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Why being a solo founder can kill your startup

solo startup founder

Peter Johnston is the founder and CEO of Lystable. In this article, he discusses the issues faced by entrepreneurs who embark on a startup venture alone.

Paul Graham who founded Y Combinator puts being a ‘solo founder’ as the number one factor that will kill a startup. Why? Because it shows a vote of no confidence, because it’s bloody hard work and when the going gets tough, it’s just easier to give up if there’s no-one else around.

But the story can be different — Jeff Bezos and Pierre Omidyar are two cases that might prove the point.Then there’s me. Fourteen months after launching Lystable as a sole founder, I’m still here with a brilliant team, investment and an ever increasing list of awesome clients.

A lonely game

Being a solo founder is generally a lonely game, but if you find the right people who are willing put their faith in you and build the right ecosystem, you can somehow avoid feeling alone.

My startup journey began in late 2014 when I was working in the cosy world of the Google design studio, doing what I did best, designing UI, and eating three free lunches a day.

But I had an idea and thanks to an introduction by Google Ventures, I had a fortuitous meeting with Jon Bradford, the managing director of Techstars London and the man who might help me make that idea a reality.

In that meeting, Jon explained that the odds of me getting into Techstars, as a solo founder, with no product, no team and no business plan, were about the same as Northern Ireland winning the Euros in 2016. But for some reason, following that chat and a couple of meetings later, he gave me a shot.

Shortly after, I left the mothership of Google and stepped out into the cold reality of the startup world, without a wing-man.

Finding your support system

The first two months of the Techstars programme were horrible, for every reason Paul Graham gives.

Everyone else had not just a rally partner but an entire team around them, whilst I felt like I was throwing a tennis ball against a wall, with one idea after the other bouncing back and smacking me in the face.

The biggest challenge when you’re on your own is second guessing yourself, not having a co-founder there to back you up, support you when they tear your idea apart, but more importantly, be there to foster and improve your ideas.

A silver lining of the lonely burden of being a solo founder is that I naturally had to reach out more and utilise the network of mentors available to me.

The mentors I had managed to persuade to help me throughout Techstars, people like Matt Webb (Berg), Guy Podjarny (Snyk) Scott Dodson (Gamesys), and Richard Fearn (FCL) would become a lifeline for me in the first six months of the company. Likewise Mark Evans, of Balderton Capital, who I can make a good guess was spending considerably more time with me than some of his much larger investments.

It was Techstars that provided this network to me, and I would definitely not be in the position I am today if I hadn’t listened to those around me when they told me to forget what I had known before and acknowledge that I was nowhere near as smart as I thought I was.

Building a team

At seed stage of a startup, the investors have in the majority of cases, nothing to go on but your team and your idea. So if you’re on your own, you need to persuade talented people to join you.

Hiring talent as a solo-founder was brutal, persuading candidates to even have a chat with me, let alone leave their secure jobs and join me on my mad, solo journey was a challenge in itself.

If you’re going to be a solo founder, you better be bloody good with people as you’re the only one who can make them believe in your vision. This is a very different feat to having a shared vision with someone who was part of the conception of the idea. It’s a different type of faith, ownership and passion but I am fortunate enough to say I couldn’t have picked a better founding team.

Getting a mentor

When you’re on your own, more than anything you need a mentor.

After that first meeting Jon Bradford became mine and he constantly gave me a hard time. He questioned everything — from the way I spoke, to how I answered questions, almost every step I made along the way.

It is my adoption of what he taught and preached at Techstars and his work ethic that still influences me and my team, everyday at Lystable.

Finding a mentor that is not only a great fit for you as a solo founder, but as you build your business, will be one of the most important relationships you make.

The fact that with mine I landed Jon and a group of individuals that were not only compatible with me but willing to be patient, teach me, push me and spend late nights with me, is well, now how would I put it, as about as likely as Northern Ireland winning the Euros in 2016.