Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Founders At Work

For my Birthday I got Jessica Livingston's "Founders At Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days". It was an enjoyable book and over the past two weeks I quickly went through it. The book is broken up into thirty-two different interviews with company founders. Most of the stories are about web companies, but there are a few hardware stories mixed in.

Covering so many different companies and individuals one coundn't help but compare them. You have companies like Apple that started with the brains behind it to make a really fantastic product and on the flip side you have Yahoo which looks like it was pure dumb luck. Yahoo was the biggest surprise for me. Started as a way to keep track of links for a dissertation the founders spent the first eight months manually entering in urls people would send them, sometimes eight hours a day the book says. They were in the right place at the right time and that was it. I found it extremely hard to read very deeply into any advice given from companies like Yahoo or HotOrNot which (another random luck story). But to match there are plenty of stories of companies who put in several years of hard work and it paid off. Luck is always a factor in a startup, sometimes it is tiny and sometimes it is a metric ton dragging you forward whether you know it or not.

The story of TiVo mentioned another company called ReplayTV which is no longer around. ReplayTV was TiVo's big competition when they were first growing. All of the stories in the book are mostly successful in the end (the company might have died, but the founder got to cash out). Discussing ReplayTV made me take note of the fact that there was no stories of failed companies. This is probably due to the fact that there are plenty of good stories without having to discuss failures and it is easier to sell a book about companies people have heard of, but no doubt the companies that failed had plenty of good lessons that they learned the hard way.

One story that resinated with me was the story of FireFox. While I lived through looking back I hadn't realized just how much they had going for them at the time. I.E. development team had been discontinued, Netscape only 5% of the users and a horrible interface and no change in sight. Out comes this little Firefox... Comparing that to Arora. Between new versions of I.E. that Microsoft is pushing, new versions of FireFox, Safari and then Chrome comes out. I am glad that I didn't try to really push Arora and kept it as just a QtWebKit browser that utilizes what Qt has to offer.

The book has a large quantity of material and at times I felt a few stories were just repeating earlier ones, but it was a fun read, I picked up a few things and while it doesn't get into a lot of technical detail there are lessons that you can pickup from the book such as: You will probably need to change your startup idea, it will be stressful, and patience and persistence pays off.

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