From the moment Talia Frenkel resolved to found a company after a kitchen-table talk with her parents, the odds were against her. There were a host of reasons—she wasn’t a software engineer, she had no product development experience, and she wanted to launch a consumer item that was already sold widely by established enterprises.
Yet Frenkel, a participant in the summer 2015 class at Y Combinator, an influential Silicon Valley accelerator program, raised $120,000 from investors by August that year. Early this year, she sold her company, This is L., to Cincinnati, OH-based Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG) for about $100 million, according to TechCrunch.
Frenkel, the sole founder of her startup, stands as proof that an entrepreneur can make good even without the support of other founding team members, says Y Combinator partner Kevin Hale.
“It’s just harder,’’ Hale says. “Doing a startup by yourself is extremely difficult.’’
Hale sees the actual math behind those longer odds for solo founders, because he helps shepherd the growth of Mountain View, CA-based Y Combinator’s online Startup School. The free school was launched in 2016 to help aspiring founders learn the basics of entrepreneurship. Graduation from Startup School can be the on-ramp for admission to YC’s highly selective accelerator sessions and its funding opportunities.
Last year, 60 graduates of the Startup School session got into YC’s winter 2019 accelerator program—making up a third of the 200 companies admitted. But among those 60 successful YC applicants, only 12 percent of the companies had been founded by one person alone, Hale says. Yet solo founders had made up 63 percent of the 2018 Startup School enrollees. Those statistics, and some feedback, spurred the school to take action.
As a new 10-week session of Startup School begins this week, YC is adding a service for that solo majority. It inaugurated a matchmaking program to help single entrepreneurs in the program to find a co-founder.
“It’s one of the best things you can do as a startup,’’ Hale says.
There are many explanations for that, but it boils down to this: Creating a company is a ton of work requiring a range of skills, and teams get through it faster than individuals alone, Hale says. “You can divide and conquer,’’ he says.
The Startup School is now sorting through an international group of 18,400 solo founders, currently enrolled, to reach those interested in forming teams. Then it will use various filters to connect individuals with likely co-founders—taking into account the physical locations of the entrepreneurs throughout the world, and the business sectors that interest them, such as agriculture or blockchain technology, Hale says. A total of 33,000 people worldwide signed up for this session of Startup School, and nearly 56 percent are solo founders. Those figures could change a bit—registration remains open until Aug. 4.
Over the course of the 10-week Startup School session, each single founder will be assigned to a series of weekly online meetings attended by five to eight other entrepreneurs. They’ll introduce themselves and their business ideas, and discuss some general topics. By the end of the school session, each founder will have met 50 to 80 fellow founders—and potential teammates, Hale says.
The second element of the matchmaking initiative is an online directory of single founders seeking partners, to help them find each other on their own steam. Meanwhile, the school provides them with a list of other founders they’ve already met through the online meetings. Through both of these routes, Hale expects that many founders will at least begin conversations that may eventually lead to a partnership. At this point, the directory is only open to Startup School’s current students.
In the meantime, all students who want to graduate will be watching online lectures on topics such as product design, financing, pricing, and pitching investors. They’ll also submit regular reports to the school on the progress they’re making with their startups.
Among founders who continue to go it alone, those with technical skills tend to do best on the startup journey, according to Hale’s observations from Y Combinator. But even at companies aiming to create a primarily technology-based product, it’s wise to bring in an outgoing co-founder who can talk to potential users, solicit feedback, and otherwise connect with people likely to help the effort along, he says. The shorthand term for this kind of founder pairing is “the Hacker and the Hustler,’’ Hale says. But, he says, “it’s ideal if every person in the company can do both.’’
Outside the YC community, inventive non-technical people can look for software engineers as potential business partners through their contacts among family, college friends, and co-workers, Hale says. It can be hard if they don’t work at a tech company or live in a technology cluster like Silicon Valley. To climb out of the box, they can learn to code themselves—or create a company such as a service business where technology is not the core product, he says.
That’s what Talia Frenkel did when she founded This is L., now known under the brand name L. The idea started with a mission, rather than a money-making idea. Frenkel was a photojournalist covering humanitarian crises around the world when she learned that women and girls in developing countries faced serious consequences due to lack of access to a commonplace consumer item in the Western world—condoms. Many women died of AIDS, and many girls dropped out of school due to teen pregnancies.
Frenkel’s idea was two-fold: Her San Francisco-based company would market condoms made from organic materials to distinguish the product from others in an established industry; and it would also appeal to conscientious consumers by donating money to organizations that broadened global access to such items, whenever L. made a sale.
L. now follows the same business model to sell non-toxic tampons and sanitary napkins. For the lack of these products, girls in many countries stay home from school during their menstrual periods, according to L.
Hale says Frenkel succeeded because she had a natural gift for creating “a brand that stands out,’’ and getting the word out through videos and other media.
The single founders at Startup School this summer will get some help developing such non-technical skills as a side benefit of their hunt for co-founders, Hale says. After their weekly online meetings, the school will ask each participant for anonymous feedback about the others. All founders will learn whether those at the meeting understood them when they explained their project ideas; whether their mission inspired others; and whether fellow entrepreneurs found them appealing as possible teammates. The participants will be able to see whether their ratings improve from week to week on skills such as storytelling.
This summer’s Startup School is the fourth session since it began four years ago, and the curriculum is always evolving. Last year, of the 15,442 founders who registered, only 5,065 graduated. Of the total enrollees, 83 percent had yet to launch their companies, and nearly 50 percent were working only part-time on their startup plans. Thousands had signed up as auditors seeking only to learn. Hale says this year’s school will offer new lectures to help students evaluate and refine their ideas for a business.
But Hale says having no solidified product idea is not necessarily a handicap when entrepreneurs begin Startup School. “A lot of people have no idea,’’ he says. In fact, it can be a hindrance to come in with “a solution in search of a problem,’’ he says. “That’s a bad way to start.’’
Instead, founders should come in thinking about a problem they want to solve, as Frenkel did.
“The core of any startup is a problem,’’ Hale says.
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