Book Review – Founders At Work

Founders at Work is a series of interviews with the founders or CEOs of some of the more innovative and successful technology start ups of the last 20 years. Companies covered include Apple, Craigslist, TripAdvisor, Yahoo!, Fogbugz and 37 Signals. The book is nothing more than edited interview transcripts, so it’s up to the reader to draw their own conclusions and insights, but it does make for interesting reading and the range of companies covered is a broad cross section of the tech industry.

As much as I enjoyed the book, I should point out a technical weakness in the book if you’re looking to use it to determine what makes a start up successful. If you only look at successful start ups (as this book does) then you can’t actually determine what makes a start up successful. You would need to look at both successful and failed startups to do that, and then analyze the differences. This is because just because a successful start up does something such as having 3 co-founders or is very responsive to customers doesn’t mean that’s what’s causing the success, you could only get a scientific assessment on that by including failed start ups in the assessment too. Nonetheless, I still really enjoyed the book, and detailed scientific rigor probably wouldn’t have made for a great book anyway.

Despite my caveat above, some apparent trends emerge about successful start ups. I found very interesting that the co-founders of Apple and Craigslist weren’t in it for the money and start up founders generally focused on passion more than financial gain in most cases. Secondly, many of the start ups were not linear and started from more technical roots, for example, Hotmail grew out of a database application as did HotorNot.com and TiVo was initially planned as a home server. Finally, many of the start ups hit on one particular feature that really delighted users that really drove their success such as Tivo’s ability to “pause live TV” or Hotmail giving you “anywhere email access”. These features were so compelling that they tended to drive viral adoption of many of the start ups. The founders were also generally negative on business people – what made them successful was hard, customer focused work and though the connections of Venture Capitalists helped, their advice often didn’t with many founders using their instincts more than anything to make good decisions.

If you have interest in technology and entrepreneurship and don’t mind an ‘interview transcript’ approach, then I recommend this book.

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