Book Review: Rework

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Just finished reading the new book Rework written by the founders of the very successful software company 37signals, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. If you are unfamiliar with 37signals and their blog, then this business book will be a very interesting read for you. Their take on business is very unorthodox to say the least. That said I think many will find it very useful. It’s also a very short read. It’s less than 300 pages of essays punctuated by illustrations capturing the concept covered.

I’ve heard Jason Fried talk about the book twice: once at the Chicago Tech Meetup and once again at SXSW Interactive at his book reading. I would say this book doesn’t apply to everyone. If you are running a consulting company with thousands (or tens of thousands) of employees, this book is probably not for you. In fact you’ll probably come of thinking this book was a huge waste of time for you. Jason and David’s perspective comes from owning a small but highly scalable and profitable software as a service (SaaS) company.

Let’s get on with the book review. Rework aims to dispel some myths in business and entrepreneurship as well as rituals in companies that have been taken for granted. Here are some examples.

Planning is guessing. Let’s just call planning what it really is – guessing. So instead of saying business plan, it’s a business guess. When startups write business plans, they typically write one before they’ve started their business so everything’s just a guess at best. I couldn’t agree more.

Start a business not a startup. This idea comes from their belief that you need to charge for your product and stop giving it away for free. A lot of startups believe that the laws of business physics do not apply to their business. Let’s just get eyeballs and give away our product and somehow we’ll make money. By calling a startup a business it’s clearer as to what it should and shouldn’t do.

Focus on the core of your business. A business has to think about a ton of things all at once. When deciding what to do and what not to do, one should focus on the core. A good analogy that the book gives is the hot dog stand. What is the one thing that a hot dog stand must have in order to be in the hot dog business. It’s not the stand, the bun, the ketchup or the mustard. Absolutely focus on the hot dog because without it, it’s not a hot dog stand.

Be a curator. Your product should be like a museum. If a museum had every piece of art in the world, it’s not a museum, it’s a warehouse. The museum is a museum precisely because it turns down most of the pieces of art and curates only the best ones. Likewise, learn to say no to feature requests.

Sell your byproducts. Every business produces products, but they also produces byproducts. The lumber industry produces wood, but also sawdust which it can then sell. 37signals produces their software but in the process, what they’ve learned, they’ve turned into blog articles and their books.

Interruption is the enemy of productivity. The work day is full of interruptions. Creatives need uninterrupted spaces of time in order to do their best work.

Innovation is overrated. Useful never goes out of style. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s norm. By focusing on useful, you’ll create a longer lasting business. Ex – PostIt notes will still be around 10 years from now.

If some of these ideas appeal to you, then you owe it to yourself to check the book out. It’s a fast read and should take you less than 3 hours. 37signals has also released a series of commercials to promote the book. This one below is my favorite.

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Book Review: Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good – The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0

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This is the book written by the infamous Sarah Lacy who’s fiasco of an interview with Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook at SXSW 2008 caused such a backlash in the twittersphere and blogosphere. I had never heard of her before, but after that interview I was left with a pretty bad impression of her. The crowd booed her and yelled “You suck”, “Ask some real questions” among other things.  My friend Craig had read it and thought it was pretty good so I decided to give it a try. I can’t pass up a good book on tech startups.

So anyways, this is her book chronicalling the story of such dotcoms like TypePad, PayPal, YouTube, Slide, LinkedIn, Yelp, Digg, Facebook and Twitter. The book really centers around Max Levchin, who’s 1.5 billion sale to Ebay helped plant the seeds of many of the dotcoms covered in the book. Basically the PayPal alumn, otherwise known as the PayPal mafia, went on to start other successful startups. I’m not going to get into the details of each story but I thought it was a really well written book. All the stories are very interesting and insightful. Sarah writes in a very warm and approachable way, and it makes you feel like you really know these people. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. It was also a very easy read as well as a page turner. I finished it in 3 days.

There are some very interesting bits of lessons readers can take away. One is perseverance. Did you know that PayPal was Max’s 12th or 13th startup? Also, Slide, the popular slideshow started out as a way for Max and friends to view hot chicks depending on who you hear the story from. I highly recommend this book to everyone in the tech startup industry.

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‘Founders At Work’ Book Review

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This book by Jessica Livingston is a collection of interviews with the founders of various technology companies during their startup days. Each chapter is an interview with a founder. There’s a blurb at the beginning of each chapter detailing the company. This is probably one of my favorite startup books of all time. The insight and advice the founders dispense in this 450 page book is worth it’s weight in gold. These are not just dot com success internet companies. Some of these companies predate the dot com crash such as Adobe, Apple and Lotus. You also have Internet darlings such as 37signals, Blogger, Craigslist, Del.icio.us, PayPal, and Flickr.

I bought this book wanting to learn from these founders. Stuff like their pain points, what to watch out for, things to focus on, what not to do. For the most part, the book does that. However, some of the founders were such tech geeks that most of their interview dealt with technical minutia that I had no interest in whatsoever.

Some of my favorite chapters were:

  • Max Levchin – PayPal
  • Sabeer Bhatia – Hotmail
  • Evan Williams – Blogger
  • Mike Lazaridis – Research In Motion
  • Steve Perlman – WebTV
  • Caterina Fake – Flickr
  • David Hansson – 37signals
  • James Hong – Hot Or Not
  • Mina Trott – Six Apart

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“Crossing the Chasm” Book Review

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I think this book was recommended reading on a Y Combinator blog post. Described as a marketing book for engineers, I quickly jumped on this one on Amazon. This book aims to help you take your product from the startup phase across the chasm into the consumer phase. The misconception that entrepreneurs must realize is that the early adopters are a different type of consumers than the majority. Success in one market does not necessarily lead to success in the other unless different tactics are employed.

To be honest, the beginning of this book was pretty dry, and I wasn’t sure that I was going to get through the book, but it does get better. My interest in the book quickly increased when the author Geoffrey Moore gives the D-Day analogy of introducing products to the mainstream:

  • Goal is to enter and take control of the mainstream market that is dominated by an entrenched competitor
  • Assemble an invasion force of other products and companies
  • Immediate goal is to transition from early market base to strategic target market segment
  • Between us and the goal is the chasm
  • Force competitor out of target niche market
  • Then move out to take over additional market segments

That pretty much summarizes the points in his book. I really like his analogies. One that comes to mind is his statement that numeric data is like sausage – meaning that once you know how it’s made, you can’t quite every use them again. His belief is that most numeric data is built on assumptions that are built on assumptions like a house of cards built on more houses of cards.

One thing that really resonated with me was – make products easy to buy vs. easy to sell. You are trying to convince the customer of buying, not yourself of selling the product. Seems like common sense, but that’s not how most engineers think.

To Moore, it’s all about positioning your product. The key is to occupy and solidify the space inside the target customer’s head. You have to be just one thing to the customer or else he won’t remember it. By this he means that if you try to be too many things, the customer cannot remember it. Think about all the major brands like Nike, Coke, Apple. Those brands really only embody a few if only just 1 single thing in your mind.

One thing to keep in mind though is that this book is a bit dated. It talks about companies that may or may not have fared so well after the Internet bubble burst, but I think the theories are just as applicable today as they were 10 years ago.

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“Buying In” Book Review

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I received a sneak copy of “Buying In” by Rob Walker from Random House several weeks ago. Although I am not in sales, marketing or advertising, I enjoy these kinds of books because they give me insight into how to better market products I create both to the end user and management.

Walker’s book talks about the marketing in today’s Internet age and how we as consumers have a dialogue with the products we consume and shape the brands just as much as they shape us. Traditional marketing no longer works with the new consumer and we’ve become immune to ads. We skip through commercials when we Tivo; we no longer notice banner ads on the Internet, much less click on them. Companies now resort to what Walker calls murky marketing or murketing where the line between advertising and word of mouth recommendations are blurred.

Traditional marketing campaigns make way to new strategies. The Toyota Scion campaign, for example, in trying not to be perceived as mainstream was run more like an underground rapper’s. Walker covers many interesting accounts of the rise of familiar brands such as Red Bull, Axe, and American Apparel.

For all the murketing that happens, we are also having an effect on the brands. Although originally Timberland was meant as a blue collar work boot, fashionable urban consumers, hip-hop and R&B artists were demanding pink and yellow colored boots to the tune of $1.6 billion.

To be honest, the beginning of the book was pretty dry, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to finish it. However, it does get better. What I really enjoyed were the various studies done. One that comes to mind is the SoBe Adrenaline Rush energy drink experiment. Subjects were told that scientific studies suggested that drinks like SoBe can significantly improve mental functioning. Some were told the drink cost the full retail price while others were told it cost half that. Members who drank the full price drink and told that the drink improved mental functioning performed significantly better than the other groups. So the power of suggestion can improve not only perception but also performance. Also interesting, but not surprising, when it comes to eco-friendliness, people do not do what they say.

One errata I found irritating was the claim that Red Bull was “invented” by an Austrian named Dietrich Mateschitz. Red Bull was invented in Thailand by a Thai chemist. I know that because my mom went to college with said chemist who is now quite wealthy. Krating Daeng literally translated “Red Bull” has been the tonic drink Thai truck drivers have been consuming for decades to stave off fatigue. Watering it down with carbonated water hardly constitutes inventing.

Overall, I found the book an entertaining read as far as marketing and advertising books go but definitely not one of my favorites. But if you like these kinds of books, I would recommend these:


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