Solo Founders Should Focus on Building a Great Team, Then Figure Out the Idea

Solo Founders Should Focus on Building a Great Team, Then Figure Out the Idea

A frequently repeated mantra around the tech startup ecosystem is “it’s all about the team”. Perhaps that gives the wrong message though. Too many entrepreneurs believe they should first find a good idea and then build the team. Entrepreneurs should be motivated to find their partners first so they can hash out the idea together.

Dropbox founders Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi

We live in a society where it’s easier to make one founder the center of attention. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson. They all had partners from the very beginning. Don’t expect a person on the street to know the names of their partners or that they existed. But, if you read their biographies you can easily see the importance their partners played, and it’s hard to imagine things going well for any of these entrepreneurs if they didn’t have help from day one.

Solo = No Go

The truth is, without a co-founder most solo founders are dead in the water. Sure some build a prototype, and then get co-founders on board once they have proof of concept. But this, more often then not, is a waste of resources. Think about the consequences of building before you have the appropriate team to build the company from the ground up.

  • Sales focused founders who pay a freelancer or offshore company to build a prototype can sign up customers early on, but when a would be technical founder sees what they technically have to work with, they will want to rebuild it from scratch. That’s a huge turn off, the potential CTO will hardly be enthusiastic to pick up where someone with no passion for the product has left off.
  • Technical founders who lack the sales & marketing qualities necessary to evangelize their apps early on may overlook important features for the customer|market fits and build a product potential marketing & sales parters aren’t eager to sell. “Nice to meet you, I can’t sell your product!”
  • Investors will wonder why a solo founder didn’t have the foresight to find at least one partner. Is no one willing to work with this person? Does no one believe in his idea? Maybe the founder’s network is too small to find a partner. Maybe he doesn’t know how to leverage his network.

To all solo founders out there, take my word for it, do not contact investors until you have at least one co-founder on your team.

Birchbox founders Hayley Barna and Katia Beauchamp

Network Magnification and Credibility: As a solo founder you can only gain the support of your network. With a network of 300 people you can potentially reach hundreds of thousands of people to promote your startup. But through the power of 2nd and 3rd degree connections, just one additional partner can increase your network by many magnitudes reaching not a few hundred thousand, but probably over one million people, and you will need every last one when it’s time to start promoting and finding early adopters.

A co-founder adds vital creditability. Just like the investors who ponder the credibility of your one man show, people in your network who have to decide if they will shamelessly promote you, and will subconsciously wonder if they are telling their own trusted network about a new and great company a personal contact of theirs is building. Being able to talk about what “we’re” doing reassures them you’re officially a team, you can float up your partner’s credentials for bragging rights, this sounds better than just talking about yourself. Coming off as a team full of skills and past experience combined to take on the challenge drastically increases the chances of convincing others your company is an exciting adventure and they will feel important when you give them the chance to tell the world about it.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Collaboration: Having a partner protects against pursuing bad ideas. A solo entrepreneur has nobody around to agree to call it a day. Or to try harder when it feels like it’s time to give up. Larry Page and Sergey Brin openly joke about how they didn’t get along when they first met, they had strong opinions and disagreed. Would Google exist today if they hadn’t challenged each other ideas ideas back in 1995?

When people of more than one specialty and background work together, their synergy produces the creativity startups need to think through problems in new ways. It’s important to have devils advocate who isn’t afraid to second guess the logic behind an assumption.

Uber co-founder Garret Camp
Uber co-founder Garret Camp
Uber CEO & co-founder Travis Kalanick
Uber CEO & co-founder Travis Kalanick

Complementary Skills: The number of companies started by one person are extremely rare. In the few cases it has happened, the technology and opportunity was so huge, and the company was growing so fast, it didn’t take long to have the traction necessary to recruit other team members with necessary skills to scale the company. For the other 99.999% this wont be the case. From the very first days important skills will be needed to divide and conquer the onslaught of challenges that will come from every direction.

Steve Blank wrote a piece about what it takes to build great founding teams.

The goal of a founding team “is to take the original idea and search for a repeatable and scalable business model– first by finding product/market fit, then by testing all the parts of the business model (pricing, channel, acquisition/activation, partners, costs, etc.)” — Steve Blank

A solo founder is going to have a tough time doing all of that. Building, searching for scalable business model, finding product|market fit and iterating through various tests on assumptions for the business, it’s too much to do alone. Few people are so talented to understand all of these areas completely, and again. The expertise should be divided to achieve greater focus, which in turns leads to greater success.

Airbnb founders Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky, and Joe Gebbia

How to build your team: The take away of all this is solo entrepreneurs can explore ideas, and launch prototypes. But they should prioritize the activity of finding people who are interested in building a company. Founder dating, and networking events despite lots of suggestions on this subject are probably not the best place to start looking for co-founders. A better approach is reaching out into one’s network, being open with others about searching for a co-founder, and asking for introductions.

What your team should look like: Unfortunately most people won’t get to be picky when looking for the right co-founders, and yet finding a co-founder fit with complementary skills and the readiness to tackle very hard problems during periods of serious doubt, is critical. If the team cannot get through the worst times, many costly issues will stand in the way and waste valuable time. If differences arise far enough along, a founder will have to be bought out, or sit on the founders shares of the cap table, which could cause irreversible financial pains for the company.

Entrepreneur and VC Mark Suster has written specifically about this subject and gives a good punch list of qualities to look for while creating a team. He makes several good points worth keeping in mind in a team as well as an investors perspective on what matters in the team. Being well rounded in skills, having consultative sales people versus relationship management style sellers, structuring tech teams with strengths of “people process & technology”.

I’m a solo founder. What now?

  • Start contacting friends and telling them you’re interested in building a company, and would love an introduction to anyone that might make a good co-founder in your company.
  • Do your own recruiting, identify the skills you lack to build a company, and search through Linkedin, Twitter, and tech blogs for people who have those qualities, and are in an appropriate place to start something new. Hint: an employee at a startup that is about to go into the dead pool maybe looking for new opportunities. Consulting firms, business schools, and agencies are full of people who may be planning to leave and start their own business, but don’t know a partner to do it with. Find a way to get an introduction to them.
  • Use the web to tell the world about your interests. Tweet and blog about subjects that you find interesting and see opportunities. People who are also interested in these subjects will find you, some may be your potential partner or know someone else who is.
  • Don’t sweat the critics, there are many thought leaders who claim a co-founder can’t just be picked out, that there should be a deep history between team members. While the reasons for this are obvious, there are lots of founders who met from different circles and went on to form great companies. Don’t let the nay sayers talk you out of pursuing your dreams.

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P.S.

So who were the solo founders? While writing this I started to wonder who some of the solo founders of tech companies have been. This is just off the top of my head, there are certainly more. Feel free to share with me off line or in the comments.

  • Ebay: Pierre Omidyar
  • Dell: Michael Dell
  • Amazon: Jeff Bezos
  • GoPro: Nick Woodman

The Good Old Days, and the Crazy Crazy Future

The Good Old Days, and the Crazy Crazy Future

The year was 2003, and with the help of some dialup (in the United States) one could post an ad on Criaglist.org, for well, anything. This was useful because if one suddenly decided he wants to start a new company, it was an easy way to test the interest in the product or service he had to offer. After posting the ad, in the next 24-72 hours you could sit back and to see who would bite. For me this was a regular pastime, exploring possible business ideas. The ad’s ranged from web site development, landscaping and moving companies, to drives on request (hello Uber yes I had the idea first).

GMC_Craigslist

Compared to today, it was too easy. Back then, Craigslist was where people went for everything, buying and selling stuff, renting apartments, buying houses, hiring dog walkers, ride shares, dating, events, and job openings. But it wasn’t to last for long.

It didn’t happen overnight, but around 2008 the Craigslist user base had changed, the people became less reliable, more weird. Creepy even. It was on both sides too. As a user looking through ads some were WEIRD, I remember apartment listings that just had a picture of a cartoon dog, and a couple details about the apartment. And when receiving replies to ads I’d posted some people were normal, and others were obviously whack jobs.

Also by the end of the last decade, it wasn’t just the people on Craigslist (CL) that had changed, there were other places to go and spend time on the internet. Ebay had totally taken over the sell/buy space. Sites like Match.com started to peel away users of the personals section.

This also meant things were more difficult too. I remember a NYTimes post about one accountant who stopped paying for advertising because he got all his clients through CL. I doubt that guy still has the same story now. Services like accountants, web developers, painters, and repairmen, who used to get their new clients from the Services section on CL, lost traffic to paid advertising and highly competitive search engine ranking in Google search results. It didn’t happen overnight, but by 2010 Craigslist was only good for long shot job opportunities and sublets, it’s been a while since I checked, but I wouldn’t be surprised if those are not useful anymore either.

Fast forward. It’s 2015.

The world changed so much in the last ten years. Getting peoples’ attention requires multi-tiered approach of social network engagement, Google page ranks, paid results in search, email campaigns, paid Facebook ads, quality scores, and so much more. There is no classifieds listings where you can post your capabilities and wait for interested people to connect, it would be a bad test.

Ideas aren’t so easy to test anymore.

unbounce-1
Unbounce.com’s landing page “rehab” program

 

geo-targeting-1
An old screenshoot of a Google Adwords Campaign

A recommended method to test an idea now, is to make a landing page, choose a set of keywords, and then create a Google Adwords campaign to send traffic to the page (since the page doesn’t have built in traffic like Craigslist did).

With some traffic going to the page, you can see how your keywords convert in Google’s Adwords dashboard, watch how many bounces the landing page gets, and most importantly how many conversions you can create. But that process is more complex than the Craigslist post I described above from 10 years ago. Your keywords can be wrong, you location & demographic settings may not be optimized for your target market. Perhaps you’re not bidding enough on the campaign. Your landing page content may be all wrong. And if the landing page isn’t convincing, say, maybe it looks a bit fake, like dummy landing page, people can tell, and if they smell a fake, they close the page as soon as it opens, and then your whole test is a waste. A waste that, let’s not forget, needed to be paid for. Again, unlike the Craigslist test.

More so, there is a feeling that without a website you aren’t legitimate. Without a Facebook page, it’s just a personal side project. Without a good chunk of followers on your instagram or twitter account or “page likes” on your Facebook page your business isn’t legitimate or too young to be trusted.

Imagine how it would feel for an Law Practice with 25 years of experience that cannot get more then 36 likes on their Facebook page. A popularity vote on a platform that has barely existed for 5 years, with a company that barely existed 10 years ago. That’s got to be hard to swallow. All the rules are changing, and it’s making a fool out of everyone. Don’t worry, we’re all in the same boat.

What a lot of people think they need to do when they start a company, or put their business on the internet, is that they should buy a domain name. Unfortunately, the days of just getting a “.com” or “.net” (also known as TLDs) are long gone folks. There are now over 1,000 different TLDs to choose from, with .travel, .book, .biker, .ninja (I puke a little at that one) domain extensions (TLD), there is a universe of possibilities, meanwhile most of the people in the world are still just figuring out the difference between email and the internet. Some still don’t really get setting up their smart phones.

If many people are still just trying to get the hang of a smart phone, will the average person even know that “http://johndoe.restaurant” can be a real website URL now? Think twice before buying that domain name folks, I think the verdict is out on that one. Let’s wait for CNN to do a special on it first to be safe 😉

I digress.

The increase of complexity grows at a rate near Moore’s law with no end in sight.

As a 33 year old, I feel lucky to have both witnessed a time before Microsoft Windows (MS-DOS), when there was only a telephone to communicate, and getting to experience first hand the wave of people using Friendster, then Myspace, then Facebook, and now lots of niche networks to boot. But I meet teenagers and see how they use technology, and think about how much things will change in the next ten years, and nothing seems more overwhelming than this, except perhaps an echo chamber with a never ending loud speaker going off, creating nth degree echoes upon echoes.

In the next 20 years, a time frame anyone reading this can probably expect to live (I’m rooting for you!), the complexity will grow way more than it has in the last 10 years. So basically, a likely startup in the year 2026, could be offering a service with a promo like:

“Internet Simplified”

“Our service takes over your communications, searches, blog reading and all so you don’t have a brain aneurysm. We will call you at the end of the day with a simple summary for you!”

her-movie-still-17Perhaps such a service will be an add on to our personal OS – à la “Her”. Perhaps by then, shopping will be in it’s own division, a “sub-net” of the internet. News/Content/Blogs will be in a subnet. Social & communication will have it’s own subnet. Things will have gotten so complex, the new innovators will just be making ways to compartmentalize.

Until then we’re all the guinea pigs. And those who want to continue to compete for the next big innovation have keep an eye on the changes, while the others sit back and continue to be dumbfounded by all the rapid changes.