The #1 Reason to have a Cofounder

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As a kid, I spent a fair amount of time helping my dad make stuff in his workshop. I remember he had this big, heavy vise bolted to his workbench. The jaws were made of metal, which worked great for holding some pieces tightly, but would damage more delicate wood pieces. So my dad had a set of ‘soft jaws’ – pieces of wood that he could insert between the metal jaws and the piece to protect it. The pressure from the vise would keep the soft jaws in place while he worked, but as soon as he loosened the vise to get the piece out, the soft jaws would fall to the floor, often bouncing under the work bench (from where I would have to retrieve them).
When I was about eight or so, he called me into the workshop and posed a question. “Ben,” he said, “These soft jaws are great, but every time I take the piece out of the vise, they fall out. I need a way to keep them in. Glue won’t work, because I need to remove them when I use the metal jaws. If I use some clamp or hook, it will damage the work piece. I’m stumped.”
“Velcro,” I said. My dad’s face lit up. He immediately went upstairs and told my mom what I had said. He installed the Velcro the next day and the vise still has those Velcro strips to this day.
I felt like the smartest kid in the world that day. But of course I wasn’t. So why was I able to solve a problem that my very smart dad could not?
Clearly, one reason was that I had a fresh set of eyes. My dad had simply been too close to the problem for too long. I had a fresh perspective and the idea just clicked.
But just as importantly, I had some knowledge of the domain. Someone who had never stepped into a workshop before probably would not have come up with that idea. In fact, my dad probably wouldn’t have asked him or her in the first place, simply because it would have been too much effort to first explain how the vise and the soft jaws worked.
This is the number one reason I can’t imagine not having a cofounder (and there are lots of other reasons). Great programmers (or even those of us aspiring to be great programmers) know that our best work is done “in the zone” – that mental place where you have the entire program in your head and where all you see is the problem in front of you. That level of concentration and focus makes you incredibly productive, but it also makes it likely that you’ll get stuck on some trivial detail. You just get too close to the problem. You can’t stand back with fresh eyes and see the obvious fix.
You know that you’re too close to the problem, but in a startup, everyone outside the company is way too far away from the problem. Even other programmers haven’t lived with the code like you have. To get their help, you’d first have to explain lots of other peripheral details of the project before you can really get their help on the problem at hand.
A cofounder is right in that sweet spot between too close and too far away. Just last night Dan solved a problem in five minutes that I had been looking at for over forty. I imagine that a solitary founder must spend waste so much time tracking down simple things that a cofounder would be able to spot in a tiny fraction of the time. If you’re thinking of founding a startup alone, take my word for it – find a cofounder. The first time you have one of those Velcro moments, you’ll realize how important it is.

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9 Responses to “The #1 Reason to have a Cofounder”

  1. Ross Richards Says:

    Hi Ben,
    It does make sense to have a co founder. The problem with that, is it brings risks which you didn’t have before.
    You have double the resources but it can go into two different directions. It really depends on how well the two or more of you are aligned.
    I don’t think having 2 or more people is really the right thing to do on some projects because of politics. I’ve seen some very successful companies where it has been an almost dictatorship.
    Here’s a link from onstartups. I’m not saying its bad to have a co-founder, I’m just saying there’s lots of options out there and to choose carefully.
    http://onstartups.com/home/tabid/3339/bid/2148/The-Dark-Side-of-Startups-5-Corrosive-Co-Founder-Conflicts.aspx
    Regards,
    Ross
    P.S Who did the graphics on your new startup? I need one for my soon to be finished web app.

  2. Ben Says:

    Ross,
    Thanks for the comments. You’re right of course – having a cofounder doesn’t make doing a startup easy. You can still have tons of problems (including, but not limited to, the problems listed in ‘5 Corrosive Co-Founder Conflicts’ – great article, by the way). The real trick is finding the right cofounder: someone who has the same vision, who you can work with day in and day out, and who complements your strengths.
    That said, I really can’t imagine not having a cofounder. I know some people are very successful going at it alone, but I suspect it pretty dramatically lowers your chance of success (of course, so does picking a bad cofounder). Working at a startup (especially in the early days) can be very lonely and very hard, so having someone else around to keep you motivated and who understands your frustration and fears is a huge benefit.
    In any case, I think you’re right: there are definitely pros and cons to having a cofounder. It’s not right for every project or for every person, but on average, I’d say it’s a good goal to shoot for.
    To answer your other question, we got both our Pretheory logo as well as our Seekler logo from Design Outpost.
    http://designoutpost.com
    You can read a bit more about our experience at the following link (and there is a link to more discussion of graphic design options for startups)
    http://blog.pretheory.com/arch/2007/05/looking_somewhat_respectable.php
    Thanks!

  3. Dan Says:

    As for the design of Seekler that we have shown in the form of wire frames and mock ups, they were done by a local Denver firm Indigio. We had some experience with the group before and decided finding a local firm we could work with would have many benefits.

  4. Ross Richards Says:

    Thanks. I’ve had a look and the quality is very good. How much did you offer for your design?

  5. Dan Says:

    Ross,
    Are you wondering about the logo designs, or the entire Seekler site layout design?

  6. Ross Richards Says:

    mainly the logo but both would be great

  7. Dan Says:

    Ross,
    On designoutpost we paid between $200-250 for each logo.
    Our site design required a lot more work and we have spent around 5k on the site design for Seekler. We also wanted a local Denver designer for the site so we could meet and discuss issues, which costs more than finding services online.
    Hopefully that helps.

  8. Nick Says:

    Good post Ben, but would like to add that this doesn’t need to be just at the founder/co-founder level. Even having a fellow programmer look over something will spot a problem you’ve been wrestling with for hours!
    I have had several of these over the past months, most recent being a mis-typed set method of all things! It happens to all of us who stare at the same code for hours and hours. Having a set fresh eyes (usually no matter what the source) can be incredbily handy.

  9. Ben Says:

    Nick,
    True enough. Anyone who works at a company can generally rely on a coworker to be that extra set of eyes. However, in a startup you generally don’t have a large number of coworkers (at least not initially). I guess my point was that I can’t imagine trying start a startup alone, because you wouldn’t have _anyone_ to help you you…
    Thanks for reading!
    Ben

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