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March 07, 2007

Founders at Work


This is a picture of my copy of Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days. It has broken my record for the “book with most stickies.” My system is that the stickies on the top edge are ideas for my next book, and the ones on the side are ideas for this blog.

As you can see, it’s a gold mine for great stories about entrepreneurship. Here is a list of some of my favorites. The major lesson: Entrepreneurship is all about tactics, hootspah, not knowing that things are not done “this way,” and making do with not enough money. You’ll LOL at points and wonder if a better title would not have been Flounders at Work.

  1. Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail) on how he decided whether to tell venture capitalists the real idea he wanted to get funded. “If they passed the litmus test of not rejecting us for the wrong reasons and said, ‘OK, we don’t mind that you’re young, we don’t mind that you don’t have management experience, only when they would start poking holes in the actual idea would we share the Hotmail idea with them.”

  2. Woz (Apple). “All the best things I did at Apple came from (a) not having money, and (b) not having done it before, ever.”

  3. Mitch Kapor (Lotus Development) on how much money he asked for from Sevin-Rosen. “I think I said probably $2 to $3 million. We had nothing. We hand an early-stage under-development spreadsheet, and me and Jon Sachs. So that was the biggest number I felt I could ask for without being totally absurd.”

  4. Evan Williams (Blogger.com) on how he raised money to buy more servers. “We posted it on our website, and it said, ‘Hey, we know Blogger is really slow. It’s because we need more hardware. We don’t have the money to buy it, so give us money, and we will buy more hardware and we’ll make Blogger faster.’”

  5. Tim Brady (Yahoo!). “The funniest thing I can remember was when there was a huge storm in May of ‘95, and the power grid went down for a few days. We had to go rent a power generator and take turns filling it with diesel fuel for 4 days. 24/7. We were laughing, ‘How many pages to the gallon today?’”

  6. Mike Lazaridis (Research in Motion) on the importance of recruiting students. “’…What’s important to me are the signs on the back of the building.’ Of course, everyone recoiled from that. I explained to them, ‘I don’t really care if anyone else knows where the building is. All I want is the students to know where the building is.’”

  7. Mike Ramsay (Tivo): “I remember one weekend, we took the entire company, what was about 60 people at the time, and we divvied them up and went to all the Fry’s stores in the Bay Area, because they were selling at Fry’s. We set up demo stations and the employees were giving demos. It was great because almost everybody had no experience of what it’s really like to sell in a retail store.”

  8. Paul Graham (Viaweb): “Neither of us knew how to write Windows software, and we didn’t want to learn. It seemed like this huge steaming turd that was best avoided. So the main thing we thought when we first had the idea of doing web-based applications was, ‘Thank God we don’t have to write software on Windows.’”

    On raising money: “The advice I would give is to avoid it. I would say spend as little as you can because every dollar of the investors’ money you get will be taken out of your ass…”

  9. Catarina Fake (Flickr): “So Flickr started off as a feature. It wasn’t really a product. It was kind of IM in which you could drag and drop photos onto people’s desktops and show them what you were looking at.”

  10. Brewster Kahle (Thinking Machines): “The blessing of Thinking Machines and the curse of Thinking Machines was that it had a lot of money. If you have a lot of money, then you can be detached from people that are going to pay you in the future.”

  11. Founders.jpg
  12. Chuck Geshke (Adobe) on the reaction of the spouses of Xerox execs to a demonstration of PARC technology in 1977: “They loved this stuff. They sat down and played with the mouse, they changed a few things on the screen, they hit the print button and it looked the same on paper as it did on the screen. They said, ‘Wow, this is really cool. This would really change an office if it had this technology.’”

    [This is why you should always listen to your wife. And if you’re a woman, you should never listen to your husband.]

  13. Ann Winblad (Open Systems). “So I get in front of these 60 or 70 guys and these guys are probably all in their 50s and I’m in my 20s, and we had a ‘blue light special,’ where we said, ‘If you give me a check today for $10,000, you can have unlimited rights to one of our modules.’ …I went home with, I think, like 12 or 15 of these $10,000 checks in my purse.”

  14. James Hong (Hot or Not) on his first beta site. “My dad was the first person that ever saw Hot or Not besides Jim and me, and he got addicted to it! Here’s my dad, a 60-year-old retired Chinese guy who, as my father, is supposed to be asexual, and he’s saying, ‘She’s hot. This one’s not hot at all.’”

  15. On using his parents to moderate the pictures: “I originally had my parents moderating since they were retired, and after a few days I asked my dad how it was going. He said, ‘Oh, it’s really interesting. Mom saw a picture of a guy and a girl and another girl and they were doing…’ So I told Jim, ‘Dude, my parents can’t do this any more. They’re looking at porn all day.’”

    On his newfound dating success with hot women: “All of a sudden Hot or Not happened, and I was starting to date all these attractive women. I got a taste of it, and I realized that looks don’t make up for a good personality. Many of these girls were annoying. They were fun to hang out with, but I couldn’t have a conversation with them.”

    [IMHO, James is the funniest person in the book.]

  16. James Currier (Tickle). “When we started the company, we wanted to change the world, and we had all these tests on the site to help people with their lives. We had the anxiety test, the parenting, relationship, and communications tests. And no one came. …’Let’s do a test for what kind of breed of dog you are.’ …We put it online and 8 days later we had a million people trying to enter our site.”

  17. Mena Trott (Six Apart) on early meetings with the current CEO of the company, Barak Berkowitz. “Barak said, ‘That’s great for a niche or personal lifestyle business, but we’re not interested in investing in that.’ At first we thought, ‘Who is this asshole? Why is he saying that to us?’”

These are just a few nuggets. The whole mine is what you should get.


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This is an awesome post, I'm getting the book. I'm the founding entrepreneur of JibberJobber.com - which I started after I lost my job in "a good market." Months later, and getting interviews with only two companies, I figured I better look at something else. I always wanted to own my own business but never figured that I could find a "better mousetrap."

JibberJobber came from that - from my need, and the needs that I saw others had with job search, personal relationship management, stuff like that.

And since we are all supposed to change jobs every 3 - 5 years... I found my better mousetrap.

Stories like these help keep me going - thanks for posting the snippets from the book!

Jason Alba
CEO - JibberJobber.com

Great recommendation, Guy. Next time you need a Yiddish speaking editor, though. Hootspah sounds like a place you go in Scottsdale where you spend all day laughing. I think you meant Chutzpah, which is what most of the featured folks in the book probably had plenty of!



You don't seriously think that I don't know how to spell chutzpah, do you? You are farmisht if you think so! :-)


Sounds like a great book. It often seems as though successful people have some 'special powers' that mere mortals don't. But, as these quotes show- all it takes is perseverance and the courage to take a few risks. Everyone starts small.

Thanks for a great blog!

Thanks for the recommendation.

The only other book that I've saw in that condition is "Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action and the Cultivation of Solidarity", from Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores and Hubert L. Dreyfus.


I highly recommend it

I think what Mike Lazaridis (RIM) means by "signs on the back of the building" and on how that attracts students, it helps to know that the back of RIM campus borders on the University of Waterloo. The signs out front facing the main entrances are smaller than the sign on the rear of the building facing the students.

Guy, I'm also reading the book and in the middle of it. It's extremely captivating and as an entrepreneur myself, I am sure learning a lot!

This book is next in my reading list and I cant wait to get stuck into it :)

This is a must read but will it open our eyes to how the equity structure of each company evolved over the funding rounds? I talked today with a guy developing a social software site. He has raised lots of cash and said he wished he had read my guide first. Now I guess he will say "I wish I had read this book first!". So many people in the Cambridge Cluster, UK, want to do it a new way and not learn from others. It makes the entrepreneurial world rich and fun but sometimes people get hurt for a little bit of knowledge.

@Brian Laks: "...a new industry niche: solar powered servers."

Geeks + Sunlight? Are you sure that's a winning combination?

It's also enlightening (and a relief for some) that a few started out saying "right, let's just start a company" but with no initial thoughts on direction, let alone a first-draft product idea.

I love this line from James Hong of HON, "...and I realized that looks don’t make up for a good personality"

- sure James, and gobs of money hanging out of your pockets has nothing to do with your new-found appeal ;-)

[This is why you should always listen to your wife. And if you’re a woman, you should never listen to your husband.]

Heh. People in the hallway at my office stopped to look in and wanted to know what I was laughing at.

It's funny because it's true.



I'm waiting for a comment asking what people in same sex relationships should do...


There isn't a lot I could say about this book that hasn't been said better already. It's just a great collection of insight from people who made their vision happen. Totally inspirational.

What I can recommend though is, if you're looking for a better alternative to a litter of sticky notes, try Book Darts. Scott Berkun recommended them on his blog a while back and I have to agree, they're perfect for marking all the passages in my books.

i was lucky enough to take a company from 0 to a public offering back in web 1.0 days. besides the thrill of kicking the s*&% out of your bigger competitors, the really great part was the young kids that you got to mentor. You did it without even knowing it. It is so fun to run into someone on linkedin or other system and see where they are now and what they have accomplished. the pleasure in knowing that in some small way you helped make them a (hopefully) better person, or more creative, or probably more confident in their abilities. Other than watching your own children, there is probably no better high in the world. that is what being an entrepreneur is all about.

Got it the day it came out, read it days, brilliant book, simply brilliant. I think the best profile is probably Paul Graham's. But there all really good. Evan Williams showed amazing persistence there with blogger. Why not Odeo?

I just received my copy from Amazon today and was about to start reading it. Thanks for pointing out the best of the book.

This book is pretty encouraging, especially when working day and night on building something that we have so much passion for.
Currently I am working on building a Social Marketplace http://www.onista.com and I really want to find time to read this book completely to keep myself going.

thanks Guy, Good post.

Great stories the sacrifices that entrepreneurs go through to bring an idea to the marketplace is humbling and inspiring.

Haha, the Yahoo diesel generator story is great... I wonder how many pages per gallon they were actually getting... If it were to happen today, what type of energy source would they would use? There might be a new industry niche: solar powered servers.

I read the book from front to back.

Excellent! Highly recommended.

I am now waiting for "VC's at Work" to hear their side of the story...

I've been reading this book lately. It's pretty good and has some stories I didn't know (like about Adobe) but the one negative is that it has at least one typographical error or transcription error per interview. For example, in the interview with Charles Geschke they call John Sculley "John Scull". It makes me think that the interview has no idea who John Sculley is, which makes the whole thing lose a little bit of credibility...

Looks like another good book to add to my list to read...thanks!

Excellent post Guy! I always love hearing about fellow entrepreneurs and how they got started.

I love the book. It is amazing how many of the stories fall in to "first we did this, then we did what worked."

Thanks for this recommendation, Guy! As I relentlessly code away day and night, it's healthy to be reminded of the fact that others have been (and are) in similar situations. I love what The Woz had to say in #2. How true!

Best regards,


Added to my cart for the next round of shopping!

and I think your method is nice and simple for organizing materials found in books. Maybe I should give it a try.

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