Founders at Work is a great book for anyone working on a startup or thinking about doing so.
It’s a collection of interviews done by Jessica Livingston, a partner at Y Combinator. There are many fascinating things about the book, particularly the diversity of entrepreneurs she speaks to, from veterans of the computer world (Steve Wozniak and Mitch Kapor) to more recent startup founders (Ev Williams and Mena Trott.)
I didn’t expect the book to be so technical. Some interviewees go into quite a bit of detail on the technical challenges they faced, programming languages, etc. So for the geek in you, it’s a good read. And for the entrepreneur in you, it’s ideal.
With that in mind, here are 9 things I learned from Founders At Work:
- People Learned From Their Mistakes. Every single person profiled in the book made mistakes, from small mishaps to outright disasters. Each of them succeeded by learning from those mistakes.
- The Startup Roller Coaster Is Insane. People often talk about how hard it is to start a company, and that’s a common thread throughout the book. You can expect incredible lows, but also incredible highs.
- Startups Are All Consuming. Lots of people start businesses on the side, keeping their full or part-time jobs. Several founders profiled in the book followed that exact approach. But their focus was still very much on their startup. Startups are all consuming in terms of the energy, passion and dedication they require. Few people succeed without that singular focus.
- Working With Venture Capitalists is Challenging. There are a few horror stories in the book about dealing with venture capitalists, but generally the relationships were decent. For most of the entrepreneurs, the problems come because it’s their first time working with venture capitalists; they didn’t know what to expect.
- Products Sometimes Come From Nowhere. The classic startup story has a couple guys working on something part-time, only to realize at some point that they’re sitting on a winner. Sometimes they don’t even realize it, until they’re pushed by others. These are entrepreneurs that “fall into success.”
But for all the “holy crap we have a product here!” stories, there are an equal number of stories of founders starting out with a clear idea of what they wanted to do, and taking a much more methodical, focused approach. If anything, this teaches us that it doesn’t matter how you start – what’s important is that you start at all.
- Things Never End Up Where They Started. That’s a huge understatement. Almost to a tee, each founder started their business in one way, with a few ideas, only to end up in a completely different place at the end. Entire products and business models changed several times over for many of them.
- Hire Smarter. Some of the most interesting stories in the book are about founders going out and hiring people – how they did it, what they were looking for, etc. Most of them spent a good amount of time hiring (more than most founders do today), and recognized the importance of bringing on top talent.
- Founders Are Motivated To Do Better Than Others. There are many motivations for starting a company, but one of the most common threads through the book was that founders believed they could do better than the status quo. A good part of that is ego, but a bigger part of that is an honest, analytical look at what’s going on and not being satisfied with it.
- Take Risks And Be Creative. Many of the startups pulled off funny and risky stunts to get their products launched and generate buzz. Raising awareness is easier today with blogs and social networks, nevertheless the traits of creativity and risk-taking are paramount in a startup’s success. Startups have to make huge decisions quickly. They’re often forced to put all their eggs in one basket. They’ve got to swerve and tumble around obstacles like it’s nobody’s business.
More than anything, Founders at Work reminds us that there’s no formula for success.
Startups come from all over. Founders have a myriad of backgrounds. Ideas are born from a host of sources and experiences. You can get funded, or not. You can start small or go big right away.
There are some common traits and experiences amongst entrepreneurs and startups. And you can learn a lot from the experience of others but there’s definitely no absolute right way of doing things.