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on June 3, 2007
The Summary

Jessica Livingston has written an amazing book. If you want to read the stories behind some of the most well known software companies in the last 30 years, you will find it in this book. But Livingston hasn't just covered the usual suspects (Google, Microsoft), she has included a diverse collection from Steve Wozniak (Apple) to David Heinemeier Hansson (37 Signals), Dan Bricklin (Visicalc) to Blake Ross (Firefox). It covers a lot of ground from the early 80's software boom to the Web 2.0 starts ups. But there is more than just stories about starting companies, there is real advice from the frontline trenches of software start-ups. Keep your post-it notes and highlighter handy, if you are like me you will be annotating and highlighting a lot!

The Audience

If you have ever considered a start-up you should definitely read this book. It's like picking the brains of some very experienced entrepreneurs. Anybody that has already tried their hand at start-ups will recognize the value of this book. Most will probably feel like I did, and wish that they had had this book before they started their first company. It could have saved me many painful lessons (both financially and personally). Reading these interviews is like having 32 mentors.

The Details

Like many people I am always a little skeptical of `success stories'. Just because someone did x, y and z, doesn't mean that I could follow these very steps and be as successful. Just because Aunt Ethel, who lived to be a 100, attributes her long life to drinking a glass of whisky every day, doesn't mean I can drink a glass of whisky every day and live to be a 100. Instead of a collection of fluffy `creation myth' stories written about software companies, Livingston has put a lot of thought into how she approached these interviews and has collected some real gems of insights from these entrepreneurs. She has uncovered a gold mine of valuable advice and information about starting a company. As you read these stories you start to see some patterns emerging. Some of these patterns I recognize from my own experiences, but others were new to me. Sometimes you see contradictory advice from different founders; one tells you, you need to focus on the technology and somebody else explains that it's more important to focus on business/market opportunity. There are definitely multiple paths to starting a company, but some advice is repeated story after story, and these seem to be universal truths.

The Ideas

Here are some of the universal truths that I culled from the interviews:

- Iterate through ideas, the first idea isn't always the best

- Business plans are important - but be prepared to change it many times

- You need to be naïve - "unencumbered by reality"

- Persistence makes all the difference

- Passion - you need to be really excited about what you are doing and think it's really important

- Understand and listen to your end users

The book is full of ideas and advice like this.

The Take-Aways

Overall, I can't say enough good things about this book. Obviously it's aimed at entrepreneurs, but I know there are going to be many people just interested in the stories behind their favorite companies or people. Personally I loved the interviews with Ray Ozzie, Joel Spolsky, Joe Kraus and Steve Wozniak. I was also fascinated by the stories behind companies like: 37 Signals, Six Apart, del.icio.us and Craigslist. I was even surprised by the story behind `Hot or Not', it's not as shallow as you might think.

Entrepreneurs -- wanna-be, new and experienced -- you NEED to read, think, digest and act on the advice in this book and your next/current entrepreneurial venture will go much smoother.

Kes Sampanthar

Inventor of ThinkCube
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on February 19, 2007
This is an absolute must read if you're job, your passion, or both (if you're lucky) has anything to do with creating technical innovation. "Founders at Work" is a wonderfully meander through the stories of successful company founders - across several decades. Far from focusing on just those who made it big during the first dot-com boom or those who are profiting from Web 2.0, Jessica also includes some of the true pioneers in the field. She recognizes that, not only do these industry veterans have valuable stories to convey but, since many of them are helping to steer companies and venture capital funds to this day, their advice is quite topical and current.

From the great introduction right through the final interview, this book is packed with great anecdotes, advice, and information and inspiration. Makes you wonder as to what the story is behind the story - how did Jessica get unfettered access to such a broad array of the founding fathers?

I've included some illustrative quotes from the book below. Give them a read and then go pick up this book. The printed copy is a bargain and the e-book version is a steal. It may turn out to be one of the best investments you ever make.

* "You guys are nuts. Throw out your business plan. Your customers--or potential customers - are telling you what your business should be. The business plan was only used to get you the money. Why don't you rewrite a business plan that is focused just on providing what your customers want?" - Q.T. Wiles advice to Charles Geschke (Cofounder, Adobe) on the real purpose of a business plan

* "There were some warning signs. Consider McKinsey, which holds itself out as one of the world's leading repositories of knowledge on how to manage a business. They say they'll never grow their company by more than 25 percent per year, because otherwise it's just too hard to transmit the corporate culture. So if you're growing faster than 25 percent a year, you have to ask yourself, `What do I know about management that McKinsey doesn't know?'" - Philip Greenspun (Cofounder, ArsDigita) on scaling corporate culture

* That [not improving core product quality] was probably the biggest mistake we made. And that's the advice I give everybody. All those little coupon schemes, this is what General Motors does. They figure out new rebate schemes because they forgot all about how to design cars people want to buy. But when you still remember how to make software people want, great, just improve it. - Joel Spolsky (Cofounder, Fog Creek Software)

* "I think some people slept; I know I didn't sleep at all." - Max Levchin (Cofounder, PayPal)

* "There were times when we were really broke before we had our angel investment, when only one guy who had children was getting paid." - Caterina Fake (Cofounder, Flickr)

With nearly 21 of the 32 interviewees having the term "Cofounder" in their titles, Joel Spolsky's advice seems perhaps to reflect best on what was critical to the success of these companies. "But because they never really take the leap and quit their job, they can give up their dream at any time. And 99.9 percent of them will actually give up their dream. If they take the leap, quit their job, go do it full-time--no matter how much it sucks--and convince one other person to do the same thing with them, they're going to have a much, much higher chance of actually getting somewhere."
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on February 7, 2007
I'm the founder of an early-stage startup, and I can wholeheartedly say that this book has enlightened me. The usual problem with books of this vein is that the author only has one core idea and then fluffs it up to get 300 pages. Founders@Work however is like reading a pile of books written by successful founders, each with their own insights and tidbits of useful advice.

You end up reading these real-life, down-to-earth stories about the early days at Apple and Yahoo and PayPal, and you're seeing you and your co-founder right there. Hey! I code in a towel sometimes too! They aren't telling you the glorified stories their PR guys tell them to say. This is the real deal. It's awfully inspiring.

I would HIGHLY recommend this book to anyone who is thinking of starting, or is currently running a startup.
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on September 19, 2007
There's plenty of great information here, as all the other reviews said. But this interview format is really excruciating to read. Casual speech is very hard to transcribe in such a way that it becomes readable. This is why journalists and other writers are trained in how to reduce a long, tangential speech into something meaningful and clear. These interviews tend to run on and on and on, with the subjects jumping around, sometimes contradicting themselves, or misspeaking; all the stuff we do when talking, but which doesn't really matter in conversation, where other cues like body language make up for it. It really takes a lot of work to read this stuff, you're constantly having to hear the subject "out loud" in your head for it to make sense.

This book's easily twice as long as it could be if these interviews were edited down to a few really useful pages each. Or better: rewritten as short essays.
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on January 31, 2007
1) I often hear advice in the form 'Do this' or 'Do not do that.' I have a hard time internalizing that kind of advice because it's hard to remember. This book tells the stories behind the advice, which is more entertaining and easier to internalize.

2) This book is meaty. It's 400 pages of small print, so there is a lot of information.

3) It is easy to read in a random access fashion. Each chapter stands on its own, and each page has it's own question and answer in the dialog.

4) You get the back stories. I read many things about Fog Creek and Viaweb that I never knew[..].
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on June 29, 2008
This is a good book on what it took for 32 entrepreneurs to become successful in the technology field. However it is focused only on the technology field. If that is your area of interest this would be a great book for you to read. But if your area of interest is startups in another field you would be disappointed by this book. Great for the area it covers, and it does give many insights that could be adapted to other fields, but for me it was too narrow a view of entrepreneurship.
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on July 29, 2007
This book is a collection of 32 interviews with founders of IT startups. The interviewer is Jessica Livingston who herself is a founding partner of Y-Combinator. The interviewees are:

1. Max Levchin (Paypal)
2. Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail)
3. Steve Wozniak (Apple Computer)
4. Joe Kraus (Excite)
5. Dan Bricklin (Software Arts)
6. Mitchell Kapor (Lotus Development)
7. Ray Ozzie (Iris Associates, Groove Networks)
8. Evan Williams (Pyra Labs - Blogger.com)
9. Tim Brady (Yahoo)
10. Mike Lazaridis (Research in Motion)
11. Arthur Van Hoff (Marimba)
12. Paul Buchheit (Gmail)
13. Steve Perlman (WebTV)
14. Mike Ramsay (TiVo)
15. Paul Graham (Viaweb)
16. Joshua Schachter (del.icio.us)
17. Mark Fletcher (ONEList, Bloglines)
18. Craig Newmark (craigslist)
19. Caterina Fake (Flickr)
20. Brewster Kahle (WAIS, Internet Archive, Alexa Internet)
21. Charles Geschke (Adobe Systems)
22. Ann Winblad (Open Systems, Hummer Winblad)
23. David Heinemeier Hansson (37signals)
24. Philip Greenspun (ArsDigita)
25. Joel Spolsky (Fog Creek Software)
26. Stephen Kauffer (TripAdvisor)
27. James Hong (Hot or Not)
28. James Currier (Tickle)
29. Blake Ross (Firefox)
30. Mena Trott (Six Apart)
31. Bob Davis (Lycos)
32. Ron Gruner (Alliant Computer Systems, Shareholder.com)

Most of the interviews follow this line:

* Getting started.
* Interactions with VCs.
* Some of the more intense moments.
* Turning Points.
* Things that were surprising.
* Felt like quiting at any time ?
* Advice for people looking to start a startup.

Most of the interviews were good, a few were boring and a few came out to be outstanding. I dont want to specify which ones bored because you will be prejudiced in case you are planning to read it. The interviews I found most interesting were the ones with Steve Wozniak, Dan Bricklin, Mitchell Kapor, Craig Newmakr, Charles Geschke, Philip Greenspun, Joel Spolsky and Blake Ross.

Most of these startups had more than one founder and they all swear it would have been impossible to do it alone. There were one man shows also, albeit few. Another interesting fact is that most of these people knew each other during their college period or previous jobs. It makes one wonder whether you need to be in an elite circle to rise above the ordinary.Many of these founders came from Stanford or MIT and several of them previously worked at HP. It seems that HP used to be the ultimate dream company for engineers.

Another fact which might not surprise you is that most founders were young when they cut all the safety ropes at went for it. This shouldnt be surprising because that is the time when you have boundless energy and you dont have a family to take care of so there is less risk. Ofcourse there are exceptions to the young founder phenomenon, but very few.

In the interview with Blake Ross he talks about his new company called Parakey which was developing a new application which was under cover at the time of the interview. It turns out that they were developing an application platform for web and desktop - providing applications the framework to work online and offline. Parakey was bought by Facebook recently.

This book follows the style of a 1986 book from Microsoft Press called Programmers at Work. Interestingly Dan Bricklin and Ray Ozzie are interviewed in that book also.

My rating 4/5.
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on December 7, 2015
This book contains great interviews by an insightful and influential person. While I haven’t finished it yet, I am writing this review mostly to be able to add some product images. I was horrified by the quality of the printing of this book! Apress, the publisher, ought to be ashamed. I have uploaded images showing how poorly the printed word looks in the paperback edition. Note the awful dithering (fuzziness). None of the letters are crisp. It almost looks like a cheap photocopy on a bargain-basement laser printer.

I do not know if the hardcover edition has this problem or not.
review image review image
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on October 10, 2015
My 1-start rating isn't for the content of the book, but the terrible print quality(soft cover) - the main text of the book is printed in a font that's not a solid block but with some pattern, which makes it appear out of focus - very uncomfortable to read. I have decided to return the book.
Was trying to get the Kindle version as many reviews are based on that, but somehow it's no longer available :(

Attached is a picture I took with a page from this book. It actually reads worse than that due to the out of focus effect.
review image
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on May 1, 2007
The book, "Founders at Work," is basically just a collection of interviews with several founders of tech companies, with one chapter for each of 32 people. If you aren't at all familiar with the people or companies, there is a small half-page blurb on each founder. However, you should know that it seems like there was literally no editing done to the interviews, which were obviously voice-recorded, and then later written down. Some founders, like Steve Wozniak, go off on complete tangents. He talks in-depth on hardware design and different types of RAM. There's a lot of esoteric knowledge in there that I think will lose a non-technical person. This book may be much easier to digest as a book-on-tape.

One negative: the author definitely doesn't coddle you by explaining the world of start-ups and Venture Capital (VC), which is absolutely full of jargon. It's never explained what Angel Investors, Limited Partners, or "becoming incorporated" are. It would have been nice to learn at the beginning of the book what the difference between an LLC (limited liability company) and a "C corporation" is. (FYI: the former can't have stockholders.) Some terms I was able to figure out from context. An example would be that many founders had problems with VC's and tried to avoid taking money by "growing organically," which is never explicitly defined. It just means that they don't take money from sources outside the company to supplement their hiring.

The founders that I most wanted to read about only took up about 10 pages each - David Heinemeier Hansson (37signals / Ruby on Rails), Paul Buchheit (gmail), Blake Ross (firefox), and Joel Spolsky (Fog Creek Software). However, a positive is that there is a wide range of founders that were included. There's blogging companies (blogger/six apart), webmail (hotmail/gmail), search (yahoo/lycos), Apple, Adobe, and TiVo. The article that was my favorite was actually about a company I'd never heard of: ArsDigita and Philip Greenspun. The story of ArsDigita was that they wound up taking VC money and got run into the ground. Greenspun explains this all, but also goes into how a programmer should really be more than just a coder; he should be a true professional like a doctor or lawyer. For instance, a developer should be speaking directly to customers, because when you send a sales guy to do it, they can promise anything. And if you're off in a corner coding, that's a perfect candidate to outsource. He talks about how software developers should be good writers and communicators, and should care about quality by doing things like code reviews. Since that's my job right now, Greenspun really struck a cord with me. Most companies could treat the profession differently; it could and should be more.

There were several pervasive themes repeated by everyone in the book. The main one was to be persistent. Also, make sure that you found the company with more than yourself, and with people you like on a personal level. And keep expenses low, so that you don't have to take VC money.

You should do what your customers want and deliver a product that makes them happy. Or solve a problem that YOU have personally, and see if it applies to others. Don't force yourself to follow the idea from your original business plan. And definitely don't worry about what your competitors are doing because you're bought out for having a large user base, and for having "buzz" (being popular).

"Founders at Work" is eye-opening to read, mainly because you learn that these techy guys starting companies aren't all that business savy and most don't have good communication skills, but they work through it. You don't need an MBA to succeed; they simply hire in the sales or marketing guys. You get somebody else to be CEO/CFO/COO. It really makes you think, "hey, I could actually be doing this."

This is why I recommend the book: it is inspiring. It could use some editing, but it's worth a read.
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