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.