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Don't underestimate the power of partnership in entrepreneurship and other creative professions

“The main lesson to draw from the birth of computers is that innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garret or garage.” — Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution

We’re used to celebrating lone geniuses. But most of the world’s greatest inventions, discoveries, and entrepreneurial successes are a result of effective collaboration between two or more people.

We often underestimate the value of strong partnerships and collaboration and overestimate the power of individual capabilities to make breakthroughs. In fact, all glossy press stories, including FS, are about individual founders doing extraordinary work.

Unfortunately, all these stories leave out the important details and present a rather misleading and unuseful portrait of reality. It provides a false sense of hope that you can and should be able to make it all alone. It is problematic because it can discourage people from seeking collaboration and thus limit their ability to succeed.

History is littered with stories of the critical importance of collaboration for producing success across fields from science to music to sports to literature to entrepreneurship.

The importance of partnership is well recognized in the world of startups. Programs like Y Combinator and Iterative explicitly state that they don’t prefer solo-founder startups and encourage solo founders to seek out co-founders before applying to YC. If you look at the entrepreneurial success of the past, this emphasis makes perfect sense.

Apple was started by three founders: Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne. Woz created the Apple I and its next computer Apple II, which became a bestseller.

The partnership between Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger is often used as an example of a successful partnership. Buffett and Munger have been partners since 1978. Many people attribute the incredible success of  Berkshire Hathaway to their successful partnership.

Some of the biggest entrepreneurial successes of recent years are also the result of collaboration between more than one founder.

The American online marketplace for short-term homestays and experiences Airbnb has three founders: Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia, and Nathan Blecharczyk.

Uber was started by two founders: Travis Kalanick, and Garrett Camp.

Atlassian, one of the software success case studies, is founded by two founders: Mike Cannon-Brookes, and Scott Farquhar.

It is no different when it comes to Bangladesh. While some of the major conglomerates in Bangladesh appear to be founded by solo founders, they had instrumental support in their early years from at least one person.

Take Akij Group, for instance. Akij Group founder Sheikh Akij Uddin started the production of beedi in 1952. Before setting up his factory, he met a friend of his father Bidhu Bhushan. Mr. Bidhu already had a successful beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes) business. With his help, Mr. Akij started his beedi production. We don’t have much information about their collaboration. But, it is clear that while Mr. Bidhu was not a partner of Mr. Akij in the business, he played an important role in the early years of Mr. Akij. He offered him important advice and know-how, invaluable for an entrepreneur in the early years.

Another successful local conglomerate Square Group was founded by four friends.

United Group, another successful local conglomerate, was founded by five friends in 1978.

You can have an endless repetition for this story where major successes come through collaboration.

This pattern of collaborative success is even more pronounced in science and knowledge-work. The majority of the world’s major scientific discoveries are the result of close partnerships. That story is for another day.

Let’s take a look into why having a partner makes such a difference.

II.

Having a partner is important. The more appropriate word would be a collaborator. It's useful to have someone with whom you can exchange ideas, talk, do projects, bounce off ideas, and so on. And it's important for many different reasons.

Two heads are better than one. When you are two people, you can think better, and you can have different perspectives. To give an example, two people mean you can have two different ideas. Bring those two ideas together and create something new by merging the two ideas. And then out of that can come out something very interesting. Which is unlikely if you do it all yourself. Because ideas are combinatorial. New ideas are almost always a result of the merging of two old ideas.

The other aspect of this is learning. I have been writing about the critical importance of learning in entrepreneurship. When you work with a partner, you have a clear learning advantage.

You have an accumulated education of two persons. You can learn more on a daily basis and exchange with each other. It can generate incredible advantages in the long run. Isaacson wrote in the above-mentioned book: “Collaborations are not merely among contemporaries but also between generations”.

There is a clear psychological benefit of collaboration. Humans are like waves. We go through constant ebbs and flows. Inspired at one moment, down the next. It makes it difficult to be consistent when you are working solo. Some people are super consistent. But usually, there are secrets behind their consistency that most of us don't know. One of the secrets is of course having a partner, a collaborator. It allows you to share your frustrations, and talk when you feel down and hopeful. This opportunity to unburden allows us to get out of our gut. He or she can stimulate you when you are down and not feeling inspired and motivated to take on the challenge.

Then comes the division of labor benefit. You can divide responsibilities and do different things. For example, you're working on a project with two critical aspects such as product development and sales or research and writing. It is hard to do both things for a single person. Product development demands you do deep work. Sales demand you go out and meet people. It's difficult both at the same time. You can of course try to do both. But doing so will make you less productive in both areas. You will struggle to think and build a good product. Your sales efforts will also falter. When you have a partner, you can divide the work between you. One person can do the development, the other can do the sales and it's more efficient to do something that way. You will not only be more effective but you will also develop term domain expertise.

I can come up with many more interesting reasons for working with a partner and building long-term collaborations. But you get the message.

Find someone you work well with. Built a long-term collaboration. Explore working together and see what unfolds.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2021 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at [email protected]

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