Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

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
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 (, 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.

Book Review: Mavericks at Work

June 25, 2007

Mavericks at Work (MAW for the remainder of the review) is a book which claims to explain “Why the most original minds in business win.” This book attempts to follow in the tradition of Built to Last and Good to Great, even frequently citing those books. Unfortunately it doesn’t live up to the same level of extensive research backed up by solid statistics and writing. MAW starts out strong with many interesting examples into the some of the most creative and successful businesses in recent times. Unfortunately, since many of the creative companies are different in entirely unique ways (some even in exactly opposite ways), nothing can really be drawn from the stories. It also seems for all the examples given in this book of a creative company there are plenty examples of failed companies trying similar creative solutions.
When I started reading this book, I thought it was solid and easily worth the read, but by the time I had finished the book, that was no longer the case. If you want a feel-good, inspiring business book, this might be what you’re looking for, but if you’re hoping to implement ideas for your own business, I think there are better books out there for that. I feel like the first quarter of the book was very strong and filled with interesting and powerful examples of creativity in business. The first half of the book was still decent but falling apart into less compelling examples that really didn’t show how creativity directly led to success. The last half of the book could have basically been summed up by “creatively motivating your team and hiring the best employees for your company is great for business.” This is explained and restated far too often using examples that don’t seem creative or innovative, just mildly amusing and appropriate for particular companies. Obviously the out-of-the-ordinary hiring practices at Pixar aren’t the same as a bank.
Some of the topics covered that I found interesting and informative, all of which were in the first half of the book, are listed below.

  • Not Just a Company, a Cause: Strategy as Advocacy

        What ideas are your company fighting for? Can you play competitive hardball by throwing your rivals a strategic curveball? Successful companies have a set of fundamental reasons for a company’s existence beyond just making money.
  • Competition and Its Consequences: Disruptors, Diplomats, and a New Way to Talk about Business

        Can you be provocative without provoking backlash? Why strategic innovators develop their own vocabulary of competition.
  • Ideas Unlimited: Why Nobody is as Smart as Everybody

        How to persuade brilliant people to work with you, even if they don’t work for you. Why grassroots collaboration requires head-to-head competition. How one open-minded leader inspired the ultimate Internet gold rush.
  • Innovation, Inc: Open Source Gets Down to Business

        Why smart leaders “walk in stupid every day.” How a 170-year-old corporate giant created a new model of creativity.

Overall I felt MAW was an average business book, it did have some above-average areas. The appendix goes into amazing detail with mini-reviews of the best books, blogs, videos, and interviews that inspired the book. Often I found that the description of a source (which included web resources) was a great way to get detailed information on specific areas or chapters that were of interest to you.
Website: Mavericks at Work

Book Review: Crossing the Chasm

June 20, 2007

After reading it on and off for a few months now (I never seem to find the time to sit down and really read books anymore), I finally finished Crossing the Chasm. If you’ve never heard of this book, it’s a how-to manual for successfully marketing technology products to the mainstream consumer. Sound boring? It is, especially if you aren’t passionate about marketing (which is why it’s taken me so long to finish). Skippable? It’s definitely not. It’s full of important ideas and should be required reading for any startup founder.
Lots and lots of good things have been said about this book, so I won’t go into too much detail. The basic premise is that even if you have a lot of early users, you need a specific, focused effort to win over the mainstream consumer market. And that’s not easy.
There are tons of good ideas in Crossing the Chasm but I’ll briefly discuss two that were the most immediately useful to me.
1. Dominate a niche segment first. Yeah, I know, you’ve undoubtedly built a vast, elegant system that can be used in many different ways and contexts. We’re programmers, we like to abstract. But that doesn’t matter. You can’t compete at all fronts at once. To succeed, you need to pick a niche to which your product is the most compelling and dominate it. Then you can move on to other market segments. Notice I didn’t say to pick the largest niche or the one with the most potential revenue. Pick the pond in which you can be the biggest (or only) fish.
2. How to build your pitch. The book has a great section on the important parts of a good pitch. The most interesting part was how to identify your product by using two other products as references. First, you identify a market alternative , which is the current preferred way your customers could solve the same problem your product solves. This doesn’t need to be technological – Rotten Tomatoes’ market alternative would be the movie reviews in your local paper. Secondly, you identify a product alternative – a product that has similar technology that customers are familiar with, but that is focused on a different market segment. For instance, a product alternative for Rotten Tomatoes might be Metacritic (this requires the mainstream customer to be familiar with Metacritic, but bear with me, it’s an example). While Metacritic has reviews for films, TV, music, and books, Rotten Tomatoes focuses entirely on movies (and has additional content that is of interest to moviegoers). Instead of just describing your product, you can use these two alternatives to more easily convey your product to potential customers and investors. Before reading this book, our pitch really stunk – even though our product idea is good. We’ve used the tips and have gotten much better at getting our idea across in a way others can immediately grasp.
The book goes into a lot more detail on these ideas and presents a whole lot more. I had exactly zero previous experience with marketing before reading this book, but the book doesn’t assume any expertise, so I came away from it feeling like I had learned a lot. If you’re developing a new technological product, I highly recommend adding this one to your long and growing “to-read” list.

These newfangled web-logs

January 17, 2007

What kinds of stuff are we reading on a daily basis? Besides checking reddit about ten times a day (a very bad habit that occasionally yields very good results), we also are reading the following blogs
* Small Business 2.0
* OnStartups
* Paul Graham’s site (not exactly a blog, but we’re addicted to his essays)
I used to read Joel on Software, but I’ve been checking it out less and less over the past year. I also keep my eye on Lambda the Ultimate, but unfortunately, I only understand about 5% of what’s posted there.
Any other good software/technology/business/startup blogs out there we should check out?

Reading text on paper, for fun and profit

January 11, 2007

Like most every startup-to-be, over the past year we’ve been reading, reading, reading. Here are the books that blew our minds, inspired us, or just provided some good tips on either programming or business.
General Programming
* Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software
* Extreme Programming Explained
* Getting Real
* Hackers and Painters
* Joel on Software
* Pragmatic Project Automation
* Pragmatic Unit Testing
* Refactoring
* The Pragmatic Programmer
Specific Programming
* Agile Web Development with Rails
* Ant Developers Handbook
* Beginning PHP, Apache, MySQL Web Development
* Google Hacks
* The Long Tail
* The Tipping Point
* The World is Flat
* Co-opetition
* Good to Great
* How to Raise Capital
Productivity/Life skills
* Getting Things Done
* Getting to Yes
* How to Win Friends and Influence People
Currently Reading
* Crossing the Chasm
* Start Your Own Business
In the Queue
* Convergence Culture
* Inside the Tornado
* Juicing the Orange
* The Ruby Way
* The Wisdom of Crowds
Any other great books that need to be on this reading list?