Entrepreneurship in the First Person

A spate of excellent first-person books on starting a business prompts a question: is entrepreneurial education a commodity? Can the basic guts of launching a successful business be distilled into something so basic as investing’s golden rule of "buy low, sell high?" Tolstoy tells us that all happy families are alike, while miserable ones aren’t; but I’ve never found just one template for the successful startup.

Successful guides to startups must gracefully straddle the tangled terrain between personal and professional, logistical and emotional, inspirational and perspirational. In a startup these realms are so often blurred, and individuals need to separate out where possible. Launching a company is often an intensely personal experience with huge logistical demands, punctuated by a series of daunting and blurry decisions that only present themselves over time, as you make other choices. Entrepreneurial learning is essentially a heuristic process, by which I mean to say that you learn how to play the game only once you are playing it. And so any cookbook offering sure-fire recipes for success will inevitably fail you.

Okay, this is a bit of a long-winded windup to some recommendations of excellent recent entrepreneurial titles. These four books share one common thread, which is that they are written in the first person. For, as Barry Moltz says in You Need to Be a Little Crazy: The Truth About Starting a Business, "Regardless of what popular books say, there is no single way to achieve the personal success that you seek."

Here are few reasons why I enjoyed and highly recommend this book. First off, Moltz sheds numerous insights into entrepreneurship as a personal journey rather than a formulaic and predictable process. He shows how everything you bring to the table gets thrown into the mix of whether your venture makes it or not. And he forces you to keep the big picture in mind—the fact that you always need to establish more important goals than mere financial ones. "If you want to financially keep up with your friends, make lots of money, or accumulate wealth, get a job," he says.

Throughout the book he makes excellent and actionable links between personal assets (such as the strength of your networks) and business potential. And in My Truth About Getting Started and Running a Business, which I consider the best chapter in the book, Moltz reveals the source of his authority by sharing how he learned the business essentials about startups. To read more, by the way, visit his website.

Another great quality to this book: Moltz delights in sharing the real pain and danger of launching a business. If you get nothing else from this book, one of the key takeaways is a sharp and at the same time engaging focus on just how many things can and often do go wrong with startups. "It’s not a question of whether you will fail as an entrepreneur, it is simply a question of when and how," Moltz writes. "One key to being a happily successful entrepreneur is the way you handle failure. An entrepreneur is defined by how well he or she handles failure, not by how he handles success."

Tout number two: Barnett C. Helzberg’s What I Learned Before I Sold to Warren Buffet: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Developing A Highly Successful Company also shares a wealth of solid lessons from experience. This enjoyable book serves as a powerful reminder that the most important asset for any business is good old common sense. Nothing creates wealth and value for any company better than good ideas, hard work, and patient execution. Helzberg earned his podium by building the family business of Helzberg Diamonds into a string of 143 stores in twenty-three states, creating a business so appealing that Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway bought it in 1995.

He’s a man who clearly derives satisfaction in making the last detail of a well-run business work, and his book focuses on simple yet critical topics. Such as: learning to focus your energy on the right things, developing the discipline to jettison activities that don’t make the right money, hiring the right people, and cultivating the wisdom necessary to manage the balance between leading others and freeing them up to their potential. "Focus is your lever to success. As the leader you need to be sure you and your team are doing the right things, and as managers they need to be doing thing right," he writes.

Mind Your Own Business: A Maverick’s Guide to Business, Leadership, and Life by Sidney Harman is another excellent read from an opinionated and successful entrepreneur (as if they’re ever not opinionated). Like Helzberg, Harmon enjoyed tremendous success (his company is the world’s leader in making high-end audio equipment) and he seems bursting with ideas and opinions to share. Thankfully they’re sensible and intriguing. As someone who served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce and taught at Harvard, Harman deals with both day-to-day business topics and broader subjects including policy and the nature of the Internet Economy. Throughout this sharp book he animates his lessons with terrific and sensible stories of an accomplished life.

Finally, I’ll not only mention but recommend a book I was prepared to dislike. Doing Business by the Good Book: Fifty-two Lessons on Success Straight from the Bible, by successful black entrepreneur David Steward, uses stories and passages from scripture as a way of sharing truths about business and life. And yet unlike other books that have attempted similar goals (primarily the unseemly Jesus, CEO) and failed by bending over backwards to mine trivial or platitudinous truths, this book is grounded. Because Steward has a story to tell and real examples to supply, he pulls of the difficult task of sharing wisdom without sounding preachy.

Post script: for those of you seeking slightly more impersonal guides that focus on essential operational issues for startups, I’ll just mention several classics. Small Time Operator by Bernard Kamoroff shares just about every detail you need to know about the details of starting and running a small business, with a clear strength in bookkeeping and taxes. William Stolze’s Start Up: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Launching and Managing a New Business delivers solid grounding in the theory and practice of the early days. And Wilbur Yegge’s Self-Defense Finance for Small Businesses takes you through the nuts and bolts of this critical discipline authoritatively—to which I’d add Jill Fraser’s The Business Owner’s Guide to Finance: When Your Business is Your Paycheck. (Earlier I posted a long piece with my top 25 titles.)

Posted by tom at January 18, 2004 10:50 PM

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Read the publisher's press release.

Visit the companies that Tom discusses in the book

Hear a recent lecture by Tom on the Startup Garden


Read about other books and web sites about starting your own business.


Just Managing – articles that Tom wrote for The Industry Standard and some Business Articles written for Inc., Fortune Small Business, Harvard Management Update, and other places.



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