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InReview – Issue 71

Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition by Guy Kawasaki. New York: Portfolio (Penguin Group) 2008. xx, 474 pp.

Guy Kawasaki is a founding partner and entrepreneur-in-residence at Garage Technology Ventures. He was an Apple fellow at Apple Computer Inc. and is the author of eight books.

Guy Kawasaki’s name is synonymous with entrepreneurship, and in the book he lays out his advice for those who would start a company. The book is organized into many (94) short chapters dealing with different issues any startup faces, grouped into important topic sections: Starting, Raising Money, Planning and Executing, Marketing, Hiring and Firing, etc. Some of the chapters are written by him, some by a guest writer, and there are a few interviews with experts in his network. The book is easy to browse and key points are highlighted. It includes humorous anecdotes, “irreverent” suggestions, and unforgettable statements that make a truly difficult topic accessible and clear.

Almost any page offers a gem worth underlining, making the amount of information difficult to manage. But each person, at his or her stage in the business development, will find something that is important at that moment. Here are a few examples:

Kawasaki offers a wonderful section on presenting to investors, getting specific on what to put on a chart and things to avoid saying. For example (p. 37), you might try selling yourself by saying, “I love to think of new ways to solve problems,” but the investor will think, “Is this a high school science fair? Why are you wasting my time?”

In the chapter on selling, he offers this comment:

“Though many people disagree with me, my theory is that ‘sales fix everything.’ This is because as long as you have sales, cash will flow, and as long as cash is flowing you have time to fix your team, your technology, and your marketing; the press won’t say much because customers are paying you; and your investors leave you alone because they don’t want to jinx you.” p. 177

In the discussion of patents, he says,

“It is highly unlikely that patents will make your startup company defensible, because you won’t have the time or money to do battle with a Microsoft-sized competitor.” p. 287

Much of the material is applicable to anyone in business, entrepreneur or not. His insightful chapter “The Art of Sucking Down” is great insight for those who think they have become too great to bother with the little people (e.g., ticket agents, flight attendants, hotel desk clerks, etc.) they encounter every day.

Every entrepreneur would benefit from this book. In fact, it should not simply be read, but kept handy for reference and re-reading. I also believe anyone in business, including people who see themselves as a cog in a big wheel, would benefit from selected chapters from this book.

Great book, highly recommended!

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. ix, 211 pp.

Jaron Lanier is a pioneer in the computer science field, often referred to as the originator of the field of virtual reality. He has worked on the interface between computer science and medicine, physics, and neuroscience.

In this first book, Lanier takes on the question of how we can effectively shape technology at an early stage rather than be shaped by it. He argues that the way technology presents itself is a statement about the nature of technology in subtle ways that we seldom notice. And he argues that the design of the web and current products such as Facebook and Twitter elevate the thinking of groups over the thinking of individuals. This increasing imbalance has a negative impact on us as human beings and on our societies.

Because of his credentials and expertise, he writes with the authority of an expert. Sometimes in the book he offers wonderful insight. Unfortunately, elsewhere he drifts into nonsense and paranoia that should be rejected. I will illustrate each point.

There is a growing interest in creating tools for collaboration because there is a growing belief, undergirded by books such as The Wisdom of Crowds and The Perfect Swarm, extolling the virtues of group wisdom. They echo the sentiment so often expressed, “All of us are smarter than any of us.”

Not so fast, Lanier says. There are places where working together brings great benefit, but places where individual expertise triumphs. The crowd won’t write a great symphony or develop the theory of relativity. We need to pull back from “group think” and ask the question: Where can the crowd contribute well, and what kinds of problems are best solved by smart individuals? In this analysis, Lanier is at his best.

In other places, however, he draws conclusions that simply make no sense, seemingly driven out of a strong personal passion.

Here is one of one of Lanier’s rants. He discusses some research at the University of Washington Computer Science Department where a research team,

“… had spent two years of team effort figuring out how to use mobile phone technology to hack into a pacemaker and turn it off by remote control, in order to kill a person. (While they withheld some of the details in their public presentation, they certainly described enough to assure protégés that success was possible.) …. If the same researchers had spent a couple of years and significant funds figuring out how to rig a washing machine to poison clothing in order to (hypothetically) kill a child once dressed. Or what if they had devoted a lab in an elite university to finding a new way to imperceptibly tamper with skis to cause fatal accidents on the slopes? …. The fix in this case would require many surgeries — more than one for each person who wears a pacemaker. New designs of pacemakers will only inspire new exploits. There will always be a new exploit, because there is no such thing as perfect security. Will each heart patient have to schedule heart surgeries on an annual basis in order to keep ahead of academic do-gooders, just in order to stay alive? How much would it cost? How many would die from the side effects of surgery? (pp. 65-66)

Sounds horrible, and makes you wonder why such research would go on and be funded by a government grant. Of course, some might recognize that the threat to pacemakers does not come from the researchers but from those who might want to raise havoc in our communities. But even so, why undertake such research?

In this case, however, it was a simple matter to try to get another perspective on the issue. Ed Lazowska, featured in the February 2003 Conversation in Ethix, is a respected colleague. He holds both the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, and is the director, University of Washington eScience Institute. I figured he would know something about this project and could offer perhaps another perspective, so I dropped a note to him. Here is his reply:

I haven’t read the book, unfortunately — can’t comment on precisely what he said.

We have a superb faculty member, Yoshi Kohno, who has done a number of studies relative to the security and privacy of “personal electronic devices.” So, think of this as being the security and privacy of electronic devices other than “computers.”

For example, Yoshi was the guy who analyzed the code of the Diebold electronic voting machine and discovered a number of vulnerabilities.

Among the studies he has done was one conducted jointly with faculty at the Harvard Medical School focusing on the security and privacy of implantable medical devices, such as pacemakers/defibrillators. Not surprisingly, these devices are quite vulnerable — they are designed to be accessed wirelessly, there is no encryption on the wireless link, and it’s possible to read out a patient’s data and re-program the device.

The goal of this study, as with all of Yoshi’s work, was to highlight the vulnerability and design more secure/private approaches. In the case of implantable medical electronics, it’s particularly interesting: a solution cannot consume additional battery power (because the battery is implanted and you don’t want to have to “cut” more often), and you can’t do something as obvious as using a password (because if the patient has a cardiac event, you can’t afford to wait around while the Medic One guys fumble for the password).

I should note that in all of these cases, the goal is improvement, not attack. And the approach involves working with the vendors and also with the relevant federal agencies prior to publication of the research.

In summary, I would not recommend the book. He has some good insight, but the rants can take the reader too far astray.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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The 5 Big Lies About American Business: Combating Smears Against the Free-Market Economy
by Michael Medved. New York: Crown Forum, 2009. 262 pp.

Michael Medved is a conservative commentator whose daily three-hour radio program “The Michael Medved Show” is heard on 200 radio stations. He is author or co-author of 11 books, several reflecting his earlier career as a film critic.

Medved opens his defense of capitalism by starting with his strength — he analyzes the depiction of business in the film industry, arguing that the portrayal of business has been uniformly and remarkably negative over the past 80 years or so. This extends to the press and political leaders, creating a very negative view of business in our culture. From this background, he looks at five “lies” about business and capitalism:

1. The current downturn means the death of capitalism.
2. When the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.
3. Business executives are overpaid and corrupt.
4. Big business is bad, small business is good.
5. Government is more fair and reliable than business.

In each of these chapters, Medved argues the case for why this “standard wisdom” is wrong, and why American capitalism, in spite of its cyclical nature, is in fact doing very well.

That said, this is a one-sided book. Medved sets up the argument, and then pulls out studies from conservative groups to provide the “answer,” without ever seriously considering the other side. He believes everyone has a chance to make it big in a capitalistic society (ignoring differences in ability, education, and background) so there are only temporarily poor in this country rather than poor people. He doesn’t like the light rail project in Seattle (approved by the voters) and so spends much of chapter five talking about the incompetence of government for funding a rail project. He doesn’t seem to recognize that you can’t prove a point with a couple of examples. Such examples are widely available to both sides of the argument. Why not simply acknowledge that both business and government fail in different ways, and seek to identify strengths and weaknesses of both sides. I came away from the book wondering if Michael Medved even knew how to spell “nuance.”

Even the style of the book screams “selling a point of view.” The back cover, with its large picture of Medved and its “headline” style, starts the selling. Inside are frequent boxes with stories that support the author’s point of view.

It was also interesting that he basically skipped the current economic crisis and the role of banks (among other contributors) in creating the crisis. He also skipped the globalization of business, arguing the “American business” theme as if it were a national issue.

The book is worth reading because if offers insight into a particular point of view. Those who only read the doomsayers need to know there is another view with some points worth considering. In this day of sound bites and one-sided opinions, where many tend to listen only to those who say what they already believe, those independents and left leaners may hear a point of view they have not heard before. These points need to be added to the discussion.

Expect some good examples that are helpful in the current discussion, but don’t expect well-reasoned arguments or any attempt to look at the other side of any issue he raises.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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