Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future

My biggest problem with business books is too much fluff around a simple core idea.  This book did well from that point of view: it didn't feel padded.  It was relatively short and to the point, and was interesting throughout.

I'm not sure I agree with everything he has to say, but that's vastly preferable to a bland book that you sort of nod along with because it's not bold enough to say anything people might disagree with.

The biggest, most important thing he asks is “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”, as a way of discerning who has contrarian ideas that may actually be meaningful.  An interesting question.

One of the principle contrarian ideas in the book is that good businesses are something of a monopoly.  Sure, they don't want to come out and say it and get busted, but if you look at Microsoft, Google, and now Facebook... it's not like someone has come along and competed with them in what they do best.  New companies form around new things, and that generally happens only once per thing.

A less controversial point of view that's been promoted in other books like Crossing the Chasm, Thiel recommends starting out by dominating a niche.  Don't aim for "1% of a billion people", because that's going to have too much competition, be too hard to reach, and generally not be a good way to get started for a startup.

Every startup is small at the start. Every monopoly dominates a large share of its market. Therefore, every startup should start with a very small market. Always err on the side of starting too small. The reason is simple: it’s easier to dominate a small market than a large one. If you think your initial market might be too big, it almost certainly is
...
The perfect target market for a startup is a small group of particular people concentrated together and served by few or no competitors. Any big market is a bad choice, and a big market already served by competing companies is even worse.
 This is what he really means by "zero to one".  Incremental evolution of a product is not his idea of what really changes the world.  What really changes things are creating something where previously there was nothing.

There were also a number of things I wish I could ask about in more detail, because they seem partially right, but also dubious in other ways.

He talks about how there used to be more... "central planning", for lack of a better term, in the United States.  Big projects like dams, interstate freeways, and going to the moon, that don't seem possible these days.  I agree with him on things like the Apollo program; I wish we did more of that.  On the other hand, some of the big planned projects have had pretty serious unintended consequences.  Dams in the Pacific Northwest have had serious impacts on salmon populations, just as one example.  Even in terms of government projects, the internet, which was not nearly as well funded or visible as the space program, has probably had far more of an impact on our daily lives.  And I don't think anyone could have planned that out at the time.  Still, I do agree that it's kind of sad not to see more big ambitious projects.

About company founders:
Founders should share a prehistory before they start a company together—otherwise they’re just rolling dice.
I wrote about this same topic here: http://journal.dedasys.com/2015/03/20/the-cargo-cult-cofounder/

Thiel comes out against remote work:
Even working remotely should be avoided, because misalignment can creep in whenever colleagues aren’t together full-time, in the same place, every day.
Cryptonomicon was required reading, and we preferred the capitalist Star Wars to the communist Star Trek
Say what?!  I don't really get why either one fits into 20th century economic schemes.

He talks about globalization, which might have some negatives for, say, factory workers, versus automation with computers, which he makes out in a very positive light:
Americans fear technology in the near future because they see it as a replay of the globalization of the near past. But the situations are very different: people compete for jobs and for resources; computers compete for neither.
Clearly, computers don't compete for jobs or resources, but the people running them sure do!

And in the middle of the book, he succinctly lays out his principles for what makes for a good company:

  1. The Engineering Question Can you create breakthrough technology instead of incremental improvements?
  2. The Timing Question Is now the right time to start your particular business?
  3. The Monopoly Question Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  4. The People Question Do you have the right team?
  5. The Distribution Question Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
  6. The Durability Question Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
  7. The Secret Question Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?
Which seem like good questions for creating world-changing companies.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Longmire Mysteries

http://www.amazon.com/Cold-Dish-Longmire-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B0023SDPS6/?tag=dedasys-20

I haven't read the whole series, and have only linked the first book.  They are interconnected, so worth reading in order.

These aren't westerns in the sense of a story set in the 1800's, but they are very, very much about The West.

The succinct description: county sheriff Walt Longmire, his best friend Henry Standing Bear, and an engaging supporting cast fight crime in a small town in Wyoming.

The descriptions of the plains and mountains of Wyoming are worth it alone, and the stories are pretty entertaining as well.  The author manages to capture modern life in a fairly remote part of the US.  At the same time, these are not formulaic books and have plenty of humor sprinkled throughout.

These might be a good read even for those who normally are not fans of classic westerns.

There's also a TV series, although I think the books are better - they are richer and more nuanced.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Burnt Creek

Burnt Creek

I like to read westerns for entertainment, but have always thought it'd be cool to read a few more about the bits of Oregon that are "the west".  There seem to be very few set there, so this book was a pleasant surprise.  It's set near Bend, Oregon, and is a collection of short stories about  local character who runs a local general store.

I'm generally not a short story fan, as they seem to be kind of short and blunt compared to the long reads I like, but these were enjoyable.  If you're not into westerns or Oregon though, this book probably isn't for you.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future

Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future

Neal Stephenson is one of those authors who could write pretty much anything, and I'd buy it, which is what made me buy this anthology.

This collection of short stories was supposed to "reignite the iconic and optimistic visions of the golden age of science fiction".  That sounded pretty cool to me; there is too much "doom and gloom" these days.  If you want to read something depressing, open up a newspaper and think about all the ruined lives and all that will never be for the various victims of misfortune and disaster.  I want to read something uplifting in my spare time.

Unfortunately, this book does not really deliver, outside of a few stories that were good, like Neal Stephenson's.  Some of them were kind of trite, and many felt a bit preachy about current "doom & gloom" topics like global warming.  I'm not one to deny what scientists are telling us, but I read these stories hoping for an optimistic view of people solving problems.

I suppose part of the problem is that I'm just not a fan of short stories; they don't give the author much time to really create much depth, so they tend to bludgeon you over the head with a Message, or otherwise be very direct, compared to a novel length work, which can afford to have a richer plot and characters.  Combine that with some of the authors who had various axes to grind, and I felt like the Messages were taking a back seat to the stories.

I'd give this book a pass.  Luckily, Neal Stephenson is coming out with a new book sometime this year!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street


This book comes highly recommended by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, which is pretty good as recommendations go, is pretty good.

It's well written, with an easygoing, yet intelligent style that holds one's interest. The stories, while somewhat data, have a lot of human factors that are still very relevant today.

Having been written nearly 50 years ago, the book is somewhat dated, and it shows in places.  There's a bit about the stock ticker falling hours behind actual trading which sure seems quaint in this era of quants and high frequency trading.  The place of women and minorities in the world of yesteryear is also visible, although hardly the fault of the author.

There are several stories, about companies, the stock market, and about foreign exchange in a a day and age when currencies did not float freely, but were pegged to the dollar within set ranges.

There were some good quotes:
One of de la Vega’s observations about the Amsterdam traders was that they were “very clever in inventing reasons” for a sudden rise or fall in stock prices
This is still a great description of the financial press, isn't it?  Lots of after-the-fact descriptions of why things happened.
Large corporations are often accused of rigging markets, administering prices, and otherwise dictating to the consumer [it observed]. And yesterday Ford Motor Company announced its two-year experiment with the medium-priced Edsel has come to an end … for want of buyers. All this is quite a ways from auto makers being able to rig markets or force consumers to take what they want them to take.… And the reason, simply, is that there is no accounting for tastes.… When it comes to dictating, the consumer is the dictator without peer.
There's a chapter on Xerox, the copier company
The most common malfunction is a jamming of the supply of copy paper
That bit reminded me of how much computers have improved over the years - and how much printers and copiers and the like are still so often broken and frustrating.  Although... even with copiers' many faults, they are better these days!
A bad mispuff can occasionally put a piece of the paper in contact with hot parts, igniting it and causing an alarming cloud of white smoke to issue from the machine; in such a case the operator is urged to do nothing, or, at most, to use a small fire extinguisher that is attached to it, since the fire burns itself out comparatively harmlessly if left alone, whereas a bucket of water thrown over a 914 may convey potentially lethal voltages to its metal surface.
The Xerox part of the book has a few interesting predictions:
Various magazine articles have predicted nothing less than the disappearance of the book as it now exists, and pictured the library of the future as a sort of monster computer capable of storing and retrieving the contents of books electronically and xerographically. The “books” in such a library would be tiny chips of computer film—“editions of one.”
I read the book on my Kindle!

On race and labor relations in Xerox, which was a fairly progressive place, for the time, as described in the book:
For example, we’ve tried, without much fanfare, to equip some Negro youths to take jobs beyond sweeping the floor and so on. The program required complete co√∂peration from our union, and we got it. But I’ve learned that, in subtle ways, the honeymoon is over. There’s an undercurrent of opposition. Here’s something started, then, that if it grows could confront us with a real business problem. If it becomes a few hundred objectors instead of a few dozen, things might even come to a strike, and in such a case I hope we and the union leadership would stand up and fight. But I don’t really know. You can’t honestly predict what you’d do in a case like that. I think I know what we’d do.”
The union's antipathy to black people taking better jobs is "interesting".

This is relevant to the crowd here in Italy hoping to return to the Lira and abandon the Euro:
Devaluation, as the most heroic and most dangerous of remedies for a sick currency, is rightly feared. By making the devaluing country’s goods cheaper to others, it boosts exports, and thus reduces or eliminates a deficit in international accounts, but at the same time it makes both imports and domestic goods more expensive at home
All in all, I really enjoyed the writing style, but - and it could just be me - I'm not sure I absorbed anything terribly profound or lasting from the book.  It's an entertaining read, and there are bits and pieces of wisdom throughout, so I'd recommend it if you like to read a lot, but if you're looking for a quick read with more tactical advice about the world of business, this isn't it.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies

I'm fascinated by odd bits of geography, and had high hopes for this book.  It did have a nice list of interesting places around the world, but on the whole fell a bit flat for a few reasons:

  • Some of the verbiage was way over the top:
What brought the group together was an understanding of urban exploration as a kind of geographical version of surrealist automatic writing. Our real-world adventures were little more than pegs on which to hang our interpretative essays, which usually came with pendulous bibliographies featuring situationists and Magical Marxists.

...

Today the pain and humiliation of subject peoples has been fashioned into a series of sub-Hegelian clich√©s about respect for “others” and respect for “difference.”

  •  I'd heard of most of the odd places, and while he did add some interesting details about a few, there was nothing in the book that added to my sense of discovering of something new.
  • Some of the selected places were not things I would have thought about as particularly interesting, such as a traffic island near a freeway.  I suppose they're worth contemplating, but - and I apologize for the spoiler - there were no big revelations about traffic islands, and I read that bit as quickly as I could.
The concept was very promising, but the end result was a bit too philosophical for my tastes.  I'd pass on this one.


Monday, November 24, 2014

A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca

A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca

"Epic" gets thrown around a lot these days.  The journey in this book does the word justice.

A 400-strong Spanish expedition sets out to conquer and colonize what is now northern Mexico in 1527, but due to bad navigation and the strength of the eastbound stream in the Gulf of Mexico, land in northern Florida instead.  After 8 years of wandering and enslavement, on the pacific coast of Mexico, the four survivors of the expedition finally regained contact with the Spanish empire.

Separated from their ships, harassed by natives using guerrilla tactics and not having found a land of gold and plenty, the members of the expedition - already reduced in number - first escaped Florida on improvised rafts that took them to the barrier islands of Texas.  Without their guns or any other military advantage over the natives, desperately hungry and thirsty, the survivors were enslaved by local Indians.  Slowly their numbers dwindled until only 4 remained, who were held in slavery for many years.  After finally escaping, and making their way as medicine men, they returned to Spanish civilization and wrote two accounts of their journey.

This book is a modern retelling of their story, full of interesting details and historical context, as well as musings about what kind of mental strength it must have taken to survive for so long in a hostile, foreign land.  Beyond the psychological aspects of their journey, it's a fascinating story if you consider how much territory they covered, in an age where most of North and South America were very much still terra incognita. Columbus had only (re)discovered a few islands in the Caribbean less than 40 years earlier.   Cabeza de Vaca (the name means "cow head") and his companions must have witnessed much of native life that would soon vanish forever under the twin onslaught of disease and conquest.

I had always thought of the Spanish Conquistadors as having all been rather brutal in their treatment of the inhabitants of the "new" world, but apparently this was not so, even if dissenters did not get their way:
Las Casas pressed ahead with his campaign. His solution to the Indian problem was both disarmingly simple and extremely radical: “The Indians need to be placed beyond the grasp of the Spaniards, because no remedy that leaves them in Spanish hands will stop their annihilation.”
...

Instead of bringing the Indians into the Christian fold through violence, the healers [Cabeza de Vaca and his companions] dreamed of accomplishing this grandiose project peacefully and humanely.
Indeed, later in life, Cabeza de Vaca returned to the Americas - this time near present-day Buenos Aires, but, in part because of his benevolent attitude towards the indigenous population, he was deposed as the local ruler and shipped back to Spain.

I found the book and its subject to be fascinating, and would certainly recommend it.