Starting a business is a dream that many people have. And the startup world is replete with advice for the “wantrepreneur,” people who want to start their own company and “live the dream” of working for themselves.
This advice is often incomplete and fails to take into account a long term view of entrepreneurship. While you may start out wanting the “freedom” of working for yourself and aspire to the digital nomad narrative of working from a beach chair in between yoga classes and green juice parties in Bali, this rarely lasts forever. Unless you’re Peter Pan, your business might get too big to allow this lifestyle and your life circumstances will change.
I’m much more interested in lessons that people have learned through a career as an entrepreneur.
But I’m not always good at taking advice.
When I started my entrepreneurial journey I was told that you should never start a marketplace and you should never start a company alone. I broke both of those rules and started a marketplace by myself (which has now pivoted).
But was this the right move? I did it for personal reasons after a layoff, but what have others learned?
There are six lessons I’ve learned through my own experience and from others.
1) Being a solo founder lets you set the company vision, for better or worse.
As a solo founder, you are able to set the direction, tone, and speed of the company. This can be both a blessing and a curse, because while it allows you to build the company you want, that company may not also be a great fit for others.
Dan Martell, founder of Clarity.fm and Flowtown, talks about how a great team is what allows a company to succeed, not a control-oriented founder.
2) Being a solo founder changes internal company dynamics.
Company cultures are fragile. The nature of work has changed as more companies embrace transparency and remote working, but this has its limitations.
As Adii Pienaar of Conversio told me, “my gut feel is that only a true co-founder with a similar kind of equity in the business would truly understand some of the challenges that we have to go through.”
3) Being a solo founder means your startup costs are much less.
Having multiple salaries and families to support with the business can put undue stress on a company and lead to founder strife.
In my conversation with Oli Gardner of Unbounce, he told me that at one point they realized that they couldn’t support all of the salaries and that marketing needed to be cut. He was able to, with the support of another co-founder, work out the right setup where Oli didn’t have to leave the company. Too many co-founders get pushed out of a company because of cash flow issues.
4) You might learn more quickly as a solo founder.
It’s easy to stay in your lane of expertise as a co-founder or part of a team, but for some people this isn’t necessarily the right path. With a co-founder it is easier to pass a task off to them if you don’t want to do it or do not have the skills.
As a solo founder with no team, there is literally no one else to do it. As Adii said, “the last three years has been immense in terms of my personal development. [Finding a way] to relate to my team and build those relationships…as a peer… [has] definitely challenged me and pushed me to [sic] work on the way I connect with people and the way I build relationships, which I think has been fascinating.”
5) Co-founders need to have complementary skills and experience.
If you’re starting a company with someone else, you not only need to find someone that you share a vision and work well with. You also need to find a co-founder or two who have skills that complement yours.
As an example, if you are a marketer then you may need a co-founder who is great at sales and one that is great at technology, depending on the company you are building. Partnering with someone who has the same skills as you will not solve the problem of doing everything required to run a successful business, such as finance and employee management, and could lead to even more strife down the road.
This is why some people choose not to have a co-founder.
6) Having co-founders can save you time and direction.
While going alone means you can go fast, it may also mean that you go fast in the wrong direction. If you have co-founders with whom you make decisions, you can catch problems together before they happen. The old adage of “If you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together” applies here.
Deciding whether to start a company alone or with a co-founder is a personal decision that also depends on your unique situation. Learn the pros and cons ahead of time and make the right decision for you.