Lessons start-ups can teach all of us

As with most sayings there’s a good deal of truth to the truism—history is written by the victors. And rarely do such histories dwell on the mistakes or, worse yet, atrocities committed by the victors. While modern historians have attempted people’s histories or stories of the subaltern, as academics are fond of calling it, it’s pretty certain most histories are not exactly balanced reporting.

Cover of "Founders at Work: Stories of St...

Cover via Amazon

Stories of entrepreneurial journeys in many ways are not that different from histories written by the victors. Many of them are only slightly better than hagiographic biographies written by adoring admirers. Baskar Subramanian, one of the co-founders of my first start-up is fond of pointing out that once an entrepreneur is successful, he can write the story of his journey in any manner he deems fit. So if a start-up saga contains few mistakes, almost no accidents or lucky breaks, and where every major decision was the result of great strategic thought, you know you are reading a history by the victor. So a bucket of salt may be required when you read such a history or seek to learn from it.

Even when an entrepreneur is clearly successful and well thought of on matters of integrity, such as Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, or for someone closer to home, J.R.D. Tata, the matter of relevance, particularly to a fledgling start-up, becomes important. A reader is at best able to draw only general lessons about perseverance or passion. India and the world are a significantly different place today than when these men built their businesses. So, how practical are their insights for an entrepreneur to apply today? Inspiration is critical and these tomes offer them, certainly, but entrepreneurs need more than inspiration. They need practical and proven insights that can be both internalized and implemented with ease. Do books of even recent entrepreneurial success, pertain only to a market segment—modern retail or generic drugs—or can their lessons be applied to any entrepreneur starting up?

With the advent of blogs, particularly those professing advice for entrepreneurs, a number of interview series, and subsequently, books of interviews of entrepreneurs have emerged. These overcome the shortcomings of a single subject or company book and are often stories of recent or still-running businesses, which the readers not only relate to but also are likely to encounter in their lives. Yet, not each of these are written (or worse yet edited) in a manner that makes them as palatable and useful as one would like.

The first challenge when trying to learn from the lessons of others is figuring out which lessons are relevant to your own situation. Once you identify the problems that are similar, if not identical, to your own, you’d have to figure out whether the solution is germane to your own situation. Hiring for a software product start-up may be just as difficult in Bangalore as it is in Mountain View or New York—however, the solution may be altogether different.

Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston stands head and shoulders above most other compilations of founder stories. While largely confined to Silicon Valley founders (whose origins are as varied as Brazil, China, India and Russia—and more interestingly the lesser-heralded towns of US states such as Nebraska and Iowa) and what would be termed as “tech” start-ups in India, many of the lessons are broadly applicable to start-ups anywhere.

The 32 stories in Founders at Work are set in Q&A form, with mercifully short questions. The entrepreneurs’ answers are delivered in direct and often in an unflatteringly candid manner. The book, which I’d avoided reading for a long time, gripped me from the first page. The book works because it keeps its focus on the earliest days of the start-ups—whether they subsequently grew into today’s Apple or self-destructed like ArsDigita or were acquired like Hotmail or TripAdvisor. This is one book of start-up stories that you cannot do without, even if you never intend to start something on your own. You’ll do better at your job as will your company if you read this book and take its lessons to heart.

This article originally appeared in the Book Beginnings column in Mint.

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