Why are the founders so honest in Startups Open Sourced?

by Jared Tame on May 19, 2011

I read an article tonight on TechCrunch about Octopart, and it left me with some dissatisfaction. It’s not that TechCrunch is bad at writing about startups, and in fact I’m glad that they’ve chosen to focus on less sexy startups who should serve as the role models for working diligently and consistently hard.

Having read the full story in my own book from Andres Morey himself, I got through reading the article and thought, “That was it?” They gave a pretty short summary and it had the same effect that most media stories have. If I knew nothing about Octopart, I might be more jealous of their success. Having read the full story, I have an admiration for the effort they put into it and it would inspire me not to give up too quickly on a startup because I know how difficult it was for them.

Every single person that I’ve spoken to about this book almost immediately remarks on how open, honest and candid the interviews are in Startups Open Sourced. This includes the people who have reviewed my book and the people on Twitter who have commented on it. When I went into writing the book, I had no idea what to expect. In fact, when I sent out my first batch of invites, I was worried that nobody would agree to be interviewed. Being an entrepreneur myself, I knew I had a few risks:

  • There’s a stigma against doing things other than working. This includes things like reading news, reading blogs, talking to the press, and so forth. Why would you be talking to someone for a book when you could be talking to your customers, improving your product, growing your user base, writing code, scaling your servers, hiring engineers, or a hundred other things a startup founder has to remember to do?
  • Founders are emotionally unstable. Bipolar would best describe their personalities while they’re early in their startups. I can actually recall one founder who told me: “Look man, I’m too stressed out to do this interview with you. I’m really depressed about something that happened, and this isn’t a good time. Can you get back to me in a few weeks?” I suspect that several of the founders I never heard back from were in the same position. I know what that’s like, and for every entrepreneur who agreed to be interviewed I’m sure there’s another one who didn’t get to raise the amount of capital they wanted and were just too depressed to talk. Why would someone want to be written about, only to possibly have their startup fail weeks or months later? These are the kind of thoughts going through some founders’ heads.
  • Some founders are just too busy, especially in the later stage. Airbnb and foursquare were the two most difficult interviews to get. Brian Chesky and Dennis Crowley both required probably more than 20 e-mails just to get an interview scheduled. I also struggled to get my first interview with Jack Abraham, the founder of Milo (acquired by eBay for $75 million). Interviewing with some guy they’ve never heard of would basically be doing me a favor because they have other things to worry about: hiring their next 5 engineers, dealing with how to scale their servers with the rise in traffic, answering the 500 e-mails sitting in their inbox, writing code or getting stuff done, raising money, etc.

Having landed the interviews, I was surprised at how open founders were. They talked more about emotions than any other interviews I’ve read of founders. Why did this happen? I think I can point to a few things:

  • I told founders this book wouldn’t be popular, and it’d only be read by students. This is probably the single most important factor, if I had to guess. The entire statement is true. The original idea for this book wasn’t even to be a book, it was a collection of essays I planned to release online on my blog. I can’t remember for certain when it turned into a book–I believe I used the book as a hack to approach more successful founders in order to improve my chances of getting to interview them. Maybe they’d take time to do an interview for a book because that implies more effort and promotion, but just some collection of open essays, I’m not sure they would have taken me seriously for that. Before that, I started writing essays about things I wish I would have told myself before I did my first startup, with the intent of giving that to students somehow. Once I settled on using the interviews in a book format, the first title of the book was something like “Founders in School” because I ask every founder to talk about their lives in high school and college. The title was a little misleading because it wasn’t about founders who were in school, it was about founders talking about what their high school and college experience was like. Turns out I ended up having the same problem by using “open sourced” in the current title, which goes to show that you can’t please everyone (or maybe I’m just bad at coming up with book names, who knows). Either way, when I wrote up my list of questions, I told every founder the goal of the book: to talk to students and educate and inspire them about the startup world. That might have disarmed the founders and caused them to open up a bit more than they normally would have because now they were talking to a bunch of students who are inherently interested in learning as much as they can about startups. Their attention span reading a book isn’t limited to 5 minutes, they really want to know all the details, rather than read some media story with only interesting bits of information.
  • The founders don’t have an agenda, which is the case when they talk to the media. When a founder talks to the media, they’re not doing it for themselves. They have an objective, which is either to increase awareness or increase sales. If you’re Indinero, Jessica Mah has explicitly said the only reason they talk to media is because that results in more sales. In fact, I read a blog she wrote that basically said “I don’t like doing random interviews because it doesn’t help my startup out at all.” I felt awkward going into that interview because I knew I wasn’t doing anything to help her out, but she did talk about reasons why she was doing it anyway on that same blog. It’s like when ABC News had Chris Brown on and the anchor asked Chris Brown to talk about his history with Rihanna. Did you notice the reaction? Chris Brown was not there to talk about personal stuff, he was there to push album sales and perform as an entertainer. Do people want to know what happened and get all the details? Sure. But that’s not what Chris Brown went there for. It’s the same with founders. They aren’t there to feel good or brag, they are there to increase their page rank because they know an interview is going to link to their web site and that makes them more competitive in a Google search. They want sales and awareness. You’re not going to get sincere, personal, and honest stories when that’s the main agenda. TechCrunch and the other blogs are great to give you news, but that’s the extent of what they can offer.
  • Some of the founders knew me personally. I actually am not too sure how much this helped. Most of the interviews seemed pretty honest and open, and I didn’t know all of the founders beforehand. Here are the companies I interviewed where I knew the founders personally: Greplin, AppSumo, Little App Factory, Mixpanel, Djangy, Divvyshot, Justin.TV, Blippy, Bump, WePay, Dailybooth, Gobble, Noteleaf, One Llama, Crowdbooster, Listia, OrangeQC, Camino Real, and One. That means I didn’t know the following founders personally: Grooveshark, reddit, GitHub, foursquare, Airbnb, Weebly, Wufoo, LikeALittle, KISSmetrics, Omnisio, Cloudkick, Octopart, Hipmunk, and Indinero. I believe all of them were very open and honest, all to varying degrees but relatively┬ámore than most interviews with the founders.
  • I had a full hour with each founder. Again, not sure how much this helped, but I imagine that most interviews with founders are around 15 minutes, and that’s just not enough time to get the proper context of the startup and the founders’ background. With 15 minutes, I was barely finishing with their personal and educational background, talking about things like how they got started with entrepreneurship, what school they went to, and who inspired them while they were in school. Some interviews went over the 1 hour mark. I believe Airbnb’s interview was about 2 hours, for example. Some interviews ran short because the founders were just incredibly busy; Divvyshot was a mere 20 minutes long.

I’m still trying to figure out how this happened. I can’t say that it’s a bad thing at all. It turned out much better than I expected. I remember wanting to release an interview each day for a full week, but the first person I asked had requested that I not publicly release the interview because too many personal details were included in the original interview. This affirms that there are things in the book that just won’t get talked about otherwise because the founders opened up quite a bit.

The net effect the depth and honesty of the interviews has on people seems to be admiration rather than jealousy. When you read headlines that talk about how a company raised a few million dollars or just got acquired, it’s easy to say “well I could do that if they did it.” But you don’t see how much work went on, and then when you go to do your own startup, you feel like you’ve been lied to. It was like the media was telling you this was supposed to be easy because they wrote a one page summary on how everyone else did it. You think you’re doing something wrong and you’re the only person, but it turns out that nearly every single founder is going through or will go through the exact same thing you are as an early stage startup founder.

At the same time, I can’t bash the media too much. Companies have been started by those same headlines. They started companies like Mixpanel who saw Kevin Rose on the cover of BusinessWeek and the founder said “well if that nerd can do it, so can I. Piece of cake.” Granted, the founders had a healthy dose of reality when they actually took the plunge, but those same headlines got the wheels spinning.

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