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Posts tagged ‘business’

Dial M for Mass Market Appeal

Killing-Floor-by-Lee-ChildLee Child is clearly a talented writer. The first three chapters of Killing Floor constitute one of the most strident openings to a novel I can remember. Strident, which is to say, gripping and devoid of nuance.

Then the problems begin. Because Killing Floor is too carefully constructed an artifice to be satisfying. Firstly, the author’s name is not Lee Child. It is Jim Grant. Jim Grant chose his nom de plume because it would put him next to Agatha Christie on the shelves. Good commercial thinking, but unsatisfyingly cynical.

Secondly the booming clarity of Jack Reacher’s internal monologue is a pace that Child is unable to sustain for an entire novel. When compared with an equally forthright opening to a book, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it whithers on the vine.

Thirdly the intricate twists of plot, the Sherlock Holmes like deduction, the neat tying up of loose ends to lay the foundations for the next novel smack of the worst of Hollywood. The base commercialism that great literature manages to avoid, patterns the novel in its paint by numbers crime thriller simplicity. It’s clear what Lee Child has done with Jack Reacher and he sells a lot of books, but it’s not art and it’s not literature any more than the The Hardy Boys or Biggles (though Biggles is great). It reveals nothing about the broader conditions of humanity, except that some people have talent and use it with cynicism and there is a huge market in feeding people entertainment which refuses to challenge them. No doubt the greatest of artists are prone to venality as much if not more than the rest (I remember an anecdote of Mozart in which he was asked what he was thinking when he stood as if in a reverie at the end of a performance regarding the applauding audience and he said “I was counting the house.”) but the lasting impression of Killing Floor is not improved by the cynical aftertaste it leaves or the charmlessness with which it is achieved. In the shadow of other great English popular writers such as the late Terry Pratchett who outsold every other author of the nineties, shifting close to 100 million books, or George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the first Flashman in two weeks on leaving the Royal Navy because he needed the money. Both were strongly and impressively commercial writers who serviced great audiences with their franchises but somehow achieved it with wit, charm and an invention that escapes Lee Child’s cruel and ultimately unsatisfying novel.

He is a great British export success story, for that we should be grateful, and we must certainly be impressed by his commercial performance, but as for his writing, it evades most compliments except, of course, that of purchasing it.

The Editors

Book of Mammon, Part III: Zero to One

Peter Thiel - Zero to OneZero to One, Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters

The word entrepreneur must be so tired as to nearly be dead by now. Does that apply to freelancers and sole traders? Does it apply to people who go to big corporates and do something ‘entrepreneurial’. Roles at Unilever or Tesco described in this way don’t quite ring true but without a meaningful definition against which to measure claims, the word is apt for hijacking by pretenders of every shape.

One entrepreneur who could not be described as a pretender, Peter Thiel, has recently published a new book in this hectic pop-lit genre: Zero to One.

Thankfully, Zero to One is not a rags to riches, this-is-why-I’m -a-billionaire disaster like many of the books in the same category. The title refers to what Thiel considers to be the nature of entrepreneurship: creating something that did not previously exist.

Whilst the book itself is not a work of literature, it is of broader cultural significance because it taps the shallow of veign of contemporary business thought which at once shapes the world we live in and glances disappointingly off the surface. Thiel and Masters book measures well against the benchmarks of quality for the genre, like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, or Dee Hock’s exceptional One From Many. It occasionally lapses into the generalisations that plague much of the genre but on the whole it is enjoyable for its structure, concision and insight if not into the business of high technology investment, then into one of the greatest technology investors of his generation.

Peter Thiel speaks with natural authority on the subject of successful technology companies and technology investing. He founded PayPal and led it as CEO until its public listing and acquisition by eBay in (2004?) and his venture capital firm, Founders Fund, was the first investor in Facebook. His latest company, Palantir, in which he is a co-founder and investor produces data analysis software that is being adopted by business and government across the world including the CIA and is rumoured to have been used in the CIA operation to track down Osama bin Laden. Whether it is true or not: such is the hype around Peter Thiel.

More interestingly, the book’s genesis is more nuanced than the usual business magnate’s PR excercise. The book’s co-author is a recent Stanford graduate called Blake Masters who came to Thiel’s attention after his detailed lecture notes on one of Thiel’s lecture courses at Stanford became an internet sensation. The book is in fact a collaborative write up and update of those notes, a sign perhaps of Thiel’s magpie-like eye for opportunity.

One key theme of the book is Thiel’s critique of competition. Better, he says, to operate a tiny monopoly than compete yourself to destruction in a giant market. ”Monopoly is the condition of every successful business.”

He gives light to the kind of low-tech decisions that his Founders Fund uses, in combination with some more sophisticated analysis to reach their conclusion: “cleantech executives were running around in suits and ties. This was a huge red flag because real technologists wear t-shirts and jeans. So we instituted a blanket rule: pass on any company whose founders dressed up for pitch meetings” and on explaining why he has not invested in Uber, ”I prefer not to invest in business models that venture capital guys are too familiar with.”

His understated manner is refreshing in a world dominated by hyperbole; on the subject of his Facebook investment he said simply to a recent interviewer: “it’s a good sign when a company is only looking for money to buy more computers to keep up with demand.”

He sets out his investment principle that any investment ventured by a fund should be capable of returning the entire value of the fund to shareholders because the majority of investments will fail. He sights a potential return of 10 times the investment as the only return that should be entertained by investors not because he expects big returns from all of the companies he invests in, but because each company must be potentially capable of making up for the failures of all the others.

This approach may leave the impression of a cavalier or even scattergun strategy, the kind of institutional gambling that is so vilified by the modern media but the impression of Thiel from the book is of a calculating pragmatist.

Thiel’s success as a founder turned investor outside of the literary world imbue the book with a significance that it would not otherwise deserve. Whilst Zero to One does not pertain to any standards of art, as the public face of an economically significant cultural phenomonen, it is interesting and even insightful and in the end, like any good shop-talk, it is easily confined to an afternoon.

The Editors

Building Things

Smart People Should Build ThingsSmart People Should Build Things – Andrew Yang

My not now so recent change in career sparked a new drive for information in me. Entering a new line of work reopened the pores of my professional curiosity, and working in an otherwise undefined, unregulated, undocumented and as yet largely unformed industry in a company that had not previously existed, even more so.

Information in the law is readily, though not freely, available. Reading into the profession is so important that young lawyers are sent to law school for two years before they start working but no such study is available for those starting out in young technology companies.

So where to look. A quick Google search for ‘starting a business’ produces 1,050,000,000 pages of information about leaving a job and starting out on your own (or joining in with someone who is doing the same). They will point you to Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup or the The Startup Owner’s Manual as being biblical texts in the world of high growth startups. Many others will try to convince you that for a monthly fee of only fifteen dollars, they will show you the keys to  unlock incomes in the thousands per week from only a few hours of effort (probably from setting up just such websites).

It may not take you long to find the works of Tim Ferris, his ouevre of ‘four hour’ books, textbooks defining the many ways in which you can do anything you want much faster than you think if you think about the effect of your actions rather than the effort of them (the ‘Pareto chop’). A treasure trove of short cuts, high tales and more than a dash of charlatanism, it made an enjoyable seed for the dream bed of my career change from the law, even if it is hard to trust a man who preaches the four hour work week and works sixteen hours a day.

Eric Ries’ works set out a methodology for developing an idea from scratch. Like most of the books in this category they preach common sense, but when common sense is the know-how of the industry, it is reassuring to see it printed up and labelled as a text book occasionally. Follow Eric Ries, don’t follow Eric Ries, it doesn’t really matter but you will probably last longer if you do as he says (and does). His core principle is a straightforward one: rapidly experiment with one eye on the rate at which you are spending money. You may ask why anyone would have to write that down but unfortunately it is.

My route into this particular genre of literature was more mundane than most being via the management pages of the FT in which Luke Johnson (a serial entrepreneur who began his career by building up the Pizza Express chain of restaurants) writes a weekly column.

His pieces are heart-felt and engaging, much like his book Start It Up which sets out no methodology but is an unabashed call to arms for anyone thinking about starting a company. Every other page of the book is a full page quotation affirming the decision of anyone thinking about starting up a business (or pretty much doing anything else).

After one column I emailed him to ask, ‘when is the right time to leave the law and set out on my own’, to which he replied ‘Seize the day, Luke’. One of the kindest, shortest and most memorable emails, I have ever received.

Another writer, who has recently published his very charming book, Smart People Should Build Things is Andrew Yang, a one time New York corporate lawyer. He lasted about as long as I did in the law before turning his attentions to startups, working in a number of different as he puts it ‘low paid’ jobs before founding his own tutoring agency and selling it in his mid-thirties at a healthy profit.

He now runs a not for profit organisation called Venture for America which specialises in placing young, budding, would-be-entrepreneurs in startup companies in deprived areas of America such as Detroit. A great idea and an excellent book – what appeals the most about Yang’s style is his honesty. Aside from the apparent immodesty of the title, he writes not as Tim Ferris superhuman who has ‘hacked life’, redefined wealth, reclaimed time and made himself into the examplar of ability in every jurisdiction of existence, but instead he writes with the wary encouragement of a person who didn’t like being a lawyer, turned down short term success and made a life for himself not dictated by others. Not a work of literature, but I will come back to, many times again.

The Editors