Founders flying solo: Jon Yongfook, John Fearon, and Douglas Gan chime in
June 22, 2012 by Terence LEE
Being a solo founder is no fun. That’s the vibe I got after speaking to three seasoned entrepreneurs in Singapore’s technology scene: Jon Yongfook of Tinytrunk, John Fearon of Dropmyemail, and Douglas Gan of VanityTrove.
But doing it alone isn’t just unpleasant, it hampers your chances of succeeding. According to a Startup Genome report, technology companies with one founder tend to raise less money, experience less user growth, and take longer to scale.
Despite these known facts, many entrepreneurs still take the journey alone, for whatever reasons. That’s actually not always a bad thing. As these entrepreneurs will tell you, there’s never an ideal time to start a business. So why should the lack of a co-pilot stop you from taking off?
Jon Yongfook, founder, Tinytrunk
“My criteria for a co-founder is just a lot higher than other people. I’m 32, I’m not a student anymore.”
Jon has experienced life as both a solo-founder and a team member at a startup. His entrepreneurial journey began when he started Open Source Food, a recipe website in Japan, by himself. That business was acquired.
He later joined Glamour Sales as an early employee (when they had zero customers), becoming its Web Director. He enjoyed being part of the team.
“Me and the co-founders would argue all the time, scream at each other in the office, but we’re really close, so that’s hard to find,” he said.
There’s no question what his preferences are. Yet at his latest startup, Tinytrunk, an e-commerce marketplace for indie fashion labels and sellers, Jon is is going solo again, not that he wants to.
“With Tinytrunk, I’ve gone a little bit further than I like before I find that magical co-founder,” he says, “people tell me, ‘you’re crazy for doing this on your own’. But I’m not trying to do this on my own!”
Jon concedes that his criteria for a co-founder are quite stringent. Given the cachet he accumulated from years working at Internet startups, it’s difficult for him to encounter someone in Singapore who has a similar level of experience, and yet possess a complementary skillset and personality.
“I need someone who has run a shop themselves, and understands the difficulties that retailers and designers face. They must understand the tools these people are using and what’s shitty about those tools. Someone who has an address book that’s full of brands, or is seen as an authority in the field. That’s difficult to find,” he says.
He admires people that can do things he isn’t good at. It could relate to managing payroll, accounting, cold calling, and contract law. He’s also seeking people that’s comfortable managing a team with him, who enjoys making their employees’ lives fun and engaging.
While Jon has been approached by many to start a company together, he has turned them down. There’s simply not enough seasoned business co-founders in Singapore who know what it feels like to start something from scratch.
“They need to get a startup off the ground, and fail fast. They should at least fail once before I talk to them.”
Some of them simply don’t have the right attitude.
“There’s a little bit of starry-eyed wonder in people I’ve met, people looking to get rich. You should go work for a big company, not a startup… I need someone who’s looking at it more as a journey and building something of value for the long-term.”
John Fearon, founder, Dropmyemail
“I don’t wait around for someone to tell me yes. I don’t wait for a green light.”
“I couldn’t find people with the same risk tolerance as me, or put in the same sacrifices,” he said.
His attempts at finding partners at Dropmyemail were empty-handed. He was turned down twice. The first group he approached was already working on another startup, and weren’t ready to give up. He did hire one of them eventually. The second guy was to be a co-founder and investor.
“Early on, he agreed, then, when I sent him the legal agreement he pulled out. He did initially agree to terms, percentage, investment amount, but after some thinking through, decided not to do it.”
Despite the setbacks, he went ahead anyway.
“I don’t wait around for someone to tell me yes. I don’t wait for a green light.”
But he does admit that solo entrepreneurs have it harder. There’s no one to play off of, and no one to push you forward. Securing funding is tougher too, since investors are wary of solo entrepreneurs.
As a result, John had to go out of this way to prove to investors that his product has user traction.
“I pushed the envelope pretty damn hard on that. DropmySite had got 16,000 signups before I got investment,” he said.
Nonetheless, going solo does have some benefits: You are always in control. The chance of getting diluted down after subsequent funding rounds to the point that you don’t care is minimized. With a four person team, each holding a 25 percent stake, the risk is that a co-founder may start feeling like an employee after getting their shares diluted to, say, 10 percent.
Douglas Gan, co-founder, VanityTrove
“Finding a co-founder is like marriage… if you can’t find one, it means you’re not ready to settle down. That’s my usual logic.”
For serial entrepreneur Douglas Gan, who stepped down as ShowNearby’s CEO in 2011, it’s a case of once bitten, twice shy. His first business 13 years ago was the first and last time he has ever gone solo.
“It was me, myself, and I. There’s no one to spar with you, things you’re not aware of. You can only can learn from mistakes,” he said.
He ran a web hosting business trading hardware and setting up gaming servers. His first mistake was forgetting that shipping can get delayed quite substantially, causing the value of the network equipment to drop by the time he received it.
His second mistake was not realizing that games will die. He ran over 20 servers for Counterstrike games, but when the fad died, he didn’t know what to do with them.
“I was sian until lao sai,” said the Singaporean entrepreneur, invoking the local lingo. *
Although he explored obtaining licenses for games like Ragnarok and Maple Story, they cost in the six-figure range. On hindsight, Douglas felt that if he had a co-founder, he might’ve analyzed the situation better and plucked up the courage needed to make the hefty investment.
Since then, finding a co-founder has been a must for him.
He broke it down into two parts: Selling yourself and selling your idea.
He also suggested that people find it difficult to get co-founders because of three reasons: The inability to let go of the company, the inability to trust other’s decisions, and the feeling that he can do better and is smarter than others.
But Douglas doesn’t accept anyone into his founding team. He has three criteria for a business partner.
First of all, they must have a strong character. That means being ethical, not doing anything illegal, and respecting instead of dissing competitors, because they make us better. Having strong integrity is important too, since the co-founder is essentially entrusted with the company’s money.
Second, they must possess an iron backbone.
“The startup journey is tough. That person must withstand the test of time and the curses of people. He or she must be positive in times of good and bad,” he said.
Third, the co-founder must be adaptable, since running an Internet startup means that they’re working in a fast-paced, rapidly changing environment.
Despite his criteria, finding a co-founder is easy for him. He boils it down to the extensive network of people he knows on a personal basis, who may one day start a new business with him.
“The courting process could take months, years. You’ve got to gain comfort with the person you work with.”
*”Sian until lao sai” is Singlish for “I got so frustrated that I shitted in my pants.” Or something like that.
Also, check out former Chalkboard CTO Bernard Leong’s insightful article about finding a technical co-founder, and why sometimes it’s best to go solo at the beginning.
Find out more about SGE’s research arm: SGE Insights, providing customized in-depth research reports to help you navigate the business of technology in Asia.
About The Author
Terence LEE - Editor
Terence writes mainly about technology trends and startups in Asia. He believes in crafting smart content: Not just a regurgitation of text, but well thought-out pieces that serve the reader using a combination of data, design, narratives, analysis, and visual impact. His articles have been published on Venturebeat, Yahoo!, Straits Times, Today, and The Online Citizen. He also co-founded NewNation.sg, a satirical news site covering Singapore affairs. Engage him on LinkedIn and Twitter.Read other posts by Terence LEE