Archive for September, 2007

Book Review: Founders at Work

September 27, 2007

I had very high hopes for ‘Founders of Work.’ Since it’s been published, it’s been mentioned on nearly every ‘Important Books for Startups’ list I have read and it’s gotten glowing reviews (and four and a half stars) on Amazon.com.
Given my (unrealistically) high expectations, I guess it’s no surprise that I was a bit disappointed with this book. While frequently good, it never quite achieves greatness.
If you don’t know already, ‘Founders at Work’ is a collection of interviews with startup founders. I will say this – the book is an impressive accomplishment. Jessica Livingston has interviewed an amazingly prestigious set of founders including Steve Wozniak (Apple), Mitch Kapor (Lotus), Mike Lazaridis (RIM), Paul Graham (Viaweb), Joshua Schachter (del.icio.us), Craig Newmark (craigslist), Caterina Fake (Flickr), David Heinemeier Hansson (37signals), and Joel Spolsky (Fog Creek Software). The list is just insane.
The fundamental problem is that ‘Founders At Work’ is sort of three books in one and the interview format only works well for one of the three.
An Inspirational, Introductory Guide
The book works best when viewed as an introductory guide to startups for the uninitiated. The interview format is great here. The book is an easy, compelling, and pleasant read (a breath of fresh air compared to most business books). The interviews are lively, funny, and short enough that you can read each one in a short sitting. Plus, Livingston’s questions elicit a lot of colorful anecdotes that brings the founders’ stories to life.
For those who haven’t read much about startups, it’s a great window into the tech startup world. For this reason, I would love to give this book to every friend who doesn’t understand why Dan and I quit our jobs to work on Seekler. Since the book is so much more accessible than most business books, you might just be able to convince your friends to do so.
Additionally, I would highly recommended this book for anyone considering starting or joining a startup. It gives you a ton of great ideas and a good feel for the startup lifestyle. Plus, it’s incredibly inspiring to read about people changing with world with just their brains and lots of hard work. I predict it will make a lot of people quit their jobs and take the leap.
A History Lesson
The book works can also be read as a good (but not great) history lesson. It’s important to understand the history of our industry and the great companies and thinkers that did this before us. We can learn so much from their successes and mistakes.
Unfortunately, the interview format doesn’t work well here. The interview questions aren’t particularly focused, often jumping back and forth between different events and themes. The bigger problem is that the subjects’ responses don’t appear to be edited – or at least not edited enough. As a result, the book reads like people talk – a meandering, loosely-connected stream of thought.
I would love to read a book about the history of all these companies, but it would work much better if Livingston used the interviews to construct a clear historical narrative for each one. As it is, by the time I had finished reading the book, I had confused the details of many of the companies and wasn’t left with a solid historical understanding.
A How-to for Founders
Perhaps mistakenly, I read this book looking for tons of practical advice to help me run my startup better. Unfortunately, the book is only average in this regard. The interview format is simply not a very useful way transfer knowledge from the founders being interviewed to any founders reading the book (like myself). The interviews meander back and forth between topics and often go on too long on a particular subject. Livingston asks good questions about the specifics of running a business, but the trouble is that each subject gives five, ten, sometimes twenty separate pieces of advice within the interview, often not explaining their advice in much depth. I don’t fault the subjects – that’s just how people think and talk.
Out of this barrage of advice, I did note some consistent themes that stood out to me:
1. Founders must work very, very hard (see the chapters on PayPal and WebTV as particularly incredible examples).
2. You have to have almost a irrational level of confidence. Don’t let others convince you to quit.
3. It’s more important to focus on customers than to focus on competitors.
4. Persistence is the number one quality that leads to success.
The problem is that I knew all of that before I read ‘Founders at Work’. I think the problem is the interviews fired so much advice at me in such an unstructured way that I couldn’t absorb all of it. So I found myself just sort of noting the advice that I already agreed with and unconsciously ignoring the stuff I didn’t. At the end of the day, I don’t feel like I have gained much hugely important insight by reading this book.
Compare this with Paul Graham’s essays. Most of them are about specific startup topics and usually have advice or a conclusion you haven’t read before. He makes his case and rarely states the obvious. I almost always walk away from his essays feeling like I’ve learned something important.
The book would have been a lot more valuable for founders if each subject would have written a single essay. They still could have drawn upon their own experience, but their advice would have been a lot more structured and backed up with more arguments and examples. I’m not entirely sure how you would get founders to write such essays, but it would likely be a great book.
‘Founders at Work’ is by no means a bad book. Despite it’s shortcomings, I would still recommend it to aspiring and current founders. The book is definitely good, but what bugs me is that it could have been fantastic if it had stuck to a single focus (helping current founders) and had ditched the interview format. Hopefully we’ll see a book that combines the breadth of experience of ‘Founders at Work’ with Paul Graham’s specific, practical essay style in the future.

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The #1 Reason to have a Cofounder

September 21, 2007

As a kid, I spent a fair amount of time helping my dad make stuff in his workshop. I remember he had this big, heavy vise bolted to his workbench. The jaws were made of metal, which worked great for holding some pieces tightly, but would damage more delicate wood pieces. So my dad had a set of ‘soft jaws’ – pieces of wood that he could insert between the metal jaws and the piece to protect it. The pressure from the vise would keep the soft jaws in place while he worked, but as soon as he loosened the vise to get the piece out, the soft jaws would fall to the floor, often bouncing under the work bench (from where I would have to retrieve them).
When I was about eight or so, he called me into the workshop and posed a question. “Ben,” he said, “These soft jaws are great, but every time I take the piece out of the vise, they fall out. I need a way to keep them in. Glue won’t work, because I need to remove them when I use the metal jaws. If I use some clamp or hook, it will damage the work piece. I’m stumped.”
“Velcro,” I said. My dad’s face lit up. He immediately went upstairs and told my mom what I had said. He installed the Velcro the next day and the vise still has those Velcro strips to this day.
I felt like the smartest kid in the world that day. But of course I wasn’t. So why was I able to solve a problem that my very smart dad could not?
Clearly, one reason was that I had a fresh set of eyes. My dad had simply been too close to the problem for too long. I had a fresh perspective and the idea just clicked.
But just as importantly, I had some knowledge of the domain. Someone who had never stepped into a workshop before probably would not have come up with that idea. In fact, my dad probably wouldn’t have asked him or her in the first place, simply because it would have been too much effort to first explain how the vise and the soft jaws worked.
This is the number one reason I can’t imagine not having a cofounder (and there are lots of other reasons). Great programmers (or even those of us aspiring to be great programmers) know that our best work is done “in the zone” – that mental place where you have the entire program in your head and where all you see is the problem in front of you. That level of concentration and focus makes you incredibly productive, but it also makes it likely that you’ll get stuck on some trivial detail. You just get too close to the problem. You can’t stand back with fresh eyes and see the obvious fix.
You know that you’re too close to the problem, but in a startup, everyone outside the company is way too far away from the problem. Even other programmers haven’t lived with the code like you have. To get their help, you’d first have to explain lots of other peripheral details of the project before you can really get their help on the problem at hand.
A cofounder is right in that sweet spot between too close and too far away. Just last night Dan solved a problem in five minutes that I had been looking at for over forty. I imagine that a solitary founder must spend waste so much time tracking down simple things that a cofounder would be able to spot in a tiny fraction of the time. If you’re thinking of founding a startup alone, take my word for it – find a cofounder. The first time you have one of those Velcro moments, you’ll realize how important it is.

I award you spammers no points …

September 11, 2007

… and may God have mercy upon your soul.
*Sigh*
Recently, we’ve had more problems with spam comments on the blog. We’re working on some stuff that will hopefully fix the problem (but still let our valued readers comment on our posts easily).
However, as we make the changes, the blog may look pretty funny and/or have weird problems (especially related to comments).
You can still contact us at our contact page with any thoughts or questions. If you can’t post a comment – please let us know via our contact page as well.
Sorry for the inconvenience – we hope to be up and running very soon.

Seekler Preview: Look ‘n feel

September 10, 2007

OK, I’m back with another preview of Seekler. Our latest mock-up shows off the latest proposed look ‘n feel.
This mock-up shows the same page as last time: you can see how a list will be displayed as well as the UI for adding items, navigating pages, and searching.
What do you think of our look? Does the page layout make sense? Do you like the color scheme? Is it too complex? Or too simple and boring?
Seekler mockup

A Preview of Seekler

September 4, 2007

Seekler won’t launch for another month or so, but in the meantime, we’re going to start a series of posts that will preview the planned look and functionality of the site. We really hope you enjoy these sneak peeks and we look forward to your comments and feedback.
Seekler is, at the core, about helping you find the best of anything. Do you want to find the best hot sauce? Or how about the best hiking trails in your area? Or the best comedy on television? Then Seekler is for you.
Seekler is a community-driven review site similar in purpose to Epinions or Amazon reviews, but we’ve ditched long textual reviews and “star” ratings. Instead, we focus on putting items in order to create ranked lists of the best hot sauces, hiking trails, TV shows, or anything else you can think of. Seekler makes it super easy to find the list you’re looking for.
Where do all these lists come from? Hopefully, they’ll come from users like you. We’ve built some tools that will make it really fun and easy to create your own personal lists. Seekler will use lots of user lists to create community lists that show the best overall items in any category.
In the next few weeks, we’ll talk more about Seekler and explain some of our features in detail. We’d love to get feedback from you. Do you think we’re missing some key feature? Do you like or hate the user interface? Do you think the site will be useful for you?
Until then, we’ll leave you with an early mockup of Seekler. You can get a basic idea of what the site will look like and what features will be included (we would like to show a real screen shot, but although most of the features are completed, the pretty CSS isn’t).
If you click on the image and visit Flickr, you can hover over the image to see some additional info on various sections of the page.
Seekler wireframe