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Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days

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Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days is a collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies about what happened in the very earliest days. These people are celebrities now. What was it like when they were just a couple friends with an idea? Founders like Steve Wozniak (Apple), Caterina Fake (Flickr), Mitch Kapor (Lotus), Max Levchin (PayPal), and Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail) tell you in their own words about their surprising and often very funny discoveries as they learned how to build a company.

Where did they get the ideas that made them rich? How did they convince investors to back them? What went wrong, and how did they recover?

Nearly all technical people have thought of one day starting or working for a startup. For them, this book is the closest you can come to being a fly on the wall at a successful startup, to learn how it's done.

But ultimately these interviews are required reading for anyone who wants to understand business, because startups are business reduced to its essence. The reason their founders become rich is that startups do what businesses do--create value--more intensively than almost any other part of the economy. How? What are the secrets that make successful startups so insanely productive? Read this book, and let the founders themselves tell you.

456 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2001

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About the author

Jessica Livingston

387 books90 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 302 reviews
Profile Image for Otis Chandler.
385 reviews112k followers
March 22, 2017
Loved every second of this book. Each chapter is a different story of a startup founder. I read it slowly so it wouldn't end, and read many chapters twice. My biggest take was that most founders didn't necessarily know what they were doing - or even that they were on to something big. But they were all determined to start a company - that was the only thing they all had in common.

Here are some good quotes from the book:

"I'd say determination is the single most important quality in a startup founder. If the founders I spoke with were superhuman in any way, it was in their perseverance."
-- Jessica Livingston (the author)

"I see way too many people give up in the startup world. They just give up too easily. Recruiting is a classic example. I don't even hear the first "no" that somebody says. When they say, "No, I'm not interested", I think "Now it's a real challenge. Now's when the tough part begins." It's hard to identify talent, but great people don't look for jobs, great people are sold on jobs. And if they're sold they're going to say no at first. You have to win them over."
-- Joe Kraus (founder of Excite)

"Ultimately, you cannot accomplish something completely on your own. You really need to develop a network of people who win when you win."
-- Ray Ozzie (Founder of Groove Networks, Chief Architect of Microsoft)

"My philosophy on these types of companies - consumer-based Internet companies - is that you don't need to worry about the business model initially. If you get users, then everything else follows. Basically any technology can be copied, any concept can be copied. In my opinion, what makes one of these companies valuable is the users. That can't be copied"
-- Mark Fletcher (Founder of eGroups and Bloglines)

"I am not a hunter, never have fired a gun, but I'm told that if you want to shoot a duck, you have to shoot where the duck is going to be, not where the duck is. It's the same with introducing technology: if you're only focused on the market today, by the time you introduce your solution to that problem, there'll probably be several others already entrenched."
-- Charles Geschke (Founder of Adobe Systems)

"The biggest thrill is frankly not the financial success, it's the ability to have an impact. Because we're both engineers at heart and that's every engineer's dream - to build something that millions of people will use."
-- Charles Geschke (Founder of Adobe Systems)

"Most programmers don't think about the user experience. They get a spec book, and they say, "Well, I'm going to meet this spec to make the customer happy." That's not really enough; you have to make something good for the user if you want to call yourself an engineer."
-- Philip Greenspun (Founder of ArsDigita)

"People don't like to write. It's hard. The people who were really good software engineers were usually great writers; they had tremendous ability to organize their thoughts and communicate. The people who were sort of average-quality programmers and had trouble thinking about the larger picture were the ones who couldn't write."
-- Philip Greenspun (Founder of ArsDigita)

"Things never work out right the first time. You've always got to do it two or three times to get it right. And things always go wrong. So persistence is the key to success. I had seen that in my career. I had seen that in computer design projects. I had seen that through my whole life. And so that word is the best single advice I can give to entrepreneurs. The key to success, if you had to sum it up in one, is persistence."
-- Ron Gruner (Founder of Alliant Computer Systems and Shareholder.com)

"I'd just keep thinking, keep trying to find the language and find new employees, trying to meet the VC who would understand my vision and back me. I met with 43 VCs."
-- James Currier (Founder of Tickle.com)
Profile Image for Herve.
93 reviews206 followers
September 21, 2011
Another great book, so great I decide to write this post even if I have not finished reading it: Jessica Livingston in Founders at Work has interviewed 32 entrepreneurs about their story. The lessons are convincing, fascinating. Without asking for copyright, I copy here some quotes. The book is just a pleasure to read even if sometimes the Q&A are too specific about the start-up, but I assume it is part of the exercise. A Must-Read.

Paul Buchheit, creator of Gmail about Risk Taking

As I say, for people, it depends on their situation if they can take that risk of joining a startup or moving to a new city if they don’t live in the right place. For me, I was actually single at the time, I didn’t have a mortgage, so the idea of joining a little startup that may well be destroyed was just like, “That will be fun.” Because I kind of thought, “Even if Google doesn’t make it, it will be educational and I’ll learn something.” Honestly, I was pretty sure AltaVista was going to destroy Google.

Mike Ramsay, founder of Tivo about Silicon Valley

I was curious to see what’s the attitude of a typical startup in Scotland compared to here. I found that they are just culturally a whole lot more conservative and cautious. And somewhat lacking in self-confidence. You come over here and . . . I had a meeting recently with a couple of early 20-year-olds who have decided to drop out of Stanford because they got bored, and they are trying to raise money to fund their startup. They believe they can do it, and nothing’s going to hold them back. They have confidence, they have that spirit, which I think is great and is probably unique to this part of the world. Being part of that for so long, for me, has been very invigorating.

Joshua Schachter, founder of del.icio.us about implementing

But the guy who says, “I have a great idea and I’m looking for other people to implement it,” I’m wary of—frequently because I think the process of idea-making relies on executing and failing or succeeding at the ideas, so that you can actually become better at coming up with ideas.

and about VCs

In general, I found VCs to be significantly politer than the folks I worked with. The worst they did was not call me back. I’d never hear from them again. Brad Feld does a nice blog talking about how the VC process works. He says they never call you back to say no—they don’t want to close the door in case they want to open it again, but they don’t want to actually give you a response. Very few VCs actually said, “Sorry, we’re not interested.”

Craig Newmark, founder of craiglist on the definition of start-up

“in the conventional sense, we were never a startup. In the conventional sense, a startup is a company, maybe with great ideas, that becomes a serious corporation. It usually takes serious investment, has a strategy, and they want to make a lot of money.”
Profile Image for Mohamed Embbya.
26 reviews20 followers
December 28, 2016
No structure, no themes, but 30 odd interviews with tech business founders, and yet it worked and made for a great read.

The business media usually distills fundamental concepts such as team building, creating a good product and perseverance to the point where you either get a generic phrase or a string of dull paragraphs where a single generic phrase would do; the effect is that reading about business becomes a boring activity, but Founders at Work was different.

It's not a how-to book but narratives that really do drive home the above concepts and other such as business model flexibility and the importance of listening to the customer.

These concepts were brought up by most interviewees in their different settings and contexts, and as I usually feel that having a context or a story when reading about these concepts makes them more fun and yields better educational value, I thought Founders was a great book.
Profile Image for Yevgeniy Brikman.
Author 3 books583 followers
March 14, 2015
A wonderful inside look at how a number of different startups were created. The book reinforced a few interesting trends for me:

1. Very few founders knew what they were doing when they first started; many of the ideas emerged accidentally, after many failures or experiments.

2. You *can* get more done with crazy hours and virtually all successful startups require them.

3. VC funding seemed to be an ingredient in the success if most startups, but was often a double edged sword, causing problems later on.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

"What surprised me most was how unsure the founders seemed to be that they were actually onto something big. Some of these companies got started almost by accident. The world thinks of startup founders as having some kind of superhuman confidence, but a lot of them were uncertain at first about starting a company. What they weren't uncertain about was making something good--or trying to fix something broken".

van Hoff: “Over the years, I’ve learned that the first idea you have is irrelevant. It’s just a catalyst for you to get started. Then you figure out what’s wrong with it and you go through phases of denial, panic, regret. And then you finally have a better idea and the second idea is always the important one.”


Buchheit: “A lot of people seem to be against uncertainty, actually. In all areas of life.

I’m suddenly reminded that, for a while, I asked people, if they were playing Russian roulette with a gun with a billion barrels (or some huge number, so in other words, some low probability that they would actually be killed), how much would they have to be paid to play one round? A lot of people were almost offended by the question and they’d say, “I wouldn’t do it at any price.”

But, of course, we do that every day. They drive to work in cars to earn money and they are taking risks all the time, but they don’t like to acknowledge that they are taking risks. They want to pretend that everything is risk-free.”


Paul Graham: “Practically all the software in the world is either broken or very difficult to use. So users dread software.

They’ve been trained that whenever they try to install something, or even fill out a form online, it’s “not going to work. I dread installing stuff, and I have a PhD in computer science.

So if you’re writing applications for end users, you have to remember that you’re writing for an audience that has been traumatized by bad experiences.”


Paul Graham: I found I could actually sell moderately well. I could convince people of stuff. I learned a trick for doing this: to tell the truth. A lot of people think that the way to convince people of things is to be eloquent—to have some bag of tricks for sliding conclusions into their brains. But there’s also a sort of hack that you can use if you are not a very good salesman, which is simply tell the truth. Our strategy for selling our software to people was: make the best software and then tell them, truthfully, “this is the best software.” And they could tell we were telling the truth.

Another advantage of telling the truth is that you don’t have to remember what you’ve said. You don’t have to keep any state in your head. It’s a purely functional business strategy. (Hackers will get what I mean.)”


Winblad: “You’d think that everybody would want to have our jobs. We’ve all been handsomely rewarded. The stories are not like, “Hey, we had patrician backgrounds and silver spoons, and we bought our way into this.” We just “thought” our way into these industries. The power of thought “and math and science and computing, you’re given that for free—it’s a choice you can make. You take that choice, and it gives you sort of a magic wand to be a captain of an industry that’s still fairly young, that’s driving the whole world economy”



Spolsky: “These were all marginally good marketing ideas. Unfortunately we spent a lot of time chasing them. The one thing we learned over 5 years is that nothing works better than just improving your product. Every minute, every developer hour we spent on any one of these crazy things—although they had some marginal return on the work that we put into them—was nothing compared to just making a better version of the product and releasing it”

56 reviews25 followers
September 24, 2019
I didn't read all the chapters -- I only read the ones that interested me. I didn't read about startups I'd never heard of because they got killed by a late-comer, or startups that dealt with very esoteric subjects like parallel supercomputers. If I'd read those, maybe my rating would have differed.

As a sort of note-to-self, these were the chapters that I read:
1
2
4
6
7
8
9
12
15
16
18
19
26
27
29
33 (the parts that interested me)

I should probably read the questions that interest me from the chapters I haven't read at some point, but until then, the book gets 4/5. It's full of insights from people with hands-on experience, but parts of it felt like unproductively reading startup-history gossip. In total, the pros outweighed the cons by far.
4 reviews17 followers
July 21, 2013
A bit outdated but really inspiring. It's interesting to note the patterns between the different founders stories. The most unexpected being that many were unaware of the importance or enormity of the project they were in the process of undertaking.
Profile Image for Koen Crolla.
722 reviews168 followers
February 27, 2013
There's a harmful cult of the start-up centred around—mostly—Paul Graham, and this book is, if not their Dianetics, at least their Battlefield Earth.

I wish I could give it a lower score, but I can't, in good faith, because it's exactly what it promises to be and exactly what I thought it was going to be when I picked it up: a gossip rag in book form.
It's the sort of thing dim, greedy assholes could read religiously, but to the rest of us, it mostly serves to drive home the fact that self-described ``entrepreneurs''—and certainly the ones mapping cleanly to the Y Combinator ideal—are all barely competent, borderline sociopathic, and full of shit.
Profile Image for Rick Sam.
389 reviews88 followers
July 27, 2021
I used to work at a Startup.

That gave me larger picture of Tamil Nadu's SaaS world.

An Interesting book that shares stories of Founders.

I liked many of the stories.

A Good Archetype book.

1. Determination
2. Perseverance
3. Adaptive

Common Feelings among Founders: Rejection, Isolation, Uncertainty, Lack of Progress




Deus Vult,
Gottfried
Profile Image for Dan.
13 reviews2 followers
November 25, 2020
Jessica does a fantastic job making the stories of founders really pop. These anecdotes will make you laugh, cry, and feel awe inspired. If anyone has any ambition of starting a venture and wants to get the real stories of trials and triumphs, read this book!
Profile Image for TarasProkopyuk.
686 reviews94 followers
May 30, 2015
Книга хороша тем, что она богата на истории многих значительных стартапов начиная от самого зарождения интернет бизнеса в США и особенно тем, что истории исходя из первых уст, от их основателей в форме интервью.

Больше всего мне было интересно узнать о многих вызовах, которые падали на плечи руководства и основателей компаний, их поворотные пути в истории развития, а также что именно двигало ими, что же заставляло упорствовать, чего они в итоге достигли и какой ценой.
Profile Image for Max Nova.
419 reviews160 followers
Read
May 10, 2015
A great book for bedime reading. It's basically impossible to read this book cover-to-cover in one sitting (a lot like the "48 Laws of Power"), but each piece is entertaining and instructive on its own. It does seem like it gets a bit repetitive about halfway through, but I'd highly recommend this book to anyone starting their own business.
Profile Image for Annie.
6 reviews2 followers
January 9, 2016
Great read. An insightful look into the experiences of successful founders. One thing I learned is that even the best venture capitalists turn down unicorns.
Profile Image for Julian Dunn.
268 reviews15 followers
December 2, 2021
This is one of those books that I found so enlightening that I actually went and ordered a copy after I finished reading a copy that I had borrowed from the library. I've always dreamed of one day starting a company, and it was so great to read about the variety of experiences of startup founders, from how long it took to build and scale their companies (sometimes right away, sometimes it took years), to their ages (all over the map), to the mistakes and triumphs they had (also all over the map). I really appreciated hearing this diversity, because taken in isolation, one entrepreneur's story can seem like it is the only path to success (e.g. quit your job, raise enormous amounts of VC, "blitzscale", etc.) but really, there is no consistency among the entrepreneurs featured in this book. Many of them did not quit their full-time jobs until their startups got some traction; many of them did not raise VC at all but bootstrapped their firms either all or part of the way; many of them did not prioritize growth over revenue. Of course, others did do all or some of these things, which does fit into the Silicon Valley playbook, but these interviews show that even not hewing to such a "tried and tested" playbook can still result in success.

The only common thread amongst all these entrepreneurs is their perseverance and grit. Not completely irrational perseverance -- some of the semi-successful startups, like ArsDigita, still crashed-and-burned for other reasons -- but the level of passion and obsession with a problem space is what animates all entrepreneurs and gives them more than a fighting chance of being successful, versus employees in an enterprise who don't necessarily have that same kind of existential fire in their bellies.
Profile Image for Pranshu Sharma.
24 reviews1 follower
December 5, 2019
This is like a small-time capsule that makes you aware of each and every person who has contributed to the growth of human experiences collectively. The book is about founders but it touches the lives of VC Mafias to Sharks and pretty much everyone involved. Master of Scale podcast by Reid H. will sure takes you back to the stories of people you will find somewhere in this book.
Profile Image for Dr. Tobias Christian Fischer.
622 reviews30 followers
July 1, 2021
Th book is greatly written and has good start-up stories from the first computer to blogs and user-focused content. The focus is strongly on the US.

Based on them, the book establishes some patterns for their success like many started without a specific idea or doing less can lead to a real success.

#blinkist
Profile Image for Ehsan Choudhry.
46 reviews
May 24, 2022
Interesting insight of the problem and challenges faced by startup entrepreneurs, and how they overcame them. As the book is a set of interviews, some interviews are really interesting and insightful, while others get a bit long and boring. It was more fun to read about companies i had prior knowledge about and whose product i had used, as their journey was more relatable.
10 reviews1 follower
June 13, 2022
Loved every second of this book. Each chapter is a different story of a startup founder. I read it slowly so it wouldn't end, and read many chapters twice. My biggest take was that most founders didn't necessarily know what they were doing - or even that they were on to something big.
Profile Image for Evgeniy Oleinik.
11 reviews4 followers
January 3, 2021
Occasionally motivating, but largely outdated, with many mentioned companies already gone out of existence. I also feel that the book needed a lot more editing, as the guests sometimes go too deep into the unnecessary specifics.
217 reviews6 followers
September 1, 2020
one of my all time favorite books. Not a book to read cover to cover. It is a series of interviews so you can pick and choose when and what to read. Nevertheless, I thought this book was so inspirational! So thought provoking. As a tech person and a person trying to start a company, i found this book to be full of lessons. I know I will come back to this book over and over again.

Gold

"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."

People think startups grow out of some brilliant initial idea like a plant from a seed. But almost all the founders I interviewed changed their ideas as they developed them. PayPal started out writing encryption software, Excite started as a database search company, and Flickr grew out of an online game.

Starting a startup is a process of trial and error. What guided the founders through this process was their empathy for the users. They never lost sight of making things that people would want.

They can't focus on new businesses because they've got to manage their old ones.

I see way too many people give up in the startup world. They just give up too easily. Recruiting is a classic example. I don't even hear the first "no" that somebody says. When they say, "No, I'm not interested," I think, "Now it's a real challenge. Now's when the tough part begins." It's hard to identify talent, but great people don't look for jobs, great people are sold on jobs. And if they're sold they're going to say no at first. You have to win them over.

I'm an engineer by training and I tend to be one of these people who believes he can accomplish basically anything in software—it's just a big toolbox. So if you know that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to, what's worth accomplishing?

You have to be comfortable with the fact that you are separate from the thing that you're building, and that the team and the people financing you will have joint custody over the asset that you create. You have to respect that and not associate your own success and failure with the success and failure of your "child."

I had a meeting recently with a couple of early 20-year-olds who have decided to drop out of Stanford because they got bored, and they are trying to raise money to fund their startup. They believe they can do it, and nothing's going to hold them back. They have confidence, they have that spirit, which I think is great and is probably unique to this part of the world. Being part of that for so long, for me, has been very invigorating.

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.

I learned to try not to make too many leaps at once. Most people have a very difficult time imagining something they can't see at least a demonstration of. If you can get a demonstration—or, worst case, a video—it communicates an idea better than hand-waving for hours. So get to a demo quickly.

Livingston: What makes a good business partner? Kahle: Compatibility. Mutual respect through hard times. Maybe it's clear lines of differentiation for who does what. But finding a good business partner is a fantastically valuable thing to do. So the second startup, Alexa, I started with a partner as a full cofounder and that worked out really well.

I am not a hunter, never have fired a gun, but I'm told that if you want to shoot a duck, you have to shoot where the duck is going to be, not where the duck is. It's the same with introducing technology: if you're only focused on the market today, by the time you introduce your solution to that problem, there'll probably be several others already entrenched. It will be hard to dislodge them, and hard to convince people that what you have is so much better that they should make a change.

then your challenge is how to teach and not tell.

So, through Signal vs. Noise, we're trying to deliver a pushback to companies that feel like they have to hire a bunch of people as early as possible and to take money to realize their vision by saying, "If your vision of your product costs a million bucks to make, try rescoping that idea in your head so it fits in $100K and get it out there earlier. Instead of having a 1-year product cycle, what could you do in 1 month?"

Most programmers don't think about the user experience. They get a spec book, and they say, "Well, I'm going to meet this spec to make the customer happy." That's not really enough; you have to make something good for the user if you want to call yourself an engineer.

People don't like to write. It's hard. The people who were really good software engineers were usually great writers; they had tremendous ability to organize their thoughts and communicate. The people who were sort of average-quality programmers and had trouble thinking about the larger picture were the ones who couldn't write.

Talk to your customers. Find out what they need. Don't pay any attention to the competition. They're not relevant to you. Only talk to your customers and your potential customers and see what it is that caused them not to buy your product or would cause them to buy more copies of it. And do that, and then ship it. That was something we really, really should have focused on, but, you know, we didn't know any better.

Tip number two: you can't get too attached to your vision in a startup, because things may change. It's not a sign of failure to change your vision. I remember in a previous company, we wanted to be this, but we were offered a consulting contract to do this, that, and the other thing, and, yeah, that wasn't in the plan, but we'll take that, because that's going to add $50,000 to our startup capital, and it'll only take x amount of time. Yeah, be wary of distractions, but if you're lightning-focused on just one thing and aren't willing to consider others, you probably don't have the flexibility to make it when things don't go according to plan. That's the one truism: things won't go according to plan.

Gruner: I went to an executive conference several years ago in New York. One of the most interesting sessions had about six chief executives, all of whom were very successful, and the moderator asked, "If you could describe in one word the key to success for your company, what would that word be?" Very few answered in one word. Some of them said integrity, or communications, and things like that. The last person to talk was Michael Dell, and he said one simple word: persistence. I can relate to that. Things never work out right the first time. You've always got to do it two or three times to get it right. And things always go wrong. So persistence is the key to success. I had seen that in my career. I had seen that in computer design projects. I had seen that through my whole life. And so that word is the best single advice I can give to entrepreneurs. The key to success, if you had to sum it up in one word, is persistence.
104 reviews101 followers
August 25, 2013
I wish there was a 4.5 on Goodreads. This book came into my hands highly recommended by several people and when I received it as a gift, I devoured it. Most of the advice in this book is timeless, and any fan of Paul Graham's essays will really enjoy this.

However, to me (an 18y old, reading in 2013), a lot of the interviews in the book, while interesting, were a bit dated. Because of how much the VC landscape (how money is raised, how interactions are had with VCs, etc), the cost of technology and getting started (lean startup, small seed rounds, etc) and distribution models have changed over the last 20, 10 and even 5 years, it was really hard for me to connect to a lot of the pre-Dot-Com-Bubble stories that were presented. Admittedly, I skimmed a few of the extremely-dated chapters.

My favorite interviews were with Max Levchin (PayPal), Craig Newmark (Craigslist), Paul Buchheit (Gmail) and James Hong (HotOrNot).
Profile Image for Saurabh.
56 reviews
September 15, 2008
This one is a brilliant, brilliant book.
I'm so glad I picked it up and it's worth every paisa of the 450 bucks I paid for it.

If you think you are the entrepreneur kinds, this book is a must read.

If you haven't started your company as yet, it might just push you to do it - and for those who have started it and are getting completely sloshed by the experience, it shines a nice bright light on you - letting you know that eventually everything will work out -- and even the biggest companies today went through the same trials and tribulations that you are going through now.
Profile Image for Powell Omondi.
110 reviews18 followers
December 22, 2017
This was an excellent book, it gives the reader the right perspective of how some of the unicorns during the dotcom bubble came to be. The insights are precious and would recommend to anyone thinking of building a company.
If you want something and it is not yet on the market, find a way to invent or come up with a way of doing it, you might be into something precious.

Key lesson: Just do it, you don't need to wait to do it
Profile Image for Andrus.
42 reviews28 followers
August 17, 2013
Fascinating stories about early days of pre-2008 technology companies like Apple, Blogger, TripAdvisor, etc. Some of them were absolute gems worth a 6-star review, others that got into fine details about uninteresting stuff by today's standards (technical aspects of hardware in early '80s) needed faster page flipping. But all in all a must-read for early stage startup founders.
Profile Image for Nayan Sharma.
4 reviews3 followers
September 9, 2020
Founders at work is a piece of art, which you take time to understand, but once you do, you can't get away without thinking about it all the time.
All the lessons that it teach are great. The best thing is it teaches you without ever felt like a preaching kind of book.
All the journeys that people have taken in the past, can be a light to guide us further.
Profile Image for Slavo Ingilizov.
52 reviews5 followers
March 24, 2010
Great value. I've always preferred interviews with real people rather than a subjective opinion. This book not only tries to hit a specific topic, but also intentionally tries to just provide comparison data about some of the most successful entrepreneurs.
269 reviews2 followers
December 18, 2014
One of the few books I've yet to finish, while it's great to see the journeys of the entrepreneurs in these stories there is mostly technical and very intricate details and the stories tend to drag on..

probably very helpful for the technical co-founder
Profile Image for Andrew.
6 reviews285 followers
January 5, 2009
Best part of this book for me is seeing how much businesses change as they go from idea to reality.
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