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Founders At Work - Stories of Startups Early Days
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Livingston: What advice would you give someone?

Evan Williams: 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. Not that I don’t value people’s input, but you have to have the strength to ignore it some- times, too. If you feel really strongly, there might be something to that, and if you see something that other people don’t see, it could be because it’s that powerful and different. If everyone agrees, it’s probably because you’re not doing anything original.

Artur van Hoff: A few weeks later, when another senior engineer quit, I said, “Screw it, let’s go buy an espresso machine.” So Jonathan and I went online and bought this super-duper Italian, fully automatic, $15,000 espresso machine on his credit card and submitted the expense form. The CFO almost had a baby. It was unbelievable.

This was a beautiful piece of work, and they came and installed the espresso machine and it was the best money we ever spent. Every morning, people would meet and crowd around it. This thing was just it, the bee’s knees, people loved it, they couldn’t stop talking about it. A month later, the CFO came and said, “I’m sorry, we should have done this years ago.” And it tells you something about where you spend your money and what you spend your money on. 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.

Steve Perlman: The following is not something from my personal experience—it’s a story told to me by the Mac team—but they said that, when they first did the dialog boxes for the Lisa, instead of saying “OK,” it said, “Do It.” They found that people were reluctant to click on that, and they couldn’t figure out why. Then, once they had a test subject there who just wouldn’t click on it, they said, “Why didn’t you click on that little button there?” He said, “I’m not a dolt. Why would I click on that?” People were reading it as “dolt,” not “do it,” because it was an unusual combination of words. So they changed dialog boxes to say “OK.” That little change greased the skids for people to click on dialog boxes.

It’s very small stuff like that, very often—that somebody sees something and has the wrong impression. The only way to learn that is by doing a lot of testing. In fact, that’s one of the reasons why the iPod was such a phenomenal success where the MP3 players before were not. The iPod had the design sensibility of an average person just trying to listen to music, whereas the previous MP3 players were kind of technical exercises in understanding how music files are stored, and perhaps required very delicate balancing of your fingers to hit the buttons the right way, and so on.

Charies Geschke: That’s what’s really cool. That’s when you know you’ve had an impact. I know I can speak for John on this too, but 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.

People with no training in the graphic arts could now develop materials that got a message across and did it more dramatically. I remember very early on, I gave a talk in Chicago somewhere—some guy in a small brokerage business somehow convinced me to give a talk. He said, “We use your stuff, but we always print it in Courier (which is the typewriter typeface) because people who see it printed in a high-quality typeface think it’s old news.” You see, he was on a cusp of a change. Now people don’t think about it that way, but in those days, if it didn’t come out in Courier, it must have gone to a printer and a type- setter and it must have taken 2 to 3 weeks to get prepared.

Livingston: Looking back, do you think you were a typical founder?

Ann Winblad: Yes. I think that I had all the good parts of a typical founder and all the bad parts of a typical founder. You get good at figuring things out so that you don’t just view every problem as if it needs a brand new lens, which, of course, it doesn’t. And you learn on the job, so you do a lot of things poorly. Unless you’ve managed people before, you don’t really know how to do that well. So you have to build skills. I think it’s really interesting being a venture capitalist because, when you’ve got 30 years of experience, then your challenge is how to teach and not tell. Because you want people to figure it out. You want to make sure that you can grab them by the coattails if they are falling off a cliff, but you want them to discover the edges by themselves.

That’s the biggest challenge of moving from being a business leader to being a business investor. Your job is not to tell, but to teach.

Philip Greenspun: If you are a for-profit corporation, your job is to make money, and if you’re not making money, you’re not doing a good job. End of story. It’s important to have fun, but once you incorporate for profit, my attitude is that you better make a profit. When I was trying to retake control of the company, most of the programmers at ArsDigita were so relieved to be rid of me. They thought, “Now we don’t have to listen to this guy, we don’t have to have our code reviewed, and we can all be happy and go home at 5 p.m. and never write any- thing. Let the salespeople sell—we don’t have to talk to customers anymore.”

Livingston: Did you have problems getting users at the beginning?

Blake Ross: No, but the users we were getting weren’t really the target audience; these were people that downloaded beta builds from Mozilla. So it was still a geek audience. We had to transform the culture at Mozilla because it was all based around open source ethos, which says programmers are kings, marketers are sleaze, and everyone else can read the manual. All the branding for Mozilla looked very Communist—the logo was a dinosaur and the banners ads were... I can’t even describe it, but very odd, technical kind of imagery that didn’t appeal to most people. We had to move a lot of that into a more mainstream world.


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