Going Solo: Founding a Startup without a Co-Founder
“Should you add a co-founder?” remains a contentious topic. Hundreds of sources caution against being a solo-founder. Most cite similar reasons that founding a company alone carries more risk than building a business with a co-founder. Some emphasize the need for a co-founder to share the stress, responsibilities, and emotional burden of running a company. While others advise that investors frown upon solo-founders. But a recent data-based study of successful companies by Crunchbase challenges the popular belief that having a co-founder boosts your success rate. With this in mind, we sat down with Hind Hobeika, the sole founder and CEO at Instabeat. In a candid conversation with Shikhar Ghosh, Hobeika discusses her decision not to add a co-founder. Her experience provides a helpful framework for rethinking the critical decision to choose a business partner and consider being a solo-founder.
3 Reasons for Founding a Startup without a Co-Founder
Timing & Compatibility
Advisors & Senior Leadership
Potential Emotional Drag
When Hobeika first had the idea for her company Instabeat, she envisioned a revolutionary tracking device that would allow swimmers to monitor their heart rates and track workouts in realtime. During the six years it took to perfect the original prototype of her product, Hobeika entertained the idea of adding a co-founder. But ultimately, she remained a solopreneur. After a rocky ride to launch, the Instabeat device she designed has been christened the “Google Glass and the Nike Fuelband for swimming.” And swimmers, including U.S. Olympian Madisyn Cox, rave about the product. Looking back, she shares why she made the decision to go solo and how being a solo-founder worked to her benefit.
Timing & Compatibility
In the early stages, you’ll spend more time with your co-founder than your romantic partner and family. Timing, chemistry, and compatibility make it notoriously hard to find the right co-founder. How do you know when to start searching or forgo the search entirely?
Finding the Right Time
When Hind Hobeika had the idea for Instabeat, while she was completing her undergraduate degree in engineering at the American University of Beirut and swimming on the varsity team. Their coach tailored their workouts based on heart rate zones which they measured manually after the swimming sets. But using your post-swimming heart rate wasn’t that helpful or accurate because “the only thing you can do is say, ‘I should’ve swum harder.'”
She began searching for a product that would track a swimmer’s heartbeat in realtime and discovered that none existed. She quickly learned why. Manufacturing a small electronic device that was both waterproof and flexible created challenges that no large manufacturers had solved. The product also needed to hold electronics, fit the contours of different facial shapes, and stay attached to the user’s own goggles.
Additionally, as a lifelong swimmer, Hobieka knew that swimmers were loyal to their goggle brand and style. Her device needed to be compatible with any goggle. It needed to be comfortable on the skin and fit the contours of different facial shapes without leaking. Being a solo-founder seemed less of a conscious choice initially because she was immersed in solving the problem. “I didn’t really think I would need a co-founder.”
Finding Someone Who Passionate about Your Idea Is Tricky
Then, as the business gelled, challenges mounted. Consumed by building her company and product, she became increasingly isolated and neglected self-care. At that point, she explored the idea of adding a co-founder. She identified potential candidates and approached some. But she didn’t sense a shared passion and level of commitment.
She shares, “I realized that they didn’t have the same passion I did for swimming. And they weren’t able—or they didn’t want—to sacrifice the things I was willing to sacrifice to make Instabeat happen.” So, despite feeling some pressure to add a co-founder, she decided not to move forward with the partnership and remained a solo-founder.
I never met someone who would fit the idealistic role I’ve had for a co-founder. And as time passed, it became too late to call someone a co-founder.
Advisors & Senior Leadership
It’s time-consuming and challenging to find the right co-founder. As she considered being a solo-founder, Hobeika began to think about the roles a co-founder traditionally plays. She realized that she could utilize the experience of trusted advisors and senior leadership to fulfill distinct aspects of a co-founding role.
Divide the Roles a Co-Founder Would Assume
In 2016, she met Alexander Asseily, co-founder of Jawbone. He became a mentor, helping her move to San Francisco, advising on product redesign, contractors, and building a team. As an advisor, he spent considerable time with Hobeika, observing her at the office and talking through manufacturing challenges. He could “identify a lot of the gaps that we had and point me in the right direction.” By adding a different perspective and sharing his experience, Asseily fulfilled some of the roles a co-founder would typically play.
Once in San Fransisco, she met Lorne Fierbach, who became Head of Operations and provided a type of balance many equate with co-founders. He supported her well-being, she recalls, asking the board to ask to raise her salary so she was fairly compensated. “He would push me—almost oblige me—to go on vacation,” recalls. And he became her confidante about the startup. Much like a co-founder, Fierbach listened to Hobeika and empathized with the emotional strains that founding a company entails. Being able to share the highs and lows of the journey with another person helped her attain a sense of balance, while remaining a solo-founder.
Deciding What Not to Share
Dividing the role that a co-founder typically plays among experienced advisors works for sharing business responsibilities. But as a solo-founder, she differentiates between sharing business lows with personal emotional support. She refrains from sharing frustrations or doubts about the company. Being a solo-founder, “You can never go to one of these people and say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of quitting.'”
Because at the end of the day you’ve hired these people and these people’s incentive is attached to their compensation in the company. And they can leave at any because they don’t have the same commitment of a co-founder.
Potential Emotional Drag
Even when you share a vision with your co-founder, chances are strong that you’ll have some disagreements about how to get there. Those disagreements can slow decision-making because, instead of acting, you’ll spend time trying to persuade one another that your idea is better. Even though co-founder conflict is a leading cause of startup failure, most founders take the risk. They describe the benefits of having a partner—someone who accompanies you through the highs and lows of the entrepreneurial journey—as outweighing the drawbacks.
Emotional Support or Emotional Drag?
Hobeika acknowledges that the idea of having emotional support from a partner is alluring. But she astutely notes that being emotionally invested in a business with another person can create conflict that damages the venture.
“In some sense it’s really great. Because if your down moments aren’t aligned, you can lift each other up and be very candid. But if the down moments are synced, it can cause a lot of problems. And it almost becomes too much of a problem to deal with.”
Reflecting on others’ co-founder relationships, and the additional stress that disagreements have on the business, she notes, “I feel very grateful not having to deal with those [moments] because sometimes it’s an extra problem that’s just not good for the business.”
The real potential of emotional drag from a co-founder is a little-acknowledged reason to consider solopreneurship. And going solo may not carry as much risk for failure as anecdotal evidence suggests. However, data suggests that many investors prefer to fund a co-founded venture, for various reasons. But, as TechCrunch notes, “if you fail to get a co-founding team together, it doesn’t necessarily mean all hope is gone” and Hind Hobeika is proof of that.
In”Do You Need a Co-Founder? This Surprising New Study Has the Answer,” CEO at Intelivideo Matt Given distills results from a data-based study undertaken by Crunchbase that suggests “you not only can make it on your own, but you can build a wild success story of a company. The fate of the solopreneur is not doomed at all.”
In “Breaking a Myth: Data Shows You Don’t Actually Need a Co-Founder,” Haje Jan Kamps used the CrunchBase API to analyze 7,348 successful startups using two measures of success—having raised more than $10 million of funding or successfully exiting the business, either via an IPO or an acquisition. Data proves that “almost half of the companies successful in raising funding did so with a solo founder. Just under one-third of the companies had two founders and only 22 percent of companies had three or more founders.”
In “Do You Really Need A Cofounder For Your Startup?” Ajay Yadav, Founder & CEO of Roomi, a marketplace that lets you rent rooms & find roommates, in a verified community, shares his perspective as a solo founder. He highlights, “as a solo founder, I can make critical decisions on my own, without having to bring anyone else around to my point of view. It saves time and helps us move faster.”
Paul Graham’s, “The 18 Mistakes That Kill Startups” lists being a single founder as the leading mistake in startup death. He sees being a solopreneur as “a vote of no confidence. It probably means the founder couldn’t talk any of his friends into starting the company with him.” He concedes, “even if the founder’s friends were all wrong and the company is a good bet,” choosing to be solo is still disadvantageous. “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.”
Like most sources, “Why Do You Need A Co-founder For Your Startup?” emphasizes that a co-founder provides necessary emotional support. “From the competition and the risks involved, it is nice to have a partner in your journey who shares your vision and on whom you can lean on, especially in tougher times.” It also lists claims that investors tend to “trust companies with multiple founders and are likely to fund them more easily. So it is best to get a co-founder or co-founders by your side if you want to make the funding process smoother.”