Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston

Summary

  1. Jessica Livingston interviews some of the biggest technology entrepreneurs about their experience in the early days of their companies. You’ll get firsthand knowledge about the whole process and be able to pick up patterns across time (it’s always more work than you think it’ll be, almost none of these entrepreneurs foresaw how big their companies would eventually become). “Why the disconnect [between startups trying to seem like formal companies but actually operating far faster, often better]? I think there’s a general principle at work here: the less energy people expend on performance, the more they expend on appearances to compensate. More often than not the energy they expend on seeming impressive makes their actual performance worse. A few years ago I read an article in which a car magazine modified the “sports” model of some production car to get the fastest possible standing quarter mile. You know how they did it? They cut off all the crap the manufacturer had bolted onto the car to make it look fast. Business is broken the same way that car was. The effort that goes into looking productive is not merely wasted, but actually makes organizations less productive. Suits, for example. Suits do not help people to think better. I bet most executives at big companies do their best thinking when they wake up on Sunday morning and go downstairs in their bathrobe to make a cup of coffee. That’s when you have ideas. Just imagine what a company would be like if people could think that well at work. People do in startups, at least some of the time. (Half the time you’re in a panic because your servers are on fire, but the other half you’re thinking as deeply as most people only get to sitting alone on a Sunday morning.) This book can help fix that problem, by showing everyone what, till now, only a handful people got to see: what happens in the first year of a startup. This is what real productivity looks like. This is the Formula 1 racecar. It looks weird, but it goes fast.”

Key Takeaways

  1. 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. It’s that way with most startups too. The earliest phase is usually the most productive. That’s when they have the really big ideas. Imagine what Apple was like when 100% of its employees were either Steve Jobs or Steve Wozniak.
  2. In this book, you’ll hear the founders’ stories in their own words. Here, I want to share some of the patterns I noticed. When you’re interviewing a series of famous startup founders, you can’t help trying to see if there is some special quality they all have in common that made them succeed. What surprised me most was how unsure the founders seemed to be that they were actually onto something big. Some of these companies got started almost by accident. The world thinks of startup founders as having some kind of superhuman confidence, but a lot of them were uncertain at first about starting a company. What they weren’t uncertain about was making something good—or trying to fix something broken. They all were determined to build things that worked. In fact, I’d say determination is the single most important quality in a startup founder. If the founders I spoke with were superhuman in any way, it was in their perseverance. That came up over and over in the interviews. Perseverance is important because, in a startup, nothing goes according to plan. Founders live day to day with a sense of uncertainty, isolation, and sometimes lack of progress. Plus, startups, by their nature, are doing new things—and when you do new things, people often reject you. That was the second most surprising thing I learned from these interviews: how often the founders were rejected early on. By investors, journalists, established companies—they got the Heisman from everyone. People like the idea of innovation in the abstract, but when you present them with any specific innovation, they tend to reject it because it doesn’t fit with what they already know. Innovations seem inevitable in retrospect, but at the time it’s an uphill battle. It’s curious to think that the technology we take for granted now, like web-based email, was once dismissed as unpromising. As Howard Aiken said, “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” In addition to perseverance, founders need to be adaptable. Not only because it takes a certain level of mental flexibility to understand what users want, but because the plan will probably change. People think startups grow out of some brilliant initial idea like a plant from a seed. But almost all the founders I interviewed changed their ideas as they developed them. PayPal started out writing encryption software, Excite started as a database search company, and Flickr grew out of an online game. Starting a startup is a process of trial and error. What guided the founders through this process was their empathy for the users. They never lost sight of making things that people would want.

Summary

  1. Very rich read which provides great insights into how these entrepreneurs think, how they reacted and adapted to situations, and how persistent and creative you have to be to survive. Highly recommend for anyone thinking of starting their own business or in the midst of it now. Many parallels and patterns to learn from