As we head into the tail end of summer in the northern hemisphere, the Fuel team wanted to share a few of the books that have inspired us over the past few months. Some are well-known in the startup world like Bad Blood (a finalist for the Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award). Others are instant classics like John Doerr’s Measure What Matters.
So, in no particular order, they are:
Gisa Springer – UK Lead
Startup – A Novel (Doree Shafrir) – It actually came out last year, but I’ve only just gotten around to reading it. It’s a pretty acerbic take on startup culture – including its enshrined pillars of grand ideas, big money and sexism at the workplace. Set in NYC and written by an ex-BuzzFeed editor, it offers glimpses in what start-ups aspire to be, and what they, sadly, can turn into. Bonus points to the author for explaining the particularities of Twitter, Snapchat and Slack along the way. Very entertaining – and somewhat scary – read!
Ken Fenyo – Consumer Markets Lead
Shoe Dog (Phil Knight) – This autobiography covers the growth of the company from its early startup days to its launch as a public company. This is a fun and fascinating read and a great reminder how hard it can be to create a startup. Knight started Nike (originally Blue Ribbon Sports) to pursue the Crazy Idea that people would want a better running shoe. For most of the first 20 years as a company, Nike lived at the edge of bankruptcy – the company was bootstrapped and plowed every penny it made back into acquiring or manufacturing more shoes to sell. The company survived in this pre-VC world based on tenacity, passion, a great team, and not a small amount of luck. Good reminder for startups that perseverance is perhaps the most important skill to master to build a successful company.
The Wright Brothers (David McCullough) – The Wright brothers were fantastic engineers who married creativity and a methodical attention to detail. Starting first with kites, then moving onto gliders, until finally creating the first powered airplane. Similar to many startups today, the Wright brothers took a test and learn approach to innovation – they were constantly tweaking their designs, testing them, and then revising every element of their plane to make it fly better and longer. As with many great ideas (and great companies) it took Wilbur and Orville years and many, many demos to prove the value of their invention and prevent copycats from stealing their designs.“Let employees determine how they can also contribute to OKRs and adopt more frequent conversations with recognition and feedback.”
Let employees determine how they can also contribute to OKRs and adopt more frequent conversations with recognition and feedback.
Judy Wade – Global Lead
Measure What Matters (John Doerr) – In the past two weeks a startup CEO and one of the most creative minds in their profession both mentioned they were reading this book. While many of us are now familiar with the OKR (Objective Key Results) approach, reading the book was a good reminder that there should always be two types of objectives – committed objectives where the goal is to achieve 100% of the objective, and stretch objectives, where the goal is to potentially fail as much as achieve them.
There were good examples of how companies celebrate failure, although I think companies can do even more – especially in startup environments where failure and pivoting have to be part of the DNA. At Second Life where I worked for a time, if an engineer screwed up, they had to wear Shrek Ears for the day. Wearing these wasn’t to make a mockery of you. If you were wearing the Shrek Ears you got extra love (and Second Life had a love machine but that’s another story) and support. You were celebrated for taking a risk.
The second element I enjoyed was ensuring the OKR process is both top down (3-5 company goals) and bottom up, meaning team members should have some flexibility to determine how they can achieve these OKRs. One example is Google’s famous 20% free time for engineers to figure out how they can achieve Google’s objectives.
Finally, I liked the concept of moving from annual performance reviews to CFRs (Conversations with feedback and recognition). The concept of moving to more frequent conversations where you provide both feedback and recognition is even more important in the often stress-filled, higher risk environment that is a startup.
I recommend this book for a company adopting or tinkering with their OKRs. Especially if you can include stretch objectives and support failure. Let employees determine how they can also contribute to OKRs and adopt more frequent conversations with recognition and feedback.
Richard Acton-Maher – Product Manager
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (John Carreyrou) – Like many of us, I was glued to the Theranos story as it developed. After the book came out, it was recommended to me by at least five friends or colleagues within weeks. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a startup has heard advice like these a million times: “be aspirational”, “fake it ‘til you make it”, “have a big vision”, “sell ahead of where your product is today”. What intrigued me by this story is that, at the headline level, what Theranos was doing sounded no worse than simply taking this common startup advice. Now I know the reality was much worse. This book is an up-close and cautionary tale of how innocent and virtuous aspirations can gradually cross the line into outright lies and deception. Reading it felt very familiar, as if I were sitting around a table sharing startup war stories with old colleagues. This was a big part of the reason I couldn’t put it down.
Jesus Bolivar – Platform Product Manager
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari) – This book’s main argument is that homo sapiens came to dominate the world because it is the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. The author argues that the ability of humans to cooperate in large numbers arises from its unique capacity to believe in things existing purely in the imagination, such as gods, nations, money and human rights. The book claims that all large-scale human cooperation systems – including religions, political structures, trade networks and legal institutions – owe their emergence to our distinctive cognitive capacity for fiction. Most interesting quotes:
“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
“Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”
Greg Tapper – Go to Market Senior Expert
Shoe Dog (Phil Knight) – I picked this up because Bill Gates said it was possibly his favorite autobiography. We all know how the story ends of course—Knight builds one of the greatest brands we know today and virtually 99% of us have interacted with. The bigger attraction is the storytelling itself. I especially liked the beginning, the middle, and the end. Rumor has it that Knight sat in on creative writing classes with undergrads at Stanford. They must have been great classes because the writing is philosophical, human, and authentic. There’s youthful meanderings, love, money, success and failure, world travels, Eastern philosophy, heartbreak and tragedy. This isn’t a story about building a mega-corp, though businesspeople and entrepreneurs alike will appreciate that. It’s the story of an extraordinary person who built and extraordinary company and has lived a meaningful life.
Marshall Maher – Manager, Content Marketing
High Growth Handbook (Elad Gil) – This book has been getting a lot of well-deserved buzz since it published recently – and Gil is a well-known entity having worked with some of the most successful unicorns around. It’s a series of interviews and insights with some of the legends of the startup scene. It covers the fundamentals of what founders need to know and in order of growth stage. But one thing I really liked was the idea of creating a manual for coworkers on how to deal with you. It sounds weird but read it – it makes a lot of sense and it gets very specific (“I love FYI emails but only if you put FYI in the subject, so I know it’s FYI…”). There are a ton of insights around product market fit, scaling, culture, org, etc. Short and impactful – it should be on every founder’s list.