Solo founders, your startup is not exactly a baby

If you have ever listened to entrepreneurs, whether publicly or in private, you would have, at some point, heard them refer to their startups as their babies.

There are indeed enough similarities between babies and startups. Founders create their startups. They care for it and are proud of it. They can't help but talk about it incessantly, dreaming of its success even in their sleep. They want it to be successful even after they're gone. It takes over their entire life and every decision they make. It doesn't care if they're asleep. It becomes entwined with their identity. The early days are exciting but also a struggle. If everything goes right, then after a point, it doesn't need them anymore to function correctly and succeed. It's a long-term commitment. Not everyone wants to or is naturally suited to have kids, and not everyone wants to or is naturally suited to start a company. But everyone can become better suited to it with some effort.

But lately, I noticed a fundamental similarity between babies and startups that bears many consequences for solo founders. Just like babies, startups take on the identities and values of their founders. This nuance makes solo-founder-led startups way harder.
Consider startups with multiple founders first. Given that a startup's failure rate is so high, many things have to go right for it to succeed. So, starting a company exerts a lot of 'selection pressure'[1] on the founders. If the company has to exist beyond a year or so, the best traits of each of the founders have to win. The high pressure and failure rate of entrepreneurship would have to eventually bring founders to realize how they can complement each other and work together, lest they fail.

The positives of one founder in one domain have to entirely or partially overpower the negatives of the other in the same domain. For example, Paul Graham was once asked whether all the founders must be wholly convicted of the startup's success. Based on his startup's experience, he answered that they don't have to be – one founder's belief can make up for the lack of it in others. Thus, the founders' qualities at least have a chance to fix or complement each other. Imagine a solo founder not believing in her startup's success. Can that startup succeed?

In other cases, the extreme behaviors in opposite directions cancel each other out and arrive at a healthier middle ground. For example, excessive optimism and pessimism balance out to a healthy combination of optimistic realism. Or a wildly experimental founder and someone who likes to stick to the plans might lead to just the right amount of experimentation and innovations. That's good news for team-led startups.

But what would happen with solo founders? Continuing the biology analogy, their startups are not simple babies but clones.

Is that a positive? Broadly, it is not. But let me still mention some upsides first. Just like cloning takes less time due to no involvement or requirement of a partner, solo-founder startups can move faster. The departure of the other founder won't cause any problems because there is none. Cloning takes fewer resources, and solo-founder startups have to pay lower salaries to founders (not a significant factor for startups, though). Evolutionarily speaking, cloning is excellent in times of crisis. Many organisms resort to it when the conditions are unfavorable. Similarly, crisis leads to a lot of founder breakups. And in those situations, being solo helps.

Let's come to the downsides. Most big or slightly complex organisms don't clone themselves because the offspring would lack genetic diversity, leading to less adaptability to new environments or challenges. All the defects of the parent are now the defects of the clone. The problem with starting solo is that every little flaw of yours would become your startup's flaw. There is no one to balance your negatives. Sure, there are differences in how you would behave professionally and personally. Still, it doesn't take long for the startup to take over your personal life and for your qualities in your personal life, positive or negative, to creep into your startup.

Do your positive qualities also get reflected? Yes, absolutely. But here's the thing: With something as difficult as starting a new company, you've got to do a lot of things right so it doesn't fail. So, while all your positives are necessary to give you the slightest chance at success, your unchecked flaws can almost certainly kill your company. It's like startups are looking for reasons to die (it's cruel, honestly). A challenging situation requires more from a person and makes everything more complicated, and every flaw comes to the surface. Similarly, entrepreneurship's challenges will increase the chances of your negatives dominating the company. And since there is no other founder to look at, the possibility of being blind to your flaws and flawed decisions is very high. Advice only helps to a point. Most of us are unaware of our flaws. Sometimes, the worse the problems, the more blind we are to them. Solo founders can't risk that.

The solutions include working on yourself constantly. No matter how you do it, self-help books, mindfulness, therapy, or meditation, remember that these things would be a very significant investment in your startup. Those 30 minutes each day are not more important than the impending bankruptcy. It won't kill my startup if I work 13 hours a day instead of 14, but a single flaw in my personality might. If I can use that one hour to work on those flaws, the benefits won't be immediately visible but will silently prevent disasters.

Another thing that helps is to get honest and sound advice. Get people around you who would honestly criticize you. Stay away from yes-men or yes-women. Get some quality mentors early on if you can.

I feel that being older as a solo founder should theoretically help. The age at which you're more aware and in control of your flaws, or have fixed them, and are more mindful, should help while starting a company solo. It would be interesting to look at a 4x4 of successful vs. unsuccessful startups that were created solo vs. with cofounders and look at the average ages.

This essay stems from my personal journey as a solo founder. My startup has led me to discover some flaws that I was completely unaware of. And for the success of my company, it's imperative that I work on those flaws. 2023 was a challenging year for me. It was made harder by the startup. But without the startup, I might've just coped with the issues instead of looking within to fix them. Or maybe they would have never even come up because they weren't big enough to have any consequences on a job or personal life. I consider it a boon, and I'll discuss it in some future essay. Solo founders can and should look on the bright side. Their startup gives them a chance and a reason to become better human beings. In most cases, if they don't, their 'baby' will die. But if they do, they will not only succeed in entrepreneurship but in life as well.

[1] Selection pressure refers to the influence that environmental factors or conditions have on the survival and reproduction of individuals within a population. It includes any cause that reduces or increases reproductive success (and hence chances of survival). Similarly, for startups, we can think of it as the influence that environmental factors have on their survival and success.