Book Reviews

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

ISBN-13: 978-1590597149
Publisher: Apress
Pages: 500

At some point during our careers as software developers, many of us dream of starting our own company; a company without all the politics, 9-5 days, planned economy, dysfunctional work-environment, restricted internet access, waterfall development, and inferior tools of the average large organization; instead creating a company where technology actually matters and creativity flows; a company where the focus is on creating value by developing the best product possible. I believe that what holds many of us back is uncertainty and doubt. This is where "Founders at work" helps.

Jessica Livingston has carried out interviews with the founders or, in some cases, early employees of technology startups. Each of the startups turned out as a success to some degree, although some of them later failed (e.g. ArsDigita that went down in the flames of a legal battle between the founder Philip Greenspun and the venture capitalists funding the company).

First of all, it is really relieving to read that virtually all of the startups were tremendously uncertain about their business and that many, at some point, were close to give it all up (in fact Ron Wayne did; he thought it was to risky and sold out his 10 percent of Apple for a few hundred dollars at a point where the Apple II computer was about to hit the market!). What hold them back and made them pull it through was, as Livingston remarks in the foreword, the extraordinary perseverance of the founders. That's probably the first lesson to learn: it takes a tremendous effort to actually make it. But there are several other patterns that emerge through the interviews.

The first pattern is how startups change their initial idea and turn out to develop a completely different product. For example, Hotmail started developing a database, Viaweb (famous for developing the first ever web-based application) initially had desktop software in mind, and PayPal got funding for developing applications for the Palm Pilot.

Another pattern has to do with usability and quality. Many of the products covered in this book were initially developed by the founders for their own personal use. Steve Wozniak wanted his own computer so he built one, Fog Creek needed a bug-tracking system and FogBugz was born, the idea for Hotmail arose because a corporate firewall prevented the future founders from dialing up their personal email accounts, and David Heinemeier Hansson built Ruby on Rails to ease the development of Basecamp . This is important, because these products obviously solved a problem and there was, at that point, a need for them. Contrast this with products developed for others to use; here the developers have to second-guess potential users and their needs.

The interviews are excellent reading. Partly due to the interesting biographies of the interview subjects themselves obviously, but mostly thanks to the brilliant work of Jessica Livingston. She does cover the expected areas of technology, business, marketing strategy, and funding. In addition she manages to dig much deeper by asking intelligent, open-ended questions that invite to long, honest, and sometimes even funny answers that go well beyond anything I read about the early days of the companies before.

All in all, this makes a highly fascinating and motivating book.

Reviewed February 2007