This is the third podcast in a series that started with Best Practices on Mentoring and starting businesses/communities in Shanghai. It was fun so we keep this going! Last week, Felix and I picked our top 5 books for entrepreneurs and shared what we liked about them. In essence, you will discover ten books with impact!
Felix is an Entrepreneur and Community Builder in Asia and beyond. Love startups, coffee, reading, and Marvel. He reads a lot and has plenty to share.
Felix, how do you select a book that you want to read?
[Felix] I usually get recommendations from friends and colleagues. And I get some inspirations from online bookstores (such as Amazon or Book Depository) and clickbait blog articles like “Seven books you need to read to become an entrepreneur.”
What format of books do you read on?
[Felix] I am not an avid user of digital copies or ebooks. I prefer hardcover books – that prevents me from being distracted and keep my eyes in good condition by not always looking at a screen. Plus, I don’t feel like it’s the same to read a book on a smart device. People would usually be more eager to skip content rather than go from beginning till the end. I can better concentrate, have a coffee, and have fun with the book.
[Matthieu] Interesting! On my side, often traveling + regularly changing apartments made carrying books a significant challenge. That got me to read a lot more on my Kindle. But I do have physical books as well. The experience between those and digital copies isn’t the same, but it’s a lot lighter.
Now back at you, when do you find time to read? When do you find time to sit down and open a book?
[Felix] I usually read during three distinct periods: 1/ In the morning, on my way to work in the commute. I live far from downtown HK and typically seat in the subway. That’s 45 to 60 minutes of travel time, the equivalent of a chapter or two. Instead of staring at my phone, I choose to read. 2/ During lunchtimes on my own. When I eat alone, I open a book 3/ Right before sleeping – it helps me to cool down from a busy day. I find this routine helpful to structure my thoughts and get ready to fall asleep.
It seems that you’re reading a lot in English – it used to get me sleepy quickly (I’m not native English), aren’t you feeling the burden?
[Felix] Most of the books I read are business, entrepreneurial, or psychology themed. Most of the Chinese translations are not a hundred percent accurate, hence picking English. I’m not a native English speaker as well but uses this to my advantage: I learn from books on how to describe new concepts, sentence structures, etc. As I’m in active learning mode, I don’t feel sleepy reading in English. I tried reading in Cantonese or Chinese, but that’s when my eyes close faster!
Have you tried listening to books on Audible or similar?
[Felix] I cannot keep my attention focused on something I listen to for so long. Music or radio will work, but it doesn’t work with somebody reading the book for me.
Let’s talk about your first book, one that you’ve mentioned many times during your workshops at Techstars Startup Weekend, especially the ones around customer discovery and prototyping. It’s the Airbnb Story by Leigh Gallagher. What can you share about it?
[Felix] I picked this book about Airbnb’s early stages as a good reference for entrepreneurs. That’s the kind of books that you can refer to multiple times on your journey. The author was authorized to follow the Airbnb’s founders and get close to the action. That helped him capture the day to day life and how they eventually managed the team’s success. I learned from this book the idea of the Lean Startup concepts, sometimes better than with the actual Lean Startup book from Eric Ries.
It illustrates many strong concepts such as why entrepreneurs should start working on something small while keeping a strong vision and a bold dream. The book also emphasizes how you should focus on the problem of your customers first. And eventually the way you may build your company step by step to become a large venture. One more thing had a substantial impact on me: the culture created at Airbnb. There is a chapter where you learn that the founders interviewed and hired each of the first three hundred employees. On the one hand, it means that there was no hiring department until a large scale. It also assumes that founders could encourage a culture where people share the same signs, codes, and agile thinking.
Founders spent the time to pick the right people, to foster a specific culture, and build a big company. Finally, I learned that you don’t need tech co-founders to start a tech startup. Two design graduates started Airbnb; they didn’t have any technical background. It all began with a WordPress built from scratch, without complicated technology involved. They spent a year and a half before committing to make Nathan Blecharczyk their CTO after working together for a while.
[M] The first book that I picked is Principles: Life and Work, from Ray Dalio.
[M] The book gave me a clear and precise perspective on what’s the link between our values and actions. That link in between is called “Principle,” and without realizing it, one already has hundreds of these principles. And as it drives the way you make decisions, you better identify them. It’s insightful to visualize the Principles that you follow and write them down somewhere. It helps make sense of the many actions that you’re taking. The book shares a framework on finding yours after justifying why it’s essential. To help, the author provides hundreds of their Principles at his firm.
By doing this work on myself, I was able to identify specific patterns that I turned into Principles. Knowing them helped to understand why I make individual decisions. There is one that I can share as an example: the relationship that I have towards trust with others. I tend to trust people at the first encounter. You have it until you break it. But once it’s broken, it’ll be super hard to get it back. I made this idea one of my Principle. It’s neither good or bad, and it doesn’t have to be. But knowing it helps me understand some of my relationships with people.
I am now digging into my Principles for leadership, public speaking, selling, my own goals, and more.
[F] Speaking of Principles, how can entrepreneurs make decisions using Principles?
[M] As a founder, you get pushed towards your limits as stakes are getting higher. And you’re often in survival mode. That might lead you to more stress and sometimes auto-pilot mode. Knowing your Principles empower you to understand when it’s time to have a break because the decisions you make aren’t matching who you indeed are. You may want to stand back and take a break.
At the same time, when you’re struggling in making decisions, you can take a look at your principles and figure out what might be the right way to go. They act as a reminder of what I typically stand for and use this energy to make the tough calls.
[M] The second book that you picked is exciting and surprised me. It is ‘The Promise of a Pencil and how an ordinary person can create
extraodinary change” by Adam Braun. Can you tell us about your choice?
[F] Amazing book! The founder of the company wrote the book of the same name. Fun story, I connected with him on LinkedIn after reading his book! We’ve been sharing messages and insights on entrepreneurship ever since. He first created “Promise of a Pencil” (he stepped down and hired a CEO) as a meaningful startup. He is now working on “MissionU,” a non-traditional university for minorities to learn and get knowledge. Last year, that company got acquired by WeWork and is now called WeGrow of which Adam Brown is still CEO.
My three key learnings are: Number one, Adam Brown used to be an ordinary person with a successful education. Followed by a consulting job at Bain & Company. One might say that it’s a straightforward career, successful path by society standards. Ultimately, he realized that his career and work environment weren’t the right fit for him. He started backpacking across the world, looking for his passion. Adam would ask kids he meets along the way some big questions around “what you want to achieve, learn, etc.”
When he met a local child in rural India who replied “I want a pencil,” Adam realized that he found a problem worth solving. Hence his first NGO – a structure that would aim at filling gaps that some developing countries have when it comes to education.
The second thing that I learned is the difference between startups, social enterprises, and non-profit organization. Having that clear distinction in mind can help social entrepreneurs realize their true calling. In the author’s mind, he doesn’t belong to any of these categories. Instead, he makes a stance for a fourth: “for-purpose organizations.” The company does things for the general good while making profits. It seems similar to B Corporation, but it inspired me a lot to look beyond labels and categories.
The third element is how Adam involved Justin Bieber as his ambassador. I like Justin Bieber’s talent, and the way they work together is inspiring. That’s the only organization for which Bieber spent a lot of time and resources.
[M] The book that I’ll share next is practical. The title is “Traction: A Startup Guide To Getting Customers” by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares
It has been one of the books I recommended the most to founders I’ve been mentoring. The underlying goal is for them to understand that finding customers has techniques and frameworks. It doesn’t have to be magical and intuitive. The author provides a framework to help entrepreneurs find what works best for them.
Then, he describes different options and concretely, how to test them:
– Pick three channels to experiment, the ones that you hope would get the highest results.
– Spend your attention on these three and measure outcomes.
– The most successful one will become your benchmark against which you test upcoming channels. You keep running these experiments, always switching for the channel that gets you the highest results.
A few things to have in mind: channels will change over time as you grow your business or have access to more resources. You should keep testing and iterating, even as you become bigger or expand geographically.
[F] Can you elaborate on traction and who are the stakeholders responsible for the metrics?
[M] Once you’ve found your product/market fit and reached a particular stage, you want to focus on growing your business. At that stage, you may want to have your Growth Hacking Team.
Until then, you have to understand how to get customers and work on it almost daily. Investors would most likely want to ask some questions on your acquisition numbers.
[M] Your third book is the one I’m the most curious about, “Monkey Chaos: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley” by Antonio García Martínez
[F] I just finished this thick book of 450+ pages!
Most people would recommend the Lean Startup or Zero to One book as the founder’s bible. I would say that Monkey Chaos is the one to go through carefully. It answers many questions that arise on the journey as an entrepreneur. It covers topics from early stage struggles to closing your fundraising, plus joining an accelerator, and getting acquired. It’s from the first-person perspective, somebody who stayed in Silicon Valley. The author was often described as a 200% asshole – playing with people, enjoying life too much.
This guy started as a regular joe, joined a startup after a career at a bank. Then, things changed and he uses the book to describes his new obstacles: getting sued, forming a co-founding team, visa issues, getting into Y Combinator, and so much more. I enjoyed reading cool terms about social media and digital marketing, definitely a book of choice!
[M] Do you think it would be possible to have such a lifestyle in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Singapore?
[F] The lifestyle presented in the book is intense! There is so much happening in each chapter; more than one would normally be comfortable facing. And then you realize that the time between two chapters might only be a couple of days.
I couldn’t handle having so many balls in the air or incidents happening at the same time. If you dare to become a badass entrepreneur, better get ready and learn how to handle this roller coaster.
[M] The third book that I have been recommending a lot but wouldn’t consider as a bedside read is titled “Venture Deals” and is written by Brad Feld. I know you’ve been hearing about him a lot when it comes to startup communities, but his insights on raising money are precious!
Don’t expect a storyline: there are many legal and accounting terms to understand. It will help founders raising money. Their angel investors or investors would most likely bring up some of the notions, and it’s excellent for founders to educated themselves on these early. Don’t make terrible decisions because you haven’t done your homework!
[F] The video course by the Kaufman Academy on Venture Deals is solid, a must watch! Venture Deals is a book for angel investors as well. You get a lot of definitions of important terms: cap table, founders agreement, etc.
[M] I read the fourth book that you picked and enjoyed it. It’s called: “Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility (and How You Can Too)” by David Butler and Linda Tischler Can you tell us more about it?
[F] This book is written by the former Head of Design at Coca Cola. A product that we consume almost every day (not me!). It’s probably one of the truly global product, everybody with a chance to taste it.
The book talks about is scaling a company or brand more systematically. It comes down to standardization of the entire chain of production and making sure everybody involved is aware and adequately trained. Considering the product, Coca Cola is a soft drink. But looking at that product in Hong Kong or Japan, differences have visibly been made while ensuring to keep a similar look and feel.
It might be the packaging, the advertisement, distribution channels, etc. But when it comes down to the fundamentals: the color schemes, the tones of ad videos, you do see many similarities. That’s what the author wants to convey, how did the standardization happen.
So from an entrepreneurs’ perspective, once you’re ready to grow into different markets, make sure that you have a clear policy to standardizing your products or services.
[M] How would an entrepreneur balance this need for standardization with iterations?
[F] Iterations come from data collection. When there is something that isn’t right or too slow, you may need to look into a new strategy or a new form of business operations. It comes down to the process, making a Scrum Board or else and look at smaller elements that you can iterate around for different cities or business units. And they mentioned Startup Weekend five times in the book! The author joined as a mentor and had a great time.
[M] The book that I’ll talk about next is called “Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies”, by Reid Hoffman
The book is hugely pragmatic, almost brutal. At the same time, it has a form of elegance. It’s the idea that certain startups create a mission to grow as fast as they can. And as a result, things are meant to be broken in the path of that startup scaling super fast. Blitzscaling comes from the idea of Blitz, which is like super fast in German, and scaling which is growing. So you try to grow as rapidly as you can. In the book, Reid explains why it might be happening, how it can happen, and what should founders do about it.
It’s super hands-on, with concrete examples on hiring, firing, finding your top executives and more. He’s explaining the pros and cons of being a founder of a
From my perspective, I took this as a lesson into things that we could do better with entrepreneurs in Mainland China and Hong Kong. For example, as soon as entrepreneurs have found product/market fit, they might struggle in looking for extreme growth and making it extra big.
There are Chinese startups that are
[M] Your final book is “The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future” by Chris Guillebeau
[F] Chris was a journalist and became an entrepreneur as he figured out he could make some money aside to cover his budgets. Eventually, that turned out into substantial revenues to the point where he wrote books about his experience and observations. His previous book is called The Happiness of Pursuit, and the most recent one is Side Hustle.
The $100 Startup is a great read for entrepreneurs, and for everybody following the emerging trend of becoming independent freelancers and digital nomads. These people may want to start a side hustle or run some freelancing consulting gig or e-commerce business.
Not a lot of rocket science but many valuable tips you can apply. How to sell your knowledge, trade something, or create a product people would want to buy. For example, after three or five years, you may accumulate some experiences or skill sets that you can sell. Get some passive incomes or become a public speaker.
[M] My final book is called “Thanks For The Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” by Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen
It is helpful to more than just entrepreneurs. If there are people around you, you may want to take a look at it [chuckle]! I wasn’t good at receiving or giving feedback – reading the book gave me a good overview of how to improve.
Some items are hard to put in practice, but it works well. Being around entrepreneurs so much, I have observed a tendency of seeing the world a lot more positively because of what we want to build. But it’s also important to be grounded and honest with reality. It’s probably a good book to read in parallel with Radical Candor.
Thanks for the Feedback has a framework, canned sentences, and techniques to be better at giving and receiving feedback. Must read if you want to grow a team or when things are breaking around you.
They work on a one to one approach rather than broad organizational techniques. For example, it’s important to identify first if the person is ready to welcome feedback. At the scale of an organization, it’ll be a key factor of success to empower everybody (and not just managers) to better give and receive feedback. So information is no more navigating from top to bottom, but there’s an ongoing basis for sharing feedback.
What I would want to see is how applicable this American management book can be in Chinese cultures, in our part of the world. I would take a grain of salt and go slowly, but you can cherry pick what works and get on with it.