When South Korean expat Jin Lee built Oda in 2019, he had a co-founder whom he shared similar visions and goals with. They were eager to create an effective platform for buyers and suppliers in Vietnam’s food and beverage industry. The partnership, however, didn’t last too long.
“He had his own company and was managing a big team. I shared a lot of my ideas and thoughts with him and relied on him to handle the system development of Oda,” Jin shares. “But he decided to focus on his own company, and so we parted ways.”
It wasn’t easy being left alone to handle all the responsibilities of building and managing a startup, especially when it’s still in its early stages, the entrepreneur adds.
Co-founder breakups are seldom discussed, but they happen very often. In fact, a study by an American academic found that 10% of co-founders end their relationship within a year of starting a business and an additional 45% within four years.
This breakup, like any kind of breakup, is a painful process. But for startups, co-founders drifting apart massively impacts the business. In many cases, it led to unfortunate shutdowns and irreparable losses — relationships included.
Lucky for Oda, Jin was quick to move forward and used the hard lessons from the experience to push his startup to even greater heights.
There were times when he wished he had a business partner to help him navigate the competitive business landscape, especially in areas of which he had little knowledge. But Jin says he’s happy about his choices and how the company has grown since he started running it alone.
Is it ‘the more, the merrier’ in business?
The majority of startups in Vietnam — or in most countries — are founded by multiple people. And there’s a reason for that. With several people working toward the same goal, a startup gets as much support as it needs. Every member contributes valuable skillsets and knowledge, making sure different perspectives are explored and responsibilities are shared.
“Startups with two to four founders build a stronger foundation to grow and scale later,” Tu Ngo, General Partner at Touchstone Partners, explains. The venture capital firm has invested in over 20 startups in Vietnam, only two of which have single founders.
But while business partnerships define the success of a business venture — granting they’re solid and strong — it doesn’t mean those with only single founders and owners are bound to fail in the long run.
A single founder can bring focus and a clear vision to his startup. He also gets complete autonomy and full control over the business, which can be advantageous for decision-making, vision setting, and overall execution of plans.
Moreover, startups with solo founders can also be more agile and move faster since there are no co-founder disagreements or conflicts that can potentially slow down progress. And with fewer people involved, operations become simpler, faster, and more straightforward.
“The right question is not whether a startup needs single or several founders. It should be about what kind of partnerships founders have to make the business successful.”
Having complementary skillsets, similar principles, unwavering commitment, and openness to engage in critical conversations are what make business partnerships work.
Founders need to ask these questions to know if their partnership is working: Does everyone feel respected and heard? Do we see ourselves working together for a bigger vision? When problems arise, are we willing to address them professionally and with integrity?
“Building a startup is a hard, long, and lonely journey; sometimes, having a partner can really help you keep going. But of course, it requires a huge amount of trust. It’s something like better be a single founder than be in a failed partnership,” says Tu.
A founder’s character is all that matters
To Tu, the character and visions of a founder (or founders) are critical when deciding whether a startup is worth investing in. As startups are inherently uncertain and the journey of building a successful company is filled with challenges and setbacks, investors look at how a founder acts in times of crisis.
“In order to navigate these challenges and persevere, a founder needs to possess a certain set of qualities, such as determination, resilience, and adaptability. They need to be able to inspire and lead their team, as well as build and maintain relationships with customers, partners, and investors.”
This “ideal” founder rarely comes, Tu admits. “In our experiences, it’s rare to see single founders in successful startups. But those who do make it are usually extremely unrelenting, motivational, always moving fast, learning fast, and they can think very deep and wide at the same time. It’s very rare – but not impossible.”
He adds that the number of founders a startup needs depends on the nature of the business and which industry it operates in. Some businesses, such as software companies, may require a large team of engineers and developers to build and maintain the product. In these cases, having a larger team can be necessary to get the job done. On the other hand, other businesses may be more focused on marketing or sales, where having a smaller, more focused team can be more effective.
As the business grows and matures, Tu says it may become necessary to bring on more people and resources.
“In Vietnam, we usually see founders break up after a few years, or someone goes out to run another business idea. That could be a factor of founders changing directions, but it could also be because of the lack of capital. We want to bring in more capital to help startups grow, keep good teams together, and constantly hiring for talented team members to join.”
This was the case of Van Nguyen, who founded and scaled SmartR on his own before he found the need to bring in new minds. SmartR, an enterprise software that leverages advanced data visualization and automation technologies to help organizations effectively discover and manage talents, was born out of Van’s “disappointment” in seeing many talented Vietnamese held back by solvable challenges.
In the startup's early days, Van moved quickly and achieved things fast as a solo founder. Because he had no one else to rely on, he carried all the responsibilities on his shoulder to keep the company running, especially during the tough days of COVID-19.
“With quick decision-making and efficient execution, I was able to adapt to the circumstances and take the necessary steps to keep our team safe and reduce our operations. However, as a solo founder, the burden of financial responsibility, lack of checks and balances, and emotional support during tough times can be overwhelming. Nonetheless, the experience taught me the power of sheer will and determination to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.”
Van recently welcomed a business partner for SmartR who works with him in bringing his visions to life. Having a dependable co-founder has helped bring fresh perspectives to the table and created a sense of community in the company.
He’s proud to have led his startup to where it is today, but he also believes that onboarding a co-founder after a few years of running SmartR alone is what the company needs to scale up further.
“Ultimately, our mission is what drives us forward, and it must always be bigger than any individual founder.”