Category: Books

Nov 27 2004

Best Book of the Week: Hackers & Painters

My official best book of Thanksgiving week is Hackers & Painters by Paul Graham.

I know Paul Graham indirectly through his role as founder of Viaweb, which was bought in 1998 by Yahoo! for $49m in stock. Viaweb was a startup in Cambridge that was down the block from NetGenesis (when I was chairman) and was part of the first wave of Cambridge/Boston-based Internet companies.

While I never knew Graham personally, I’d heard that he had a provocative personality (“provocative” in a good way – typical of the Cambridge / MIT / Harvard software set.) A look at his web site confirms this.

Hackers & Painters is a collection of Graham’s essays woven together in a captivating book. While I don’t agree with all of his thoughts – the book makes you think – which is refreshing. Blogging has helped stimulate the re-birth of the personal essay – which I love to read (and am trying to be effective at writing.) Graham’s book is 200 pages composed of 14 essays (at least half of which are likely to be interesting to anyone that is in the computer business, half of which are likely to be interesting to anyone that likes to think, half of which are likely to be interesting to people involved in startups, and half of which are likely to simply be – interesting.)

My favorite paragraph in the book is about startups in the essay titled How to Make Wealth. “A startup is a like a mosquito. A bear can absorb a hit and a crab is armored against one, but a mosquito is designed for one thing: to score. no energy is wasted on defense. The defense of mosquitos, as a species, is that there are a lot of them, but this is little consolation to the individual mosquito.”

Back to the beach for another day of running, reading, and thinking.

Nov 24 2004

Thanksgiving – Books, Beach, Running, and Amy

When some people think of Thanksgiving, they think of turkey and football. I think of sleeping late and reading a book a day.

Amy and I are in Cabo San Lucas and off to a good start. Beach running is much different from mountain running, but when you net everything out, it’s about the same effort.

I’m tracking to a book a day this trip. I started with The Dinner Club which is the story of a bunch of DC-area Internet heavy hitters – including Ted Leonsis, Art Marks, Mario Morino, Russ Ramsey, John Sidgmore, Rajendra Singh, Steve Case, Raul Frenandez, James Kimsey, Bill Melton, Michael Saylor, and Mark Warner – who started an angel group called “Capital Investors.” Their investments stunk, but the story of their dinners, the thought process at the time, and their respective struggles with the ending of the Internet-bubble was a nice “recently passed current events retro-read.”

The Warren Buffet Way was what you’d expect – a solid treatise on Warren Buffet by Robert Hagstrom. As one of the many people on this planet that are simultaneously fascinated by and in awe of Warren Buffett’s investing skill and style, this book exceeded my expectations and is a must read if you are into Buffett.

The best book so far is Raising The Bar – the story of Gary Erickson and his company – Clif Bar Inc. The first chapter starts off with the story of him deciding to walk away from the sale of Clif Bar for $120m on the day they were signing the definitive documents. He tells an awesome entrepreneurial story – both of the run up to this amazing decision to not sell – as well as the aftermath as he buys out his parter and recreates the magic of Clif Bar. Erickson is a great storyteller, adventurer, and entrepreneur – this one is an inspiration for anyone creating a company.

Enjoy your turkey.

Oct 23 2004

Book – Change Your Underwear Twice A Week

I discovered Danny Gregory this summer in Alaska when I read Everyday Matters.

I bought all of his books and tossed them in the to read pile. Today I read Change Your Underwear Twice a Week: Lessons from the Golden Age of Classroom Filmstrip. Remember filmstrips? I do. They sucked. I remember taking off my glasses in elementry and junior high school to make it “harder” to see them since they were so incredibly dull and banal.

Gregory goes deep in his analysis of filmstrips in this beautifully illustrated book. He concentrates mostly on filmstrips from the late 1940’s to the early 1950’s. The actual filmstrip frames form the core of the story with Gregory’s narration of each section dripping with sarcasm as well as insight into the way our government was programming the minds of our youth through the filmstrips they funded for public education.

Cynical, sarcastic, and beautifully illustrated – this is a must read for anyone that ever had to run the filmstrip projector as their punishment for being an overachiever.

Oct 21 2004

Florence of Arabia – Rolling on the floor funny

I finished Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley an hour ago. I am still laughing about it. It’s by far the funniest thing I’ve experienced in October – even better than the Jon Stewart Crossfire episode.

If you desire a “middle eastern comedy” written by a satircal god, you’ll enjoy this one.

Oct 21 2004

Neal Stephenson on Slashdot

If you are a Neal Stephenson fan, there’s a great interview with him up on Slashdot.

Snow Crash remains one of my all time favorite books and losing myself in The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon was the only way I survived a two week safari in Africa (the seminal moment of the trip was captured on video tape by my brother – I was sitting in a chair looking sunburned, dirty, tired, and generally miserable at which point I said “if I ever talk about going to Africa again, show me this video.”)

I’ve been holding off tackling the The Baroque Cycle trilogy (Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1), The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 2), The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 3)), but as someone once said, “I yield to superior firepower.”

Oct 12 2004

A weekend of books, leaves, and no Internet

Amy and I spent the weekend in New Hampshire. We stayed at a Stepping Stones – a bed and breakfast we used to stay at regularly when we lived in Boston – and hung out, read, slept, and looked at leaves.

Once we crossed the New Hampshire border (from Boston – where we spent the night at XV Beacon – one of my favorite hotels in the world), we saw plenty of pumkins, corn, and leaves (yellow, orange, and red). However, my Sidekick immediately stopped working since apparently New Hampshire doesn’t have any cell phone towers (according to the locals.) Our B&B didn’t have high speed Internet either, so I decided to punt on email for the long weekend and read instead.

I had started Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir so I gobbled that one down first. It was intense – it reminded me of a book I read this summer called Learning Joy from Dogs Without Collars : A Memoir. Both are books about homelessness, written by children (Joy: daughter; Bullshit: son) of chronically homeless parents (Joy: mother; Bullshit: father). Bullshit was much more abrassive – in addition to being homeless, the father was portrayed as a generally unpleasant human (compared to the mother in Joy – she had her problems, but at least she seemed to try.) Both authors struggled to figure out their lives and these books were clearly a reflection on their experiences while simultaneously being a catharsis of sorts for them. Bullshit knocked me out – the author Nick Flynn is an awesome writer and – when I was done – I needed something very different.

Rich Karlgaard’s Life 2.0 : How People Across America Are Transforming Their Lives by Finding the Where of Their Happiness was next. I don’t know Rich, but I fondly read his Forbes column (he’s the publisher and rates a nice column at the front.) The first section of Life 2.0 is delightful – Rich pilots his own small plane across America (in Richard Bach-like fashion) and meets with entrepreneurs and executives who are reshaping their lives by fleeing the big coastal cities (San Francisco, Boston, NY) to find a more rewarding life in small town America. I identified with many of these stories – which are fun and inspiring – since I left Boston ten (yes 10) years ago to move to Boulder. While I still spend plenty of time on the coasts, I try to live my life in Boulder and Homer, Alaska – two places that definitely fit in the small town category. In the second section of the book, Rich tries to – in his words – “pull together the meaning of these individual portraits of people and places and to examine the long-term economic, technological, and spiritual implications of the move to a saner style of life.” He does an ok (not great) job here – it feels more like the obligatory “I just told some stories – now – here are my conclusions” section. The third section is a fun list of 150 “cheap cities” which I think is a misnomer – they are 150 “small cities worth paying attention to and knowing about” – along with Rich’s commentary. Overall, a very worthwhile read if you are stuck on either coast and wondering why you’re (a) struggling to make ends meet and (b) frustrated with big city life. Of course, if you love big city life, don’t bother with this book.

Next – Term Sheets & Valuations – A Line by Line Look at the Intricacies of Venture Capital Term Sheets & Valuations. Yeah – I know – pretty dry. I grabbed this book hoping I could recommend it to you. I can’t – I was really disappointed. While it’s an ok primer for anyone faced with a VC term sheet, it’s very shallow, somewhat disorganized, and lacking in clear anecdotes and examples. I was intrigued by the publisher – Aspatore – which has a whole series of VC books – and claims that this one was the best selling venture capital book of 2003. Egads.

I finished with Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture. Amy and I had the honor of having dinner with Daniel Libeskind on Wednesday night with a small group of folks from the Denver Art Museum (I’m on the technology advisory board for the museum and we are long time supporters.) Daniel is an amazing person – if you don’t know of him – he’s the master plan architecture for the World Trade Center Reconstruction Site. He’s also the architect for the extension to the Denver Art Museum – which will be his first constructed building in the United States. Amy and I love architecture – we’ve done a few designs with Coleman Coker (the “eldorado canyon” project is one of them) – and jumped at the opportunity to have dinner with Daniel. Amy fell in love with him (she got to sit next to him in the seat of honor) – I had to remind her on our way home that he was already married. His book exceeded my expectations – it’s beautifully written, tells an incredible story, and blends his philosophy, vision, life history, and architectural journey in a very accessible way.

Now – back to work.

Sep 10 2004

Some Books Weren’t Meant to Be Finished

If you follow my Read Recently list, you know that I plowed through a lot of books this summer.  However, I’ve been stuck on What Einstein Told His Cook for two weeks.  It’s not a bad book (in fact, if you are a foodie, it’s a very interesting book.)  However, as I’ve been crushed with work the past two weeks, I haven’t been reading much and the book hasn’t pulled me in to escape from the world.

When I was a teenager (and reading a ton – remember the “bookworm” – ok – that was me) I decided that it was ok to simply stop reading a book when I wasn’t getting through it.  I know a lot of folks that seem to be unable to bail on a book – I’ve never completely understood this as I think it feels liberating to decide that a book wasn’t meant to be finished.

On to the next one – Blue Mountain: Turning Dreams into Reality – Susan Polis’ story of how she, her husband Stephen, and her son Jared created a greeting card giant that spun off – one of the most financially successful Internet bubble-era exits.

Aug 22 2004

Everyday Matters

Everyday Matters is a remarkable book. If you live in New York; have a family member who has had a tragic accident or a crippling disease; or are subject to bouts of depression, you must read this book.

I came across the book while I was browsing in my local bookstore in Homer. The cover caught my eye but the excerpt on the back captured my attention. It was a drawing of the eight stages of an apple being eaten with the quote “Two years before I started drawing, my wife was run over by a subway training and nearly killed. Well, this book is about how art and New York City saved my life.”

Danny Gregory has created a beautiful book with his words, drawings, and ideas. Thankfully he has a blog so I can get a dose of him on a regular basis.

Aug 20 2004

Your marketing sucks.

I bought the book ‘Your marketing sucks” because of the title. While I didn’t expect much from it, it was worth reading. It’s a quick and easy read that I recommend it to any CEO who thinks marketing isn’t working as well as it could for his company.

I’m the second guy to admit that I don’t really know jack about marketing (Steve Bayle is the first – he’ll readily admit that I don’t have a clue.) I came to this realization in the middle of the Internet bubble. I was sitting at my desk in Colorado one day when I received a giant overnight package from one of my investments that I’ll refer to as YACOTWTF (“Yet Another Company On The Way to Failing”). It was an unusually large overnight package and I wasn’t expecting anything, so I was curious. When I opened the package, inside was a giant picture frame with a note taped to it. The note said “Congrats on the great ad we’ve placed in Red Herring Magazine.” I looked at the picture and it was a giant (poster sized) framed (in glass) replica of the ad. My first thought was “why the fuck did they send this to me?” I read the ad. My second thought was “what a shitty ad – it doesn’t say anything about what YACOTWTF does.” My third thought quickly followed, “What did we pay for this?” You can see where this was going. “Did I approve the marketing budget”, “Who is the VP Marketing again”, “I better call the CEO to fire the guy.”

After this ran its course, I called up my doctor, made an appointment at a special top secret medical facility for entrepreneurs and venture capitalist (there are two separate buildings but the dining hall and gym are shared), and had an operation that replaced the phrase “marketing” with the phrase “demand creation” in my brain. Oh – and the ad campaign – which cost $2 million in total (unfortunately, Red Herring wasn’t the only place a full page ad was run) – generated ONE lead and ZERO customers. The company went out of business about a year later. If YACOTWTF was the only company on the planet that did something as dumb as this it’d be one thing, but they had plenty of company as many of the Internet bubble companies spend grotesquely more than $2m on “marketing” that had zero return.

It should be no surprise to you that I didn’t hang the ad on my wall in my office. Our building is two stories high – glass makes a neat scatter pattern when dropped from that height (although it was a pain in the ass to clean up.)

This book reinforced a lot of messages around using that thing that I refer to as demand creation to generate value in your business. I knew I’d at least enjoy the book (even if it wasn’t good) when the first chapter started out with the rule that “Marketing is not about spending money on such things as advertising, direct mail, and P.R. Those are just tools. Marketing is about growing your business – its revenues, profit, and valuation.” Ok – well – duh – but it’s often overlooked. When the author started the next chapter with “Most companies make salesmanship the last step in the marketing process. Most companies are wrong: Salesmanship should have come first” I was hooked – at least for the hour it took me to read the book.

While the book has all the flaws of today’s typical business book (author platitudes followed up by mediocre and often self-serving examples, desperate need of a better editor, and reader fatigue after about 150 pages), it’s still a worthwhile book for a CEO struggling with demand creation (I mean marketing).

Aug 1 2004

Adventures in Tokyo

Amy and I go to a different foreign city every year on her birthday. Last year it was Rome; this year it will be Tokyo.

Even though I spent six years working with or affiliated with Softbank, I never managed to make it to Japan. So – this will be our first trip. Once we decided to go, I emailed Jenny Lawton and asked her to send me a typical stack of Tokyo tourist books.

She included a couple of gems, including a book by Rick Kennedy of Tokyoq called Little Adventures in Tokyo: 39 Thrills for the Urban Explorer. I’ve gobbled this one down (ignoring the several other “here’s what to see and do in Tokyo books” – I’ll leave those for Amy to look at.) Instead, I’ve learned about kohdo (incense cerimony), kyudo (archery), tea in temples, the Shinjuku Station Rush Hour, pachinko, hydroplane races, retro Tokyo, banana splits, skiing inside, miniature formula-1 racing, and a bunch of other off the beaten path things to do.

I expect this will be a weird trip.