Book Review: Founders at Work
Founders at Work provides a rare glimpse into the early thinking that spawned many of today’s most prominent start-ups. Going beyond the glam articles found in many other sources, Founders profiles founders who have achieved sufficient success that little time needs to be spend justifying their inclusion. Rather, the focus is on how they conceived of their ideas and how they were able to implement them.
Author Jessica Livingston is a founder at Y-combinator, which helps explain how she was able to obtain access to so many accomplished founders. An interesting feature of this book is that she spends little time trying to identify themes or best practices between the individual profiles. As a reader I enjoyed this exclusion, as it enabled me (and forced me) to draw my own conclusions.
The depth of the investigation is what truly sets this books apart. For example, in profiling Steve Wozniak’s role in founding Apple, the reader learns that young Wozniak was a relentless optimizer, continuously striving to find ways to eliminate costly chips and circuits from early computers. His contributions were driven by a desire to own a then-unaffordable computer, and eventually gave rise to the personal computer industry. In another example, one learns that the founders of PayPal started with the goal of developing high speed encryption-decryption technology, not on developing an e-commerce platform as might be fairly (but incorrectly) assumed. It was only after refining the technology that the founders began to seek out applications and found themselves in the payment business.
This focus on developing core technologies, and only then searching for market opportunities, is a central theme in the book and seems well suited to biotechnology companies. The strong technology-development component of biotechnology business necessitates a business model that accommodates a technology push while still enabling market demands to help refine development paths and enable profitable sales.
I really enjoyed this book, and would encourage it for anyone seeking to ‘take a step back’ and look at the underpinnings of successful companies — many of the founders acknowledged that strategic positioning, excellent execution, and a measure of good fortune were key to their success.