Notes from Founders at work and European founders at work

Usually, I try to summarize 1 book in a single write up. This piece is an exception. It covers 2 books - Founders at work (FW) and European founders at work (EFE). Both of them are collections of interviews of well known startup founders. The idea of summarizing interviews did not appeal to me very much. Instead, I was constantly surprised at seeing the same observation expressed by different interviewees. For example, several founders have mentioned that a startup needs to remain in close contact with its customers. This observation has showed up in at least 5 interviews. I call these recurring observations. I liked the idea of listing all these recurring observations spread among the interviews of these 2 books. You are now reading the result. This piece has taken a long time to write (the last post being in January 2012) because I have read both the books during short bus rides on my way to work. Never have I been so happy when a bus I am in has got stuck in a traffic queue :-) That has allowed me to read may be 1 more paragraph :-) Highlighted page from EFW This is what you get when you highlight a book in a moving bus :-) EFW is almost an extension of FW. So I thought why not cover them in a single piece. The interview questions in FW is slightly better than EFW, but both are excellent collections of interviews. Some of the interviews are quite moving as they narrate the sad struggle that the interviewees had to go through. Top of this list is Evan Williams of Pyra labs and Olivier Poitrey of Dailymotion. It is good to see both of them having happy endings with Evan Williams being one of the founders of Twitter. Although the main focus of this write up is recurring observations about startups, at the very end, I have listed a few more quotes that have not occurred in multiple interviews, but they sounded so good to me that I had to list them. These quotes are listed in the Gems section. I have selected a title for each recurring observation and devoted a section under that title. All the quotes that note that observation are then listed. Here is a list of the recurring observations followed by their respective sections: [Each quote is followed by the name of the interviewee, his/her startup, and then FW or EFW; e.g. "[Foo, Bar Inc, EFW]." FW or EFW says whether the interview is from "Founders at work" or "European founders at work."]  


  • Companies are just the people that make them up. ... the attitude of the company distills from the top. [Steve Perlman, WebTV, FW]
  • But getting the right people - especially in that first dozen - is so much more important than getting the req filled. [Stephen Kaufer, TripAdvisor, FW]
  • People are the foundation of any company. Machiavelli said you judge a leader by the strength of his generals, ... [Bob Davis, Lycos, FW]
  • ... if you get the senior positions right, that kind of sets the gene pool for the organization. [Jos White, Notion capital, EFW]
  • ... the very first people to join will shape the company's personality. [Oliver Poitrey, Dailymotion, EFW]
  • The other thing I cared about a lot from the very beginning was creating a workplace that treated people well. [Mitchell Kapor, Lotus, FW]
  • It's not just business related expenses. You also have to create an environment that you like so that people are happy and feel they are valued. [Arthur van Hoff, Marimba, FW]
  • You have to make sure that you keep on the uptick - not just financially, but also make it so that it's a fun environment and people want to work there. [Brewster Kahle, Alexa Internet, FW]
  • We invested in the human resources function extensively. [Mitchell Kapor, Lotus, FW]
  • I think the people are the biggest resource. There are really smart people around, so you could just go talk to them and say, "How are we going to do this?" and brainstorm solutions. [Paul Buchheit, Gmail, FW]
  • ... if you have just enough of the right positive people around you, you can create something very, very big. [Reshma Sohoni, Seedcamp, EFW]
  • ... if you have two really good people and a very powerful tool. That's better than having 20 mediocre people and inefficient tools. [Philip Greenspun, ArtsDigita, FW]
  • Because the difference in almost any position between someone who does a good job and someone who does a great job might be 20 percent more in salary, but it's 100 or 200 percent more in throughput. [Stephen Kaufer, TripAdvisor, FW]

Hiring and growth

  • One is hiring slowly and more carefully. Another is be cheap, cheap, cheap. Also, get the legs of the business underneath it before you run terribly fast. [Joe Kraus, Excite, FW]
  • As a technologist, it is very difficult to hire someone on the marketing and sales side because they are so different than technologists and you don't know who to trust. It takes about a year to really understand whether the people who you are partnering with trust you and know they will rely upon you just as much as you know you will rely upon them. [Ray Ozzie, Groove networks, FW]
  • You can hire 40 people in an afternoon, but they won't necessarily work together well; they won't understand what's going on. It takes a while. [Brewster Kahle, Alexa Internet, FW]
  • ... they'll never grow their company by more than 25 percent per year, because otherwise it's just too hard to transmit the corporate culture. [Philip Greenspum, ArtsDigita, FW] - talking about McKinsey.
  • ... we made mistakes of thinking that hiring someone is better than hiring no one - which is always wrong. [Jos White, Notion Capital, EFW]
  • If you want to hire the right people, it's generally not a good idea to rush it. [Olivier Poitrey, Dailymotion, EFW]
  • ... hiring great people is the biggest challenge ... I think the thing that makes great companies is just hiring great people. [Boris Zanten, The Next web, EFW]
  • ... Knowing what I know now, I would have had good programming tests and a much better process for hiring people. [Richard Jones,, EFW]


  • If you have a good team, you are halfway there. [Max Levchin, Paypal, FW]
  • If they have a bad idea, great teams can figure out a better one. [Joe Kraus, Excite, FW]
  • ... you do need to have the ability to form a team around you with good people. Talent attracts talent. [Arthur van Hoff, Marimba]
  • ... the majority of companies fail by self-inflicted wounds by the leadership team. [Ann Winblad, Hummer Winblad, FW]
  • ... don't hesitate to hire the best, don't be afraid. The team is the most important asset that you will have. [Bernard Liautaud, Business objects, EFW]
  • ... the team is what it always comes down to. It comes down to great teamwork behind all these things. [Eric Wahlforss, Soundcloud, EFW]

Staying close to users

  • ... you have to have people who understand the users and the product. [James Hong, Hot or Not, FW]
  • ... unless you have somebody who has an interest in talking with whoever you're selling your product or service to, your product isn't going to turn out to be what the customer wants. [Stephen Kaufer, TripAdvisor, FW]
  • ... make sure you are always in communication with the people who are eventually going to use your product. [Blake Ross, Firefox, FW]
  • ... not understanding your users and what they're telling you. [Reshma Sohoni, Seedcamp, EFW] - talking about the biggest mistakes startups make.
  • ... talk to customers from day one, keep talking to them every single day. [Alex Farcet, Startupbootcamp, EFW]
  • We've been listening very closely to our users for a very long time. [Eric Wahlforss, Soundcloud, EFW]

Value of the user

  • ... I knew we had that momentum behind us and that is very hard to replicate. [Sabeer Bhatia, Hotmail, FW] - while explaining that Hotmail was valuable because it had lots of users.
  • If you get users, then everything follows. Basically any technology can be copied, any concept can be copied. In my opinion, what makes one of these companies valuable is the user. That can't be copied. [Mark Fletcher, Bloglines, FW]

New medium

  • When a new medium comes out, it adopts the practices, the content, the business models of the old medium - which fails, and then the more appropriate models get figured out. [Joe Kraus, Excite, FW]
  • ... just like all new mediums start out imitating what came before them and then they kind of find out what they are good for. [Evan Williams, Pyra labs, FW]

User generated marketing

  • If they love your product and you give them the tools to market it, they will. [Joshua Schachter,, FW]
  • ... marketing is just making the product good enough that people spread it on their own, and giving them ways to do that. [Blake Ross, Firefox, FW]

Feature requests from users

  • Listen to them very carefully. Understand what their requirements are and what their needs are. Not necessarily do what they asked us to do, but to have the vision to do more than they expected. [Charles Geschke, Adobe, FW]
  • ... they want to do something, but they don't say "I want to do that something." They translate it into some feature that typically they've seen somewhere else and ask for that instead. [Joshua Schachter,, FW]
  • ... you can't let your customers drive your product development. You need to be able to innovate on behalf of your customers, but they often don't know what they want. [David Heinemeir Hansson, 37signals, FW]
  • ... usually they are not very concrete about exactly what it is they need. ... We have the philosophy that people aren't going to tell you exactly what it is they want but when they see it, they will want it. [Eric Wahlforss, Soundcloud, EFW]

Advantage of constraints

  • Constraints breed creativity. [Joshua Schachter,, FW]
  • ... constraints inspire creativity. [Caterina Fake, Flickr, FW]
  • ... the whole idea we had was that having too little money is a great way to getting great product, because it's a way to get focused. [David Heinemeir Hansson, 37signals, FW]
  • Doing more with less should be a mantra for most companies. [Olivier Poitrey, Dailymotion, EFW]


  • I think one of the things that kills great things so often is compromise - letting people talk you out of what your gut is telling you. ... If everyone agrees, it's probably because you're not doing anything original. [Evan Williams, Pyra labs, FW]
  • You really do need to follow your instincts. [Craig Newmark, Craigslist, FW]
  • Trust your instincts and your moral compass. [Craig Newsmark, Craigslist, FW]
  • I think you have to trust your instincts in all of the important things in life. [Saul Klein, Lovefilm, EFW]

Taking outside investment

  • The best kind of company is one where you don't have to take any money. [Ray Ozzie, Groove networks, FW]
  • ... some amount of stress always comes with the money. [Paul Graham, Viaweb, FW]
  • The advice I would give is to avoid it. [Paul Graham, Viaweb, FW]

Public relations

  • If you have something that's good, it spread by mouth and like wildfire. You just have to hire a small PR firm and do it. [Sabeer Bhatia, Hotmail, FW]
  • The most valuable sort of press is not articles about you, it's when people mention you in passing as a matter of course. [Paul Graham, Viaweb, FW] - talking about what he wanted from his PR firm.

Business plan

  • ... make sure you write a business plan because it will crystallize your thoughts to communicate your ideas with somebody else. [Sabeer Bhatia, Hotmail, FW]
  • They are marketing tools. [Arthur van Hoff, Marimba, FW]

Difference between starting up in Europe and US

  • ... European companies are better at bootstrapping and better at managing their cash because they normally don't raise as much money, ... [Jos White, Notion capital, EFW]
  • ... the problem of doing business in the United States is litigation, potential litigation, and the cost of health care. Those things are better in Europe. ... Europe has very difficult labor laws and high taxes on employment. [Martin Varsavsky, FON, EFW]
  • People in the US think as freelancers. They are very independent. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. That's okay and they find something else. In Europe, I don't know why, there always has to be some kind of crisis. [Loic Le Meur, LeWeb, EFW]
  • Europe is probably more down-to-earth, and people think much more about the revenue, which is great to create businesses which last longer. [Loic Le Meur, LeWeb, EFW]

Lean startup

[No one has actually said they are following the "Lean startup" process, but hints came up here and there that some of their practices are part of the "Lean startup" process.]
  • ... the first idea you have is irrelevant. It's just a catalyst for you to get started. [Arthur van Hoff, Marimba, FW]
  • The mistake that a lot of founders make is to build something they think users want, but that users don't actually want. [Paul Graham, Viaweb]
  • If you can get a demonstration - or, worst case, a video - it communicates an idea better than hand-waving for hours, So get a demo quickly. [Brewster Kahle, Alexa Internet, FW]
  • So you've got to be investing today in what your future's going to be 5 or 10 year out. [Charles Geschke, Adobe, FW]
  • You just want the failure to cost you a couple of weeks, a month or two - it depends on the industry - a small, fixed cost. It's the old adage : if we're not failing at something on a regular basis, we're just not trying hard enough. [Stephen Kaufer, TripAdvisor]
  • I like to build something small and see if people like it. [Boris Zanten, The Next Web, EFW]
  • ... the more rapidly you develop and launch stuff, the more successful you will be. [Brent Hoberman,, EFW]
  • ... you should really find a need, whatever the need, a little niche. [Loic Le Meur, LeWeb, WFW]
  • ... when you start something, what matters is where you're going, not where you started. [Loic Le Meur, LeWeb, EFW]
  • You've always got to do it two or three times to get it right. [Ronald Gruner, Alliant computers, FW]


  • Stay out of lawsuits if you can help it. It's bad for both sides, especially small businesses. That's lawyers' business, to them, solving things through lawsuits. But it's very very expensive. It's a sport of kings, and it uses up a lot of time. Unless you are a very big business that can make it a very small part of what you do, it's much better to find other ways to solve things. Frequently, individuals can do it better face to face. [Dan Bricklin, Software arts, FW]
  • ... it tended to produce bloated - not optimized code if you are using a cross-compiler or cross-assembler. [Mitchell Kapor, Lotus, FW]
  • One of the big risks of startups is that they're inherently unstable. They don't have an established business; they're often trying to invent something new. They are relying entirely on investment and not on revenue. [Caterina Fake, Flickr, FW]
  • Go someplace where people don't think you're crazy. [Brewster Kahle, Alexa Internet, FW] - this is an advice given to Brewster Kahle by his mentor Bill Dunn.
  • 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. [Philip Greenspun, ArtsDigita, FW]
  • In aviation, for example, people who greatly overestimate their level of skill are all dead. [Philip Greenspun, ArtsDigita, FW]
  • ... having basic ethics was an operational advantage. [Philip Greenspun, ArtsDigita, FW]
  • Experience will come when you face certain problems and live through them. And the best way to do that is to put yourself squarely in the path of those problems. [James Hong, Hot or Not, FW]
  • You can't stress over things that you can't necessarily control. [Mena Trott, Six Apart]
  • I believe that for any entrepreneur to have some sort of experience outside their own comfort zone when they think about how to create a product that's really good. In my case, my travel experience has shaped my views on the global potential for Prezi. [Peter Arvai, Prezi, EFW]
  • ... the way teams treat mentors is very indicative of how they'll deal with customers, employees, and markets. [Alex Farcet, Startupbootcamp, EFW]
  • If you are not ashamed of your product when you launch it, you launch it too late. [Loic Le Meur, LeWeb, EFW] - quoting his friend Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn.
  • ... luck comes in many forms - and often looks bad at first. [Evan Wiliams, Pyra labs, FW]
I have tried to list all recurring observations, but I am quite sure I have missed some such observations. So this writeup should not be taken as an exhaustive analysis of recurring observations in FW and EFW. After listing all the recurring observations, I notice that "People" has the highest mention. This observation is roughly along the line that the better the people in an organization is, the better that organization is. Also, the organization's character is set by the people at the top. This matches with the old proverb "A fish rots from the head down." So every time I will see a rotten organization, I will now know who is responsible :-) March 2013