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Entries in Books (42)


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, 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 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.


Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone

into-africa.jpgAs a fan of the Tour de France, one of my favorite Tour blogs is Martin Dugard's at I've thoroughly enjoyed his writing while following the Tour across France. His writing style is approachable, easy to absorb and has generous portions of personal observations and interesting historical details.

Martin's blend of readability, observation and historical detail bring his subjects to life.

Because of his writing style, I picked up Martin's Last Voyage of Columbus last November. Just 3 weeks ago, I found a copy of Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone at my local library.

In a nutshell, Dr. David Livingstone was a Scottish explorer in the mid 1800s, credited with walking across Africa, is sent to search for the source of the Nile river. When he goes missing, several expeditions are sent to verify if he is dead or alive, but only one man, American journalist and adventurer Henry Morton Stanley, finds Livingstone alive, and utters the famous line to him: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

It would seem knowing the end of the story would make for a dull read — but no! Dugard does and excellent job of building up the back-story on both of these remarkable men, and their contemporaries. Dugard shares details on both their accomplishments and defeats, which led them their moment in history.

I was surprised by the hardships both Livingstone, Stanley and other explorers and their support staff were willing to endure to criss-cross Africa. Tribal wars, cannibals, slave traders, swamps, rivers, lakes, mountains, deserts, insects, wild animals, disease — you name it, they experienced it.

I knew this was a great book when I found myself yearning to read just a few more pages on my vacation last week. I would take time morning, afternoon and evening to read this intriguing story. It definitely passed my 100 page book test. :-)

After finishing Into Africa, I had a better understanding for the people involved: both Livingstone and Stanley, but also for their contemporaries, the state of the world and Africa itself. I've added a new piece of mental map to my understanding of the 1800s, and its impact on our current culture.

If you have an interest in history, exploration, Africa or just enjoy a good story, I highly recommend Martin Dugard's Into Africa.


The Last Voyage of Columbus

last-voyage-lg.jpgIt was a spur of the moment choice to pick up The Last Voyage of Columbus as I strolled through the Milwaukee Public Library's Central branch one afternoon. I was awaiting the bus, looking for something interesting to read, when I spotted the book on the Librarian's Choice table.

I enjoy learning about world history, and I've not read much about Christopher Columbus, so I was intrigued by “the Last Voyage” in the title. The author's name, Martin Dugard, rang a bell as well. Then I remembered — Martin wrote some of my favorite coverage of the Tour de France this year, on his weblog.

I checked out the book, and am glad I did — it's an excellent job of historical storytelling and a tribute to the man who was Christopher Columbus. This was one of the rare non-fiction books I couldn't wait to read more of: reading a chapter at lunch-break or a few chapters before bed.

The story revolves around Columbus, of course, but provides significant insight into the times in which Columbus lived. Dugard did a fine job of providing a setting for Columbus' insane idea to sail westward as a way of reaching China and India.

But Columbus' first 3 voyages are not the main topic of this book, though they are recounted for perspective. The real meat of the story is about Columbus' 4th and final voyage from 1502-1504, in which he aimed to find a passage through the new world, as an alternate way to arrive in Asia.

The 4th voyage was indeed Columbus' toughest, as he and his fleet encountered many trials, problems and dangerous situations, including mutiny. Reading about the drive and dedication he had to his task was inspiring, especially in the face of the troubles he encountered along the way.

I was amazed me to read about the achievements Columbus had in his career as a discoverer. Not only “the New World” but South America and nearly discovering the Pacific Ocean — he focused on a location a mere 35 miles across the Isthmus of Panama from the Pacific ocean, at the current location of the Panama Canal.

Was Columbus perfect? By no means. He had his own flaws and made some bad decisions. What's interesting to me was how he dealt with the challenges presented to him on this voyage, how dedicated he was to discovery, and his skills as a sailor, captain and navigator.

If you're looking for a good historical storytelling and have interest in one of history's most interesting personalities, I recommend Martin Dugard's The Last Voyage of Columbus.

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Cool New Site:

My friend and fellow Milwaukee-blogger Todd, filled me in on the latest ibw.gifproject from 800-CEO-READ called InBubbleWrap, which just went public this week. The idea behind InBubbleWrap: a place online where you can compete to win business books (and eventually other stuff) online. It's a little like Woot! in that each day IBW offers just one item on the site. However, instead of selling that item, visitors can take a shot at winning that item in a drawing.

All that's required is an account at IBW, then Monday through Friday you need to check their RSS feed, or stop at the site and tell 'em “I Want One!”, then answer the trivia question to have your entry submitted. Trivia questions aren't difficult, I think they simply assure that a real person is competing.

Then at the end of the day the IBW crew reviews the entries and picks a winner — or in some cases several winners, based on how many copies of the book are up for grabs. If you win, you're notified via email, and then confirm you really want the prize through a URL in that email.

Next thing you know, you have cool business books arriving in the mail! In fact, I've just received Grapevine and a complimentary The Big Moo this week from my participation in the InBubbleWrap beta test. All in all a very cool concept and a great way to get some nice reading materials.

Ryan, the director of IBW tells me they're looking to expand beyond just books. If you're interested in having your product or service featured on IBW, I'd suggest dropping Ryan a line.

Best Wishes to Ryan, Todd and the InBubbleWrap crew! :-)

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Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town

scttslt.jpgI've been meaning to post something about Cory Doctorow's latest novel, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town, which was released last week. I like Cory's conversational writing style, humor and sense of technology — nothing like the cheesy pseudo-technology so often experienced in hollywood films.

In fact, I'm about to install the e-book on my Zire 72 today and begin the story, so I can't comment yet. However, judging by Doctorow's works (which I've enjoyed very much), I think I'll enjoy this novel as well. We'll see. :-)

My posts on Cory's other books:
Eastern Standard Tribe
A Place So Foreign and 8 More
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

The e-book version is available as a free download in multiple formats, or it can be had in paper form at Amazon, or in signed/inscribed paper form at Cory's website.

Update 2005-12-30: After reading Cory's latest novel, I have to say it wasn't as good for me as Down and Out, Eastern Standard Tribe or A Place So Foreign. This story was not very focused in comparison, and I had a hard time grasping the idea of family members that were mountains, washing machines and dessicated corpses. I really wanted to like the story and did enjoy Cory's writing style, but the whole of the book just felt a bit too disjointed.