On the other hand, actually being a working startup founder is fraught with complexities, difficulties, and flat-out impossibilities. From the moment you flip that mental switch and call yourself an “entrepreneur,” you’ll face doubt, dismissive attitudes, maybe even ridicule. All of this can fester into a stigma that we’ve only recently begun to label as imposter syndrome.
There’s one thing I don’t want you to do to combat that stigma, because I see it happen over and over again, with new and even experienced founders.
I don’t want you to take on a cofounder.
Why it’s hard be an entrepreneur
Being an entrepreneur requires more skill, experience, connections, and just plain effort than any one human being can muster.
Even folks like me, who have succeeded more times than we deserve and failed more time than we’d like to admit, we know that if we’re going to make another run at a game-changing idea, at some point, it’s going to take more than what we can accomplish on our own.
That’s fine. That’s what we signed up for.
But even beyond all the physical and mental effort, there’s that other, psychological hurdle. And that’s answering the question, “What do you do?” with “I’m an entrepreneur.”
Why it’s hard to tell people you’re an entrepreneur
It runs deeper than just a social hiccup. The anecdotal evidence of entrepreneurs reaching out to me asking how to deal with the stigma is overwhelming.
Telling people that you’re an entrepreneur, or a founder, or the CEO of a company that hasn’t made a dime yet — this has serious implications on how people judge you, and thus, how people judge your company, including important people like potential customers, employees, and investors.
If you have a track record of exits that you can lean on, as in “I’m an entrepreneur and I’m currently working on bringing my seventh company to market,” then you have no worries.
But 99% of entrepreneurs can’t lean on that crutch. Their honest answer is more along the lines of: “I lie awake at night hoping I haven’t made a gigantic mistake.”
So they adopt another crutch to legitimise their existence as a founder.
And more often than not, that crutch is adding another founder.
Why some founders pull in a cofounder to legitimise their business
Let’s go back to something I mentioned earlier.
You can’t take a startup idea very far using only a single set of skills, experience, connections, and effort. But even more than that, it’s next-to-impossible to present a cohesive belief in the company and the product — the kind of belief that makes it easy for customers to purchase and investors to invest — when there’s only one true-believer. This is especially true if the true-believer has limited success turning an idea into a viable and valuable startup.
It’s very tempting to bring on at least one additional voice, if just to prove that someone else believes in this thing as much as you do. Now, we don’t always go searching for that person, but if we happen to run into them, and they believe in our idea as much as we do, and they want to help, and they’re kind of awesome…
Well, why not make them a cofounder?
Why adding a cofounder for legitimisation reasons is a bad idea
Before I got into entrepreneurship, I was a working musician. My dad, who was a successful professional musician for decades, taught me this adage early on:
“Don’t make a brand out of your friends. Make friends with your bandmates instead.”
In almost every case where I’ve seen a founding team disintegrate, their reasons for coming together were based more on finding a tribe than adding a diversity of skills and strategic thinking.
When this happens early in the startup lifecycle, that shared belief is usually a belief in the idea and the idea alone. It’s not belief in the strategy, the model, the product, or anything else involved with the execution of said idea.
But that original idea will evolve as the ability to execute starts to chip away at its grandness. Believers tend to lose faith when the idea gets grittier and the work gets harder. Then you’re left with a malcontent cofounder who isn’t contributing.
So when should you add a cofounder?
Your decision should always be based on whether or not the idea, as you’ve defined it, can not move forward without that cofounder owning a part of it. And moving forward is not just about a new set of skills, like technical skills to complement your business skills, but a new slate of experience, new ideas for growth, a new approach to strategy, a new creative mind to expand and evolve the original idea.
It’s someone to push back on you. Someone to take the other side of the argument. Someone who owns half of the idea. That can be a hard trade-off for an entrepreneur to understand they’re making, let alone be comfortable with. And when that discomfort reaches its peak, that’s yet another potential nail in that startup’s coffin.
Co-founding is a huge decision, and it’s tricky. Before I reached the “multi-exit, multi-failure” stage of my career, I had to fight all the imposter syndrome and shaken faith and waning confidence that came with calling myself an entrepreneur. I know it’s a lonely battle.
As you battle, just make sure that anyone you add to the founding team, or even the early overall team, isn’t there just because they believe in the idea, but because they can own it and run with it.
Joe Procopio is a multi-exit, multi-failure entrepreneur. He is the founder of startup advice project TeachingStartup.com and is the Chief Product Officer of mobile vehicle care and maintenance startup Get Spiffy. You can read all his posts at joeprocopio.com
If you want more direct advice and answers, look into Teaching Startup.