Book Review & Extracts – The Startup Of You, by Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha

I have been a reader of Ben Casnocha for a long time, his blog being warmly recommended by the all mighty Tim FerrissLinkedIn is also a major professional tool for me, and one that keeps evolving in a positive direction (except maybe, that too many people post simplistic motivational quotes on the feed, and sometimes, it just really is too much pointless positivism for me, but that’s beside today’s post objective ;-), and the book I am about to review has been co-written by its’ co-founder and chairman, the no-less influential Silicon Valley guru, Reid Hoffman.
The central argument from the Startup of You is that the professional life is no longer a linear path, and that people should strive to think and act preemptively like entrepreneurs to stay ahead of the curve and thrive.
I agree very much to this point, and countless exemples are given to show how seeking serendipity can increase the number of opportunities that you can come across, driving you to take risks that in turn, increase the chance of you finding that great niche of market, or simply your vocation.
The Start-up of You was an entertaining read, empowering in that it calls for action at the end of every chapter, but to me, it has a very pro-silicon-valley tone, and therefore, an outlook on professional life that does not apply everywhere. It will help most those aspiring to evolve within the technology space. Also, I think it is a bit heavy on the promotion of LinkedIn, but oh, well…
Below are many extracts and quotes from the book, that I have selected during the read. I have organized them around 8 arguments / advices that I find central in the book.

Be like the Silicon Valley: shape the Future before the future shapes you.

“In general, a lesson from the technology industry is that it’s better to be ahead of a big change than to be behind it.” (page 71)
This reminds me of a short case study/story from my business school: Way before Apple, Sony had actually a prototype of a digital music player, at a time where CDs were mainstream. They saw a potential, but they thought it would be a dangerous product to release as it would cannibalize their existing CD business. A few years later appear a new product, the iPod…
“In each passing decade, Silicon Valley has kept and intensified its entrepreneurial mojo, with dozens of companies creating the future and adapting to the evolution of the global market” (page 18)
True, but I think that in actuality, it’s more like the world who has learned to adapt to the evolution induced by the creation from the Silicon Valley, rather than the other way around…  Anyway, it foes with the previous point about being the change rather than having to adapt to it.
“No, no! Get out of the weeds! Go where there is fast growth, because fast growth creates all opportunities” (Google CEO to Sheryl Sandberg, then Chief of staff of US Secretary of Treasury Larry Summers) (page 55)

“Finished” is an F-word for start-ups, and the same goes for your career, prepare to adapt continuously

“(…)In other words, Amazon is never finished: it’s always Day 1. For entrepreneurs, finished is an F-word. They know that great companies are always evolving.
Finished ought to be an F-word for all of us. We are all works in progress. Each day represents an opportunity to learn more, do more, be more, grow more in our lives and careers.” (page 22)
“Deciding where you want to be in ten years and then formulating a plan for getting there might work if our environments were unchanging. It might work if going from point A to point B in your career were like crossing a lake in a boat on a calm summer’s day. But you’re not in a calm lake. You’re in a chaotic ocean.” (page 50)
So which is it? Should you follow a plan or stay flexible? (…) The successful ones do both. They are flexibly persistant. (…) They are obsessed with customer feedback, yet they also know when not to listen to their customers. (page 51)
“Winning careers, like winning start-ups, are in permanent beta: always a work in progress.” (page 57)
The permanent beta is quite a powerful concept, very understandable. However, how to convince of your professional greatness if you are changing path too often?
 

Understanding your soft assets, your values and aspirations

“For example, Joy Ito, (…) Is Joy the only person with start-up experience who does angel investing in the Valley? No. Is he the only person with roots in both the United States and Japan? No. But combining these transpacific, bilingual, tech-industry assets gives him a competitive advantage over other investors and entrepreneurs.”(page 33)
Point taken about the uniqueness of one’s path, but how does a very random Joe applies that? For some people, the answers would come more easily than to others… I believe the challenge here is to succeed in taking an outsider look on oneself and find value where we just see routine or average. 
“Contrary to what many bestselling authors and motivational gurus would have you believe, there is not a “true self” deep within that you can uncover via introspection and that will point you in the right direction. Yes, your aspirations shape what you do. But your aspirations are themselves shaped by your actions and experiences. You remake yourself as you grow and as the world changes. Your identity doesn’t get found. It emerges.” (page 35)
Brilliant point, which would deserve more publicity…

Choose your battle, and build your uniqueness around what “the market” wants

“If you try to be the best at everything, and better than everyone (that is, if you believe success means as
cending one global, mega leader board), you’ll be the best at nothing and better than no one.” (page 29)
“The most obvious way to improve your competitive advantage is to strengthen and diversify your asset mix – for example, learn new skills. That’s certainly smart. But it’s equally as efficient to place yourself in a niche where your assets shine brighter than the competition’s. (page 41)
A rather classic advice, but that is always good to hear …
(about Starbucks) 
“they first did everything they could to understand the dynamics of the market they were entering. They visited five hundred expresso bars in Milan and Verona to learn as much as they possibly could. How did the italian design their cafes? What were the local coffee drinking habits? (…) (page 37)
True passion and deep understanding of your industry is the prerequisite engine to your growth. Agreed. 
“Most super talented people want to be the front man; few play the consigliere role well. In other words, there’s less competition and significant opportunity to be an all-star right-hand man.
Indeed…How many people like to be second, though? In our society that values individuality, no onw brags about being number 2…

Be proactive and plan to pivot to get where you want to be

“Learn by doing. Not sure if you can break into the pharmaceutical industry? Spend six months interning at Pfizer making connections and see what happens. Curious whether marketing or product development is a better fit than what you currently do? If you work in a company where these functions exist, offer to help out for free. Whatever the situation, actions, not plans, generate lessons that help you test your hypotheses against reality.(page 62)
 
This is refreshing. After all, why not try? Most of us tend to over think a potential change instead of experimenting for a short time, lightheartedly. What is the risk, indeed? Nothing serious, for sure.
“Think two steps ahead. (…) If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find a predisposition towards endeavors that offer immediate gratification.” (page 63)
“Start a personal blog and begin developing a public reputation and a public portfolio of work that is not tied to your current employer.” (page 64)
Cool, sounds a bit like I’m doing with this blog,right? 😉
“(…) but the product management jobs require product management experience. It’s a common catch-22: for jobs that require prior job experience, how do you get the experience the first time? My solution: do the job for free on the side. (page 67)
“If you have a business idea you want to pursue, a skill you want to learn, a relationship you want to form, or some other curiosity or aspiration, start on it as a side project and see where it goes.” (page 76)
“the fastest way to change is to hang out with people who are already the way you want to be. (page 85)
Fanboys, get ready.
 

Relationships matter: “breaking bread together”

“Relationships matter to your career no matter the organisation or level of seniority because every job boils down to interacting with people. In fact, the world company is derived from the latin cum and pane, which means “breaking bread together” (page 84)
Note to self: bring breakfast to the office more often.  
“Research shows that a team in the business world will tend to perform at the level of the worst individual performer.” (page 87)
Be worried of bad apples. Choose a good team. 
“professional allies. Who would be in your corner in a conflict or when you come under stress? Whom do you invite to dinner to brainstorm career options? Whom do you trust and proactively try to work with if you can? From whom do you solicit feedback on key projects? Whom do you review life goals and plans with?  These are your allies. (page 97)
 
“Weak ties in and of themselves are not especially valuable ; what is valuable is the breadth and reach of your network.” (page 106)
“Weak connections help find creative solutions by introducing new information and resources from other social circles.” (page 119)
“Today even search literacy is not enough. The bigger advantage is gained by network literacy: knowing how to conceptualize, access, and benefit from the information flowing through your social network. (page 199)
Your coworkers, business colleagues, allies and acquaintances are each like a unique sensor that can relay different bits of information.” (page 201)

Create your luck, embrace serendipity

“There’s a reason the story that inspired the word serendipity (nb: “the princes of serendip”) involves exploration and journeys. You won’t encounter accidental good fortune – you won’t stumble upon opportunities that rocket your career forward.-if you’re lying in bed. When you do something , you stir the pot and introduce the possibility that seemingly random ideas, people, and places will collide and form new combinations and opportunities. (page 151-152)
 
“(…)alumni groups from schools, book groups, beekeeping clubs.Conferences and Industry meetings. If you want to increase your opportunity flow, join and participate in as many of these groups and associations as possible.” (page 157)
“great opportunities almost never fit your schedule (…) Usually, the timing is imperfect and difficult.” (page 170)

Take measured risk, and don’t follow the crowd

“Some entrepreneurs are irrational risk takers: cowboy types willing to bet the farm in pursuit of some crazy dream. But what sets the great entrepreneurs apart from the pack is not a high tolerance for risk per se, but their ability to judiciously assess and manage it. (Page 176)
“Warren Buffet has a mantra: “Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful”. It’s a competitive edge for him. During the 2008 financial crisis, Buffet bought U.S. stocks cheap when most Americans were scared and selling. You make money in the stock market when you believe something others do not. (…) In public market investing, as in many things, you achieve big success when you are both contrarian and right.” (page 183)
The Volatility Paradox: Small Fires prevent the Big Burn (…) The way to intelligently manage risk is to make yourself resilient to these shocks by pursuing those opportunities with some volatility baked in. (…) the less volatile the environment, the more destructive a black swan will be when it comes. Nonvolatile environments give only an illusion of stability :”Dictatorships that do not appear volatile, like, say, Syria or Saudi Arabia, face a larger risk of chaos, than, say, Italy, as the latter has been in political turmoil since the Second World War” (page 187)

Conclusion

The Start-up of You is a good book in the “personal development” kind of space, and an empowering, refreshing read that I would advise to people who feel a bit stuck in their professional life and do not know where to start to take action on themselves. I liked the “Invest in yourself” section at the end of each chapter where the authors suggest very practical activities to build your own strategy. My only regret is that many chapters in the book sound quite redundant to me. They’re more like variation on the central theme of “You got to be be proactive”, rather than very new outlooks and theories on the professional world of tomorrow. Surely that was not the objective of the book, but I was hoping for more visionary wisdom, coming from the inventor of LinkedIn.

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