The Business Press Maven has conquered the world of business journalism criticism. Now, every other weekend, it's on to books...
When it comes to the health of any business, like any marriage, the beginning matters most. It sets the tone and stands as a time from which to draw strength and guidance whenever wider circumstances get rough. In Couples Therapy 101, they teach analysts to open up a conversation with a teetering couple by getting them to talk about how they met. But little that's written about businesses isolates those key moments: the birth pangs, the lost-in-love blindness, the challenges surmounted.
Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days
(Apress) stands as a proud recipient of The Business Press Maven "Help"
label. Author Jessica Livingston, by the way, is a venture capitalist with a dark secret in her past: an English degree from Bucknell. In all seriousness, real-world experience plus some sort of past relationship with words is a better combination than we see in most business tomes, where one or both are often missing.
That may be one reason why Livingston went with a tactic I liked: running nothing but transcripts of her interviews with these CEOs about the early days of their companies. In profiles, CEOs are, as any reader of mine knows, often deified. But when all you see is the transcript, there is less chance to build a lucky guy into a genius by using subliminal little biases and turns of phrases. The author can still do it, both by letting the CEO ramble or by asking questions like: "Tell me how you always tell the truth and so wisely?" But an investor can see that -- and won't see it here.
Check out the table of contents. If you own shares of any of the 32 companies mentioned in it, make sure you read about their beginnings. You'll get a better sense of how they'll face tomorrow, and by reading about their seat-of-the-pants days, you'll also get a much better sense of companies as human organisms, filled with excitement, overconfidence and dread.
Tim Brady, Jerry Yang's college roommate and
first employee, talks about the several hundred times in the mid-1990s, during the company's infancy, when everyone thought they were sunk. Even good times brought on worries. In a famous memo about the high prospects of the Internet, Bill Gates wrote that Yahoo! was his favorite site and was "cool, cool, cool." Brady said that, in two seconds, they went from being elated to being convinced that Gates had them in the crosshairs.
Who knows if Yahoo! can surmount its current troubles, but read this and you'll at least be reminded that when it comes to facing challenges to its existence, the company has been there, done that.
I'll be mailing out a Hindrance label to
Driving Change: The UPS Approach to Business
(Hyperion) by Mike Brewster and Fred Dalzell. The acknowledgments page is key to the book's undoing.
Read it for yourself, but first let me hand you a tissue:
"Ken Sternad, director of public relations at UPS, first conceived of a book that would mark that company's 2000 centennial and then insisted it become a vehicle not just for lauding UPS, but for explaining the role that the company plays in the global marketplace. Ken's advice and insight steered us..."
A celebratory, all-but-commissioned tome? The authors do get some access in the book. However, investors are no better served by basing investment decisions on a company's investor relations staff, who are vouching for the company. Enough said. Except that the authors did not, obviously, conceive or guide me in this review.
It is with a bit of trepidation that I give the "Help" award to
Seduced By Success: How the Best Companies Survive the 9 Traps of Winning
by Robert J. Herbold, former chief operating officer of
You will, like me, be forced to bear with the absurdly trite chapter headlines, ones that give you a firm grasp of the obvious like "Don't Wait For The Crisis." Yes, of course! I must anticipate the crisis. Why didn't I think of that? I used to pretend they were never going to happen.
Or, my personal favorite, "Stay Relevant." I don't think it is even possible to mock that.
As broad and silly as the headlines are, the examples given below them can be quirky and telling. Pulling threads from them can inform investors on how companies work -- and don't. Read about
refusal, when Germany changed recycling laws, to alter its iconic can. It paid dearly. Or '70s-and-'80s era
Procter & Gamble
, which treated Japanese advertising as if it were American and also paid.
Again, there is plenty of pabulum, like about how it is important to value people and repeat their value like a mantra, but individual stories about how people can sometimes be reassigned instead of laid off do more good than the chapter headline: "Clarity, Simplicity and Repetition Are Essential."
As an aside,
Good to Great
(HarperCollins) by Jim Collins, author of
Built to Last
, is on a similar topic of what it takes to build a lasting company, but it reads more like an academic screed, even with real-world examples interspersed. Any investor looking for similar information but wishing to avoid coming down with a case of narcolepsy, would be better served by the Herbold book.
At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.
A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of Fertilemind.net, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;
to send him an email.