Aug 062015

The Phoenix Project

The Phoenix Project:  a novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford  is a logical intellectual successor and regularly quotes Eli Goldratt’s seminal work The Goal and its good but less known sequel It’s Not Luck.

The more business books I read, the more I appreciate the novel or fable format. Most business books are a bit boring and way too long to make a single point. The Phoenix Project is a novel, though unlike Goldratt’s books (and even Lencioni’s), it takes it easy on the cheesy and personal side stories. It just uses storytelling techniques to make its points and give color and examples for more memorable learning.

If your organization still does software development through a waterfall process or has separate and distinct development, QA, and IT/Operations teams, I’d say you should run, not walk, to get this book. But even if you are agile, lean, and practice continuous deployment, it’s still a good read as it provides reminders of what the world used to be like and what the manufacturing-rooted theories are behind these “new” techniques in software development.

I am so glad our technology team at Return Path, led by my colleagues Andy Sautins and David Sieh, had the wisdom to be early adopters of agile and lean processes, continuous deployment many years ago, and now dockers. Our DevOps process is pretty well grooved, and while I’m sure there are always things to be done to improve it…it’s almost never a source of panic or friction internally the way more traditional shops function (like the one in the book). I can’t imagine operating a business any other way.

Thanks to my long time friend and Board member Greg Sands of Costanoa Venture Capital for suggesting this excellent read.

Jun 042015

Book Short: Blink Part II

Book Short:  Blink Part II

Years ago I wrote a post about Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book, Blink (post, buy).  While my post has lots of specifics in it for entrepreneurs, for VCs, and for marketers, my quick summary was this:

Where The Tipping Point theorizes about how humans relate to each other and how fads start and flourish in our society, Blink theorizes about how humans make decisions and about the interplay between the subconscious, learned expertise, and real-time inputs.  But Gladwell does more than theorize — he has plenty of real world examples which seem quite plausible, and he peppers the book with evidence from some (though hardly a complete coverage of relevant) scientific and quasi-scientific studies.

I recently finished another book, Thinking Fast, and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which was very similar.  I’d call it the academic version of Blink, or that Blink is the journalistic version of it.  Kahneman breaks down our ability to think and process information into what he calls System 1 (quick and intuitive) and System 2 (slower, rational and logical).  As he puts it:

In summary, most of what you (your System 2) think and do originates in your System 1, but System 2 takes over when things get difficult, and it normally has the last word.

The book is rich in examples, and while it’s a bit long and sometimes slow going, it is an excellent read if you want to learn more about how the brain works.  The work applications are many – we do a lot of work at Return Path on understanding and avoiding Unconscious Bias at work – and this book gave me a bunch of good ideas around that.  It’s clear that it’s impossible to become a true master of your intuition vs. logic, but you can design some systems, or at least insert some checks and balances into other systems, to blunt the impact of faulty intuition or lazy logic.  The book also has an overwhelming number of labels it applies to common situations – great, but hard to keep them all straight (the priming effect, anchors, endowment effect, etc.).

Perhaps the most interesting thing for me to ponder as an entrepreneur, though, was the section on Loss Aversion (another great label).  It turns out we humans are motivated more by fear of loss than by the prospect of gain.  A poignant example in the book is that professional golfers make a higher percentage of putts (I forget the actual number, but a real one, like 3-5%) for par than for birdie, when the putts are like-for-like in terms of distance and difficulty.  Saving par is more of a motivator than being under par.  The application for work is interesting.  As companies get larger, it can be difficult for founders and management teams to maintain the same level of bold risk-taking they did as smaller organizations.  Having something to lose is harder than having nothing to lose.  And yet, as they say, fortune favors the bold.  Growth stage companies need to figure out how to institutionalize risk taking and experimentation, including putting enough resources into those activities that will generate future growth, rather than simply protecting what’s already running.  (Of course, what’s already running needs investment, too.)

Thanks to my colleagues Dragana and Richard for recommending this book, and to Jamie for facilitating our office book club around it this month!


Feb 052015

Book Short: Internet Fiction, part II

Book Short:  Internet Fiction, part II

I hate to write a lame post, but here’s what I wrote earlier in the year about Eliot Peper’s first Internet thriller, Uncommon Stock:

Eliot Pepper’s brand new startup thriller, Uncommon Stock, was a breezy and quick read that I enjoyed tremendously. It’s got just the right mix of reality and fantasy in it. For anyone in the tech startup world, it’s a must read. But it would be equally fun and enjoyable for anyone who likes a good juicy thriller.

Like my memory of Hackoff, the book has all kinds of startup details in it, like co-founder struggles and a great presentation of the angel investor vs. VC dilemma. But it also has a great crime/murder intrigue that is interrupted with the book’s untimely ending.  I eagerly await the second installment, promised for early 2015.

Having just finished that second installment, called Uncommon Stock: Power Play, basically I want to say “ditto.”  Power Play was just as good as the first book, and now I can’t wait for the third. Where the first installment’s startup focus was around funding and founder dynamics, this one’s startup focus was around shipping product and customers. The thriller part was just as juicy.

It’s also kind of fun reading about the Boulder startup scene, especially from a writer who doesn’t and who has never spent a ton of time there. He gets some things remarkably accurate with crisp descriptions. I was kind of hoping for a cameo by Brad, at least in the form of a throw-away comment about the “long haired homeless-looking investor in the corner of Frasca.”


Nov 132014

Book Short: Continuing to make “sustainability” a mainstream business topic

Book Short:  Continuing to make “sustainability” a mainstream business topic

The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World, by my friend Andrew Winston, is a great book.  It just got awarded one of the Top 10 business books of 2014 by Strategy+Business, which is a great honor.

Andrew builds nicely on his first book, Green to Gold:  How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage (post, book link) (and second book, which I didn’t review, Green Recovery), as I said in my review of Green to Gold, to bring:

the theoretical and scientific to the practical and treat sustainability as the corporate world must treat it in order to adopt it as a mainstream practice — as a driver of capitalistic profit and competitive advantage.

Andrew’s central thesis, with plenty of proof points in the book for our planet of 7 Billion people, rapidly heading to 9-10 Billion, is this:

Whether you take a purely fiscal view of these challenges or look through a human-focused lens, one thing is clear: we’ve passed the economic tipping point. A weakening of the pillars of our planetary infrastructure— a stable climate, clean air and water, healthy biodiversity, and abundant resources— is costing business real money. It’s not some futuristic scenario and model to debate, but reality now, and it threatens our ability to sustain an expanding global economy… If this hotter, scarcer, more transparent, and unpredictable world is the new normal, then how must companies act to ensure a prosperous future for all, including themselves?

Andrew’s writing is accessible and colorful.  The book is full of useful analogies and metaphors like this one:

Climate can also seem easy to write off because the warming numbers don’t sound scary. A couple degrees warmer may sound pleasant, but we’re not really talking about going from 75 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit on a nice spring day. As many others have pointed out, the right metaphor is a fever. Take your core body temperature up one degree, and you don’t feel so great. Five degrees, and you’re sick as a dog. Ten degrees, and you’re dead.

The book also does a really nice job of looking at the externalities of climate change in a different way.  Not the usual “I can pollute, because there’s no cost to me to doing so,” but more along the lines of “If I had to pay for all the natural resources my business consumes, I would treat them differently.”

Some of Andrew’s points are good but general and maybe better made elsewhere (like the problems of short-termism on Wall Street), but overall, this book is a great think piece for all business leaders, especially in businesses that consume a lot of natural resources, around how to make the challenge of climate change work for your business, not against it.

Two things occurred to me during my read of The Big Pivot that I think are worth sharing for the people in my life who still don’t believe climate change is real or threatening.  The first is Y2K.  Remember the potentially cataclysmic circumstance where mission critical systems all around the world were going to go haywire at midnight at the turn of the millennium?  The conventional wisdom on why nothing major went wrong is that society did enough work ahead of time to prevent it, even though the outcomes weren’t clear and no one system problem alone would have been an issue.  I was thinking about this during the book…and then Andrew mentioned it explicitly towards the end.

The second is something I read several years ago in my personal news bible, The Economist.  I couldn’t find the exact quote online just now, but it was something to the effect of “Even if you don’t believe man created climate change, or that climate change is real and imperiling to humanity and can be fixed by man, the risks of climate change are so great, the potential consequences so dire, and the path to solve the problem so lengthy and complex and global…it’s worth investing in that solution now.”

Let’s all pivot towards that, shall we?  If you want to download the introduction to the book for free, you can find it on Andrew’s web site.  Or for a three-minute version of the story, you can watch this whiteboard animation on YouTube.

Oct 092014

Book Short: Way, Way Beyond Books

Book Short:  Way, Way Beyond Books

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, by Brad Stone, was a great read.  Amazon is a fascinating, and phenomenally successful company, and Jeff is a legendary technology leader.  The Everything Store is a company and personal biography and totally delivers.

Forget about the fact that Amazon is now almost $100B in revenues and still growing like mad.  I find it even more amazing that a single company could be the largest ecommerce site on the planet while successfully pioneering both cloud computing services and e-readers.  The stories of all these things are in the book.

As a CEO, I enjoyed reading more of the vignettes behind the things that Amazon is reputationally known for in the tech world – doors as desks, their unique meeting formats, the toughness of the culture, the extensive risk taking of growth over profits, and what works and does not work about Bezos’ authoritative and domineering style.  And it’s always great to be reminded that even the biggest and best companies had to cheat death 10 times over before “arriving.”

This is good fun and learning for anyone in the business world.  It reminded me most of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs ,which I wrote about here, although it’s more of a company history and less of a biography than the Jobs book.

Filed under: Books, Entrepreneurship

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Sep 022014

Startup CEO: The Online Course Part II

Startup CEO: The Online Course Part II

Startup CEO the online course offered by the Kauffman Fellows Academy is back this fall starting September 15!  As many of you know, the course is based on my book Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Your Business.

When the course first ran earlier this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Hundreds of students from six continents signed up, all eager to learn as much as they could about entrepreneurship and how to develop their startups.  The students worked together in teams to develop their startup ideas on the unique online educational platform NovoEd.  I was amazed at the enthusiasm of students who dove into lectures and the book and then exchanged ideas in the forums.  It was very powerful to see cohorts of students from all over the world sharing their experiences together, almost like the CEO peer group that I write about in the book.

The real power of it really hit me when I was in Brazil  this last spring at a dinner and one of the attendees approached me and told me he was one of the Startup CEO students and how much he was enjoying the course.

To bring the class to life, we began holding Google hangouts moderated by KFA VP and former CNN correspondent Rusty Dornin.  The students could write in questions live during the hangout or watch the recorded version later.  The hangouts were not only informative but fun.

Here are a few comments from students in the winter course:

The lectures and the hangouts were incredibly insightful. I’m sure I’ll avoid a good number of mistakes I would have surely made without taking this class!

“I enjoyed the high quality of the lecturers and their very practical experience and guidance. This included the excellent visiting lecturers and whilst I was unable to join the hangouts in real time (I’m in Australia) I was able to watch the recordings

In addition, Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson’s course Venture Deals  based on their popular book Venture Deals: Be Smarter than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist will begin September 29th.  Brad Feld and other celebrated investors will also be featured in hangouts for the course and Brad loves to dive into the forums.

I am looking forward to this next round and our global discussion of how to create and manage successful startups.

Jul 312014

Book Short: Best Book Ever

Book Short:  Best Book Ever

The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz, is the best business book I’ve ever read.  Or at least the best book on management and leadership that I’ve ever read.  Period.

It’s certainly the best CEO book on the market.  It’s about 1000 times better than my book although my book is intended to be different in several ways.  I suppose they’re complementary, but if you only had time left on this planet for one book, read Ben’s first.

I’m not even going to get into specifics on it, other than that Ben does a great job of telling the LoudCloud/Opsware story in a way that shows the grit, psychology, and pain of being an entrepreneur in a way that, for me, has previously only existed in my head.

Just go buy and read the book.

Filed under: Books


Jul 012014

Book Short: Culture is King

Book Short:  Culture is King

Joy, Inc.:  How We Built a Workplace People Love, by Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, was a really good read. Like Remote  which I reviewed a few weeks ago, Joy, Inc. is ostensibly a book about one thing — culture — but is also full of good general advice for CEOs and senior managers.

Also like Remote, the book was written by the founder and CEO of a relatively small firm that is predominately software engineers, so there are some limitations to its specific lessons unless you adapt them to your own environment. Unlike Remote, though, it’s neither preachy nor ranty, so it’s a more pleasant read.  And I suppose fitting of its title, a more joyful read as well. (Interestingly on this comparison, Sheridan has a simple and elegant argument against working remotely in the middle of the book around innovation and collaboration.)

Some of the people-related practices at Sheridan’s company are fascinating and great to read about. In particular, the way the company interviews candidates for development roles is really interesting — more of an audition than an interview, with candidates actually writing code with a development partner, the way the company writes code. Different teams at Return Path interview in different ways, including me for both the exec team and the Board, but one thing I know is that when an interview includes something that is audition-like, the result is much stronger. There are half a dozen more rich examples in the book.

Some of the other quotable lines or concepts in the book include:

  • the linkage between scalability with human sustainability (you can’t grow by brute force, you can only grow when people are rested and ready to bring their brain to work)
  • “Showcasing your work is accountability in action” (for a million reasons, starting with pride and ending with pride)
  • “Trust, accountability, and results — these get you to joy” (whether or not you are a Myers-Briggs J, people do get a bit of a rush out of a job well done)
  • “…the fun and frivolity of our whimsically irreverent workplace…” (who doesn’t want to work for THAT company?)
  • “When even your vendors want to align with your culture, you know you’re on the right path” (how you treat people is how you treat PEOPLE, not just clients, not just colleagues)
  • “One of the key elements of a joyful culture is having team members who trust one another enough to argue” (if you and I agree on everything, one of us is not needed)
  • “The reward is in the attempt” (do you encourage people to fail fast often enough?)
  • “Good problems are good problems for the first five minutes. Then they just feel like regular problems until you solve them” (Amen, Brother Sheridan)

The benefits of a joyful culture (at Return Path, we call it a People-First culture) have long been clear to me. As Sheridan says, we try to “create a culture where people want to come to work every day.” Cultures like ours look soft and squishy from the outside, or to people who have grown up in tough, more traditional corporate environments. And to be fair, the challenge with a culture like ours is keeping the right balance of freedom and flexibility on one side and high performance and accountability on the other. But the reality is that most companies struggle with most of the same issues — the new hire that isn’t working out or the long-time employee who isn’t cutting it any more, the critical path project that doesn’t get done on time, the missed quarter or lost client.  As Sheridan notes though, one key benefit of working at a joyful company is that problems get surfaced earlier when they are smaller…and they get solved collaboratively, which produces better results. Another key benefit, of course, is that if you’re going to have the same problems as everyone else, you might as well have fun while you’re dealing with them.

If you don’t love where you work and wish you did, read Joy, Inc. If you love where you work but see your company’s faults and want to improve them, read Joy, Inc. If you are not in either of the above camps, go find another job!

Jun 052014

Book short: Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

Book short:  Life Isn’t Just a Wiki

One of the best things I can say about Remote: Office Not Required,  by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, is that it was short.  That sounds a little harsh – part of what I mean is that business books are usually WAY TOO LONG to make their point, and this one was blessedly short.  But the book was also a little bit of an angry rant against bad management wrapped inside some otherwise good points about remote management.

The book was a particularly interesting read juxtaposed against Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last which I just finished recently and blogged about here, which stressed the importance of face-to-face and in-person contact in order for leaders to most effectively do their jobs and stay in touch with the needs of their organizations.

The authors of Remote, who run a relatively small (and really good) engineering-oriented company, have a bit of an extreme point of view that has worked really well for their company but which, at best, needs to be adapted for companies of other sizes, other employee types, and other cultures.  That said, the flip side of their views, which is the “everyone must be at their cubicle from 9 to 5 each day,” is even dumber for most businesses these days.  As usual with these things, the right answer is probably somewhere in between the extremes, and I was reminded of the African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go farm go together” when I read it.  Different target outcomes, different paths.

I totally agree with the authors around their comments about trusting employees and “the work is what matters.”  And we have a ton of flexibility in our work at Return Path.  With 400 people in the company, I personally spend six weeks over the summer working largely remote, and I value that time quite a bit.  But I couldn’t do it all the time.  We humans learn from each other better and treat each other better when we look at each other face to face.  That’s why, with the amount of remote work we do, we strongly encourage the use of any form of video conferencing at all times.  The importance of what the authors dismiss as “the last 1 or 2% of high fidelity” quality to the conversation is critical.  Being in person is not just about firing and hiring and occasional sync up, it’s about managing performance and building relationships.

Remote might have been better if the authors had stressed the value that they get out of their approach more than ranting against the approaches of others.  While there are serious benefits of remote work in terms of cost and individual productivity (particularly in maker roles), there are serious penalties to too much of it as well in terms of travel, communication burden, misunderstandings, and isolation.  It’s not for everyone.

Thanks to my colleague Hoon Park for recommending this to me.  When I asked Hoon what his main takeaway from the book was, he replied:

The importance of open communication that is archived (thus searchable), accessible (transparent and open to others) and asynchronous (doesn’t require people to be in the same place or even the same “timespace”).  I love the asynchronous communication that the teams in Austin have tried: chatrooms, email lists (that anyone can subscribe to or read the archives of), SaaS project management tools. Others I would love to try or take more advantage of include internal blogs (specifically the P2 and upcoming O2 WordPress themes;, GitHub pull requests (even for non-code) and a simple wiki.

These are great points, and good examples of the kinds of systems and processes you need to have in place to facilitate high quality, high volume remote work.

May 082014

Book Short: Like Reading a Good Speech

Book Short:  Like Reading a Good Speech

Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek, is a self-described “polemic” that reads like some of the author’s famous TED talks and other speeches in that it’s punchy, full of interesting stories, has some attempted basis in scientific fact like Gladwell, and wanders around a bit.  That said, I enjoyed the book, and it hit on a number of themes in which I am a big believer – and it extended and shaped my view on a couple of them.

Sinek’s central concept in the book is the Circle of Safety, which is his way of saying that when people feel safe, they are at their best and healthiest.  Applied to workplaces, this isn’t far off from Lencioni’s concept of the trust foundational layer in his outstanding book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  His stories and examples about the kinds of things that create a Circle of Safety at work (and the kinds of things that destroy them) were very poignant.  Some of his points about how leaders set the tone and “eat last,” both literally and figuratively, are solid.  But his most interesting vignettes are the ones about how spending time face-to-face in person with people as opposed to virtually are incredibly important aspects of creating trust and bringing humanity to leadership.

My favorite one-liner from the book, which builds on the above point and extends it to a corporate philosophy of people first, customer second, shareholders third (which I have espoused at Return Path for almost 15 years now) is

Customers will never love a company unless employees love it first.

A couple of Sinek’s speeches that are worth watching are the one based on this book, also called Leaders Eat Last, and a much shorter one called How Great Leaders Inspire Action.

Bottom line:  this is a rambly book, but the nuggets of wisdom in it are probably worth the exercise of having to find them and figure out how to connect them (or not connect them).

Thanks to my fellow NYC CEO Seth Besmertnik for giving me this book as well as the links to Sinek’s speeches.