Are single founder companies more likely to fail?

If you’re like me, most of the successful tech companies that you know had more than one founder. As I’ve been looking through the early applications to Techstars, it’s surprising to me that many are single founder companies. Paul Graham started this debate and then threw gas on the fire by listing this first on his list of common startup mistakes, implying that having a single founder is clearly a mistake. Since then the debate has produced some credible rebuttals and interesting counterpoints.

Here are some reasons why I think multiple founders in a startup are important. Like most opinions, this comes from my life experience.

  1. Startups are hard, really hard. Before you can afford payroll, there is going to be a whole lot of work to do. More people doing it make sense.
  2. It’s easier to raise money with multiple founders. I think investors generally believe that two or three heads are better than one, and someone getting hit by a bus doesn’t necessarily kill the company that way. Not to mention the fact that raising money can easily be a full time job – if there’s one founder, it’s likely that you’re working on the company instead of in the company. That’s bad in the very early stage.
  3. In a startup, you go through major emotional ups and downs. You need someone to keep you focused during the highs and pick you up when you’ve just about had it.
  4. Peer (co-founder) pressure is good in a startup – even healthy. Who wants to go home early when their partner is still working? I remember counting on my co-founders to deal with an angry customer while I promised to deal with the bug they were complaining about. How could I have done both?

I think there are clear exceptions such as when funding is not a problem and/or when the entrepreneur has a great track record of success. And I know that it can be done – I have friends that are doing it. However, all else being equal, I think those friends would have been better off in the long run with a co-founder.

Techstars is considering single founder applications, as I discussed on that blog. I’d be curious to hear what the investors who are reading this think. Is there a natural bias against one person startups, and why? I’m also curious what entrepreneurs think. I’m sure you know great examples of single-founder companies. Fire away.

file under: Blog, Startups