Founders at Work

Mar 21, 2007  |  Michael Wurzer

I like to read. After I finish a book (well, a non-fiction book), I usually write up a summary for future reference or publishing on our company intranet. Now that we have this blog, though, I thought it might be interesting to post some of my summaries here, too. Here’s my first:

In Founders at Work, Jessica Livingston interviews thirty “founders” of technology startups, including Steve Wozniak of Apple, Mike Lazaridis of RIM, Blake Ross of Firefox and Paul Buchheit of gmail. Though the founders were active in many different decades and covered many different disciplines, the most fascinating aspect of the book is that there are several strong themes that are common through the interviews. Summing up, success for these founders came from:

  • Circumstances — Being in the right place at the right time.
  • Passion and Skill — They invented things they loved, which is why they knew so much about them. Of course, they were all really smart, too.
  • Partnership — Almost every one of the founders interviewed had a partner who was instrumental to the success. No one did it alone.
  • Flexibility — Almost every innovation started out as something different, and success only came through adaptation to circumstances.
  • Perseverance — The willingness to stay focused and plow ahead was mentioned by nearly everyone, and was one of the main reasons the partnerships were deemed so important. The partners were able to encourage each other in the toughest of times, and that made all the difference.
  • Here are some quotes I highlighted from the interviews:

    Foreword by Paul Graham: “Apparently sprinters reach their highest speed right out of the blocks, and spend the rest of the race slowing down. The winners slow down the least.” p. ix.

    Steve Wozniak’s advice: “First of all, try to have the highest of ethics and to be open and truthful about things, not hiding. . . . Don’t mislead people. Know in your heart that you are a good person with good goals because that will carry over to your own self-confidence and your belief in your engineering abilities. Always seek excellence: make your product better than the average person would.” p.55.

    Joe Kraus of Excite! on the ups and downs of a startup: “You never know anything. The hardest part in a startup is that you wake up one morning, and you feel great about the day, and you think, ‘We’re kicking ass.” And then you wake up the next morning, and you think ‘We’re dead.’ And literally nothing’s changed.”

    Dan Bricklin of Visicalc on the value of his partnership with Bob Frankston: “Bob’s much more aggressive in many ways than I am, and I’m much more conservative. So we’re very complementary. . . . It’s like having old married couples who spat all the time, always yelling at each other. . . . arguing and stuff like that — that’s just a way of testing your own understanding of things. By arguing with others . . ., that’s how you learn. And if somebody can’t take the arguments with it, then maybe they don’t really believe in what they’re talking about and they don’t understand it well enough.” p. 87.

    Mitch Kapor of Lotus: “The most important thing for me is, I don’t want to work with someone who says, ‘Just help me make the business be more successful.’ I want to work with entrepeneurs who are personally passionate, committed, and believe in what they’re doing. Not all entrepreneurs are like that. Some people may be just as happy selling canned tuna . . .” p.98.

    Ray Ozzie of Lotus Notes and Groove on money: “Everyone knows that one reason you go to work and do what you do is the hope that ultimately you’ll be compensated. But you don’t have to say it, and it doesn’t have to come through. . . . It should be about how you can impact the lives of users, partners, and the employees themselves. . . . The more you focus on the things that matter when you are talking to people who want to believe in you, the more they will believe in you and the more it will be a sustainable entity.” p.110.

    Evan Williams of Blogger on his biggest surprise: “How far you can get on a simple idea is amazing. I have a tendency to add more and more — the ideas always get too big to implement before they even get off the ground. Simplicity is powerful.” p. 125.

    Jonathon Schacther of on what he’d do differently: “I would have designed the back-end architecture differently, and that would have saved a lot of work now. Scaling past one machine, one database, is very challenging . . . ” p.227.

    Mark Fletcher of Bloglines: “I guess my advice is: solve a problem that you have, first and foremost, and chances are, other people may have the same problem.” p.234.

    Charles Geschke of Adobe on introducing technology: “[I]f you’re only focused on the market today, by the time you introduce your solution to that problem, there’ll probably be several others already entrenched. . . . Much better to figure out where the marketplace is going to be in a few years, focus on providing a solution to that, and then let the market forces catch up to you. That’s what we did with Photoshop and it turned out to be a great decision for us . . . .” p.291.

    Phillip Greenspun of ArsDigita: “People don’t like to write. It’s hard. The people who were really good software engineers were usually great writers; they had tremendous ability to organize their thoughts and communicate.” p.325.

    Joel Spolsky of FogCreek on what works: “The one thing we learned over 5 years is that nothing works better than just improving your product. . . . If we had taken all the effort we put into these crazy [pricing and other marketing] schemes and put it into moving our software development schedule ahead by the equivalent amount, it would have paid off much more.” p.354.

    Blake Ross of Firefox on lessons learned: “One is to make sure you are always in communication with the people who are eventually going to use your product. It’s very easy to just lock yourself in a room and code all day, and you forget what the real problems are that people are having. So you have to keep talking to people and keep refining what you are doing.” p.403.

    Conclusion: Highly recommended for anyone interested in technology, business, creativity, innovation, and passion.

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