His point is echoed by Blogger cofounder Evan Williams, who recognizes that blogging will dramatically change the Web because it represents one of the first “native forms” for the new medium. Williams’s tale is notable for its candor about the personal toll that Blogger, which emerged from blogging startup Pyra Labs (and was the first acquisition by Google), took on his colleagues. “People live and breathe [their work] and become friends, date, and merge their lives together. And then, if things go bad, it’s bad in ways that are much more devastating than your work going badly.”
One important theme of the book is the way in which the entrepreneurs have adapted the business models of their companies to their customers’ needs. “People think startups grow out of some brilliant initial idea like a plant from a seed,” writes Livingston. “But almost all the founders I interviewed changed their ideas as they developed them. PayPal, which started out writing encryption software, is today a dominant online transaction management service. Excite started out as a database search company, and Flickr (now the leading Web site for sharing images) grew out of an online game.” Each of these companies eventually emerged as a major force on the Web. Their success can be traced to the ability of the founding team to stay in the game long enough to allow their unique customer offering to gel. The founders learned to temper their pride and passion over their new creation with a mature patience and willingness to adapt. This is what enabled these ventures to develop into enterprises capable of sustaining new growth.
Small Enterprises, Big Lessons
Although this collection of startup memoirs is written by small business entrepreneurs, the lessons are big and broadly applicable to all new ventures. Wherever startups begin, the experiences are always personal; they are driven by passionate individuals, marred by painful fits and starts, and inspired by quirky happenstance or ambitious global goals. Few successful new ventures become the company that was originally conceived. Startups always respond to change — and as a result there are few that are not changed as they mature.
The path to sustainability (as in self-funding growth) must be discovered through experience rather than plotted on a map. And the ability to become a viable and ultimately thriving venture rests on the experience, network, and wisdom of the particular founder and founding team. More than any single product or service, their long-term success depends entirely on the quality and capability of the company they have created.
Tom Ehrenfeld ([email protected]) is a former writer and editor at Harvard Business Review and Inc. magazine. His work has also appeared in Newsweek, the New York Times, Boston magazine, and Parenting magazine. Based in Cambridge, Mass., he is the author of The Startup Garden: How Growing a Business Grows You (McGraw-Hill, 2001).