The single founder dilemma


In the startup world, my current position isn’t particularly enviable.

I am a one man wolf pack. Yes, I am a single founder, a.k.a. a random guy hacking on stuff alone in his living room.

Being a lone wolf isn’t always a bad thing. Except for the fact that in startups, it kind of is.

Conventional wisdom is that you should have a cofounder when you start something. It is all over startup blogs and articles. Accelerators and VCs highly prefer founding teams. And not without good reason. Empirically, most successful companies start this way.

I assure you that I am not a one man wolf pack by choice. If I could choose, I would be part of an awesome team. Right now.

So, why aren’t I?

This has been one of the most difficult issues for me to handle in my time as an entrepreneur.

The single founder dilemma.

At any given moment, there are two things I can do:

  1. Look for a cofounder. This would be great, but it is a lot like dating. I have no idea how things will work out. I just need to keep putting myself out there. The problem is that each coffee meeting takes time. This time easily adds up, begging the question: is there a better way to use this time?
  2. I can also start getting shit done. I’m not short on ideas. And I am technical, so why not just start coding? Besides, each git commit feels like real tangible progress. The problem is that we all know that most startup ideas suck. So “getting shit done” can often be a colossal waste of time.

And herein lies the trap for the single founder.

It gets worse.

As I already mentioned, I am not short on ideas. I am also not short on confidence. Look, I didn’t quit my job because I didn’t believe I could make stuff happen.

But, I am not the only one like this.

So what happens? Most single founders choose choice (2) and start getting shit done. Sooner or later, we get pretty far along (at least in our minds). And by some point, we start to drink our own Kool aid. Shoot, this project just might become something!

By the time we meet another single founder, there are several questions:

  1. Do I drop my project?
  2. Do I get him or her to drop their project?
  3. Do we work on something together, requiring both of us to drop our projects?
  4. Or, do we hack on something part time?

Numbers (1) through (3) require people dropping work, and people are bad with the sunk costs problem.

In theory, alternative (4) seems like the best option to me. It allows people to try each other out, while making some progress. The problem is that it requires both people to set aside time. And each minute not working on your main project increases its likelihood for failure.

What I’m doing

So what to do? I haven’t completely figured it out yet.

The only reasonable answer seems to do both at the same time, and leave space open for alternative (4).

There is one thing that I do know, and I learned it from dating: if you never date, you won’t  meet people. Simple as that. Meeting people is necessary. And the upshot is that even if you don’t meet a cofounder, you will slowly build out your network.

At the same time, I am never really short on ideas. I just can’t guarantee they are any good. In the meantime, I’m going to keep building stuff.

Who knows that will happen. Maybe I’ll meet someone awesome tomorrow. Or maybe my next project, Soulmix, will gain traction. If I had to bet on it, I think it will be a long process of building products and building relationships. At some point, it will probably seem natural to work with a friend on an idea that we are both excited about.

Are you a single founder? Have you been a single founder? How have you handled this dilemma? I would love to hear your thoughts!

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11 thoughts on “The single founder dilemma

  1. I have been a single founder 2 times (one of the companies got sold and other one is doing good) and 2 times with co-founders. And I personally find starting up a single founder.
    You mentioned you have good ideas more than 2 times i guess, you will have to take that thing out of your mind. When you are onto something, burn rest of the ideas for atleast 6 months.
    If you can’t find co-founder, surround yourself with team members, start with hiring people remotely china,india,bangladesh.
    Build prototype, no full fledged product. Try to fail fast if things doesn’t pick after few months to save some time and fatigue. By prototype I mean, that one feature that separates you from others.
    Learn to delegate work. As a programmer first, founder second – I used to micro manage things which gave me really bad time with my first startup. But as you start delegating work to your remote workers / employees, you will start feeling better.
    I would advice you to build something with atleast some business model. Its tough to create instagrams or tumblrs of the world.
    Hope this helps.

    • Thanks for dropping by Gaurav! Yeah, the biggest thing I’ve been trying to do is minimize the prototyping, and try to fail fast.

      What is difficult is to tell the difference between failing, and not trying hard enough. I feel that it is a gut decision that should be better with time.

  2. Hi Alex,

    I really liked your post. I’m also a solo founder in the Bay Area. The work still gets done, but without a co-founder it is hard to get people to take the startup seriously, which is soooo frustrating. Especially since I know I have great ideas and the capability to execute on them and build a cool product that people want. Anyway, sounds counterintuitive, but we solo founders should stick together.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Hi Jimmy, actually one of the things that has helped to keep me sane is to keep in touch with all my single founder friends. We trade stories, give feedback, etc. I hope that some of us will find a way to work together some day too.

      Anyways, cool stuff with PlayPozz and thanks for writing in!

      • Cool, we should exchange email addresses. I think you already have mine from the registration. If you want to grab a beer or coffee in SF or the Peninsula, lemme know. I used to live in Mountain View, so I make it down there sometimes. We can trade single founder stories or whatever!

  3. I’m just starting off as a single founder and for me it’s a skill set issue. I’m and idea/execution guy, with no technical background. So without a technical cofounder, I’m stuck having to hire a development firm, which means trying to raise money before ever really starting … cart before horse. But looking forward to the process!

    • Hi Chris. I do believe that technical and non-technical single founders have different issues, and may not have represented it well from the non-technical side. A “benefit” you have is that if your want to pursue a tech idea, you can’t go as far down the rabbit hole as a technical person can without starting to put together a team. Good luck!

  4. oh, I’m so glad I found your blog, this post and all the rest of the replies above.

    So yes, me too. Single founder, just got back from a horrible co-founder speed dating. Haven’t been on a date for years and it’s bad. so bad.

    I quit my job last week (thank you! ) after 4 months that I’ve been working on my startup on the side but now decided to put everything on it. Got an MVP ready, some early birds on it and it’s going ok. I guess… and all the rest is awesome. I don’t regret quiting my job. probably the best thing ever.

    I would like to use this space to invite other single founder to share their thoughts and concerns with me. We can use each other’s mind or just have someone who can give us the push when needed and who knows, maybe even join our next adventure.

    my email is (hope it will work here) omri [at] 10beats dot com
    Drop me a mail, promise I won’t bite 🙂

  5. Alex,

    I want to say what everyone else above has been saying, thank you for this post. I’m a single founder as well, though I know I need a co-founder. You see, I’m not a technical founder. While I’ve been teaching myself JavaScript and Python, I’m not going to know everything I need to know in the right amount of time. I wish I could be doing what you’re doing and go against the conventional wisdom of VC’s, all I have are ideas and no way to implement them without a cofounder.

    Then again, if anyone lives in the DC/Baltimore area and wants to talk, let me know at rpierce84 at gmail. Com

    • Hey Robert.. good to hear from you! And great that you are picking up some technical stuff.

      Just wanted to clarify, I’m not going against “conventional wisdom” because I want to. If I could have a cofounder now, I would. Being able to start building product is good, but it also has a downside — it can cause me to waste a lot of time coding stuff that isn’t necessary.

      You are forced to build a team. You also are forced to do proper customer development before building a product. Arguably, these are what you want to start with anyways.

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