Dave Concannon

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In Pure Water, No Fish

Four Months Worth of Book Reviews in Ten Minutes

It’s been a while since I’ve written any book reviews, though I’ve still been reading at a normal pace. My time has been taken up on a few interesting personal projects. Anyway, I thought I’d do a quick rundown of what I’ve read and whether it’s worth a look. In the unlikely event that anyone wants a longer review, just let me know.

General Business Topics

  • How to Build a Business and Sell it for Millions by Jack Garson.  A manual on the process of selling a successful business. It starts from the premise that you need to be aware up front that selling the business is an option so that when the time comes it’s set up to be convenient. Recommended. (A signed copy of this was kindly given to me by Giang Biscan).
  • Escape from Cubicle Nation by Pamela Slim. Do you want to be an entrepreneur, and if so how do you go about it? It’s a good book, but I don’t think I’m the target audience.
  • The Little Big Things – 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence by Tom Peters.  This is sort of a stream-of-consciousness collection of thoughts on corporate excellence. I didn’t like this much, it felt unstructured and sort of thrown together and it bored the pants off me. YMMV
  • Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston. Fantastic read. Livingston interviews successful startup founders about the chaotic days of company building. Real in-the-dirt war stories from the dot com days, really enjoyable and inspiring.

Creativity

  • Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. This is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a while. This is very relevant for anyone selling a technology product, as it digs into how to bridge the gap between all the information you know about your product (The ‘curse of knowledge’) and what your customers need is. Highly recommended.
  • A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. This is a manual on how to train your mind to be more creative. I’m not sure why I read this one, as I already have more ideas than time to do anything with them. It’s short, pretty common sense (to me maybe), but enjoyable.
  • It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden. A guide to making the best of yourself by an award winning creative. Contrarian advice with a useful message.
  • All Marketers are Liars by Seth Godin. A book on framing your story for the audience you’re trying to reach, and telling authentic stories that resonate. Maybe I’ve read too many of Seth’s books at this stage, but this just felt like ‘more of the same’. A good read if you haven’t read some of his other stuff.

Design

  • Cadence & Slang by Nick Disabato. A fantastic book spawned from a kickstarter project. This covers the gamut of product design, usability, and technology in one really nice looking book. Concepts that mildly annoyed me were the occasionally proscriptive tone ‘A product should…‘, and some minor philosophical ideas which go against the Lean Startup philosophy which I’m fond of. Very comprehensive, beautifully designed book covering a huge breadth of topics really well.
  • Designing for the Social Web by Joshua Porter. How to create technology that is intrinsically social by figuring out the interactions of the users and their needs at the outset, and keep users coming back. Really digs into the specifics of social oriented technology design very well. Ten demerits for a totally out-of-place chapter on “Authentic Conversations”. Puh-leaase.

As a break from the usual business books, I also read “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand to see what all the fuss is about. The Fountainhead has more straw men than an archery contest, but the underlying message is an interesting take on ignoring the status quo and creating something of value for the sake of creation alone. Great arguments against design-by-committee, and contrarian attitudes in general. The book doesn’t quite explain the difference between a creative loner genius who the world doesn’t have the intelligence to recognize and the loner nutcase who’s just deluding himself, but maybe they’re different sides of the same coin seen from different perspectives.

Most interesting point that I took from the Fountainhead is that people will happily sink into whatever tripe that society throws at them. Rand describes the sort of moronic time-wasting that people spend their time on in the 1930s, and it’s no different to today judging by the amount of X-factor and “the apprentice” tweets offending my eyes every week. Bitter rant aside – go read some books. I’m going back to writing code.

Book Review: Fascinate

Fascinate by Sally Hogshead Giang Biscan very kindly sent me a signed copy of Fascinate by Sally Hogshead, and in return I’ve done a guest post review of the book on her blog over at http://www.asable.com.

Giang’s site is worth checking out – In addition to producing the podcasts of Andrew Warner’s interviews on Mixergy.com, Giang also interviews entrepreneurs herself. Not only that, she also organizes startup conferences and meetups in the LA area. She’s got a great perspective on entrepreneurship which I find inspiring. Give it a look!

You can read my review of ‘Fascinate’ by Sally Hogshead on Giang’s blog here.

Book Review: “Rework” by 37Signals

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I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of “Rework” since I preordered it back in January. I’m a big fan of 37signal’s work, their blog, and loved David Heinemeier Hansson’s talk at FOWA Dublin in ‘09. I’m not a huge fan of “Rework”.

Testimonials

Before getting to the actual content of the book, the reader will be confronted by some of the most overly-enthusiastic praise from recognized industry figures that I can ever recall seeing in a publication. This almost stopped me from buying the book in the first place. Mark Cuban is someone I’d gladly sacrifice a major appendage to work for, but check out this effusive gibberish:

If given a choice between investing in someone who has read Rework or has an MBA, I’m investing in Rework every time… a must-read.

Or this mental breakdown from Tom Peters:

The clarity, even genius, of this book actually brought me to near tears on several occasions. Just bloody brilliant, that’s what.

Content

37signals typically write in a blunt, straight-shooting style, and they pull no punches in “Rework”. Don’t get me wrong – there are a few gems, but also several essays which really don’t make any logical sense. One or two of the essays remind me of “The Sphinx” from the movie “Mystery Men” – amusing upon first read, but logically empty. In particular, the introduction sets up some weak straw-man arguments about what ‘conventional critics’ say is not possible that comes across sounding like teenage rebellion.

Getting Real” was a breath of fresh air in an industry that seemed to have learned little from the Dot Com crash. It was absolutely original and controversial when released, and inspired people around the world. At least part of the reason for the success of “Getting Real” was it’s contrarian stance on what was then normal industry practice – their advice to do less, avoid feature bloat, have passion for what you do, and their simple functional design theories were revolutionary.

The problems with success

It may be that they’ve actually been too successful at promoting their philosophy because for the most part “rework” doesn’t feel like it’s saying anything very unconventional. Here’s an (admittedly out of context) quote from the book that I found ironic:

When you’re a success, the pressure to maintain predictability and consistency builds. You get more conservative. It’s harder to take risks. That’s when things start to fossilize and change becomes difficult.

If you’ve been following resources like Andrew Warner’s interviews with entrepreneurs, or the surge of interest in concepts like the Lean Startups philosophy, a lot of the advice in this book just feels like common sense. Maybe I’m just not in the target demographic? It is to 37signals’ credit that they have inspired so many with their work and there is a lot of good advice for those who are not familiar with what they’ve already done, but some of “Rework” just doesn’t hold up to the light. It’s Seth Godin’s easy conversational writing style but missing some essential nugget of truth.

To make sure I’m not just whinging in this post I’ll clarify that there are the occasional diamonds in the rough. I particularly enjoyed:

  • Meetings are toxic – Good advice on how to run a meeting if it’s really necessary
  • Let your customer outgrow you - Don’t pander to every change request
  • Scratch your own itch – Solve one of your own problems and you’ll find a market
  • The myth of the overnight sensation – The only path to success is hard work
  • Marketing is not a department - Everyone is responsible for the public face of your company

Buy it?

My critical process for reading any article, blog post, or book is to ignore who the author is and concentrate on the actual content. In this instance I wasn’t overly impressed.  Let’s be honest though – this book is going to be a resounding success whether I praise it or slate it. 37signals have a very large audience among whom they’ve reached a certain level of rockstar infamy. If I can riff on this tenuous rockstar analogy – “Getting Real” is to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” as “Rework” is to whatever that last album was called.

With all the points above in mind, there is still enough good advice in this book that I would recommend getting a copy if you haven’t already read “Getting Real”, and don’t subscribe to their blog.  There are four of the better essays from the book on Tim Ferriss’s blog if you want a sampler to make up your mind.

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Book Review: Purple Cow by Seth Godin

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After reading the hugely inspirational “Tribes” I’ve been on something of a Seth Godin binge.  Purple Cow is a how-to guide to revolutionize a  comatose company into something truly remarkable. The idea of this “Purple Cow” is to make a product that is so remarkable, so antithetical to the status quo that it immediately strikes a chord with your target market.

Purple Cow is a book about how taking the ’safe’ course of action is riskier than making the ballsy decisions that defy convention and make a really remarkable product.  Seth describes the ‘TV-industrial complex’ which used television and print mass-media to advertise and create mindless demand in niche markets that did not yet have a clear leader. The profits from these ventures resulted in a continuous cycle – more money spent on advertisements means more profit means more money spent on advertising.

The end result of this cycle is that consumers become more and more inoculated against your advertising and eventually every product in a given sector is an indistinguishable clone of it’s competitors. In markets saturated with similar products that make similar claims the best course of action is the controversial one – stand out. Remarkable products pick a specific customer and solve their problem really well. They solve this problem in a way that turns ordinary customers into fans, and makes fans want to tell everyone else they know.

Most importantly is the premise that remarkable doesn’t happen via design-by-committee, watered-down compromise, or blindly imitating your competitors. It’s by being what your competitors aren’t prepared to; the nicest,  the fastest,  the newest, even the most hated as long as you follow the golden rule:  The surest way to make a terrible product is to try to please everyone at the same time.

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Book Review: Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi

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Never Eat Alone

Keith Ferrazzi is a fanatical connector; someone who goes out of his way to meet new and interesting people. It’s this rabid interest to connect with others, and subsequently introduce his connections to each other that he attributes a lot of his success.   In “Never Eat Alone“, Mr Ferrazzi takes the reader through the mindset of some of the most powerful connectors on the planet, before gradually introducing some of the key concepts he uses to meet those he doesn’t know.

Early in his career, Keith’s ambition had turned him into ‘a jerk’ – Ignoring his peers, but going out of his way to catch the attention of his bosses. Eventually one of these bosses informed him that in order to succeed as a manager, you have to enable those around you to be successful. This simple advice the essence of his book – Do good work by allowing others to succeed.

Much of the advice reminds me of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People“. He provides solid reasoning as to why you might want to follow his advice, clear examples of what to do (and what not to do), and case studies of famous super-connectors.

I really enjoyed this book, not only is it solid advice but it’s clear that Mr Ferrazzi truly believes what he writes. Recommended!

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Book Review: Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman!

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Described on the back cover as the “adventures of a curious character,” “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!” is a transcription of conversations between nobel-prize winning physicist Richard P. Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton. It chronicles his early interest in tinkering with radios through his years working in Los Alamos on the Manhattan project, and on to his dalliances with Art, bongo playing, Mayan mathematics, and practical jokes.

This has to be one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time – I’ve long been a fan of Feynman for his unpretentious attitude to life. He was truly someone who kept a child-like fascination with the world around him long past the point at which most people have begun to accept the state of things as unchangeable fact. This constant curiosity and playful attitude to life coupled with his razor-sharp intellect led to his winning of the Nobel prize for physics in 1965.

It’s very interesting to get an insight as to how one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century mulled over problems – it seems a lot of how he figured out a puzzle was by direct analogy. If presented with a set of facts, he would construct some simple mental model which exhibited the same state as the known facts, E.g. representing an abstract concept as two balls that spin, and add more properties as more facts are known. Then when presented with a question about the state of the theory, he could relate the question to his constructed model and answer whether the theory was likely to be true based on how his set of “spinning balls” would react given the new information.

His playful side is covered during a very funny chapter detailing his obsession with safe-cracking during Los Alamos. He figured out a method for reducing the number of turns needed to crack a safe, and became known as the go-to guy when any given safe was unavailable when the owner was away on holiday or similar. He took an avid interest in Frigideira playing (described as a “musical frying pan”!),became a competent artist, and could adequately converse in Portuguese and Japanese. The impression you get from the book is that he would happily immerse himself in just about anything that took his interest just for the sake of learning. He describes some initial inspiration for his Nobel-prize winning work as originating from a proof he developed  after watching someone in the college cafeteria throwing a plate and wondering why the spinning of the pattern didn’t seem to match the “wobble”.

The final chapter is an adaptation of a talk he gave at Caltech in 1974 on “Cargo Cult Science“, a call for integrity and discipline during scientific investigation. He was someone who shunned pretense and snobbery throughout his life, and initially tried to not accept the Nobel prize. I’d highly recommend the book, and also suggest watching clips of him on youtube to get an idea of this “curious character”.

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Book Review: Ram Charan – What the CEO wants you to know

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Ram Charan is an advisor to Fortune 500 companies and has lectured at Harvard and Northwestern’s Kellogg school of business.  In his book What the CEO wants you to know, he explores what he describes as the “basic building blocks of a business”.  Using comparisons from his family’s shoe shop in India he deciphers the day-to-day necessities of a business in order to describe the essential information you can use to determine whether a business is successful.

Here is a synopsis of some of the essential finances of a business as described in”What the CEO wants you to know”:

  1. Cash generation – The difference between all the cash that flows into or out of the business in a given time period.
  2. Margin – Margin is the percentage profit made on the products the company sells or services the company provides. As a meaningful statistic it usually refers to a company’s net profit margin after taxes.
  3. Velocity - Sometimes referred to as “inventory turns”,  describes the concept of how frequently the company’s stock is moved off the shelves into the hands of it’s customers, and replenished by suppliers.  It defined by how many times a particular product has to be restocked in a year.  Additionally he measures “Asset velocity”, this is AV = Sales / total assets. This measurement is somewhat more interesting in terms of software companies that don’t have a physical  product.
  4. Return on Assets (ROA) – The amount of money you are able to make with a given amount of fixed assets. Occasionally companies use slightle different measurements such as “Return on investment (ROI)” or “Return on equity (ROE)”. These measurements answer the questions of “How much money are you making with your investments, or with the money shareholders have invested in the company?”.   ROA can be simplistically defined as a product of Margin and Velocity (R = M x V). Mr Charan describes the ROI of a business as a critical marker to the health of a business. Comparing this figure with competitors and the previous year can gauge whether a company is succeeding or failing.
  5. Growth – A company’s growth is the increase in a company’s size in terms of employees. The author argues that with a lack of sustainable, profitable growth, a company may not be able to attract the type of employees that the company needs to succeed in the marketplace.  If a company stagnates, the amount of money it can afford to spend on research and development decreases, the opportunities for promotion within the company begin to dry up, and the ambitious employees move on for greener pastures. Even more dangerous is unnecessary growth, where the company expands at a rate which is not consistent with the return on the investment in the new employees/stores etc.
  6. Customers – A company must listen to it’s customers in order to succeed. In terms of e-business, neglecting user feedback to your software or website is detrimental. The prevalence of the internet means it is possible to promote your business globally, and if you don’t cater to the tastes of your customers they have little need to stay. The cost of attracting customers is relatively high, but in most cases the cost of switching for a customer is very low.

Using these measurements, you can get a summary of the business:

  • What were the company’s sales?
  • Is the company growing, or is growth flat or declining? How does this growth compare to competitors or the market segment?
  • What is the company’s profit margin? How does this margin compare to the competition?
  • What is the company’s inventory velocity? It’s asset velocity?

In terms of wealth the book delves into the business from the eyes of an investor:

  • Price-earnings multiple (P-E Ratio) – How much profit the company made for each share of stock. For example, a P-E Ratio of 7 means that for every dollar of earnings per share the stock is worth seven times that much. It represents the expectations about a company’s current and future money-making abilities. When a company begins to miss it’s earnings-per-share expectation investors often decide to take their money elsewhere, resulting in sliding stock prices.

This is followed up with some notes on personnel management, coaching, and how to determine whether a person is suited to a job, though I’m not certain that this chapter belongs in the overall context of the rest of the book. Finally there is a personal check-list you can use to evaluate your own company on the metrics described previously. I found this a nice basic primer on business finance, I’m certain that each of the topics could have entire books devoted to them, but this is a good overview with enough detail to be interesting without getting too dry.

Check it out on Amazon here.

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Book Review: First, Break all the Rules

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The latest book on my reading list is Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman’s 1999 best-seller “First, Break all the Rules”. This book examines the practices and methods that effective managers use, and how these practices differ from the methodologies implemented by mediocre managers.

Good analysis starts with a mountainous sample space of data – in this case two enormous research studies undertaken by the Gallup Organization over twenty five years, surveying over a million employees from broad demographics and industries. The central aim of this research was to determine what factors motivate and retain talented employees. The somewhat surprising results suggest that although remuneration, excellent working conditions, and responsibility play their part, the employee experience of their working life is most heavily influenced by their relationship with their direct manager.

Perhaps more surprisingly is the difference in attitude between the exceptional managers (those whose charges out-perform the other employees, stay longer in their respective companies, and have more successful careers overall) and the average managers. The essence of this difference is that an exceptional manager does not attempt to focus on adding talents that an employee doesn’t possess through extra training in weak areas, rather they focus on their innate skills – drawing them out and manoeuvring the employee into a role where these strengths are maximised.

In terms of practical tools offered, the book provides examples of the survey questions asked and substantial analysis to allow you to interpret the results provided by your subordinates. Some of these questions provide enlightenment on areas directly related to the relationship with their manager, and others relating to the work environment, career prospects, and role itself.

One interesting point I took away from the book was that the amount of time an employee stays in a company is tightly coupled with their relationship with their immediate supervisor. An interesting role, company perks, and all the share options in the world won’t keep you in a job if your direct manager isn’t someone you can see eye-to-eye with.

Overall, definitely a recommendation. It remained interesting and for the most part very practical; my one criticism was that some of the examples used to emphasise the points were a little convoluted, but it wasn’t something which detracted from the information presented.

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Book Review: The Art of The Start

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Way back in ancient history, I reviewed Guy’s book Rules for Revolutionaries, a “manifesto for creating and marketing new products and services”. This review is his latest offering, a fantastic guide to any entrepreneurial offering.

“The Art of the Start” is a guide for anyone who wants to start… anything, presented as a list of lists. This list format is perfect for picking back through the book as a reference guide. One criticism I have heard of Mr Kawasaki is that he is a “miner of miners” in that he sifts through the distillations of others and distils them further, combining the result into a coherent whole. This could well be true; were it not then he may not have succeeded in writing one of the most complete and immediately useful guides I’ve read. Each chapter provides ample references on subjects covered to allow the reader to further research areas of interest or just get a different opinion.

In my previous review I clarified that I’m a big fan of Guy’s work, so I’m going to spare you my sycophantic blubbering and simply say that the writing style retains his characteristic humour while delivering a succinct yet informative payload. Here is a brief summation of the contents:

  • Causation – This section covers how to get the ball rolling; how to use inspiration to decide to create a product or provide a service which will make the world a better place. Once you have this initial idea you follow through with a basic mantra to remind you that you’re following the right path, and milestones which define your success or failure.
  • Articulation – This section covers positioning your product or service – essentially the answer to a potential client asking you “What do you do?”. Once you have the fundamental answer to this question, a chapter on pitching explains the best manner to deliver this information to your audience in a convincing manner, whether the audience is potential investors, partners, or customers. The final chapter in this section formalises the founder’s intentions with a killer business plan.
  • Activation – This section takes the formulated plans and lights the touchpaper. The chapter on Bootstrapping explains how to get useful moving on minimal resources. This section also covers how to hire the right kind of people, and how to get some much needed finance to grow the company.
  • Proliferation – The proliferation section is all about taking your seedling company and exploding; creating useful partnerships which provide mutual gain, branding your products or service in a manner which inspires evangelists to spread the word, and creating business leads and connections.
  • Obligation – This final chapter explains how to use success to make the world a better place.

Summation: Buy it!

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Book Review: The One Minute Manager

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Due to various distractions in the real world, the rate at which I’ve been reading through the recommended MBA list has slowed to a crawl; the rate at which I’ve been writing about them is so slow that it is no longer measurable. At this point I have a backlog of books to review, though in order to clear my mind of matters relating to work I’ve started reading fiction again (I recommend the Booker prize nominated “Number9dream” by David Mitchell).

For my return to this weblog, I’m going to review “The one-minute manager” by Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson. This has got to be the shortest book on Joel’s MBA reading list, weighing in at just over one hundred pages of double-spaced large-font prose. While I’m happy with the lessons learned from the book, this anorexic style isn’t exactly a great deal when it comes to actually paying for it. There are a whole series of “One Minute” books and while I’d happily skim them in a bookstore, I’m not about to hand over my hard-earned money on something so malnourished again.

Ignoring this detail, the book is a nice management lesson phrased as a cute parable. A nice young man goes in search of an effective manager and meets various egomaniacs and sadists until he eventually meets “The One Minute manager”. This manager is a pleasant-but-firm type who takes him through the various aspects of his philosophy. In a nutshell:

  • One Minute Goal Setting -
    • Agree on your goals
    • Compare them against “good behaviour”.
    • Write each of the goals down in less then 250 words.
    • Read and re-read each goal, which requires only about a minute each time you do it.
    • Take a minute every once in a while to ensure your performance matches the goal, and adjust yourself accordingly.
  • One Minute Praising -
    • Tell people up front that you are going to let them know how they are doing.
    • Praise people immediately, specificially telling them what they did right. Tell them how pleased you are that they did right and how it positively affects the business.
    • Give them a minute of silence to let it sink in, encourage them to do more of the same, and then shake hands or touch them in order to make it clear you support them.
  • The One Minute Reprimand -
    • As per the One Minute Praising, you’ve told people beforehand that you’re going to let them know how they’re doing. The reprimand is split into two parts:
    • 1: Reprimand them immediately, tell them specificially what they did wrong and how you feel about it. Emphasise this with a few seconds of uncomfortable silence.
    • 2: Shake hands or touch them to let them know you’re on their side, remind them how valuable they are and that you think well of them but not their performance in this specific situation. Then let them know when the reprimand is over, it’s over.

Refreshing my own memory by reading back on some of these points makes me think it’s a little bit patronising in parts, and some of it borders on David Brent style behaviour. That said, I agree with the authors’ assertion that the cause of failure in most organizations is that employees don’t have specific and measurable goals, and that when they do have goals they are not given enough feedback (positive or negative) to allow them to realise when they are performing well. Overall I believe the lessons are worthwhile, but the book itself wasn’t very good value for money.

[My reading list is empty at the moment, any recommendations would be much appreciated.]

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