Applications are now open for Seedcamp Week London in February, and so we hosted a 'Meet & Greet' at Campus this week. Over 100 founders showed up to learn more about Seedcamp, what we do and how to apply. There were a few questions that I was asked more than any other. Do you invest in hardware/IoT? How much traction do I need to demonstrate to be considered for Seedcamp? Is it a problem if I'm a single founder? Do I need someone technical in the founding team? The last two questions have been on my mind lately too. So I thought it would be helpful to arrange my thinking on at least one of those here.
So what about single founders? A handful of investors are happy to back single founders and there are many counter-examples of sole founders who have gone on to build large, successful businesses. At Seedcamp we've recently invested in a single-founder. But the traditional view has been a negative one and it's definitely something I pay close attention to when meeting a startup or going through applications. So, why?
1. Sparring Partner
Having a co-founder gives you a sparring partner unlike any other. It's someone who will truly challenge you. It's a person who will meet up for breakfast on a weekend because you simply need someone to bounce ideas off. And it's a trusted peer who will quietly pull you aside and give you honest feedback when you're doing something wrong. As a single founder you only have your team, who might be afraid to challenge you. Or the board/advisors, who probably won't be as deep into the subject matter or might have other agendas in mind. Your co-founder acts as an ever-present, continual sense check and counterweight. Without a partner, this sparring will either not happen, or it will all play out inside your head. That's not healthy.
In addition to this, your co-founder should be driving you to be more awesome than you already are. At SoundCloud we had a culture of 'levelling-up' which was a concept that came straight from Alex and Eric the two co-founders. As peers they liked to challenge each other at every moment, with the end result being a continuous improvement in skills, motivation and ambition level.
2. Spread the work
This one's pretty obvious, but there's a lot of sh*t that needs to get done just to get the business onto a trajectory where it can scale, especially in the early days. And it doesn't stop. One example that I think many first-time founders may overlook is the question of who's going to run the business while you're out fundraising? If you're trying to raise a decent amount, and doing it properly, then don't expect to have much time or bandwidth to think about anything else for the best part of 3-6 months. It's a full-time job in itself.
Having another founder will also give you someone to whom you feel truly accountable about your work, both in terms of quality and output. Of course, if you're starting a business then I'm going to assume that quality and output is already at a high level. But this feeling of accountability is not just about turning up and getting the work done, it's about going above and beyond when there's a tough deadline or when you're facing adverse conditions. Not wanting to let your co-founder down can be a powerful driver.
3. Complementary skills
The cliché here is the classic 'hacker, hustler, hipster' combo. But however you define it, I'd argue that it's unlikely that as a single founder you'll be able to bring all the right skills to the table. Even if you do, it's not going to scale. My own preference is for one founder who holds the company vision and is likely to be the one fundraising and leading the marketing/BD side of the org. And one founder who carries the product vision and will lead the tech/product side of the organisation. Ideally both have a good sense for the other's domain.
It's not just practical skills that need to complement each other. Founders need to cover multiple bases with their soft skills too. Some can be very ambitious, whilst the other provides a sense of caution. Some can show great empathy and win people over, whilst others are more comfortable being fierce. Some founders lead with their gut, whilst others dive into data before making important decisions. Some are great at painting the big vision, whilst others like to obsess on details and planning. All these traits will help across many critical points in your startups journey, from firing your first employee to making big calls on strategy.
4. Potential red flag
If you're a single founder it can inadvertently send out the wrong signal to investors. If you're unable to recruit another person and convince them to jump off the proverbial cliff with you, then what does that show? Is your idea a bad one, and/or were you just not able to sell it to someone else? What does it say about your ability to bring other key hires on board in the future? Are you difficult to work with? Maybe you're too introverted? Even worse, maybe you're a control freak!
None of the above may be true, but be aware that all these questions are likely to be running through an investors mind.
5. Moral support
This is more of a concern that you should have as a founder, than one that an investor would have. But it's probably the most important to point out. Building and leading a startup can be very lonely. Nobody else bears the same burden or responsibility than a founder and that can be a hugely isolating thing. For many entrepreneurs the journey can become all-consuming and the right moral support is essential as you disappear into the fire.
Sure, you'll get support from your team. You can confide in your loved ones, you'll hear cheerleading from your friends, and hopefully you have the sort of board/advisors that will be there to help when they can. At Seedcamp we provide a lot of support to founders and now that we have over 100 companies at various stages, we've also been able to empower the to create forums for support, like our Founders Dinnners. But when sh*t hits the fan, the buck stops with you, and there will be things that only a co-founder will truly understand.
Of course, you'll need to find the right co-founder, but that's a whole other post!