Flailing, grinding, thrashing, and getting lucky are why companies succeed. Not knowing you’re doing something that’s “impossible” helps, too. Jessica Livingston’s book, Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days (Apress, 2007), is a gold mine for stories about the reality of starting an organization. In particular, these will delight and inspire you:
James Currier (Tickle) “When we started the company, we wanted to change the world, and we had all these tests on the site to help people with their lives. We had the anxiety test, the parenting, relationship, and communications tests. And no one came….‘Let’s do a test for what kind of breed of dog you are.’ We put it online, and eight days later we had a million people trying to enter our site.”
Catarina Fake (Flickr) “So Flickr started off as a feature. It wasn’t really a product. It was kind of IM in which you could drag and drop photos onto people’s desktops and show them what you were looking at.”
Paul Graham (Viaweb) “Neither of us knew how to write Windows software, and we didn’t want to learn. It seemed like this huge steaming turd that was best avoided. So the main thing we thought when we ?rst had the idea of doing Web-based applications was, ‘Thank God we don’t have to write software on Windows.’ ”
Ann Winblad (Open Systems and now venture capitalist) “So I get in front of these sixty or seventy guys, and these guys are probably all in their ? fties and I’m in my twenties, and we had a ‘blue light special,’ where we said, ‘If you give me a check today for $10,000, you can have unlimited rights to one of our modules.’…I went home with, I think, like twelve or ?fteen of these $10,000 checks in my purse.”
Tim Brady (Yahoo!) “The funniest thing I can remember was when there was a huge storm in May ’95, and the power grid went down for a few days. We had to go rent a power generator and take turns ?lling it with diesel fuel for four days. 24/7. We were laughing: ‘How many pages to the gallon today?’ ”
Mitch Kapor (Lotus Development) on how much money he wanted to raise from Sevin-Rosen: “I think I said probably $2 to $3 million. We had nothing. We had an early-stage, under-development spreadsheet, and me and Jon Sachs. So that was the biggest number I felt I could ask for without being totally absurd.”
Chuck Geschke (Adobe) on the reaction of the spouses of Xerox execs to a demonstration of PARC technology in 1977: “They loved this stuff. They sat down and played with the mouse, they changed a few things on the screen, they hit the print button and it looked the same on paper as it did on the screen. They said, ‘Wow, this is really cool. This would really change an office if it had this technology.” (Unfortunately, the Xerox execs didn’t listen to their wives, and that’s why Adobe and Apple exist today.)
James Hong (Hot or Not) on his ?rst beta site: “My dad was the ?rst person that ever saw Hot or Not besides Jim [his cofounder] and me, and he got addicted to it! Here’s my dad, a sixty-year-old retired Chinese guy who, as my father, is supposed to be asexual, and he’s saying, ‘She’s hot. This one’s not hot at all.’”On using his parents to moderate the pictures: “I originally had my parents moderating since they were retired, and after a few days I asked my dad how it was going. He said, ‘Oh, it’s really interesting. Mom saw a picture of a guy and a girl and another girl and they were doing …’ So I told Jim, ‘Dude, my parents can’t do this anymore. They’re looking at porn all day.’”
These stories depict what happens in startups. Success takes crazy, passionate people who believe they can change the world. Success doesn’t take “professional” and “proven” people, so if you have an idea, no matter what your background is, you should go for it.
Excerpted from my book:
Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition.