I am convinced that you could reduce most business books to a tenth of their size, and readers would not miss a beat. Every time I pick up a business oriented book based on someone else’s recommendation, I generally come away underwhelmed. There seems to be a conspiracy between publishers and authors to pump up the page counts, as if the number of pages lends some sort of validation and credibility to the content. Unfortunately, like Twitter followers and app download stats, they are a whole lot less impressive when you dig into the numbers.
Many startup folks find that they are lacking in some area or other. This much is certainly true. Technical folks may lack skills in areas like accounting and marketing and sales. Even business oriented folks may not have all that much relevant business experience, especially since running a startup bears little resemblance to what one reads in case studies or does in the name of a big corporation.
However, you are not going to get any smarter reading a business book. They are either as dry as a college textbook and will put you immediately to sleep, or in their attempt to be mildly entertaining, have less value than a dummies book. At least the former gives you some depth. The latter is filled with self-aggrandizing passages meant to convey the author’s undisputed expertise and authority. Then it proceeds through the core content with story after story pushing the exact same point over and over again, drilling it into your mind as if you were some village idiot. To top it all off, there is little in the way that is actually practical, so the advice goes forgotten almost as immediately as it was read. Even if you do happen to get some value out of the book, it does not equal the time wasted to extract that small nugget of wisdom hidden in the maelstrom of words.
What is a better strategy to learning then if it does not come from a book? You can try any of the following:
- Google It – Seriously, this works sometimes. You can usually find all sorts of valuable data whether it is Wikipedia (check out the footnotes which lead to more detailed articles), blog posts, research articles (Google Scholar and their own Research sites are very valuable in this regard), presentations (check out Slideshare), and question/answers forums like Quora. While this approach can be time consuming, it often leads to more pertinent information that is free in cost and free from intellectual vomit.
- Ask Someone – Why kill yourself hunting for the information? It is infinitely more efficient to simply ask someone directly that is knowledgeable in the subject. You probably even have someone in your network that can be useful. If you go this route however, make sure you do some pre-research first ala “Googling It” so that you at least look like you took some initiative. Then write something very nice and concise to said person asking if you could get a half-hour of his or her time. Note that you will probably get a better response rate if you throw in the offer of lunch / coffee / beer, which is only fair given the potential value you will get in return. Lastly, if the advice was truly worthwhile, thank the person for their time and advice. This will ensure that you can keep the lines of communication open should you need further advice.
- Attend a Meetup – There are plenty of networking meetups around, but every once in a while you come up a group or event that has some interesting content. The best are meetups where someone gives a talk on their own experience and how they did something unique. The plus is that the audience will be full of people that also have a similar interest in the topic and might not all be a bunch of noobs. A little networking then can yield a few worthwhile connections that help you become more knowledgeable on your subject of interest. You might even find that they are amenable to being asked for advice (see Ask Someone).
- Take a Class – I offer this up with some reservations. There are plenty of places to take classes these days. If you type in online classes or community education into Google or peruse Skillshare and Coursehorse, you can find classes offered by universities, businesses, associations and regular folks. The problem is that the value of some classes is on par (or less so) than buying the business book. Instructor quality is highly variable, the content too lightweight, or the length of course too long. In addition, courses are generally more expensive than a book. However, if you find a good class and quality instructor, it might be a valuable connection that you can later ask for specific advice (see Ask Someone).
- Pay an Expert – While this is not a route that I normally suggest, sometimes what you really need is to have someone do the work for you. Things like legal documents, HR administration, and accounting stuff are obvious examples. While I do not support the notion of being completely ignorant, sometimes you are best served letting professionals save you from yourself. Think about it, are you better served getting your product out or banging your head figuring our tax tables or writing privacy statements*? The bonus is that said expert can help you become more familiar with the process, talking you through the issues, risks, and other considerations.
- Just Do It – Book learning is fine for bookworms, but you never really pick something up until you try it for yourself. What I am talking about here is the proverbial School of Hard Knocks. While I am not saying you must eschew any preparation, the best laid plans mean nothing without action. When other options are not available due to circumstances, then this is not such a bad route to take. Honestly, if you are doing a startup, your entire path is a big huge question mark, so what is one little piece of that?
If you need something to read because that is your MO, pick up a novel. It could be fiction or non-fiction, but it should not have anything to do with conveying some mystical knowledge about a business topic. Not only will you spare yourself disappointment, you might enrich your mind with something way more fulfilling than someone else’s scraps of regurgitated wisdom.
* Please do not copy someone else’s privacy statement or any other legal notice, it is amateurish and could cause you a world of trouble. Have a competent lawyer familiar with Internet startups to draw one up for you.