Being a solo founder

Much has been written about the disadvantages of being a solo founder.

Paul Graham was certainly one of the first to write about it publicly in 2006 when he published his article, Startup Mistakes, with “Single Founder” as the first in a long list of mistakes.

That article came just at the start of the Y Combinator accelerator, which had its first class in Summer 2005. Since then, YC, many other accelerators, and countless venture capitalists, have been down on solo founders.

I’m only a sample size of one, but I’ve also co-founded three startups, each with successful exits, and solo-founded my most recent startup [Coach], so I believe I’m in a unique position to compare and contrast the pros and cons of single founder-dom.

Paul says: it’s a vote of “no confidence”

Paul’s first argument is that not having a co-founder is a vote of “no confidence,” explaining, “it probably means the founder couldn’t talk any of his friends into starting the company with him.”

I don’t think it’s fair to assume that not having a co-founder means that you failed to convince your friends to join you. For the vast majority of solo founders and solopreneurs, more often than not, you weren’t looking for a founder to begin with.

Plenty of people start businesses every day, and those who choose to start it solo are making a conscience choice to do so. It’s surprisingly easy to find a co-founder these days, but just because it’s easier to get one doesn’t mean you want one.

With Coach as an example, my experience, track record, and network meant that I could have easily convinced a friend to work with me, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to start it on my own.

What’s worse? Bad co-founder fit

Having a co-founder just because people tell you that you should, often leads to co-founding companies with people who you barely know.

And oftentimes, those two (or three) people fail to set expectations up front, or have those difficult conversations about equity, responsibilities, and what they want the startup to be.

They fail to do these things because they don’t know each other well enough to have those talks. They go into it starting their business rosy cheeked and full of smiles, until something goes wrong.

A few months into the relationship, they find themselves frustrated, exhausted, and wishing they hadn’t gotten in bed with their new co-founder.

But by that point, it’s too late, and the company that you could have started as a solo founder is now partially owned by someone you no longer want to work with. Vesting works to an extent, but how do you determine who goes forth with things?

Having a cofounder you don’t like is a far worse scenario than not having a co-founder at all.

You’re now left with a partially started business, squabbling co-founders, and a dim future. It’s not to say that you can’t crawl out of it, but wouldn’t you rather have started it on your own and avoided the whole mess altogether?

A single, unified voice at the top

This may sound like being a solo founder is a dictatorship, but having a single, unified voice at the top means that fewer issues arise on what the direction of the company is.

I’ve been in situations before where it wasn’t clear from an employee’s point of view who was calling the shots. You could point the finger at the co-founders for not making it clear to employees, but as a solo founder, you don’t have that issue.

But that doesn’t mean you’re making all of the decisions.

As a solo founder, you need to give people authority over their own domain. I’m not going to step on the Lead Engineer or Head of Growth’s toes. I’m going to put my full trust into them to do their job and in almost every case: their voice is final.

At the end of the day, it’s all on your shoulders

My favorite part of being a solo founder is that at the end of the day, the buck stops with you.

You don’t have a counterpart to blame for something going wrong. It’s your fault and your fault alone. For me, I use this as motivation to keep making Coach better every day. If I slip up and fail to do my job, there’s nobody I can call out other than myself.

That’s not to say that people you work with aren’t accountable for their roles, but you hired them, set the expectations, managed them in most cases, and are responsible for them at the end of the day.

You can only blame yourself if something goes wrong.

So, is being solo really a disadvantage?

In my opinion, not at all. Starting a business, solo or otherwise, is hard. Really hard. Having a co-founder is not going to be the tipping point to whether or not you’re successful.

In the many cases discussed above, having a co-founder can actually end up hurting you.

If you’re a solo founder or solopreneur, I’d love to hear your story and how things are going for you. Drop me an email or reply in the comments below.


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