How did Tim O’Reilly get started

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At the end of his interview with the Stanford ecorner entrepreneurial course, Tim O’Reilly told a short version of who he got started, and how the O’Reilly publishing empire came to be.

Tim O’Reilly

Got out of college. Didn’t want to have a job. Wanted interesting work. Wanted a lifestyle business. O’reilly was a lifestyle business that got out of control. Interesting work for interesting people.

Started writing manuals and that started retaining the rights (Fortran manual). Turned into a publishing company. Big break was when Sun turned down a $25K license fee for their XWindows lib programming books, and then a year later they bought $1M dollars with of books.

Source licence – they had to copy and copy books themselves.
Buying individual copies costed about the same.

Getting deep into your customers problems is a big part of business.

Programming Perl was a top selling book that no one was talking about. Started a Perl conference just to promote perl. Found out conferences were a great way to promote the books and ideas they liked.

A big turning point was 2000, read Built to Last, BHAG. What ties everything I do in the world together. He wrote down ‘Changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators.’ And that helped Tim realize they werne’t just a publishing company. They were about finding interesting people, finding interesting ideas, and then publishing them. Drive everything they do.

Always looking for those ideas and transformation.

An ebook that was really helpful in this regard was:

‘Who do you want your customers to become.’ – Michael Schrage.

He makes the point that really great companies think about how they are going to transform the lives of their customers.

Henry Ford – didn’t invent the assembly line. He invented the driver.
He invented the weekend so people would have time to do drive cars.

All these ways he thought about changing people.

The iPhone isn’t just a piece of technology. It changed who we are. Google changed who we are. It didn’t just create a search engine, it created a population of people who take for granted they can find anything they need to know.

Very powerful idea.

So we sit there at O’Reilly and think about this. Who are we trying to change. People have these important ideas and I want the world to go in a new better direction. So I look for interesting problems to make the changes I would like to see happen.


Create more value than you capture – Tim O’Reilly


The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think – Edwin Schlossberg

Here are some notes from Stanfords Entrepreneurial podcast series with guest speaker Tim O’Reilly.


  • We should create more value than we capture.
  • Work on stuff that matters.
  • Idealism is the best form of marketing.
  • Do something that matters to you more than money.

Only invest in things that close the loop. i.e. Uber (cab company) makes it so when you hail a cab you get a text when he arrives, and you can see on the map how close the cab is to your location.

Create more value than you capture. When Jack Dorsey started square, he had a social mission in mind. He wanted to enable a class of small merchant, to enable anybody, to exchange money in a new way.

He was think hard about how do you make the economy work better? That’s a big interesting question! And one that we miss a lot. A lot of startups think how do I get funded, how do I get to an exit, and maybe you think I have an interesting problem. But Jack wanted to solve that problem whether it turned into a big business or not. He just thought it was really interesting to solve. That sense of trying to enable an economy is cool.

Les Miserables. A guy gets thrown in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. He becomes ruined by this. Becomes a criminal. He can’t get a job. He ends up stealing some candle sticks from a church, and the priest there instead of turning him into the police says, ‘I gave him those candle sticks.’ and so Jean VelleJean feels has an obligation to do good and becomes a business man, creates this wonderful business, and this is the line Tim loves so much:

‘He makes the entire region prosperous. There is no pocket so obscure that it didn’t have a little money in it. No dwelling so low that there wasn’t a little joy within it.

Father Madellan made his fortune but a singular thing and a simple man of business did not seem as though that was his chief care. He seemed to thinking much of others, and little of himself.

How many people can we say that about in business? There is something really wrong with that.

It’s this idea that came out of the 80s that the only obligation of a business is to make money for it’s shareholders. We’ve seen where that has taken us. A situation where the Wall Street banks think it’s OK perfectly legitimate to screw over the entire economy so long as it fattens their pockets. It is not OK. It’s the big lie of modern business. You have to create something of value.

We should create more value than we capture.

Les Miserable guy wanted to create something that helped the local economy. Wanted other people to success. Etzy, AirBrb, Kickstarter. They are important lessons. If you creating an ecosystem and value for other people your business will succeed.

If you can make other people successful. You can make the world a better place. That is a good thing.

Work on stuff that matters.

These are big ideas that tell a story. Idealism is not only good for you business, and not only good for your world, it is the best for marketing.

Idealism is the best form of marketing.

Tim sold a lot of books in the open source movement because of the story they told. They made communities and people feel good about themselves because of the work they were doing. They told a story of helping others and then helped their own business.

Web 2.0 brand was started to get people excited again about the computing business. A lot of people were out of work and this got tech going again.

Tim gave a talk in 2008 called ‘Why I love hackers’ at Emerging Technology Conference. Here he read a poem of Jacob wrestling with an Angel (a biblical story) and the poem is about how the wrestlers of the old testament would wrestle with the angles knowing they couldn’t when but feeling better for having done it. They got stronger.

‘What we fight with is so small.
When we win it makes us small.
What we want is to be defeated decisively by excessively greater beings.

People love to be challenged with idealism. They love to be challenged to work on stuff that matters.

Do something that matters to you more than money.

It’s a great way to succeed and even if you don’t succeed, the world will be in a better place. And that’s what you should think on as an entrepreneur. And you should work on things that are hard.

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