Best Books About Tech Startups and Their Origin Stories

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The topic of this post, my favorite books on tech startups and their origin stories have almost nothing to do with the main topic of this blog: traveling. Well – I actually have one Airbnb-related book on the list. But it is as close as it gets.

As of late, I have developed some strange reading patterns. I usually consider myself a pure literature lover with a focus on fiction writing or essays (especially those written by the greatest writer of all times – Thomas Mann). But over the last two years, as my Good Reads list tells me, I have been reading more and more non-fiction books with some occasional fiction reading in between. A habit that I would rather get rid of. 

I think it all started with “And the Band Plays On,” one of the most comprehensive books written about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. It felt like an ideal read during the beginning of the COVID-19 Pandemic. There were a lot of similarities in terms of misconceptions and our human desire to undermine a scary health crisis. It was a very good read, and I would highly recommend it.

But if you are looking for some easy, gossipy, and shocking reads that concern one of the most controversial cultural and economic phenomena of our decade – look no further than books on tech start-ups. These are some of my favorite books that I read during my non-fiction frenzy, which will introduce you to the people and the stories behind Twitter, Airbnb, Uber, WeWork (what a story!), Facebook, our beloved Instagram, and even SnapChat – an app I have never used but seems to be a big hit among the younger audience. I can vouch for all these books as ideal beach/summer reads.

Favorite books on the origin stories of tech Start-ups

The list starts with my absolute favorite in terms of drama – no other than Twitter – and ends with the one that changed it all and ended up (deservedly) being the least liked one – Facebook.

Hatching Twitter: a True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal

After reading this highly entertaining book, one thing is guaranteed. You will never see the self-declared guru-type CEO Jack Dorsey the same way that you did before after reading Nick Bilton’s “Hatching Twitter.” Wow – I am not sure if he can unwind this long history of backstabbing to become the Twitter CEO for a second time, even if he meditated in Myanmar until the end of the time. What a drama – though it is still nothing compared to the recent drama triggered by the world’s most controversial narcissistic richest man, Elon Musk, which eventually escalated to a litigation stage and resulted in Musk’s acquisition of the company and then turning into X.

Hatching Twitter was easily one of the most shocking reads outlining the modest origin story of Twitter, which, as soon as its success came, turned into an almost disturbing story of a series of betrayals. 

The book starts with the very early days of the group that eventually founded Twitter when they were toying with the idea of a podcast (I guess it was too early back then in the mid-2000s). Their focus later turned into a texting app, which eventually became Twitter.

Once Twitter is launched – the book walks us through the milestone events that led to the application’s ultimate success before delving into boardroom fights, backstabbing, and frequent CEO changes.

It is a compelling book that can be read in almost one sitting. I am now reading Battle for the Bird by Kurt Wagner, which covers the Musk drama. I will report it here when I finish it.

No Filter: the Inside Story of Instagram

The book tells the origin story of Instagram, which actually started with an app called Bourbon, which was closer to Four Square than it was to Instagram. 

Sarah Frier`s book covers the origin story of Instagram and its very interesting sale stage to Facebook and the eventual fall between the original founders, Kevin Styrom, Mike Krieger, and Mark Zuckerberg.

It is a story of persistence. The book also includes an interesting chapter addressing the question of whether the founders shared part of the then almost record-breaking sale fee paid by Facebook – USD 1 billion. The author first creates suspense around the question but rewards the readers with a definitive answer.

That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea

Written by one of the co-founders of Netflix, Marc Randolph, the story of Netflix is mostly drama-free when it comes to founder relations. However, the evolution of the product and the crisis that the company went through (some skillfully turned into very creative marketing opportunities) is as interesting as the human drama.

While the book does not cover the stage when Netflix became a streaming platform, I still found this book to be an excellent read and saluted the determination of the founders who started with the idea of selling shampoo and ended up with Netflix.

Randolph`s book also offers a great insight into how at first seemingly irrelevant technological development may have a make or break effect on another product.

This was a good read involving less drama compared to the other reads in the list. I also really enjoyed the book’s focus on the extreme challenges that the company went through in its early years. There are also many stories involving the events that took place at Airbnb apartments and how the company tried to deal with the fallout. 

The book, however, suffers from a typical issue observed in any tech-related book. I could do without reading the sections that highlight nothing interesting but just the same old god complex of the tech startup founders. As you may have guessed, I am not entirely convinced that the Airbnb founders’ entire motivation is to lead society to lasting world peace.

The Airbnb Story: world peace?

For many, Airbnb is probably one of the most liked tech startups of recent decades. This is likely mainly due to the impact the company had on how we perform one of our favorite acts – traveling – but also the founder’s ability to minimize the drama and disinterest in stealing the headlines (unlike the Uber founder Travis Kalanick).

As you may have already noticed, I am not the greatest fan of AirbnbBut I will happily read any book that I can get my hands on on the origin story of a company that likely changed the travel industry forever (and yes, it all started with the airbed idea when a certain conference in San Francisco led to a hotel room shortage in the city).

Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral

Traffic by journalist Ben Smith tells the story of the rise and eventual fall of the digital media with a focus on the founders of Buzzfeed, Gawker and Huffpost. I cannot say that this was the most entertaining read on this list but it was easily one of the most informative one.

Ben Smith takes the reader through how the concept of clickbait develop, how it affected the news and how the social media companies, mainly Facebook, played a role both in the rise and the fall of once billion dollars worth digital media companies.

The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Start-up Delusion

Speaking of God Complex and the tech start-up founders, I have to add this great book about the one founder who probably genuinely believes that he is God. I am not sure if tech start-up founders’ stories get any worse than the married duo behind the most scandalous rise and fall stories of recent years supported by a Japanese billionaire – Adam Neumann and Rebecca Neumann of WeWork.

The book does a great job explaining how the couple could play the FOMA card and easily fool a supposedly very sophisticated venture capital industry. It also shows that while the main party to blame is the leading founder, Adam Neumann, the entire eco-system of venture capital is also nearly as guilty of the role that they played in the tragedy (for many company employees) by shamelessly enabling Adam Neumann’s behavior. 

How to Turn Down a Million Dollars: The Snapchat Story

I have never used Snapchat and only opened an account after I read this book (but never used it). The story of Evan Spiegel starts in San Francisco at Stanford, but it is actually a Los Angeles story – the city that hosts the company’s headquarters.

It is difficult to feel sympathy for Evan Spiegel as the book also focuses on his past expulsive and unacceptable fraternity day behavior. However, the product innovation pace – something the company is often praised for – and Spiegel’s firm resistance against Mark Zuckerberg’s condescending purchase offers really added a different flavor to this book compared to the others on the list. It also gave me an interesting insight into the thinking and social media behavior of a much younger generation. 

The book will likely interest you if you are curious about the ideas leading to some of the most used social media platforms of today, even if you, like me, have never used some of those apps. 

Whistleblower: My Journey to Silicon Valley and Fight for Justice at Uber

This is another Uber-related book, which offers a highly personal and very moving account about Uber`s by now highly infamous company culture. The story of Susan Fowler is a must-read for anyone to not only understand the reasons beyond the ousting of former CEO Travis Kalanick but also larger issues triggered by the bro dominated Silicon Valley culture.

While the focus of the book is Fowler`s time at Uber, her background story, skillfully told, adds a whole another dimension to what went down at Uber. I wish we had more books about tech startups written by women writers and insiders.

Super Pump: Battle for Uber

Sorry, as it is now the third Uber-related book on the list, what a drama inducing company! Also turned into an Apple TV Series, the book by Mike Isaac portrays the aggressive strategies followed by Uber to first create and then grow its market share. 

It is one the best books on the list in terms of its focus on the growth strategy followed by tech start-ups that involve unsustainable amounts of cash burning that get even worse when the competition starts. Obviously, unlike social media companies, the network effect plays almost no role for utility-focused start-ups, and things get substantially more difficult once a fairly good competitor soon appears in this newly created/disturbed market. The book could be confidently named The Battle between Lyft and Uber.

Travis Kalanick, the ousted former CEO and co-founder of Uber, is the main character in the book. I read this book before the Apple TV Show and the recent story of Guardian, the Uber Papers, based on the confessions of a whistleblower. So, it was a shocking read for me, but most of the story is already out there now.

Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World

The book by David Kirkpatrick, published in 2010, about the most successful start-ups of all time, almost reads like a love letter to Mark Zuckerberg. It was written before the infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal and before Facebook was seen as the source of all evil in the world. The author also had almost unlimited access to Mark Zuckerberg, access which was likely granted on the basis of a “mutual understanding” about the tone of the book.

If one can disregard all we know about Facebook by now in 2022 and the cost of their mission to connect the world, it is a good read outlining in a very detailed manner how Facebook stood out among the similar ventures of the same era – MySpace, Friendster among others.

These are just some of my favorite books on the origin stories of start-ups. I will be regularly updating this post, and if you have any recommendations for me to read and then add to the list, I will be happy to hear them.

For some other book related posts on the website:

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