Yesterday my father would have turned 92. Though my father had worked for 37 years at the same firm—rising from accounting intern to the CEO of multiple group companies—he was my biggest supporter when I decided to quit my job and become an entrepreneur.
As a miniscule shareholder in my first startup but a major lender of working capital, he was our first angel. While I was in high school, my father used to regale me with a variety of tales, a surprising number of which came in handy during my own entrepreneurial journey.
As I’ve continued to learn from all that he’d shared, I’ve also had the good fortune to working with some incredible people who’ve mentored, coached, supported me and kept me honest.
Yesterday was also the day my first book, “The Art of a Happy Exit – How Successful Entrepreneurs Sell Their Businesses” went on pre-sale on Amazon (USAIndia). While I wish my dad were here to see it, hopefully some of his stories will live on and help other entrepreneurs.
Yesterday I met the wonderful Artie Isaac, whom I discovered via his blog Net Cotton Content. As with any conversation between men in their fifties, our own turned to the topic of our children, whose stories weren’t ours to narrate we agreed. When it was time to bid adieu, Artie asked me, if he could give me a book – one that might enrich my discussions with my daughters around diversity. Being the shameless book collector that I’m I eagerly accepted his gift of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me.
Later in the day, I found myself nearly 15 minutes early for my next meeting (a very unusual occurrence for me, as most folks who know me can vouch.) I cracked open the book and began reading. Right from page 1, the book written as a letter to his 15-year-old son grabbed me by the throat and sucked me right into it. All evening I struggled as to how best to describe the impact the book had on me. Then it occurred to me that others had been here before – and it was John Keats who so eloquently described his experience of discovering Homer’s work through Chapman’s translation. I reproduce his poem in whole below.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Much like stout Cortez in Keats’ poem or Keats himself reading Chapman’s translation, I too was transported to a whole another realm, held enthralled not just by the word picture that Coates painted but by the raw emotion, the immense clarity and urgent insight that he brought to me to understand what it was for a black man to grow up in Baltimore or the South-side of Chicago. In many ways, it brought back memories of seeing Boyz N The Hood back in 1992!
As leaders or even just as humans, all too often we lose sight of what’s important. Worse yet, we think we understand things – this book and Coates’ writing style brought me back to the simple insight, that there’s much we don’t know or even if we did, we don’t revisit it often enough to question our assumptions. Knowing oneself, the world around us and the others is an ongoing journey of discovery. Run out there and get this book. And thanks Artie for this wonderful gift!
All of us who’ve children have encountered questions such as “Dad, what’s Avogadro’s number?” or “What makes diamond and graphite different, if they are both made of carbon?” Besides the obvious answer that people seem to prefer to pay a whole lot more for the diamond form of carbon than graphite, our own schooling seems to have prepared us reasonably well to field such questions. Failing which we can always resort to “Go ask your mom” as I am often prone to do. However, as an up and coming professional you can rarely resort to such an answer, when at the company party, the chief financial officer asks you an actual question about online video-based learning and how it’s going to impact your business. Sure you can try to bluff your way through, but that may be a path?fraught with risks.
One of the most commonly told stories about Steve Jobs, the visionary leader of Apple, was how his engineers feared being caught in an elevator with him. While Jobs would ride in silence often, he’d just as likely ask the engineer how his project was going. Michael Dhuey, a former engineer at Apple recounts: “If you got on at the 4th floor, you’d better have captivated him by the time you got off on the 1st. Jobs remembered you when you had a great story to tell. He also remembered when you didn’t.” So it would appear it’s not just your kid who likes a good story. I hear you saying, just as not everybody can paint or sing, not everyone can tell a good story. Even if you can’t tell a story quite the way you’ve seen it done in your favourite TED talk, you need to be able to carry on a decent conversation, particularly with strangers you need to network or often with someone in your professional life.
Yet much as we read about how public speaking is one of the greatest fears most adults hold—in fact it even tops the fear of death—we hear little about the inability to make meaningful small talk in a professional setting. The funny thing is that Indian parents, might be less so today, are obsessed with their children gaining general knowledge. In fact legions of young people preparing for the Indian government civil service exams can be seen boning up on a wide variety of arcane facts. Even the US, for a couple of decades back in the 1980s, was swept up in the tantalizing game of Trivial Pursuit. You’d think armed with these strange facts, about animals from armadillos to zebus or the national flags of Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, our young ones would be able to scintillate any audience. Yet conversations at business mixers, conferences or just plain old parties seem to be confined to sports (football or basketball in America and good old cricket in India), movies and eventually politics if enough libations have flown.
Sure we’ve all run into at least one interminable bore, who can’t stop talking about their favourite topic—be it last month’s sales figures, real estate or the real reason the stock market is not doing well. The fact that this world is getting smaller (and flatter, if you believe some people) complicates the art of conversation, as cultural and gender sensitivities seem to have made making small talk akin to crossing a minefield. So you know what it is that you don’t want to be doing, but how do you figure what is the best way to be interesting and entertaining enough to be memorable and sound smart enough to be invited again at the very least or sought after at best?
Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything offers an answer. Not only is it a ripping good read, but is probably the best written history of science. Science is not only full of fascinating factoids, but thanks to Bryson’s unique style, sharing of these in the right tone with a trace of humour will make you appear not only smart but nearly human. So if you want to make?it?to the corner?office?or at least to the best mixers in town you’d run out and get your own copy.
“How do I get the word count on this document? In the past when I selected a paragraph, I’d get a count of the words in it, right here at the bottom left.” A colleague was struggling to get Microsoft Word to do what she wanted.
Photo credit: livemint.com
The next time you take a short trip on an aeroplane, take a look around yourself. It’s almost certain that anyone who’s travelling for business and working on a laptop is using a spreadsheet or working on a presentation in PowerPoint or Keynote. With these tools playing such an integral part of our everyday lives, you’d think they’d be easy to use. Yet people, including the colleague I wrote of earlier, have to call on their co-workers, spouses and nephews of neighbours to get some specific function done, often one they’d used before. If this were a matter of software alone or particularly inept computer users, we’d likely be able to deal with it a whole lot easily. But, alas, this lack of usability or user-friendliness is not confined to software or even computers alone.
The Design of Everyday Things
Even the simplest of office equipment, starting with the copier, overhead projector or network printer (poor you, if it includes a scanner) require instructions to operate, as evidenced by hand-scribbled notes and printed instructions from other users, stuck on and around them. When all that fails, we then rely on the admin expert to make these do what we’d like them to. Before you figure that I’m an inept luddite, these usability problems are by no means unique to electronic equipment.
From the faucets in airport toilets to the glass doors in our office, you can see fellow travellers struggling to operate them, often requiring multiple attempts before getting water to flow (lift, press or twist) or doors to open (push, pull or slide).
In a world that deified Steve Jobs even when he was alive and the name of Jonathan Ive is known to more folks than you’d think is possible, why is good design so hard to come by? Before we try to answer that question, let’s do an experiment.
Try this at work today. Get four of your colleagues, hand them a piece of paper and ask them to make aeroplanes. After 10 minutes of flying those aeroplanes, give them a blank piece of paper and ask them to write a six- or eight-step process to make paper aeroplanes without illustrations. Now hand these instructions to other colleagues or use them yourself to see if you can make an aeroplane at all, let alone one that flies. Now why is it that folks, even ones that have multiple college degrees, who almost without thought can make pretty darn good paper planes, can’t write a set of easy-to-follow instructions on how to build such a plane?
In his book The Design of Everyday Things, cognitive psychologist Donald A Norman answers these and a whole lot of other questions about why design—particularly user-friendly design—is not easy. Norman, whom Newsweek called “The Guru of Workable Technology”, begins with how people interact with everyday things. The three critical elements to using things successfully are, in his words, visibility, appropriate clues and feedback of one’s actions. So whether a hot and cold water faucet or the turn signals in your car, if they are visible so you can locate them easily (in front of you rather than by your foot), provide visible clues or affordances (lift, press or turn) and provide feedback (flowing water, blinking direction indicator) upon being operated, we have the makings of usable design.
Norman also provides numerous examples of good and excellent user-centred design, whether in felt pens or floppy drives, and explains why many of them never get a chance to go through the five or six attempts required to get a design right.
Businesses and each of us individuals will find our lives more productive and a whole lot less stressful if we understand the psychology of everyday things. So, the next time you see a handwritten instruction sign resolve to evangelizing user-centred design.
A question “What books should Indian entrepreneurs read” on Quora set me thinking. The good news is that Indian entrepreneurs should read, for most part books that entrepreneurs anywhere would do well to read. The trick is picking the 10 or fewer, that would make reading (or starting) seem not so daunting and that you’d have a snowball’s chance of completing. My own recommendations (& favorites) include the following. Much like a travel guide that tells you what to see if you have only one day in Paris, a week, a month or more, I have attempted to bin them in an attempt to bring coherence and priority.
Plan to ready only ONE book
The Effective Executiveby Peter F. Drucker: Forty years after its first publication, this book, like good wine, has aged well. If you are going to read only one book, this should be it. Even if you are only contemplating to be an entrepreneur, you should read this. You’ll do better in any role with this one.
If you can squeeze in two more
Particularly for tech founders and any first time entrepreneurs, knowing about sales and design, particularly as it related to customers, these two books work.
Selling the Wheelby Jeff Cox and Howard Stevens: Most entrepreneurs are surprised when they build something and the world does not beat a path to their door on its own. This novel is the gentlest way to get acquainted with selling.
Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman: How many times have you had to re-print your document to get the two-sided printing working? Or needed to paste instructions on your copier or building door. Before we build it – anything – it would be nice to understand what folks are trying to get done.
Now you are on a roll, here are three more
Now its time to hear others’ stories and to see what part of it is relevant to you.
Growing a Business by Paul Hawken: The first person conversational tone of the book speaks from the heart and is as applicable today as when it was written more than a decade ago.
Made in Japan – Sony’s story by Akio Morita, Edwin M. Reingold and Mitsuko Shimomura is a timeless story of innovation, perseverance – that’s particularly relevant from Indian entrepreneurs trying to enter global markets
If you are still with the program, these can help you round it off
What the CEO Wants You to Know by Ram Charan: The author’s Indian origins and his experiences with the family shoe store make this book easy to relate to and important for business acumen
Marketing Myopia by Theodore Levitt – if you were going to read only one book about marketing this should be it. Insights that seem self evident in hindsight will bite all of us in the rear. This tells you how to avoid some of it.
Bonus number ten
If you got this far, you need to read a darn good yarn of how a set of engineers got a new machine built.
Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder – this book helped the author land a Pulitzer prize – a non-technical journalist covering the story of how Data General went about trying to beat Digital at the microcomputer game. Human drama and much that goes on in the name of startup success.
It is hard to pick a finite list and any such list if likely to be highly subjective. You will notice I have not picked any Indian entrepreneurial stories – its just that they don’t figure in the top 10 – in which itself only one book younger than 5 year old figures. This is in a sense a foundational reading course rather than here’s how some specific company has done it, in India or overseas. It is important in the first instance to read – which I am still surprised how many tech folks in India don’t seem to read and freely admit to not doing so :).
These last six months, I have been doing a good deal of reading; on average maybe two books a week – at least one of which has been a business book! I have gone back to reading books that have been in my library a long while such as Paul Hawken‘s Growing a Business as well as reading new (to me) ones such as A Stake in the Outcome by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham.
I ran across A Stake in the Outcome (ASitO) while browsing business books at the Easy Library (a great online library with a brick & mortar presence in Bangalore). Having read and been influenced by Bo Burlingham‘s more recent Small Giants, I began browsing ASitO at the library itself. As the saying goes, “When the student is ready, the Master will appear!” Certainly that’s how I felt as I scanned the book quickly right there and subsequently brought it home to read.
Chapter 3 titled The Design of a Business, begins:
I felt someone had just hit me on the head with a two-by-four. Every week I meet someone who is thinking about starting something. Nearly every last one of them talks about their product or service idea and if at all they talk about their company, its only when they intend to “flip-it” (“Built-to-flip” as Jim Collins speaks of as does Sramana Mitra in a recent blog entry). Jack Stack in contrast, states clearly that
Ownership Rule #1 The company is the product
It is worth pausing here and reflecting on his assertion. All too often I see entrepreneurs, young and not-so-young, pitch their businesses as I have heard Hollywood scriptwriter’s do! “Think Netflix but for Indian movies,” “Waiter.com meets iTunes,” “Google but for contextual search.” I’ll refrain from speculating whether the internet bubble begat this or this begat the bubble and what role VCs had to play in this. This focus on what a company does, rather than what a company will be, Stack asserts misses the opportunity to explicitly design your business from ground up. If you haven’t figured it now by now, I agree whole-heartedly.
In many ways, the practices of visionary companies that Jim Collins and Jerry Porras discuss in their book Built to Last have been explicitly operationalized in Stack’s company Springfield Remanufacturing (SRC). The big difference is that Stack’s direct writing style and first-hand experience makes this a gripping read rather than an dry business book. Also unlike most business books that appear to document management’s clever (often infallible) strategies, Stack walks us through both the good and poor decisions they made, as they set out to remake SRC. In the end (in fact in the epilogue), Stack quotes Herb Kelleher, cofounder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines responding to The Wall Street Journal’s question on what he meant when he said Southwest’s culture was its biggest competitive advantage.
“The intangibles are more important than the tangibles,” Kellher replied. “Someone can go out and buy airplanes from Boeing and ticket counters, but they can’t buy our culture our espirit de corps.”
ASitO walks us through SRC’s journey of building such a culture of ownership from that day in 1982 when Stack and his managers did a management buy-out of their struggling engine remanufacturing factory to twenty years hence when their 10cent stock was worth $86 (since then has grown to over $136). Most importantly the authors don’t romanticize the journey and are explicit in periodically setting our expectations with insights such as “Stock is not a magic pill” (ownership rule #4) and “Ownership needs to be taught”(OR #7).
ASitO is a must-read for any one contemplating starting a company or looking to effect change in their organizations through employee participation and a culture of ownership.
A much more detailed summary of the book itself can be found here
Over the last several years, I have written about startups, entrepreneurship and business in general in the Hindu BizLine and Wall St. Journal. I have compiled these for easy access in the column below.