Friday, October 14, 2011

Review: Founders at Work

This is one of the more interesting books I had read in a while, but I am bias since I am doing a startup. What are some of the lessons we could learn from some of the most successful startup in the past 2 decades (can’t believe so many things happened in 20 years).

2 Founders (business and technical). This is the dream team combination, as we have Bill Gates and Paul Alan (Microsoft), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple), Jerry Yang and David Filo (Yahoo), and Max Levchin and Peter Thiel (PayPal). The coder can just concentrate on building great product, and the business guy handles funding, board, operation, etc. Then again, business would break if the founders couldn't get along (choose carefully, don't get a co-founder for the sake of having one).

To sell out, or not? Most founders agreed to sell out, for one simple reason: you could use the money to fuel your next dream. Hotmail (Sabeer Bhatia) was sold to Microsoft, so does Flickr, Blogger, etc. What if you don't sell? You might crash fantastically, or be as great as Facebook.

Uncontrolled public “disputes” and lawsuits could kill the company. Dan Bricklin of Software Arts (VisiCalc for Apple II) was suit by its distributor due to disagreement with software loyalty, which in turns affected their chances of an acquisition and distracted their product focus (and overtaken by Lotus); and end up being irrelevant at the end.

No one is King forever. First we have VisiCalc, then Lotus Notes, and finally Microsoft Excel. Not too long ago, we have Friendster, followed by MySpace, and now Facebook.

Beware of VC (they could "kill" your company, or you). Though most founders have VC funding, but most agreed that they would preferred not to take VC funding if possible. VC naturally will act on their best interest, which might not be the best interest of your company; some VC might even try to take advantage of you since you are a first timer in accepting funding. If you have 2 almost similar deal from 2 VC firms, try to go with the smaller VC firm who actually focus more on your company (make sure you are their top 5 clients, rather than bottom 5). You want their founders to be on your board, not some junior stuff who knows nothing about running a company, and try to run your company. ArsDigita was basically destroyed by junior members of as established VC firm. Please know that they can even fire you, the founder!

Spent little as you can, and bootstrap.

No Business Model. Most company in the early stage doesn’t know how to make money (most of them didn’t make any but end up being acquired). TripAdvisor eventually found a business model by sending leads to hotel booking sites, and earn commissions; HotOrNot end up charging for dating services.

Hang on. Pyra Labs (Blogger) have to let go of their entire staffs as they run out of funding, but the site (or company) still continue to operate in minimum state by one of its founder, Evan Williams. He asked for donations to keep the site up, and eventually make some money by selling premium bloggers accounts (pay me $5 and I’ll the take ads away). Eventually it was acquired by Google.

Not every great idea is accepted. Initially, Gmail was not accepted as a great idea within Google, yet today it became an important part of Google. You need to work your way through, prove it and earn it. When Y Combinator started, most investors and media aren’t interested; it caught fire 18 months later, and there are various clones out there.

The original idea might not be the winning idea. Pyra Labs (Blogger) initial focus was a web-based project management tool; Flickr was originally a photo-sharing feature in an online game.

Crazy idea does work unexpectedly. How could you make money out of a site which rate if someone is hot or not? Well, HotOrNot started with some advertisement and end up as a dating site. Now, who dares to bet male geeky stuff couldn’t make money?

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