistics either and I would like to put [citation needed] everywhere I look on the internet but a two men team has more potential on the long run then an one man army because the two founders motivate each other, share problems and have a larger knowledge base to solve them, make it more fun and pleasing to work on a startup. I like your post because you raze awareness regarding the importance of having good cofounders. Anyway some people like to work alone one and they do it better that way, but I think most men might fall apart on such high pressure, especially if they don't have previous experience in making startups.

One more thing is that it's very hard to find good employees that are willing to work at a startup, even harder to pay them while you don't have any revenues in site.


Dauntless--

No need to warn me, I've seen the strife of having co-founders, and I've seen the harmony of having a solo found er and co-founder teams that lasted 20 years.

I don't think its a factor of finding "good" co-founders. I think unless you have known the person a long time, you can't know if they are "good" or not- its not whether they are good or not, as the most earnest, responsible, loyal and considerate founder may still be the death of your company. Its fundamental to the nature of trying to manage a company by consensus.

Consensus management doesn't work- or we'd be up to our ears in all the communes the hippies started in the 60s and 70s.


Interestingly there is a saying amongst pilots that is: "The second engine flies you to the scene of the accident". I'm not sure if this works as a metaphor in this case.


That must not be a very common saying because Google didn't return anything for it but this.


maybe Google likes me better: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=The+second+engine+f...

from http://www.av8n.com/how/htm/multi.html

Q: In an underpowered twin, what is the role of the second engine?

A: It doubles your chance of engine failure, and it will fly you to the scene of the accident.


I put it in quotes when Googling. It's not quite a saying if it only exists broken up and in response to something else.


I haven't seen statistics on single founder vs multiple founder startups. I'm not sure if there are any, or the massive biases they would exhibit because most startups die without ever leaving a trace.

Most of the companies you've worked for had multiple founders - to be get big enough to hire someone is a measure of success. I think history likes to write stories about single men of vision - especially in the established business fields. I'd take such a look with a healthy skepticism.


actually, most of the companies I've worked for were started by an individual, and most of the successful ones were as well.

But my point is that there has to be someone in charge. You can have "cofounders" so long as they know that the buck stops with you. (Or you can be a cofounder so long as you know the buck stops with someone.)


"almost all of them founded by more than one person"

You can see why I might get that impression...


evidence? pg hasn't given any either, but he gets somewhat more starting cred than you by virtue of staking his own money on his belief. (If his advice doesn't work, he gets low returns on his investments). You two are stating as fact two contradictory things, and I (and probably most readers) am unwilling to take your statements as fact without evidence.

Can you point me to any studies about the failure rates of startups? anything that's not anecdotal or personal experience?


My original post was based on my experience. PG responded with absolute (and absolutely asinine) claims about statistics. I'd like to see him provide some evidence. Giving him more "starting cred" is the problem with the YC way of doing things- its a cult of personality and the personality in question gives some good advice but also some bad advice.

However, you can look at any list of the richest people, or any list of successful startups, and you'll note that most of them were founded by individuals. Though you gotta restrict your data to companies that have lasted a decade or so- otherwise you havent' given the founding teams time to split apart.


The OP is saying that there should be a single person who has final authority. Is this incompatible with having multiple founders?

I can imagine a Kirk-Spock sort of startup, where one person excels at making decisions and doing the legwork, and another at providing information and skills.

I suppose, in practice, few people can trust someone else to make all the decisions, especially if it's their future on the line. What's your experience been?


When there are multiple founders, there's usually one who is a bit more driven than the others. Usually if you had to send an email to just one person at the company, you'd know instinctively who to send it to. But it's rare in a successful startup for anyone to have final authority. In a good startup, the founders generally seem to operate by consensus.


Is this incompatible with having multiple founders?

I should hope not. There has to be a unified vision of some sort. I'd like to point everyone in the direction of the Fred Brooks presentation from OOPSLA: http://www.oopsla.org/podcasts/Keynote_FrederickBrooks.mp3


"Successful single-founder startups are so rare that they're famous on that account."

Doesn't the same argument apply to successful_ startups founded by 20-somethings? I.e. they are famous because they are so rare.

_My definition of successful is taking the company public.


No. I would expect more successful (software) startups had 20-something founders than founders from any other decade.


The two opinions aren't mutually exclusive. I simply read you to say that co-founders are a trait of successful "startups". While here the opinion is that's a fine trait, but it isn't always necessary. To me, it's just an disagreement about necessary and sufficient conditions.

Paul, would you agree that a co-founder makes many things easier, but the right single founder can find that support structure through other means (e.g., spouse and a few core employees with significant stock)?


The answer is obvious: you need to find your Wozniak to help you start your company.

Anything short of a Wozniak will not do it.

Anyone in disagreement can go and ask Jobs.


What about for Facebook apps?


A toy application on a proprietary platform is definitely not a startup (it's just cheap, outsourced market research for Facebook).


Personally, if you're just planning on making a Facebook app, I hope you're doing it for fun, or to satisfy your own app desire, or with some eye towards a future opportunity. Making a Facebook app interface for an independent site makes a lot of sense, but I would not want to center my entire business model on a closed platform that has shown little evidence of revenue with the constant threat to have my functionality mirrored and obsoleted. So in that sense, I don't think the writer of a Facebook app has to worry about a cofounder, since said writer would (hopefully) not be expecting to found a company out of the venture. That would be like saying someone starting an open source project needs to wait for a cofounder (ignoring, of course, that whole "open" part).


Nothing prevents you from doing that after you come up with a viral app. Facebook is a nice place to experiment because it takes so little time to build Facebook only apps.


I guess I'm trying to say that there are plenty of Facebook apps (free gifts, HTML walls) that are "viral" and easy to build, but how many of these have any chance at making money? I'm implying that any Facebook application that is useful enough to become a "founded company" will involve an external site of some sort, one that involves the same types of inherent complications that are present in any other startup.

What do you have in mind that can be built almost entirely in Facebook and expanded later on? I suppose if I think hard enough I can come up with some long shot ideas that may or may not work out (product-rating apps which could be expanded to include other social networks, for one), but even something like this is going to require some kind of heavy backend analysis to be especially useful. Keep in mind that we're also ignoring the (very real) possibility of Facebook sweeping in and mirroring any successful application or approach to generating revenue.

On another note, what makes Facebook any easier for experimentation than Apache? Writing scripts that print pages to a browser is as easy as writing to standard output.


Frankly, I grin every time I hear someone say that Facebook apps don't make money, because that's just more left for me. Consider these stats from a not spectacularly successful app: http://www.techcrunch.com/wp-content/smincomebig.png

How many web 2.0 companies do you know that are pulling those numbers?

Facebook is the most viral platform in the history of man - making it easy to get a lot of users quickly makes it deal for experimentation.


Wait... which app is that income for? SocialMedia or Appsaholic or something else entirely? And they have no large infrastructure behind the scenes?

Going back to amichail's original comment, the implication was that making Facebook apps is really easy, and therefore a cofounder might be less necessary. The only point I was trying to make was that any Facebook app that is going to be really easy to make is unlikely to be a big revenue generator. My assumption was that any app that was going to be big enough and useful enough to generate good revenue was going to require a significant backend external website to crunch numbers and store relevant info.

So what's the point of what I'm saying? I was trying to counter the idea that building a revenue-generating Facebook app would be any easier than building an independent site. In both cases, you have to build the backend, anyways. So then we're merely talking about the difficulties of building the interface, and I was saying that it's not that hard to do with Apache and a script in just about any language: just print what you want the browser to see to standard output. Even if building a Facebook interface is easier, that is fraught with other complications (such as worrying about Facebook itself doing its own, official version of your app).

So in the end, I'm saying that building a successful Facebook app is not much different from building a successful website, so if you need a cofounder for a website, then you also need one for the app.


Neither. It's a single application running SocialMedia/Appsaholic ads. It's an app called My Aquarium, developed and maintained by one guy.


I like the case you're making here, which mainly seems to be that if you're waiting around on a cofounder, you're trying to solve the wrong problem. Unless you already have a potential cofounder in mind, you may be opening yourself to other problems by trying to find one (delaying the project, working with someone who turns out to be not as good as hoped, etc.). So I have to agree that your advice to just start working anyways seems quite good.

That said, just tonight I was able to see what value a cofounder can have in a simple programming project for a class. I had an idea for a project, and he already had some ideas for how we could go about doing it (various machine vision algorithms). We then bounced various ideas off each other, came up with a good interface, argued a little bit about some small details, and came up with a good, shared-effort approach to tackle the problem at hand.

Having a "cofounder" in this case already has proven to have a few worthwhile benefits:

1. Shared knowledge leads to less time necessary in research

2. Ability to think out loud to someone besides yourself or a pet

3. Having to work with someone forces you to come up with decent interfaces for the pieces of code, leading to more modular, maintainable code than if you just jumped in single-handedly.

4. The work is shared (duh :-)

5. If I don't feel like working on the code the day before our planned meeting, that's too bad. I'm still going to have to do it or look like an ass the next day.

Maybe point number 5 is the biggest one. Inevitably, there will be stupid little stuff which is part of the project that you just don't want to do. Having someone to face at the end of the day may just be that little bit of extra motivation you need.

Of course, it's still possible to do much of this stuff on your own. Being able to leverage open source libraries helps with 1 and 4, so if you can handle 2 3 and 5 on your own, then you can probably do it without a cofounder.


Hey there- That's what happens when you have creative collaboration with someone.

Every employee you hire should be sharp enough to be able to do so, and the good ones will be bringing ideas to you unbiden.

If you've got a co-founder, great. Nothing wrong with that... its just that the idea that you need one is in error, and if you ever have to present to someone who thinks that way, your first couple of employees you can call the "Founding team" or "cofounders" or whatever you want.

Its just that in order for the company to function- you need a vision and a direction.

Startups too often find themselves going in circles wasting time because everyone's second-guessing everyone else... and this is more likely to happen when you have cofounders trying to reach consensus rather than a founding team with a clear leader


I definitely see where you're coming from, and I agree to a certain extent. It's just that there are some things that an employee may not do which I cofounder would, in my own hypothetically-played-out-in-my-head scenario.

1. An employee is less likely than a cofounder to express disagreement, especially on ideas that it seems like you are "married to".

2. A cofounder is presumably completely onboard with you and the project. They are there with you from day one and feel (almost) just as strongly as you do about it. If things take a turn for the worst, they are more likely to hang on for the ride than an employee, who might elect to take up a position at a more promising-looking startup or a job with more security.

3. A cofounder is more likely to become an outside-work friend (if s/he is not one already). In general, true boss-employee friendships are hard to come by. Having a friend who completely understands the ups and downs of the project can be important psychologically and emotionally.

Don't get me wrong... I agree with you that a startup can definitely be done independently by the right person. I just wouldn't agree that a cofounder is a detriment. It certainly can turn out that way, but it could also turn out that you make a lifelong friend and get that extra value that helps your startup get through the rough patches.


Apologies if we're stating to go in circles...

1. Not if you take them into your confidence and make them know that you value their opinion. Who doesn't want the CEO's ear? Its really all about the attitude you show them (and their personality, which is something you can select for.)

2. I think that you should hire with the same criteria and standards that you find a co-founder, and you should reward people based on their contributions. I've watched co-founders work themselves inot a cushy CTO role where all they did was go to conference and pontificate via long (never read) memos to the rest of the company, while another cofounder- the VP of engineering- did all the heavy lifting.

3. Maybe- if your cofounder is someone you knew before founding the company, then I think this is true and it could be a critical factor in the quality of that particular compnay. Like I said, if you already have a founder, or you already have someone you know who is perfect (they aren't but that you think so means they are close enough) then great- be co-founders.

But the general word is- don't start a company without finding a co-founder first, and that's not right.

I have worked on teams where the "boss" and the people on the team had a very healthy working friendship. This included lots of outside of work activities, generally because we were to a large extent a family. But this isn't necessarily easy, and like you say if you have a cofounder who can provide that, then it would be foolish not to start a company with them.


> 1. Not if you take them into your confidence and make them know that you value their opinion. Who doesn't want the CEO's ear? Its really all about the attitude you show them (and their personality, which is something you can select for.)

Very few people are truly open-minded about everything. Most have a few pet issues that they absolutely take for granted, and then a bunch that they're willing to negotiate on. When they self-assess, they see only the ones they're willing to negotiate, because the others are so obvious that no one could possibly think otherwise.

Employees very quickly pick up which issues the boss will listen to, and which will make them dig in their heels. They'll challenge you only on ones where they think you'll listen. That's great if you actually are right about your deeply-held beliefs, but it's disaster if you're wrong. You won't get any push-back from your employees; they'll just leave.

Cofounders have much more skin in the game, and they will challenge you on your most deeply-held assumptions. All the fights between founders you've seen are good things; they're opportunities for the company to correct an issue that's obviously important enough that a founder is willing to raise hackles for it. Whether it leads to failure or success depends on how willing parties are to listen & compromise.


I'm with you that it is possible (and sometimes advisable) to go it alone in lieu of finding a cofounder first. Based on all of our points, however, it is advisable for a solo founder to have the following traits and abilities:

no connections to a trusted potential cofounder - may as well have a cofounder in this case to ease the initial burden and offer support down the road

able to use good programming practice when it doesn't seem imminently necessary - if there is any hope of code being understandable to anyone but yourself (and even yourself, several months down the road), good documentation and clean interfaces are important. With no need to work with anyone else initially, it will take some discipline to uphold this practice

passion for the project or idea - something has to keep you going when doing the drudge work or when a wrench gets thrown in the works, and you only have yourself to turn to for a reminder of why you started this whole thing in the first place

good vision and leadership - the whole crux of your assertion is that having a single founder eliminates disputes in the decision-making process. Obviously the single founder better make good decisions and be able to get others on board with those decisions

good judge of character - with employees being expected to fill many of the roles that a cofounder would, it becomes especially important to hire the right employees, the kind who will give valuable input in every aspect of the project

good people skills - all of the first several employees need to have the feeling that they can approach you and give you their opinions and ideas on many aspects of the company, while being assured that you are taking their input seriously. This can help mitigate bad decisions and prevent tunnel vision while getting the most out of your employees by keeping their morale up

mentally stable - this may seem like a given, but a single founder will have to be able to run on an especially even keel in spite of having numerous setbacks and high levels of stress. It would be good if that thinking out loud did not turn into having conversations out loud with yourself ;)

hard worker - able to do all of the initial work alone, meeting self-imposed deadlines along the way and to setting a good example for the initial employees to live up to

an engaging personality - something to convince those employees that they should stick with you even when the whole idea is looking crazy and doomed. Also, a way to hire those awesome employees that you found thanks to your good judge of character

confidence - at no time can you seriously doubt your ability to come through or to lead everyone, or the project is doomed with no one else to (even temporarily) take over the reigns

So it seems, based on my own little analysis here, that being a successful single founder depends on the person having a lot of intersecting advantageous traits. Of course, some of these are also necessary in a cofounder situation, and some of them can be learned or improved with time, so things may not be as grim as they initially seem. Can we agree, though, that the ability to successfully and independently found a company requires the right kind of person, a stronger individual than the type who might be successful in a two-founder project?

I would agree, though, that if you have all these traits, you have a good chance of being better off on your own (dissenters: do note the first trait I mentioned). I would really like to think that I meet most of this criteria, with some things that I need to work on before I'm ready to take a solo dive, and I know that I would prefer to work alone. I will certainly keep your advice as inspiration to remind me that it's definitely possible for me to do this sort of thing by myself.


Getting along with a co-founder is nothing like getting along with a partner in a class project.

I have friends that I worked great with in college. They all remain my dear friends, but...

after years of hacking together, and literally hundreds of thousands of lines of code, sometimes you just don't see eye to eye..

I agree a co-founder is beneficial, but it is very different then just hacking a project out with a buddy.


Well, the guy I mentioned is someone I didn't even know a week and a half ago, when I expressed to the teacher an interest in working alone. I was just saying that based on some initial work with him, my opinion had changed a little, and I could see how something similar could happen with a cofounder.


>Getting along with a co-founder is nothing like getting along with a partner in a class project.

The OP compares a good cofounder to a really good relationship... it is probably not a coincidence that "partner" applies both in the sexual/societal union sense and in the business sense.


Sorry I came off harsh.

I was not questioning whether a "really good relationship" was a good foundation for selecting a co-founder.

I was questioning whether a one night project signifies a "really good relationship".

It may or may not.

I think the OP had many great insights and I enjoyed reading his post.

Also, W3STS1D3 4 L1F3!!


In my (truly) humble opinion, co-founders are overrated, especially by this crowd. The value of an inner circle of talented and trustworthy first employees, on the other hand, can't be overestimated.


My title gave a little bit the wrong impression-- it sounds like I'm saying that cofounders are bad. I'm not.

What I mean is, if you don't already have a cofounder, don't get one. You don't need one.

If you find someone, then maybe that's great... but understand the risks.

But you should never go get one because you think you need one... that's a recipe for failure.


Absolutely, DO NOT, get a co-founder for the sake of getting a co-founder.


And don't for a second think that getting a cofounder is a requirement for success.


BitGeek:

Your post is simply amazing. I couldn't agree more. Having multiple co-Founders does not guarantee success but also does not guarantee failure. But if a startup with multiple co-Founders were to somehow become successful, it is still very difficult for it to grow beyond the bootstrapping stage. I actually have one chapter planned for my on-line book to be entitled "Middle Management Gone Wild" which is what happens to the later stage of a successful startup with multiple co-Founders. It is the same difficulty that a hunting party would have growing into a village.

Thanks again.

--Denny--

Denny K Miu

http://www.startupforless.com


It is the same difficulty that a hunting party would have growing into a village.

Maybe it's just me, but this analogy is not all that clear to me. What exactly prevents a hunting party from growing into a village? If the point is that a village would require people to fill support roles, I think that is what the employees of the company would be for. That would destroy the analogy, so I think I must be missing something.


In the beginning of a startup, especially one that has multiple co-Founders of equal stature, the command structure is exactly that of a hunting party. That is, members of the party do not have rigid roles although they each have distinct skills. Their lives center around well-defined hunting events, the success of each is important for their subsequent survival.

The decision making process tends to be ad hoc and each person can take on multiple and often overlapping roles which can change from event to event, depending on the need of the team and also their ability to perform that same role in a previous event. In other words, the command structure is very flat and communication between each member is direct and unambiguous. Most importantly, consensus is a requirement since everyone is equal and while there might be a leader, there cannot be a dictator. It is a democracy as well as a meritocracy.

An operating company is like a village which is led by a single leader who is not popularly elected but appointed by a group of elders, and has dictatorial power over the villagers. There is usually unspoken but well understood rules on what is proper conduct for each member of the village include the leader, the elders who are the ones that bestow the authority, the captains, the foot solders and all the other supporting personnel including the children that make the village livable and sustainable.

The command structure of the village is no longer flat. Decisions that are made at the top need to be propagated as well as diffused into the individuals. Consensus is less important and is replaced by consultation. Decisions are made by mandates and not through bartering among equals. In order to function, there has to be both punishment and rewards. Punishment of the non-performers is actually an important form of rewards for the performers. Most importantly, unlike a hunting party, the roles are much more well-defined and much more rigid.

It is very difficult for a hunting party to naturally evolve into a village. The requirement is for some of original hunters to give up their executive power to become non-executive elders and to elect a single leader to become an authoritative figure who can make unpopular decision for everyone to follow.

It is almost impossible for a startup with multiple equal co-Founders to grow beyond the original flat command structure because it is unnatural for anyone to give up power (or influence), especially if they were the ones who made the company successfully in the first place.

The hunters are individual contributors who at best can evolve into middle managers. But middle managers who are also major shareholders would have a hard time separating their ownership interest from their fiduciary responsibility.

It is a very interesting problem to solve.

--Denny--

Denny K Miu

http://www.startupforless.com


Thank you for the very thorough explanation. It does bring up some more questions in my mind, however:

Even in hunting parties, aren't there leaders who need to resolve disputes or ultimately take on the responsibility to make tough decisions? Isn't the most experienced or best hunter the one in this role? I'm not sure how this maps exactly to a cofounder situation (unless, of course, there happens to be a parallel in the startup in question), but wouldn't it make sense for this hunting leader to become the elder?

Is it not possible for the single leader situation to be replaced by a ruling group? As long as these members continue to do some of the other work involved in the village/startup, it does not seem like it would become a situation where there are too many leaders and not enough workers. Of course, this assumes that the group can continue to reach decisions in a reasonable manner.

I'm not saying these situations could occur easily or frequently, but they seemed to fall outside the realm of your explanation while remaining hypothetically reasonable and workable.


The problem is not one of skills and affinity but one of command structure.

A startup with multiple equal co-Founders is a partnership. No one in a partnership bears fiduciary responsibility. Each partner is responsible for their own interest and that of their family and no one else. So for partners to make decision, they barter. They each decide what they want from each other and out of necessity, they come to a common ground.

At the beginning of a startup, this is not a problem because like a hunting party, they are consumed by their own survival and their common ground is the only ground. The hunters are both owners and executives but there is no conflict.

But as the startup grows and becomes successful, the partners (i.e., co-Founders with more or less equal stature) will have a problem finding common ground.

On the other hand, a company is not a partnership. Company is owned by shareholders, whose interests are represented by the Board of Directors. The Board members (i.e., village elders) are not the executives but instead they appoint an executive (village chief) to run the company (village) on their behalf. The chief executive is given a mandate by the elders and he/she surrounds himself/herself with fellow executives, who together share the fiduciary responsibility.

So for a hunting party to evolve into a village (or a startup to evolve into an operating company), the original co-Founders will have to evolve from a co-owner to co-executive, replacing their ownership interest by fiduciary responsibility, and learn to change their decision making process from one of bartering to one based on mandate.

This sounds easy but almost never done properly.

--Denny--

Denny K Miu

http://www.startupforless.com


I'm really on the fence about this because both arguments have truth to them. If you look at many successful companies, they were often founded by two people. However you'll also find that usually one of the founders leaves eventually (usually after a short while compared to overall lifetime of the company), and the other stays to run the company.

I can give a whole bunch of examples. Apple: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Microsoft: Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Valve: Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington. Id Software: John Carmack and John Romero. People split for various reasons, sometimes due to disagreements. Sometimes personal reasons or change of interests. In the end most companies seem to end up being run by one person whether or not they were founded by more than one.

There are also successful companies that were founded by one person, like Dell and Amazon. So to me it seems that statistically speaking eventually you'll split up and one of you will have to leave the company.

Ultimately it seems that the co-founder issue is mostly an issue of initial mutual support. It's tough to go through the early stages on your own, and having someone to share the workload with and get moral support from increases your chances of success. But it can only truly work in the long term if you decide at the beginning that one of you will be the president and have the final word in major decisions. Otherwise it's a recipe for trouble down the road.


Right, and that mutual support can come, in large part, from other employees. One company I worked at, due to the personality mix, was kinda rough, and we were in a tough time funding wize and market wise-- but the office manager, and older german woman with a strong will, took it upon herself to fix things and thru random help, negotiation and general positive attitude really made things a lot better- she was a one woman support organization for a 12 person startup.

Finding great people to be employees is very important, and I'd say more important than finding a co-founder. In a way your co-founder has to embody everything... but each employee can contribute a part to the whole.


Hey, don't forget that Paul Allen left Microsoft with cancer. Once he went into remission, he didn't go back to work, he decided to take care of himself and put his billions to use. Pretty easy decision, IMO.

Woz never wanted to run a company, he just wanted to build stuff. (Shameless plug for Chapter 3 of Jessica's book, Founders at Work).

For every example you cite, there's probably a new story line.


I kind of wonder if there is a middle ground. There are two different posts on the front page right now: one deriding the idea of co-founders and one from someone desperately seeking a co-founder.

My (worthless) advice is to let it happen naturally. Neither seek out a co-founder nor refuse co-founders who approach you. Just try to make friends with similar people who are interested in startups. Talk about ideas. It definitely helps if you have known these people for a while before starting a business with one. I can't even imagine going in on a business venture with a total stranger.


This sounds like good advice to me. This YC requirement has led to something akin to "cargo cult cofounders" - getting someone else involved because it's "better that way". While I tend to think it is better to have one, it has to be the right person, not some random dude who you barely know. It's sort of a catch 22 in that it's got to be someone you've already known for a while when you start looking or discussing the idea of doing a company.


Right... somewhere "get a cofounder" became a blocking requirement for starting a company, and that's a mistake. Go forward, and make it happen, and don't worry if you don't have a cofounder.


RailsFactory is a Ruby on Rails development shop based in Chennai, India.

when you are a very small startup, and self funded, you just need to make 2-3 bad moves to go into bankruptcy and closure.

Startups have its Eureka moments and frustrating times

I consider myself more of a visionary than a implementer, I get into high energy mode in short bursts, but my partner keeps our company sane.

I find my co-Founder a great stress buster for me.


Well, I think it depends on what those 2-3 bad moves are... I don't think its that tenuous-- when you're self funded. ( When you take outside investment, at least in the US, its a situation where you take a lot more risk...)

I'm glad you and your co-founder have a good relationship. Nothing wrong with that at all!


Why is this post is at -3? It may be a little rough (non-native English presumably) but it's totally on topic and not spammy.


I think the word visionary set against "not an implementor" may worry a lot of the people here. How many of you trust MBAs?


because a consulting company doing outsourced work at hourly rates is not what most people here mean by "startup". If that were so Bangalore has thousands of "startups".

 Having said that, I think we should still focus on the point he makes. 
But yeah a -3 sounds about right. :-)


That's a good point but besides fighting, having at least one co-founder is a great deal (if he/she is a close friend). I'm telling this because a lot of startups change their business ideas several times, and sometimes your vision is not the right one.

There's one big issue here, if an employee tells you that your company will be better doing X instead of Y is totally your decision, it can be right or wrong but that employee will never talk to you about that idea again.

Sure, you can have a lot of discussions with your co-founders, but having a combined vision of the project helps a lot.

In my case, having one of my best friends as a co-founder is the best thing that ever happened to me.


IF you treat an employee with respect and take him seriously and explain why you are doing Y instead of X, that employee will tell you again when he has other ideas.

You can have as close a relationship with an employee as you do with a founder.

I think the problem is that people get stuck on labels here-- the idea that only cofounders can have an opinion or will have their opinions listened to is probably pretty accurate in reality, but it doesn't have to be that way.

In fact, one of the most valuable and rarest commodities in a high tech startup is humility. Always hire for humility along with confidence- they aren't contradictions!- and show it yourself.

I think that employees are generally pretty good about letting people know when they are doing the wrong thing... even if they think you're not listening. You don't have to listen very close to tell which way the wind is blowing.

The problem is that too many people are too arrogant to take the direction of the wind seriously, and this can actually be worse with co-founders because their grousing can drown out the employees.


I have been desperately looking for a co-founder who thinks just like me and now that I've read this post, my search is over!

<on knees>

BitGeek, will you be my co-founder?

</on knees>


I mostly agree with this, except I also think it's pretty important to have at least one other co-founder... but it's even more important for you to be able to trust and work well with those co-founder(s).

Going out and finding some random dude that you don't know or trust to be a co-founder for the sake of having a co-founder seems like a huge gamble and just a bad idea.


If you've known someone for awhile and you know they would be a great person to start a company with (and you have the emotional maturity to be abel to tell that- I mean, how many people think they are going to get married to the person they are dating, 5, 8, 12 times before they meet the person they know they are going to marry and with whome it works out?) ... if you already have a cofounder, even if you don't have an idea for a company yet... then start a company with them. Nothing wrong with that.

My point is just that if you don't have this person... don't hesitate for a second. Just go forward and get employees or go without them.

If it means you don't get YC funding because of PG's bias, then you didn't want it anyway.

Just don't hesitate to start a company without a cofounder... most successful businesses are founded by individuals.



this wasn't started by just one person, though. granted evan finished it by himself, proving the point below about co-founders leaving.


I think brett was suggesting rambling, angry, posts are better suited for a blog.


Hmm... I don't know what was angry about what I posted. I just saw another "how to get a founder" thread followed close on the heels of a post on another site from someone lamenting that they couldn't find a co-founder.

Sure, it has sucked to when the founders were fighting... but its been years since I went out on my own.

Don't confuse confidence and passion for anger.


There was nothing angry about it. The culture around here borders on a personality cult around Paul Graham, which explains all the "how to get a co-founder" threads.

Thanks for the great essay.


Something I disagree with. This site is part social news and part forum. This is a forum-style post. Fits right in.


Sometimes I prefer to not click through to another site. At least here, I don't have to worry about a painful interface, frivolous widgets, or distracting ads. It's all about the writing and our opinions of it, which is all that really matters to me, anyways.


not having a cofounder can be used as an excuse for not starting anything at all. it's probably better to start and take action. that might be the best strategy to attract the right cofounder anyway.


this is very well said, the single biggest determent of a startups success is product/market fit, not team (i.e co-founder)

(see:The Only thing that Matters: http://blog.pmarca.com/2007/06/the-pmarca-gu-2.html).

If you've got a solid idea you need to push it forward, not having a perfect co-founder right away is a lame "go or no go" decider.

Pitch constantly, get out of your apartment, and scour your networks for co-founder prospects, sooner or later you going to cross paths with someone that believes in your vision and has skills/experience/connections that will add significant value to your business.

To me, its go forward and keep things moving - and be aware that this needs to be bigger than you and teammates help you achieve that.


"the single biggest determent of a startups success is product/market fit, not team"

I believe this must be true because I can't count the number of times when I've heard investors say "it doesn't matter about the product, we invest in the team." (I'm not being sarcastic, its only dumb money out there.)


For instance, look at plentyoffish.com

Not only did this guy not get a cofounder, he has never gotten any employees. He's making millions by himself, a total solo effort.

In fact there area lot of examples out there of people doing this... many of them are of the professional blogging/seo/domainer variety. What people on here would deride as "lifestyle businesses" (Personally I don't think you get to deride someone's choices until you've done better than them.)

But further, there's a whole movement of "micro-isvs" - a poor term as it came from someone with a microsoft perspective-- but these are people who make software themselves and sell it. Many of these businesses are on their way to becoming large enterprises. Omni Group is an example of one that's had several years, but Delicious Monster is one that's only been at it a few years- very successful, good number of employees now, single founder. And of course there's scores more.

You know, what we really need is a version of TechCrunch- but one that covers these non-VC backed startups- the companies that won't get coverage in TechCrunch because they are not following the latest fad and burning money on lavish parties to invite Michael Arrington to. For all the little companies you never heard of on TecCrunch there are other little companies who are going to be more successful ... but are under the radar now. I think this is what leads to a distorted perspective of the startup landscape.


Great post and I completely agree.

I am of the opinion that the ability to quickly make a decision and get everyone behind it is often more important than the decision itself. A "wrong" decision can be corrected if there is a concerted focus while even a "right" decision won't work if founders are hashing out an internal pecking order rather than implementation of said decision.


Just because there's an example of a single co-founder company succeeding doesn't make your hypothesis true.

Statistically, it seems that multiple founders correlates more highly with success than single founders.

Perhaps there's an underlying reason that the companies you've worked with have failed when there were multiple founders (e.g. personality clashes, inability to resolve disputes, etc.).


it seems that multiple founders correlates more highly with success than single founders

I keep hearing this stated, but I don't think I've ever seen the stats. Anyone got a cite?

However, assuming there is a correlation, this doesn't tell us much about causation. Perhaps a much larger percentage of single-founder startups aren't started seriously, and are therefore irrelevant to the numbers.

As a single-founder, what I want to know is: will adding a co-founder increase my probability of success? What if the co-founder is not a good friend? The simple correlations mentioned above aren't very useful in answering these sorts of questions. If there is any good evidence either way I'd very much like to see it.


Actually, the converse is true- most successful companies in the US are founded and lead by a single individual.

There is an underlying reason that those companies that failed failed- no two people are alike. When you take two people and give them equal say, you are sowing the seeds of conflict which will-- and this is a guarantee- end up resulting in someone leaving or the company failing.


If you want to start something, and nobody is interested in your idea or you can't find anyone good enough - Just start it alone.

If you have an idea, and you know a fellow co-founder that's interested in starting up - Just start it with him and work together.

Bottom line: Instead of thinking about the non-essential stuff- Just get the first prototype up even if it might mean doing it yourself.

Any school of thoughts that places restrictions on an ideal founding team size is crap. The debate that advocates an optimum team size is no different from saying that man cannot complete a mile in under 4 minutes.

Work with what you have, not what you don't have.


Exactly. And be aware of the risks. As a solo founder you need people you can bounce ideas off of. (And in my opinion this is the purpose of an advisory board, or even friends who have no skin in the game)... and as a group of co-founders you have the serious risk of conflict among the group.


I think you are confusing founders with leaders. Companies do not need multiple leaders. Just like teams, however, they do need multiple players, each providing different skills.


Actually, I'm not confusing them, PG is. What I advocate is having a single leader, and whether you call employees 2-4 "co-founders" or not, they all know who is boss.

PG thinks that you have to have consensus and multiple founders all with an equal say. Thus, multiple leaders.

The whole cofounder thing has taken on quite a weird perspective-- I think because PG doesn't have much experience with it, but is adamant, and most of his readers have never worked for a startup, let alone started one, so they believe he's preaching the gospel.

There has to be a leader, that's my point.


Fighting with other founders is the absolute worst thing in the world.

Don't get a cofounder because you think he/she will do all the work that you don't want to do.


The title doesn't match the content. A more accurate title would be "Absolutely, DO NOT, get a bad co-founder!"


>A co-founder is not what you need, unless you already have one, and you have as good a relationship with them as the best relationship you've ever had with anyone in your life.

My co-founder and I work incredibly well together as complements, what we are doing would not work if it was just one of us starting.


Man. Makes me want to create a satire post titled:

Absolutely, DO NOT, get married!

This is an argument for being VERY careful about your co-founder and having good agreements in place when disagreements occur.


You presume you have to have a cofounder...even that having a cofounder is an advantage-- while you recognize the results of having one.

I'm telling you that there is no significant advantage of consensus management-- that there is a big detriment.


i think the title is misleading.

"Sure, its better to have more than one person in the company... and feel free to call your second thru fourth employees 'co-founders' or give them 'founders stock'... whatever."

it's alright to have co-founders as long as everyone agrees that at the end of the day one co-founder has the final say no matter what, though I don't think it's necessary to be disparaging and think of them as just "employees"...


I think its kinda arrogant to say that founders are superior and thus its disparaging to call someone an employee.

Employees should be highly valued.

Inadvertantly you've highlighted another problem with having cofounders, especially in a startup- you have an intrinsic clique of inner circle people, the founders.


if you looked at my first reply you can see that I didn't disagree with your main idea(s) in the first post. I just didn't like the way you said it.

"I think its kinda arrogant to say that founders are superior..."

intentional or not given the semi-bitter tone of your main post, that's the impression that I thought you were trying to make


Great article, will you be my co-founder?


Great article. I see your point.




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