"The Web Startup Success Guide" – a book review

Back in 1999, after quitting a job I hated that involved working on products that sucked and with and for (with some exceptions) people I didn't respect, I found myself in the small life boat that was Red Gate, with Simon as co-navigator, a small contracting revenue as a paddle and no hat.

Bob Walsh's slightly mistitled "The Web Startup Guide" is the chart we never had. And it's a damn fine chart, with land, rocks, reefs, currents, winds and pirates clearly marked. Why mistitled? Because itโ€™s suitable for all product-based startups, not just those on the web.

This book, wisely and following its own advice, is targeted very specifically. If you're a software developer, are thinking about setting up (or have just set up) a product-based start-up, and are prepared to work – damn hard – at something you love doing then this book is for you. Equally importantly, if you're more than a few months into your start-up, or if this is your second start-up, or if you aren't a geek, or if you want to set up a consulting business, or if you want to get rich quick, then this book isn't for you.

It is split into ten chapters. The first couple of chapters explore the different types of startups, talk about how to choose a problem to solve and provide a handy checklist for your startup idea. Too often, startups bite off too much they can chew, or not enough worth chewing. Follow the checklist and you'll avoid these, and other, errors. Equally important is the list of ten startup antipatterns ('the me-too! startup' and the 'outsourced startup' to name just two).

Chapter three discusses possible platforms and works through their pros and cons. Should you create a standalone online application, or base it on the Amazon or Google platform? Or use a higher level platform such as salesforce.com? Or maybe a Facebook app would be more suitable? This chapter will help you decide.

Chapter 4 is about the tools and groups you might find useful. As a developer, you'll know some of this already (you use source control, right?), but will learn something new too, whether it's about site analytics, user feedback sites or testing tools. Starting up a business can be lonely, and the online forums and physical meet-ups covered here will prove useful.

Chapter 5 covers main funding options – friends, angels, VCs and incubators (but ignores other options such as government grants, bank loans and joint ventures). It is agnostic about what sort of financing you should get, but, as an earlier chapter pointed out, if you are reading this book you are unlikely to seek, find, or even need VC funding. The assumption that startups must follow the Silicon Valley approach of seed, series A then series B funding is rightly challenged here. This chapter also includes a brief section on payment processing.

Chapter 6 is about social media and the tools you should be using to track what people are saying about your product online, the role of your startup's blog, Twitter, press releases and their more modern equivalents.

Chapter 7 covers the basics of creating a web site that works. Follow the guidelines here – hook people, be credible and have a clear call to action – and you can't go far wrong.

Chapter 8 takes a detour to explain David Allen's Getting Things Done program and its five core principles. If you struggle with time management then you'll benefit from this.

Chapter 9 contains interviews from 'six wise people', and chapter 10 wraps everything up with some more good advice and a final, quick tub thump.

On the whole, this book is outstanding. There is a lot of information here, but its fast-paced, colloquial writing style make it digestible. What's more, the book is well thought-out, balanced, well structured and accurate. It's an excellent combination of fact, anecdote, theory, analysis and practical advice. The interviews alone (Joel Spolsky, Dharmesh Shah, Eric Sink, David Allen and Guy Kawasaki are among the fifty in-depth, thought-provoking interviews in the book) make it worth reading.

There are, however, a handful of cavills.

Firstly, the interviews are included verbatim. It would have been better to edit them – clarity is more important than word-for-word accuracy.

Secondly, the book gets a bit starry eyed about social media. Although traditional print, TV and radio-based advertising might be dying, social media is just one – not the only – tool left in the modern marketer's toolbelt. Furthermore, it's not true that every company must build a community around its product to succeed. Logistically, it's not possible. I happily use hundreds, if not thousands, of products, yet can only – almost by definition – belong to a handful of true communities. When I fly with my favourite airline, or surf with my favourite browser or buy my favourite sausages I do so because of the awesomeness of the product and the marketing, not because I feel a deep need to engage with the Virgin / Firefox / Musks Sausages community.

Thirdly, it's clearly impossible to include absolutely everything relevant to a start-up in a single book, but it's a shame that Bob chose not to talk about sales and talks only minimally about marketing. Finding people who like your product and persuading them to actually buy it is the single biggest issue that your startup, bogged down in the technology, will forget about. On the other hand, there are plenty of other resources that cover that (Jay Conrad Levinson's Guerilla Marketing, Seth Godin's Permission Marketing, Joe Sugarman's Adweek Copywriting Handbook and Jeff Cox's Selling the Wheel are readable starting points).

But these are minor niggles. Overall, this is an excellent, must-have primer for any geek wanting to set up a product-based business. Buy it.

Bob Walsh's "The Web Startup Success Guide" is available on Amazon for a bit under $20.

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8 responses to “"The Web Startup Success Guide" – a book review”

  1. Peter C says:

    it is a pretty great book, but the fact it didn’t dedicate a chapter (or two) on marketing was absurd.
    the book “Founders at Work” is one of my favourite books for “what did you do to market your startup?”

  2. Ncu says:

    It seems to me like this book is pretty similar to Bob’s previous book: “Micro ISV From Vision To Reality”. They both contain, interviews, how to find a product to develop, GTD explained, social media, building a website!

  3. Ncu,
    I haven’t read Bob’s previous book. Anybody read both and like to comment?

  4. ben dame says:

    great book i read it ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. RichardS says:

    Very good summary – I really enjoyed the book but had some reservations, and I’ve been trying to draw my thoughts together for an Amazon review. Now I can just steal yours…
    I want Bob’s book to do well because I like his writing style, his enthusiasm and the podcast, but like you I don’t really share his enthusiasm for social media. And I have a deeper reservation about the book, I think, which is that it seems to be encouraging (or is caught up in) a slight gold-rush mentality on web start-ups. Yes, he talks a lot about how hard it will be and how you have to solve real problems – but only a tiny fraction of web start-ups will succeed, no matter *how hard* people work at them and no matter how well they solve problems.
    Fundamentally I agree with Joel’s “Good software takes 10 years” maxim (though it may be a bit less than that – 5 years?) and it doesn’t sit comfortably with the current prevailing mindset of “Rush out a web app in a few months and make sure you’re on Twitter, etc, and the world may just rush to your door”. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I also think that with a few exceptions most software apps need to be worked on for a very long time to be truly valuable. That’s expensive in all sorts of ways – and I’m not sure the book really gets that across and gives an accurate picture of the risks.
    Final point: I suppose he had to include it, but how many people are really going to get VC or Angel funding? Surely that’s a remote possibility for 99.9% of the book’s readers, I think.
    Despite all this, I did really like the book which I found very stimulating and entertaining.

  6. Bob Walsh says:

    Hi all,
    First off, I think Neil’s review is spot on – including the small criticisms.
    There are definite similarities between this book and my first book Micro-ISV: From Vision to Reality in terms of approach and tone – and very little overlap. The Web Startup Success Guide focuses on building a web-centric web, mobile, hybrid, desktop app; MIVR on a Windows desktop app.
    Peter, I don’t think it’s absurd to not have covered “marketing” more than I did; that topic is worth an entire book, and others have as you pointed out have covered well the narratives of what they did in this area.
    Richard, thanks for the kind words! And I agree with you re the gold-rush mentality. The primary goal of the book was to disabuse would be startups that they should slap together a web app and someone would drop a few million in their laps.
    The flip side of that goal was to give an experienced developer who’s ready to start their own venture the full context of what they need to do in the hopes of moving from (at best) 1 in 10 success rate to say 2 in 10 (I think http://startuptodo.com (a training/productivity community for startups and microISVs) which I will be launching soon will boost that to 4 in 10, but I digress).
    One point I have to disagree with Neil and the commenters here: Social Media is hugely important to a startup – IMO much more important than traditional marketing. The true scarcity on the web is attention: Social Media (and that includes what used to be called “the industry press” which is why I covered it) is a topic a) few developers get b) absolutely critical.

  7. MR says:

    Anyone who feels that social networking strategies are “absolutely critical” to (the vast majority of) startups loses a great deal of credibility in my eyes. This belief demonstrates a clean break from reality, and should be approached with considerable caution.

  8. One way to deal with that kind of bad-faith opposition is to draw the person in, treat them as if they were operating in good faith, and draw them into a conversation about how they actually would solve the problem.