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Monday
Feb262007

Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days Review

Founders at WorkA few weeks ago I received a nice surprise from Apress books: a review copy of Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston.

This 456 page book is a collection of in-depth interviews with the founders of many high-tech startups, like Apple, PayPal, Adobe, Flickr, Six Apart, Blogger, Craigslist, Fog Creek Software, ArsDigita, 37signals and more.

I'm a little over halfway through the book, and have already thoroughly enjoyed the interviews I've read. Especially interesting to me were interviews with Mena Trott of Six Apart, and Evan Williams of Blogger, Joshua Schachter of del.icio.us, Steve Wozniak of Apple, and David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals, since I've used products they've created.

Jessica asked good, open-ended questions, then let the founders speak freely, for very in-depth, detailed replies. I loved reading Steve Wozniak's interview, which is available in its entirety at the Founders at Work site, along with the full interview of Fog Creek Software's Joel Spolsky. This is a good way to see the depth and style of the interviews featured in the book.

Importance of Flexibility
As I read through the interviews, a common thread emerged — that each of the founders benefitted by remaining flexible and open to change. In many cases, the products which became blockbusters for these startups were internal tools, like Blogger, Basecamp, FogBugz, and Flickr.

With Blogger, Evan Williams and his team had a "real" application in Pyra, when their internal note capturing tool, Blogger, exploded in popularity and forced the team to shift. In Flickr's case, Caterina Fake's team was developing an online game, when they found their social photo tool Flickr was taking off. They reluctantly switched to Flickr, saw it grow and eventually sold it to Yahoo. In each these cases, shifting away from the original product proved quite difficult, though in the end, the choice to shift paid off tremendously for each of the founders.

There were some personal projects, created to fulfill the founders' needs, which turned into popular blockbusters, such as Steve Wozniak's Apple I, Craig Newmark's Craigslist and Joshua Schacter's del.icio.us. In these stories, the products were created because of a passion and a need to fulfill the creator's vision for a tool or service, which in the end became very profitable products.

In other cases the blockbuster products were quite different than the founder's original business plans. For PayPal, the company began as a PDA-centric money exchange utility, which shifted to a web-based money exchange utility when eBay users begged for the service. For Adobe's founders, they intended on creating a complete hardware/software system for publishing, until two potential customers begged for the software which became Adobe Postscript.

Present in each of the stories is that thread of flexibility — to not be too tied to your idea of what will work when the signs are leading elsewhere. I found this fascinating, because so often I've had the idea that every great product was planned that way from the start. Many times this approach seemed to be the exception not the rule.

Sharing Hard Times
In the interviews, I appreciated hearing about the "hard times" from each of the founders. it's natural to think that successful people just breeze through without a scratch — when in reality each of these founders faced tough choices, challenges and in some cases, very hard times. Phillip Greenspun's account of the demise of his company ArsDigita was an eye-opener, as was Evan William's revelation of the tough times he went through founding Blogger.

I'm enjoying Founders at Work, and I know it's a great book, because I can't wait to read the next interview. Reading these founders' stories is encouraging in a way that a step-by-step "1-2-3" book isn't. In the hearing of others' stories, I can relate to my own story and apply lessons these founders can share in my own life.

If you have an interest in tech startups, fascinating stories from many interesting people, Founders at Work is a great read. Who knows, maybe the stories shared in this book will help ignite the passion of technology's next founders.

Thanks to Pete and the kind folks at Apress for the opportunity to read, review and share my thoughts on this excellent book.

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