Monday, April 14, 2014

For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families

Rob Walling's wife, Sherry, gave a talk at MicroConf Europe last year, about various personal and family related aspects of business and entrepreneurship.  In some ways, that was the talk that stuck with me the most from the conference: I can always read technical advice on the internet about various aspects of running a business, but the personal aspect of a bootstrapped business - or any business, really, is extremely important, and the window into the Wallings' lives as he has grown his businesses was very interesting.  From the outside, it's pretty easy to see that he's been successful, but she talked about some problems they've had along the way. I think that resonated with many of us in the audience who have families.

I finally got around to reading this book, which is one she highly recommended.   I too would pass on the recommendation, as the book had many interesting points of view.  The author, the wife of a successful entrepreneur, not only includes some of her own anecdotes, but has included a wide array of stories and people from all kinds of businesses.  This is important, as there are no two stories exactly alike, so what works for some does not work for others, and it's important to be cognizant of the differences.  I also appreciate about the book that there are not always nice, neat answers even in good, happy relationships.

Here are a few quotes that I highlighted:

There may be no faster route to upsetting your spouse than behaving as though your time is more valuable than his—even if from a revenue standpoint that happens to be true
Extremely important to remember!  You can't always think in monetary terms, because money is a good way to value things in a market economy, it doesn't always capture what something is worth.
By refusing to spend the family’s money on the company, the spouse telegraphs her belief that the entrepreneur is pursuing a lost cause—and, by extension, that she has no faith in him.
This is the other side of the above comment.  To me this issue of trust and faith is pretty important: I'm not a born entrepreneur, so I am not entirely confident in my own abilities.  I haven't spent our money on my business project, but I do invest time.  I don't know how it'll turn out, and have some of my own doubts.  When the person you love most voices strong doubts, that can really cut you down.

Home-based businesses are a big tease. They dangle the entrepreneur before his loving family (Dad’s home!) and then immediately snatch him away (Dad’s locked his door!).
I've given up on getting much work done at home while my children are small.  it's just too difficult to push them away.  It's important to have a space where you can just concentrate, without seeing the disappointment on their faces when daddy says "no".

I feel strongly that experiences—the kind that forge memories or expand horizons or provide fleeting epiphanies—should not be postponed, no matter how demanding the company. ... But when families discuss what to sacrifice due to limitations on time and/or money, I think vacations should be off the table.
As I age, I've come to think about things in terms of what I'll remember in 10 years.  It won't be the small things, but the great experiences that we've had together as a family.

There are lots of discussion points, things to talk about and consider together.

In conclusion - for me a successful business would represent economic freedom for myself and my family, but it's a journey we share, and not one I'm willing or able to make alone.  Out of lots of business books with bits of trite advice, this one really stands out in that it discusses what really matters most.

Friday, February 14, 2014

East of the Cascades

The part of Oregon I grew up in, the southern end of the Willamette valley, is kind of a rainy, gray, dreary place, like most of western Oregon.  The people that settled the area were the sort of people who wanted to plant crops, raise their children, build schools and churches, and otherwise lead happy but boring lives.  This is not "the West" that you see in movies or in books.

That west starts east of the Cascades in Oregon, in the high, dry country.  I wouldn't want to live there, but when I'm back in Oregon I always love to visit the high desert.  The sense of vast, lonely openness is something that is all but absent in the bits of Europe that I have seen.

Written in 1964, this book talks about the history of central Oregon - focusing on the area around Bend and Prineville, an area that was more remote and more "Western" than the rainy part of the state on the other side of the mountains.  Indeed, the more fertile farmland in the Willamette Valley was settled first, and only later did settlers head back east, or south from The Dalles.

The book talks about the history of the area, starting with the earliest people of European descent in the area, range wars, Native Americans ("Indians", in the book, being from 1964), and lots of odd bits and pieces of history.

One of the most interesting anecdotes is about a group called The Vigilantes, who dispensed "justice" in Prineville, Oregon in the 1880ies.  Only it turned out that their version of justice was not very "fair and balanced", and as the area was settled, the population wanted real law enforcement, rather than masked riders and mysterious deaths.  A group called the "Moonshiners" formed, and eventually, 75 strong, rode through the town and called out the Vigilantes who were in a local saloon.  The latter wisely stayed put inside. Realizing their days of power were over, and, humiliated, they gave up and never acted again.  No gunplay, but a fascinating story nonetheless.  You can read more about this showdown here:

It's interesting to read about the rise and fall of various places.  At one point, Shaniko, as a railroad terminus, was one of the more important towns in the region.  Antelope was also on the road north to The Dalles, but is now nearly a ghost town, as Highway 97 bypasses it to the east.  Well after this book was written, Antelope was briefly in the news again in the 1980ies when the Rashneeshees made their home on a large ranch nearby, but that story isn't covered in the book (you can find links to it from this page on Antelope:,_Oregon ).  Bend, now the largest town in the region, is actually relatively recent compared to Prineville and some of the other early sites.  Bend was incorporated as a city only in 1904.

In any event, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Oregon history.  Others might not find that it holds their interest.

For further reading, here's the wikipedia page on the author:

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

Did you own a computer in the 1990ies?  Do you remember Doom and Quake?  I didn't play them that much, but they were very, very cool, especially for those days, when computers didn't have nearly the power that today's mobile phones do.

This book is the story of John Romero and John Carmack, the two main guys behind id software's hit games from the early 90ies.  Amongst many interesting aspects of the story, one that stands out is just how big a revolution computers have been.  Here were these two guys, with no money, no connections, not very supportive families, who, mostly through their own skills and knowledge made millions of dollars, and a name for themselves, all in their 20ies.

The author does a good job of telling the story, and keeping things interesting, talking about many of the other people involved along the way.  Towards the end, as things start to fall apart, some of the infighting and rivalries get a bit confusing, but all told, the book held my interest all the way through.

Some various quotes and bits that stood out:

John Carmack had a cat, Mitsi, that he was attached to, but when the cat peed on his new leather couch, he got rid of the cat by dropping it off at the animal shelter, where it was presumably put down.  He was extremely dedicated to coding and pretty much anything that disturbed him or got in his way was not something he looked kindly on.  Initially, his main motivation for doing the company was so that he had the freedom to work 100% on his own games, and have "enough pizza and diet coke to live on".

Senator Joe Lieberman comes across as something of a demagogue, railing against "immoral", violent video games.

Carmack on learning:
"My basic skills built up during school on apple II computers, but lack of resources limited how far and fast I could go. The situation is so much better for programmers today—a cheap used PC, a linux CD, and an internet account, and you have all the tools and resources necessary to work your way to any level of programming skill you want to shoot for."  

That describes my own experience pretty much exactly!  Once I got Linux and was on the internet, I just kept soaking stuff up and haven't stopped since.  I'm incredibly lucky to have had that available.

Carmack again:
Carmack disdained talk of highfalutin things like legacies but when pressed would allow at least one thought on his own. “In the information age, the barriers just aren’t there,” he said. “The barriers are self-imposed. If you want to set off and go develop some grand new thing, you don’t need millions of dollars of capitalization. You need enough pizza and Diet Coke to stick in your refrigerator, a cheap PC to work on, and the dedication to go through with it. We slept on floors. We waded across rivers.”
Indeed, the company was bootstrapped, and the book never mentions them taking any investment.

All in all, a fun read that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Goliath Stone

Larry Niven has written a lot of great science fiction books over the years, and I would highly recommend you read those rather than this book.

There isn't much of a plot in that the protagonists just bounce from success to success.  The whole thing is dripping with political snipes at people who disagree with the author on various issues.  And it's full of dialogue with lots of "in" jokes for people who follow a lot of sci-fi.  One of these alone might have been tolerable, especially if mixed with a great story, but that's not really there.

The science fiction premise was kind of interesting, but were the sentient nanobots given their choice in the matter, I'm sure they too would have fled from this book towards something better.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

After Tamerlane

At nearly 600 pages, this is not a light read.  Spanning the past 600 years, and the entire globe, it also covers a lot of space and history.  If you don't find history interesting, this is most certainly not the book for you. On the other hand, if you think that history is fascinating, this book contains a great deal of it: it covers the rise and fall of empires around the world since the fall of Tamerlane.  That's a long time, and the book is not restricted to Europe; indeed one of the things I liked most about it is the coverage of Africa and especially Asia.

It breaks down and discusses, in detail, a lot of what happened in India, Iran, and what was the Ottoman Empire over the years, as well as China and Japan, and how all of them interacted, in turn with the European nations.  It turns out that the "Europe dominates the world" story is pretty simplistic and requires a lot more detail and nuance to give a good account of what happened where, and when.

While not a page-turner, it's written fairly well, and I found it easy to make progress.  As above, I greatly enjoyed some of the coverage of the world outside of Europe.  I've got a reasonably decent grasp of European history, but am well aware that there are critical parts of the "old world" like China and India that I know precious little about, and this book helps fill in some of those gaps.

As the book concludes:
But if there is one continuity that we should be able to glean from a long view of the past, it is Eurasia’s resistance to a uniform system, a single great ruler, or one set of rules. In that sense, we still live in Tamerlane’s shadow – or, perhaps more precisely, in the shadow of his failure.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Zero-Sum Game: The Rise of the World's Largest Derivatives Exchange

Some books jump out at you as something you have to read.  Others, like this one, sneak up on you.  Commodities trading and a corporate merger hardly sound like subjects that could keep most people awake, let alone hold their interest.  And yet... the book was interesting and engaging.

I have a weakness for books like this; books that take something that you don't know much about, and explain it in a way that's vivid and easy to understand, but not too dumbed down.

Zero Sum Game tracks the acquisition - officially labeled as a "merger" - of the Chicago Board of Trade, or "CBOT", by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or "Merc", which was finalized in the summer of 2007 by newly hired marketing executive Erika Olson, who had no idea for the wild ride she was in for when hired just before the acquisition commenced.

The book closely follows the action, and gives some background about many of the major players.  At times, given that I read the book in bits and pieces, I'd forget who someone was, as there are a lot of people mentioned, but the descriptions add a lot to the story in terms of making it human, rather than just a description of what the various companies did.

It's a pity we don't learn more about institutions and economics like those described here in school, as markets like these are so central to the economies of modern countries.

Would I recommend it?  If you're interested in reading about something different, certainly!

In an interesting footnote, one of the major players in the book, the ICE recently (end of 2013) concluded their purchase of the storied New York Stock Exchange.

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Since this book is so related to what I do professionally over at LiberWriter, I wrote it up in the blog over there:

I thought it was pretty interesting, although you can probably pick up some of the same advice on the internet if you have the time to do the research yourself.  If you're a professional who could package up some of your knowledge and sell it, this book would easily pay for itself, though, as it's got lots of great advice on how to write and market a book that will help people with their jobs.