Book Review: Founders at Work

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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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3 Responses to “Book Review: Founders at Work”

  1. Kartik Agaram Says:

    “Perhaps mistakenly, I read this book looking for tons of practical advice to help me run my startup better.”
    It’s not just that this book is bad for that, but that *no* book about startup successes would help you. What you need is a book about startup failures.
    Since we don’t have much of that, read Black Swan instead, to learn about how success tends to be internalized as a narrative (“we did x and we succeeded” => “we succeeded because we did x”) that ignores the numerous decisions made (but we also did y and z and a million others) and the sheer luck that went into them.
    It is human nature that failure forces one to focus on the state space of possibilities, the what-ifs that begin as unverbalizeable regrets. That’s why failure teaches better than success.

  2. Ben Says:

    In fairness, ‘Founders at Work’ does delve into startup failures. Each interview includes questions about about mistakes and wrong turns. For almost all the founders, something went wrong along the way. Of course, these failures were just setbacks (sometimes major ones) along the path to success.
    Still, your point about failure teaching better than success is a good one. And ‘Black Swans’ looks very interesting – I’ll add it to my already-too-big Amazon wish list.

  3. Kartik Agaram Says:

    “..does delve into startup failures.”
    Yup! I actually *love* founders at work. That it refuses to make the leap from a rich collection of stories/sample points to prescriptive evidence is a feature, not a bug.

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