Founders at Work: A book review by Bob Morris

Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days
Jessica Livingston
Apress (2008)

Note: I recent re-read this book while preparing questions for interviews of two thought leaders and now share my reactions to it when  it was first published several years ago.

Priceless perspectives and insights from  those who were “present at the creation”

What we have here are interviews of 32 founders of start-up companies, interviewed by Jessica Livingston. To most readers, few of the names are familiar (e.g. Steve Wozniak and Apple Computer) and the interviews will often seem rambling, poorly edited, etc. That is a fair reaction. However, they also have the value of being extemporaneous rather than “sanitized.” In a word, authentic. However different the start-ups’ circumstances were and however different their founders’ perspectives on those circumstances may be, there are common themes: naiveté, almost unlimited enthusiasm, little (if any) fear of failure, and especially, a rock-solid faith in what could be accomplished. Those with an ability to read between the lines will also develop a sense that most of the founders do not second-guess themselves when recalling their blunders.

To me, the greatest single value of this book is that we are learning about 32 start-ups from eyewitness accounts provided by those centrally involved. True, human memory can often be selective and on occasion self-serving. Nonetheless, these founders (with few exceptions) seem to be making a sincere effort to “tell it like it was” without aid of a ghostwriter or even an editor with special talents for clarity and (especially) concision.

Of special interest to me are the interviews of Craig Newmark (Craigslist), Blake Ross (Firefox), Paul Buchheit (Gmail), Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail), Mitchell Kapor (Lotus Development), Max Levchin (PayPal), Mike Ramsay (TiVo), and Tim Brady (Yahoo). Of course, each reader must determine for herself and himself which interviews are most interest and, perhaps more to the point, which interviews are most valuable to those who about to launch a new company or have only recently done so.


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