OnStartups

What's The Optimal Number Of Co-Founders For A Startup? 2.09!

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on February 27, 2007 17 Comments


The topic of co-founders (how to find them, what skill-set they should have, how many you need, etc.) is a popular one amongst startups.  It’s popular for good reason, it’s important.

 

I’ve given the topic of how many founders are needed for startups some thought.  My personal opinion is at least two, but no more than three.  Hence, the “2.09” number in the title of this article works (and there’s some basis for this, which I’ll explain later).

 

I think starting a company with a single co-founder is very hard.  Assuming you are extremely brilliant and good at what are historically very different skills (technology, sales, finance, ops), then it’s possible you could pull this off.  But, if I were you, I wouldn’t want to, even if I could.  Kicking off a startup can be a lonely process and your co-founder(s) bring you more than just their competence and capability – they give you moral support.  If you’re like many entrepreneurs, the startup will become all-consuming and “going it alone”, though it can sound appealing to the introverted among us, is just not all that fun.  Further, the existence of more than one founder helps ideas get hashed out better, spreads the work (and yes, there’s a ton of work) and in my opinion, generally increases the odds of success.  I’ve read research to this effect by Professor Ed Roberts (my thesis advisor at MIT).  Basically, odds of success go up with the number of co-founders.  (I’d have to hunt down some of the original data to be more specific.  I recall his data showing an increase in success rates even up to 4-5 co-founders).  My personal opinion is that more than 3 becomes problematic (at least for software startups, which is where most of my experience is rooted).

 

So, why 2.09?  Well, I didn’t make this number up.  It came from an interesting article by Chan Chaiyochlarb titled “If you are going to launch a startup, how many friends would you need?”.  In the article, he shows some quick research he did to determine the number of co-founders of some well-known, and mostly successful startups (based on your definition of success).  His result?  The average number of founders across these startups was 2.09.  Clearly, I understand the dubious statistical claim here (neither of us is claiming this is the “optimal” number).  But, it makes for an amusing title to the article.

 

Here, at a high-level, are some reasons why a two founder company makes sense (not to say that you couldn’t have more and still succeed).

 

Why Two Founders For A Startup Makes Sense

 

  1. A single founder startup becomes too lonely and isolated.  Some can pull it off (particularly if they hire some great people early on).

 

  1. If you’re unable to find/recruit another co-founder, people may wonder about you, your sales ability or your ability to attract/recruit a great time in the future.  Co-founders (as long as they’re great) are an exceptionally good way to demonstrate to the world (investors, future employees, etc.) that you can be worked with and have the ability to convince people to do irrational things (which turns out to be an important characteristic).

 

  1. Rare are the people that have the genetic make-up to be really, really good at all of the “core” stuff that the startup will require in the early days.  At a minimum, you need one technology co-founder and one sales, distribution “find the customer” co-founder.  The rest (marketing, finance, ops and other stuff) can be divided up based on who likes to do what.

 

  1. There’s simply too much work to do in the early days of most startups for a single person to do it all.

 

  1. Three founders works fine too, but does introduce some potential issues with how to divide up responsibility.  The upside is that you can have a deciding vote on important issues where two of the founders are at an impasse.  (The downside is that you may have politics introduced into the equation where two founders band together and alienate the third).

 

What do you think?  Do you think going it alone is a better option for most people?  Or, should you have even more than two founders?  If so, what are your reasons?  Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.