Whenever I’m asked which business books have influenced me, my standard response is to reach for my contrarian cudgel and bash the whole concept. In my experience, most business books have one point to make and take up 300 pages making it over and over. If I’m going to read 300 pages of words, they’d damn well better be written by a master, like Orwell or Narayan.
But I confess, an Inc. list of recent business titles did include a couple with potential: “Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley” by Antonio Garcia Martinez, the story of a guy who goes deep inside the men’s rooms to retrieve grimy details from the “tech whorehouse” of Silicon Valley. Finally! And then there’s “Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Big Trends” by Martin Lindstrom, the adventures of a consultant who spends 300 days a year in the field, gathering telling insights about what people want. I won’t buy the book, but I can buy the concept. I once spent months in the field myself, sleeping in the back of a Mazda pickup as I drove from factory to factory collecting “small data” about what workers wanted.
These business books might actually be good reads. But in terms of advice for young entrepreneurs, nothing can top a few pithy primers most of us first heard in kindergarten. Taken together, they barely add up to 30 pages, yet they get their points across:
- The Little Red Hen. The hard-working hen found no one willing to help her make the bread, but plenty willing to help her eat it. Such is life, young entrepreneur. Don’t expect anyone to help you build your business, though plenty will try to take credit later if it’s a success. So be willing to go out and do it yourself; if it’s a good idea and you’re a little lucky, one day you’ll have lots of bread and lots of employees to share it with.
- The Dog and His Bone. This Aesop fable is the story of a dog carrying a bone in his mouth who suddenly sees his reflection. Thinking the bone in the reflection is bigger, he drops the real bone into the water and ends up with nothing. A classic line from the story is “Greedy, greedy makes a hungry puppy.” Or an imprisoned fund manager, or a bankrupt startup. The business advice here? Focus on the good thing that you have. Don’t go reaching for something you think looks better, because you risk losing everything.
- Cheese, Peas and Chocolate Pudding by Betty Van Witsen. This story of a boy who refuses to eat anything different until a piece of hamburger accidently falls in his mouth first appeared in Humpty Dumpty magazine, a treasure trove of wisdom, and later came out in hardcover. If it weren’t so hard to find these days I’d consider handing out copies to companies I visit, companies that think there’s only one way to do business — the way everybody does it. Whenever I suggest trying something different, they’ll say, “Well, I dooon’t knooow….” You can almost hear their noses wrinkling, as if I’m suggesting they eat Limburger cheese. The lesson here? As the little boy learns, trying different things can open up whole new worlds.
- Petunia by Roger Duvoisin. Petunia was such a popular character that the author based a series of books on her, but the first is my favorite. Petunia is a silly goose who’s convinced that carrying a book around under her wing makes her full of wisdom. The upshot is she doles out terrible advice to everyone. The lesson for entrepreneurs is obvious: Carrying a book or a touting a highfalutin business degree doesn’t necessarily make someone an expert. It takes experience starting and growing a business, riding the ups and downs and taking a few slings and arrows. The best advice will come from people who’ve been down in the trenches, out in the deserts, and up a few creeks, maybe even people who’ve spent their share of nights in a Mazda pickup.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll curl up with Yertle the Turtle, perhaps the greatest business book of all.