Books Read in the First Half of 2017

In putting together this set of reviews, I noticed my reading material in 2017 had some very specific patterns:

  • Biographies: Seven out of 18 books count as biographies, either of individuals or individual businesses.
  • Warren Buffett: Two books on Warren Buffett, one investing-oriented and one biography.
  • Advertising: Three books about the advertising business, including the two premiere books by ad legend David Ogilvy.
  • Sales and Marketing (excluding advertising) for Business: Three books, aside from advertising, specifically about sales and marketing, primarily for software companies.

Hopefully any of these themes or some of the other surprise recent reads are of interest to you.

Two Stars (Recommended only for those interested in the subject):

Hacking Sales – The Playbook for Building a High-Velocity Sales Machine by Max Altschuler:
Author Altschuler has taken the popular “growth hacker” term and given it a more sales-oriented bent while sharing some of its same principles. Primarily this revolves around using data and tools to quantify and operationalize the sales process. This is also the book’s weakness: It’s so tooling-centric that it’s almost certainly going to be deprecated in five years, and the abstract ideas that might hold up over time are only briefly highlighted.

Three Stars (Recommended):

Adulthood is a Myth – A Sarah Scribble’s Collection by Sarah Anderson:
I hadn’t heard of Sarah Anderson until a friend came into town and lunged toward this book at a bookstore. It’s hard to tell if the “Sarah Scribbles” webcomic-turned-print-comic speaks specifically to millennials or would’ve worked for twenty-somethings of every generation, but they’re quick and clever and can make you chuckle.

Predictable Revenue – Turn Your Business Into a Sales Machine With the $100 Million Best Practices of Salesforce.com by Aaron Ross and Marylou Taylor:

Predictable Revenue, written by a former sales leader at Salesforce, is a guide to building sales departments within businesses. It won’t apply to all companies, but it’s got enough thoughts on both structuring a sales organization and tactics for improving sales processes that it’s worth the hour or two it takes to complete.

Oxymoronica – Paradoxical Wit and Wisdom from History’s Greatest Wordsmiths by Dr. Mardy Grothe:
If you’re a sucker for witticisms like I am, or just a fan of Yogi Berra you’ll enjoy this collection of paradoxical aphorisms. I’m mostly impressed by the unique angle of this compendium. It’s one thing to compile a list of great quotes; it’s another to collect only oxymorons. I wish I was clever enough to be in this book.

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy:
While Ogilvy’s “Confessions of an Advertising Man” is more of an autobiography, this is more like a how-to manual for advertising. Each chapter, featuring aging yet still colorful ad images, focuses on a different area of the advertising business: how to create effective ads for different mediums, managing clients, and the history of the industry. There is plenty of food for thought here for anyone trying to use advertising to grow a business, even if you have to filter for what’s still relevant in today’s technological world.

Hacking Growth – How Today’s Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success by Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown:
Author Sean Ellis, who coined the phrase “growth hacking” and runs a company espousing its concepts, has compiled a solid foundational textbook for modern business “growth”, which distinguishes itself as a distinct discipline crossing product and marketing.

It’s split into two major parts: “The Method” defines what a “growth” department is and then how they do it. The second half of the book is the “playbook” with detailed tactics and testimonials from modern (primarily software) businesses. These methods and techniques share the general philosophy of mixing creative marketing ideas with scientifically-inspired, experiment-driven execution to generate unique results.

This combination can generate either lots of small improvements that cumulate into big impact, or that “aha” moment that provides a business’s great leap forward. Regardless of which approach ends up working for your business, “Hacking Growth” can both spark ideas to try and serve as a reference whenever you’re suffering from “business owner’s block”.

More Awesome Than Money – Four Boys and Their Heroic Quest to Save Your Privacy from Facebook by Jim Dwyer:
Diaspora was a flash in the pan attempt by four NYU students to overthrow Facebook’s monopoly on social networking by giving individuals control of their online data.

With unique, early access, journalist Jim Dwyer was able to build this story over many years and direct interactions with the young cofounders and the Silicon Valley-ites they bumped up against. Without too many spoilers, the project fizzles as the Diaspora team comes to grips with their own lack of knowledge and lack of direction. This is a tragic tale, where young, unsophisticated idealists crash against the realities of owning and building a tangible business and the sociopolitical dynamics of Silicon Valley.

Four Stars (Highly recommended for those interested in topic, or generally recommended for anyone):

End of Advertising – Why it Had to Die and the Creative Resurrection to Come by Andrew Essex:
This is a tricky one to review. Picked up due to its catchy title and my interest in advertising, it’s a pretty thin, quick read. Author Andrew Essex, a former Drogan and now head of Tribeca (known for its film festival), opines on ad-blocking technology as the killer of traditional advertising. That alone wouldn’t really warrant a four-star review, but his two insights into potential futures for the ad industry so stuck in my mind that I had to give this a four.

Those ideas are:

  1. Advertising is not compelling content which is why people hate it. If companies made entertaining, educational, or otherwise valuable content instead of “advertising”, then people would watch it. The Lego Movie is a mainstream data point.
  2. Companies/brands that used to advertise could spend that budget in better ways to build goodwill with consumers. Essex’s interesting recommendation is for companies to lead the charge in privatizing America’s failing infrastructure (at a time when government budgets are a mess). Some companies have started doing this through means like sponsoring bikesharing programs in many cities. What if your street’s pothole got filled next week, but had your bank’s logo on it? Or more boldly, if new high-speed trains connecting major cities were built, funded by McDonald’s and Coca-Cola? It’s quite likely people would welcome the new improvements to their daily commute or vacation in exchange for the Golden Arches on the side of the hyperloop.

While the first idea is increasingly well-known, I found the second one pretty novel and have been mulling on it ever since.

An alternative description of this book was also provided by the author when asked by the New York Times to pitch it: “It’s the only place where you can learn about the origins of heroin and Ivory soap and the future of the internet in one tight little 200-page package. And also, hardcover is the new black.”

The Undoing Project – A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis:
Michael Lewis, probably the author I’ve read the most in the last five years, has written his best book since The Big Short. The Undoing Project documents the lives of two of the most influential social scientists of the last century: Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman.

Both Israeli, their forced time as youths in the military shaped their unique views on how people think about problems. Eventually they find themselves in American academia, where there work, undervalued for decades, slowly spreads through word of mouth and Tversky’s inclination to accept speaking gigs. Their work formed the basis for an entirely new field now commonly called behavioral economics, which counters the heavily mathematized theories of most of the 1900s with an emphasis on observing how people actually make decisions rather than solely theorizing about it.

Their influence can not be understated and was cemented with Kahneman’s 2002 Nobel Prize coronation (Tversky prematurely passed away in 1996). Lewis successfully captured how the youths and personalities of these two friends shaped their perspectives and enabled them to provide unique insights into the human mind and encapsulate these insights into an incredible body of work.

Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy:
When I would read this book in coffee shops and bars, staff and strangers only occasionally recognized the name “Ogilvy”. Considering he was the leading practitioner of advertising, he should really still be household name.

I expected Confessions to be a memoir, but it’s a more of a how-to manual for working in advertising (and really any business). The writing is just like one of his ads: High value-per-word (one personal metric I use when reviewing books) and short sentences composed of articulate, yet plain speech. As mentioned in my earlier reviewed book “The End of Advertising”, some of the concepts may be outdated (no surprise given it’s fifty years old). However, every other line is quotable, highlight-able, or whatever method of bookmarking you prefer, so you should give it a skim.

1984 by George Orwell:
This is one of those “classic” works that I delayed reading because I felt like I already knew too much about it.

After completing it, my first thought was that having epic, multi-page “John Galt”-esque speeches three-quarters through must’ve been much more popular a century ago and feels really bloated today.

Despite the negative tone to the review, this is still a monumental piece, painting the image of a dystopia enforced through ubiquitous paranoia. It only receives a four, not a five, because I’m comparing it to “Brave New World”, which was shorter, was more eloquently written, and is possibly more accurate depiction of how humanity could end up in a dystopia.

Radical Candor – Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Scott:

This book reminded me of Reid Hoffman’s “The Alliance”, which was about the flexibility of people’s roles and tenures within modern organizations. These two have what I think are important theories that are relatively fresh in management theory, yet feel more natural to my millennial cohort and therefore less surprising or informative.

Despite feeling like I didn’t “learn” much new, per se, Kim Scott has done a terrific job codifying what good management is: Honest constructive criticism, not making work issues personal while still enabling everyone to display their personalities, and many more aspects of mixing humanity with the workplace. I’d consider Radical Candor to be required reading for anyone in position to manage people, and still recommended for anyone in a profession which requires personal interaction.

Inside the Investments of Warren Buffett – Twenty Cases by Yefei Lu:
There have been many books written about investment strategies loosely based around Buffett’s philosophies. I have not yet read a book quite like Lu’s.

He takes an interesting approach. He has taken twenty of Warren Buffett’s investments and goes through the following steps:

  1. Describe the company, including its history and how the business works.
  2. Explain what most ordinary investors would have seen when looking at that company at the period of time when Buffett was investigating it.
  3. Provide his own analysis on what the business was likely worth.
  4. Explain where Buffett was in his career at the time
  5. Ultimately show how Buffett invested in the business and why

Lu outlines these investments with the appropriate amount of financial detail (while providing appendices for those who want to look themselves) and through multiple perspectives (the typical investor and Buffett).

Lu extracts important lessons from Buffett’s body of work, many of them are often lacking from conversations about Buffett’s investment style. In particular, his strategies are not as simplistic as many think, have evolved (by necessity) over time as his fortune has grown, and that many of his opportunities in recent decades would not have been available to many individual investors.

The Complacent Class – The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream by Tyler Cowen:
Cowen comes out with a new book seemingly every year, and each one contains a concise thesis. “The Complacent Class” covers what I consider to be an underreported topic: The rise of complacency throughout American life.

This modern complacency is caused, according to Cowen, by two forces: the rise of bureaucracy post-world wars, and technology which makes it easier to “match” a person to their existing interests (food, friends, jobs, etc.), thereby reducing dynamism and progress in society.

The end result of this complacency is almost inevitably major shocks to the system, such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2016 election, as systemic problems build to breaking points and violent reactions. If you are looking for explanations for the volatility of the past decade, Cowen has some intriguing theories.

Five Stars (Highly Recommend to Everyone):

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil
What Cathy O’Neil has written here with is a public service announcement against the abusive algorithm practices in our society. It is too infrequent that an insider speaks out against the hand that has fed them. O’Neil, whose credentials include stints as a Wall Street quantitative analyst and mathematician for an advertising technology firm, calls out the most damning argument against much of the math applied in our modern world: the mathematical modeling itself is poorly implemented. This is only one of her many arguments made against the widespread abuse of math, but it’s the one that bothers me most deeply because it requires someone with a certain level of knowledge and experience such as Cathy to credibly call out poor industry practices.

The above is the broader theme of the book. The literal content is: Poorly constructed and implemented algorithms are being used to further divide our world by either unintentionally discriminating against the poor (such as job application tests and insurance companies analyzing data to deny people jobs and insurance, respectively), or more heinously profiting explicitly from the exploitation (for-profit colleges and some payday loan companies).

For potential readers who would normally shy away from anything that advertised itself as a book about math, fear not. WoMD features no equations and the problems described are understandable for everyone. While Cathy does sound the alarm on many terrible practices, she provides her own upbeat solutions where math and humanity meet.

If you read WoMD and enjoy it, or want to preview O’Neil’s writing style and topics covered, she actively blogs at MathBabe.org.

The Snowball – Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroeder:
The number of books written about Buffett could fill its own bookshelf. Snowball is unique among them because author Alice Schroeder had unique, authorized access to Buffett, making this as close to an autobiography as we’ll ever get on this living legend.

I delayed reading Snowball for years because I had already read so much material on Buffett before, including Roger Lowenstein’s “Buffett” biography. Lowenstein, a fantastic financial journalist, focused more on the evolution of Buffett’s fortune than his personal life. Schroeder does the inverse, focusing less on the investing and more on the making of the man.

This kind of book is generally a lay-up for a great rating: The inside scoop on one of the richest man in the world, operating out of a modest home in Omaha, Nebraska, who will be remembered more for the way he accumulated his wealth than just its size.

A Man For All Markets – From Las Vegas to Wall Street, How I Beat the Dealer and the Market by Edward Thorp:
Ed Thorp is a contender for the title of “most influential man that’s not a household name.” In this autobiography, a legend walks us through his world-changing life with the humility of a man who has come, with time, to understand the gravity of his accomplishments.

For those unaware, Thorp’s resume includes creating the groundbreaking card counting system which then broke the Las Vegas casinos (until they changed all their game rules), created the first wearable computer with Claude Shannon, and being an early acquaintance with Warren Buffett. Not a bad resume.

While the subject matter (academia, Las Vegas, and Wall Street) may not appeal to everyone, the way in which one man managed to disrupt so many fields should be inspiration for anyone.

Eccentric Orbits – The Iridium Story by John Bloom:
My favorite genre is probably “business epics”, a category label I just made up to cover longform biographies done of companies. The historical leaders of this genre (and some of my all-time favorite books) are Barbarians at the Gate, Indecent Exposure, and The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Eccentric Orbits is nearly in the same league as that triumvirate. What Eccentric Orbits doesn’t quite have, by comparison, in dramatic characters, it makes up for with (spoilers) a more uplifting ending than most business dramas.

Eccentric Orbits is the history of Iridium, which if I were to describe as a “satellite company” would be under-selling its accomplishments as the only truly global telecommunications infrastructure.

The story consists of four major parts:

  1. In the 1980s, Iridium is born from humble beginnings by a few men in a Motorola research lab in Arizona. They concoct the ambitious idea of truly worldwide telecommunications via satellites, beyond any existing cellular phone technology in remote parts of the deserts and poles of the Earth.
  2. With the engineering underway, the business and legal teams at Motorola go on an international scramble to get hundreds of countries and governments, literally covering the entire world, to allow a private company to build a worldwide communications infrastructure and surround the Earth with satellites.
  3. Macroeconomic factors and the egos of Motorola’s upper management sabotage the launch of the Iridium company and satellite system by milking it for so much money and not promoting it, nothing is left to continue to operate the business.
  4. Finally, a lone, retired businessman reading about all this in the newspaper takes it upon himself to rescue the near-bankrupt satellite company with the unexpected help of Black Entertainment Television and the Prince of Saudi Arabia.

The entire saga seems so unlikely at so many junctures, and Bloom describes it all with both parts humor and Tom Clancy-esque action. In telling the story of one just one company, the author manages to teach much about the history of technology and communications in the past century. It was certainly a story worth telling and one I recommend reading.

Best Book Read in the First Half of 2017

On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King:
There’s something special about someone at the top of a field writing the canonical text on how to contribute to said field. Stephen King has done that for aspiring writers.

The book is broken into multiple parts, with the first third being an autobiography of his life. He discusses his lower-middle class upbringing, his youth where he discovered comic books and horror movies which gave his art its unique flavor, his life with his wife, and his struggles with alcoholism.

The heart of the book is where King gets down to brass tacks, laying bare what he knows about being a professional writer. Some of it is technical; King espouses his disdain for overly-architected plots, adverb abuse, and many more recommendations for fiction writers. And some of it is philosophical, emphasizing that achieving greatness in writing is the same as in any field: you have to enjoy what you do, and then do it a lot.

I haven’t read any Stephen King novels before, but I may have to start. King found that he enjoyed writing at a very young age, and like many greats, quickly committed his life to his craft. I am grateful that someone who devoted his life to his craft wrote a how-to manual on a subject which is really universal.