Why I'm Not Afraid to Build Alone: Debunking the Solo-Founder Myth

March 29, 2021

Why I'm Not Afraid to Build Alone: Debunking the Solo-Founder Myth

Recently I decided to be more open about the fact that I’m building my business, Epilocal, by myself. I thought this was the best way to be transparent about my solo-project and to avoid the temptation to “fake it until I make it.”

But isn’t this a huge mistake to go it alone? Doesn’t all the startup wisdom say that your founding team is one of the most important things?

I’m not so convinced - I’ll tell you why I’m not afraid to build alone.

The origin of the myth

“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.”

These are the words of Paul Graham one of the founders of the highly influential startup accelerator Y Combinator. His words inspired similar opinions that you will find reflected in many investment guidelines from Venture Capital firms.

Essentially, they say, don’t bother if you are a single-person founder.

But does this wisdom really hold up in practice? Let’s pick it apart a bit.

First, it’s important to note that this was back in 2006 and a lot has changed in 15 years. Especially the first part about, “you can’t do all the work yourself.” Sure, back in 2006 I think this was pretty true - in fact, this was the very year that Amazon Web Services was first launched, so cloud computing hadn’t taken off yet.

So not only would you have a tougher time getting your own site or app up and running, you wouldn’t have the entire Software as a Service (SaaS) ecosystem that has sprung up on the cloud since then. Things like accounting, payments, invoicing and lots of other tricky issues could keep popping up and slowing you down.

Now, with the emergence of “no-code” or “low-code” Saas tools, you don’t even have to be that technical to handle all of the work by yourself.

But ok, even if you can do everything by yourself now, does that mean that you should?

The advantages of building alone

What about the second part of Paul Graham’s words: that you need someone to brainstorm with and “talk you out of stupid decisions.”

Sure there are benefits to talking through strategy with someone else, but at the same time there’s a downside to this.

First of all, brainstorming is time spent talking, not doing.

In my time mentoring and working for startups before starting my own, I’ve seen brainstorms that seem to never end. Especially, if you have more than one co-founder, everything automatically becomes a committee, and finding common ground can become exponentially more difficult and time consuming with every voice that you add around the table.

Not to mention the potential for conflict, which is a significant reason that many startups fail. And again, the more people you add to the equation, the more potential there is for conflict that will slow you down or derail your startup completely.

For me the downside of losing people to brainstorm with is more than compensated for by the speed that you can execute. The way I see it:

3 ideas that you can test quickly are better than 10 ideas on a whiteboard.

And what about having someone to talk you out of bad decisions? First, you can’t really be sure what decisions are good or bad - even someone with an outside pair of eyes who has some experience in your space can’t be 100% sure. So the best thing you can do is experiment quickly.

In this case, you just want to be sure that the decisions you are making can be changed later if new data points that way. This is the concept of “two-way doors” that Jeff Bezos talks about:

“Some decisions are consequential and irreversible or nearly irreversible – one-way doors – and these decisions must be made methodically, carefully, slowly, with great deliberation and consultation. If you walk through and don’t like what you see on the other side, you can’t get back to where you were before. We can call these Type 1 decisions. But most decisions aren’t like that – they are changeable, reversible – they’re two-way doors. If you’ve made a suboptimal Type 2 decision, you don’t have to live with the consequences for that long. You can reopen the door and go back through. Type 2 decisions can and should be made quickly by high judgment individuals or small groups.”

Most decisions you’re going to be making at a start-up, especially at the beginning when you’re doing a lot of experimentation, are two-way doors that you can easily walk back through if you decide to. For these decisions, it’s much better to be quick than to have a long, drawn out decision making process. And if you come across something that really is an irreversible decision, you can always consult someone external: a mentor, former co-worker, or friends.

Finally, on a personal note, there’s an additional risk of building something with your friends: they might not be your friends after everything is all said and done. I’ve seen friendships that are stretched to the limit even when things are going pretty well - not to mention what happens if things don’t work out.

With all these advantages, it might explain why there’s research out there that estimates solo-founders are more than twice as likely to steer ventures to profitability as founding teams with multiple people.

Things you need to accept

So if there are so many advantages to being a solo-founder, why doesn’t everyone do it? From my experience, here’s what you need to be ok with:

You won’t get early stage funding

That old dogma sticks hard and the possibility of raising VC funds at pre-seed or seed rounds is going to be difficult to impossible as a solo-founder. The reason for this is that at these stages you won’t have much traction or results to go off of, so the background and track-record of the team plays an outsized role in deal evaluation.

Personally, I was ok with this as I’m trying to bootstrap Epilocal and I actually plan to incorporate as a non-profit, so VC funding is out of the picture anyway.

You have to be able to get traction by yourself

As I mentioned above, early-stage startups are judged more on their teams because they don’t have enough traction yet to be properly evaluated on their own merit. So what that means is you have to be able to get traction on your own.

You need to be confident that you have the mix of technical, sales and marketing skills that it will take to build your product and sell it enough times to hire a few more people. As someone who built React apps in his spare time and had a background in business development, I was confident that I could do this. For others who are less technical, “no-code” also opens up a world of possibilities.

However, for some products in deep tech or manufacturing this just won’t be a realistic possibility.

You will be alone, but that doesn’t mean you have to be lonely

Finally, building on your own means you won’t have that person to talk things through with, so you may have moments of self-doubt or low moments when things aren’t going the way you hoped.

The first thing is you have to realize that this is completely normal. As I mentioned in my post about my first 6 months of bootstrapping, things take time, especially at the beginning - but you increasingly build more and more momentum.

But just because you are a team of one, doesn’t mean you have to feel like you are on your own. There are great networks of people out there now who are indie hackers or makers that are building in public. You can use these communities to build friendships, gather feedback on your ideas and get some additional motivation. In fact, it was one of the main driving forces for me to start blogging more openly about my experiences building Epilocal.

In the end, if you think you have the skills and self-determination to do the work on your own, don’t let some old Silicon Valley dogma hold you back.

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