I finished reading Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days by Jessica Livingston a little while ago, but finally found time to write up my notes on it over the weekend.
The book is a series of interviews with founders of an assortment of tech startups(/projects) from the early days of personal computing through to a couple of years ago (when the book was written basically). So in addition to the usual page numbers, I've also shown who was being interviewed - it wouldn't make a lot of sense otherwise...
No, it was never clear that we were onto something huge. You never know anything. The hardest part in a startup is that you wake up one morning, and you feel great about the day, and you think, "We're kicking ass." And then you wake up the next morning, and you think "We're dead." And literally nothing's changed. You haven't made some big deal, you haven't sold something new. Maybe you wrote a few lines of code over the course of that last day. Maybe you had some conversations with people, but nothing's really moved.
I love this stuff; the persistence part is the part that I like. It's actually not fun when it's happening, but you know it makes a difference because 99.9 percent of people give up.
[...] get the legs of the business underneath it before you run terribly fast. We were always playing catch-up at Excite and I never liked that feeling. You always felt like the traffic, the momentum, the deals were all ahead of where the business naturally was. You want to be ahead of where it naturally is, but you don't want to be two times ahead of it. So, I think really taking the time to understand the dynamics of the business, so we can scale it, is important [...]
Stay out of lawsuits if you can help it. It's bad for both sides, especially small businesses. That's lawyers' business, to them, solving things through lawsuits. But it's very, very expensive. It's a sport of kings, and it uses up a lot of time. Unless you're a very big business that can make it a very small part of what you do, it's much better to find other ways to solve things. Frequently, individuals can do it better face to face. People who are the heads of companies understand that.
On disagreeing with his business partner
[...] By arguing with others about it, that's how you learn. And, if somebody can't take the arguing with it, then maybe they don't really believe in what they're talking about and they don't understand it well enough.
We'd argue and then we'd go out to lunch together, because it wasn't based on animosity.[...]
Our original business plan called for $3 to $4 million in sales. Ultimately, in 1983 it was $53 million. So it was a 1,700 percent forecasting error. And then it tripled the next year to $150 million. I was totally unprepared for the magnitude of the success and the rate of growth. It would have been psychotic to say it was going to get that big that fast. Or you'd have to be prescient, but I'm not.
People have a narrow concept of what's possible, and we're limited more by our own ideas about what's possible than what really is possible. So they just get uncomfortable, and they kind of tend to attack it [your idea] for whatever reason.
In response to the question "What advice can you give about 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 - literally in the sense that it will take stock away from you, but also the process of raising money is so horrible compared to the other aspects of business. You can't work your way out of it like you can with other problems. You're at other people's mercy.
I understand talking to the press as an essential part of marketing. At the same time, I understand that the consumers are the best marketers. If they love your product and you give them the tools to market it, they will.
[...] We do stuff, we follow through, and then we listen more. What we do is almost 100 percent based on what people ask us to do.
[...] if you're trying to get your company to think differently - to do something interesting - pick your setting carefully. Thinking Machines was set in an 1800s Victorian mansion on 100 acres of forest just outside of Boston. It was a park, basically. Working in an environment where, if you got stuck, you'd go for a long walk is very different than trying to do a startup and think differently if you're in Suite 201 in some major office complex. That was a lesson I've used every startup since.
I prototyped it [WAIS] in my spare time. I guess there was very much an ethos that hacking was encouraged - playing around and doing fun things, spending time doing something that wasn't your exact job responsibility, but doing it at work, and getting support from work. [...]
The best piece of advice that I got was from Bill Dunn, one of my mentors. He said, "Go someplace where people don't think you're crazy." Which sounds like a pretty simple thing to say, but it actually turned out to be a very wise piece of advice. Boston, especially back in 1990/91, was in recession and having trouble. California was also in recession, but in California there were dreamers. There were people who wanted to think about new and different things, and wouldn't think we were crazy to try to build this thing
On competitors to WAIS
There were other systems around, but one thing I tend to do is do something that is far enough out there that nobody in their right mind would possibly want to do it. In general, I usually take things from the "you gotta be crazy" period to the "of course." And once it gets to "of course," then there will be competitors and I'm done. Because usually what I want to do is just get other people to do it. The best way to do that is to show that it's possible.
I think it's really interesting being a venture capitalist because, when you've got 30 years of experience, then your challenge is how to teach and not tell. Because you want people to figure it out. You want to make sure that you can grab them by the coattails if they are falling off a cliff, but you want them to discover the edges by themselves.
So we worried about competitors, but it was an unreasonable fear. As a friend once pointed out, most gunshot wounds are self-inflicted.
At the time, Anderson Consulting (now Accenture) didn't have any sales-people. They always had the people who were executing the project sell it. "You eat what you kill" was the phrase at Accenture. You don't have a salesperson go out and tell the customer, "We can do this," making promises and then handing it off to a programmer.
The biggest roadblock to the entrepreneur are liabilities in your life. It's not whether or not you can be a good entrepreneur, it's whether you have to make a mortgage payment or support other people.
Experience will come when you face certain problems and live through them. And the best way to do that is to put yourself squarely in the path of those problems.
All these things come out of new ideas. If you're not in school and you're not an entrepreneur, you're not working on new ideas. You are just a cog in someone else's wheel, and you'll never make anything new. So the hardest thing is to say, "I'm going to put myself in the position of being an entrepreneur by having ideas and trying things, and not giving up when I fail."
In response to the question "Any other advice about startups?"
One, do it while you're young.
Two, there's no right path. There is no one plan that fits every business; you have to figure it out yourself. There is no magic formula.
Three, even if you raise money, spend it as if it's your own and you have none. Your organization has got to remain smart and lean. Be cheap. There's no shame in being cheap. I still fly coach.
Four, there's no such thing as easy entrepreneurship. It's going to be painful, it's going to be emotionally unstable, you're going to feel insecure. If you're not already bipolar, you will feel like you are.
Melanie Swan has just had a paper published - Sensor Mania! The Internet of Things, Wearable Computing, Objective Metrics, and the Quantified Self 2.0 - which is a nice snapshot of the Internet of Things landscape and starts to dig into some of the underlying why and how of what IoT could provide.
It's also chock-full of useful links to relevant projects, platforms and solutions - including two I'm involved with: Bubblino and Good Night Lamp. That's why it's getting its own entry in the blog, rather than just a link in delicious, but it's worth a read aside from that!