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.
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.
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.
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.
> 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.
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.