Opting to go it alone and be a solo startup founder is a hard, but not impossible, task.
On the surface, everything seems to be going against you. Paul Graham from Y Combinator famously lists it as the Number One Mistake entrepreneurs make when deciding to launch a startup.
Despite all that, however, the data often paints a different picture.
Analysis of 6,191 companies that achieved an exit showed that 52.5% of them were founded by solo founders.
And despite their bias YC, and others, often back solo founders. Including founders like Drew Houston (Dropbox), and Eric Migicovsky (Pebble).
Other examples of successful single founder companies include:
- Tumblr (Acquired by Yahoo for $1 billion)
- Plenty of Fish (Acquired by Match.com for $575 million)
- Viture (Acquired by Oracle for $300 million)
- FireEye (Went public in 2013 and currently has a market cap of $2.7 billion)
- ServiceNow (Went public in 2012 and has a current market cap of $18.22 billion)
What I have often found in my experience within the local startup ecosystem is that a large number of solo founders are also non-technical.
This presents an additional set of challenges that must be overcome. Aussie Shark Tank Investor Steve Baxter even has a concrete rule against investing in teams who don’t have a founder with technical skills.
This black and white approach often creates the sense that your chance of success is a binary outcome. And without a technical co-founder, you are doomed to fail….
But conventional wisdom states that 90% of startups fail anyway, so this really shouldn’t be news, regardless of who is or isn’t on the founding team.
There are also a number of examples of successful startups founded by non-technical founders including:
- Bryan Johnson from Braintree
- Jack Smith from Vungle
- Jessica Scorpio from Getaround
- Jack Ma from Alibaba
What this shows is that being a solo founder, non-technical founder or non-technical solo founder of a startup is not impossible! Like most things in the life of a startup, it’s just damn hard.
All things being equal, I understand why investors prefer to have a founding team of two or more people, and in-built technical skills. It does make sense. Especially when you are pre-product market fit.
When you have a limited runway having technical people in the team means you can essentially operate on sweat equity only. When you are a non-technical founder you can’t do that. You are forced to pay for every hour of code written.
Despite this, I still chose to launch Task Pigeon as a solo (and non-technical) founder. Here’s why:
Having a co-founder is like getting married
When you fall in love very rarely do you get married the next day, week or month? Why? Because there is a period of courtship during which you need to learn the in’s and out’s of your partner and see if you are a good fit for one another.
Why should founding a business be any different? If you are successful you are probably going to see that person more than your wife/husband/partner/significant other each day and could spend the next 5, 10, 15 or 20 years alongside them.
As a result, I believe that if you are going to have a co-founder it needs to be someone you know and trust. Ideally, you have worked with them before, and your relationship stretches back a number of years.
While I am a 3x Entrepreneur my circle of friends and family doesn’t include a single developer or software engineer. I don’t have anyone who I know well enough to jump into business with them for that period of time.
And I know the downfall of making the wrong decision first hand.
Prior to launching Task Pigeon, I worked on another startup idea. I recruited a technical co-founder. A Computer Science Graduate from the University of New South Wales who said time and time again how keen they were on the idea.
I ended up wasting 6 to 9 months chasing this idea, with little progress to show for it (from their end). Ultimately, this taught me that if you don’t already have that strong one on one relationship with someone who can be your technical co-founder you are better off going alone.
Bad team dynamics kill just as many, if not more startups, than the lack of in-built technical knowledge within the team.
You can still bring a co-founder on-board later
There is nothing to say you can’t add a “co-founder” later. And while most non-tech founders go running around to events, posting in Facebook groups and begging for people to join their team I just got on with building Task Pigeon.
We launched our MVP in seven weeks, got hunted on Product Hunt, and secured our first paying customers. While we haven’t achieved definitive product market fit (there is still a long way to go) we do have some traction.
If I was to now seek a technical co-founder this presents a much more compelling story. They are not joining on day zero, and have hard evidence of how seriously I am taking this endeavour. And action trumps ideas any day of the week.
Not only that but if you find yourself in the fortunate situation where your startup takes off and you have the capital or cash flow to support it, you can always hire the talent you need. And I can’t wait for that time to come where I’m in a good enough position to hire more people to join my business. My friend who founded his own business a couple of years ago has expanded greatly in the past few months and has decided to reward his employees with incentives for all their hard work. I think he mentioned something about using a health and wellbeing company called Avaana who offer many different things, such as Yoga and Pilates classes, as well as personal training. It’s a great idea and something that all new entrepreneurs or business founders should consider when they decide to hire any new talent to ensure that they work hard throughout the whole year.
So while people may view being a solo founder as a negative, it doesn’t have to stay that way. Just because you start a company as an individual, doesn’t mean you can’t add one or more “co-founders” at any point in the future.
A great example is Buffer, where the founder Joel Gascoigne started the company before bringing on Leo Widrich as a co-founder, largely to help drive the marketing and customer acquisition side of the business.
No one will love your baby as much as you do
Unless you and your co-founder happen to be sitting around talking and come up with the idea during a joint discussion, one person is always going to feel a stronger sense of ownership to the idea.
This isn’t always a good thing. If things aren’t working out, this could cause an argument between co-founders where there is a difference of opinion regarding the future direction of the company.
But putting that aside for the moment, and given the fact I didn’t have a natural co-founder waiting in the wings, I knew that no matter who I brought on, no one would be as passionate about the idea of Task Pigeon as I am.
I live and breath Task Pigeon. I work on it every day. And I love it. If I was going to have a co-founder I would need to find someone with that same level of passion, and given my network that just wasn’t possible at the time.
At the end of the day, I don’t believe there is a right or wrong answer when it comes to bringing on a co-founder or not. You have to do what feels right to you.
I am happy to back my sales and marketing experience and invest in the hiring the technical skills required to get Task Pigeon off the ground. While there is no guarantee of success I know there is nothing else I would rather be doing.
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