Yes, You Need a Co-Founder

Giff Constable startups

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.