Do More Faster

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The “entrepreneur” is, to many, a mysterious beast surrounded by myths and legends. This book, edited by Techstars founders David Cohen and Brad Feld, seeks to share some of the secret juice that makes for a successful entrepreneur. If, like me, you expect this book to be like Founders At Work (FAW), edited by Y-Combinator’s Jessica Livinsgton, it would be only partially true. FAW contains interviews with the creators of some of the hottest tech products such as Gmail and Hotmail. Do More Faster on the other hand is a collection of short essays of 1-2 pages, where successful tech entrepreneurs distill the most important lesson in taking their idea to execution often with mentoring from Techstars. These essays are organised along seven themes: Idea & Vision, People, Execution, Product, Fund-raising, Legal & Structure, Work-life Balance. The titles are a testament to good editing. The book can almost become a reference point for those scratching their heads about something specific, because they can locate the specific essay by its title in the list of contents.

Strong points are made here, including that if you have an idea, you can be sure half a dozen people around the world are already working on it, and that most start-ups started out doing something totally different from what they do now. Myths are busted including the belief some entrepreneurs have that they need to raise external cash to find validation. Remarkable honesty is on offer such as in Issac Saldana’s essay on how he much preferred writing code over talking to people, but how the latter helped him create a valuable and valued product. The value of pragmatic over perfect is demonstrated such as by Matt Mullenweg in how 2006 became WordPress’s lost year, not in a bad way but in a way that brought a valuable lesson regarding product releases and discipline to Automattic. And good advice too such as the essay titled “stay healthy”, which I have often said to young entrepreneurs I know, including one, who had to be hospitalised for a few days to accept the value of good health above all else. Brad Feld’s punchy essay “The plural of anecdote is not data” but establishes a home-truth about the need to question and validate any data, especially anecdotes often peddled as truths. I marked out several essays as my favourite by folding pages. No points for guessing more than three-quarters of the book was folded over by the time I finished reading it.

I must add that the definition of “tech” used here is relatively narrow. If you somehow miss paying attention to iRobot (Why would you do that anyway? They make Roomba!) you might think “tech” is all about the web and services. But on some reflection, it is easy to see the broader applicability of the lessons to successful commercialisation of innovation in other sectors too.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: The saying goes: “Ordinary people learn from their mistakes; smart ones learn from others’ mistakes”. If you think you have a world-changing idea (or if you know someone who thinks so), you – or that person – may want to learn from some of the most successful entrepreneurs featured in the book. If you don’t think you can learn anything from this book, then you perhaps need to make your own mistakes in executing that idea, in which case, refer to the saying above. If you are a mentor or an advisor to start-ups, you will equally enjoy this book and the thoughts it provokes. The process of innovation and creativity is kaleidoscopic, and I am pleased I didn’t miss the chance – all 3 hours of it – to look through so many of those kaleidoscopes.

Honest Signals

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This book belongs – very, very broadly – with Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudges. These books present an exposition of what lies behind human decisions and how those decisions can be better understood and possibly influenced.

The core thesis of Honest Signals, by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, is that much human communication and decision-making is about signals. Signals such as clothes and cars can be deliberate and planned, or influenced by emotion or culture. But not so the unconscious or uncontrollable biologically based “honest signalling”, which has evolved from ancient primate signalling mechanisms. The stories quoted in the book are from the data collected by the author and his team using a device called a “sociometer” which is described in some detail in Appendix A in the book.

In the first four chapters, Professor Pentland describes four kinds of social signals; how they can be combined for signalling social roles; how an understanding of the signals and social roles can help read people better; and how group dynamics works and evolves. The last three chapters describe how networks, organisations and societies could be explained or could use the proposed thesis.

Chapters 1 focuses on four kinds of signals which are expensive to fake: influence (which signals control or attention), mimicry (empathy/ trust), activity (interest) and consistency or variability (where the former signals a focused mind and the latter signals an openness to input from others). In this review, letters I, M, A, C/V refer to these signals.

Chapter 2 describes how people use combinations of signals to indicate the social role they are taking, such as exploring (I, A), listening (A, C/ V), teaching (I, M, C) and leading (I, A, C).

I found Chapter 3 fascinating. The author describes how mirror neurons read signals and help develop or construct meaning such as dominance, deception etc. Social circuits formed through exchange of signals in a group situation may explain situations such as mood contagion. The discussion then moves on to charisma, which is an innate talent at reading and responding to social signalling. Signals also change people in an instance of what the author calls “self-inflicted brainwashing”. In group situations, signals, responses to signals and the resultant shifting coalitions are better predictors of outcomes, the author argues, than strategy, motivation, experience or personal characteristics.

Further detail on social roles – task roles (orienteer, giver, seeker, follower) and group roles (attacker, protagonist, supporter, neutral) – are discussed next. A manager or team leader would probably know from experience that 1 30-second slice of a group’s interaction is a reliable indicator of the various group and task roles at work, and that social roles can spread within a group. In an organisational context, such group dynamics can contribute to organisational intelligence.

It is harder to précis the last three chapters which are dense with ideas that could have benefited from a longer discussion. Perhaps future writings will do greater justice to the application aspects of this fascinating research.

Books based on science and research are now commonly organised such that a good half of the book comprises explanatory or technical appendices and a bibliography. This book is no exception. The 98 pages of main text, including an epilogue that makes an important point that much current technology is socially ignorant, are followed by 52 pages of appendices rich in research context, 13 pages of notes to appendices, and 14 pages of bibliography. All in all it took about an hour and half to read the book.

A main limitation of the book is the compact treatment of a fairly vast and promising subject. The description of the theoretical premise pitched in the book is interesting enough but the stories often feel incomplete, half-told, rushed. Quite reminiscent of how an academic thesis includes a section that describes future research possibilities; that section really is an admission of the limitations of the thesis, whether imposed by time or scope definition or something else. The author of a book for popular consumption really doesn’t face these limitations hence the dissatisfying experience. There is also not enough time spent on what in real life could be done with a sociometer or the findings of Professor Pentland’s research with it.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: The book successfully articulates the concept of primate signalling and provides a quasi-framework that can be put to use in some situations. For instance, it may be handy in several situations including watching politicians and businessmen, and as the author points out, in social and work situations such as negotiation and dating. However if someone then tries too hard to “implement” the framework, it is hardly “honest” signalling and it can all potentially backfire. Recommended for a quick read on a rainy Sunday afternoon.