The title of this post is an oxymoron — but it is intentional as it most succinctly captures the essence of this post.
Conventional wisdom in the startup world dictates that two founders are ideal for a startup. There are lots of famous pairs of duo co-founders: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jerry Yang and David Filo, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Three co-founders is acceptable, but anything beyond that the chances of success of the company may actually decrease.
Having the right co-founder is perhaps the single most valuable thing in a startup.
But it sometimes comes with the uncertainty of two people getting married often before they even get a chance to date. The right co-founding team can make or break the company and radically change its chances of success or failure, the latter being the default outcome. However, it is also important to realize that bringing on a co-founder is often the single most dilutive event for a founder (almost often worth it, but still true).
Investors, particularly in Silicon Valley investors tend to shun solo founders. They prefer teams of two or three over a solo founder. In some cases I’ve heard investors say that “if you can’t convince someone to be your co-founder, how will you convince investors or employees” — or something like that. Others prefer teams of three — the hacker, hustler, designer trio. The thinking is that co-founders will complement each others skills, help to share the workload, and balance each other out in ways such that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.
When I started my first company, I tried to convince some of my friends in my Masters program at Carnegie Mellon to join me in the startup adventure. But it was difficult to take a social relationship and convert that into a professional relationship. I was bummed when I couldn’t convince them to join me, but my conviction for doing a startup was strong enough that I decided to go it alone. Being a solo founder was indeed hard. The hardest part was not just the the literal amount of work or the number of balls one has to juggle, but it was the emotional ups and downs that are inherent in running a startup.
That emotional burden of being a founder is not to be taken lightly.
It is widely expected that co-founders equally share the emotional and cognitive load required to build a company. But I’m going to claim that this equitable divide is a RARE occurrence. Co-founders who truly share the emotional load of doing a startup with each other are incredibly lucky. They should take a moment to appreciate their fortune and express their gratitude for their partnership and support. (A shout out to Logan Green and John Zimmer, co-founders of Lyft here. From everything that I have seen they have had one of the best co-founder relationships that has been forged through years of working together through good times and tough times.)
More often than not a startup starts with one person’s idea and others join in. Sometimes these are long-time friends, but more commonly they just met or worked together in a previous job. In some cases the “co-founder” title is used to attract people to join the company in an increasingly competitive hiring environment.
Frequently, even though a startup may have “co-founders”, the emotional burden may be borne disproportionately by the founding CEO (note: I’m using the phrase founding CEO to distinguish between the main co-founder and the other co-founders in a company, but it doesn’t always have to be the CEO). The other co-founders are certainly helpful as they (hopefully) take on part of the workload and help with certain functional roles. But the key hiring, firing, strategy, fundraising, and customer issues often fall in the lap of the founding CEO. I’ve often said that the three hardest things about a startup are: People, People, People. It’s the emotional toll of dealing with people which increases the stress on the founding CEO.
Therein lies the origin of the oxymoronic title of this post. A “solo co-founder” is someone who bears a disproportionate amount of the the emotional burden of doing a startup.
Being in such a position is often lonely and stressful and you’re reminded of it everyone someone asks you the question: “How are things going?” I hate that question (although I’m guilty of asking it myself!). It’s a meaningless question that people ask in order to make small talk, but the answer to it more often that not should really be “Do you really want to know?”
So what can a solo co-founder do to navigate these lonely waters?
- Have the conversation. The emotional burden of a startup cannot be ‘assigned’ to someone who doesn’t want it. If you try to do that it will only build resentment amongst the founding team as they will begin to feel that the other person is not carrying their own weight. Having the conversation at a minimum ensures that there is an awareness and a shared understanding of the this load. Co-founders should be honest with themselves and with each other on how much each person is willing to take on.
- Have an outlet. Find one or two people outside your startup who you trust with whom you can talk about what is on your mind and what’s keeping you awake at night. This needs to be someone you chat with on a regular basis as it takes too long to provide context to someone new or someone you’re not interacting with often enough. You want someone who pushes your limits and makes you think critically, and who will kick you in the ass when you need it. The ideal person will not tell you what to do, but will ask the right questions to come to the decision that is right for you. This could very well be a friend, a spouse, a significant other, a mentor, an advisor, and in rare cases an investor. If you can find two people that’s even better, so that you are not unduly influenced by any one persons point of view — even they can be having a bad day sometimes. And in fact this way you get two inputs that you can balance with you own thinking. In some cases you may have to tell people “I heard your advice, I understand it, and I am not following it, and here is why…”
- Hire to offload. Make hiring a priority in areas you need help in. After you’ve had the conversation with your co-founders you should be able to identify what areas cause you or your team the most angst. For example, maybe no one on the team really wants to do the book-keeping. Well, it’s a necessary function for a company to be solvent and if no-one wants to do it, then you better hire someone who can come in and take care of that ASAP. Or if you don’t really get marketing, or finance, or something else, make it a priority to hire people in those areas so that someone who is more experienced or even just better suited for doing that task is taking care of it.
- Build a peer group. The one thing you can count on when you’re doing a startup is that if you’re having a tough time with something, someone else has either been in your shoes before, or is in your shoes right now. You may think you’re alone but you’re not. You just need to find the other people who have been there and can help or are facing the same troubles and then if nothing else the two of you can commiserate. For this I recommend that founders should have a social peer group. Once a month meet up for dinner, beers, tea, racquetball or whatever your preference may be. So you can chat with other people and help each other out.
- Remember Nietzsche. “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche. And remember that “this too shall pass.” You will learn and will be stronger for it. And the next time you face the same challenge, you will know how to handle it.
So here’s to all the “solo co-founders” out there. You know who you are. Wishing you all the best in your startup adventure. Stay strong.
This was originally posted on K9 Ventures Blog