My idle thoughts on tech startups
There are only co-founders
October 16, 2008 · 2 min.
Reading Time: 2 minutes
In my day job as a VC, I have the privilege of constantly interacting with founding entrepreneurs. And before this I worked in two startups myself, including one as part of the founding group.
Throughout my experiences, I’ve come to hold the following belief with deep conviction… there is no such thing as a “founder”, there are only “co-founders”. Conceiving, launching, and building a de novo company requires a broad range of talents and extraordinarily few people possess them all. And even those rare few who do can almost always augment with others more capable than themselves in a particular area.
Think of the truly great startups of the last several decades and virtually all had at least two initial co-founders involved at inception. Most famously in Silicon Valley were the Traitorious Eight, who departed Shockley Lab en masse to start Fairchild Semiconductor. Two members of the eight left again a few years later to start Intel. Similar examples of co-founding are endless: Larry Page & Sergey Brin, Bill Gates & Paul Allen, Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak, Jerry Yang & David Filo, Sandy Lerner & Len Bosack. The great east coast tech startups are no different… Dick Egan & Roger Marino (EMC), Ken Olsen & Harlan Anderson (DEC), Mitch Kapor & Jonathan Sachs (Lotus).
There are of course exceptions like Amazon with Jeff Bezos. But even those companies we often identify with a single founding personality have a deeper story. Larry Ellison generally takes/gets credit for Oracle, but Ed Oates and Bob Miner helped start the company. Pierre Omidyar started eBay as part of his personal website, but Jeff Skoll helped turn it into a standalone company. For what it’s worth, the overwhelming majority of VC firms were “co-founded” too. Tom Perkins & Eugene Kleiner of KPCB. Frank Bonsal, Dick Kramlich, and Chuck Newhall of NEA. The only notable exception I can think of is Sequoia Capital, launched single handedly by Don Valentine.
I’m not suggesting all co-founders are necessarily created equal. Job titles, organizational responsibilities & power, founders equity… these are all frequently divided in an unequal fashion. But at the end of the day, almost nobody succeeds in launching and building a great company without co-founders. And everybody can dramatically increase the probability of success of their startup with great co-founders. Organizations like Y Combinator only accept groups of co-founders (not individuals) with good reason.
Just as I think it’s more important to pick your boss than to pick your specific job title/function, similarly it’s more important to carefully pick your co-founders as it is to write your first line of code or the first draft of a business plan.