The Cargo Cult Cofounder

Paul Graham is – rightly – regarded as an authority on startups, having done a successful one himself, and having seen hundreds pass through Y Combinator.

So what he says carries a lot of weight.

One thing he wrote, though, seems to have not been completely understood by many people.

Not having a cofounder is a real problem. A startup is too much for one person to bear. And though we differ from other investors on a lot of questions, we all agree on this. All investors, without exception, are more likely to fund you with a cofounder than without.


Having read this, a lot of people decided they absolutely, positively must find themselves a cofounder at any cost – because it’s what you have to do.  But from everything I’ve seen and read, that’s backwards: the good cofounders are the ones you come by naturally, the ones you already have a lot of history with.  People you already know you can count on, because you have already.

It’s a little tiny bit like having a baby: long term, things usually go better if you have one with someone you’re really in love with and committed to, rather than the first person you come across who is willing and happens to have a complementary set of reproductive organs.

This is, naturally, something of a catch-22, because by the time you get around to deciding to start the company, you probably already need to have that shared history and background with someone for them to make a good cofounder, but if you don’t have anyone like that available, it’s not like you can create that kind of bond overnight.

The “we need a cofounder at all costs” mentality reminds me a bit of “cargo cult programming“, which in turn takes its names from the cargo cults of the South Pacific: who would perform rituals mimicking actions taken by soldiers in the hopes that it would bring more planes and boats full of “cargo”.

As they say in Italian, “meglio soli che male accompagnati”, which means “better to be alone than in bad company”.

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