Single Founders or Co-Founders?

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Conventional wisdom says that startups should have two or three founders.

People tend to have pretty strong opinions on the issue, although I doubt they have definitive evidence / proof to back up their opinions. Some investors won’t even invest in single founders at all–so understandably for entrepreneurs this is a big issue.

Most “business-focused” single founders are told right from the get go that they need to find a technical co-founder. I’ve given that advice a few times myself. But lately, I’m rethinking that position.

Of the investments I’ve made to-date, six have 2 founders, one has 3 founders, and three have 1 founder. Of the six that have 2 founders, I’d argue that two of them have a very dominant founder/CEO (so almost single founders), and the remainder are equal partnerships. And of the handful of startups that I’m looking at / talking to right now, 2 of them have single founders.

Why are 2+ founders (potentially) better?

For me it’s about the camaraderie and partnership that emerges when two (or more) people decide to go on such an incredible journey together. And when the going gets tough (and it always does), it’s nice to have someone sitting beside you in the dark who knows exactly how you feel. There’s a comfort in that. Multiple founders–if the relationship is good–means an automatic and very close support group. Of course, founders don’t always get along, and a lot of startups fail because of founder disagreements, so the support group / camaraderie / partnership comes with a big asterisk.

A good partnership between co-founders usually means a good division of labor, and things can be a little less overwhelming for each individual. That’s a good thing. Each founder has her own thing to focus on, with her own laundry list of todos, and ideally each founder has complete confidence in the other one to deliver. But that co-founder relationship takes constant work to maintain, and it can go sour surprisingly quick.

So what about single founders?

My last three investments were with single founders. All of them impressed me a great deal. I’m completely confident in their abilities to deliver by themselves. I’ve offered my shoulder if/when they need it, but they also have their own support groups. As entrepreneurial communities grow all over the world, it’s becoming a lot easier to find other people with similar experiences. A single founder doesn’t have to sit in a room by herself and despair, she can go out for beers with other founders in equally difficult situations and commiserate. That’s a huge thing. I would encourage more founders to do that and not stay locked up in a dark room alone. Sometimes founders just need to vent, but sometimes they can get constructive advice and input too.

Single founders have an advantage in that they don’t need to build consensus with other founders. They don’t need to work on the delicate co-founder relationship, they can just plow ahead. They may need to bring in additional senior talent, often on the technical side (which has its own challenges), but they’re 100% in control. There’s something just simpler about it overall.

So what’s the answer: single founders or co-founders?

I don’t see a definitive answer.

People have their opinions based on their own experience. I’ve had good co-founders and bad ones. If I was starting another company I’d want a co-founder because I still like the idea of jumping off a cliff with another person–it brings a certain amount of comfort, but also excitement that you can share with that person. In the absence of a co-founder though, I wouldn’t sit around and do nothing. JFDI seems to apply very well here.

So what do you think? Single founders? Co-founders? Bigger founding teams? What works for you and why?

Photo from Kristina Alexanderson.


Don’t be Data-Driven, be Problem-Driven

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Recently a founder of an early stage startup asked me, “How do I convince my co-founder and team to be more data-driven?”

I think I surprised him with my answer, because I told him that the key issue wasn’t being more data-driven, it was being problem-driven. Or more specifically, problem-aligned.

Being data-driven (or at least data-informed as we say in Lean Analytics), is entirely dependent on whether you (read: startup founders) agree on the problem that you’re solving. If you can’t agree, data is meaningless.

Analytics is the measurement of movement towards business goals.

When speaking with this founder it was fairly clear to me that he and his co-founder didn’t actually agree on what they should be doing. That’s very common amongst founders, and it’s the biggest challenge you’ll face. Startups die regularly because of founder disagreement. You don’t always hear about it, but that’s what’s happening behind the scenes.

Once you’ve agreed on the key problem that you need to address (recognizing that there are always tons of issues at any given point in time, but focus is a must), the data flows naturally from there. It becomes much easier to figure out what to track when you know what problem you’re trying to solve.

If your co-founder doesn’t want to use data once you have agreement on the problem to focus on, you have another issue. In my opinion it’s one of intellectual honesty (or lack thereof). When someone doesn’t want to use data to know if they’re making progress towards business goals (read: solving problems) then they’re trying to insulate themselves from reality. That’s a dangerous place to be.

Get alignment on the key problems you need to solve before worrying about anything else. Make sure everyone at your startup is working together and feels responsible for solving the key problems you’ve agreed upon. Focusing on the data or “being data-driven” is a moot point if people aren’t working together on the right priorities.

Photo from Zach on Flickr.


A Sense of Duty in Startups

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I’ve never read a blog post about duty and startups (although I’m sure they’re out there), but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Some people (founders and employees) have a sense of duty towards the work they do. Others do not. And that sense of duty is one of the elements that separates awesome entrepreneurs and employees from everyone else.

There’s definitely a gray area between “duty” and “responsibility”. In fact you can Google “duty vs. responsibility” and get a lot of results. Here’s an example. I don’t think everything it describes about duty completely applies to a startup founder or employee, but a lot of it does. I also found this article on duty vs. responsibility for CEOs very apropos.

Clearly, we (as founders and employees) have responsibilities. And most people in an early stage startup get their jobs done and handle their responsibilities. But it’s those that have a sense of duty–a higher moral standard that they hold themselves accountable to–that go beyond expectations and really make a difference.

For me, duty is about caring. Or more specifically, caring to a level beyond the norm.

Those with a sense of duty are your go-to-guys, the founders you’ll back over and over, and the employees you want to hire right away when you start something new. It’s cliche, but some guys will take a bullet for you, and others won’t. And I wouldn’t expect most people to take a bullet for you as a founder or fellow employee, but there are a few that just will.

When you find those people, hold onto them.

That sense of duty gives them the ability to take their performance to another level. It gives them the internal fortitude to struggle through all the shit that you’ll face early on with your startup (and later too!) and push through.

One last thing: founders have to be careful about abusing an employee’s sense of duty.

It might be easy to rely on people over and over knowing that they’re compelled to help/work/struggle. In fact, if you want your startup to succeed, you’ll have to rely on those people! But as much as duty is something that comes from within a person, I believe it needs to be recognized, and people’s work needs to be rewarded. In my experience, most people that do have a sense of duty towards the work they do, don’t need a lot of external validation, but they still need some. They don’t need trinkets, baubles, or little perks–they need to know that the person they’re taking a bullet for / following blindly on an insane startup journey, recognizes their value.

Photo courtesy of aeroworks.


Ben Yoskovitz
I'm VP Product at Codified (makers of VarageSale).

I'm also a Founding Partner at Year One Labs, an early stage accelerator in Montreal. Previously I founded Standout Jobs (and sold it).

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