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