“I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.” Jay-Z, Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix Ft. Jay-Z) by Kanye West
We talk a lot about “immersion” in the design world; the practice of becoming totally wrapped up in your opportunity space, getting right down in there and understanding everything there is to know about it, even experiencing it first-hand if possible. The idea is that, if you’re not native to the problem, then you fundamentally can’t solve it for someone who is. This kind of thing is time consuming, and it requires an incredibly plastic mental framework, but I believe that it is perhaps the only way to make fully holistic solutions.
Unsurprisingly, one of the first things that I did when I decided to get involved with this hustle was immerse myself in the space that was most alien: business administration.
The $60 MBA?
I went online and looked up books on starting a business, and business practices in general, and ended up buying a few. While I definitely wouldn’t say that you can replace an intensive study of business administration this way, it’s certainly cheaper and faster, and for my purposes, adequate to introducing me to the core concepts. Here’s what I read and what I thought of what I read:
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries : Considered canon by many in the startup crowd and also denounced by the same folks who used its preachings to get where they are now, because apparently a big part of being a hustler is becoming an iconoclast as soon as you make it. I found it mostly useful, but by far the biggest take-away for me was how similar the “Lean Startup” method is to the Design Process. Their Build-Test-Learn iterative approach is exactly what we do in ID, and if I was going to start a business without doing any research, I would probably have defaulted to what I know. Unfortunately the approach works best with software and service-based products that don’t involve tooling, but a lot of the concepts are still very applicable to hardware.
The Ten-Day MBA by Steven Silbiger: I picked this one up to balance me out a little bit with a more traditional perspective. Each chapter (there are 10) covers a major area of business administration, and I’ll admit, a lot of them are fairly skip-able (Ethics? Come on. It’s only like 10 pages anyway and I’ve read enough Nietzche, Artistotle, Kant and Rand to know better. Google’s maxim “don’t be evil” will suffice for now). But some of them are worth their weight in scotch, especially Marketing and Strategy, which not only give you really, really helpful tools for planning, but also furnish you with enough vocabulary to sound totally awesome whenever money comes up in a room full of designers.
The Innovators Dilemma by Clayton Christensen: Also considered fairly canonical in the startup world, but I’ll admit, I didn’t get very far in this one. The thing is, it’s not super relevant to what I’m doing. The major takeaway is that big businesses who do everything right sometimes fail when the industries they’re in change fundamentally (or get “disrupted” in his words), and it’s usually tiny, nimble businesses (see also startups) that end up on top. For a contemporary example, tobacco companies are being disrupted by portable vaporizers and e-cigarettes as we speak. If you want to understand the theory behind this, read Black Swan or Anti-fragile by Nassim Taleb. I think I’ll end up circling back to this one, but for now I had to prune this one out to have time for the more applicable books. Can’t hug every cat.
How to Kill a Unicorn by Mark Payne of Fahrenheit 212: After seeing a really inspiring talk by Mark Payne at the HarvardxDesign2014 conference last year, I decided to pick this one up, but I was cheap, and so I pre-ordered the paperback which still has not shipped. I did read a decent portion of the digital edition though, and I will say it’s a fantastic book that caters directly to designers with an entrepreneurial bent. Fahrenheit method, combining “magic” (design) and “money” (business) into a simultaneous process to produce viable and desirable products is fascinating and refreshing. They do work primarily for established businesses looking to grow new markets, and a lot of their case studies reflect that, so not everything was relevant to me personally, but still, an excellent book.
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: Okay, I actually didn’t buy this book specifically for this project, and it’s not actually a business book, but I do consider it 100% essential reading for every human, and it also happens to be highly applicable to business. Basically it is a book about our brains, how they work, why they fail, and why we’re not as good at analyzing information as we think we are. Buy it now. It will save you a lot of money, time and frustration in your life. Do it now.
Podcasts and Videos
Because I like to consume media in many channels, I also enjoyed the following:
Startup (Podcast): This narrative-style mini-series chronicles Alex Bloomberg (formerly of This American Life and Planet Money) as he starts his own startup: a podcast content provider. It has a lot of charm, is very honest, and goes into a lot of detail on the highly personal, emotional aspects of being a hustler. Full disclosure, I’m trying really hard to do as good a job with all of that stuff in this blog.
How to Start a Startup: Basically a series of recorded lectures given by the founders of Y-Combinator and friends. It’s free, and if you’re not into sitting down and reading a few books, I highly recommend it. Makes nice, thought-provoking background while assembling a laser-cut pendulum clock kit.
What I Know and Don’t Know
“A start-up is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
The tricky thing about that, is what happens when you’re uncertain about what you can be uncertain about? How do you know enough to know that you’re on the right track? Let us pray the entrepreneur’s prayer,
“Lord give me the serenity to accept the uncertainties that I know and ignore the ones that don’t matter, and the strength not to be crushed by the uncertainties that I cannot see coming.”
So, if you’re a designer turned hustler or whatever, figure out the known knowns and the known unknowns, then try not to plan so much that you become vulnerable to what you can’t predict.
Until next time. Hustle hard.