Tips to succeed in a tech business: Solo and YOLO

StartupVenture capitalists often say that they don’t like to invest in sole founder started tech companies. Paul Graham (Y Combinator) famously told Dropbox’s solo founder Drew Houston that he needed to find himself a cofounder or he wouldn’t look at his application to the funding pool. Houston found a co-founder, Arash Ferdowski, and now the online storage and syncing service just raised $250 million at a $4 billion valuation.

The rationale is simple: two heads and hearts are better than one. The swings in beginning an Internet startup are huge, and the emotional rollercoaster is not a pleasant one.

I like to tell new startup founders that their job is best described as coming to work, getting kicked in the head and finding enjoyment in the punishment. Having a co-founder helps as you have someone to pick you up and share in the emotional turmoil as well as making you feel less alone.

But what if you can’t find someone to share the dream with? You are a born entrepreneur and you don’t stop just because things are not perfect. You go ahead to start anyway and find a way to get through.

But... Can You Go it Alone?

While the jury is still out on the “Single Founder vs. Co-founders” debate, for those who would think it is too hard to do it alone, here are a few examples of wildly successful sole founders who made it work singlehandedly:

  • Amazon (Jeff Bezos)
  • eBay (Pierre Omidyar)
  • Napster (Sean Fanning)
  • Lycos (Michael Mauldin)
  • AOL (William von Meister)
  • Digg (Kevin Rose)
  • Overture (Bill Gross)

Others worth noting: Ming Hsieh, Cogent Systems (Pasadena) - now worth around $1.6 billion, owned 100% of his company when it went IPO (later sold to 3M); Patrick Soon-Shiong (Abraxis BioScience--now owns a chunk of the LA Lakers), net worth $5.0 billion. Jack Dangermond (ESRI), sole founder, worth around $2.2 billion.

Here are some tips on how you can be successful too as a sole founder:

  1. Work in a co-working environment when you start. This will give you a sense of community and give you a way to share and vent your frustration as well as the opportunity to learn from others.
  2. Go to the office during office hours. The routine will help pace you and keep your eye on the ball. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can work 10 hours a day from 9pm to 9am indefinitely. Business is ultimately built on relationships and no man is an island.
  3. Set budgets and goals. You may not report to anyone but the results determine your fate. You need to understand your time horizons and be realistic about what you need to achieve in order to be successful. If you are heading off course, make changes to get back on track.
  4. Get mentors/advisors to share your progress and give you insights. The fact is that they may not give you good advice but they can act as a shoulder to cry on and give you a pep talk when you are down. They may also give you false hope and this is all you need.
  5. Focus on the prize and remind yourself why you are doing this. For me it was due to the fact that I felt I had no other choices left and I needed to paddle my own canoe.

The last and best piece of advice I can give is to find your true supporters and keep them informed on your progress. This could be your family, spouse or loved ones. These people should love you no matter what the outcome and you can be honest with your feelings and hopes and frustrations.

Best of luck on your journey and always remind yourself that you only live once so make the most of it!