Her method is in asking these entrepreneurs open ended questions about their experiences in their own startups and letting them relate their histories, perspectives, insights, and advice, in their own words.
The interviewees make up a grand list of some of the people who helped create and develop the computer industry and the Internet. In hardware, the most prominent are Steve Wozniak of Apple Computer fame, Mike Ramsay of TiVo, Mike Lazaridis of Research in Motion. In software, there are Mitchell Kapor of Lotus Development, Blake Ross of Firefox, and Mena Trott of Six Apart. And, in services, Max Levchin of PayPal, Craig Newmark of craigs list, and Steve Perlman of Web TV stand out. There are nearly two dozen other entrepreneurs who inform, enlighten, and sometimes entertain in their interviews with Ms. Livingston. For instance, Tim Brady, the first non-founder employee of Yahoo retells a story of a storm and power outage at the Yahoo office before a meeting of Yahoo principals and venture capital people which was held in candlelight and with water dripping from ceilings. A gas-fueled generator set up hastily to run the servers was being rated by how many webpages it was serving up, per gallon! The money people were not charmed.
Among the founders, most were young, and often, mere college students, at the time of their startups. Interestingly, there are only three females in the group, which may or may not imply something about gender and technology, business and entrepreneurship. Only Caterina Fake of Flickr, weighs in much on the gender issue in her interview. She believes that a woman needs to be twice as prepared as a man to be credible with both technical and investment people.
The bulk of the material concerns computer and network technology and applications, and money. Lots of money. And lots of discussions of money especially in relationship to "VC's" (venture capitalists) who enable creative people with ideas to succeed. Author Livingston herself is one of these capitalists, a founding partner of Y Combinator an investor in some of the companies noted in this book.
Partly because of her business perspective, and probably mostly because of the dominance of finance and economics in nearly all social affairs, most of the material in the book concerns the symbiotic relationship of inspired creative individuals and creative financial people in producing technological development and change, many times furthering creative good for customers and society, but also facilitating crass commercial interests.
For many of these entrepreneurs, invested money and "gift" money from enlightened parties called "angels" was a necessary element in producing their dreams of making great products or services for the good of people. For others, the "startup" era (from about the late 1970s to the end of the century) was a time of playing a game of "Who can cash out the most"- founding a beginning technology company, associating with rapacious financial people, and making loads of money when the business "went public", as an "initial public offering" (IPO), which often times ultimately left both the innocent and greedy bereft of value. ( For a satirical view of such gamesmanship, check out the vastly underrated movie comedy/documentary, "Dot", produced in 2002.)
The author takes no positions on the patent and implied moral issues. Her objective is limited to examining the characteristics of the founders of the successful businesses to see if there are common elements in the people, or patterns in the development of the businesses from initial idea to operating concern providing value to consumers and other businesses.
She determines that there are such elements: intelligent and skilled individuals, perseverance, comfortability with risk, and maybe most significantly, Luck. After reading the stories of nearly three dozen founders about how their ideas became transformed into productive businesses, it becomes readily apparent that such success is premised, in part, on knowledge and skill, vision and/or inspiration, and perseverance. However, necessary, these elements are insufficient in themselves. Almost every one of the interviewees refers to lucky circumstances and events which conditioned their successes. Some were unsure of the worth of their ideas, at least initially. In most cases, carefully thought-out plans went awry. Almost all founders faced rejection by investors, journalists, and established companies.
Ms. Livingston's interviewing technique results in personalities being revealed, motivations disclosed, and insightful historical facts about the early developments of the computer industry and the Internet related. A lot of the historical material has been expressed previously elsewhere, but the telling of the stories by the individuals directly involved makes for compelling reading. Some people like Steve Perlman of WebTV, Max Levchin of PayPal, and Steve Wozniak are clearly geeks who love working with hardware and software. Others like Evan Williams of Blogger and Arthur Van Hoff of Marimba seem decidedly businesslike and personally ambitious.
Some of the people seemed like (or are) heroes. Steve Wozniak, for example can be credited in large part for the PC revolution. He's one of the founders whose motivation was in doing top-quality designs to help the world be a better place. Although he became rich, much of his money has been donated to charities. The relationship of Woz and the co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, is fascinating, especially in the contrast of motivations and the distribution of financial gains in the early years. (Woz gave his away; Jobs wanted even more.)
There are other heroes like Mitchell Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3 fame, whose desire to contribute to society what he was capable of was his primary motivation. Like a number of other founders, financial success was valued for the freedom it provided to do positive deeds rather than for material benefits.
Not surprisingly, some of these founders realized success by simply scaling up and distributing products they had already designed for themselves. Joshua Schacter of del.icio.us fame needed a way to manage his own 20,000 browser bookmarks and came up with a "tagging" feature which eventually resulted in a sharing and collaborative website business.
craigslist founder, Craig Newmark, expanded upon his practice of e-mailing notices of local cultural events to his friends into a nationwide service for consumer interaction. The business is one of the rare startups which has remained privately held.
Hotmail was formed by Sabeer Bhatia as an extension of a personal problem-solving adventure in accessing e-mail remotely beyond his company's firewall. Solving that problem for self and coworkers, led to a business which later grossed $400 million when acquired by Microsoft.
For those looking for tips on how to mimic the successes of these founders, consider these major themes from the book:
-make only products that people want.
-be a leader and make great new products that people will learn to like.
-go with your own intuitions.
-make sure to listen and take advice from others, especially your startup team and your eventual customers.
-make a product or build a business that you are passionate about.
-be smart and have an exit strategy for your business right from the beginning, "an IPO."
-make friends and contacts in the business and investment communities, especially the venture capital industry.
-minimize your involvement with the money people as much as possible in favor of the people who make actual products- programmers and engineers.
-find a hole in the market and fill it.
-make something no one else has thought of and create new markets.
Clear enough? You'll have a to figure it out for yourselves!
Interestingly, there seems to be one thing nearly everyone agrees on-don't trust Microsoft!"