The Myth of the Single-Person Startup

During the month of May, 2010 I took an unpaid leave of absence from work for the entire month and set off to launch my own web-based startup company.

My objective was to take a month off work, shut myself away in my apartment, spend a month coding up all of the basic plumbing I needed to get the first core part of my service in working order, and profit. Needless to say, I failed to reach my goals,  but not for any of the typical reasons like poor project planning, lack-of-focus, and so forth. No, I failed because I took the experiences of other entrepreneurs too literally and tried to “be my own boss,” without appreciating what that really means.

Success doesn't occur in a vaccuum

I grew up with a father who successfully launched his own self-funded business and made it look easy. Naturally, being the 24 year-old who doesn’t know any better, I figured it was as easy as having the technical knowledge to engineer my own product, having a good eye for end-user requirements, having a decent business plan, and enough time / resources to actually put something to market.

Naturally, when I finally secured the time I needed to begin engineering my product in earnest, I shut myself away, locked out virtually all human contact, and dove head first into my code. After all, that’s all what successful single-person startups do, right? “Sure,” I thought.

Twelve days into my project I had to scrap virtually every piece of code I had written – everything. It was a disaster. I wiped the slate clean and started redesigning and refactoring the entire thing, and I still hadn’t said more than a few sentences about it to anybody. Bear in mind that I was living off of my savings, so the time = money factor loomed large over my head. I went back to work on my project, still determined to get something done.

With one week to go before I was due back at work, I bought lunch for the Chief Architect from my regular job and had him take a look at some of my UML diagrams. I explained the domain I was working in, what I was trying to do, and what trouble I had run into thus far. In that one hour of speaking with him, I learned things that could have saved me the previous three weeks of 16-hour days, sleepless nights, endless debugging, and lessons-learned-the-hard-way.

This is going to seem like a total “no shit” observation for people who’ve been around the block before, but bear with me: though there are many entrepreneurs who successfully start businesses where they are the sole founder and first employee, they never truly do it alone.

They use other colleagues as sounding boards for ideas; they run design ideas by people who are familiar with the business or engineering domain; they stay in touch with potential customers and clients all the way through the process; they operate in professional networks; and they do a much better job keeping friends and family in the loop than I did.

I never looked at any of these contacts as must-have items before I set off on my own, and I got burned big time for it. I spent a substantial amount of time barking up the wrong trees and architecting solutions for the wrong problems, and all it would have taken to avoid that was some more collaboration and idea-sharing with people who were never going to be partners, employees, investors, et al.

Stay in the loop with your people

Lesson learned: the appeal of locking yourself in a confined space with nothing more than an Internet connection, a stack of programming books, and a mountain of pop tarts is significant if you’re young and tired of people telling you what to do.

However, isolating yourself from the world while you undertake a startup project is disastrous – you don’t necessarily need partners working with you day-in and day-out on the project, but you absolutely need sounding boards and supportive people you can share ideas and experiences with, because ultimately if you don’t get some outside perspective on what you’re doing, you’ll make myopic decisions and stumble along the way.

Get feedback where you can; talk database schema with the DBA in the break room at your day job while he’s refilling his coffee; share your ongoing startup problems with family and friends who’ve launched businesses before; join online news groups and connect with other people familiar with your problem domain; just stay in contact.

Remember this: being independent isn't the same thing as being alone - always keep a network to support you even if their contributions never amount to something more than friendly advice and encouragement.

Discussion, links, and tweets

I'm the CTO and founder of Petabridge, where I'm making distributed programming for .NET developers easy by working on Akka.NET, Phobos, and more..