Founders At Work

It is about time that we write a blog article about the best startup book written this year – Founders at Work.  (Disclaimer: the author, Jessica Livingston, is a friend of ours and a general partner at one of our investors, Y Combinator).

This book peers into the back stories behind many of the greatest startups of the last 30 years including Apple, PayPal, Excite, Yahoo! and more.  The book is a collection of interviews with the founders of these companies.  These interviews are particularly valuable to founders of new startups.  They were to us.  The interviews discuss situations we have already seen, circumstances we currently find ourselves in, and challenges we will face in the future.

One challenge Adam and I are currently working through is the process of hiring top notch developers.  When you are trying to attract top talent, hiring isn’t an appropriate word; it is recruiting.  A good lesson about recruiting or any negotiation is taken from Jessica’s interview with Joe Kraus.

I see way too many people give up in the startup world.  They just give up too easily. Recruiting is a classic example.  I don’t ever hear the first “no” that somebody says.  When they say, “No, I’m not interested,” I think, “Now it’s a real challenge.  Now’s when the tough part begins.” It’s hard to identify talent, but great people don’t look for jobs, great people are sold on jobs.  And if they’re sold they’re going to say no at first.  You have to win them over.

Founders at Work also has an interview with James Hong, the founder of  I hung out with Hong at a SFBeta, a local web meetup, last week.  I told him that I thought his interview was the most raw.  Initially he wasn’t sure if I had complemented or criticized him, but after a bit of explanation he said “thanks.”  I told him that I loved the story of how they solved their hosting problems by swinging a deal with Rackspace.  He simply cold called the head of business development and said, “I know you guys want to go public and it’s great to get your name out.  Your whole value proposition is that you can help companies scale fast by outsourcing.  If you can help us, I have all these upcoming interviews, and we can be a poster child for you.”  He got all the scalability he needed out of that deal.

Our friends at are having bandwidth problems on the mobile phone EVDO data network.  They are spending tons of money streaming video over multiple EVDO cards.  I told them the story of James’s deal with Rackspace and how I think that they should be the poster child for one of the large wireless carriers  in exchange for some free bandwidth.  Founders at Work is full of useful parables for the startup entrepreneur.

Silicon Valley is a tightly knit community.  Of the thirty founders interviewed for this book, we have been lucky enough to have already met nine of them.  We are lucky to have relationships with mentors who keep us headed in the right direction.

5 Responses to “Founders At Work”

  1. 1 Ryan March 6, 2007 at 12:47 am

    I’m in the middle of reading Founders at Work right now. The stories are absolutely excellent, but the book is just too long! I’ve been reading in my spare time for 3 weeks and haven’t even finished half the book. Additionally, because all the lessons are parables in the middle of interviews, there’s no way to quickly find that good lesson about quickly scaling servers, for example. It’s an enjoyable read, but its length makes it tiring and ultimately not too useful.

  2. 2 Matt March 6, 2007 at 4:00 am

    Ryan, I agree that the book is long. I haven’t made it all the way through yet either. I treat each interview as a separate essay – each being valuable standing alone or part of the collection.

    Founders at Work might do well as a searchable E-book. That way you can find all the anecdotes about servers with one grep.

  3. 3 willy nelson March 22, 2007 at 7:33 pm

    the goal of writing a book on startups? sell books and make money

    I should be an author. I’ll make my book web 2 compatible by aggregating the interviews as data clusters and plotting them on a Google Maps API so people can sms the location of their latest fart and it’ll be plotted on MySpace profiles via a heatmap. The book will compile the twenty hottest locations for farts, with extensive q&a on why that place is prime for ass ripping, what foods contributed to the gas, and how it plays into the new economy. First we’ll target the US techsumer, then we’ll sell it in emerging markets out of our offices in Dubai and Japur. This is all before the DJIA and NASDAQ reach 25,000 and 10,000 respectively, it is, after all, 1999 all over again.

    I’m just kidding around guys, I am such a willy nelson today, just in a bad mood and here to rain on everyones parade.

    but really, that author is going to make some cash.

    and keep up the good work on xobni, when will a public demo be available? I need the public demo so I can rip off your idea and rewrite it in Ruby, rename it to Fobni (beta), and sell it to YaHoo for my quick $20 mil payday.

  4. 4 willy nelson March 22, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    PS: I’ll be the first to admit it’s this nonsensical traveling for YouKnowWhoo that is making me so sour, when I get back to the valley I’ll feel a lot better, I promise.

  5. 5 Chris May 3, 2007 at 5:40 pm

    If you want to read the definitive book about this sort of thing, check out Fire in the Valley.

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