Yes, You Need a Co-Founder

by Giff on August 5, 2010

cofounders
UPDATE: people have made very valid points that I have oversimplified the issues here, and I have decided that I agree. I neither want to be wishy-washy nor stupidly dogmatic. While I will leave the original post as-is below, consider it my *case* for why you need a co-founder but know that I acknowledge the complexities of this topic.

The latest rendition of the “you don’t need a co-founder” meme has done it — I can’t sit quiet. If you are building a software-intensive company and have any kind of ambition of building something of scale (of changing the world), you are *nuts* if you don’t hunt for a great co-founder.

Take the thought “I could own 100%”, crumple it up, and throw it into the bin. 100% of nothing is nothing. You cannot do this alone — it is way too hard, both work-wise and emotionally. If you are like most people, you have a limited amount of time and money to get something off the ground. Even if you were brilliant at everything, which you are not, you simply cannot get it all done. What you need — not want, but need — are trustworthy people with additive skillsets to your own who treat the business like a mission, not a job.

It is about partnership, not equity
Don’t think about “co-founder” in terms of equity. A co-founder doesn’t necessarily mean equal split, but nor can you be stingy. Equity negotiation is always complex and emotional, but a friend of mine recently made a great statement: “perhaps you know you have reached the right point of equity split when everyone feels slightly unhappy.” (she’s been testing an idea for several months and is now bringing a partner on board)

Don’t be greedy about the term “founder”
“Co-founder” doesn’t have to be a single date in time. When I co-founded Ithority a dozen years ago with Jeremy Epstein, we tied up with a talented back-end programmer after several months. Bill had just left a big job at Oracle. He was unsure about what he wanted to do next, so we kept it easy. We invited him to dabble with our project in exchange for a case of wine (the quality of wine was going to be dictated by quality of involvement). We all enjoyed working together and Bill soon became personally invested in what we were trying to do.

Not only did Bill get a kick-ass case of wine, but he worked shoulder-to-shoulder with us until we sold the business. He was a goddamn *rock*. He remains a good friend to this day, and one nice thing about selling the company is his wife now likes me too (I’ll just say that when Bill was slaving away and our future was uncertain, I was not her favorite person!). Bill joined months after “founding”, but of course we called him a co-founder. For all intents and purposes, that is what he was, and I have no doubt the pride of ownership and being considered a co-founder helped to motivate him.

All this said, I do generally agree with Venture Hacks the ideal number of co-founders is two or three. And if you’ve been working on something for a year, calling someone new a co-founder would be ridiculous. But you get my point.

Brothers and sisters at arms
With Aprizi, I feel incredibly lucky to have my brilliant co-founder, Liz, and I strive to *deserve* her partnership. When the going feels tough, and trust me, all startups have their good and bad days, your loyalty to your compatriots will give you motivation above and beyond your native stubborness. I normally hate casual military references, but this is what I have always heard about those in combat: when things get awful and the justifications get hazy, soldiers keep on fighting for the men and women around them.

Critical thinking
The last startup I was involved in had a solo “founder”, and while “what ifs” are always tenuous, in retrospect I think it hurt the business. The founder was charismatic, visionary, and put a chunk of money in, so he deserved a large equity stake. However, it did set up a certain dynamic. Everyone else got a very small equity percentage. There was passion and loyalty to each other, but we were all helping him build *his* company and his vision. I don’t think we questioned enough.

Secondly, when a company gets over 10 to 15 people, you as CEO can no longer wear your thoughts, questions, doubts, and zany ideas on your sleeve. How and what you communicate becomes very important. It is invaluable to have a trusted, intelligent, emotionally invested person to act as a sounding board, to question your ideas, and to bring another perspective to the table.

Solo is a start, but not a business
If you are obsessed with something, you don’t need to wait for a co-founder to begin. That’s not my message. Get out there and do customer development. Make a prototype, test, and iterate. But don’t think you have a business at this point. It’s not about the idea, it is about execution and evolution. You don’t want employees; you want partners. You sure as hell don’t want to outsource. Be a strong CEO, but try to find someone who has your back, who can push you, who can question you, and who can complement your weaknesses.

Enjoy it while you can
I have observed that startup cultures start to change around certain doubling marks — 12 employees, 25, 50, 100, 200, etc. If you are growing nicely, it won’t be long before you are hiring people who are in another universe from the mindset of the 1-to-5 employee stage. You can build a great culture of mission, loyalty and execution, but it’s just not the same thing. Revel in the intensity of your co-founding team. They are indeed your blood brothers and sisters.

*Of course* you need to choose carefully
Obviously you need to choose your co-founder incredibly carefully. Ideally you’ve worked with them before for at least some period of time. It is better to push forward on your own than partner up with someone you have any hesitation about.  If you want advice, check out Venture Hacks on How to Pick a Co-founder.  You might also read Micah Baldwin’s post Hackers and Hustlers.

Final Words
Again, I am talking particularly about software-heavy businesses. In the end, however you start your business, I wish you the best of luck and massive success.  Carve your own path. There are no rules, but I wanted to fight against any glorification of solo founder businesses.

  • http://twitter.com/brianmwang Brian Wang

    Giff,

    I'm in complete agreement with you. A startup's speed of iteration and response to the market is paramount and having >1 founder just plain makes sense. You are correct that nobody is great at *everything* and you just don't want to half ass things. Quality, fast, cheap: choose 2 is absolutely true here with a solo founder.

    I think the most compelling argument, however, is the one around having a brother/sister in arms. While I speak as somebody who hasn't made the plunge yet (counting the days til October!), I know from experience that having a partner is so incredible important. Making the hard decisions, getting through the dark days, and celebrating the victories… they are all diminished if you don't have somebody with whom to share them. I actually competed in a bodybuilding show 4 years ago and it was one of the hardest things I'd ever done. I'm convinced I would've likely given up if it hadn't been for the fact that I did it alongside my best friend. Four years later, he's going to be my co-founder :)

  • Nick Barker

    Great post Giff – Co-founders rock!!

    Your so right, “startups have their good and bad days, your loyalty to your compatriots will give you motivation” – Support, belief & motivation are everything in a startup.

    This trick is to find a well matched co-founder. It's like love, they don't come along every day.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Yes, as another entrepreneur put it, having a co-founder just makes it all so much more fun. Now, I know sometimes it doesn't work out, and bad chemistry craters a new venture. That hasn't happened to me, I admit, but I've seen it and it's painful. But that doesn't mean it would have been whistling dixie for the person running things solo.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Thanks for the comment Nick. So tricky, and again, I don't think people should wait to start. I also don't think it's as hard as finding the right person to get married to! (speaking as someone who's been married for a decade)

  • http://feint.me feint

    no i don't. I run a profitable web app – with no co-founder. But apparently I “need a co-founder”. Why isn't what I'm doing a business?

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Of course it is a business and I applaud you, but let me ask you this, and it is not a judgment but a true question: is it a “lifestyle” business or a “shoot for the stars and change the world” business? I'm really writing about the second and perhaps should have made that more clear. If the latter, my second question is whether you don't think things could have been better with a good partner?

    I am willing to be wrong on this issue, but I have seen a lot of data points that have built up my argument.

  • http://feint.me feint

    Don't get me wrong, I understand your points – but I think your argument is to black and white. There is a lot of grey in between.

    My business is a “lifestyle business” in the sense that it supports my world travels and nomadic lifestyle. It was built to do this. But that doesn't mean i'm not aiming big. Will I change the world – yes, there is no doubt in my mind.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    I think you are right. Didn't want to be wishy washy but I am not interested in being bombastic or linkbait-ish either. Going to change the intro when I get back to a computer.

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  • Joe234324

    …Because you're weak

    Because you can't stand the pain.

    Because you would like to end up with 10% of the company after working 14 hour days.

    Because you need someone to complain to after every setback.

    Because you don't have the money or patience.

    Because you don't know how to hire the right employees.

    Because you're not an entrepreneur.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Lol well given that my original language was stronger and more black and white than it needed to be, I suppose I should not be surprised to see this response :-)

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Lol well given that my original language was stronger and more black and white than it needed to be, I suppose I should not be surprised to see this response :-)

  • http://twitter.com/jqGrid Rumen Stankov

    In reality the problem is elsewhere. There’s too much talking and emotinal crap in “founding a business”. All that talk on Hacker News, Business On Software, all that rhetoric do you need a partner or not, and then if you need partners – how many?nnThink about it. If partners were so precious, why not have 20 of them from day 1? That would speed up the business A LOT, yes?nnThe first comment was spot on. Whatever dude – you surely do not NEED a partner. Partners could be useful, could not be useful. Same as renting a office on the first day with $0 revenue – could be useful, could not be useful – depends.nnJust too much talking in this area. Just put 8 straight hours a day in one direction and that’s it. All the rest – bullshit.

  • http://twitter.com/jqGrid Rumen Stankov

    In reality the problem is elsewhere. There's too much talking and emotinal crap in “founding a business”. All that talk on Hacker News, Business On Software, all that rhetoric do you need a partner or not, and then if you need partners – how many?

    Think about it. If partners were so precious, why not have 20 of them from day 1? That would speed up the business A LOT, yes?

    The first comment was spot on. Whatever dude – you surely do not NEED a partner. Partners could be useful, could not be useful. Same as renting a office on the first day with $0 revenue – could be useful, could not be useful – depends.

    Just too much talking in this area. Just put 8 straight hours a day in one direction and that's it. All the rest – bullshit.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    I don’t think anyone is saying the more the merrier. But unless you are making something that only takes one person to build and market, I totally disagree with you. How you think about your core team is very important to the success of your business, and I don’t think that’s a particularly revolutionary statement.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    I don't think anyone is saying the more the merrier. But unless you are making something that only takes one person to build and market, I totally disagree with you. How you think about your core team is very important to the success of your business, and I don't think that's a particularly revolutionary statement.