Books for Entrepreneurs: The Pick of 2013

To round off the year Centre for Entrepreneurship  invited Jason Dunne of Berkeley Citation to pick the most notable entrepreneurship books of 2013 that cater for both policymakers and practitioners.

“These six titles serve to remind us why entrepreneurship is so important, what life is like in the trenches and, perhaps most useful of all, why entrepreneurs bother in the first place. Having published business books myself, I’m certain that most audiences will find these six titles to be illuminating and enjoyable read. Each fully achieves what it sets out to do.”

Jason Dunne – Berkeley Citation Publishing Services

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation

Tyler Cowen, Professor of Economics, George Mason University | September 2013 | Amazon

This sobering but widely-praised work is a Future Shock for the Facebook crowd. Cowen’s forecast is that jobs, money and social mobility will be ever-more tightly defined by our relationship to smart machines.

The good news for entrepreneurs, says Cowen, is that this coming age of man-machine technology will lead to undreamed-of wealth and innovation; the bad news is that many will be shut out of it.

Cowen sees the world (not just America) being split into those who can augment their productivity with machines and those who can’t, the latter being obliged to live essentially workless lives ameliorated by a vast surplus of technology and entertainment.

Cowen’s style is calm and concise – in fact he’s almost sanguine, and that’s what separates him from the doom merchants.

He believes the future might resemble today’s New York, where significant numbers of digital freelancers lead culturally bohemian lives and identify themselves as middle class all without very much money or work to go around.

Among policymakers, Cowen’s name crops up in almost every discussion of wealth generation, technology and jobs: the clued-up entrepreneur should read him for that alone.

Tilt: Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers

Niraj Dawar, Barford Professor of Marketing, Ivey Business School, Canada | November 2013  | Amazon

What’s more profitable – a diamond mine or the know-how to sell diamonds? If you’re sure the money is in the  mine then you’ll be surprised and enlightened by Niraj Dawar’s Tilt: Shifting Your Strategy from Products to Customers.

Dawar argues that the rise of outsourcing and the democratisation of technology means that companies can no longer create quite so much value “upstream” in factories as “downstream” in the mind of the customer making a purchase decision.That might sound simplistic but this book soon convinces with its case studies, most notably the breathtaking launch of Nestlé’s Nespresso brand.

Nestlé’s traditional instant coffee business was being squeezed at the high end by Starbucks and Illy and crowded-out at the low end by own-label supermarket coffee. The genius of Nestlé’s response can be found in a single statistic: 70% of Nespresso’s 3000 employees are directly in touch with the customer, via the company’s upmarket Nespresso Club retail experience centres. These Apple-style stores, together with Nespresso’s “premium convenience” positioning, have created a $3b business growing at an organic 20% a year – all from boring old coffee.

It begs the question that Dawar himself asks at the start of the book: “how come marketers get no respect?”. Certainly, after reading this many business owners might worry less about manufacturing efficiencies and more about making products that are easy to buy. Tilt… will be enjoyed by anyone who thinks big, especially by entrepreneurs planning a branded version of an established commodity.

Wake Up and Sell the Coffee: The Story of Coffee Nation and How to Start, Build and Sell a High-Growth Business

By Martyn Dawes | December 2013 | Amazon

If Tilt… makes the coffee business look easy, Martyn Dawes firmly reminds us that any1 kind of entrepreneurship can be a slog.

You might not have heard of Dawes but if you’ve driven any distance around the UK you’ll be familiar with his Coffee Nation vending machines in petrol stations.

In describing how those machines came to be, Dawes spares us little of the hardships encountered – the time-wasting meetings, late nights, wrong hires, overdrafts and endless miles all loom large in this book.

Glamorous it isn’t – but that’s business, and a large part of this book’s charm.

Any entrepreneur reading it would say Dawes is the real thing. 

Wake Up… is also enjoyable for being thoroughly British: readers turned off by US-centric books will feel on familiar ground here, with lots of fly-on-the wall encounters with low-key but unmistakably British retailers like Welcome Break and Somerfield.

It’s detailed too, delivering on the “start-build-sell” promise in the title and being commendably heavy on tactics and light on platitudes (most start-up books are the opposite).

There is one concession to Hollywood and it comes in the book’s happy ending: after 12 years Dawes finally sells out for £23m. You get the sense he deserved every penny.

The Branded Gentry: How a New Era of Entrepreneurs Made Their Names

By David Hopper & Charles Valance | April 2013 | Amazon

In this age of Google-friendly business names, putting your own name above the door is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  Happily, there are still a few entrepreneurs who believe that an eponymous brand is a sign of quality and sincerity.

It is certainly no barrier to success, as Johnnie Boden, Sir James Dyson, Lord Sainsbury and Sir Paul Smith all confirm in this excellent work by Vallance and Hopper.

Combining decent research and candid interviews, the book explores the backstories behind a group of successful entrepreneurs who outwardly have little in common other than naming their businesses after themselves.

That might not sound like much of an idea, but a clear theme soon emerges: these entrepreneurs are artisans who love their product and personally identify with it.

The book adds up to a revealing, beautifully presented contribution to the “How I Made It” genre. Its helped along by colourful interviewees: Paul Smith comes across as a crazy but loveable diamond; PR giant Lord Bell surprises by confessing to doubts and regrets and Julian Richer confirms his status as the Willy Wonka of employee motivation.

How To Start a Creative Business: The Jargon-Free Guide for Creative Entrepreneurs

By Doug Richard | March 2013 | Amazon

Are creative businesses different? Dragon’s Den star Doug Richard is in no doubt that they are, certainly when it comes to formulating and running a successful one.

While most books are shoehorned by their publisher into appealing to the widest-possible audience, Richard sticks to his guns and delivers a book squarely for the entrepreneur trying to break through with a craft- or design-led offer.

His advice is structured as 10 questions that entrepreneurs should ask themselves before they start (though Richard laments that they rarely do ask). Questions such as “What do we do that people need or want?” won’t come as a surprise, but the author correctly identifies these as make-or-break issues.

The book’s value is in the way Richard teases 10 answers from the reader, with his vast experience providing just the right degree of fatherly advice and proscription.

Richard did not set out to write for experienced entrepreneurs, but if you think of this book as “McKinsey for Main Street” then a superb primer on strategy and positioning emerges.

Richard is a sincere champion of entrepreneurship and his love of the great game shines through here, writing in a tone that’s smart, worldly and incisive.

Choose Yourself!

By James Altucher | Amazon

If Woody Allen started a business and blogged every mistake and double-cross along the way, you’d have something approaching James Altucher – only Altucher would be the more neurotic of the two.

He’s a conundrum, being the archetypal nerd outsider who loves comic books and can’t get a date yet who’s also managed to start and run 20 companies and build an adoring fan base, the latter for his shockingly confessional Altucher Confidential entrepreneur blog.

His “Choose Yourself’ schtick rests on an obvious truth about our times, namely that all the old gatekeepers are falling away. If you want to start a business, says Altucher, you no longer need to wait for a VC or some other gatekeeper to choose you – so what are you waiting for?

The answer, Altucher knows, is that his typical reader is a cubicle captive, someone who wants to be an entrepreneur but can’t muster the will to jump. And so Altucher positions himself as a shy loser who made it – and it’s all true.

As per It’s A Wonderful Life, the book opens with the narrator firmly contemplating suicide after losing his fortune, before going on to find redemption in love, tech businesses and Buddhism (even if he is now the most waspish Buddhist you could meet).

His books are essentially a series of meditations on self-determination and self-confidence in the digital age, with enough operational tips to satisfy non-suicidal readers too. He’s best when explaining how to get the best out of digital media (be yourself, and often) and why big companies mince the soul (they’re machines for replicating yesterday).

His blog readers won’t find anything fresh here, but newcomers will find him to be a true original. He is so coruscating about his many shortcomings that you wonder if his 10 million blog readers weren’t won at the expense of his dignity – but I suppose Altucher won’t care what you think, not if he is as self-determining as he wants you to be.