Chip Shots by Chip Griffin

Book Review: Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston

A few months ago, I picked up a copy of Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston, but I didn’t get a chance to read it until this past weekend.  Turns out to be an excellent read.  At first, I was skeptical of the notion of reading transcripts of interviews rather than a coherent story, but it really seems to work.  Included are conversations with 32 founders of tech startups, ranging from older companies like Apple and Lotus to the hot, hip young companies of the recent boom like Flickr and 37Signals. (See the tags below for the full list of company founders included)

Between this and Ben Casnocha’s book this weekend, my reading has caused me to do a lot of reflecting on my own entrepreneurial experiences.  (And it certainly fuels my ever-present itch to start more new companies — enterprises in their infancy are my passion.)

Because of the variety of companies profiled and the different backgrounds that each founder brought to their own startup, the book does a great job of exploring different paths to success.  Certainly common themes seem to exist throughout, but this book demonstrates that there’s no right or wrong answer to any startup question.  Ultimately, each entrepreneur must follow a unique path.

A few examples of things that popped out at me as I read:

  • The interviews with Steve Wozniak of Apple, Dan Bricklin of Software Arts (VisiCalc), and Mitch Kapor of Lotus took me back to my days of programming on cassette tapes in BASIC for the TRS-80.  But more important, it shows many of today’s younger entrepreneurs that memory space used to be a huge commodity and tight, efficient code was key.  Today, computer programs tend to be much more bloated since memory and hard disk space are cheap.  In the current environment, the focus is on lean hardware to make everything lighter and more power-efficient.
  • Ray Ozzie on hiring: “In a startup, you’re on this mission together.  Everyone has to feel that, and you have to hire people who are willing to believe in something they are trying to accomplish.
  • More Ray Ozzie on the real reason to take investors on: “I funded the first few years [of Groove] myself.  But eventually I took money from Mitch Kapor and then others.  Not so much because I needed it at that point, but because I knew that, ultimately, you cannot accomplish something completely on your own.  You really need to develop a network of people who win when you win.”
  • Paul Graham, founder of ViaWeb, on deals: “Never believe it’s a deal till the money’s in the bank.  Even at the point where you walk in that room to sign the final papers, there’s still a 10 percent chance the deal’s going to fall through.  At the point where people say, “We want to buy you,” the chances of it falling through are like 80 or 90 percent.  So you can’t let yourself believe.  If someone wants to make you an offer, fine, but don’t change your plans based on that.  Just keep going.”
  • Ron Gruner of “I think that bootstrapping the company on a quarter of a million dollars made us a little myopic.  We became so proud of that fact that we didn’t find the middle ground.  I think that in ’98, ’99, or 2000, we could have taken a million, $2 million of capital, at a very attractive valuation, and retained control and grown the company twice or three times as fast as we did.”

My only nit with the book really, is that I would love to have seen a companion offering or a few chapters outlining the key themes that Jessica picked up on in her interviews.  I’m certain after spending that amount of time with all of those successful founders, she would be able to do a decent discussion of the lessons and themes that permeated those talks.  Of course, that deviates from the “in their own words” format, but I still would have enjoyed it.

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