For years, I have pushed the co-founder mantra and in almost every case, I still believe that is the more successful route. Or should I say, the route that creates more successful outcomes. Why?
Very few of us (myself included) have enough brainpower to navigate the hundreds of decisions necessary to create a great outcome, especially in those first few months to a year. That is where a great, complimentary co-founder or partner comes into play. I have made 35 investments at The Startup Factory over the past 3 years and up until late last year, had invested in only one solo founder team. And to be honest, we pushed him hard to bring in a co-founder immediately.
So, what have I learned over the past year that makes me question that bias?
It was a conversation with another solo, tech-oriented co-founder in RTP by the name of Robbie Allen. As you can imagine, Robbie is no wallflower. He has a Master's degree from MIT, was a Distinguished Engineer with Cisco (1 of 13 I think) and is the founder of Automated Insights, a company he founded in 2007, raised significant venture capital and sold this year.
Robbie is one of our mentors in the TSF investment program and one day he sat me down and outlined his thoughts on what a solo tech founder has to have to go it alone. Maybe he was inspired by this solo/tech founder thread on Twitter from Marc Andreessen-a not so quiet thought leader on all things startup.
Here are my blended thoughts and 3 key summary characteristics. Great solo tech founders have:
An ability to effectively communicate with others. Lets be honest, most technology people are introverted. This typically does not bode well when startup founders (and their many hats) are required to connect with customers, new hires and investors. That is why many tech founders search for their alter-ego. It is not implausible that a more introverted tech person can acquire and build those more extroverted muscles. But you better be ready to do that and not limp in.
An ability and desire to socialize ideas, issues, challenges, etc. Let me start by saying that ALL founders should develop this as a key part of their business personality. There is so much to learn from others. Solo founders seem to live inside their own head a lot. When inside your own head, there is typically little room for counter-arguments. One of my favorite clichs is, "when you are alone in the decision room, every decision is perfect". Obviously there is no one there to push back. Great solo founders find advisors, peers, even family to create room for alternative opinion.
A mission to create accountability outside of themselves. I am a builder who has learned how to be a marketer. Builders build product. Customer development is equally if not more important. My observation of Robbie, James Avery of Adzerk, Anil Chawla of Archive Social and many others it that they create accountability for there business's actions outside of themselves. Needless to say, once you bring on investors, this gets taken care of with a Board of Directors. But, what are you going to do before then. What will force you to view issues in your business that are not in your comfort zone?
Like solo tech founders who have developed new, possibly non-native skills, I have learned to look differently at solo tech founders as a source of investment deal flow. Since my sit down with Robbie, we have invested in another and are happy we did so.