Mar 252009

Book Short: The Religion of Heresy

Book Short:  The Religion of Heresy

At the end of Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Seth Godin’s new book, Seth says this:

I’m going to get a lot of flak from people about what you just read. People might say that it’s too disorganized or not practical enough or that I require you to do too much work to actually accomplsh anything. That’s ok.

He’s kind of right. The book is a little breezy and meanders around, just like riffing with Seth. It’s not practical in the sense that if the entire world operated this way in the extreme, we’d have serious problems. But the fact that he requires you to do “too much work to actually accomplish anything” is part of the brilliance of his message.

This was Seth’s best book in years, mostly because it is fresh. It is not a rant about marketing; it is a wonderfully succinct look at how we as a society are rallying and organizing around causes, campaigns, companies, and collective beliefs. It’s not about the Internet, though its principles are easily implemented and amplified using online tools. It’s not a how-to guide to being a fancy corporate leader, but it’s one of the most pointed descriptions of the ethos of a certain type of leader (the upstart, or as Seth says, the heretic). It’s not about a particular revolution; it’s about how mini-revolutions are becoming the norm these days.

Tribes is short, inspirational, and pure Seth. Though quite different in its nature and mission, it really evoked for me Mark Penn’s Microtrends (post, link) — a study of larger tribes and heretics in contemporary America.

A listing of Seth’s books over the years follows:

Filed under: Books, Leadership


Mar 202009

Book Short: A Marketing-Led Turnaround

Book Short: A Marketing-Led Turnaround

Generally, I love books by practitioners even more than those by academics.  That’s why Steve McKee’s first (I assume) book, When Growth Stalls:  How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What to do About It (book, Kindle edition) appealed to me right out of the gate.  The author is CEO of a mid-size agency and a prior Inc. 500 winner who has experienced the problem firsthand – then went out, researched it, and wrote about it.  As a two-time Inc. 500 winner ourselves, Return Path has also struggled with keeping the growth flames burning over the years, so I was eager to dig into the research.  The title also grabbed my attention, as there are few if any business books really geared at growth stage companies.

I’d say the book was “solid” in the end, not spectacular.  Overall, it felt very consistent with a lot of other business books I’ve read over the years, from Trout & Reis to Lencioni to Collins, which is good. The first half of the book, describing the reasons why growth stalls, was quite good and very multi-faceted.  His labeling description of “market tectonics” is vivid and well done.  He gets into management and leadership failings around both focus and consensus, all true.  Perhaps his most poignant cause of stalls in growth is what he calls “loss of nerve,” which is a brilliant way of capturing the tendence of weak leadership when times get tough to play defense instead of offense.

The problem with the book in the end is that the second section, which is the “how to reverse the stall” section, is way too focused on marketing.  That can be the problem with a specialty practitioner writing a general business book.  What’s in the books makes a lot of sense about going back to ground zero on positioning, market and target customer definition and understanding, and the like.  But reversing the stall of company can and usually must involve lots of the other same facets that are documented in the first half of the book — and some other things as well, like aggressive change management and internal communication, systems and process changes, financial work, etc.

At any rate, if you are in a company where growth is stalling, it’s certainly a good read and worth your time, as what’s in it is good (it’s what’s missing that tempers my enthusiasm for it).  In this same category, I’d also strongly recommend Confidence:  How Winning Streaks and Losing Streaks Begin and End, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, as well.

Mar 182009

Book Short: Be Less Clever

Book Short:  Be Less Clever

In Search of the Obvious: The Antidote for Today’s Marketing Mess, by Jack Trout, is probably deserving of a read by most CEOs.  Trout at this point is a bit old school and curmudgeonly, the book has some sections which are a bit repetitive of other books he and his former partner Al Reis have written over the years, he does go off on some irrelevant rants, and his examples are a bit too focused on TV advertising, BUT his premise is great, and it’s universally applicable.  So much so that my colleagues Leah, Anita, and I had “book club” about it one night last week and had a very productive debate about our own positioning and marketing statements and how obvious they were (they need work!).

The premise in short is that, in advertising:

Logical, direct, obvious = relevant, and

Entertaining, emotional = irrelevant

And he’s got data to back it up, including a great case study from TiVo on which ads are skipped and not skipped – the ones that aren’t skipped are from companies like Bowflex, Hooters, and the Dominican Republic, where the presentation of the ad is very direct, explanatory of the product, and clear.  His reasons why advertising have drifted away from the obvious are probably right, ranging from the egos of marketing people, to CEOs being to disconnected from marketing, to the rise in importance of advertising awards, and his solution, of course is to refocus on your core positioning/competitive positioning.

It is true that when the only tool in your box is a hammer, everything starts to look a bit like a nail, but Trout is probably right in this case.  He does remind us in this book that “Marketing is not a battle of products. It is a battle of perceptions”– words to live by.

And some of his examples of great obvious advertising statements, either real or ones he thinks should have been used, are very revealing:

  • Kerry should have turned charges that he was a flip-flopper in 2004 around on Bush with the simple line that Bush was “strong but wrong”
  • New Zealand: “the world’s most beautiful two islands”
  • The brilliance of the VW Beetle in a big-car era and “thinking small”
  • Johnny Cochrane’s winning (over)simplification of the OJ case — “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”
  • BMW is still, 30 years later, The Ultimate Driving Machine
  • “Every day, the Kremlin gets 12 copies of the Wall Street Journal. Maybe they know something you don’t know.”

If you are looking for a good marketing book to read as a refresher this year, this one could be it.  And if you’re not a very market-focused CEO, this kind of thinking is a must.

And for the record, the library of books by Trout and/or Reis (sometimes including Reis’ daughter Laura as well) that I’ve read, all of which are quite good, is:

Filed under: Books, Business, Marketing

Mar 112009

Book Short: What’s Your Meeting Routine?

Book Short: What’s Your Meeting Routine?

Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting is, as Brad advertised, a great read, and much in line with his other books (running list at the end of the post).  His books are just like candy.  If only all business books were this short and easy to read.

This fable isn’t quite what I thought it was going to be at the outset – it’s not about too many meetings, which is what I’ve always called “death by meeting.”  It’s about staff meetings that bore you to death.  With a great story around them featuring characters named Casey and Will (my two oldest kids’ names, which had me chuckling the whole time), Lencioni describes a great framework for splitting up your staff meetings into four different types of meetings:  the daily stand-up, the weekly tactical, the monthly strategic, and the quarterly offsite.

There’s definitely something to the framework.  We have over the years done all four types of meetings, though we never had all four in our rotation at once as that felt like overkill.  But I think at a minimum, any 2 get the job done much better than a single format recurring meeting.  As long as you figure out how to separate status updates from more strategic conversations, you’re directionally in good shape.  We have almost entirely eliminated or automated status update meetings at this point at my staff level.

The book has some other good stuff in it, though, about the role of conflict in staff meetings, which I’ll save for your own read of the book!

So far the series includes:

  • The Three Signs of a Miserable Job (post, link)
  • The Five Temptations of a CEO (post, link)
  • The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive (post, link)

I have two more to go, which I’ll tackle in due course and am looking forward to.

Filed under: Books, Business, Leadership

Mar 042009

Why Are We Financing Fortune 500 Companies?

Why Are We Financing Fortune 500 Companies?

And here’s another problem of the economic meltdown — companies are stretching out their payables like mad.  Our average payable has increased 50% in the last 120 days. That translates into millions of dollars of cash shortfall versus our plan.  We believe it’s all still collectible, but we just can’t seem to speed up payment.  We are going to launch some new and more meaningful efforts to collect, but it just shouldn’t be that hard.  And you hate to be heavy handed with customers in this environment.

Is it a good idea to threaten to suspend service?  When do you cut someone off?  Is it appropriate for the CEO to make a collections call?  All these questions now come into play.  We never had to think about them before.

What’s particularly irritating is that, with very few exceptions, every company on our account roster is larger than we are, with bigger balance sheets.  So we find ourselves in a position where WE are financing big companies.  It is absolutely maddening.

Filed under: Business

Mar 022009

Education and Entrepreneurship

Education and Entrepreneurship


Fred posted his thoughts the other day that you don’t need a college degree to be a successful entrepreneur. He is clearly right in that one CAN be successful without it.  Gates, Zuckerberg, Dell have proven that. 


I’ve always said that I didn’t think an MBA was a prerequisite for a successful business career.  That’s easy for me to say, as I don’t have one despite many years of applying, deferring, cancelling, reapplying and general hand-wringing over whether or not to go in the mid-90s.  An MBA is probably a positive on a resume for the most part (hard to argue it’s a negative), but it’s not a prerequisite.  Every time I see “MBA preferred” on a job posting, I cringe (we never say that at Return Path).  Really?  You’d *prefer* to hire someone with an MBA over someone with two additional years of relevant work experience? 


That said, I’d note that there are things one gets out of a good college education that are critical to success in life.  Yes, they can be learned outside the classroom.  But unlike business school material, which is in many cases the stuff of work experience and more easily augmented by observation and the occasional business article or book (as far as I can tell), the things one learns in college which are applicable to entrepreneurship aren’t about the subject matter of the course.  They are things like:


- learning and applying new concepts quickly


- critical reasoning


- crisply presenting ideas


- respecting deadlines and guidelines


- understanding and appreciating other points of view


As with business school, these things *can* be learned outside a university environment, and certainly there are unusually talented people who have these traits hard wired.  But I do think the university environment cultivates and nurtures these skills in a way that is easier than the “do it yourself” world of teenage entrepreneurship. 

Filed under: Business, Entrepreneurship