Solo Founders

Startups with multiple founders have a greater chance of success than single-founder startups. This is received wisdom in the startup world. Paul Graham’s essay The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups is most often cited together with this idea.

Strictly speaking, I don’t doubt that this has been true, and still is true.

However, there has been a tendency to interpret this idea as single founders have a near-zero chance of success, therefore founding a company alone is a fool’s errand. That is demonstrably not true. And I believe the odds in favor of solo founders are getting better and better everyday.

First, there are technology trends leveling the playing field. Starting a web company these days is unbelievably frictionless. Open source software has matured to the point where all the tools needed to make a web app are available for free. Cloud computing means CPU, network and storage resources can be paid for as-you-go instead of as fixed up-front costs, which in turn drives down the amount of capital needed to get a business off the ground. Even design services have seen some penetration by online pay-as-you-go models.

Second, culturally, more and more solo founders are going public with their experiences. Recently Ray Grieselhuber posted a thoughtful piece on his company blog, The Royal We: Single Founder Startups, where he shares his strategies for mitigating the problems inherent in being a solo founder. Hackers like Patrick McKenzie and Gabriel Weinberg have been documenting their efforts for a while now at building successful solo web businesses. There are many people flying a bit under the radar, and probably a great number more I’m not mentioning or not aware of. I’ve also become a solo founder myself. Inspiration is a vital part of running a startup, so the more solo founders who put themselves out there, the more there will be in the future.

One reason single-founder startups are sometimes viewed negatively is because the scope of opportunities is different than it is for multiple-founder startups. Many business ideas simply can’t be executed by a single person, no matter how much of a rockstar programmer + ninja bizdev person they are (and you generally have to be both to go solo). It’s difficult to imagine anyone building out a competitor to, say, Zynga all by themselves. These are the attention-getting businesses, the big winners on the road to IPO, so naturally it seems crazy that a single person would try and found a similar company.

The secret is that there is a growing universe of moderately-sized opportunities out there that are perfect for highly skilled solo founders, especially in the consumer web app space. These are often apps where the revenue path is clearly defined, the code can be written and maintained by one person, and the UI is not overly complex. A perfect example is PicClick, a visual search for eBay that entrepreneur Ryan Sit has seen recent success with. So to judge the odds of success for a single-founder startup, it is critical to take into account the scope of the opportunity.

All things being equal, multiple-founder startups still have the advantage. They are probably more resilient and almost always able to cover more ground quicker. The catch is that it all hinges on having the right co-founders. Finding that special someone to launch a startup with is way, way harder than most people imagine. Although having the right partner who complements your abilities can be a huge force multiplier, it cuts both ways-the wrong person can hinder or even destroy your startup. If you press most solo founders, my guess is that you’ll find a story about a partnership gone awry.

In the end, both single-founder and multiple-founder startups have their advantages and disadvantages. Solo operations do come with some pretty difficult challenges, but gone are the days when “Starting a startup is too hard for one person”.

This Hacker News thread from January 2010 contains some great discussions about being a solo founder.