Max Reger, German composer in the tradition of Beethoven and Brahms, once wrote to a critic: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!” I believe this presents the dilemma that every reviewer, not just of music, but of books, restaurants or any art work, faces. Beyond the wrath of the creators that reviewers seem to naturally attract, many books and certainly their reviews have very short shelf lives.
Business books seem to age faster still due to the seeming evanescence of the strategies they outline. Yesterday’s silver bullet (Japanese manufacturing, re-engineering) seems to lose its sheen and today’s smart strategies appear to whiz past us even before we have fully comprehended them. So should we even bother reviewing books and should you bother reading them?
Rather than try to come up with an answer I shall emulate good physicists. When faced with an unsolvable problem, they find an answer they like and call it a first approximation. This column will be less a book review and more an engaging series of essays. I look to you, the reader, to engage in a dialogue and decide as to which room in your house this column ends up in.
Small Giants: Companies That Choose Bo Burlingham Penguin Books India
A recent article in the British medical journal BMJ reports that widely held beliefs such as “reading in dim light ruins your eyesight” or “shaving hair causes it to grow back faster, darker, or coarser” are just not backed by scientific evidence. In other words, they are myths. Businessmen and those who follow the world of business similarly hold a number of beliefs as given truths—foremost among these is the belief that the primary purpose of business is growth.
Several years ago, along with the other founders of our then fledgling start-up, I met the officials of the venture arm of a large private bank. We were looking to raise our first round of venture funding. Early in our meeting, the younger of the two venture capitalists present posed the question: “How will you become a billion-dollar business?” When I responded, “We won’t!”, you’d have thought, from his reaction, that I had slapped him. This billion-dollar question is only one egregious example of the belief that “growing big and, if possible, growing fast are not merely good, but necessary to become a great company”.
Small Giants by Bo Burlingham, editor-at-large of Inc. magazine, is the outcome of his study of, in his words, “Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big”. As he explains upfront “…some entrepreneurs have rejected the pressure of endless growth to focus on more satisfying business goals. Goals like being great at what they do…creating a great place to work …providing great customer service. …making great contributions to their communities…and finding great ways to lead their lives”.
Those of us who have grown up in India know how hard it is to get off the beaten path. Even today, when jobs as ramp models or VJs are actually hip and bring in good money, the pressure to be a doctor or an engineer is huge. Similarly, failure for an entrepreneur is still not socially palatable. The lessons that Burlingham draws from the companies he calls small giants (all American and privately held) are relevant for everyone of us.
Begin by questioning the conventional wisdom, which often is so ingrained that we don’t recognize it to be an assumption. What non-monetary goals do you have? What does success mean to you? When like a small giant, you choose to march to the tune of your own drummer, you will avoid some of the problems that plague the lemmings. However, you will have your own unique set of problems, which will require imagination and creativity to solve. The book discusses several such problems that the small giants faced and how they addressed them.
Get this book and read it—and while at it, gift one to your friends.
K Srikrishna: is an entrepreneur and angel investor. He writes about issues that business leaders and managers regularly face and books that could help.
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