FT business books — April edition

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‘Zero to IPO: Over $1 Trillion of Actionable Advice From the World’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs’, by Frederic Kerrest

In 2011, as co-founder and chief operating officer of a failing business and facing bankruptcy, Frederic Kerrest received some advice from one of his board members who had been through it all before. Acting on it saved Kerrest and the business, Okta, from spiralling into disaster. Six years later, the workplace software company was valued at $40bn.

Having learnt first-hand how this kind of insider knowhow can mean the difference between success and failure, Kerrest’s mission in Zero to IPO is to share these secrets with aspiring entrepreneurs. This means giving specifics: “When you’re in the trenches, you don’t want generalities. You need to know what to do right now,” he writes, promising insights from 20 years’ worth of notes he has taken, based on his experience with Okta and advice from business leaders and investors he has met over the years. The goal is to “demystify the world of start-ups”, with hands-on guidance that Kerrest argues is not necessarily on offer at business school.

As Kerrest acknowledges, only a small subset of companies make it to the stock market, but the lessons apply to all founders, whether they plan to go public or stay private, he says. Chapters on subjects such as fundraising, sales and leadership are listed in the order an entrepreneur might follow when building a business.

Kerrest discusses the decision to take Okta public, and why the IPO was just the start of building longer term goals for the business. Advice ranges from Kerrest’s views on advisory boards — “not worth the time and money” — to tips for coaching your team on getting to the point quickly in emails. He draws on his own early misfires to illustrate various points throughout the book, such as Okta’s initial strategy of trying to copy Salesforce and ending up targeting the wrong customers.

Three core pieces of advice are distilled near the start of the book: on the value of time, focusing only on your main priority at any one time, and remembering that success hinges on whether you make any sales. For those who read to the end and still want to give entrepreneurship a shot, it will be “one of the most difficult paths you’ve ever walked”, Kerrest promises, “but also one of the most rewarding”.

‘Love + Work: How to Find What You Love, Love What You Do and Do it For The Rest of Your Life’, by Marcus Buckingham

Love and work are two of the basic human needs, but are they related? Marcus Buckingham, head of people and performance research at the ADP Research Institute in the US believes that they are and has come up with a guide to encourage people to find a job in which they can thrive because it plays to things that they love — or in Buckingham’s vocabulary, their “red threads”.

Buckingham, who was born and raised in the UK before emigrating to the US as a young graduate to pursue a career in research, has little time for education systems and career advisers that urge us to pursue what we’re good at or accept that work will ultimately be a chore. Instead, he urges readers to seek jobs and careers that involve the tasks you love doing — even if that might seem unglamorous to others, such as cleaning rooms at Walt Disney World.

The book encourages readers to discover the specific tasks they truly love doing rather than a dream job or career — and why you should not seek roles just because they offer prestige or bigger salaries. Some of his recommendations seem contradictory — do not trust the opinions of others, but listen to those that want to enable you to do the things you love. And Buckingham shares a lot about his personal career path, enabled by pinpointing what he loved in data analysis, as well as a stutter that held him back during childhood, and his divorce. Moreover, there is a lot of specific advice: just start something rather than thinking endlessly about whether it is right; what you do as a job always trumps who you do it with and why you do it.

Love+Work towards the end wanders off into a manifesto for fixing the education system and a guide to better parenting, but at its heart it is about finding the career, or series of careers, that fit you best by pursuing what you love doing. Who does not want to do that?

‘Going Remote: How the Flexible Work Economy Can Improve our Lives and Our Cities’, By Matthew E Kahn

How will the great working from home experiment that many of us undertook during pandemic lockdowns work out in the long term?

Urban economist Matthew E Kahn attempts to explore this from a US perspective in Going Remote, highlighting that we can get more out of the opportunities remote work presents if we can also anticipate its challenges as they arise.

He points to four specific social challenges that existed pre-pandemic: we spent too much time commuting; rents were too high in America’s most productive cities; local economies were stagnant in many rural places and in post industrial cities; and many women and minorities did not have the same economic success and access to opportunities as white men.

In three parts — “Workers”, “Firms” and “Locations” — the author explores the short and medium-term gains for employees that will help overcome these challenges, how companies will adapt to working from home and how the rise of remote work may affect “superstar” cities, such as New York.

The most obvious gain for workers is less commuting, but in turn this does not mean everyone will head to the countryside and that urban life is diminished — young people in particular will value face-to-face time and the buzz of the city. Meanwhile companies may well reduce office space, but they face challenges around where they should now locate and how to ensure dispersed employees feel productive and engaged.

Subsequently, he says, this feeds into what happens to the likes of New York and San Francisco as post-industrial cities such as Baltimore, Cleveland and Detroit potentially start to compete for workers because they are more affordable places to live.

“By influencing the geography of where successful people live across the US, the rise of WFH creates new possibilities for economic growth to take place in areas that have lagged for decades,” Kahn writes.

‘Productive Tensions: How Every Leader Can Tackle Innovation’s Toughest Trade-Offs’, by Christopher B Bingham and Rory M McDonald

The path to becoming a better leader has always been long and rocky. Dynamic environments require constant adaptation, but few leaders know how to navigate the pressures created by destabilising forces. In their new book, Bingham and McDonald, who are both business school professors, explore techniques to make everyday tensions more productive for leaders pursuing new opportunities for growth.

The guide approaches eight critical tensions that innovators must master, and provides a portfolio of strategies extracted and generalised from the lived experience of effective leaders in a range of industries and types of enterprises, such as P&G, the consumer goods group, Instagram, the US military and Slack, the communication platform.

Based on research and interviews, the authors explain that the tensions inherent in innovation are continuous instabilities that arise from competing aims: efficiency or flexibility? Consistency or change? Product or purpose? The writers offer practical solutions to effectively manage each tension and better navigate the changing nature of businesses characterised by novelty and uncertainty.

An interesting chapter, “Defer to or Ignore the Data?”, looks at how to use data in decision-making, the pros and cons, and a detailed example from Netflix. In summary, relying on extensive data analytics will help propel incremental originality but will also tend to discourage path-breaking innovation.

The model offered in the book simplifies challenges associated with creating new products and services. The main message is to work smarter, by anticipating the tensions that will arise and facing them head on, thus reducing the risk of having to halt innovation efforts and better position the organisation to overcome complexity.

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