A Case for Solopreneurs
Founding a company, they say, is like having a baby. The initial idea is first conceived in the mind of the founders either as the aftermath of serendipitous inspiration or as a product of intentional problem-solving. This idea is then nurtured by the founders and their team who work tirelessly for months to breathe life into the embryonic business. After the business is set up, the founders take extra care to guide their nascent company as it takes its first steps towards maturity. This is the ‘baby analogy’.
This analogy forms the basis upon which most people build their arguments against solo founders. They argue that just as it takes more than one person to conceive [and raise] a baby, it takes more than one founder to conceive [and grow] a business. Hence, the increased advocacy for founding teams over solo founders by leading venture capitalists and renowned entrepreneurs. Top accelerators like Y Combinator also argue that “one-person startups are tough and you’re more likely to succeed with a co-founder.”
As expected, this advocacy for founding teams within the entrepreneurial ecosystem is not baseless. There are clear advantages of starting up your business with a co-founder or a team of co-founders which many entrepreneurs have attested to. Some of these advantages of founding teams include a wider combined network, greater access to capital, complementary skill sets, the division of responsibilities and a more thorough decision-making process. Student entrepreneurs at ALU can who run businesses with co-founders also vouch for these advantages.
Elizabeth Mwangi, a third-year social science student at ALU and co-founder of FemmePWR highlights that “It helps to be able to reach a wider network of people when we need to execute a certain project, and having a co-founder basically widens that scope of [our] network.”
Reflecting on his experience as a solo entrepreneur, Zibusiso Mtunzi, a third-year engineering student at ALU and founder of Zibu Travels, mentioned that “sometimes when things don’t work out, you are tempted to give up but with a [founding] team, there is a push.”
In spite of these flowery anecdotes, not everyone needs a co-founder. In some cases, it could even be disadvantageous. Some academics have even gone as far as to argue that “solo entrepreneurs stand a better chance at succeeding than a team of co-founders.”
In their 2018 paper, ‘Sole Survivors: Solo Ventures versus Founding Teams,’ Greenberg and Mollick state that “companies started by solo founders survive longer than those started by teams.” Pretty bold statement, right? I thought so too. They arrived at that conclusion from their research which surveyed creators of thousands of Kickstarter projects where 28% were solo founders, 31% were a team of two founders, and 41% were founding teams of three or more members.
The duo went on to explain that if depth and breadth of knowledge and resources were the sole determiners of entrepreneurial success, founding teams would always outperform solo founders. However, that is not the case. This is because of the social aspect of running a startup which, in the case of founding teams, tends to also include a political subliminal.
It is no secret that starting a business can be a stressful undertaking due to the conditions of risk, uncertainty, and ambiguity that riddle the entrepreneurial process. Under such conditions, conflict and disagreements become inevitable for entrepreneurs. These conflicts tend to be caused by three main factors: work inequities, ethical differences, and differences in risk proclivity.
For founding teams where the opinion and needs of each founder typically bear equal weight, reaching a resolution can be a prolonged process which could distract the team from their main task of driving organisational development. In the alternate case of solo entrepreneurs, conflicts are observed to occur less frequently and, if they do occur, are resolved much quicker.
The slower decision-making process that characterizes businesses run by a team of co-founders is also another factor that might give ‘solopreneurship’ an edge.
“Rarely do you get to make crucial decisions alone since it’s a two-person team,” says Elizabeth Mwangi, ALU’16. “I’d have to run it by my co-founder first and at times when she’s not available and it’s quite urgent, I have to make the final call. Sometimes it’s good but [other times] she doesn’t agree with the decision I’ve made and that can prove to be a barrier in navigating our ways of working.” If such misalignments are not managed properly, Elizabeth opines that “disagreements can also spill over into your friendship.”
Furthermore, for individuals who are not only accustomed to but also prefer an individualistic approach to work, leading a startup with a team of co-founders can be counterproductive. The decision to be a solo founder or have a team of co-founders could also be influenced by one’s personality type. Let’s take an example from the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI).
INTJs, who are known to be more independent thinkers and deeply strategic minds, tend to make better solopreneurs. As one of the most independent personality types, they tend to rebel against bureaucratic decision-making processes as they are more effective working and thinking alone than in teams. Elon Musk is an example of a solopreneur INTJ. Does it all make sense now?
In spite of this, not all INTJs can or should be solo entrepreneurs. Bill Gates, one of the most renowned entrepreneurs of all time, is an INTJ who had a co-founder. A reason for this is the argument that starting a business, especially one as disruptive as Microsoft was in 1975, requires a wide range of skills sets that no single person can possess. In such settings, forming a founding team with someone who has a complementary personality and set of skills might be a more pertinent alternative.
Beyond skills and personalities, the nature of one’s business can also help entrepreneurs to weigh the need of having a co-founder. In the aforementioned research conducted by Greenberg and Mollick, the researchers discovered that solo founders are twice as likely to run an ongoing for-profit business while founding teams are more likely to run an ongoing non-profit business.
This is mostly because most non-profits tend to tackle social challenges which require them to view profit not as a destination, but as a vehicle of change. As a result, they tend to have a moral nuance which makes having a founding team, rather than a solo omniscient founder, a better-suited approach. On the flip side of for-profit businesses, the researchers discovered that a greater number of long-lasting businesses are run by solo entrepreneurs.
Different settings, as we have seen, can make co-founders either needed or needless. Effective discernment will require entrepreneurs to consider more subtle factors not covered in this article. To allow for a more comprehensive consideration, the arguments promoted within the entrepreneurial ecosystem should not be skewed towards one side simply because VCs and prominent entrepreneurs preach it as gospel. Just as there is value in co-preneurship (my word), there is also significant value in solopreneurship. Entrepreneurs just need to know which path they are better suited for.
While conceiving and raising a baby might require more than one person, starting and growing a business does not. At this point, it should be clear that the baby analogy does not apply in the case of entrepreneurship. Not every entrepreneur needs a co-founder.
This piece was originally published in The ALU Editorial