Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Jobs is a Four Letter Word

Many people might mistake this book for a mere biography of the man that made Apple a household name and its products coveted by millions around the world. It’s not.

This book is actually three books in one. It’s a business book on how to (and not to) run a company using Apple, NeXT and Pixar as case studies. It’s also a history book on the ascent and the drama behind the consumer electronics evolution. And as its title suggests, it’s the fascinating story of one of the most gifted people of our time.

As a business book, Isaacson writes about three distinct business practices. The first is how to really create a company from scratch. The passion exuded by Jobs and Wozniak is detailed with infectious enthusiasm in the first half of the book.

The second practice (and one often not talked about in business books) is how to drive a company to the ground. The book is rife with examples of internal politics, lack of leadership and the absence of focus that truly illustrate how companies fail.

The last practice is how to build and operate a creative company that endures. For me, this is the most fascinating narrative of all. But to fully appreciate it, one must truly understand the first two, which almost always precede this one.

The book offers a great case study of three companies: Apple, NeXT and Pixar. One fascinating vignette in the book draws a contrast between Apple and Sony and why Apple was successful in conquering the consumer-end of the music business while Sony, who was in a favorable position to do exactly that, failed to do so. This story draws attention to the importance of inter-departmental cohesion that Apple possessed and Sony didn’t, to the success of innovation in a company.

Business leaders reading this book will learn a lot about the power of “focus” in business. Steve Jobs’s most doled out advice was “focus.” Throughout the book, we learn how Jobs followed his own advice to a deadly fault.

As a business book, it is amongst the best.

It’s also an even better history book. It details the ascent of personal computing from the perspective of the very people that were (and still are) at its helm. The book doesn’t only cover Apple’s evolution, but Full Article

Highlights from Fast Company’s Innovation Uncensored Event in San Francisco

Great conferences don’t need to span two or three days. In fact, they can be done in one day as Fast Company fabulously demonstrated earlier this week.

The Innovation Uncensored Conference was an impressive feat. It featured great speakers like Scott Case of Startup America, Padmaress Warrior of Cisco and Seth Priebatsch of SCNGR, who discussed pressing topics like customer-centric development, social in the enterprise and game mechanics in business. The mix of speakers and topics was intense without being overwhelming. I was able to walk away with many great learnings.

Oh and the catering … amazing!

Here are some of the learnings I gleaned from the conference:

#1 Successful Businesses are Flexible and Persistent

Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn gave general good advice to startups. He singled out perseverance and focus as the two main objectives of any business. He emphasized the importance of listening to the “smartest people that will talk to you” and heed their advice. He also recommended getting an introduction to VCs you don’t know instead of sending them unsolicited emails (they hate it.)

Scott Case of Startup America echoed Hoffman’s sentiments with his “10 Steps Toward Success:”

  1. Ecosystem: Be part of the environment in which you partake. Give your time to fledgling startups that seek your help.
  2. Pick Your Team Carefully: Founding team members can make or break your business.
  3. Embrace the Pivot: Know how to pivot. Read Eric Reis’s book (my review.)
  4. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  5. Build Your Network: The smartest people in the world can’t get anything done without help. Build your support system and mingle with people that are smarter than you.
  6. FOCUS: You have to manage distractions, otherwise you’ll fail.
  7. Customer Development: Know your customers. Read Steven Blank’s book.
  8. Capital: Are you going to raise money? Self-fund? Where is your capital coming from?
  9. Get The Boring Stuff Right: Business, legal, accounting, …etc. Most founders waste their time figuring this out instead of focusing on their product.
  10. FOCUS: Do I really need to say it?
Pretty much everyone that spoke mentioned “focus.” They made a compelling case for the power of saying “NO” and how crucial that is for success. It’s only when you’re “focused” you can be flexible and have the energy to persist.

#2 Your Customers are Your No. 1 Asset

This was another common takeaway and one we take to heart at Edmunds.com.

David Cush of Virgin America stressed the paramount importance of managing customer expectations when rolling out a new system. Virgin America just recently implemented a new reservation system (still buggy as of this writing) and they have worked closely with the marketing department to manage customer expectations and reactions.

Padmaress Warrior of Cisco said the same thing. She implemented BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy at work after her customers (i.e. Cisco engineers) continued using their “unsupported devices” (i.e. Macs.) The new policy has been great not only for her consumers but for business as well.

Customer is the No.1 asset. Also, if your employees are happy and satisfied, that normally translates to customer satisfaction as well.

#3 Focus

I know I mentioned it above, but it was such a focal (no pun intended) point at the event. Focus is success.

Gary White of Water.org and Doug Ulman of Livestrong talked about passion, social responsibility and the role of focus in their success. If you come up with ten projects, prioritize them and then cut the last two and focus all your resources on the first eight. Personally, I’d go further and say cut eight and focus on the top two, but I guess it all depends on the amount of resources you have. Full Article

The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires by Tim Wu

Important History All Entrepreneurs Should Know

I read this book when it first came out back in November 2010 and I’ve been catching myself referencing it ever since.

From describing to my colleagues what a “Cycle” meant to engaging in long debates about what constituted a sustaining versus disruptive innovation in the context of the projects we’re working on. One story I find myself relaying whenever I get a chance is the one about how the telegraph was rendered obsolete with the introduction of the telephone and how that represented a typical “Cycle.”

Tim Wu does something very powerful in this book; he defines a cyclical business pattern, calls it a “Cycle,” explores its history and explains the one we’re going through right now and its probable outcomes. He relies on history to understand the present and foretell the future, which makes the book a very entertaining read if you’re a history buff.

The book is rife with accounts of industries that have gone through the “Cycle.” They rose to success, conquered the competition, became a closed system, declined slowly and invariably fell. Tim says:

History also shows that whatever has been closed too long is ripe for ingenuity’s assault: in time a closed industry can be opened anew, giving way to all sorts of technical possibilities and expressive uses for the medium before the effort to close the system likewise begins again.

This oscillation of information in industries between open and closed is so typical a phenomenon that I have given it a name: “the Cycle.”

Business owners and senior executives must be aware of the “Cycle” and the stage of the Cycle at which their business lies in order to make informed decisions about the future and continuity of that business. Understanding the Cycle and preparing for it is prudent if not absolutely crucial to the survival of a business. Full Review

Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice

It’s The Consumer, Stupid!

This book is comprised of 34 essays written by thought leaders in both technology and government who are passionate about open data. The authors argue the case for “openness” in government and offer best practices and examples (several case studies included at the end as well) for building, supporting and evangelizing Open Platforms in government.

With the clout of Social Networks and hacker communities, the idea of being “open” isn’t as radical as it used to be several years ago, and the book clearly capitalizes on that. Almost all successful companies have open APIs today. These companies realize that it is “data accessibility” that will invariably create value for the consumer–and their business.

So why can’t governments do the same? The book argues the case for governments to “open up” and give access to their data (e.g. documents, bills, voting records, proceedings, initiatives, …etc) so that the electorate is informed and able to fully participate in governance, which is in effect the ultimate goal of democracy.

Out of all 34 essays, Tim O’Reilly’s “Government as a Platform” offered the most comprehensive blueprint for what needs to be done to get to the next level in Open Government. He offers seven lessons, or principles, that lead to Open Platform. These aren’t government specific, which makes them even more valuable to anyone interested in the subject of Open Platform.

The seven principles are:

  1. Open Standards Spark Innovation and Growth
  2. Build a Simple System and Let It Evolve
  3. Design for Participation
  4. Learn From Your “Hackers”
  5. Data Mining Allows You To Harness Implicit Participation
  6. Lower the Barriers to Experimentation
  7. Lead by Example

The principles are pretty self-explanatory and Tim fleshes each one out with examples and guiding thoughts. I highly recommend reading those sections twice to fully understand what they require of you and your company to build a successful Open Platform.

The principle that resonated with me the most was #2. I see this all the time (I’m guilty of it sometimes too): Engineers embark on an elaborative architecture quest to build the most “awesome” or “kick ass” software that will undeniably be the best platform EVER. The only thing is they often end up with a convoluted, unmaintainable system that ends up being “legacy” in no time. Tim quotes John Gall’s Systemantics:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true. A complex system designed from scratch never workes and cannot be make to work. You have to start over, beginning witha  working simple system.

It’s so very true.

At the end of his essay, Tim O’Reilly offers ten practical steps that government agencies can adopt to be more open. If you don’t have time to read the entire book, I strongly recommend you read his chapter.

In the end, the paramount beneficiary of Open Platforms is the Consumer. In government, the consumer is the Electorate. President Obama understood that. He is the first US President to fully embrace the Open Government movement. We saw clear signs of that during his campaign in 2008 and in the release of data.gov and change.gov.

A few weeks back, I went to interview protesters at the Occupy LA encampment in downtown Los Angeles as part of my research for the new startup I co-founded, Voterspring.com. When I asked the question, “how do you think we can hold government accountable?” The overwhelming answer was, “information and transparent access to it.”

This book paves the road to open and transparent government. Now the ball is in the government’s court.

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries

117478738 Crucial Lessons for Fledgeling and Mature Companies

I started reading Eric Ries's blog, "Startup Lessons Learned," back in October 2008. I was quickly impressed by his technical acumen and the simplicity of his writing. I also enjoyed the breadth of topics covered and how engaging they were.

Needless to say, I was glad to hear that he was going to distill all his knowledge into a book, and now that I read the book, I'm glad to say that he didn't disappoint.

The book defines a startup as a 1) a human institution designed to 2) create a new product/service under conditions of 3) extreme uncertainty.

Notice how the definition doesn't address the size of the venture or its backers or its origins. As long as it is a team building a product with high uncertainty, it is a startup.

The book also covers the entire life cycle of a lean startup, Figure 1.

Lean-startup

Figure 1.
Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop that's at the core of the lean startup (image source)

Eric puts a huge emphasis on "validated learning" as opposed to "failure as a way of learning." He says, "a failure to deliver results is due to either a failure to plan adequately or a failure to execute properly." He's all about accountability, which is sorely lacking in so many institutions these day, with the most egregious being Wall Street.

Eric goes on to explain the principles of the lean startup with andecodotes of successes and failures in business. One of the most fascinating and very telling for me was the SnapTax story. The fact that a giant company like Intuit could spawn an innovative startup (i.e. a team + a product + high uncertainty) was a nice validation for my unsuccessful push for an R&D department within the companies at which I worked in the past. SnapTax was a team of five individuals that was given freedom to experiement while held accountable throughout the process. The results were impresssive.

If nothing else, the reader, especially those running mature companies, should pay close attention to Eric's conclusion. He stresses the points of validating assumptions, rapid testing of ideas, and most importantly, "stop wasting people's time."

I think that's the most valuable lesson in the entire book. Mature companies that continue to waste their talents' time with banal and insipid tasks are bound to lose those talents and will only be left with lazy, oftentime overpaid individuals that are too comfortable, too politically secure that they can't produce anything new or original even if they tried.

Startups are a "human institution" first and foremost. If the right team isn't in place, you do not have a startup. Nurture those talents and don't waste their time. Only then will the trappings of success adorn your business and you.

The Devil in The White City by Erik Larson

This book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, other in the manufacture of sorrow.

– Erik Larson.

The Devil in The White City The Spirit of Entrepreneurship in America

This is a fascinating book. Yes it is a great read full of suspenseful moments, and at times horrific details, of the murders by H. H. Holmes in Chicago circa 1890s. Yes it is a great book about the Columbus World's Fair that was built in Chicago in 1893 by America's greatest architects. Yes it is entertaining and yes it is historic.

But what makes this book fascinating to me is the fact that it's a case study of entrepreneurship in America in the late 1800s.

The project at hand was the World's Fair and the man behind it was Daniel Burnham. Burnham was a successful Chicago-based architect when his firm was selected to design and manage what most thought was an impossible undertaking: build a World's Fair that makes America (and Chicago in particular) proud. Expectations were very high given the astounding success of the World's Fair in Paris a few years earlier at which the Eiffel Tower was unveiled.

Burnham was not a man with small vision. He was known for this frequent admonition:

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.

Burnham made no little plans indeed. He built the Montauk–the first skyscraper ever.

Once built, the Montauk was so novel, so tall, it defied description by conventional means.

He was one of the most celebrated entrepreneurs of his time and this book is about how he managed to take on something so ambitious, so impossible, and made it a reality.

Burnham had to deal with government bureaucracy, inflated egos, unexpected setbacks, budgetary issues, amongst other things. Sounds familiar?

The Burnham story is a testament to the American innovative spirit. It's also an inspiration to all entrepreneurs and those who "choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible."

Are you one of those lucky few? Find out if you got what it takes. Read this book.

Illustration: Google+ and The “Actionable” Social Web

This is a followup to my previous post on Google+. Here's a very simple illustration that explains what I mean by the "actionable" social web:

The image below shows a post shared by Steven Levy on Google+. The post talks about a book he recently wrote called, "In The Plex."

BeforeThat's all good, except, that post could be so much better if it allowed Levy's followers to actually buy the book right there and then. This post could be enhanced as follows:

AfterDo you see the Amazon "Add to Cart" button below the post's description?

Now that's a much more meaningful post to people interested in the book. Now they have the option to buy it without leaving Google+.

Before Google+ came out, I was hoping that Facebook would do something like this. But here is why I think Google can easily succeed in making the "actionable" social web possible:

  1. Google understands data: unlike Facebook, Google's bread and butter is understanding data on the web for ranking and relevancy.
  2. Schema.org: Google is pushing for structured data through schema.org. With website getting more structured, the more accurate the understanding of their content becomes.
  3. Sparks: You can follow a particular interest on Google+ by creating a Spark.

The questions now becomes this: when will be see enhanced, "actionable" posts like the one below on Google+?

After2I hope the answer is: very soon!