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Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days Paperback – March 11, 2009
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Now available in paperbackwith a new preface and interview with Jessica Livingston about Y Combinator!
Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days is a collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies about what happened in the very earliest days. These people are celebrities now. What was it like when they were just a couple friends with an idea? Founders like Steve Wozniak (Apple), Caterina Fake (Flickr), Mitch Kapor (Lotus), Max Levchin (PayPal), and Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail) tell you in their own words about their surprising and often very funny discoveries as they learned how to build a company.
Where did they get the ideas that made them rich? How did they convince investors to back them? What went wrong, and how did they recover?
Nearly all technical people have thought of one day starting or working for a startup. For them, this book is the closest you can come to being a fly on the wall at a successful startup, to learn how it's done.
But ultimately these interviews are required reading for anyone who wants to understand business, because startups are business reduced to its essence. The reason their founders become rich is that startups do what businesses docreate valuemore intensively than almost any other part of the economy. How? What are the secrets that make successful startups so insanely productive? Read this book, and let the founders themselves tell you.
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What surprised me most was how down-to-earth and normal most of these successful people were. Only a couple of them seemed full of themselves. The rest, surprisingly, were just the opposite. Their stories about their startup days provided insights into their values, motivations, aspirations, points of view, work ethic; as well as their worries, fears, doubts, and concerns; plus their approach to making tough decisions and a recognition of their personal limitations and flaws. Their interview responses are full of insights into their decisions about business development, product development, product management, pricing, promotion, distribution, customer service, technical support, accounting, finance, hiring and technology choices; and dealing with venture capitalists, business partners and actual or potential competitors.
The interviews also provide a lot of insights into technology trends and market trends during the time that the founders' companies were starting up.
Here are the companies whose founders were interviewed, in the order they appear in the book: PayPal, Hotmail, Apple, Excite, Software Arts, Lotus Development, Iris Associates, Groove Networks, Pyra Labs (Blogger.com), Yahoo, Research in Motion, Marimba, Gmail, WebTV, TiVo, Viaweb, del.icio.us, ONELIST, Bloglines, Craigslist, Flickr, WAIS, InternetArchive, Alexa, Adobe Systems, Open Systems, Hummer Winblad, 37signals, ArsDigita, Fog Creek Software, TripAdvisor, HOT or NOT, Tickle, Firefox, Six Apart, Lycos, Aliant Computer Systems, Shareholder.com.
This book is perfect for anyone interested in entrepreneurship, technology startups, technology companies in general, and business books in general. I've read the book once already and now I'm in the middle of reading it a second time. I wish there were an audio version of it.
The chapters covering Hotmail and PayPal showed some remarkable insight into how a given product can be marketed. Hotmail was a fairly straightforward shot from original idea to sales, (email from PIM DB is a fairly minor refinement technically -- it was huge from a business standpoint) but went through some massive changes in how that idea was sold. PayPal, on the other hand, went through profound shifts in the product itself, and also in marketing.
For me, insight into the founders' thought-processes as they rolled with the changes that they encountered was the primary value of the book. The author, then, is to be commended. Keeping the discussions of multiple interviewees relevant and picking out such insightful details is no mean feat. Every chapter so far has been excellent in these regards -- A further testament to her skills as an interviewer and editor.
If you are in or are considering going into a technical business, this book will help you understand the mind of those successful at that sort of thing. Most of the business advice I find is directed at the non-technical side of things, which is a very different sort of mind. That is what makes this book so particularly useful.
I think the book could benefit from a few interviews about startups that failed. (In the startup phase - by the time RIM or Lycos failed, they were very far from startup stage, so the interview is about their success, not downfall). Some of the founders that were eventually successful did mention their earlier less successful adventures. In-depth coverage of projecs that could have been successful but went wrong - that would add a lot of color to the book.
There should be an AP test on this where you place out of MBA classes. Thus, you can attend b-school after engineering school with 1.5 yrs completed out of 2. But, then that's the idea at the heart of entrepreneurship isn't it? To pre-study before you execute being a tech co-founder.
This review brings up incredibly unpopular advice: That entrepreneurship requires self-study before reaching out to mentors and advisors mentioned in this book. Here is more unpopular advice, since you've read so far: Mentors want you to execute a little of the