Posts from Books

A Couple Of Good Books For Entrepreneurs

I feel like we are in this zone where everyone is doing a startup. Of course that is a great thing. Getting people out of dead end jobs and into their creative zone seems like a good thing no matter what the outcome. There is a flood of angel and seed capital flowing through the economy and it is easier than ever to do the thing you’ve always wanted to do.

Another thing that is driving this startup phase is the plethora of information on how to do it. It started with blogs, like this one, but has moved to podcasts, videos, and books. It is so easy to share what you’ve learned these days that more and more people are doing exactly that.

Two friends of mine have recently published books that are excellent and quick reads for entrepreneurs.

Randy Hunt is the Creative Director at Etsy. He built and leads Etsy’s team of designers who help create Etsy’s web and mobile applications. He has taken everything he’s learned in that role over the past five years and put it down on paper. The book is called Product Design For The Web, but it is highly relevant for designing mobile applications as well. The great thing about Randy’s book is you don’t need to be deeply technical to get value out of it. In fact, I think it might be most useful to someone who is just getting into designing interactive applications.

But knowing how to design and build something is not the only thing you need to know. Maybe most importantly you need to know what to build.

My friend Frank Rimalovski has been a VC since the late 90s. He currently runs the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute and the NYU Innovation Venture Fund. He explains in this blog post that in the 16 years he’s been working with entrepreneurs, he has seen countless numbers of them build something first and only then seek customer feedback. Frank believes that seeking feedback after you’ve built the product is tough because by then you are so invested in your product that you don’t hear the negatives well enough. And so he and another friend, and sometimes commenter at AVC, Giff Constable, have written Talking To Humans, a book that explains how to do the customer development interviews in a way that will get you the most accurate and actionable feedback.

Reading these two books in tandem will help you figure out exactly what to build and how to design it in a way that users will love it. And that is a recipe for success in the startup world.

How We Got To Now

For the past two years, NYC’s loss has been the Bay Area’s gain. No I’m not talking about hot startups, VC, or anything like that. I’m talking about Steven Johnson‘s two year departure for the beauty of Marin County over the grimy streets of NYC. But this summer Steven and his family came back to NYC, reminding me that the world is just and fair if you wait long enough.

I liked Steven the minute I met him. He has a wonderful smile and a gracious being, he is whip smart, and he writes beautifully and simply. He tells stories that educate. I have read pretty much everything he’s written and whenever something new comes out, it is an instant buy.

Yesterday was “pub day” for his most recent book, How We Got To Now. It’s the story of six technological revolutions that set up the world for what it is now. Those would be glass, cold, clean, sound, light, and time. The book has a companion TV series on PBS of the same name. The first of the six episodes airs on Oct 15th at 9pm

And to make things even better, I got to spend part of “pub day” with Steven yesterday. We did an event at WNYC’s Greene Space (a great venue in west soho) yesterday morning.

I believe the event was recorded and will be online at some point. If and when that happens, it will be a video of the week post.

We talked about a bunch of things, but the most interesting thing is how all of these innovations are related to each other. Steven told a story about the printing press and how when books started making their rounds, people realized that they needed reading glasses, which spurred a spike in demand for lens makers, which in turn led to microscopes and telescopes, which led to all sorts of biological and astronomical discoveries. That’s the kind of connections Steven makes in his stories. I love them.

I have the book and I am going to watch the series. If you love history, technology, and great story telling, I strongly encourage you to do both of these things as well.

Audio Books – Late To The Party

We were driving up the coast of Italy from Rome to Genoa listening to music being bluetoothed from my phone to the car’s audio system and the Gotham Gal said, “let’s listen to some audio books on this trip.” I was dubious but she was adamant. “I tried it on a drive from NYC to Long Island this summer and it is really great”, she said. So I replied “sure.” Later that night in our hotel, using their wifi, I downloaded the Audible app and a few books onto my phone.

We started with Peter Mayle’s A Year In Provence. That was awesome. Listening to a book about a place like Provence while driving around Provence is a fantastic experience. That sold me hook line and sinker on this audio book in the car thing.

Then we went for Daniel James Brown’s The Boys In The Boat. We failed to check how long the audio book was before selecting it. This particular audio book is 14 hours 25 minutes. Good thing we were taken with the story. We stuck it out and finished it yesterday. We cheered as the author ended the story. That was a marathon. All that said, it is a great story about the boys from the University of Washington who won the Olympic Gold Medal in the Berlin Olympics of 1936 in the eight category.

The strange thing about audio books is the play time of the book and the page length of the book are not directly correlated. Boys In The Boat took 14 hours 25 minutes to listen to and it is 416 pages. A Year In Provence took 2 hours and 52 minutes to listen to and the book is 224 pages. I think it may have to do with the fact that the audio book version of A Year In Provence we listened to is abridged.

In any case, we found that three hours is a great length for an audio book. Fourteen and a half hours felt a bit long, maybe even more than a bit long.

We are now listening to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Given that we are now in Paris having recently been in Barcelona, Pamplona, and San Sebastian, it seemed like the right time to revisit that novel.

The Gotham Gal’s pitch on audio books is that it makes long drives fly by. I am not sure they “fly by”, but I would agree that listening to a great narrator read an interesting story does make long drives a lot more enjoyable.

It looks like we’ve got a new pastime. And I’m happy about that.

A WordPress Plugin For A Books List?

The Gotham Gal moved to WordPress this week. I mentioned it in a post mid week.

She maintains a book list on her blog. She’s a huge reader, at least a couple books a week, many times more than that.

And she lists her favorite reads for all to see. It used to be a TypePad widget on the sidebar but in the new UI, it’s an entire page linked to off the main header.

On TypePad, she could enter a book name, an ASIN, or an ISBN and the book and link to Amazon would automatically be added to the list (with her Amazon Affiliate ID attached).

I spent about an hour yesterday trying to replicate that functionality on WordPress via a plugin. I tried about five or six plugins without any success.

Has anyone come across a WordPress plugin that does this? If so, we’d love to know about it. Thanks.

 

Follower Counts

The other day we gave a friend of my son a ride from one side of Park City to the other. While I was driving, my son and his friends were chatting about the state of hip hop in Salt Lake City. Turns out another of my son’s friends met a local hip hop artist in the SLC airport earlier this week. They got to discussing this local hip hop artist. My son’s friend said “he’s very under the radar right now, he only has a couple hundred SoundCloud followers.”

Contrast that with Lorde, who emerged as an “under the radar” artist on SoundCloud a few years ago. Lorde now has almost 2.8mm followers on SoundCloud.

This phenomenon is certainly not limited to SoundCloud. Follower counts on Twitter have been a thing from the earliest days of Twitter. Subscriber counts on YouTube matter to emerging video artists. Follower counts on Wattpad matter to emerging writers.

The comment about the local hip hop artist got me thinking that for emerging artists, follower counts on the platform of choice for their media type might be the most important metric to asses the state of their career. It certainly sounded that way coming out of my son’s friend’s mouth. Under the radar means less than 1000 followers. Emerging means 1000 to 10,000 followers. Breaking out means 50,000 to 100,000 followers. More than 500,000 followers and you have arrived. More than 2.5mm followers and you are a superstar. Something like that.

Maybe follower counts are the new Billboard, Variety, etc of the entertainment and media business. It certainly seems that way.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

I bumped into Ben Horowitz on Monday and had the chance to talk to him about his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. I haven’t read it yet, but I downloaded it to my Kindle app after talking to him about it.

I saw this morning that Brad Feld has read it and thinks it is awesome. I am not surprised and although I don’t normally recommend books that I have yet to read, I think this one merits that.

I’ve seen Ben in action and his experience and approach is valuable to entrepreneurs and CEOs. If you are one, I think you should read it.

A Couple Of Trips To The Future

During my year end vacation, I read a few books and saw some films. The two I want to talk about today are Dave Eggers’ The Circle and Spike Jonze’s Her. I am a fan of both artists and have consumed most of their prior work.

Though they are very different works, both take us on a trip to the near future and show us what our lives may be like. And, though I am more than a little bit involved in the industry that is taking us to that place, I came away from both disturbed and a tad bit agitated.

Banksy says that “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” And in that context both the Circle and Her are great art. If you are disturbed by the ever increasing role of technology in our lives, both works will comfort you. For me, they shook me out of my comfort zone and made me wonder whether all the things I believe in and advocate for are going to work out so well.

In The Circle, a young woman named Mae goes to work for the top tech company in silicon valley which is called The Circle. Eggers creates a company that to my mind is mostly Google with a fair bit of Facebook thrown in. Anyone who has spent any time in Silicon Valley will instantly recognize this company and all the great things about it. But the way Eggers tells the story, the dark side of The Circle is revealed slowly and surely. I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone who is reading it or will read it but I will say that the idea of radical transparency, something that I have advocated for many times on this blog, is taken to an extreme that even I would not be comfortable with.

I kind of hated The Circle. Many times I wanted to put it down. My wife and daughter urged me to finish it. Though I really like Eggers and his writing, I absolutely hated Mae and her story. It made a mockery of an industry that I love. And it made me uncomfortable loving it.

Her is about a man named Theodore who is depressed coming out of a recent divorce. He mopes around all day. He installs a new OS that is “personalized” and all of sudden he is in a relationship with Samantha who is a lot like Siri, his very own personalized operating system. Again, I am not going to describe much more than that in case you want to see it. The thing that made me literally squirm in my seat was the idea that a real person could have such an intimate relationship with a machine. I was completely uncomfortable the entire two hours.

However, I loved Her. It did not mock, but it sure did question. And all I wanted to do coming out of the movie was think about it and talk about it.

I know a lot of people in tech who are excited about the coming of the Singularity. I am not one of them. While I love machines and artificial intelligence/machine learning and all that it can do for us, I love humans and humanity a lot more.

These two works of art are, to my mind, about that human vs machines question and are an attempt to ask society if its happy with the place we are going to and getting there fast. If you work in tech, you should watch Her and read The Circle. Those of us who are building this future ought to subject ourself to this kind of art most of all.

The Fall Of The Alphas

Fall of alphasI read a book this weekend. It is called The Fall of The Alphas. It was written by my friend and former colleague Dana Ardi. Dana is a corporate anthropologist. She studies what makes management teams work. She has also been a writer, a recruiter, a coach, a VC, and a private equity investor.

There is a change afoot in the global economy that is impacting every institution, every market, and every business. Hierarchies are giving way to networks. At USV we have turned this observation into an investment thesis.

Dana has seen the same change impacting management teams, managers, and the companies themselves. Her book is about this change and in it she explores how the iconic Alpha CEO is giving way to a new kind of leader/manager that she, naturally, calls the Beta CEO.

Unlike many business books, this one is not boring or hard to read. Dana tells stories to make her points. Her language is light and airy but the lessons are clear and actionable.

If you lead a company or a team inside a company, you ought to read this book. It will change how you think about leadership and leadership styles.

Physical vs Digital

As I was biking this morning, I was behind a black Ford truck that was delivering papers. I got to thinking that this was a very expensive way to get a paper to a reader. The driver's time, the depreciation on the truck, the gas, the printing press, the paper costs, etc. And that got me to thinking about what I would do if I was Bezos and just bought a business with a big cost structure around printing and distributing a physical product.

And speaking of Bezos and Amazon, I just read this Nicholas Carr post about the slowing growth of e-books relative to physical books. This jumped out at me:

E-book prices have not fallen the way many expected. There’s not a big price difference between an e-book and a paperback. (It’s possible, suggests one industry analyst, that Amazon is seeing a plateau in e-book sales and so is less motivated to take a loss on them for strategic reasons.)

So back to my bike ride. As I watched the truck deliver the paper to driveway after driveway, it occurred to me that many people prefer to get the paper in physical form. The Gotham Gal does and so does her sister. But my brother in law reads it on his iPad and our daughter Jessica reads it on her iPad mini. I prefer to read it on the web.

Different strokes for different folks. But clearly there is a large and important customer base for the physical product and it is not going away any time soon. Many of the early adopters of ebooks and tablets to read books and the newspaper have made their move. The diehards aren't going to make that move it seems, or they are going to take their time.

So what to do? The obvious move seems to me to price the physical product at a significant premium to the digital product reflecting that the marginal cost of a digital product is zero and the marginal cost of a physical product is not. That will either drive more adoption of the digital product where the profits are likely to be higher or it will drive the margins up on the physical product because the diehards will accept the price increase and keep reading the paper and/or book in physical form.

But we have not seen this happen in the book market and I am not sure we have seen this play out completely in the newspaper market. Is the market and the companies that make it up behaving rationally? Or are they protecting the physical market at the detriment of the digital market?

I realize things are never this simple. But that's the question I was wrestling with on my bike ride this morning. And so I thought I'd share it with all of you so we can discuss it. So let's do that.