Founders at Work is about creative people with initiative. You could try on other categories like “tech entrepreneurs”, but that’s selling short the variety among those interviewed in Jessica Livingston’s study of technology company founders, including those from massive successes like Apple, Adobe, Craigslist, TiVo, 37Signals, PayPal, Yahoo, and on and on.
Livingston’s questions to these founders bring out details not only around the stories of their respective companies, but also details in what they were thinking along the way. You might be surprised by how many were often wrong, or unassuming, about the future. Then again, some had a vision of what the world should be, and brought it to fruition.
The variety in personalities and circumstances leave the reader with an interesting dilemma. Any single founder featured in the book can describe what attitudes, choices, or luck got them to where they are, and aside from luck, you can find the opposite approach espoused from another founder. Just as you can find a wise quote to match either side of an issue, you’ll discover the same truth in these startup stories: there are just a lot of ways to skin a cat.
That is a lesson in and of itself, and a big one. I could imagine that many people think that, given a good idea, there’s a typical or common recipe for making it a success. This book disproves that theory, replacing it with the truth that every situation is unique, that so much rests in the luck of making the right decision, in the right situation, at the right time.
Yet, there are similarities to be found. For instance, in every case, there could have never been a success if the founder did not make the less-than-luck driven choice of founding. There is no right place or right time unless you are out working on something that creates those opportunities, and keeps creating them as they fall through or don’t meet expectations. So many of the companies recounted did not find success anywhere near the idea with which they started. Instead, they discovered that success is an improv routine, a series of reactions.
So my key take away from the book is this: Advice on strategy and attitude can be really helpful, especially when it aligns with your personality. Dreaming about changing the world or windfall profits can be inspiring. But the real answer is simply in taking action, even without the advice, and striving to create something that will help people, something of value. The rest appears to follow, according to the stories in Founders at Work.