Photo: Peter Heilmann via Flickr
The importance of having a co-founder has long been a central tenet for startup entrepreneurs and VCs. Venture Hacks, Paul Graham, and myriad other experts list it as the most important piece of advice for founders.Recently, I’ve met with many talented aspiring entrepreneurs who are holding off on establishing their companies until they find the perfect co-founder.
This is a mistake.
Almost no influential folks in the startup ecosystem have questioned the sanctimony of the co-founder (save for Mark Suster ). Yet tenets tend to be true, until one day they are not.
New York was bad for startups, until it became good. Facebook would never take over the world, until it did.
Consumer internet companies cost millions to get off the ground, until they didn’t. I believe this last massive structural shift has changed “co-founder” from “critical” to “nice to have” on the checklist for aspiring consumer internet entrepreneurs.
“One builds, one sells” is the maxim for ideal split of roles between co-founders. Up until recently, both building and selling were orders of magnitude more complex than they are today.
In the 90s, you needed $5 Million, a team of engineers, and a year just to get a consumer internet site launched. Of course you needed a co-founder solely focused on building.
Today, most software is disposable, the cloud is omnipresent, and meaningful products can be built and shipped in a matter of weeks.
In the 90s, selling required a big investment in educating the market, advertising, and hunting down leads. Of course you needed a co-founder solely focused on selling.
Today, Twitter and Facebook make marketing cheap or free, every VC you want to meet has an accessible online presence, and business development deals can be locked down via Skype.
There have always been successful single founder companies, but they were true outliers. That will change: Today, it is more possible than ever before for one person to effectively lead both building and selling during a consumer internet startup’s early growth phase. I’m seeing it done first hand by some of my single-founder friends, each of whom I believe will be wildly successful: Carter Cleveland at Art.sy, Josh Weinstein at GoodCrush, and Yuli Ziv at Style Coalition. In lieu of co-founders, these folks are instead assembling strong teams of employees, often in “co-founder-like” roles, after having established their companies.
The question thus becomes: Though it may be possible to be a successful single founder, is it preferable?
What about the emotional support and camaraderie that come with having a co-founder? Given our new paradigm where one person can effectively lead both building and selling, there’s no question that having someone else “all in” with you emotionally is the primary benefit of having a co-founder. And it should not be undervalued: Startup life – especially pre-product market fit – is incredibly difficult. A true partner on the journey is invaluable.
Yet the odds of finding a co-founder who’s a true partner – in every sense of the word – are about the same as your odds of finding that perfect spouse… Did I mention 50% of marriages end in divorce? And what if you end up with a co-founder mismatch? You’ll be worse off than if you’d started the Company solo. Your emotional investment in that other person will have been for naught, and the Company’s odds of success post co-founder breakup will be radically diminished.
How can you avoid this? Just as you wouldn’t rush into marriage, don’t rush into the arms of a prospective business partner. The best co-founders have known and worked with each other for a while: Mark Zuckerberg and his Harvard roommates, Larry Paige and Sergey Brin – you get the picture. Start building strong relationships with potential co-founders early in life, without an eye to a specific end. It will serve you well, and when that killer idea surfaces, you’ll have a network of well-vetted prospective co-founders to draw from.
But what if you find yourself with a killer market opportunity, the right product idea to seize it, and no potential co-founder to speak of? Not having a co-founder is no longer a valid excuse for not starting. Run. Build. Inspire others to join you along the way. But remember: The person you’ve been waiting for is you.
Geoff Lewis is the founder of Topguest, a new service for frequent travellers and urban explorers launching soon. His team’s previous product, Udorse, launched as a finalist at TechCrunch50 in 2009.
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