The Problem with Part-Time and Distributed Founders

by Jens Lapinski, Director, Techstars London

In my experience, a superb way to set your company up for failure is to have part-time founders who live in different cities. When I see this arrangement, my appetite to invest drops to almost zero.

Imagine you had a founder working one or two days a week. Whilst this person is working one or two days a week, other founders will work five to seven days. When the part-time worker comes in, all that happens is that they get caught up. Given they are part time, they can’t effectively manage anybody who is full time. They are likely not able to mentally move at the same speed as the other founders, as they only spend 20%-40% of their time thinking about the business. Overall what is likely to happen is that they slow the company down, as they move with only 20-40% of the speed as the other founders.

Now imagine you had a co-founder who is working full time, but they work in a different office. Or maybe they work from home. Or maybe they live in a different city. When you need to get hold of them, it takes time. Because you don’t sit next to them, you are less in sync. Because you can’t see them and they can’t see you, you have no non-verbal communication. They can’t observe everybody, and you can’t observe them. Due to this lack of synchronisation, quality of teamwork and speed of execution will most likely suffer.

Or, to put in another way, which of these statements sounds as if it is more likely to be correct?

  1. The founders were successful, because everybody worked part-time and from different locations.
  1. The founders were successful, despite the fact that everybody worked part-time and from different locations.

I know there are companies that are successful with part-time distributed teams. I think this can work once you have found a model that is successful and you are scaling it up. I think it is also helpful when the work items are highly compartmentalised and not interdependent. It is also helpful when team members have worked together before and can ensure that there is good cultural fit.

However, I know of very few companies that have part-time, distributed founders. (Note the difference from team.) I know of a lot of startups that failed largely because of it. Doing a startup is hard. There is no need to make it even harder. I personally prefer full-time founders working from the same garage. It works.

Jens is a Director at Techstars, London, where he is responsible for selecting companies for investment and operating the Techstars London program. Prior to Techstars, Jens co-founded Forward Labs, which built profitable startups at high speed using lean startup principles. He also co-founded and was CEO of aiHit, which provides automated company data to the business information industry and is now backed by Amadeus and VTB Capital. Find Jens on his blog, Founders View or on Twitter: @jenslapinski