Do you have a big idea for a startup but no co-founder?
You should go for it!
Get to the market fast versus hunting for the perfect co-founder.
I was told that you needed a co-founder to get Venture Capital funding when I started. But the reality is more nuanced. Here I share some lessons learnt on how to startup without a co-founder if you don’t have one:
First off, why do investors typically insist on co-founders?
Startups are hard. A VC from a Russian fund told me once that they never invest in single founders, as a rule, because they’ve seen solo-founders crack and quit quickly from the pressure. Psychology aside, functionally too, every startup needs 3 roles in a founding team–a “hacker”, a “designer” and a “marketer”¹.
The founder is typically the “Designer” who conceptualizes the complete product and will likely do either one of the other two roles well– the “Hacker” (Tech) or the “Marketer” (Business) role.
The co-founder does the other role.
How do you find a tech co-founder if you’re a MBA who’s spent almost two decades in business like I was?
My traditional networks ran dry quickly so I reached out 1:1 to anyone who worked in Amazon, Google etc. from my LinkedIn connections:
You can’t find an ace co-founder on demand. And beyond competence, you’re looking for mad conviction in the idea, co-location, comfort with throwing away everything on an instinct–any one of these is hard to find, leave alone all three!
I spent a month looking for a co-founder while doing my prototype in parallel.
I met good people.
But I knew good wouldn’t be enough. So I decided to go solo.
A good decision, in retrospect, even though I didn’t know the StartUp Power Law back then.
The StartUp Power Law
Unlike regular jobs where people cluster around the mean with exceptions in either direction (normal distribution), startups follow a power law.
The best people generate an extraordinary insane amount of value. 1% hyper-performers generate almost 99% of StartUp output.
Is your prospective co-founder truly an “Extreme Power Law” value generator?
If not, go solo. Instead, recruit strong middle-management to get your company started while you search long and hard, without desperation, for your co-founder or C-Level hires.
How to Recruit the Top 1% Middle-Management to get your company started?
1. Build Traction with Zero-Code/Low-Code Prototype immediately
I requested my childhood friend in Google to join me as an engineering leader the moment I came up with the WhiteHat Jr idea.
He said it was too risky.
He was right. Dreams are risky. How can you throw away everything overnight for a dream?
4 weeks later though, I had something real. A zero-code prototype with paying users (built with zero full-time employees–explained in detail here). Now, our conversation moved to the practicalities of salary, equity etc.
Turn your dream into reality now.
Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask²–and so does talent!
My friend still didn’t join but the early traction got the company started. Else it would still be a dream.
2. Attract Top Tech Talent with “Hackers & Painters” Rule
Paul Graham considers top tech talent akin to artists. And I too found our top engineering hires surprisingly similar to the writers I knew from my fiction days. Beyond moodiness(!), the best tech folks, like artists, are motivated most by:
1. Creation – Am I creating true, new-to-the-world IP / solving the toughest technical problems?
2. Scale – Is my creation being used by a very large number of users?
For #1 above, ensure your technical vision is as Big & Obvious as your business vision.
Example, one technical goal I articulated in the early days was to enable parents to understand their kids better by applying ML algorithms on thousands of hours of live classes daily and identify what makes each kid spike uniquely in creativity and joy.
For #2 above, show extreme conviction in your growth. We got all our 1st 20 hires from LinkedIn Jobs, where I wrote Job Descriptions(JDs) myself and reached out to applicants via WhatsApp. We were three people in the living room of my house, yet the JD’s reflected conviction in our future then!
Please drop me a note in the comments below if you want access to any of our functional JD’s.
And top hackers follow the same extreme power law as artists. The best coders are 100x more productive than the average ones. So hiring top tech talent is probably your single most important call at the start of the company.
3. Attract Top Business Talent with “20×4” Commitment
Top business talent is simpler, driven by accelerated growth. Make a 20×4 Commitment to all business hires.
“We’ll replace 20 years of low-intensity work with 4 years of high-intensity work. And you’ll compress 20 years of personal and professional growth in these 4 years.”
Finally, can you raise venture funding without a co-founder?
Venture Capitalists fund any startup that delivers:
1. A “Big & Obvious” Vision for Tomorrow
2. A Strong Business Today
Your founding team becomes a proxy in the absence of #2–a business–at seed stage. Can you overcome their co-founder hesitation by showing early traction and a passionate mid-management team?
Then, you’ll have limited barriers to funding. Please drop me a note in the comments if you want access to our funding decks.
I hope this is helpful to get your company started solo! Keep moving and approach every function you don’t know with first principles rather than waiting for the perfect co-founders.
Example, one of my profound early experiences at WhiteHat Jr was working with a backend developer one day and realizing suddenly that complex-sounding technical words like “Database Structure” were mostly a reflection of our business vision and strategy. I turned from a silent admirer of tech to an active participant that day. And this allowed me to wait for an excellent CTO rather than rush to choose an average co-founder!
What other questions do you have on being a solo founder? Do let me know in the comments so I can share in future blogs. And if you found this useful, you may also like this new YT Video on The One Routine for Unlimited Success.
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¹Hacker, Designer, Visionary/Hustler- Dave McClure, 500 StartUps
²Tim Ferris Quote