Reviews of three new business books -- one on why starting a company is like waging war, one about a high-profile venture capital firm, and one on why you should care about Internet privacy. Plus: What the CEO of International Speakers Bureau is reading.
Tales from the battlefield: public and private
Kay Hammer's ride to the top of a two-time Inc. 500 company has been remarkable. For Hammer, who was trained as a linguist, that ride began in the fall of 1979. Newly divorced and up for tenure at Washington State University, she was faced with trying to eke out a living for herself and her two daughters on an assistant professor's salary. She realized then and there that Prince Charming wasn't about to swoop in and make substantive changes in her life. If changes were to be made, she was the one who had to make them.
The next 20 years would be fraught with experiences -- personal and professional -- that would make her feel as if she were fighting a war. This book describes the skirmishes and all-out battles Hammer had to endure while building Evolutionary Technologies International, the company she founded in 1990. Her notion is that if you recognize those looming battles before they strike, you'll be more prepared than she once was to survive and thrive.
In the abstract, it's hard not to picture Hammer's world as a mighty bleak place. But her stories and tone don't come off as being grim or bitter. Instead they are an honest assessment of how grueling the start-up experience can be.
But frankly, the gory details make Hammer's book interesting. To reinforce the warrior metaphor, she uses some vivid examples of life on the corporate battlefield: a boss who undermined her work on a project by secretly setting up shadow teams to produce alternatives and then calling a meeting to ask for her on-the-spot response to those alternatives. There's also an employee she had mentored and established a close friendship with, only to have that person later battle to take over Hammer's responsibilities. (The protÉgÉe lost.) To win, she learned, you have to understand the enemy.
Becoming a warrior also requires learning how to deal with a lot of frustration and anger. To back that up, Hammer describes experiences from her own life in which those emotions were put to the test. Such honesty is certainly refreshing, but it's a relief when the corporate carnage lets up for a spell.
It would have been easy for a book of this ilk to come off as one giant screed against anyone who had ever done Hammer wrong. But the overall impression is, here's a person who faced her fears and conquered the workplace. And rather than stopping there, she tells you how you can overcome the primary fears that may stand in the way of your becoming a leader: fear of judging, fear of violating trust, and fear of courage. Overcome those, and you're well on your way.
In the competition among online auction sites, think of Pierre Omidyar, cofounder of eBay, as the average unassuming, benignly behaving hero. Think of Jerry Kaplan, CEO and cofounder of competitor Onsale (and author of Startup: A Silicon Valley Adventure, about his failed exploits at Go Corp.), as the untrustworthy wanna-be nipping at Omidyar's heels. At least that's the picture Randall E. Stross paints in eBoys: The First Inside Account of Venture Capitalists at Work.
It's doubtful that Stross's book is in fact the first inside account of venture capitalists at work. (That subtitle sounds more like the work of an overzealous book editor.) But you'll be able to follow Stross as he tags along with the six partners of Benchmark Capital -- the eBoys -- in their quest to raise venture-capital funds. It's a wild ride on the Internet's start-'em-up, take-'em-public, sell-'em-off trail. On the way, we meet Omidyar and his newly hired CEO, Meg Whitman, and watch the eBoys' $6.7-million investment in eBay in 1997 grow to more than $5 billion by early 1999. That growth helps explain why the average net worth of each Benchmark partner has increased by roughly $350 million in the past four years.
You'll also meet Jay Walker, founder of Priceline, and learn that after a prolonged courtship, the Benchmark guys passed on investing in that now well-known and highly lucrative venture. Oh, well. You win some, you lose some.
In eBoys, Stross delivers a romp with details galore about the venture-capital world. We see it through the adventures of the young partners, the shortest of whom is six-foot-two. (I told you there was a lot of detail.)
The strength of eBoys, though, is that you learn how these guys ran their business, decided they'd all be equal partners, decided they'd price themselves as aggressively as the top VC firms in the land, and mulled over deals.
At times, the book can be a bit over the top. And the good-guy-versus-bad-guy mentality is clearly in the subjective minds of Stross and the partners. In a world where conventional rules of finance and business seem tossed asunder, who's to say when one man's junk is another man's treasure? Come to think of it, I guess you could take it to eBay and let the market decide.
Your Own Beeswax
Charles Jennings and Lori Fena are the cofounders of TRUSTe, a nonprofit that endorses Web sites that agree to post and adhere to privacy policies. If the sites follow those rules, then they get to exhibit the TRUSTe seal on their site. That should tip you off right away that The Hundredth Window is a book by advocates of privacy protection on the Web. If that doesn't do it, then the subtitle -- Protecting Your Privacy and Security in the Age of the Internet -- certainly will.
The title is drawn from the old yarn that security experts often tell: If you have 100 windows and put bars on only 99, you still can be invaded. Jennings and Fena want you to know when, where, and how you might have left windows open in your personally identifiable information. In a decidedly practical approach, the authors go beyond just ranting about the loss of privacy and include "tips and tricks" that relate to each chapter's focus. But the book is not just for protection of personal privacy. There's also solid information on how companies fall short of protecting data.
Even if you don't especially care, it's increasingly important to know when and how -- and how often -- you're being watched and tracked. And when companies don't disclose their tracking practices, well, that's just plain wrong.
President and CEO of International Speakers Bureau Inc., a $6-million conference-speaker agency in Dallas
On the nightstand
The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story, by Michael Lewis. "What I picked up from the book is, when you're taking a company public, you should be strong about how much of it you want to give away. If you have the right product quality, you should be able to go public on your terms," says Lemmons-Poscente.
Portrait of an Artist, by Laurie Lisle. "This is a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. I see her as a role model. At the time when she was painting, women didn't do that for money. But she moved to New York and forged a new career and was successful."
Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. "We are so used to seeing the media showing entrepreneurs as being motivated by money. I think that entrepreneurs are really motivated more by freedom, and money's really a side effect to that. That's what Atlas Shrugged is about. It reveals the process of creating a scenario for freedom." --Mike Hofman
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MIKE HOFMAN was previously editor of Inc.com and a deputy editor at Inc. magazine, which he joined in 1996. The site was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Digital Media in 2010, and was named the best business website by Folio Magazine. In 2006, Hofman was part of a team of writers nominated for a Webby Award for best business blog. He lives in New York City.