Some books are almost too honest. Some books give you too much information (TMI). Some books can be hard to read at times. Lost and Founder is all three. But it’s one of the best books I’ve seen when it comes to giving the reader a realistic look at the inside of Silicon Valley startups.
In an industry obsessed with the 1 in 10,000 decacorns and the stories of high-flying startups and their larger-than-life founders, Lost and Founder takes a real look at what it’s like to found, fund, work at, and build a quite successful but not media- and Sand-Hill-Road-worshiped startup.
Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, tells the story of his company from its founding as a mother/son website consultancy in 2001 until his handing over the reins, in the midst of battling depression, to a new CEO in February 2014. But you don’t read Lost and Founder to learn about Moz. You read it to learn about Rand and the lessons he learned along the way.
In 2001, I started working with my mom, Gillian, designing websites for small businesses in the shadow of Microsoft’s suburban Seattle-area campus. […] The dot-com bust and my sorely lacking business acumen meant we struggled for years, but eventually, after trial and error, missteps and heartache, tragedy and triumph, I found myself CEO of a burgeoning software company, complete with investors, employees, customers, and write-ups in TechCrunch.
By 2017, my company, Moz, was a $45 million/ year venture-backed B2B software provider, creating products for professionals who help their clients or teams with search engine optimization (SEO). In layman’s terms, we make software for marketers. They use our tools to help websites rank well in Google’s search engine, and as Google became one of the world’s richest, most influential companies, our software rose to high demand.
Moz is neither an overnight, billion-dollar success story nor a tragic tale of failure. The technology and business press tend to cover companies on one side or the other of this pendulum, but it’s my belief that, for the majority of entrepreneurs and teams, there’s a great deal to be learned from the highs and lows of a more middle-of-the-road startup life cycle.
Fishkin’s style is transparent and humble. While the book tells a personal tale, it is laden with important lessons. In particular, I love his views on:
- Pivots (chapter 4). While it’s a hip word, the reality is that pivoting — while sometimes required and which sometimes results in an amazing second efforts — means that you have failed at your primary strategy. While I’m a big believer in emergent strategy, few people discuss pivots as honestly as Fishkin.
- Fund-raising (chapters 6 and 7). He does a great job explaining venture capital from the VC perspective which then makes his conclusions both logical and clear. His advice here is invaluable. Every founder who’s unfamiliar with VC 101 should read this section.
- Making money (chapter 8) and the economics of founding or working at a startup.
- His somewhat contrarian thoughts on the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept (chapter 12). I think in brand new markets MVPs are fine — if you’ve never seen a car then you’re not going to look for windows, leather seats, or cup-holders. But in more established markets, Fishkin has a point — the Exceptional Viable Product (EVP) is probably a better concept.
- His very honest thoughts on when to sell a startup (chapter 13) which reveal the inherent interest conflicts between founders, VCs, and employees.
- His cheat codes for next time (Afterword).
Finally, in a Silicon Valley where failure is supposedly a red badge of courage, but one only worn after your next big success, Fishkin has a unique take on vulnerability (chapter 15) and his battles with depression, detailed in this long, painful blog post which he wrote the night before this story from the book about a Foundry CEO summit:
Near the start of the session, Brad asked all the CEOs in the room to raise their hand if they had experienced severe anxiety, depression, or other emotional or mental disorders during their tenure as CEO. Every hand in the room went up, save two. At that moment, a sense of relief washed over me, so powerful I almost cried in my chair. I thought I was alone, a frail, former CEO who’d lost his job because he couldn’t handle the stress and pressure and caved in to depression. But those hands in the air made me realize I was far from alone— I was, in fact, part of an overwhelming majority, at least among this group. That mental transition from loneliness and shame to a peer among equals forever changed the way I thought about depression and the stigma around mental disorders.
Overall, in a world of business books that are often pretty much the same, Lost and Founder is both quite different and worth reading. TMI? At times, yes. TLDR? No way.
Thanks, Rand, for sharing.