The Solo Founder: Can You Launch A Startup Alone?

6

mins read

December 12, 2022

Anne Solhaug Tutar
Partner
@
Antler
IN THIS ARTICLE

Ask most people involved in startup culture, and you would find that the consensus is that you’re going to be far better off finding a co-founder or founding team for your startup than trying to go it yourself. 

But sometimes the stars don’t align and you won’t always have a choice in the matter. If you’ve got a burning desire to start a business and have identified a real-world problem to solve, but you’re not able to find a co-founder, the only choices left are to go solo or miss the opportunity. For some, the second option isn’t an option at all.

Just be prepared for the unique challenges ahead if you do fly solo.

“Why are you alone?”—The stigma of being a solo founder

Investors are always going to ask this question when a solo founder approaches them. As someone who has been a solo founder myself, and now sits in the investment seat, I know personally how difficult it is to shake the perception that when a solo founder approaches you, you wonder if that says something about whether they can attract great people to their mission.

However, finding the right person to be a co-founder isn’t always possible. Everything from the timing to your location can impact on your ability to find someone that aligns with your idea, vision and goals. Furthermore, finding the wrong co-founder can be even worse than having no co-founder at all. 

If you’re reading this, the chances are that you’ve got a burning passion for creating a startup. You’re probably also aware of the perception that investors have of solo founders. If you are struggling to find a co-founder, don’t let that deter you from your course. Just make sure you understand why founding teams are preferred to solo founders by investors, and think about what you can do to work around that challenge. 

How you’ll know if being a solo founder is right for you

As long as you understand the pros and cons of being a solo founder, you’ll be in the right place to look at the opportunity objectively. Have you identified a problem that you know you’re going to be able to solve for people? If so, you’re going to want to come to market quickly, before someone else spots the same opportunity. Do you back yourself that you’ll be able to deliver the solution? Then waiting for the ideal circumstances to launch a business may result in you losing out.

Take the time to assess the challenges and advantages of going it alone and ultimately what is right for you. Every startup is unique and knowing what you’re up against is half the battle. 

The challenges of being a solo founder

The challenges that solo founders face are numerous. In my experience, here are some of the ones that are universal to most entrepreneurs:

1) You’re instantly more vulnerable

By far, the biggest challenge with being a solo founder is that you’re vulnerable. If something happens to you, the entire company, in its fledgling state, becomes uncertain, unstable or even unlikely.

At the startup stage, the succession cannot be an employee. You might have someone that is an excellent, positive and driving force in the company (and indeed you should be looking for that in your first hires), but without the skin in the game that comes with being a co-founder, they’re not going to hold the vision or commitment that a founder requires.

This is a question that you’re going to need to answer for both your investors and yourself as a founder: what happens if you’re taken out of the picture? If an illness of injury incapacitates you temporarily (or permanently)? What happens to your employees, customers and the future of the company?

2) The lack of someone to bounce ideas off

Founding a company is a fundamentally creative challenge, so it’s important to be able to have someone you can bounce ideas off of. A good co-founder is both an ally, in that they share a vision for the company and goals with you.

However, what is often overlooked is that a co-founder can challenge you and encourage you to see why an idea might not work. It’s much more difficult to get this kind of honest feedback and push back from an employee or friend. The relationship dynamics are different. Solo founders find it difficult to find something that can “pull their heads in” when they can’t see an issue with an idea themselves. 

3) One gets less done

Another reason that most founders seek out co-founders is so they can tap into a different set of skills than their own. That’s the Steve Jobs/Steve Wozniak effect – one knew how to make great technology while the other knew how to sell it. A startup really needs both, and very few solo founders have that broad of a skillset.

If you don’t have the co-founder, then you’re going to need to make a hire to fill that skillset, and that can be expensive for a pre-seed startup that doesn’t yet have revenue (or, potentially, even an MVP). 

4) It’s lonely being a party of one

Finally, There’s the simple reality that being a solo founder can be a lonely experience. When I founded my company, I was in a country that was largely foreign to me. I had my husband, but the lack of a co-founder, while also having a massive bank debt that I needed to take out to found the company, certainly left me feeling isolated during those inevitable times where things were going wrong. The lows are definitely lower when you’re a solo founder, and the highs don’t feel so high because you’re not celebrating the wins with anyone.

The advantages of being a solo founder

It’s also important to understand that there are benefits to being a solo founder. With the right approach and resolve, there’s no reason that it can’t be wildly successful. Jobs and Wozniak were successful because of one another, but it’s hard to imagine what Amazon would have been like without Jeff Bezos as the solo pilot.

1) A solo founder can decide fast and with complete control

A solo founder can be entirely flexible with the decision making, with no risk of conflict with a partner that has an equal voice in the company. Startups often have to pivot, and quickly, and one of the challenges that many startups face is that co-founders can (and often do) disagree about the direction to pivot.

2) With great risk comes great reward

Co-founders share the credit and glory when the startup becomes the unicorn. If the idea of having your mission associated exclusively with your name sounds good to you, then a solo founder is the only way to go about it. When you’re taking on 100 per cent of the risk, you also get to enjoy 100 per cent of the accolades and attention that comes with that success.

Many successful solo founders cite that there’s also a greater psychological incentive to do well when the startup is entirely their “baby”. There’s nowhere to hide and the business is a pure reflection on them both personally and professionally.

3) You can back yourself to make the big move

The nature of partnerships is such that they are about compromise. Startups with co-founders tend to be more moderate in approach. As a solo founder, you’ll be able to back yourself to make the big moves. This means additional risk, but again with the potential payoff to match.

How important is a co-founder when it comes to raising capital?

Investors do prefer teams, and investors are busy people. One of the challenges that solo founders face when approaching investors for early capital is that the lack of a co-founder is a reason to pass on a deck. That’s not to say they will, if the deck is otherwise compelling, but it’s a little like a job resume - the fewer reasons you give to pass on you, the better your chances of a positive outcome.

It is worth noting that solo investors do attract investment. In fact, data from Crunchbase suggests that single founder startups are the most common when it comes to raising greater than $10 million and having a successful exit.

Fundraising exits by number of founders graph

What this data implies is that those solo founders that can get their businesses through the initial first few years–and will be likely self-funded or supported by family and friends at the pre-seed and seed stages–will be as capable of attracting series-A funding and later as founding teams are.

It’s just the pre-seed and seed stages where investors can be particularly hesitant. The reasons largely have to do with risk. A major life change to a founder can spell the end of a startup backed by a solo founder. 

Investors are also keenly aware of just how hard it is to build a startup, and understand that burnout—particularly for a solo founder—is another real risk that can undo a great project.

Additionally, investors see the broader range of skills and larger, deeper networks of co-worker as being inherently lower risk than what a solo founder can bring to the table.

These are all considerations that an investor will run through when considering the pitch of a solo founder. In the later stages of investment, the founder will have already pushed past the risk of burnout, and there’s likely enough of a company to have a succession plan should something happen to remove the founder from their involvement in the company. At the pre-seed stage, in particular, the investor will need to weigh these as all very real existential risks to the business.

Some key tips for founding a company alone

As someone who did buck the odds to successfully launch a startup as a solo founder, and is now an investor looking at people just like me, I’ve been able to narrow down some strategies towards success. To anyone that is looking to launch a solo startup, I would advise:

1) Build a support network

Overcoming the loneliness that comes with being a solo founder needs to be your first priority. The network will help you maintain your motivation and drive, and can be a source of ideas and inspiration. That network can come from a couple of different places. 

For example, you can rely on family and friends, or you can attend business networking meetings, make some connections there, and potentially even find mentors and other solo founders that would be happy to talk with you about the challenges and opportunities that they faced.

2) Really understand yourself and what motivates your decision making

I realized early on in my own startup journey that I have an intense fear of failure. This was an important thing for me to understand because then I could likewise understand how that fear translates into a potential hesitancy. When I understood that was a trigger point for me, I was able to come up with a strategy to overcome it.

As a solo founder, you should do some deep self-analysis early on to understand where your personal strengths and weaknesses are, and how they might impact your startup. You don’t have a co-founder to complement your skill set by filling in the weaknesses.

3) Break the workload down into achievable smaller targets

The amount of work involved in a startup is monumental, and can be easily overwhelming if you look at it like a mountain to climb. A better strategy, as a solo founder, is to break things down into weekly, achievable, smaller targets, and make the trajectory of the business about that weekly sequence of goals.

4) Understand the challenges of finding an investor, and then find the right investors

Understanding why investors have a reputation for being less likely to back solo founders is important. Having answers to their concerns is likewise important. Aspiring entrepreneurs can apply to Antler, for example, and in doing so develop a network and mentoring that can help you find a co-founder.

If that is still not the path you want to follow, then having an answer for why will be critical, because it’s a question that every prospective investor is going to subsequently ask you.

So, is the solo founder path an option?

The wisdom will always be that it’s better to have a founding team with at least one co-founder, rather than going it on your own. However, there are so many successful companies that have had a solo founder. Amazon, eBay, Tumbler, Craigslist, Magic Leap, and my own company are all examples of successful companies that were founded by a single person.

It might be a difficult and risk-fraught path, but being a solo founder is better than missing the opportunity to follow your passion and solve the problem that burns at the core of your startup. The rewards are there for those that can succeed, so don’t let risk and best practice drive you to hesitancy and to then miss out entirely.

Partner
@
Antler

Anne co-leads Antler Norway as a Global Partner. With her previous background as an entrepreneur who single-handedly founded a pioneer health food brand in Turkey, Anne is able to wear both an investor and entrepreneur hat when supporting startups.

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