Jun 122012

Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur by Richard Branson  

This is the second time I have listened to Sir Richard Branson’s book, but the first time I have reviewed it. Richard Branson is a fascinating entrepreneur. Struggling in school, he started a newspaper for students. It quickly grew in popularity to the point he received an offer to sell it. He immediately turned that money into the music business, reselling vinyl albums by mail cheaper than the corner shops. The next logical step was to create a recording studio and begin promoting bands. From there, things continued to grow and grow. The result of his willingness to strike out into areas he knew nothing about became known as the Virgin group of brands.

Business Stripped Bare is a look at Branson’s business philosophy and brand genius. He shares the story of how he built the brand and why he feels it is successful. He is brash, challenging, energetic and doesn’t subscribe to stuffiness on any scale. He believes in keeping businesses as small as possible (100 employees where possible), empowering employees to make decisions and energizing them around the brand.

The Virgin Group is one of the largest privately held companies in the world and this inside look at how they approach business is fascinating to me. Branson’s easy-going, chatty-style of writing is engaging. He provides story after story demonstrating his core beliefs on building a business. More than most business books, I found the advice useful and entertaining. While not a step-by-step manual, he covers the more intangible aspects of success, such as keeping employees engaged, dreaming big, where to never compromise, how to recognize and capitalize on opportunity and how to learn from mistakes.

There are few global business leaders I would like to meet. Branson is one whom I would. Judging from his writing style, I think I would l even be comfortable talking with him. Perhaps this book is ghost written, but the style matches what I have read about him in the news. He seems like a normal guy who made it big. He isn’t afraid to let it all hang out on the line in promotion of the company, even if it means bungee jumping from a helicopter or showing up naked to a product release. He does things on his terms and no one else’s. He believes in his people and is relentless in the pursuit of of perfection for the customer service and safety.

One thing I took away from his book is the importance of constant observation. He carries a notebook with him everywhere he goes and writes down every observation. Everything from worn carpet on a plane, salt shakers on trains to ideas for improving cell phone offerings go into the book for review and implementation. He prides on Virgin’s ability to rapidly adapt and execute change quickly to meet customer needs and expectations. I believe they are richly rewarded for this attention to detail. There is a lot to be learned from his approach.

Business Stripped Bare: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur is a book every entrepreneur should read and reread. I believe his advice to be sound and immediately adaptable to any size business. I am attempting to implement as much as possible within my own company, even though it is far from entrepreneurial. Of course, I also try to apply it to the virgin brand of my own. If I have even a half a grain as much success as he has, I’ll be satisfied.

Apr 302012

Crush It!: Why NOW Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion by Gary Vaynerchuk  

If you have ever wanted a cheerleader for making a business on the Internet,  Gary Vaynerchuk is your guy. in Crush It!, Gary states, no, evangelizes his case for following a dream and making the jump to Internet business. The force of his personality leaps from the page, energizing the reader to absolutely believe they, too, can “crush it”.

Gary immigrated to America with his parents from Belarus when he was three. From an early age, he began selling. He sold baseball cards, building a small empire at his school before branching out to trade shows and the mall. His success was cut short when he turned fifteen and started working in the family wine shop. Even though he couldn’t drink the wares, he studied the wine guides and magazines to learn the lingo and be able to convince shoppers who came in for a bottle to take home a case. Then, during college, Gary discover YouTube.

Embracing the videos and convincing his father to let him, he started an Internet TV show dedicated to wine. Gary, who wasn’t happy being stuffy and pretentious like other wine critics. He used his personality and “earthy” ways to describe wine (including a NY Jets spit bucket) in a video blog. In a few short months, sales increased over 500%.

Vaynerchuk is convinced everyone can accomplish the same exciting feat of building and online brand and attracting a large following. From there, dreams come true (his dream is to buy the Jets and I believe he will somehow pull it off someday). Through out the book, as he discusses his beliefs on building an online business with the devotion most reserve for sports teams. His energy is infectious.

While light on detail, Gary lays out some of the methods for creating an audience. He discusses the importance of building a brand, creating great content and being available on every platform. What’s is most valuable, I believe, is his energy on the subject. He literally jumps off the page to motivate and make a believer out of the reader. The first time I read Crush It!, I was put off by the enthusiasm. This time through, however, it infected me and motivated me to start thinking about where my passion lies and how to leverage it.

My only complaint is the lack of detail on how to get started. I was hoping for a little more concrete detail. This book doesn’t have it, instead containing general concepts and discussions about some venues to be aware of while building an online empire. I had to go searching in other places to find the  detail and mentorship I wanted. Still, Vaynerchuk is a pretty good cheerleader.

Apr 182012

The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business by Clayton M. Christensen  

Clayton M. Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School. In the Innovator’s Dilemma, he presents his research into business life cycles and how larger companies find it difficult to innovate. He shows how these larger companies eventually are replaced by innovators who make inroads by taking the bottom markets willing ceded to them by the bigger companies. Little by little, the smaller companies eat away until they have market dominance themselves, leaving the once market leader without a place to go.

The concept of how small companies can thrive in a world dominated by large companies is an interesting one, especially for the entrepreneurs facing Goliath. Christensen lays out several test cases where the larger company couldn’t innovate, allowing smaller companies to enter at the bottom of the market. He even shows how and why it made sense for the management of these dominant companies to allow this to happen – at the time. Innovation is not an easy prospect for large companies because their large existing customer base often will not allow the innovations to move forward because it doesn’t fit their needs. Innovations often bring a different customer and large companies are not always able to choose to service both.

Christensen provides a few examples of this phenomena in excruciating detail, studying the rapidly changing industries of disk drives and steel production. He rounds out the book with a discussion of the steam shovel and how it lost out to hydraulics. In a final case study, he examines how the principles could be applied to a potential disruptive technology – the electric car. He lays out a complete game plan for a company to take the innovations available and capture a new market. Sadly, in the years since publication in 1997, it doesn’t appear anyone has taken up the challenge, although perhaps Tesla Motors has come the closest.

The problem I have with Christensen’s book is his writing style. He is definitely a Harvard Business School professor. He delves deeply into his research, explaining every nuance of the industry in such detail as to leave no doubt he has done an extensive study. I grew up in IT, living just miles away from one of the great innovators of the disk drive industry, yet I learned many things about  disk drives. I hadn’t imagined I could get a technical education from a book on business management.

Christensen’s writing style was the biggest barrier to the material. His explanations were too deeply steeped with details that didn’t move the story forward. While the datum was valid and important, it didn’t necessarily have to be presented in long, exhaustive detail. Today’s readers do not have a lot of time or desire to spend long stretches of deep explanation. I found it necessary to spend at least 45 minutes reading before getting “into” the book. I couldn’t help comparing the style to that of Jim Collins in Great By Choice. Yes, Collins is also a researcher who loves detail. The difference is that Collins moves all his detailed explanations to the appendix where those who desire it can find it. The book itself is organized into fast moving, short chapters laying out the salient points distilled from the exhaustive research. I would really have appreciated this approach in this book by Christensen. Collins is a storyteller where Christensen is a Harvard professor.

Christensen’s insight is worth the slog through the knee deep data. Just be ready with a canteen for dry stretches of endless detail as far as the eye can see.