I've written before about how reading is the one best ways to advance your career. It’s the best way to stretch your mind in new directions. You never know where you're going to come across some sentence or story that changes how you see the world.
Several months ago, I shared a few of my favorite pieces of business wisdom that I've come across in some of the books I've enjoyed most. Inc.com was kind enough to republish that piece afterward, and based on the enthusiastic feedback from that, I decided to do another today. I recommend reading any of these books if you haven't, but if you don't you'll now at least have a small piece of wisdom from each.
(You can read Words to Live By, Part I here.)
"Don't think you're any good, and don't get defensive about it. It's not something to be embarrassed by, because odds are no one else is any good either." - Bob Young, CEO, Red Hat Software
I came across this in Roger Martin's The Opposable Mind. The book is about how to make trade-offs in business by taking opposing ideas and, instead of sacrificing one for the other, forming a new idea that contains elements of both but is superior to each. As one example among many, Martin describes how Bob Young rejected a false choice between the prevailing business models for operating systems in the 1990's and devised the delivery model that made Red Hat a dominant player and himself a billionaire.
The quote encapsulates Bob Young’s observations on the operating system market structure that he saw as sub-optimal despite the presence of so many hyper-smart people. Why couldn't the "smart guys" do any better than this, he asked? How could such a collection of talent produce such mediocre companies? Eventually, he decided they were trapped by the false choice between two bad models -- one bad for the customer, the other for the vendor. Rather than accept conventional wisdom, he decided that the smart people hadn't figured all out all the angles yet.
Be skeptical of conventional wisdom, especially in business, where there is always more than one way to succeed. If things seem like they can be better, it's because they can be.
"He had the disease of perfect belief, which makes compromise impossible." - Roger Lowenstein (describing Robert Merton)
From one of my favorite business books of all time, When Genius Failed, Lowenstein here is describing Nobel Laureate Robert Merton's almost religious faith in the idea that all investors are perfectly rational. Merton was so convinced of (and relied so heavily upon) the rational markets hypothesis that the notion of investors being anything other than rational was heretical. Lowenstein observed that, "even the word 'speculative' he put in quotes, as though the notion that it might apply to real investors was so unpleasant he had to handle it with forceps." As anyone familiar with the story of LTCM as well as more recent financial crises knows, investors aren't rational, markets don't follow normal distributions, and geniuses can indeed fail spectacularly.
The lesson? It's one thing to believe that something is true, but be wary of those who need something to be true. If your work depends too much on a single belief, it becomes tempting to block out contradictory evidence. Once you start doing that, you run the risk of making bad decisions, sometimes even catastrophically so.
"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity." - General George S. Patton.
I'm sure this is in lots of books, but I came across it in a Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love by Marty Cagan. Patton's principle applies to management generally, and it's especially true on product management. Get really smart people, give them a clear goal, and let them attack it. Your job as a manager is the setting clear goals part. If your team is capable and crystal clear on your vision, you need to give them space to be creative and think about how to accomplish the goal. As an aside for product managers specifically, you really want to make sure you don't specify the "how" too much when communicating requirements (i.e. the "what"). Your job is to make sure you're building the right product. It's the engineers' job to build the product right.
"The race has changed. The prize and spoils no longer go to the person who makes it to market first. They go to the person who makes it to Product Market Fit first." - Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday's Growth Hacker Marketing is a quick read but a good one for anyone in the startup world. "Growth hacking" is officially my new least favorite term since it's gone from zero to completely overused, but Ryan Holiday knows what he's talking about and the book is filled with interesting, important examples of how the new giant brands of our age like Facebook, Airbnb, Dropbox and many others exploded into the public consciousness with practically no traditional marketing expenses. no print ads, TV ads (until they were already megabrands), press releases, and other usual marketing tools -- and hardly any money spent.
Aside from the book's central thesis, it reiterates what's hard about working at startups: Getting to product-market fit is hard. Iteration and learning can be tough, and is frequently disappointing. There's a reason why the average venture-backed company takes over ten years to go public (of the ones that make it, that is). Failure is of course a risk, but it's also possibly to plod along with middling success for a while before you really find product-market fit. It's the one problem that has to be solved before any other problem matters, save just one...
"The only thing that keeps an employee at a company when things go horribly wrong - other than needing a job - is that she likes her job...In bad companies, when the economics disappear, so do the employees." - Ben Horowitz
First, I kind of hate how many times I've referred to this book over the last year or two. But whatever - it's a good book for managers to read.
Horowitz shares a few anecdotes about why it was so important for him to make his company a good place to work in his days as a CEO. His reasoning is basically thus: If employees are able to focus on their work and believe that if they do it well then good things will happen for themselves and the company, then the company is a good place to work. While it's true that even terribly managed companies with miserable employees can be successful if they achieve product-market fit, being a good company and a good place to work may be the only thing that keeps you alive when things go wrong, as they inevitably will at some point.
As a first time founder now with my new venture UserMuse, these points hit home with me in a way they hadn't when I first read them. How do I attract the very best people when we're so new and my track record is nil? Will people stay if they all of a sudden they have doubts about whether they'll make big money from their stock options? When you're really busy or hanging by a thread financially, it's easy to ignore the things that make the company a good place to work. I wrote an extended story on Medium about all the mistakes I've made as a founder - and I know it's just the first taste for me of how challenging it is to build a company from scratch.