Brad Stone, Silicon Valley journalist and best-selling author of The Everything Store, is known for his incisive stories on companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and even Costco. His new book, The Upstarts takes a look at two of the biggest players in Silicon Valley today: Uber and Airbnb—how they began, and how they’re changing things.
Brad was kind enough to chat with LibraryThing founder Tim about his latest work.
Startup founders are used to crafting descriptions of their company of variable length, from a full deck, to an “elevator pitch,” or just a few insistent words. So… what’s this book you wrote?
Haha. The elevator pitches and the self-styled mythologies are often quite different than the chaotic reality. I talked to absolutely everyone who was there at the founding and gestation of both Uber and Airbnb to piece together the dramatic, often conflict-ridden first eight years at both companies. The tales are messy, fun, and awfully instructive about how to do business in the modern age.
Whom did you write it for?
For anyone interested in business, technology startups, or simply what it took to build globe-spanning juggernauts that have remade how we travel between and within cities.
After covering Amazon, I’m guessing you cast around a bit for the next company or companies to cover. What drew you to the stories of Airbnb and Uber?
The drama of their respective rises. Unlike the tech companies of the past, these startups had to fight battles in every city they entered. The founders had to be politicians, in a way that previous tech CEOs never did. So there was a nice parallel between the two companies, while their skyrocketing valuations and the impact they were having on cities demanded attention. I feel like the story of Silicon Valley goes in eight- to ten-year cycles, and these two companies have undeniably emerged as the enduring franchises of this last cycle.
Honestly, I almost abandoned the book early on—I disliked the companies, the founders, and aspects of their “sharing economy” so much. I didn’t and I’m glad—it’s gripping and I learned a lot. Your account is no hagiography. Did you like your subjects?
I’m impressed by what they accomplished and am a customer of both companies. I’ve stayed in lovely Airbnbs in Paris, South Africa, Brooklyn and elsewhere and met great hosts in all those places. I take Uber and Lyft around San Francisco and frequently when I travel. Do I like the founders? It’s not really my job to like or dislike them. I’m curious about the companies they have built and how they run them.
Your previous book, The Everything Store, chronicled the rise of Amazon. Amazon, and Uber/Airbnb represent two distinct waves in technology startups, with perhaps another, social wave—Facebook, Twitter and, in its small way, LibraryThing, in between. What distinguishes the companies you’ve researched, and their founders. And what unites them?
No one sits in the same category as Amazon. It’s defied all the expectations and allegations of its critics and expanded into an empire that delights customers and frustrates competitors. The founders of Uber and Airbnb are in a way disciples of Jeff Bezos. They are trying to emulate his bold bets on new initiatives, and Uber, I think, has tried to capture its culture of productive friction. But they both still have work to do.