Review: Founders at Work – Stories of Startups’ Early Days

If you read too much conceptual or technical stuff, you can lose sight of the other side of business. The human side. And, as everyone who is anyone is fond of saying, investors don’t invest in ideas, they invest in teams. People make it happen.

So I went looking for a startup-focused book that focuses on the humans behind the people. Not a lot of choices. This book tries to do that. It succeeds in a way.

Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days

Basically, Livingston sat down with the key nodes (from the ‘70s on – Apple to Hotmail to Delicious) and discussed their experiences building their companies. She transcribed the interviews. Which can be great if done well, but that’s not the case here. The questions jump around in random order. There’s a lot of casual talking. Which is okay at first, but quickly becomes tedious in a ~500 page book.

When you do find the meat in the fat, it’s great. Mitch Kapor’s interview was particularly awesome. (I first came across him when I read Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure, which chronicles his effort to create a PDA in the ’90s.)

“I want to work with entrepreneurs who are personally passionate, committed, and believe in what they’re doing. Not all entrepreneurs are like that…

You think Mark Cuban really cared about what they were doing at Broadcast.com? This is not to criticize him as a businessman — I’m just observing — but I don’t think he had a fundamental passion about that business.

There was an opportunity, he saw it, he built something, he sold, and he cashed out at the right time.”

Throughout, uou learn how being an amateur helps build amazing stuff, because you just don’t know any better. You learn how painful picking the wrong investors can be. You learn about how second time entrepreneurs want more control. You learn about how each generation of tech eats then builds off the last.

Perhaps most importantly, you can see how these pieces all fell together to create the modern Valley. Lean. Customer development. Better/smarter investors. Tech over brand. Each is a reaction to some of the excesses these founders describe.

You see how the DNA evolved. And that’s useful.

But, again, it’s all implicit knowledge in the info-dump.

Note: I can’t hold this against the book since it is explicitly focused on the founders. But I wanted a focus on the people. That group that rallies behind the founders to bring the vision to life. Not the cofounders, not the functional roles that come later, but that middle stage. The ones who believe in the vision and just want to help make it real in any way possible.Looks like that book is waiting to be written. “Employees at Work” anyone?

Note 2: As someone less interested in joining the Valley and more interested in unlocking centers of economic growth everywhere, I also found myself wishing for more perspective on the community . I wanted to know what made this particular cluster of companies happen? Was it solely the proximity of a school and a major employer at ground zero of a boom — Stanford + HP ? Add some VC and you’re good to go? Is that a repeatable model?

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  • For deep background on early (mainframe!) companies in a pre- Silicon Valley cluster (Twin Cities), see “A Few Good Men From Univac”. Great book, MIT Folklore of Technology series. Lots of anecdotal stuff from employees if I remember correctly, read it years ago.

  • Amal Ekbal
    Oct 13, 2012

    On your question in Note 2 regarding the formation of Silicon Valley, you should watch the talk by Steve Blank called “The secret history of silicon valley”. Gives you the full historical context of the formation of this cluster. Would be great to here your thoughts regarding repeatability based on the information in this talk.


    • Shlok Vaidya
      Oct 20, 2012

      Thanks. The real secret is a big exit by someone who cares.

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