Perfectly paired co-founders are as legendary as Hollywood power couples and beloved band mates.
The conventional playbook says that you receive more by working together than you give up by splitting all the wins. But is the calculus that simple? Here’s the good and the bad of starting a business alone versus with co-founders:
The pros of flying solo
You retain full ownership of all upsides. There are much stronger financial incentives should the company be successful.
You have the opportunity to completely define company culture and the business model. Going at it alone forces you to gain experience across various aspects of the business, such as hiring, selling, managing technical team and fundraising. You’ll fast-track a well-rounded education.
Decision making is easy. You make all of them!
You started this business with a vision—and you’ll get to keep control of it. You are the only one calling the shots on evolving the idea, hiring the initial team, raising money, and building the corporate structure.
The cons of being on your own
Even if you have a team in place, it can be lonely to be the only founder and to exclusively bear all the responsibility for decisions. The early days of starting a company can be very difficult—rejections are common and losses happen—and it can be beneficial to have people with you.
You lose the benefit of having a partner with nearly the same vested interest. The toughest decisions in business often involve weighing different sets of opportunities against one another. Having several voices can encourage rich discussions and can bring new light to ideas. With fewer founders, there are also fewer resources to leverage—each founder vastly increases the network that can be tapped for key efforts such as recruiting.
You sacrifice the opportunity to gain a partner with complementary skills. Different individuals bring different skills to the table, as well as different perspectives. Often the best product leaders are not the best developers or sales people. Having multiple founders can encourage specialization and playing to each individual’s strengths. You can’t underestimate the value of having a sounding board, therapist and cheerleader—all of which are roles a co-founder sometimes plays.
There’s someone to answer to. Co-founders keep each other honest in a way that doesn’t happen when there’s no one to answer to. This is especially true in the beginning, when you’ve only taken money from friends and family. Additionally, a bit of healthy competition can be useful. Co-founders often push each other in their respective disciplines—and that drives overall results.
While there are always exceptions to the rule—Mark Zuckerberg is a great solo artist—there are greater benefits to collaborating with co-founders. We often find two founders of complementary skill sets to be best formula for a successful startup. The more self-sufficient an early founding team is (in areas such as tech, sales, marketing), the less dependent it will be on early hires and the more control that team will exert over its destiny.