Think before you speak; read before you think

There are things that stick with you from school. Moments, memories that change the person you are, that set you on a path. For me, one of those was being read to everyday, reading being given real value by a skilled teacher. A teacher who was in charge of the choice, passionate about the book they are reading and totally showing that when they read it.

Mr Van Sutchland, a giant Dutchman with a ginger beard, was that teacher, that memory, that moment. A master craftsman in the art of reading a story, he would take us to the summit and then bring us careering down the slope on the other side. He would leave us on tenterhooks at the end of a chapter, desperate for more.

My most indelible memory from primary school is Mr Van Sutchland reading The Hobbit to the class. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. Bilbo Baggins and Tolkien were just the start.

Thanks to my mum and dad, I could read by the age of four. At school, it was energised further, Mr Van Sutchland made reading important and precious, something I’ve hung onto. Even when I wandered through the book-less wilderness of my late-teens, even after the love of them had been decimated by stark A-level texts (retrospective: it turns out they were really quite good) I still knew that books were worth the effort.

A good book has no ending, it opens your mind. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel. During lockdown I had a time to dip into the classics, but also discovered a new book, Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing – and then some business books revisited – Horowitz, Kahneman, Gladwell, Osterwalder.

When Elon Musk was asked how he learned to build rockets, he gave a simple and striking answer: I read books, and though his reply might seem like a simplistic one, his success casts no doubt on the validity of his response. Whilst I don’t claim that by reading you’re going to build rockets, it does help us grow. Reading business book is the best way of vicariously learning, it allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from those who have triumphed against the odds, overcome challenges and become successful. We can get a lot of new ideas and multiple perspectives to join the dots and do things in a way that we had not considered previously.

Apart from learning many different things, reading also helps improve our cognitive skills. By giving ourselves the opportunity to constantly delve into a wide range of topics offered within a structured form, we improve our memory, analytical thinking and decision-making process. It’s not only about unveiling new theories and acquiring new knowledge, you get the chance to identify yourself in other entrepreneurs’ stories, relate to them as if they were your own and give you the insights you need to take the next step. 

Being a reader is special, but imagine being an author! So I did, and made it happen. I co-authored From The Factory Floor a collective, collaborative effort of eight eager writers from the team and associates, providing guidance, tips and shared experiences of how to launch and grow your own tech startup venture.

Check it out on Amazon:

I can tell you without hesitation that it’s been a labour of love with hand-wringing frustration and euphoria along the way. Books don’t just write themselves after all, you have to invest everything you are into creating your words. To begin with, you don’t just sit down to write a book. That’s not how writing works. You write a sentence, then a paragraph, then maybe if you’re lucky, an entire chapter emerges. Writing happens in fits and starts, in bits and pieces. It’s a process. The way you get the work done is not complicated. You take one step at a time.

It was an interesting process, and like any good story, has a beginning, middle and end. I tried to write a page a day and got up early to build momentum. Consistency makes creativity easier. The goal here is to not think but just start writing. We set a word count and deadlines. You need to have something to aim for and a way to measure yourself. This is the only way I ever get any work done, with objectives and deadlines.

It was personal, and at the outset I didn’t let anyone look at it, but you need honest feedback and editing, so working with helped discern what was worth keeping and what went in the bin, to make sure we headed in the right direction. How do you know when you’re done? Short answer: you don’t really, so we treated it as a piece of software engineering and committed to shipping it. Then released it to the world on Amazon. Do whatever you need to do to get it in front of people. Just don’t put it in a drawer.

There some mind-boggling books that have inspired me over the years in my entrepreneurial thinking and doing, which helped me craft my words in From The Factory Floor, so here are my top ten recommended books for entrepreneurs, all relevant not matter what stage you’re at in your startup journey.

1. The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. Ries’ lean-startup movement mantra is to follow a process of continuous innovation to create radical new ventures, and how to turn your startup idea into a sustainable business. The book starts with identifying your biggest assumptions: the value assumption is the belief that customers are going to find value in what you’re about to build; the growth assumption is about how you’re going to attract customers over time in a profitable way. 

Ries then describes the process of converting these two assumptions into testable hypotheses to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The combination of these processes and insights will help you navigate the uncertainty all startups face, giving you the tools you need to build a lasting, sustainable company. 

2. Zero to One: Peter Thiel. Thiel’s simple message is that you must focus on an idea that creates something new. He talks about how many businesses are focused on moving the world from 1 to N, iterating and improving existing products. In his book, Thiel calls for entrepreneurs, as the title suggests, to take the world from zero to one, to find entirely new solutions and products that create more value. Written in 2014, this is undoubtedly one of the books that made me simply stop and think. 

3. Start with WhySimon Sinek. If you apply this book to your startup, it can help you attract loyal customers. Sinek shares his insights on discovering the underlying purpose of your business, brand and product, and inspiring people with your Why?

He theorises that brands that are unable to inspire their customers rely on manipulation tactics to get them to take action. While this tactic may help drive initial sales, Sinek warns that this will become less effective over time as it will rarely result in a customer forming a long-term relationship with your business. 

His solution is that you inspire your audience by starting with Why? He poses that clarifying and communicating why you’re doing what you do is the key to inspiring your customers and developing a long-term relationship with them. In a nutshell, Sinek is telling us People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it. Start with Why is the book to read to establish your startup’s purpose.

4.The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Steve Blank. When the tech boom began in Silicon Valley in 1978, Steven Blank was on the scene. Although he retired in 1999, Blank had accumulated a wealth of knowledge that he shares in The Four Steps to the Epiphany. It’s a must-read for those launching tech startups, Blank clearly outlined how to organise sales and marketing, discover product flaws and test assumptions. His Customer Discovery process is the de-facto startup blueprint.

5. Thinking Fast & Slow: Daniel Kahneman. A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Kahneman provides his explanation of how people think, describing the fast, intuitive and emotional ‘System 1’ and the slower, more deliberative and more logical ‘System 2’. By understanding these systems, you can learn to think things out more slowly, instead of acting on an impulse – a good discipline when excited about your startup.

6. Crossing the Chasm: Geoffrey Moore. A genuine classic (first published in 1991), Moore outlines how to market and sell disruptive products that asks customers to change or alter their behaviour in a significant way. Moore starts the book by describing what he calls The Technology Adoption Lifecycle, breaking people into five groups and how each group adopts disruptive tech solutions, they are: 

  • The Innovators (2.5% of customers)
  • Early Adopters (13.5%)
  • Early Majority (34%)
  • Late Majority (34%)
  • The Laggards (16%)

Each of these groups responds to disruptive products in different ways. For example, an Innovator will typically buy a new product because they want the latest and greatest tech innovations, just for the sake of being first. Early Adopters tend to look for new technology that will give them a strategic or competitive advantage in their market and/or everyday life, whilst Early Majority are consumers who want evolution not revolution.

Critically the book focuses on crossing the chasm between Early Adopters and (the most valuable segments in the market) Early Majority and Late Majority for your startup offering. A fundamental part of this is learning how to deliver a complete solution to those customer segments, which Moore explains fantastically. This is one of the best books for entrepreneurs when it comes to working out how to reach the most profitable groups of customers in your market. 

7. Blue Ocean Strategy: Renée Mauborgne & W. Chan Kim. Another well-thumbed book in my collection (originally published in 2004), it prescribes how to make your own market space and make the competition irrelevant. The authors argue that cutthroat competition based on price results in nothing but a bloody red ocean of rivals fighting over a shrinking profit pool. The authors argue that lasting success comes not from battling competitors but from creating ‘blue oceans’ – untapped new market spaces ripe for growth. A landmark work that upends traditional thinking about strategy.

8. Business Model Generation: Alexander Osterwalder. This isthe first book that allows you to answer What’s your business model? Intelligently and with precision, it’s a practitioner’s guide, and I’ll be cheeky here and add in Osterwalder’s follow-on book Value Proposition Design, describing how to get product/market fit right is another must have for your bookshelf.

9. The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Ben Horowitz. Building a business when there are no easy answers,this series of essays about what CEO face in the build phase – the transition from searching for a business model into a company. More than any book I’ve read, this gives an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to lead and scale a startup.

10. From The Factory Floor: Well, I had to add this to my list! Made in Manchester, we want this book to be a catalyst for startup founder’s entrepreneurial ambitions. Among the areas covered are:

·      Ideation, prototyping, testing

·      Choosing the right technology and processes

·      Managing projects to ensure you are able to pivot

·      Marketing your startup

·      Additional support you should look for from advisors and non-exec directors

Peppered with anecdotes from the authors’ personal experiences, From The Factory Floor introduces the core essentials to get your startup off the ground. The proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo, so take this book as catalyst to get out there and start your own thing. There’s also a podcast:

Sometimes you simply need to turn your phone off, get a cup of tea, and get lost in a good book. Mr Van Sutchland – long-retired and now an avid bee-keeper in Cheshire – ignited the spark, and now I’ve co-authored a book, I’ve come full circle, but it’s a never-ending journey. Onto the next great read.

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