Secrets of Success

Every interview in Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work is full of interesting perspectives from successful people who had no guarantees when they started and probably claim to have no secrets of success. This is not a “success” book or a “how to” book, but simply an interesting book. Yet a read between-the-lines exposes secrets of success.

They are summed up in the interview with Paul Buchheit, creator of GMail and Adsense. Here is Buchheit on the idea for and the first implementation of Adsense:

It was an idea that we had talked about for a long time, but there was this belief that it wouldn’t work. But it seemed like an interesting problem, so one evening I implemented this content-targeting system, just sort of as a side project, not because I was supposed to. And it turned out to work.

Two Secrets of Success

In this quote we see two secrets of success common among folks that rise to the top of their industry:

  1. They work on what they find interesting. Not just on what they are told to or supposed to.
  2. They pursue ideas not generally expected to work.

Success and the micro-ISV

I suspect many micro-ISV owners have these traits and see themselves in this approach. To micro-ISV owners, it’s no secret.

In fact there are not really any “secrets of success” – it’s a simple risk-reward formula. Yet if this JoelOnSoftware thread is any indication, it is one that is too easily forgotten.

Success and the Employee

Work on what other people assign to you and you will likely complete the task, but will not find career-changing success. Work on something you find interesting and others find unlikely, and your chances for breakout success are increased almost immeasurably.

This advice is for everyone – not just company founders. For example, Paul Buchheit who I quoted above, is not a Google founder but an employee who practices these non-secret but too easily forgotten “secrets of success”.

3 comments

  1. What amuses me about all these books is that they take a group of over-brainy already-successful people, and then sell these books to the rest of us averagers. Telling us we can do it too.
    And we lap it all up, not seeing the gaps.

    You know what would really succeed?
    Finding out how an averager can achieve breakout success and then selling it to all the other averagers (me too!). And I’m not talking weird books like Psycho-cybernetics.

  2. Scott Meade · ·

    Anil: I agree with you in some respects. Notice I didn’t claim that these stories will make anyone succesful 🙂 Even the people interviewed will tell you that a lot of their success is based on being at the right place at the right time, knowing the right people, etc. And graduating from (or dropping out of!) Stanford, Berkeley or Harvard doesn’t hurt either. So what are the rest of us who don’t live on a coast or haven’t attended ivy league schools to do? That would be a good book!

    Yet there are some traits common among these startup founder interviews that, while not instructional, are motivational because under it all these folks that get us phsyched up are normal people with normal concerns and worries about if their startup will work, what the competition is doing, how to keep customers and investors happy, sleepless nights, long hours, high highs and low lows. In those aspects us mere mortals can relate.

  3. Great post and a fine example of what I though the book would really benfit from: more analysis.

    The book itself is basically a series of verbatim interviews from 32 entrepreneurs. There are quite a few gems in there, but without any analysis by the author they are well hidden.

    I’ve just blogged a review of it here: http://www.aroxo.com/blog/mattr/?p=13

    I’d still recommend reading it, but its hard work!