Do you need a cofounder?


There are ways that you can assess whether or not your likelihood of success as a founder will increase with a cofounder by your side. To reroute the question: it’s not whether every startup needs a cofounder, but what specifically will work best for you and your startup.
One of the first questions that may come up for you when you’re in the midst of thinking through your startup idea, trying to figure out exactly how all the pieces are going to come together, is: Do I need a cofounder? In other words: Can I do this myself? 

Do you need a cofounder?

There are plenty of examples of startups that have succeeded with solo founders. From Marcus Frinkel who famously bootstrapped a pre-Tinder dating site well outside of Silicon Valley and sold it for $575 million in cash, to Melanie Perkins who started Canva and built it into company most recently valued at $26 billion with over 100 million users, to Tope Awotona who built Calendly on his own into a $3 billion company, to Checkout, a $40 billion company started by solo founder Guillame Pousaz. 

There are also plenty of opinions. Paul Graham, cofounder of Y Combinator, wrote in his essay, The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups, listing “single founder” at the very top of the list: Starting a startup is too hard for one person. Sam Altman, former president of Y Combinator and now CEO of OpenAI, confirms in this thread on Hacker News: “We really prefer at least two cofounders.” And Y Combinator partner Harj Taggar refers to finding a cofounder as “what I think is arguably the most important part of starting a company”. Enter any sort of environment with people building companies and you’ll probably be bombarded with people searching for cofounders. It’s no surprise then that you might already be conditioned to believe that you need one. 

But with the startup world’s emphasis on data, there are of course plenty of studies aimed at trying to determine the truth: do startups need cofounders? If there’s no hard rule, what at least creates more optimal conditions for success? Starting a company is hard enough. So what do the numbers say? One study showed that while teams are more likely to attract funding, solo founders tend to start companies that last longer and make more money. But that was a select group of about 10,000 companies that had been started from Kickstarter projects, not the entire picture. In “Co-founders Optional”, Haje Jan Kamps dug into Crunchbase’s API to uncover that more than half of companies with a successful exit had a solo founder, and almost half (45.9%) of companies who had raised more than $10 million also came from solo founder-founded companies—to use two specific measures of startup success. (That said, they’re not the only ones, just two of the most common in venture-backed startups.)

So the answer, as with almost everything, comes with nuance. However, there are ways that you can assess whether or not your likelihood of success as a founder will increase with a cofounder by your side. To reroute the question: it’s not whether every startup needs a cofounder, but what specifically will work best for you and your startup.

How to assess if you need a cofounder

Is there a major gap in your business?

This is most often a gap when it comes to skills but it could also be a gap when it comes to your network. When thinking about skills, don’t forget about soft skills gaps, too. Is there a critical skill or area of expertise that you need not even necessarily to grow your startup but just to build it and get it off the ground? 

Some gaps are better filled by employees, and even very early stage team members . So when does it make sense to bring someone on as a cofounder? This could be determined by your industry and/or the values of your company. What’s absolutely crucial from the very beginning that critically informs all other aspects of your business and other current and future employees? Critically important vs hireable important is the distinguishment you’re trying to make here.

How do you work best?

Cofounders may exist for technical reasons to help improve your startup’s chances of success by rounding out your skillset. But the journey of founding and building a company isn’t an easy one. It can help to share that journey, from all the ups to the inevitable downs, with someone who’s in the weeds with you.

Having a cofounder can make the journey a lot more fun along the way, if toiling away on your next big idea all by yourself into the lonely hours of day and night isn’t quite your thing. Having someone constant to bounce ideas off of, to step in on your sick days, to just be a constant reliable presence, can be not only practically useful but also emotionally regulating, and that may help in building and maintaining the resilience it takes to lead a startup.

What resources do you have?

You may want to bring on cofounders to help you build a product because you don’t have the resources to build something any other way, compared to a founder who’s already had successful exits and the funds to hire employees while remaining sole owner. 

But if you have a great idea and not necessarily the money or skills to build it, it can feel a bit like a chicken or egg problem. Do you seek funding first to help you build out a team or do you build the MVP first to get to the point where your business is attractive to investors? Again, there’s no one right answer, however, you should consider all possible sources of funding before you jump into bringing on a cofounder—especially someone you’re unsure about—just because you need to get it done and can only offer equity in return.

Where to find a cofounder

Your existing network

Many businesses are founded by a group of friends getting together to work on something, like the two Steves who built Apple. Some of these end up working really well, while others proved to be friend-turned-foe horror stories, like the one pop culture immortalized in The Social Network to portray the disintegration of Mark Zuckerberg’s friendship with fellow Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin. 

Your existing network is a great way to find like-minded people of a similar level of experience, who may share similar interests or see the same issues or challenges in your industry. Being friends or coworkers with someone may also mean that you understand and work well with their personality and temperament, versus gambling on someone you’ve only just met and hoping that you’ll have cofounder chemistry. 

You can also leverage the network of your connections by putting it out on Twitter or LinkedIn that you’re looking for a cofounder, along with a profile of what your ideal cofounder looks like. Tip: Don’t make the list too long; stick to your ~3 non-negotiables.

If your startup has already been funded by investors, then your network now includes theirs, too. Let your investors know you’re looking for a cofounder and participate in any founder events they may hold. 

Startup incubators/communities

Although most startup incubators and accelerators are for startups that already have an idea and team, there are also business incubator-like communities that aim to bring builders together. These can be great places to find co-founders as they’ve already self-selected and been vetted for the desire to start a company.

Some examples include:

You should always be on the lookout for networking groups in your specific industry. Tip: many online courses now come with virtual communities and that can be a great way to meet people. Anywhere that you can meet more people with the same interests should be on your radar of places to find a possible cofounder—as well as collaborators, cocreators, and even customers.

Build in public

You can also potentially attract a cofounder by documenting your journey as a founder. Document not just your product and business-building journey, but also the specific challenges you’re building for, your values, and your approach. Choose a channel that fits your skills, whether you’re a strong writer or present engagingly on video—the most important thing is that there are other people within your industry already on the platform. And don’t be afraid to inject your personality into it. If you’re putting out feelers for someone to work with you on a cofounder-to-cofounder level, you should present authentically as you. Lastly, a benefit to building in public is that you may also start to attract a built-in community of people who may become early supporters and adopters of your product or service. If you can do it consistently, that can be a great marketing tool (well, you are marketing to find a cofounder—and you, this early in the game, are your own employer brand .)

Great places to build in public leverage an existing network of recommendations, such as:
  • IndieHackers (specific for builders, all categories)
  • Substack (writing focused, all categories)
  • Twitter (short form, great for B2B and web 3)
  • Medium (writing focused with SEO discoverability)
  • TikTok (video content, great for B2C and SEO discoverability)
  • Reddit (community/category-specific)

Cofounder sourcing platforms

Lastly, here are some online platforms specifically designed to help people match cofounders:

Tips on finding the “right” cofounder

Aside from the obvious—a cofounder needs to fill a gap with complementary skills—here are some other things you should be on the lookout for.

Strong communication and trust

You need a strong foundation of good communication and trust to be able to weather the growing pains of building a startup with someone else on board. You need to be able to tell each other what you really think. Additionally, startup burnout can happen and two people working on the same business together may not experience it in the same way at the same time. Can you trust this person to be open and transparent about their challenges and needs?

Is this someone you’d want to be solving long and hard problems with?

Can you imagine working with this person for the long term? How do you get along? Do you fundamentally respect each other? Don’t get into a business relationship with someone, no matter how skilled they appear, if you don’t see yourself working with them for the long term. It’s a partnership that really is like marriage, as they say. This doesn’t mean you have to be the same person as your cofounder. Complementary is more like it, someone who ideally brings different strengths and perspectives while having a similar level of drive and passion as you do.

Set expectations for the “value” of contribution

A common startup cofounder nightmare situation is when things start off on a high because both (or more) parties are excited by the prospect of starting a company, but things start to fall apart when one person decides that the distribution of work isn’t equal. It’s important to set expectations for what work is, and the value of different kinds of contributions to the business. For example, is one person bringing in connections? What is the value of those relationships and their network? Work may not always look like work. It’s important to be on the same page as to what contribution means so that resentment doesn’t build up over time. 

You don’t need to start with a cofounder right away 

If you’ve decided that having a cofounder is the right choice for you, don’t let the pursuit of a cofounder take up all your time and energy. You still need to spend time actually building your business. Sometimes, the right person will show up right when you need them like many startup success stories, who on paper have cofounders but who actually didn’t bring them on until later on in their business’ trajectory—like Dropbox, who was started by solo founder Drew Houston. A year after its initial start and after being funded, Dropbox launched at TechCrunch Disrupt with a product demo. In the audience was Arash Ferdowski, who ended up joining as a co-founder because he was so impressed.  

Until then, start building. There are so many ways to get a product to market without a big team, from no-code tools to working with freelancers or agencies. Bringing on a cofounder is a major decision in your business and it can pay off to wait for the right person, even if it takes meeting a lot of people along the way.

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