Jan Kubr

Posts Tagged ‘book’

A book read: My Startup Life by Ben Casnocha

In Uncategorized on December 18, 2008 at 11:19

This book is a story about Ben Casnocha‘s experiences with starting a software startup. He was very young when he started it (13), but that is not at all why you should read this book. It is full of valuable advice on how to get a company off the ground and is especially valuable for someone who is more on the technical side of things – like me.

What to build

How do you choose what to build? Ben has an interesting observation:

“Some problems require ‘vitamins’ – that is, a product that’s ‘nice to have.’ Some issues require ‘antibiotics’ which means they’re mission-critical problems. Most profitable businesses solve mission-critical problems, or the ‘must-haves’.”

Sell, sell, sell

Ben focused on selling their product from almost the day one, although it was only a “beta” written by a cheap programmer.  He didn’t want to wait until the product was “perfect.” If it provides good value to its customers, try to sell it to as many people as possible. Generate revenue that you can then invest back to the product to make it better.

Sounds cheesy. But many people are ashamed of early versions of their product and don’t want to offer it to customers (or to charge them for it) until they finish this feature. When that’s done, there is another crucial piece of functionality that needs to be added. And that goes on until the company disappears because there is no money to keep it alive. Sell what is good enough and make it better over time. In Ben’s words:

“Isn’t developing software the core competency of the business? It’s actually not that simple. In the early goings, it can be better to ship less-than-perfect software and focus on selling, selling, selling, rather than making perfect software.”

“Good enough is a key principle in entrepreneurship. If your aim is ‘perfect,’ the future is so far away it may be hard to get going.” 

However, you can’t be only “good enough” in everything, then you end up being mediocre. The trick is to choose in what you need to be great and where “good enough” is – well – good enough! Making these decisions will also help you decide when to save money and buy something cheap (maybe a desk) and when demand fine quality (business cards, chairs for programmers).

Good programmers are hard to find

Creating a software product is everything but easy. As Ben noticed, “Do you want it cheap, fast, or good? Choose two, says the old engineering adage.” And a related observation: “Technology start-ups take note: when a programmer isn’t on the founding team, it is difficult to find engineers who are both high quality and affordable.”

What to charge?

How much to charge your customers? Think about how much the customer’s problems you are solving are costing. If you replace one person’s week of work, then her salary for that week is about what you should charge.

B-plan or not?

Should you write a business plan even you don’t need it for any investors? Interesting observation by Ben: “The best business plans do more for you than for others by clarifying your own thinking.”

Get out of your office!

Ben says it is critical to get face time with (potential) customers, especially in the beginning. You need to learn as much as you can about your customers’ problems and generally about the market you are in. Also they will trust you more if they see you in person. He encourages you to get out of your office and talk to people! (And by the way: “The two best moments to receive high-quality feedback from people are when they are hired and fired.”) But beware: “True innovation rarely sprouts from customer feedback, but good products must be informed by it.”

How to become better

And what Ben thinks you can do as a person to become (more) successful with your company?

“People who get stuff done think about the short-term feature. (…) People who get stuff done ‘dream’ and ‘talk’ as much as the next guy, but they share these dreams and ideas with others. (…) People who get stuff done begin. Taking that first step can be the hardest. Act now! (…) Do you want to be known as a doer or a talker? Do you want to start businesses or just talk about starting businesses?”

Don’t let failures stop you:

“Ups and downs are the definitive indication that you are doing something entrepreneurial. If your records is spotless, then you haven’t been an entrepreneur. If the only mistakes you’ve made are on school papers or in mishandling a report in a big corporation, those aren’t spots. It’s the spots from the school of hard knocks that matter. (…) With practice you’ll learn to see failure as just feedback for improvement.”

Maximize luck by exposing yourself to randomness:

“Attend conferences no one else is attending. Read books no one else is reading. Talk to people no one else is talking to.”

Trick yourself:

“Self-deception is essential for high self-esteem. It’s OK to take more credit than you deserve, in you own mind, for successes. It’s OK to think that you can outwork and outpassion anyone who competes with you. It’s OK to attribute soaring victories to a tireless work ethic. It’s OK if these are slight exaggerations. After all, how many people attribute ‘good luck’ to their wins? Far fewer than those who attribute ‘bad luck’ to their losses! Stay humble, especially on the outside, but consider yourself (privately) as unstoppable.”

A book read: Small Giants by Bo Burlingham

In Uncategorized on September 1, 2008 at 21:22

What a great idea for a book: You don’t need to grow your company as fast as possible to make it as big as possible. You can very well limit its growth, purposely don’t attack every opportunity that occurs.

Which can give you more freedom. Because if you grow aggressively, you either need to give up at least some of your company to your investors (and then you need to do what they say) or devote all your time to develop the business:

“As the head of a public or venture-backed company, you’re responsible to outside shareholders, whose interests you must always look out for. As the head of a very fast-growing company, you’re a slave to the business, which has tremendous needs. Either way, you’re constantly hiring, selling, training, negotiating, handholding, cajoling, mollifying, warning, pleading, coaxing, and on and on.
While the experience can be exhilarating, it leaves little time for anything else, least of all thinking about what you really want to do with your business and your life. People who choose to stay private and closely held and to place other goals ahead of growth get two things back in return: control and time. The combination equals freedom – or, more precisely, the opportunity for freedom.”

Nice. The problem is – that’s it from the book. What follows is many stories about what companies that stayed private and didn’t grow just for the growth chose to do – and each of the examples is a little bit different and your case will be different, too. To hear an entrepreneurial story, you can very well listen to an episode of From Scratch. Or – well, yeah – read this book. I warned you, though.

That said, I did find one more notable thing, especially interesting for people from my region:

“Although it’s hard to imagine now, there was a time when it was not considered a compliment to be called ‘entrepreneurial.’ Back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, entrepreneurs were generally looked upon as shifty characters with little or no redeeming social value. The media ignored them, academia deplored them, and their companies got no more respect than they did. When people talked about business, they were referring to large, well-established, publicly traded companies. Smaller, private companies were regarded as fringe elements, and therefore unimportant by definition.”

A book read: Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath

In Uncategorized on July 29, 2008 at 20:36

A decently useful book. If you don’t struggle for more than a week to finish it, it is a time well spent.

The authors present a basic framework for improving the stickiness of ideas you are trying to communicate. There are six basic aspects you need to keep an eye on: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and how much your idea is presented as a story (which abbreviates as SUCCESs). If your message has these attributes, it’ll then help you make people understand (simplicity), pay attention (unexpectedness), remember (concreteness), believe and agree (credibility), care (emotions), and act (stories).

The book is full of examples of successful ideas. I didn’t think they always fit well in the chapter they were in (that they ilustrated the attribute they were supposed to most), but what the heck.

Particulary interesting:

The was an experiment made at Stanford: Members of one group of people were asked to tap out a rhythm of a song on a table. Other group had to guess what song was being tapped. Only 3 out of 120 songs were guessed right. Now the interesting part. Each time the tappers were asked if they thought the listeners would guess right. They thought they would in 50% of the time! It shows how much we are affected by the Curse of Knowledge. We hear the songs in our heads and thus we think it’s obvious what we’re tapping. It’s very hard for us to imagine not knowing what the song is. And yet this is very important if we want to get any complicated thought across.

Colonel Tom Kolditz: “(…) Many armies fail because they put all their emphasis into creating a plan that becomes useless ten minutes into the battle.”

“To get to the core, we’ve got to weed out superfluous and tangential elements. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important but just aren’t the most important idea.”

“There are two steps in making your ideas sticky – Step 1 is to find the core, Step 2 is to translate the core using the SUCCESs checklist.”

“People are tempted to tell you everything, with perfect accuracy, right up front, when they should be giving you just enough info to be useful, then a little more, then a little more.”

“In fifteen seconds:
(1) Write down as many things that are white in color as you can think of.
(2) Write down as many white things in your refrigerator as you can think of.

(1) Think of five silly things that people have done in the world in the past ten years.
(2) Think about five silly things your child has done in the past ten years.”

Are the tasks under (2)s easier because your brain is able to focus more?

A book read: The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2008 at 22:01

Despite many negative thoughts you can find in the book (I’ve quoted quite a few), both main characters keep looking for love.

At first I was angry at Michel. I think it is easy to be depressed and keep finding negative sides of everything. It sucks you have a gorgeous girlfriend because it is harder to keep her and it’ll hurt more when you lose her. It sucks you have a lot of money because everyone will try to be a friend of yours just because of your wealth. It’s easy to depressed and be proud of it. “I’m the educated European who must be critical to appear smart“.

It is not difficult to be over-critical, it is ridiculously easy. Fortunately, Michel goes a bit further. He shows how avoiding having children, social interactions, and emotions would not make people happier. Because there is no happiness if you never experience sadness.

Michel took the current trend (but is it?) of increasing individualism and ‘loving-only-yourself’ attitude to the extreme. The result? People escaping and looking for company and love. So he shows that this is not what people actually want. But does he mean this is where we are heading anyway? Not really. He doesn’t get to the society of lonely individualists by simply extrapolating the current trends, but also by making a science-fiction like jump that is as likely and close in time as humans flying to other galaxies.

Thus I don’t think love is going to get away soon. It’s here and it will be for a while, no matter how silly it might seem to writers being proud of their constant critisism. It’s the essence of life after all. And by the way, looking for love is selfish enough.

And I don’t think people are getting more lonely or individualistic. I think (also) thanks to the Internet there’s as much social interaction as never before. People get more independent, but not isolated.

Try again, Michel.

A book read: Conversations with Millionaires by Mike Litman and Jason Oman

In Uncategorized on June 20, 2008 at 15:23

Don’t read this book. Read this review, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and The 4-Hour Workweek instead.

Conversations with millionaires contains transcripts of radio interviews with (you didn’t guess it) “America’s most successful entrepreneurs.” At least so the host of the show claims. I’d call it interviews with people who wrote a book or two on personal development and happen to sell lots of copies of them.

Exceptions from the rule: Wally Amos (founder of Famous Amos) and Jim McCann (CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com). That’s it from the entrepreneurs. Maybe I can add Robert Allen? From authors Sharon Lechter (co-author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad book series), Michael Gerber (author of E-myth), and Jay Conrad Levinson (author of Guerrilla Marketing) might be worth noting. But much better is to go read their books instead!

There’s very little I can quote here:

“People don’t take action (…) [because of the] fear of rejection. People are so afraid to look bad. We’re afraid to look stupid. We’re afraid to be humiliated. We’re afraid to look like we don’t know what we’re doing. We’re afraid to look ignorant.” (Jack Canfield)

“If you really want to know the secret of the Internet it is you get to fail fast for free.”

“Your income is the average of your ten best friends.” (both Robert Allen)

Not enough for a whole book, is it? And there’s so much praise of Think and Grow Rich in it that I became sick. My new goal: try to avoid another one of these.

A book read: Maus by Art Spiegelman

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2008 at 21:11

Maus is a comic book about Art’s father’s experiences during the Second World War. Jews are expressed as mice, nacists are cats, and other people dogs. This distinction makes it kind of easier to orientate in the story and to read through it faster. I’m not sure it was the author’s intent..

I guess you’ve heard a bit about holocaust. Right? You can get the sense of it again by reading this book; you can ask again how it is possible there could be so much hate against one race. What was so wrong with the Jews they were supposed to be exterminated? I just don’t get it.

Was the proper solution though just to take someone else’s ground and give it to them? And let them keep Palestinians in camps just like their fathers and grandmothers were?

Is all this because people won’t change but be cruel forever?

A book read: The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas

In Uncategorized on May 17, 2008 at 20:57

The Pragmatic Programmer is a book that will help you become a better programmer. At least that’s what the authors say in the first sentence of it. I have to say.. they are right!

First a general remark. I’ve been discussing approaches to work with anyone I could ever since I started working more than a few hours a week and even more after reading The 4-Hour Workweek. In my opinion, going to work just because you “have to” (there are bills to pay) is the saddest thing ever. What more though, if you want to feel “comfortable”; meaning you don’t want to face any major challenges, you just want to do what you usually do and don’t care much, you might very well die now. If you don’t evolve, if you don’t learn, you stand at the same place while the world is moving. And it’s moving fast these days. I warned you.

Anyways, the great thing about The Pragmatic Programmer is that not only does it challenge you to be better at your job, but it also encourages you to never stop improving. And to care. That’s probably the crucial part. If you don’t care what the results of one third of your day are, you might just very well die now. (For the second time already, too bad.)

Now the book is a bit older (2000) and the authors are not the youngest folks either, so some of the technical aspects seem to be a bit obsolete. However, that is not the main strength of the book and thus no big deal. The book is full of great tips on how to improve your skills as well as the usefulness and maintainability of the code you produce. My take-aways from these three areas:

  1. Skills (& attitude): Care about your craft, think about your work, don’t make lame excuses (provide options instead), don’t live with broken windows (fix results of bad or obsolete decisions early), be a catalyst for change, make quality a requirement, invest in your knowledge portfolio, use a single editor well, don’t blame (fix the problem instead),  organize teams around functionality, don’t use manual procedures.
  2. Usefulness: Remember the big picture, prototype to learn, don’t gather requirements – dig for them, work with a user to think like a user.
  3. Maintainability: Write code that writes code, crash early (use assertions and raise exceptions in cases when something that “should never happen” happened), minimize coupling, design using services, refactor early and often, design to test and test (or your users will), test your tests (use saboteurs), find bugs once.

There are a lot of technical tips in the book (from not mentioned ones “Don’t repeat yourself” or “Make it easy to reuse”) and although some are a bit contradictory to each other, vast majority of them is crucial and very important. Thankfully, I was taught most of them in college (fortunate to go to a good school) and thus they weren’t such a big surprise for me anymore. If you haven’t heard them yet though, read twice!

That said, there was one technical abstraction I enjoyed: the principle of orthogonality. Two lines are orthogonal if moving along one of the lines doesn’t change your position projected onto the other one (e.g. they meet at right angles). This makes it great analogy to software design: making a change to one component shouldn’t affect any other component. Although it is almost impossible to achieve 100%, I found that analogy very interesting.

The last tip in the book summarizes it for me pretty well: Sign your work! Work to be proud of your results.

A book read: “The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists” by Neil Strauss

In Uncategorized on May 6, 2008 at 14:07

This book took me forever to finish. Another one I wouldn’t buy myself, but was given by a friend and didn’t want to leave it half-read. The first third is fun an interesting, then it’s get super boring and in the end it states the obvious.

What’s crazy though is that it’s based on a real story! I thought it wasn’t true  (although the author claims the contrary in the beginning) after I found plenty of videos with the author proving that yes, he dates (dated?) a member of Courtney Love’s band, got Britney Spears’ phone number etc. Puts the whole story into a different light, actually.

Yes, so what is this book about you wanna know? It’s about how a writer who had had huge problems dating girls discovered online forums where men were exchanging tips on how to pick up women most effectively. And the best ones even had seminars where they taught their skills. You guessed it, what Neil did was that he went take these lessons to become a guru himself.

And that’s just the beginning of the story, but you won’t care much because it’s not all that interesting. You might pick this book up (how appropriate wording) to discover how to become a pickup artist yourself. Well, I guess they are better sources for that, but this book has some interesting tips, too. If you prefer quantity over quality, you might try one of these:

  1. You have three seconds to start talking to a girl after you notice each other. After that you can become too scared, she’ll think you’re weird, and the situation gets awkward.
  2. If your target is in a group of people, focus on men and less attractive women first. Make the group like you.
  3. If you’re easy to get, she won’t care.
  4. Be happy and smile.
  5. Be different than others (e.g. in what you wear, that you don’t buy her drinks, ask the same questions as everyone etc.)
  6. Dinner is too long for a first date. If you find out there’s not much you can talk about, it’ll be awkward (and she might deny your invitation because of this).

And many more. The good thing about these tips is that it might help you become a better communicator / deal maker / social person instead of (or together with) getting hundreds of women to bed. Basically many of them simply make you a better and more interesting person. And, oh, they will improve your chances of getting and keeping the one woman you’ll actually care about.

A book read: The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss

In Uncategorized on March 22, 2008 at 15:10

This might be a game changer for you. It opened my eyes to a few things I hadn’t been really realizing. And no, it’s not related to working four hours a week (although Tim has some good tips on how to boost your productivity).

Design your lifestyle now

The traditional career path is “study and work hard ~40 years, save a lot of money, and then retire and start enjoying your life.” The obvious problem with this is the money you saved might not be worth all that much after such a long time. Another obvious one is that you can die before you have the chance to retire. I realized this before reading this book and thought the solution to the first problem is to save really a lot of money or generate passive sources of income. And to the second one – well retire early enough. Which means working even harder.

Tim surprised me with another problem there is with this: How are you going to be able to “enjoy your life” if the only thing you did last 40 years was working 10-12 hours a day? What are you going to do? Note that it will be impossible for you to sit and be idle. If the the number one thing on your mind for the last 40 years suddenly disappears, what then? What will you use all this money for?

Tim quotes a friend of his who says that if he works 80-hour weeks for nine years, he would be making $3-10 million a year. When the author asked him what the hell he would do with the money, he said he would take a long trip to Thailand. You guess the problem; you don’t need three million to spend a few months in Thailand. And another problem: what would you do after the trip? Work like crazy other nine years?

So the biggest takeaway for me from the book is: Don’t postpone your real life. Don’t say, “I’ll only work here for a few years, save money, and then I’ll be enjoying life” unless you define what “enjoying life” means for you. Because without the definition you might very well be postponing the enjoyment forever. Try to define what your ideal lifestyle would be and think about how to make it happen. Now, not in a few years. You’ll probably realize that what you want is much less expensive than you thought.

Don’t be afraid to design your lifestyle exactly as you want it instead of what is common. Identify what the worst possible scenario is if your plan doesn’t turn out well. Often it is much less problematic than you think at first. For example if you decide to quit your job to start something else; having to find a new job is really the worst case scenario. No big deal.

Concepts and tips

Interesting is also the concept of relative income. It is great that you earn double the money of your friend, but if you need to work twice as many hours, you are equal on your hourly rate. And the friend has more spare time..

Mini-retirement. I want to do this: Work hard for a few months and then take a month off.

Oh and regarding the four hours. The book gives you some tips on how to spend only four hours a week on generating enough income that will support your other activities. (Note that the author doesn’t suggest you to work four hours a week and do nothing the rest of the time. The four hours should earn you enough money to enable you not to worry about your finances and can concentrate on what your passion is. Which might be again defined as “work” – starting a company for example.) These include:

  • Apply the 80/20 rule. Especially if you are an entrepreneur, it is likely that you spend 80% of your time on generating 20% of your income. Eliminate those 80%.
  • Have shorter deadlines on tasks and iterate. The more time you reserve for a task, the more time you’ll spend on it.
  • Delegate or outsource everything you can. Give your employees or colleagues more responsibility, don’t be a bottleneck.
  • Automate.
  • Don’t waste time in meetings and by answering emails.
  • Eliminate interruptions and multitasking.
  • Don’t work on unnecessary things just to have an excuse to put an important task off.
  • Don’t be busy, be effective.
  • Don’t work just to be doing something. Get the most important things done and save time for your passions.

The essence of 4-Hour Workweek

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2008 at 9:49

As you might have noticed The 4-hour Workweek has kept surprising me with inspiring quotes. The story below could be the summary of the what I take away from the book (was lazy to type it in, found here):

An American businessman took a vacation to a small coastal Mexican village on doctor’s orders. Unable to sleep after an urgent phone call from the office the first morning, he walked out to the pier to clear his head. A small boat with just one fisherman had docked and inside the boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican of the quality of his fish.

“How long did it take you to catch them?” the American asked.
“Only a little while”, the Mexican replied in surprisingly good English.
“Why don’t you stay out longer and catch more fish?” the American then asked.
“I have enough to support my family and give a few to my friends,” the Mexican said as he unloaded them into a basked.
“but…what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican looked up and smiled, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Julia, and stroll into the village each evening, where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, senor.”
The American laughed and stood tall. “Sir, I’m a Harvard M.B.A and can help you. You should spend more time fishing, and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boar. In not time you could buy several boats with the increased haul. Eventually, you will have a fleet of fishing boats.”
He continued, “instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the customers, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village, or course, and move to Mexico City then Los Angeles, and eventually New York City, where you could run your expanding enterprise with proper management.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, senor, how long will this take?”
To which the American replied, “15-20 years. 25 tops.”But what then, senor?”
The American laughed and said, “that’s the best part, when the time is right, you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”
“Millions, senor? Then what?”
“Then you would retire and move to a small coastal fishing village, where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with you wife and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos…”