I've spent some time putting together a list of business books and non-business books that I've read and would recommend. I'll be adding more from time to time, but if you are looking for some ideas this Christmas, you can go right into Amazon and order away from here (note that some pop-up blockers keep you from seeing the images for some reason, so if you can't see pictures of books below, you might want to disable your pop-up blocker via your personal firewall for a few minutes and re-load). You can also find some holiday discounts while shopping online via my entrepreneur shopping
First, the business books for entrepreneurs:
|First of two required Jim Collins books. I like Good to Great better, but I think that you should read both of them.||The Tipping Point has been around for a few years, but is a good one.|
|This book, besides being a great baseball story, also got me thinking of how many other industries out there operate on hunches, and could be better if someone just focused on improving them with more objective measurements.||"Who is on the bus is more important that where the bus is going" - one of many great insights from this classic.|
|Great bit of recent history, and a well written overview of the Genetics industry. If, like me, you think this is going to be the "Biotech Century", this is a great place to get a baseline of information.||What do you mean you haven't read this one yet?! It's a classic, and required for high-tech startups especially.||A hopeful book about the potential marketplace and source of entrepreneurship that doesn't get enough attention.|
Good analytical book based on a lot of research that offers a lot of insights on managing people.
Then, there are the non-business books I've enjoyed this year, just for fun:
|The best and most insightful comedy on television these days. Great book as well.||I used to work on capital hill in D.C., and I've never read a better-written government document! Obviously an important topic, and the quality of writing makes it compelling.|
|This is the final chapter in Stephen King's Opus. 20 years in the making, and ties many of his books together. You'll have to read the first six books first though!||This is the first Dark Tower Book if you are looking to get started. It's also probably the worst of the group, so don't get discouraged if it's slow moving to you.|
|I usually don't like the "blockbuster" books, but I liked this one. Like most people, I couldn't stop for about a week or so until it was finished.||Chick book...but I liked it. Written by a guy who is actually my favorite sports authors, Mitch Albom, who I used to read religiously when I lived in Detroit, MI, for a few months.|
|I notice that a book called "The Plot Against America" is popular, and plan to read it. It's a story about an alternative outcome of history if Germany would have won WW2. Reminds me of this excellent book - "What If?". A few years old buy highly recommended for history buffs.||OK, full disclosure, I'm ABOUT to read this book. I've read Carl Hiaasen before and loved his comedic novels. I'd also recommend his book "Sick Puppy", though he's better known for "Striptease". He offers more proof that Florida is just hopeless.||This is basically "The Libertarian Bible" by any other name. If you want to know my political leanings, I'm part of the "radical middle" along with Stossel. Very compelling book - I'd challenge all believers of big government to read!|
Those non-believers in government will nod your head a lot.
|This almost belongs with the business books, but is a little more high level in terms of sociology. |
Trump's Reality Bites. Branson better.
Seems like "the Donald" gets all the attention with regard to business reality shows these days, and The Apprentice is the first and certainly most popular. I find it interesting though that people find Donald Trump to be such an icon of business, when he's barely holding on to his empire, having recently gone through a bankrupcy deal that caused him to lose much of his stake in his own company
. Everything I see and hear when I watch the Apprentice causes me to lose more and more respect for Donald's "manage through fear" approach, and I feel he's the last person entrepreneurs should be emulating when they are picking out their role models. Most of us don't inherit the fortune that Trump did, and most entrepreneurs I meet are much better and dealing with real life business problems...and certainly people...than he is.
On the other hand, I'm hopeful for the new Rebel Billionaire
series, hosted by Richard Branson. I've never met a whole lot of great business people from the UK in general, but Branson is somebody I think truly worth respecting. I've enjoyed the show so far, though wish they would put more emphasis on business challenges rather than courage-daredevil challenges. I did love his first way of determining the "losers" of his competition. He dressed up like an old cabbie and drove the contestants to his mansion, and watched the way they treated him when they did not know he was important. Great test! I know a CEO who always interviewed people by taking them to lunch, and one of the important things he looked for was how nicely they treated the waiter or waitress. It's a great technique - one Richard Branson values because he values "kindness" as one of his core values - one Donald Trump just wouldn't get.
Overall, I think Richard Branson is the executive that today's entrepreneur's should look up to and emulate - he's built a fantastic brand from nothing, and has been a nice and fun guy during the process - something "The Donald" can only dream of doing. I'd highly recommend "Apprentice" fans to give Branson's show a look.
Product Marketing - consider hiring some outside perspective
Goodness me, sorry for the delay in posting! Lots of new clients
and lots of activity going on. It certainly isn’t the quality of northwest football that’s keeping me distracted from this Blog, that’s for sure. So to make up for lost time, I thought I would write-up and interview between another interim provider that entrepreneurs can take advantage of – John Browne of Workpump
– who provides product marketing strategy, typically for early stage companies. John is a terrific person who is always good for an insight and a laugh, and he’s someone I’d recommend entrepreneurs who are trying to figure out their product strategy to take a look at.
I started by asking John what are typical services you provide in an outsourced manner (i.e. how does it work)? His response:
“As an entry point, we typically work with the company to create or revise their marketing strategy and plans. Tech companies in particular typically can't answer the question, "What compelling, urgent, and unsolvable problem do you solve for your customers?" We help them do that. Creating a value proposition and message, that's the foundation of effective marketing. A lot of our work is marketing execution--building marketing communications like web sites, data sheets, white papers, direct response campaigns, and so forth. Additionally, we're doing a lot of web analysis these days--looking at search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) as well as mapping campaigns to bread crumb trails through a website.”
I asked what the advantages are to startups in outsourcing Marketing to a firm like Workpump. His response:
“Most of the companies I talk to are focused on their technical core, whether it's software or hardware. They think in terms of features, not customer benefits. We come in as a fresh set of eyes, totally focused on how to find the sweet spot in the market and get traction quickly. We think customer benefits, not product features. Ultimately more features won't sell product--solving customer problems will. Sadly, most startups can't afford the whole orchestra; they can only afford one or two musicians. Workpump provides a deep and wide bench of very experienced people who have done this many times before. By renting their talent instead of buying it, they can get better quality at an affordable price.”
Having a tight budget is something my clients face as well, and is often an objection to using an outsourced solution. John added “I think startups fall prey to the idea that they need to emulate bigger companies right from the start. So they want to hire every key position, not rely on service providers. Interestingly, this concept of "I have to do it all myself" is not at all part of more successful companies. Microsoft
, for example, has systematically relied on outsourcing or bringing in service providers through its history. Another objection we run into concerns the degree to which people are willing to invest in growth. Everybody wants more customers, but how many startups are really committed to investing in marketing and sales? Again, this is something you see less and less of in successful companies. Think of any big, successful tech company, and go look at their SEC filings to get an idea of how much their total S&M investment is vs. their R&D budget. To use Microsoft again, their total S&M budget is approximately equal to R&D.”
With that in mind, how do clients convince themselves that outsourcing is the way to go with certain early-stage management roles?
“Our current clients are the best proof point for the first objection. In many cases Workpump has augmented the in-house capabilities of a company's marketing department; in some cases we've done it all. In both cases our clients love the results they get, so usually having a prospect talk to a current or past client is enough. In addition, we have always fully guaranteed our work, so we believe that takes the risk out of the equation. I have no use for service providers who take the line of "you pay your money and you take your chances." The gold standard for customer satisfaction is Nordstrom
. The story (often repeated) of the guy who returned four tires and got his money back from a clothing store is priceless. At Workpump we strongly believe that we want zero unhappy customers. We've never had anyone ask us for the money back, so we must be doing something right."
With regard to the degree of investment, there's not much I can do about that. Certainly I've talked to CEOs who state very ambitious plans for growth but won't provide any resources to achieve it. I think people don't really understand that anybody can buy customers. The trick is to do it profitably. But no-investment means no-growth. It's as simple as that. Finally, I think technology companies fall into a mental trap that I call the "mousetrap myth." They believe the old adage that if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Tech people translate this myth into thinking that if they just add enough features; somehow sales will take care of themselves. Well, anything's possible, but I can't think of many cases where this turned out to be true.”
I asked how John helps the startup company grow and not be dependent on you long term?
“Although we have some clients who really want to outsource their whole marketing function, most of the time we're involved as a transformational agent, not a replacement to doing it yourself. Sure, there are some key specialties that companies should always look to buy from outside until they have sufficient economic justification to bringing it in-house. I don't have a full time corporate attorney--I have an outside lawyer. I don't think of myself as being "dependent" on him. I think of him as a high-value resource that I can "rent" when I need that specialty. Even when companies grow to the point that they bring functions in-house, they still typically use outside service providers either for their fresh viewpoint or for overflow work. “
Any other parting thoughts, John?
“I'm deeply committed to entrepreneurship in the Northwest, and am troubled by the number of business failures in the tech community. Technology is one of the few areas in the world where we have the opportunity to actually improve people's lives, and for great ideas to fail due to poor management is painful to watch. Tech entrepreneurs are--as a class of people--incredibly smart, but they can also underestimate the difficulty or complexity of areas that they are unfamiliar with. Over and over I see companies struggling with the same problem set: lack of any clear value proposition, inability to focus the marketing effort, lack of understanding about appropriate sales strategies and channel development, inability to hit development milestones, lack of in-bound marketing/product management, weak or confusing customer communications and sales tools. Those same tech entrepreneurs all too frequently can't tell the difference between developing a product and running a business."
"Early stage companies should build out their core team with seasoned, committed individuals who share the entrepreneurial drive and spirit. But beyond that core team it is hard these days to attract superstars to young companies for all the other functions. The odds of your stock options really being worth some significant amount are pretty slim in this new post-bubble era. Acquisitions are still a viable liquidity event for tech companies, but at greatly reduced multiples relative to a few years ago. This new, tougher, economic climate makes it harder then ever to fill out your team with high-quality people. Outsourcing with companies like mine and Athena
is a great way to solve that problem.”
I’ve just recently returned from the great state of Idaho and our annual summer vacation in McCall, Idaho. While most opportunities in Idaho are recreational related, I did have a chance to catch up with James Grunke, who works on economic development for the Boise Chamber of Commerce.
While Idaho has been a destination for many people from California and Washington to move to for many years, it’s never impressed me much from a start-up perspective, particularly high-tech start-ups (with the notable exception of companies that started with much of J.R. Simplot’s money, such as Micron). That may be changing, noted by many of James’ comments:
- “We are seeing significant growth in start-ups.”
- “Most of our trends are in spin-off from the existing tech companies, micron, hp, but also significant growth in the bio science field...both pharmaceuticals and bio-ag - interesting combination.”
- “Idaho continued to grow each year of the past five years and there has been significant activity this year.”
There has never been a lot of homegrown V.C. and Angel activity in Idaho, and I wondered what was being done to lure much-needed capital to the area. James’ response:
“For the first time, there are outside VC firms want to have a presence in Idaho. First, as deal flow tightened in the major markets, secondary markets such of Idaho have been getting a closer look, in particular due to the fact that growth continued while the rest of the country stagnated. Certainly though events like the Intermountain Venture Forum and the creation of the Boise Angel Alliance also raised the profile of the area.”
I’ve often thought that Idaho would be a perfect place to live if you could combine it with a fun group of entrepreneurs and some good company ideas. It’s so much cheaper to live and do business in, and overall offers a “simpler life” (though without any known appearances by Paris Hilton). I’ve always loved the somewhat “planning free” lifestyle you get, at least in towns like McCall. You rarely have to reserve restaurant times, golf tee times, and the like, - when you want to go ski, you wait for good weather and go ski, etc. It’s a very free way of living. The 300+ days of sunshine don’t suck either. I digress.
In addition to the mostly libertarian utopia living (at least when you’re not caught in the sprawling areas of Boise where traffic is piling up - Boise's downtown is charming but it's suburbs are very generic and sprawling in a fairly unplanned fashion) and cheap costs, James sites “proactive government, overall cost of doing business, low workers comp and unemployment insurance, cheap utility costs, and favorable tax structure and incentives” as other things for entrepreneurs to take advantage of.
I also gave James room to plug an upcoming V.C. Forum on October 6 and 7. Sounds like a lot of good V.C.’s will be there, and it might be a good opportunity for companies looking for money to get noticed. Said James: “The Intermountain Venture Forum is the preeminent event in the intermountain west. Over thirty VC firms, representing over $10 billion in investment will be sitting in the audience. If anyone wants to meet the investment capital players of the northwest, this is the place where they all will be. See http://www.ventureboise.org/ for complete background, speakers, bios and panels.”
It seems that "virtual everything" is all the rage in starting new companies these days. I'll continue to write about tools and companies that allow you to create virtual companies, as it's clear if done right the approach produces a great combination of low cost and flexibility.
One small thing I checked out over the weekend were some of the virtual hard-drive companies. With more and more large files out there to store and share, having a virtual file-server makes a lot of sense. I looked at a few companies - many of which offer some sort of free trial or amount of storage (e.g. Yahoo Briefcase
offers 30MB of virtual storage for free...though that's not very much space to be useful). I settled on trying X-Drive
, which offers 5 GB for FREE for two weeks. I started using this as a tool to move some files I had on my home PC to my work PC that were larger than a CD-ROM or even DVD drive could hold.
Overall, it was a positive experience, though when moving some particularly large files, the upload times would take a few hours, even with cable broadband. One particular huge file was problematic because of a stupid cat. Yes, you read that right.
I had let the copying go on all of Saturday night, and woke up and saw it was 95% complete. Then the power went out! Oh, cruel fate! As it turns out, a cat had walked into a power transformer in our neighborhood, gotten zapped, and took the whole power grid in north Kirkland down for a few hours.
Actually, I don't know for sure that it was a cat, but it was reported that a "domestic animal" did the job. I can't bear to think of a dog
doing that - that would be a tragedy. A cat dying in such an accident...is one less cat. Besides, what do they say about curiosity doing to cats? Once again, I digress.
Anyway, power outages aside, I've found that having a virtual hard-drive can be a very useful tool to let you transfer files between computers, or just share them between different team members (as many mail servers block files over certain sizes). Just keep the cats away.
Friction Free Capitalism in HTML?
I recently submitted the following article to the Northwest Venture Voice Blogsite: http://www.nwventurevoice.com/
. It is the first official Athena Chiefs blog article, and I hope to continue to post more in the months ahead...Tom.
“I’m not sure if this Internet thing is ever going to be big enough to care about”.
In 1995, I proposed that we build a call center help system using new web internet technologies to an Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) Partner, and this quote above was what I heard in response. It was several weeks before the Netscape IPO, and to me, it was the last time I remember hearing the Internet being “under-hyped” for many, many years.
In the months and years that followed, we heard much about the internet being the catalyst for “friction-free capitalism”, the entity that would break down cultural and economic barriers, and the perfect place to buy dog toys of all types. As it turned out, the American media might have “over-hyped” the internet a bit. Imagine that. Naturally, a backlash against the internet occurred, complete with dot-bomb failures of all types, and it was not that long ago that a British business colleague was giving me his views on my fellow “silly Americans and your mad internet ideas.”
So it was with some pleasant surprise that I found some pretty cool internet tools that made starting up my new business easier, and that I actually found delivering much of the promise of the late ‘90’s hype of the internet. I’m chronicling some of what I found here for others that are looking for help in getting many of the basic marketing materials of a brand new business in place for a low cost. I also think many of you who are just looking for a few new cool ideas might find my experiences interesting.
I started a company in April to provide interim and project-based management to early stage and fast growth companies. I named it “Athena Chiefs” after the Greek goddess Athena, primarily to make my Mom, a full-blooded Greek, a happy lady. I started thinking I needed to hire someone to create a logo, business cards and a website for me, and figured I’d spend a few thousand dollars doing so with some local artists and web folks. It was then that one of the smartest people in the world I know, Mike Moskowitz of Jetstream Software
, suggested checking out a website called Design Outpost
Design Outpost is basically a community of graphic artists all over the world that have, ahem, “extra time” on their hands to help clients with needs for various graphic designs. You can get just about anything designed for you there by running “contests” and letting the various graphic artists duke it out. So I decided to start with a $100 contest for my new logo, and see if I could get any good ideas. I paid the $100 and a 10% fee via PayPal
, and then wrote a few things about my company (and what I knew of the goddess Athena) on a message-board site that I now had access to. I set the contest up for seven days, told them what I could (including mentioning my mom), and then sat back and waited for results. The whole process took 10 minutes at $110.
The next seven days were a great combination of 1. Entertaining, and 2. Productive! There were owl logos. There were helmet logos. There were colors and fonts of every combination, and from every continent on the planet. The artists encourage your comments, which were easy for me to make, and we gradually all zeroed in on a design. Because it was a public site, I was able to get friends, and yes, even my mom, to make comments on which designs they did and didn’t like. It was the epitome of a creative process, as minds from all over the world were on the problem. It was, in a word…”fun”. OK, a second word comes to mind, “cheap”. Well, OK, maybe I should just some it up as…”good”. I digress.
In any case, perhaps because it was suspiciously close to the release of the movie “Troy”, a Spartan war helmet won out, I contacted the winning artist in Venezuela to make the final touches, and I had two logo alternatives in all possible graphic format. We were instant-messaging as we refined the design, and I asked about business cards. “Uh, how about 50 American dollars?” was his reply, and given that I’d spent over $1000 for a logo and card design at my last company, I quickly agreed. More instant messages followed, and I had my business card design delivered to Kinko’s that night, and my cards when I woke up the next day.
I should also mention that, during the creative process with my Venezuelan artist Alex, we both had our internet cameras on and could see each other (we even tried Voice over IP for a while, but preferred text). I found out why he had fled his native country of Russia - “as it turns out, Russia is not a very nice country to Jewish people”, Alex remarked (and I dropped the subject). I asked why he had moved to Venezuela of all countries, and then realized it was a dumb question. For those of you who don’t know, men move to different places for one of three reasons: 1% of the time to get away from their fathers, 1% of the time to take a fantastic job, and 98% of the time because of a girl. A few seconds went by and then Alex replied “it was because of a girl”. Silly me. In any case Design Outpost (and, yes, the internet) not only gave Alex a chance to make a living near his love-life, it also introduced me to a very interesting person from two different countries.
A few days later, I decided to take a weekend and hammer out a website. Armed with the book “Search Engine Optimization for Dummies”, Microsoft FrontPage, and Alex’s IM address, I went to work. Alex asked that I use another very cool internet tool, ikobo.com
, to wire him the couple of hundred dollars he would charge me to build my web template. I did that with a credit card, paid a $5 fee, iKobo converted the dollars to Bolivars, and Alex then picked up the cash a few minutes later from an ATM machine near his house! As Homer Simpson might say: “Mmmm…Global Economomee.”
The result? Less than $400 total spent and the following website (with similar business cards) to show for it: http://www.athenachiefs.com/
. If you don’t like the site, it’s probably because of my crass and un-imaginative writing, not the cool and dynamic graphics. The only real argument Alex and I had was that he thought he needed to illustrate the various people rather than use pictures, proving that the Jerry Seinfeld “only 4%-6% of the population is actually attractive” rule is alive and well in the other hemispheres of our world, not just our own.
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
if you ever want additional details, Alex’s IM address, or just to comment on my crass and un-imaginative writing. Feel free to contact Mike Moskowitz at email@example.com
if you want other smart ideas, or some of the best .Net developers on the planet (I’ve used them too – you don’t always have to go overseas!). Finally, feel free to look up “Friction-free Capitalism” on one of the internet’s many translation websites. I’ve found that it translates into, among other things, Venezuelan, Russian, and, finally, HTML.
Here is the Design Outpost site if you'd like to use it yourself: