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.

Monday, November 11, 2013

To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

Everyone is in sales.  Well, maybe not 'sales' sales, but pretty much all of us are involved in trying to convince other people to do things, if not actually buy products.

The book starts with this thesis, which makes intuitive sense.  The author then spends quite a few pages trying to sell us on... err... convince us that it's a fair assessment of the world.   We need to be on board with the idea that selling is important for the rest of the book to be worthwhile, but I pretty much knew that I was getting a book about sales from the get go, so I didn't really need much convincing.

In any event, from there the book picks up, and I found it to be an enjoyable read.  I like the fact that he cites a lot of other books and explains their relevance.

One of the critical points of the book is that a lot of power has moved from sellers to buyers - in the past, there was often "information asymmetry", meaning that one party (almost always the seller) knew a lot more about what was being sold than the buyer.  This is a case where knowledge is power, and buyers came off the worse for it, but sellers also gained a reputation for being somewhat sleazy.

These days, thanks mostly to the internet, if you're buying something, you can almost always do a lot of research and know as much as the seller, putting the two parties on a more even footing.

Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity are the keywords of the second part of the book, and are contrasted with the "Always Be Closing" mentality associated with sales in the past.
  • Attunement means the ability to be 'in tune' with the people you are trying to convince.   If you're receptive to their wants and needs, you'll be better placed to help them see your own point of view.  This isn't really a "touchy feely" skill, but the ability to think about what motivates the other person in a logical and rational way.  It also turns out that being very extroverted may not really be an advantage in terms of producing results, according to studies cited in the book.
  • Buoyancy means the ability to bounce back from setbacks.  If you're out there trying, you'll inevitably hear a lot of "no"s.  One cited technique is to practice questioning self-talk.  Rather than, "I'm the best, I can do it!", ask yourself "can I do it?".  It seems to produce better results, perhaps by stimulating thought about how you are going to accomplish what you set out to do.
"The more you explain bad events as temporary, specific and external, the more likely you are to persist even in the face of adversity."
  • Clarity is defined as "the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn't realize they had".  On other words, to clearly communicate how you can help them.
The third part of the book focuses on "what to do", and covers the pitch, improvisation, and how to really serve your customers (or those you're trying to influence): genuinely improving others lives.

The pitch section defines a few ideas for pitches, including one that struck me as less than convincing, the 'one word pitch'.  The idea being that you can simplify your pitch down to one word.  He conflates it with branding where some companies basically own a word in customers minds, like search (Google).  But that's going to be pretty much impossible for all but the largest of behemoth companies.

Improvisation is necessary in a world where scripted sales don't really work very well any more - you need to be able to listen to those you are trying to convince, rather than simply rattling off a list of points in your favor.

In any event, to draw things to a close, it's a pretty good book that also comes with some exercises to try out in order to help you think about what he's trying to impart.

Thanks to fellow MicroConf attendee Stephen Kellett for the recommendation.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Worthless, Impossible and Stupid: How Contrarian Entrepreneurs Create and Capture Extraordinary Value

"Contrarian" would be a good one-word summary of this book, and one of its strong points.

Rather than joining in the "everyone is an entrepreneur!" hype, the author rightly points out that no: it's difficult, and it's not for everyone, and to really be called an entrepreneur, you probably ought to be able to point to significant value creation.

As the author points out, it's not really about innovation per se: there are plenty of innovators who don't manage to create businesses from it, nor capture much value.  And there are plenty of good businesses that don't really innovate a great deal - one of those profiled in the book is a group that created an American style Cinema chain in Mexico.  They basically changed nothing about the format besides, of course, the location, and adding some spicy popocorn.

The central thesis of the book is that most people who really do create something new and big are often viewed a bit askance at some point along the way.  As per the title, the new business is seen as either worthless, impossible, or plain stupid.

And - many new businesses really are - but the trick is the ability to be an independent thinker, and to persevere in the face of difficulty.

The book doesn't have a lot of actual advice, but I liked it.  The tone is, in some cases even a tad "grumpy", which I found a refreshing change from some of the "rah rah!" material out there, and the author takes some shots at various ideas like "intrapreneurs" (as heavily promoted in The Lean Startup): those people are often not really going out on a limb, and neither are they really going to get the huge rewards a "real" startup will.  I appreciated the honesty, and also reading someone with a unique point of view: being a programmer, I fall into the orbit of Silicon Valley for some things, and that place can be a big echo chamber in many ways.

I also appreciate some of the policy recommendations: stop trying to pick winners, just make doing business easier for everyone, and what will be, will be.  Politicians hate to hear that, because they want to be the protagonists, or at least supporting actors.  But the reality is that the economy is too complex, and trying to determine which sector to favor is a losing bet.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Pathfinder: John Charles Frémont and the Course of American Empire

The rise and fall of John Fremont is a fascinating, epic, and very American story.

Born out of wedlock in the early years of the United States (Madison was president), he achieved fame as an explorer of the west, grew wealthy thanks to the discovery of gold on his land in California, was the first Republican presidential candidate, and subsequently went on to lose most of the money he had acquired.  He was far from a perfect person, but what a life he lead, in very interesting times!

While his mother was part of "high society", the circumstances of his birth were considered "scandalous" and he does not seem to have grown up wealthy, although he did manage to go to college (without finishing it) and educate himself.

His explorations of the west were what really made his name, though, and make for fascinating reading

  • On his first expedition, he went as far as the continental divide in Wyoming, and climbed a high peak - it's uncertain exactly which one - which is an achievement in and of itself, considering the rudimentary gear available at the time.  Interestingly enough, one of the things they hauled out west was an early version of a rubber raft, that they used to float down a river heading east.  Unfortunately, it turns out that the river was a rather wild one, and between one set of rapids and the next, they lost the boat and were lucky to get away with their lives.  To me, the mental image of "old west guys" doing river rafting is a funny one.
  • Fremont's second expedition led him to Oregon, where, at The Dalles, in December, he headed south.  To anyone who knows anything about winter weather in Oregon, this doesn't sound like a pleasant idea even now.  Then, it must have been quite an ordeal.  A number of geographical features in eastern Oregon that he visited still bear the names he gave them.  Eventually, after gradually making his way south, his party decided to cross the Sierra Nevada in the heart of winter.  Apparently, despite their already very lengthly expedition, they had the men and means to do it.  They arrived in Sutter's Fort (near modern day Sacramento) bedraggled, but alive.  After all the cold, snow and mountains, spring time in California's central valley must have seemed like heaven.
  • A third expedition found him once again in California, in the midst of a quickly shifting political situation in which American settlers sought to seize the territory with the idea of joining the United States.  There seems to be some confusion and controversy over his role in subsequent events, which the book covers extensively.  In any event, Fremont was in the thick of things during very interesting times, going on to be - briefly - one of the military governors of California, and later, very briefly, one of the first Senators from the new state.
Skipping ahead, he was the first Republican candidate for president, with the slogan "Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!" - meaning that the Republicans were against the spread of slavery into new states, and against the institution in general.  As an aside, it's interesting to note that over the years the Republican party has done... if not quite a 180 degree turn, because they're not in favor of bringing back slavery... a 180 degree turn in terms of their demographics: it is now very much a "southern-fried conservative" party, to quote The Economist, rather than a party with its base in the north as can be seen in the 1856 election results:,_1856

He lost the election, which probably marked the high water mark of his career in some ways.  The election of Abraham Lincoln followed, then the civil war, in which Fremont had a brief and not particularly successful career as a general.

His later years were spent trying, and mostly failing, to accumulate wealth, and, if accounts are correct, carrying on various affairs.  Indeed, he died relatively poor and unknown.

All in all, a story that ranges from the early years of the republic to the death of Fremont's wife Jessie Benton in 1902, and provides a very personal viewpoint on the rapidly expanding country where Fremont lived and died.

Friday, July 19, 2013


Raylan Givens - who goes on to be the subject of the hit TV series Justified - is introduced in this book by Elmore Leonard.  I don't watch much TV, but I do enjoy that show, so I was curious to read Leonard's book featuring the character.  I've read several of his westerns and enjoyed them, so I figured it was likely to be a good read in any case, and the book doesn't disappoint.

Apparently, Leonard gave the show's writers free reign to pick over this, and other books for "spare parts" to use in the show, and for viewers, some of them jump out.  I won't give them away here, but if you've seen the show, you'll recognize some scenes from the book, although some of them are out of context.

As an added bonus, a lot of the action in the book takes place in Italy, and the author gets things more or less right from that point of view.

The plot is nothing to write home about - it's cops and bad guys - but the characters are entertaining, and there are some good bits of action.

The book is a little bit dated - it was published in the early 90ies and feels kind of "late 80ies" to me, but it's a fun read in any event.  Recommended as vacation reading material.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Sam Walton: Made In America

I'm not a big Walmart fan, though nor am I one of their more strident detractors.  It's just not my kind of place.

Sam Walton, however, tells a good story about the birth and growth of his company.  Immersed as I am in the tech world, where the most famous founding myths revolve around Microsoft and Apple, it was interesting to read about a business that is very different in nature, as well as founded in another era, and a place that is very different from the Silicon Valley of today.

Like many people in his position, it seems pretty clear that the accumulation of wealth was not a key factor in his approach to business or life, but a side effect of being extremely competitive and driven.  In some ways like Warren Buffet, Sam Walton comes across as someone who didn't really do all that much with his money, although he does seem more attached to it than Buffet.  Perhaps Sam Walton would have done so had he lived longer.

People criticize Walmart for a couple of things: "killing" small towns, and not treating their employees very well.

The former is an argument that I'm less sympathetic to in that change is a constant in the US.  There are plenty of places that rose and fell due to changes such as mining, railroads, or freeways.  While I can certainly understand the nostalgia for what once was, people and their habits change.  As Walton points out, suburban America was headed for malls and shopping centers before Walmart, and it it hadn't been Walmart, it would have been someone else putting in big stores with huge parking lots.  He also points out that while small town retailers can't compete with Walmart on price (not much of anyone besides Amazon can), they can certainly offer better service, being local and very directly connected to their customers.  So, if they're good, they'll find a niche where they can compete.  That makes sense to me: my favorite bike shops (Pauls' in Eugene: and Cicli Morello in Padova: ) are both small, local operations with knowledgeable people working at them.  I don't care if the stuff they carry costs a bit more than some chain, because the service and quality of their operations more than makes up for it.  Some business are probably purely cost driven, and there, Walmart is likely to win, but for many others, service, local knowledge, and higher quality are things that can be used to effectively compete.

In terms of how they treat their people, Sam Walton writes that he realized they needed to take better care of them in order to provide better service, but I'm not as convinced about this point - there seems to be an awful lot of noise about how they aren't treated or paid that well.  Naturally, they're a huge company, so there's bound to be some saying that whatever the facts are, but my impression is that Walmart's overarching mission to have the lowest prices possible, wins out when push comes to shove.

That mission shines through in the book as being the #1 goal of the store; what really drives them.  They walk the walk, too - they don't spend on offices, they don't spend any more than they have to on flights, or hotels, or much of anything else where they can save money by packing in more people, going second class, or whatever else does the trick.

In the end though, while I still remain ambivalent about Walmart - I support their right to do business, but wouldn't necessarily shop there - it's an interesting story, and given the size and weight of the company, interesting to know about its origins.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Poor Man's Fight

Space pirates vs a recruit in the space navy: fun space opera - if that's not your thing, this book is not for you!

But I love that kind of thing for a light, relaxing read, and thought this one was pretty good.  It's less science fiction than "pirates in space" in some ways, as it does not rely much on technology or science as part of the plot in a way that some "harder" sci fi does: the whole thing could pretty easily be rewritten as an "age of sail" (Horatio Hornblower) book and not come across too much the worse for wear.  But that's not what we're here for and the book does deliver plasma guns and space suits and faster than light jumps and that kind of fun stuff, so I'm happy.

The grand finale is a bit on the unbelievable side... but it's a space opera, so it gets a pass from me.

The ending sets things up for another book, which I'll be sure to get when it's out.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data

Dread?  No.  But I've never studied statistics in a formal way, and thought "can't hurt" when I saw the book reviewed in The Economist.

Despite never having studied statistics formally, I found the book starting off a bit slowly.  For instance, the difference between mean and median - three guys in a bar have a mean income of 50,000 a year, Bill Gates walks in, and that number jumps way up, whereas the median doesn't - standard deviation, and so on.  Not complicated concepts.  The writing is clear, pleasant, and efficient though, so I breezed through it pretty quickly.

The rest of the book delves into progressively more complex bits of statistics, but always ensures that the examples are comprehensible with examples that are easy to work out in your head.

The book feels a bit weak in terms of either telling people to "not try this at home" or to "go for it!", as they seem to do neither.  I don't feel the book alone is really enough to let people attempt more complicated statistics on their own, but does a very good job giving you an idea what those terms mean, and what their strengths and weaknesses are.  If you don't have much of a background in stats or math, and are curious, I'd recommend the book.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War

The title promises a bit more than this book delivers, somehow: I expected one of those books with a thesis along the lines of "the war was really one by X, Y, and Z".  But the author is much too fair-minded, analytical and circumspect to get carried away with anything like that, so he ends up pointing out a series of innovations that moved things along in the allies favor, but it ends up feeling a bit anticlimactic.

The book is quite thorough, and interesting, and does take a unique approach to WWII history in that it examines what technology enabled the allies to win.  Examples include radar small enough to be carried on board airplanes, and other anti-submarine systems, long range fighters, and the technology and, above all, organizational skills necessary to carry out amphibious landings both in Europe (operation Overlord), and in the Pacific theater.

Interestingly, he discounts, to some degree, the role of the code breakers, who have came out of obscurity in recent years.  He agrees that they were helpful, but perhaps not really decisive, compared to improved weapons systems that, for instance, actually sank German submarines.

If you've never read any history of this war, there are more comprehensive books, but I enjoyed the focus and detail on a specific aspect of it.  If you're not interested in the details of WWII, skip it.

When comparing this conflict to anything relatively recent, the amount of people who lost their lives is truly staggering and horrifying, and bears thinking about in the hopes that nothing like it ever happens again.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

The flaw with this book is that it's not going to be read by the people who ought to read it.  I thought it was well written, argued sensibly, and basically agree with almost everything that Carl Sagan writes.  But in a certain sense, many of the ideas and concepts were not new. 

Bits that did stand out include:

An excellent description of the broad open mindedness and skepticism that are both essential ingredients of good science.  You have to always be willing to consider new hypothesis, and to look at data in a new light.  But at the same time, you have to be ruthlessly skeptical in order to weed out ideas that don't work.  This isn't easy; scientists are human too and suffer from the same defects we all do.

On religion:  
This is one of the reasons that the organized religions do not inspire me with confidence. Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies?
 The theories scientists hold on any given day are less important than the methods behind science.  Theories can change depending on what's known at a given point in time from observations and experiments, but the relentless method of seeking the truth is what sets science apart: there is a method for sifting through the facts and arriving at what is the most promising theory, and those theories must change when new data arrives that contradicts them.

In any event, lots of sensible ideas about the importance of science to society, and a passionate defense of science as an institution of human progress.

The problem though, is that the book likely won't convince anyone.  If you're convinced that evolution is the work of the devil, logic and reason are not going to phase you.  If you're on board with the idea of science, you'll nod in appreciation, but not learn much that's new.  It'd make a fantastic book to give, say, high school students to read and discuss, but it's probably way too "controversial" for that.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Mongoliad: Book Three

And so, the saga draws to an end.  Mostly.  After three books, they don't quite wrap things up, leaving plenty of room for more writing.

To be blunt, I'd buy pretty much anything Neal Stephenson writes, and this book bears some of his imprint.  However, the fact that it's a collaboration does come through, as it feels a bit ... "paler", I guess I'd say than a pure Stephenson book.

There is also lots of fighting and fight scenes.  Lots and lots of them.  Generally, I'm ok with that - I like to read escapist fiction with heroes and villains clashing in battle, but after a while, even I started to get a bit weary of the very detailed descriptions of the swordplay.  With the swordplay and violence comes a lot of blood - if that makes you squeamish, this is probably not the series for you.

Generally, though, along with the previous installments of the series, it was a good read, and I'd recommend it as something fun and distracting, even though it's not up to the level of some of Stephenson's other writing.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur

Relationship books? Me? I never would have thought so.  It just goes to show the power of selling to a niche.  As a genre, it's not something I've ever been much interested in, and in terms of my own life, I feel like I've done a pretty good job navigating my own path (with a lot of help from the example set by my parents): I'm happily married to a wonderful woman with two great kids.  But when I saw this book, I figured it'd be worth the time and the money if I learned anything that would make our lives better.

The book was good; I got a few ideas from it, and would recommend it to others.  But I think it could have been more.  Or perhaps a book is not the best format: the authors, Brad and Amy interviewed a number of other entrepreneurial couples, and it's pretty clear that there is no One Formula for what works.  For instance, the authors do not have children, which is a huge difference.  They realize and acknowledge that, and dedicate a chapter to the subject via interviews with people who do have kids, but to be honest, I feel like you could write a whole book from the point of view of a couple with kids, and include a chapter for those who don't: "you may not realize it, but you have a crapload of time, and no one really depends on you for such basics as eating, sleeping, and hygiene - enjoy it!".  Maybe some kind of internet group/forum/mailing list might be a useful addition.  I felt like I wanted to compare some notes with the people with kids, rather than just read what they wrote and leave it there.  How do you manage weekends?  How much time do you work?  Do you have any plans for 'the future' when the parent working less gets to "take their turn"?  Did you have to curtail your startup because of your family?

Also, the book is a bit conditioned by "survivorship bias": Brad is an extremely successful entrepreneur and investor - in terms of money, he's set for life.  That does not happen to everyone.  What about the couples that tried... and failed, perhaps going back to regular jobs?  How much did the failed attempt cost them in terms of their relationship?  Maybe it made it stronger?  At what point do you give up?  Brad and Amy do interview people who are in different situations than their own, but since they're the authors, it's natural that their voice is the strongest throughout the book.

The book conveyed some important messages like communicating a lot, and communicating well, but those were, paradoxically, the more 'universal' bits of advice that matter in any relationship.  As someone who is, by nature, not really an entrepreneur but who has taken some steps in that direction, I would have been more interested in advice that's specific to those going "off the beaten path" of life working a steady "9-5" style job.

One thing that's easy to overlook, but I liked was a thorough bibliography and suggestions for 'further reading'.  If I were interested in reading more about certain subjects, I would not have the faintest idea how to select a book, so their suggestions are appreciated.

A further point that one might wish for: some statistics.  That would not be easy, because to even get them, you'd have to define "entrepreneur" or some other set of people, and then find out if you could even obtain data on them.  Still though, it'd be interesting to see.

If it sounds like I'm being harsh, it's mostly that the book got me to thinking and wishing I could talk to other like-minded individuals about these issues.  The book is good, and I would recommend it.  For a few dollars and a few hours of reading time, if it improves your relationship at all, I'd call that a huge win.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sheriff Bo Tully Mysteries

This is actually something of a series, although you could easily read them independently of one another.  Here's the first book:

I got the stomach flu a few weekends ago, and needed something easy and relaxing to read while I was sick.  A couple of these books were just what the doctor ordered.

If you're not familiar with Patrick McManus, he has written a series of humorous books with anecdotes and short stories about the outdoor life in the west - specifically the Idaho panhandle area, where he grew up.  Some of them are pretty entertaining.

These books, rather than being an "embellished" account of his own experiences, are fictional stories set in "Blight County" Idaho.  While they are murder mysteries, McManus' dry humor comes through loud and clear.

The cast of characters are entertaining, and the plots keep you curious about whodunnit.

With a thought to my Italian friends, I'm not sure how much of the books would be lost on someone not familiar with small towns in out of the way places in the US.  On the other hand, they're also a fun glimpse into the sort of town not often visited by tourists from abroad.

I can recommend the first two books of the series, which I have read: they're good, unpretentious, fun and funny stories.  A great distraction from a busy life in a not-so-out-of-doorsy place.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service: Inspire Timeless Loyalty in the Demanding New World of Social Commerce

I wanted to like this book, and the author seems like a nice, competent guy, but I don't feel like I got that much out of it.

There is a lot of talk about how to do great customer service, and there are some useful ideas there.  However, I felt that the economics of customer service were given short shrift.

And by economics, we're talking the classical definition of "the allocation of scarce resources".  Not everyone can be an Apple or a four star hotel: some businesses don't have those kinds of margins.  Now, granted, they can still follow a lot of the advice, but where resources are scarce, tradeoffs are involved, and in some kinds of businesses, you can't cater to the customer's every whim and still stay in business.  Yes, as he says, there are probably too many businesses where there is too much focus on "the bottom line", where in reality a bit of courtesy and going out of your way to help would be an investment that pays you back with time.  In any event, though, I felt like the book did not dedicate enough space to dealing with conflicts, and where to draw the line.  If everyone who walked into a McDonalds started ordering burgers as if it were a four star restaurant, just to make up an absurd example, something would have to give: prices or service.  You could say "ok, fine, you want a quality burger done your way, we'll up the prices", so that you can serve each person the burger of their heart's desire.  Or - and this is what would probably happen in a real McDonalds - you'd politely say "sorry sir, we don't do that".  You could say it with a smile, or make a joke about it, or even recommend another business, to leave a good impression with the customer.  But you'd still have to say "no".  If you're a social person, and genuinely in business to help people, it's pretty easy to go out of your way to help a customer.  The difficult part is defining a culture, and a few guidelines to go along with it, that has a sense of what's ok and when to say "sorry, no".

This kind of problem comes up more often in a service business.  Rational people do not go into a McDonalds expecting the best burger of their lives.  It's a product.  Not a great one, but a very standardized one where people know what they're getting.  With a lot of services, things are not so well defined.  A customer wants "a web site", and maybe has some vague notions of what that means, but may not even know what they want until they start to see it.  And then they want to tweak this, or that.  And then change something else.  If you're the guy building the web site, those changes and extra work cost you time and money, and, at some point, you're going to have to say "no, sorry, that's going to cost extra".

The other thing that I didn't get from the book was much practical advice.  I'm not sure who his audience is, but I'm just starting to build up customer service for my own small business, and trying to do it on a fairly tight budget.  Specific, concrete tips and tricks to make things work better that would save me painful learning experiences, and do so with my very limited resources, would have been very, very welcome and paid for the book many times over.

It did have some good bits, but with books like this, I'm more in the market for practical advice.  I'm not looking for a "timeless classic" that I'll keep coming back to for wisdom and philosophy, but a book that will help me bootstrap a solid customer service system and culture within my own small business.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Nearly 30 years old, this book still carries itself quite well. Lots of business books are faddish, attempting to capitalize on whatever is trendy.  Others have one good central idea that could be described in 5 pages, and are fluffed out to make them book length.  But I found a number of concepts that were relevant in this book, indeed, many that I've read in other, much later books, so it felt like a highly worthwhile read.  The book's age also helps in another way: rather than focus on the hot startup du jour, the examples are a bit more abstract, in that many of them are not so relevant today.  In other words, Apple makes an appearance, but so does Wang Laboratories.  That's a good thing, because it lets you focus on the idea being conveyed without confusing the issue with all of the hype and excitement about what's popular right now.

But—and this defines entrepreneur and entrepreneurship—the entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity

Innovation and Entrepreneurship opens with a discussion of different kinds of innovation.  Quoting from the book:
  • The unexpected—the unexpected success, the unexpected failure, the unexpected outside event;
  • The incongruity—between reality as it actually is and reality as it is assumed to be or as it “ought to be” 
  • Innovation based on process need; 
  • Changes in industry structure or market structure that catch everyone unawares. The second set of sources for innovative opportunity, a set of three, involves changes outside the enterprise or industry: 
  • Demographics (population changes); 
  • Changes in perception, mood, and meaning;
  • New knowledge, both scientific and nonscientific
And in discussing these different types of innovation, Drucker points out that the stereotypical "revolutionary idea" is actually pretty rare compared to other types of innovation.  A more typical situation is an industry insider who sees how things could be improved, and strikes out on their own.

Indeed, this is a theme common throughout the book: highly visible high tech innovation of the sort typified by, and glorified in Silicon Valley is probably more of the exception rather than the rule.

Something I noticed throughout the book were ideas I've seen in other, later business books, like Steve Blank's "get out of the building", or this quote about attacking a niche:

Once that beachhead has been secured, that is, once the newcomers have an adequate market and an adequate revenue stream, they then move on to the rest of the “beach” and finally to the whole “island.”
 Which is pretty much exactly the strategy espoused in Crossing the Chasm .

In any event, there's a lot of good material, and it's impossible to summarize all of it, so I'll conclude that this is a good one that is still relevant 30 years after having been written.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Millionaire Next Door

I liked the premise of this book a lot, but like a lot of "business" books, it could be summed up pretty easily.  Indeed, since the book praises thrift so much, one could start by saving the money and reading the Wikipedia summary instead:

The basic idea is that you should spend less than you earn.  Even if you have a high paying job - "a good offense", without saving your money - "a good defense" - you're never going to accumulate much.  Especially avoid spending for "status" items like fancy clothes or cars - save and invest the money instead.

This is backed up with statistics, demonstrating that many people who are wealthy keep a tight rein on their spending habits.

The book also spends a lot of time dwelling on the adult children of the wealthy, which I found less interesting, given that my parents, while wonderful people, have not accumulated that kind of money, and neither am I likely to.

The other nagging doubt I'm left with is that it's easy to say "save save save", but, as they say, "you can't take it with you", either, so spending some on the finer things in life seems like it has some value too.  Say, a nice vacation with your family that will always be happily remembered: that's something that is certainly not an "asset" in the accounting sense.  I suppose the answer lies in the discussion of budgeting for things in your life, but could have been discussed and elaborated a bit more.  I'd certainly like to be financially independent too, but if the cost is living like a monk... at a certain point maybe you have to say it's not worth it. 

In any event, I liked the central message of the book about not "trying to keep up with the Joneses" and living frugally, but I'm not sure I'd say the book is worth your time or money when a good summary is readily available.