on January 1, 2003
Startup tells the story of the rise and fall of GO Corporation, a maker of pen-based computer hardware and software. GO was founded in 1987 based on the idea that lightweight portable computers that used a pen instead of a keyboard would be quite useful devices, and that entirely new operating system software would be required to run them.
From the outset, the company faced a major problem: their main product was a pen-friendly operating system, but the device for which their software was targetted did not exist! Back then, the so-called portable computers were affectionately referred to as "luggables", and they all came with a keyboard. So to demonstrate the benefits of their software, GO was forced to spend its early precious resources developing its own pen computers. It was 3.5 years before the hardware group was spun out into a separate company called EO and bought by AT&T.
Kaplan's book is an interesting no-holds-barred account of the hectic start-up life and the cut-throat business world. To succeed, GO required a variety of partnerships, from hardware vendors to ISVs. In the course of wooing companies to help them, they rubbed shoulders with such big technology companies as IBM, Apple, HP, Microsoft, and AT&T. Negotiating with and placating the IBM bureaucracy turned into a major ordeal, and Microsoft's unethical theft of GO's intellectual property allowed Microsoft to become a competitive threat long before they otherwise should have been.
GO's other serious problem was that, in its 7+ years of existence, it never realized any significant product revenue. As a result, Kaplan was constantly scrounging for new investment money and was forced to make large concessions to get it. In the book's epilogue, he sums up the situation rather succintly and forthrightly: "In looking back over the entire GO-EO experience, it is tempting to blame the failure on management errors, aggressive actions by competitors, and indifference on the part of large corporate partners. While all these played important roles, the project might have withstood them if we had succeeded in building a useful product at a reasonable price that met a clear market need. ... The real question is not why the project died, but rather why it survived as long as it did with no meaningful sales."
The book may make even more interesting reading today (mid-2001) than when it was first published (1994). The intervening years have seen the dot-com boom and bust of the late 1990's, and the development of Palm handhelds, the first truly affordable and useful pen computers. GO may have burned through $75 million in its 7 year existence, but that is nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on short-lived dot-coms with ridiculous business models. And the overwhelming success of the Palm devices is a testament to the power of the idea that gave birth to GO. It was a valiant and commendable attempt, but in the final analysis, GO just had too many forces working against it, not least of which may have been that it was a bit ahead of its time....
on August 25, 2002
In Startup, Go's Jerry Kaplan (better known for his later success with onsale.com) recounts how he and his team built the company from an idea, and how due to internal politics and competition the walls came tumbling down.
Kaplan takes us through the twists and turns of forming a company, describing, in detail, how he secured venture capital and found Go's first few key people. He comments extensively on the changing competitive landscape throughout Go's history. The EO spin-off, IBM and AT&T deals and all other major events in Go's life are detailed. The book is a quick read, written like a first person novel, not a stuffy business book.
The book's biggest flaw, however, is that it is written entirely from Kaplan's perspective. Throughout, he blames situation, competitors and others for the various problems that Go encountered; Kaplan though, fails to review his own actions and how they may have contributed to Go's demise -- unfortunately this could have been the most beneficial analysis: allowing us to learn from what Kaplan perceived as his mistakes.
Over all, Startup is well written, and a "must read" for anyone working for or contemplating starting a tech company.
on August 27, 2001
Whatever Jerry Kaplan may lack in business acumen--or business luck--he makes up as a writer. Many books, usually written by journalists, claim to take you inside the experience of starting up a company; this one, written by the founder of GO, delivers. Kaplan not only makes you feel what it's like to hire key people, chase money, and get your first customer; initially, at least, he makes you care what happens to the people caught up in this adventure. That said, about 2/3 of the way through the book, I began to get lost in the details. Skimming along, I never fully understood what happened to GO in its dealings with EO and AT&T. But the book's problems with plot development are more than outweighed by the vivid portraits--John Doerr as "a whippet in a cage"--that Kaplan paints along the way.
on June 20, 2001
This is a pretty good read by an exceedingly arrogant businessman who seems more often than not to forget that he failed and, moreover, is clueless why. His knowledge of business is about 50th percentile. His knowledge of government is at best 10th. Lots of 50thth percentile businesspeople make it. If you're naive about government - as Mr Kaplan surely was - about the best you can do is whine about that mean old Bill Gates while your company goes belly up. Read it and weep -- or laugh.
on December 9, 2000
I bought this because I read an interview with Mark Andreesen (co-inventor of the browser) in which he shared kind words for Kaplan's memoirs. Having seen the Netscape debacle from its inception to its consumption by AOL, I take Mark as a reliable source on startups and corporate deals.
Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure has much to recommend. Andreesen points out (and I paraphrase) that no one will tell you the real secrets of how their business succeeded; these have to be learned from observing failures and reading between the lines. Jerry Kaplan's GO Corporation was a failure -- a collosal one. At the end of GO's life, its staff were not surprised to see it go... away. The watercooler scuttlebut focused on how unusual it was that GO survived as long as it did -- considering it had no products, no market (and no marketing), constant financial troubles and, to complete the drama: Bill Gates in the role of surreptitious competitor.
Jerry Kaplan describes in diary-like detail how he and fellow industry visionary Mitch Kapor (founder of Lotus) conceived the idea of portable, pen-based computers in a spontaneous moment of shared epiphany during a private jet flight. Here was an idea seemingly out of nowhere: no one had thought of pen computers up to this point. None existed, and none were being developed -- a market vacuum of seemingly unimaginable proportions. The sad irony of Jerry's tale is that when GO was finally absorbed by AT&T and immediately beheaded, only the proportions of this unimaginable market remained. The market itself and the products to drive it never materialized.
Kaplan gives a harrowing behind-the-scenes account of how startup venture capital is *really* enjoined -- and its not what you think. In another moment of divine inspiration, he conceives of and perfoms a one-man show for the bored and now-napping investors who have agreed to giving Kaplan his 15 minutes of fame -- or at least a shot at it. Things are almost too good to be true when the meeting turns out to be a slam-dunk. With a few exchanged words and surprised handshakes all-around, GO Corporation is created and Jerry, Mitch, and their investors start down the Yellow Brick Road.
As in the fabled story of Oz, bad apples appear quickly and threaten to poison the troupe. Some of GO's early supporters are seeking to improve their minds. Some are looking for a community with a heart. And our Jewish Dorothy sings too much and is easily distracted while searching for a way to get home.
GO seemed doomed from the... well, from the get-go. Although I admire Jerry's vision, ambition, and personal commitment (Jerry turns out to be a pretty likeable guy), his company's business plan was a disaster waiting to happen -- at least in retrospect. Always afraid of running out of money, the group scrambled to make deals with anyone and everyone who would talk to them. They committed to hardware platforms they had never seen. Relied on software developers who had no interest in developing their applications. Pursued only one major customer and then never developed anything for them. And meanwhile took big-bucks from some household names on Wall Street -- $75 million of them, to be exact. These were not "rounds of financing," mind you. They were more like desperate attempts to sign with anyone who would assure them of making the next payroll.
Startup makes the VC commandos look like Las Vegas high rollers. The logical outcomes of a startup's business plan and the reality of its day-to-day operations are not considered when VC's "throw the dice." Oh, I know they go to great lengths to prepare press releases in which they ennumerate the "logical" reasons for creating a company -- but Kaplan shows that, behind the scenes, this information plays no part. Investors are not even marginally informed on the daily realities of the businesses in which they invest -- which explains a lot of the funding that continues to happen for silly ideas. And Jerry & Mitch's idea was not silly.
While GO played cat & mouse with every investor, software, and hardware company they could think of -- they spent an enormous effort on ignoring their "customers." Since they never had any customers, perhaps this seemed like a reasonable approach at the time. From the perspective of today's CEO, it seems impossible that a $75 million company would even attempt to get off the ground without a serious marketing and CRM program. GO's concerns focused more on getting boxes and circles to come out pretty on the screen (is there a business application for this feature?) and on fixing their stupefyingly awful handwriting recognition software. A small concession here is the fact that one has anything better than a stupefyingly awful handwriting recognition program -- even today. This odd collusion of a misfocused attention span and an obsession for technical "goodies" almost resulted in GO's pen computer displaying the enormous image of a very embarrasing term during an important "spontaneous" customer demo of the handwriting recognition capabilities. (Lesson: Never let a customer try something you have not tried yourself.)
Another glaring error that one can see from this tome is GO's almost cult-like insistence that a non-standard platform was the way to go. They alone could turn the tide! We've been hearing that since Altair first put a machine with keyswitches on the cover of BYTE magazine. And who has succeeded in creating a platform out of nowhere? Clearly Microsoft, with invaluable "assistance" from Xerox PARC and Steve Jobs and incredible naivete on the part of IBM. Yes, Virginia, you can create a platform out of nothing -- if you can zap yourself back to the early 80's and talk IBM into giving you DOS for free.
In reality, the three biggest components of Microsoft's operating system (a simplified mouse-based GUI, shared interface libraries for applications, and Ethernet networking) were all invented at PARC, not at Microsoft. If you haven't already guessed it, the pen computer wasn't invented by Microsoft, either. A 1988 email from Bill Gates shows that, at that time, he was already planning a standardized machine with a higher-resolution screen -- to be produced en masse by "the Japanese." I don't have to tell you this email was circulated interntally the day after Bill saw a demo of GO's prototype. They could have joined the ranks of the enemy right then (being "acquired" by Microsoft today and quitely going out of business isn't even headline news anymore), but GO's insistence on riding out "The Perfect Storm" lead to a grisly end for the end for the company that set off with such bright hopes. Groupthink, in this case, did not pay.
In the end, the GO experiment never benefitted anyone but millionaires Redmond -- at least insofar as the advance of pen computing was concerned. Nearly everyone GO touched attempted to steal something from them, although none was any more successful than GO in turning them into real products. In other words, despite Bill's "fast track" development, unlimited checkbook, and propensity to "borrow" heavily from others' work, the ubiquitous pen computer imagined by two buddies over a tray of airline food has still not arrived as the real millenium approaches. Today's best laptops far exceed the target price of GO's imagined device (a price that even Gates agreed with) but still don't have any reasonable inputs other than a keyboard. No one has even come up with a good mobile mouse yet; we're still stuck with primitive tiny trackballs and little eraserhead things -- or worse, miniature touchpads. Who thought of those? Long before any of this drivel was up for grabs at finer stores everywhere, two visionaries tried to build a computer that was actually better than the ones we have today. My hat's off to them for their efforts -- and for having the guts to divulge the catastrophic business decisions that ultimately led to Microsoft's Comdex announcement of the Tablet PC, albeit without the people who "made it so."
Startup is peppered with a Warhol-esque array of dignitaries from the early days of personal computing, which means it sometimes reads like Valley of the Dolls. Save those chapters for bedtime. You might also find that keeping up with all the names and relationships can be difficult in later chapters if names like Manzi, Gasseé, and Cannavino don't conjure up a whole host of memories for you (these are then CEO's of Lotus, Apple, and IBM).
A valuable business book for any serious entrepreneur or new CEO, regardless of industry, and written in an engaging personal style, Jerry Kaplan's Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure is a page-turner that could change your company forever -- if, as Andreesen suggess, you read between the lines. Highly Recommended.
on September 23, 2000
I've read many of these reviews where people have said they don't like Kaplan's writing style. This book is not just a business book, it's also a personal history. If you think people's real lives don't effect their business, you might want to think again.
Now Kaplan could have turned this story over to a ghost writer, and had a more polished book. But I prefer this one, almost like a diary, because it gets to the point, and shows his state of mind during many situations.
While we may see (many times over) the inventers of older technology mentioned in history, a lot of newer ones are never recognised. Pen-based computing has changed a lot of things, one of the most fundamental I think, is that there often IS another way to do it.
Inventing takes vision, and determination to get something right.
This book is a brilliant read, I read it cover to cover, with no breaks. It covers ethics, business versus personal life, friendship, trust, legal traps, pressure, frustration, determination and also an abiding respect for a technological improvement.
If more people treated invention with this sort of responsibility, we might live in a different world.
note to Jerry: it was disappointing to have an email bounce back from the published address, but it's nice to hear that you've bounced back yourself, with your new venture.
If anyone reading this does have a valid email address for Jerry Kaplan, I would appreciate it being passed on.
(email address removed)
Jerry emailed it to me himself. Rating changed from 4 stars to 5.
on September 22, 2000
This book provides value in a number of ways.
First, the reader is given a detailed review of the growth of a start-up. One feels the struggles and victories of the organization. Second, the speed of change in the technology industry is clearly communicated--not an easy thing to do in a book. Finally, the author provides an excellent overview of the frustrations of raising capital. For anyone involved in a small organization with aspirations of an IPO--this is a must read.
Unfortunately, this book is hard to find. LOOK, it is worth the effort.
on April 14, 2000
This book was a fascinating first-person journey through the world of software startups. It includes extremely interesting accounts of the actions of big players including John Doerr, Bill Gates, and several groups of principles at IBM, Apple, and elsewhere.
I would say this is a painless way to increase your knowledge of the startup process and the magnitude and type of pitfalls you may encounter (including incurring the full embrace-and-extend wrath of the biggest bear in the market space) but it wouldn't be true -- the story feels so honest and absent of coloring emotional commentary that you can feel the excitement, joy, frustration, and eventual devastation of the author and his compatriots.
This book takes you through all the ups and downs of a new software company. If you're in the business, you would do well to read it and hopefully learn from it. It's especially relevant as an example of the type of behavior Microsoft is currently being sued over.
on March 28, 2000
This is an excellent case study of the hurdles a high-tech entrepreneur must jump. It provides a great insight to challenges entrepreneurs will face growing a business. It is a real eye opener for anyone think about starting a technology-based business.
It also is a case study for investors to see what is really happening behind a start-up's doors during a funding round.
Lasty, this book is not only educational but it makes entertaining ficton-like reading. Since the book was writen recently, there are many familiar people, companies, and events that bring this story to real life.
on July 20, 1999
Just finished this book and found myself anticipating the next chance I could find to read what happened next to GO, a company with a seemingly unshakeable future but doomed by forces outside of its control (mostly). A very insightful look into why good ideas don't always make a successful company. Interesting when set against the backdrop of the success of pen based PDAs of today (Palm Pilot in particular, which I suspect would prove to be an interesting story itself). Sprinkled with quick sketches of many hi-tech bigwigs such as Gates and Ballmer @ Microsoft & Sculley formerly of Apple, even includes a complete email from Gates in the appendix. Not the smoothest prose I've read, but a great story of the valley.