Are two heads better than one?
Plenty of adages tell us that a problem shared is a problem solved, or something similar — so logic dictates that having a co-founder should give your startup an advantage… Doesn’t it?
Well, yes… and no. In fact, plenty of success stories fall on either side of the co-founder argument. I wanted to write this article to shed light on the pros and cons of having a co-founder for anyone who is in that position — the easiest way to do that will be to separate them.
Let’s give co-founders the benefit of the doubt — innocent ’til found guilty, right? We’ll start with the plus points…
Pros of a Co-Founder
Woz and Jobs. Hewlett and Packard. Gates and Allen — okay maybe that’s not the best example, but there’s loads of them! A lot of big businesses start out as the brainchild of a pair of people. Why?
Divide and Conquer
A lot of co-founders are people with corresponding skill-sets. Take Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the famous example. One was a sales-minded guy, always looking at the bigger picture — the other was an electronics guru, honing in on the small, technical details.
Apple allowed Woz and Jobs to focus on their strengths, and they flourished because that combination of skill-sets could put out a lot of fires for their startup. Startups with two founders have more knowledge and human resources behind them — definitely a pro.
When Horns Lock
You and your co-founder should share a vision, but you may not necessarily have the same ideas about how your startup achieves its goals. This is a kind of advantage in disguise…
After all, if they agreed with everything you said, there’d be no point in having them there — you might as well just have another you. No matter who’s right or wrong, arguments and different points of view are productive. If two co-founders passionately champion opposing viewpoints then you can be sure that both points of view will be scrutinized with a fine-toothed comb.
Conflict is productive! It’s one of the points in this interesting Business Collective blog by Brittany Hodak about how her relationship with her co-founder took off.
Lean on Me
If the co-founder you have in mind is someone you trust, who shares your vision and can help you move forward then you’re onto a winner. Having that kind of company in from the start can provide you with someone to lean on when times are tough and bear the responsibilities and burdens. That’s a great asset both personally and from a business perspective.
The Money Situation
Having a co-founder can be a financial advantage. Not only does it double the amount of capital you might be prepared to invest, but investors like Y-Combinator only accept your startup if you have a co-founder.
In fact, most venture capitalists admit that they prefer to invest their money into a solid and trusted partnership or team — rather than a single player. Already you’ve shown that there’s not just one person passionate enough about your idea to back it. As a solo founder, you are the driving force behind your team and company. This could leave them dead in the water if you decided to leave one day — which investors are well aware of.
Cons of a Co-Founder
Sounds like it could be a home-run for Team Co-Founder so far, huh? But there are a lot of plus-sides to going solo as well — ultimately, every startup is different.
I Say Tomato
Startup or not, being in control has its advantages. If you have a clear vision and the skills to execute it then going it alone is easier than ever. There’s an army of online freelancers, remote workers and VA’s which are on call to help you cover any bases you struggle with. As a solo-founder, there is no need to persuade them and no battle of ideas — you simply get done whatever needs to be done.
As Ajay Yadav writes in this blog for Forbes, ‘I can make critical decisions on my own, without having to bring anyone else around to my point of view’ — essentially, there’s no time spent persuading or arguing. Not only could this be considered time wasted — it could mean that valuable opportunities expire.
Higher Chance of Success
Whereas venture capitalists might give you a better shot, research from a paper titled Sole Survivors: Solo Ventures Versus Founding Teams (a paper I came across on this great blog by Meredith Somers) suggests that going it alone could be an advantage. Here’s a few lines from their abstract:
‘A widespread scholarly and popular consensus suggests that new ventures perform better when launched by teams, rather than individuals.’
‘Despite this belief in the superiority of teams in the startup process, little empirical evidence has been used to examine this key question.’
So, of course, they set out to test the hypothesis at the very beginning of this blog — that two heads are better than one. Their conclusions?
‘We show that companies started by solo founders survive longer than those started by teams. Further, organizations started by solo founders generate more revenue than organizations started by founder pairs, and do not perform significantly different than larger teams.’
Well — I guess that kind of speaks for itself!
When Horns Lock… Again
So, I’ve talked about how conflict can be productive — but of course that’s not always the case.
Of course, a lot of it depends on who your co-founder is. Should it be a best friend? It’s not always clear where the line between business problems and personal problems is drawn (although married couple Julian and Evan Hartz managed just fine after their marriage!)
Furthermore, at some point it’s likely that tensions will rise between you and your business partner. At this stage, you will probably have to compromise on what you think is best — and if turns out you were right… tough.
This post by Garry Tan (TechCrunch contributor) is an intriguing read, with good advice from the field on avoiding the bad kind of co-founder conflict. There can be a fine line between not enough and far too much!
So, Damian — Pick a side!
Where do I fall? There’s no right answer! As is so often, it depends on the circumstance, the start-up, the co-founder you have in mind and more… But I feel like a good way to end this blog is to make the point that:
It is possible to go it alone!
Ever hear of Pieter Levels, Dutch programmer, designer and rock-star start-upper? To give you a flavor of the kind of guy he is, he went out on a quest to start twelve startups in as many months, which you can (and should) read about here.
As a self-confessed control freak (who’d have guessed?), each of his projects is a one-man-band. Levels is a waving flag that you don’t need a co-founder to be successful. Of course, each side has pros and cons — most decisions in business usually do. All start-ups need to weigh up the risk and reward, conflict and control and more — before deciding if a co-founder is the right decision.
For the moment though, let’s just say that if you’re thinking of going it alone… Now is as good a time as any!