In May of this year, Forbes published an article entitled “How to Find a Co-Founder for Your Startup.” VentureBeat released its own equivalent in August. A number of services, such as CoFoundersLab and Founder2be, have been established within the last few years to facilitate the co-founder seeking and hiring process. The tech startup hivemind — and conventional wisdom — dictate that companies with multiple founders are simply more likely to find success.
Russ Martin, however, is championing the act of going it alone.
Martin is the founder of Chicago-based Solo Founders Unite, which aims to help “those entrepreneurs who ignore the naysayers and and start companies as solo founders” build their enterprises, focusing on such assets as strategic partnerships, boards of investors, sales leads, and moral support. Martin believes starting a company or nonprofit alone, daunting as it may be, offers nonpareil benefits.
After resigning as Director of Technology for an investment management firm in 2013, Martin created his own online platform for corporate technology buyers to find software. Seeking professional edification, he thought it would behoove him to engage with other solo business owners. “I thought it might be useful to meet other solo founders to see if they shared similar feelings and see if we might support one another,” Martin said. “I looked on Meetup.com and found lots of gatherings for finding co-founders, but nothing really for people who wanted to remain solo founders. So I started one of my own.”
Solo Founders Unite’s inaugural meeting, held in July, 2014, attracted over 20 attendees, many of whom shared Martin’s struggle to find a community of fellow-solo founders. After learning about the challenges his enterprising brethren faced, Martin started work on an algorithm that, as a complement to the group’s meetings, would match solo founders based on background and expertise, allowing them to form peer advisory groups.
Martin’s expectations were humble (“Meetup says to expect no more than two or three people at the first gathering of a new group,” he said), but the meeting’s healthy turnout makes sense. Single founders are confronted with a specific stymies that they wouldn’t face with the support of a co-founder; it seems only natural for them to look to like-minded business community members for support.
According to Martin, a solo founder’s greatest challenges are “lack of perspective, lack of accountability, and lack of support.” Co-founders, Martin holds, enjoy varied perspectives, skills, and backgrounds, which help prevent poor decisions and encourage good ones. They hold each other to a higher level of accountability (“It's human nature to be more likely to follow through on a promise you make to another person or a group of people versus one you make to yourself,” Martin said). Finally, they offer emotional support, celebrating victories together and encouraging each other in times of distress.
However, to Martin, the freedom of starting a company alone is worth the strife these barriers cause. For starters, it begets a hefty sense of accomplishment. But there are more practical benefits, such as “the speed with which decisions can be made without the need for getting consensus among co-founders. If this benefit is balanced by having a good team of advisors to prevent tunnel vision and poor decisions, it can be an ideal situation for creating an agile, competitive organization.”
Martin also contends that solo founders are immune to devastating conflict with co-founders. “Many companies have failed because of co-founder disagreements, and it can be exceedingly difficult to dissolve these business partnerships should conflict occur. I've heard stories of people being caught up in years of court battles and incurring tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to resolve co-founder problems.”
Solo Founders Unite meets approximately once a month, with a roster of 73 members (and growing). Each meeting centers around a guest speaker’s lecture on a topic of relevance to solo founders. The organization has made swift progress since its inception: Martin has guest speakers booked through spring of 2015, and Solo Founders Unite has been accepted into tech incubator 1871 and is sponsoring next month’s Elevate, a startup conference in Chicago.
As the organization grows, Martin’s first priority is the website’s founder-matching algorithm, whose first version is expected to launch in early 2015. Users can join the wait list to be notified when it’s live. In the more distant future, Martin envisions expansion into the Chicago suburbs and entertains the idea of hosting a business educational service designed to target the needs of solo founders. “I think there's lots of opportunity for creative ways to support solo founders in the future and I'm excited to do whatever I can to help them succeed,” he said.
In his efforts to paint solo founding as not only possible, but realistic, Martin feels inspired. “My main goal is simply to help solo founders increase the likelihood of starting a successful business. I know the key is to compensate for the weaknesses inherent in being alone, so I'll do everything I can to offer services that do just that. Ultimately, I hope these efforts will also reduce some of the stigma associated with being a solo founder.”