Partner or No Partner

By Bruce Firestone | Uncategorized

Sep 18

There is a vast on-going, never settled debate: should you have a partner or not in your next startup?

According to Y Combinator, the answer is, “Yes.” They will not accept solitary founders. They want a team with some technical chops, some management, sales and marketing skills, etc.

They believe that a new enterprise will grow faster if there are at least two (and preferably four) founding partners.

I think they are right–to a point. After that, I think the growth curve flattens out as decision making gets bogged down and as quarrels amongst partners about power, responsibilities and workload multiply.

That’s why maybe the right answer is: 0; that is, the optimal number of partners you should have equals none or, as Mark Zuckerberg’s business card so eloquently puts it, “I’M CEO, BITCH.”

This is what I think happens in an organization with one controlling mind versus one with many:


-early on the multi-partner business or organization grows faster, and with less stress (or, at least, the stress is shared amongst many)

-eventually, the founders start arguing, “I’m doing more than my fair share of the work”, “You’re stepping on my toes/lines of authority”, “Who is responsible for what?”, “I’m bugging out”, “I’m retiring on the job”…

-the other path, the one where you go it alone, takes longer to develop, but ends at a much higher point (if it survives its first few years)

Take for example, Harrison and Wallace McCain, two co-CEO brothers
so close that in forty years running McCain Foods they never once closed the
doors between their adjacent offices (separated only by a shared boardroom).

Then they argued over succession—so Wallace and his brood left Florenceville
New Brunswick (where multi-billion McCain Foods
has its headquarters) for Toronto.
In TO, Wallace and his part of the family took over Maple Leaf Foods, a big
McCain competitor today.

It’s speculative, but based on a lifetime of observation; it’s probably still true that there are: “two vacant chairs in heaven waiting for the first two partners to get there and still like each other.”

@ profbruce 

postscript: of course, from Y Combinator’s POV, they may not
really care what happens once growth slows down due to incoherence and
infighting amongst its founders since many (all?) the founders will be gone by
that point anyway, and the company sold off or taken public. 

Either way, there
will be new management in place to take it to the next level. 

However, if you
are into the Warren Buffett/Mark Zuckerberg mode of operation—ie, to build and
hold—you probably need one controlling mind from the outset like Berkshire
Hathaway and Facebook both had…

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About the Author

Bruce is an entrepreneur/real estate broker/developer/coach/urban guru/keynote speaker/Sens founder/novelist/columnist/peerless husband/dad.