Being a founder is hard. Being a solo founder is even harder. Being a solo non-technical founder–forget about it. Jeff Bezos may disagree, but there aren’t many Jeff Bezos in the world.
Solo founders often believe they are the only ones who can pull off their vision. While that may be true in some respects, being a solo founder has challenges in implementing that vision. And these challenges don’t only apply to solo founders but also to founders without complementary skills.
If you’re considering doing it alone, there are good reasons why industry veterans discourage it.
“Starting a startup is too hard for one person. Even if you could do all the work yourself, you need colleagues to brainstorm with, to talk you out of stupid decisions, and to cheer you up when things go wrong.” - Paul Graham
Without a product, you don’t have a company. That is obvious to most founders. However, many founders fall into the trap of believing they can effectively delegate the non-technical aspects of their product to a third party without the need for substantial oversight.
“The value of an idea lies in using it.” Thomas Edison
This happens when the founder has a great idea but lacks technical expertise. So, they hire a development shop that agrees to build the product. However, the founder often gets taken advantage of without the technical knowledge or skills. Every tweak increases the scope of work, and the founder cannot meaningfully audit or manage the development of the product. Eventually, a dispute arises, and the founder struggles to take control of the project and get the product back on track. Months and several thousand dollars later, the founder is back at square one.
"Product-market fit is not a discrete, big bang event. It's a process, a ramp. As you move up the ramp, the market starts to pull the product out of the company. At first, you are pushing the product onto the market. Then at some point, customers start to pull the product from you." - Brian Balfour
Even when third-party developers deliver, that does not mean the product is well positioned to find product-market fit. Product-market fit is a process that requires constant iterations and seeing the product through the eyes of its ideal user. When a founder receives piecemeal updates and is not involved in the day-to-day development of the product, they miss the opportunity to embed their vision in the product.
"Fundraising is a filtering exercise, not a popularity contest. Meet enough investors, and you only need one to say yes. It's a numbers game." - Naval
Fundraising is another area where solo founders can struggle. Fundraising is part art and part science. It takes strategy and time to take large datasets, break them into categories, and connect with those most likely to invest. It also requires a lot of reps. As most founders will say, this process takes time. It takes a hundred “no’s” before even receiving a single “maybe.”
When founders rush the fundraising process, they risk wasting precious time and resources by seeking the wrong investors in the wrong places. It's like trying to order a Big Mac from Taco Bell – it won't work out. As desperation sets in, founders may be tempted to delegate fundraising to third parties, which is a dangerous shortcut. These third parties can do more harm than good without the proper knowledge, skills, and legal compliance.
“They know a bunch of investors that can fill out the round . . . but they want a cut.”
“Are they a registered broker-dealer?”
If the answer is no, then the company and the “finder” are likely acting as broker-dealers violating securities laws.
"Raising money is the second hardest part of starting a company. The hardest part is hiring." - Ben Horowitz
Even when a founder captures the science (e.g., process) of fundraising, a part-time approach often results in building “paycheck to paycheck.” This situation arises when a founder pitches investors willing to invest but can't provide the necessary amount.
For instance, a founder needs $1,000,000 to hire a team and expand the product's reach, but an investor only offers $100,000. In desperation, the founder accepts the offer and uses the funds to run the company as long as possible until the money runs out. The founder does not have enough capital to hire a permanent team, so they lean on contractors and advisors to fill the void. This leads to a vicious cycle where the founder can never fully put their head down and focus on building the business.
So, if you’re a solo founder, what do you do?
This may sound like odd advice for a startup–but take things slow. You may feel like you are the only one that can execute your vision, but that is probably not the case, and even if it is, that doesn’t mean you should embark on this journey alone.
"As a founder, your first job is to get the first things right, because you cannot build a great company on a flawed foundation. Your second job is to scale yourself with the company by making sure you have the right people in the right roles and that you're bringing in outside perspectives." - Reid Hoffman
Apply to a reputable accelerator. Join a community of founders. Focus on articulating your vision, gaining wisdom from those who have done it before, surrounding yourself with people interested in the problem you are solving, and preparing for the fundraising process.
There are good reasons entrepreneurs should work with other entrepreneurs. Although some have succeeded alone, having a co-founder(s) has benefits, such as complementary skillsets and shared responsibilities.
Founders should avoid delegating critical aspects of the business, such as product development and fundraising, to third parties and instead take things slow and surround themselves with the right people. Building a solid foundation, scaling with the right team, and bringing in outside perspectives are critical steps to building a successful company. If you're considering going it alone, take a moment to evaluate the potential benefits of finding a co-founder and the challenges you may face if you embark on the journey alone.
Disclaimer: While I am a lawyer who enjoys operating outside the traditional lawyer and law firm “box,” I am not your lawyer. Nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. The material published above is only intended for informational, educational, and entertainment purposes. Please seek the advice of counsel, and do not apply any of the generalized material above to your facts or circumstances without speaking to an attorney.