Bricklin on Technology: Insights for the Technological Startup

Have you ever stopped to consider what tools small business owners take for granted in their daily routine?  The fax machine. The cell phone.

And then there’s the spreadsheet.

Many a time I have opened Excel and not considered what made pivot tables possible.  But thanks to Visicalc founder Dan Bricklin’s book Bricklin On Technology, I now know the journey into starting a company offering the first spreadsheet and a lot more.

I met Dan Bricklin last year at the New York Tech Meet-Up, a monthly meeting of technology startups, when he presented his book and his thoughts on software development and entrepreneurship.  I was impressed with his combination of humility and sage advice. I bought his book because it pays homage to technology developments over the last decade, and I consider it a definite must-read for technology enthusiasts looking for seasoned perspective.

Large book leads to larger outlook on life

Be ready — this is a thick paperback compared to most popular business books like Rework by 37Signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson or memoirs like Jack Welch’s Winning. It’s 400 pages, based on Bricklin’s past blogs from the year 2000 to date, along with other content such as an interview with behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

But unlike many books that contain content previously published online, Bricklin wisely added some context to the blog posts.  He even includes footnotes with brief explanations of terms.  The end result is an enjoyably readable and well-organized book that is not as intimidating as its heft suggests.

Moreover, a 400-page opus may imply a writer’s overindulgence in his material, but in Bricklin’s case his perspective is worth the extra pages.  The book covers a diversity of topics such as the recording industry, pricing, podcasting and how people respond to new media choices.

Technological flashbacks with a clear eye for the human factor

Entrepreneurs who are releasing an app or deploying software on the cloud will gain some valued perspective, particularly from Bricklin’s programmer experience.  For example, here is Bricklin’s view on programming development:

“Programming is an error-prone business…You must have a good conceptual model of how each individual statement affects the result in conjunction with each other statement. You have to know how to check for proper operation (testing) and how to find out what to fix if it isn’t (debugging). Unless you are immersed in that particular programming system it is very hard for most people to do this.”

Bricklin is as philosophical about societal computer usage as he is about entrepreneurship.  The first chapters address how people make use of technology, such as what people are willing to pay for:

“People like to interact with people they care about. The interactions are often simple, but personally important. They are willing to pay money for this.  That’s why they pay for cell phones, for Internet access, for postcards and postage, and for souvenirs.  It gives emotional satisfaction.”

He then references America’s Calling by Claude Fisher to explain how phone companies overlooked the emotional satisfaction of calls.  Throughout the book Bricklin showcases how business’s perspective on culture has come a long way, and how a technological professional can observe human behavior and cultural history to connect the dots that can aid in business development.

Chapter 7 onward focuses on what development is worth exploring. Some mentions will seem a bit outdated–for example, on tablet PCs Bricklin discusses how the pen is an obvious choice for an input device.  OK, definitely dated, given the iPad’s introduction (although Livescribe is finding an audience with its electronic pen).  But in the context of the past, he is showing how the consideration of hand gestures in computer design has changed.  He sees human links with computer tools throughout numerous examples, but without an everything-needs-a-hammer-because-everything’s-a-nail approach. On Napster, for example, Bricklin muses how a central server for music would increase value beyond its peer-to-peer structure:

….I think Napster would operate much better if, when you logged in by running Napster, it uploaded all new songs that weren’t in Napster’s database to Napster’s servers…Napster does not work that way partially because P2P is more legal and harder to litigate against…The issue is can you get what you want from the application. “Is the data I want in the database?”…When someone downloads a song and leaves a copy in their shared database, that person is increasing the number of Napster users who have the song and raises the chances you will find someone sharing it logged in to Napster when you want a copy.  The value of the database increases through normal use.

Parallels to today’s applications can be conjured up while reading these kinds of thoughts. In his footnote for today’s context, Bricklin notes how iTunes in hindsight is the epitome of what he was looking for.  There are also other footnotes, too long for this review, but you get the idea.

Technopreneurs will be familiar with the subjects in the book, but those with cursory knowledge won’t get left behind.  For example, Bricklin muses on how people learn.

“Learning to use things that are difficult to learn is part of being human…The computer is no different from many other parts of people’s lives.  We trade the difficulties with things that matter against the flexibility and effectiveness of the task.“

This is similar to Seth Godin’s Lizard Brain concepts in Linchpin or Atul Gawande’s use of checklists to address complexity in The Checklist Manifesto. More interestingly, Bricklin said this in 2001.  In addition to the musings, there is a chapter dedicated to the Visicalc story, and an interesting viewpoint from Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki.

Who will benefit from Bricklin On Technology

Readers who enjoy memoirs or learning from someone’s outlook should give this book a try.  This book will not show you how to start a business outright. Instead it gently reminds the reader how far technology has brought the world over the last decade, and through the reminder creates a perspective that inspires ideas.  Bricklin on Technology knows how to explain without boredom, and provide enough novelty to entertain readers.  I had a good time reading this book. I am sure you will, too.


Pierre DeBois Pierre Debois is Associate Book Editor for Small Business Trends. He is the Founder of Zimana, a consultancy providing strategic analysis to small and medium sized businesses that rely on web analytics data. A Gary, Indiana native, Pierre is currently based in Brooklyn. He blogs about marketing, finance, social media, and analytics at Zimana blog.

7 Reactions
  1. Pierre, I wouldn’t have imagined that a book like this would be so interesting — you make me want to run out and get a copy….

    I also appreciate what you said about adding context to the blog-posts-turned-into-a-book format. That format can be disappointing because it adds little extra. And while blog posts are useful, they often don’t translate well into book form. So I found your review especially interesting for that reason.

    – Anita

  2. Pierre,

    I have to add this book to my reading list. I agree with Anita that it is interesting to see how you could turn your blog posts into a book. I am thinking of turning parts of my future podcasts into an e-pamphlet on the trader principle.

  3. Hey Anita and Martin,

    The nice thing about the book is that he really has a bit of history in software development, but there’s not this overwhelming sense in the book. Martin, if you want a model book on how to keep things interesting, this is the one to model. Because he made observations on a few online properties that have had a change in fortune (Napster, for example), Bricklin had the opportunity to really add more interesting and substantial comments in hindsight. I think this is what’s missing in the books out there now — we seem to be in an age of pushing out so much content that maybe we are left with too little to follow up. It’s like being on a date too long. 🙂

  4. I’m really curious how far technology has shaped our lives the way most barely dreams of. I’ll have this book added to my list of must-haves and I hope I have all the time to finish it in one reading. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Thanks Shaleen. Definitely share your thoughts when you can!