An Entrepreneur’s Summer Reading Guide
Whether a week at the shore or just a quiet Friday afternoon away from the algorithms, summer is a great time to catch up on reading. You’ll find below a grab-bag of book suggestions – old and new – for entrepreneurs, from Pulitzer Prize-winning titles and the new new thing to “big picture” reading and pure escapism.
- The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World (1991) by Peter Schwartz. He suggests that those of us leading complex businesses not try to pick the most probable future (which is invariably wrong) but instead find the strategic decisions that will be sound for all plausible futures. This creates the kind of strategic conversation around the company that leads to success. The recipe is in the book. I have found this to be a tremendously effective tool, and Schwartz is a good read.
- The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997). If you haven’t finished Clayton Christensen’s classic, this is the summer. It’s a brilliant, counterintuitive look at why great companies that listen to their customers and invest aggressively in new technologies can still lose market dominance. The principles of disruptive innovation, Christensen says, dictate that there are times in which – hard as it might be – we need to ignore our customers, release lower-performance products, and accept lower margins.
- Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1985) by Peter Drucker. He concluded that innovation as “a flash of genius” is usually ridiculous and often results in entrepreneurial disaster. Organizations, Drucker says, must learn to practice purposeful, systematic innovation. He then lays out seven sources for innovative opportunities, gives powerful examples of how each works, and makes a compelling case that “those entrepreneurs who start out with the idea that they’ll make it big – and in a hurry – can be guaranteed failure.”
- The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint For Success (2012) by William N. Thorndike Jr. In this thoughtful, data-driven analysis, Thorndike argues persuasively that CEOs need to do two things to be successful: run their operations well and deploy cash efficiently. The first is “leadership,” the thing we read about all the time. But it’s the second – rarely mentioned and never taught – that can distinguish a great CEO from a good one. “It just might be the most important responsibility any CEO has,” Thorndike writes. The outsider CEOs he profiles tend to be “humble, analytical, and understated… (and) did not typically relish the outward facing part of the CEO role.” If names like Murphy, Singleton, Anders, and Stiritz don’t ring a bell, this is the book for you.
- Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership (1994) by Gary Wills. This Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern says we already have long lists of what a leader needs – determination, focus, a clear goal, etc. – but we miss the obvious: What a leader needs most are followers. “It is not the noblest call that gets answered, but the answerable call.” A leader needs to understand followers far more than they need to understand him or her, Wills suggests.
- My Years with General Motors (1963) by Alfred Sloan, Jr. This is my personal vote for greatest leader – certainly the greatest entrepreneur of the 20th Century. Sloan’s name has faded and GM is not what it was, but the company’s rise to greatness under his leadership is a remarkable story. Chapter 4 alone, “Product Policy and Its Origins,” is worth the price of the book. “In 1921,” Sloan wrote, “Ford had about 60 percent of the total car and truck market in units, and Chevrolet had about 4 percent… No conceivable amount of capital short of the United States Treasury could have sustained the losses required to take volume away from him at his own game.” Find out how Sloan read the consumer and changed the game, proceeding to dismantle the greatest industrialist of the 20th century.
- The New New Thing (2000) by Michael Lewis, who may just be the best business writer on the planet, is required reading for anyone still trying to understand why Silicon Valley behaves more like Hollywood than Detroit.
- Dealers in Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age (1999) by Michael Hiltzik. “When Apple sued Microsoft in 1988 for stealing the ‘look and feel’ of its Macintosh graphical display to use in Windows,” Hiltzik reminds us, “Bill Gates’s defense was essentially that both companies had stolen it from Xerox.”
- An Empire of Wealth: An Epic History of American Economic Power (2004) by John Steel Gordon is fascinating and a tour de force in synthesis.
- The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (2009) by George Friedman. I loved this book. We often interpret the world in technological terms, but Friedman, founder and CEO of Stratfor, argues that it is good old geopolitics that “constrain nations and human beings and compel them to act in certain ways.” Despite all you hear, Friedman says, we are most certainly in the American Century. A fascinating read; see if you agree.
Those in the market for something shorter than a book that will still challenge their grey matter should try Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ “The Blip.” It suggests that we have been blessed to live through a once-in-human-history event – the Industrial Revolution – but that our good fortune may have already come to an end. Unless, of course, we’re about to be blessed (or cursed?) by the Singularity. What’s that, you ask? Two very good pieces that will get you up to speed on this hot topic are “The Promise of Rapture for the High Tech Elite” (2011), and “How Many Singularities Are Near and How Will They Disrupt Human History” (2011). Also short but sweet: Maria Popova and David McRaney explain in “The Backfire Effect: The Psychology of Why We Have a Hard Time Changing Our Minds” (2014) why every discussion about a web post degenerates into vitriolic name-calling three comments in. It also confirms that you really shouldn’t feed the trolls.
Have a great summer, and always remember that all work and no play – and just skimming TechCrunch twice a day – makes for a very dull entrepreneur.
Eric B. Schultz is Chairman of HubCast and the former CEO of Sensitech. His second book, Weathermakers to the World (2012) is about the rise of modern air conditioning through the labors of entrepreneur Willis Carrier. (What better way to celebrate the summer?) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.