BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Nine ways to do it ...

Ah, yes, another dollar store find … it's a good thing that I'm as omnivorous in my (non-fiction) reading tastes as I am, as there's a lot of stuff that gets into my hands that way that I probably would not have gone out to get without it sitting there on the shelf for a buck. Certainly, Daniel Roberts' Fortune Zoom: Surprising Ways to Supercharge Your Career is among those. Now, having been looking for “my next real job” for a soul-crushing eight years at this point, my career doesn't need supercharging as much as it needs CPR … but the promise of the sub-title was enough to get it into my shopping cart.

Unfortunately, there is nearly nothing in this that deals with the reader's career, except arguably in some “monkey-see-monkey-do” sense, as it consists primarily of mini-bios of thirty-three assorted hot shots' careers (up through the book's publication date of 2013). As regular readers of these reviews know, I have a long battle going with “marketing” subtitles, and this is one of those misdirection efforts. I would have known more what I was getting into if they'd had the descriptive copy (used elsewhere) “Exclusive Insights from Fortune's 40 Under 40” as the subtitle, as that would have told the reader exactly what they were going to be presented.

If there was any supercharging of one's career here it would be in implementing the nine chapter headings under which the various folks being covered were grouped. These are the sort of things that other career/business advice books are based on, but here only serve as thematic organization for the tales of the individual paths taken by these people. I guess it might be useful to lay these out before getting into the details:

            – Challenge Goliath
            – Get In Over Your Head
            – Start A Cult
            – Follow Your First Love
            – Find A Problem
            – Do One Thing Well
            – Stand By Your Company
            – Think Of Others
            – Bounce Back

Nothing earth-shaking on that list, right? So, the meat of the book is in the stories of the individuals profiled, but given there are 33 covered in about 200 pages, none of those looks are particularly in-depth, averaging about 6 pages each. Now, those profiles are not all the material that's in here, there's an interesting Foreword by Marc Andreessen, a section “In Their Own Words” with mini-interviews with the folks profiled (in case you wanted to know what their hobbies were), and a listing of all the 40-under-40 alumni for the years 2009-2012. Oh, there are also little “How to Zoom” sidebars sprinkled through this where action points like “Quick damage control is key to bouncing back.” (OK, with additional illustrative copy – but only a few dozen words) are presented … feel supercharged yet?

Unfortunately, I also don't have a bunch of my little bookmarks in here, which would have pointed me to “choice bits” to pass along to you. In fact, there's only one, and it's in the Andreessen piece up front:
      After all, building a business is hard. Crazy hard. Things always go horribly wrong. And most companies fail. Only a very few win big. In venture capital, for instance, just 10 to 15 companies funded a year are responsible for 97% of the returns. We glorify the ones that create new products and industries, but startups are really more like sausage factories. People love eating sausage, but no one wants to watch sausage get made. Even the most glorious startups suffer crisis after crisis after crisis. The individuals profiled here aren't afraid to share that side of their stories: the mistakes, the missteps, the madness.
Needless to say, aside from the themes detailed above, there's not much of an overall “story arc” here, just the individual examples.

The first theme here is “Challenge Goliath”, and the author defines that as “Taking on Goliath means entering an industry that already has one or two dominant market leaders.” There are three figures profiled here, Kevin Plank of Under Armor, Katrina Markoff of Vosges Haut-Chocolat, and John Janick of Interscope Geffen A&M. Each of these went up against market leaders (Nike, Godiva, and the big three Universal, Warner, and Sony, respectively – although Janick's label is now part of Universal), and succeeded to various degrees. Obviously, Janick, who'd started his own label (Fueled by Ramen) when he was 17, ended up not conquering his Goliath, but job-hopping through the complex inner workings of the music biz to stake out a chunk of its territory. I wonder if Ms. Markoff's business ended up succeeding, as five years past the book's publication, I've never heard of any of her brands – although, admittedly, gourmet chocolates are not something that I interface with much, so it might be going gangbusters but just not getting onto my radar. Of these three, then, Kevin Plank's Under Armor is (to me) the most notable. However, it's somewhat hard to generalize his company's development to something applicable to businesses across the board. It started with his dislike of the undergarments that were typically used beneath the football uniform he wore at University of Maryland, and came up with an alternative that he then manufactured and talked up to other players, then other college teams, and eventually the pros … before branching out into many other sports products.

Next is “Get In Over Your Head”, where the introductory material notes: “Risk is scary and uncertain, but it's also where inspiration can come to you, and it's where, if your skill matches your ambition, you can succeed.” This looks at Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer, financial iconoclast Meredith Whitney, and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk … and of the three, I was certainly familiar with Musk and Mayer, but was only vaguely aware of Whitney. I don't know how people are expected to emulate this crew, as Mayer was “the youngest chief executive of a Fortune 500 company {at 37} and the first person ever to move into the top job with a baby on the way”, Musk was a multi-billionaire by his early 40's, and Whitney was the first to call out the dire state of the banks (specifically Citigroup) in 2007, accurately forecasting the financial meltdown (before going on to found her own research firm). Pretty much the only applicable (to us mere mortals) bits here come from Mayer's profile, where it talks of how she not only strives to surround herself with very smart people, but also works at developing those beneath her on the organizational chart.

The third one here is “Start A Cult” (and don't think I haven't considered that - heh!), this is framed thusly: “happier employees can mean more productive ones … it means establishing a strong culture and engaging work environment from day one.” This section looks at Zappos' Tony Hsieh, Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Method's (a “maker of eco-friendly cleaning products” that I don't think I'd ever heard of) Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry. Now, “Cult” here might be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek spin off of “culture”, although each of these organizations does seem somewhat idiosyncratic, with Google being famed for its “idyllic and stimulating environment” (as well as being very hard to get hired there), and Zappos is notable for their offer to pay would-be hires $2,000 to quit – just to make sure they really are interested in the job. Part of the process of getting a job at Method is giving a presentation on “How will you keep Method weird?” – weird being an attribute that I wish a whole lot more companies valued! They have an interesting list of “five core values”: Collaborate, Innovate, Care, What Would MacGyver Do?, and Keep Method Weird. Again, most of what's discussed here might be hard to scale to a smaller operation, but the general outlines are probably reasonably useful to consider (especially “weird”, my career prospects would be a lot better with more appreciation of weird out there).

The fourth theme is “Follow Your First Love”, which in this context is a lot less like stalking than it initially sounds, being set up as “turning … childhood passion into a full-time career”, and suggesting that you “Put your early passion first, and let work follow.” (however, I'm not sure how many pro baseball card collectors the market would support, or how could I make a living on building model airplanes). Profiled here are chef David Chang, Kevin Feige of Marvel Studios, and comedian Seth MacFarlane. Frankly, Chang's story is not much different than any number of other successful Chef/Restauranteurs, except perhaps for his going off to learn noodle making from some masters. Oddly his biggest claim to fame here seems to be having selecting a name for his places which (while being “an homage to Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen”) is clearly provocative to English speaking audiences. Conversely, the story of Kevin Feige is that of one very lucky geek who went from being a comic book fan to being a production intern, to various postings on the way up the ladder to being studio head at Marvel. For the tens of thousands of superhero enthusiasts out there, only a handful will ever end up in the sort of a dream job like Feige did. MacFarlane's tale is more like Chang's, in that there are lots of routes into comedy. He went from doing student animation projects, to a gig at Hanna-Barbera, working “on Cartoon Network shows like Dexter's Laboratory, and eventually one of his side projects became the hit animated feature Family Guy. Again, not a whole lot stuff one could implement (aside, of course, from implementing the theme, if possible) in this.

Fifth on the list is “Find A Problem”, presented as “Some of the best business ideas aren't earth-shattering inventions but simply clever ways to fill a need in society … identify a gap and come up with just the right thing to fill it”. Needless to say, this is a whole lot easier said than done, and I suspect that the vast majority of failed companies were ones that had some solution that never caught on with the buying public … these are just some of the lucky ones. Covered in this are Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss of Rent the Runway; Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler of Kickstarter; and Brian Chesky of Airbnb. The first of these is a company that allows gals to rent designer dresses rather than buy them, and was seeded by Hyman visiting her sister who had just bought a $1,600 dress to attend a wedding … she had a whole closet full of similarly pricey gear, but “she had already been photographed in all of them and pictures from the wedding would go all over Facebook, and she couldn't stand to repeat an outfit” (yeah, I know: boo-hoo-hoo). The founders figured a way to make the business work (in their early 20's) and eventually got through the initial resistance from designers, and had a success on their hands. Of these three companies, I'm guessing that Kickstarter is the best known (I've been involved in a couple of these efforts over the years), but was surprised that it had started out by Chen trying to figure out how to sell event tickets to a show that might or might not happen, depending if enough tickets got sold to cover the costs. At the time the book came out only 35 projects had raised a million dollars, and 77% were for less than $10,000 … and, unlike some other platforms, one has to make one's target to get the money – meaning that there are lots that never get funded. Airbnb sort of came about by kismet (at least initially) when its founders “blew up three air mattresses and quickly set up a rudimentary website to list their apartment as a rental for visitors attending” a major conference in San Francisco. Again, it's great if it works … but not a real solid bet for most.

Next is one that gets my hackles up a bit (being a generalist/polymath), “Do One Thing Well”, the recommendation for which is: “To focus your energy and your identity, do one thing and do it well”. Featured are Jess Lee of Polyvore, Kevin Systrom of Instagram, and Evan Williams and Biz Stone of Twitter. I'd never even heard of the first of these, Polyvore (and just pulled up the site to see if it still existed) … it's described as a “website that allowed users to create sharable collages of clothing and interior designs”, and had been Ms. Lee's favorite way of spending time after her days as a Google Product manager. She'd communicated with the founders (who had been at Yahoo) with suggestions on how to improve the site, which they implemented, and one thing led to another and she was brought on board, and eventually made CEO. Nice work if you can get it. Kevin Systrom was another Google alum, and his initial project was a Foursquare-like location platform … because of the lead of the other company, his team opted to strip their product down to just the photo sharing (with filters, etc.) and go with that. As most people know, the resulting company, Instagram, was bought up by Facebook for a billion dollars (again, nice work if you can get it). Twitter, of course, is an interesting tale … Williams, Dorsey, and Stone were working on various other projects (Williams had developed Blogger, later acquired by Google), but Jack Dorsey came up with the idea of a messaging service, which was at first being used internally at Odeo (where they all worked), before being publicly launched. TechCrunch featured a story on the company, highlighting Twitter, however, the company's investors were less than enthused. Williams ended up buying out the investors, and re-focused on Twitter … which exploded as the hot introduction at 2007's South by Southwest conference.

Seventh on the list is “Stand By Your Company” (cue Tammy Wynette?), which considers the opposite of the typical 18-month bounce of so many Millennials: folks who stay with their company for the long haul. This chapter looks at Dolf van den Brink of Heineken, Rob Goldstein of BlackRock Solutions, and Aditya Mittal of ArcelorMittal. Aside from Heineken, this gets somewhat obscure … and none of these tales are particularly applicable, except in a “stay put, move up” sense of the theme … van den Brink went with the beer company (after finding that banks were not overly pleased with his second degree in philosophy) right out of college, and bounced around the globe, from St. Maarten in the Caribbean, back to the Netherlands, to the Congo, to being the head of Heineken's U.S. Operations. Goldstein also went to his company right out of college, ending up at BlackRock (which was at the time not the “money-managing behemoth it is today” … with $2.4 trillion in business), largely due to his school, SUNY Binghampton, not being a prime target for recruiting. He was a “numbers geek” in the right place and time, and moved on up over time. You may have noted the similarity of the third person profiled here with his company … as it's his father's (largest in the world) steel company. While Aditya Mittal didn't join the company right out of college (he'd done M&A work at Credit Suisse first), by age 28 he was CFO at the massive (built from a whole string of, well, mergers and acquisitions, which he was spearheading) steel manufacturer.

The penultimate section, “Think Of Others”, which gets set up with the comment “if you're truly doing good, you're not launching a charity or philanthropic division just for the PR benefit; you've baked it into the core of your business”, and features some pretty high-profile do-gooders: Scott Harrison of charity:water, Ben Rattray of, and Blake Mycoskie of TOMS Shoes (whose book I reviewed a number of years ago). The stories of these guys are interesting … Harrison was deep into the underground music scene and event promotion in NewYork, and was off on a debauch of a vacation trip to Uruguay when he had a “conversion experience” of sorts and decided to make a change in his life, with him ending up being ship photographer with an organization called Mercy Ships (which were sort of floating clinics). He did that for a couple of years before returning to New York, and eventually founding charity:water. Rattray had been a “Gordon Gekko in training” growing up, and landed as a political consultant in D.C. … he was headed to law school when he encountered Facbook, and “envisioned a way to mobilize people easily and cheaply” … he started pitching the first iteration of to non-profits, and amazingly, “seventy-five of the first 90 organizations he approached signed on". TOMS (which was shortened from “Tomorrow's”) is famous for its policy of donating a pair of shoes to a needy child for every pair they sell. Mycoskie had been a competitor on The Amazing Race TV show, and had encountered a particular soft canvas shoe in Argentina, the alpargatas, and adapted the design for the U.S. market.

The last themed chapter is “Bounce Back”, which looks at electronics pioneer Hosain Rahman, hedge fund whiz Boaz Weinstein, and, oddly, LeBron James, all of whom “rose quickly, took a spectacular fall, and handled it with grace and skill”. Rahman was one of the designers of the UP band by Jawbone (a “wearable technology” company), which shipped in time for Black Friday in 2011, selling out right away … unfortunately, a large number of the units quickly died in use. Realizing that it was going to take a very long time to figure out definitively what had gone wrong with the device, he took the rather dramatic (expensive) step of offering a full refund to all users. Remarkably almost all of the company's investors supported him and “customer messages went from vitriolic to gushing”, putting a halt to the potential disastrous PR situation. They eventually did find out the problem, fixed it, did extreme additional stress-testing on the new units, and had these ready to go by the 2012 holiday season. The financial melt-down of 2008 was Boaz Weinstein's fall, having “lost billions of dollars at Deutsche Bank”, and much of the profile here deals with his arc to being in that job, and some fairly technical financial stuff about the things he developed after the crash … which is how he “came back”. As for LeBron, his stumble was the ill-conceived “Decision” presentation when he abandoned Cleveland for Miami (and a championship), and the profile deals with his career up to that point and his eventual rehabilitation (the book came out before his return to Cleveland and successes there).

The rest of Fortune Zoom is a section of quotes by the profilees, a “where are they now” section, and a listing of all the folks who'd appeared on the “40 under 40” list up to the book's publication. As I noted, there is very little material here that would “supercharge your career”, so is guilty of that “subtitle bait-and-switch”, but the book is quite interesting reading if you're open to getting examples of the various “themes” involved.

This is apparently still in print, with the on-line big boys presently having it at a whopping 76% off of cover price. Oddly, given that it's floated into the dollar store channel, the new/used guys don't have this at a price point that would make getting it from them (with the $3.99 shipping) much better than ordering it. Again, this hardly is what it promised to be, but is a worthwhile read nonetheless … you might like it. I'm just glad I got my copy for a buck.

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