Book Report: Amazonia

Memoirs by some guy who was employee #55 at He was an in-house editor. Amazon wanted to have some folks on staff who could write up book reviews. This was before they let any bozo with an account write a book review. Folks were supposed to trust these reviews--sort of like when you go to a physical bookstore and there's a piece of paper stuck to a shelf saying "STAFF PICK!". It seems like a silly idea, but these were the beginning days of Amazon, and nobody really knew how a retail site was supposed to work. Merchants and customers were still figuring that stuff out. Are still figuring that stuff out.

This guy used to pick some book that appears on the Amazon front page. I found myself thinking, how presumptious to think that he should do such a thing. But recommendation engines weren't so great back then. Having some human pick one book a day to show to everybody--that was probably the best option they had at the time... Nowadays, I ignore the Amazon front page and click through to the recommendations. It's not exactly clear to me why there's still a "front page".

What? Oh, right, the book.

The book. He talks about the scandal when customers found out about the payola. Book publishers wanted their books to appear on the front page and on category pages. Depending on which books the Amazon editors picked, the book publishers would fork over payola. You might think that the big publishers are sleazy when they lie to authors about copyright--but they're sleazy in plenty of other contexts, too. Anyhow.

So there was this big editorial staff at Amazon. But they weren't as good as crowdsourcing. There are too many folks on the internets who will write book reviews for free. (Maybe I should point out that I found Harriet Vane's customer review of this book particularly on-target.)

So there was this big editorial staff at Amazon. And then there wasn't.

So this is the story of someone working at a fast-growing start-up--who finds out that he's part of an experiment that's not working out... This would be a pathetic story, but the author, James Marcus, is an engaging writer.

And it's a reminder about the entrepeneurial throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. I like this approach, it's a great thing to do with software. If you write some software that doesn't catch on, that's not a problem. But this approach, it doesn't work so well with people. If you say, "Hey, I know, let's hire a bunch of in-house editors" and that experiment doesn't work out, you're going to have to lay a bunch of people off. And that's hard. So I guess I'm saying don't throw people at the wall to see if they stick. Or something.

(Beware: Chapter 14 of this book is all about literary crap: What would Emerson have thought of the internet? You might not think you care about that idea now. You will care much less about it after you drag your eyeballs over Chapter 14. Things get going again after that, though.)

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Book Report: On a Roll

This is a book about business, yet it's a good book. It's Howard Jonas' autobiography. He starts out operating a hot-dog pushcart. He moves on to distributing those tourism brochures you see in hotel lobbies. He starts doing a variety of mail-order business. He becomes a telecom mogul. Whoa--that's a leap.

Along the way, you learn about his principles. This is good; he has some principles that I disagree with, but he states them well. It's good to have articulate people to disagree with--they're the ones you're most likely to learn from.

long the way, you see places where he's had to compromise his principles--those are pretty educational, too. And that reminds you that these principles are, uhm, tempered by experience and stuff.

There's a temptation to make a joke about "how the sausage is made", but he doesn't talk about how hot dogs are made. He does give some hints about how to make some superior onions for hot dogs, though.

For example, early on he talks about how he took on a manager to help run a small business. He spotted someone running a deli and thought that someone who could manage a deli could manage just about anything. (I'm oversimplifying, but you get the idea.) I threw a nerd hissyfit. I'm soooo tired of the MBA attitude that someone who can manage something can manage anything. But But Jonas then goes on to point out that this management-skill-transferability... he points out that it doesn't transfer so well for technical teams. Which would explain a few things. It would explain why my past experience on technical teams dealing with managers... uhm, managers best suited to running delicatessens... it would explain why that experience has been poor. But the idea that the transferability works well outside technical fields--that would also explain why the MBAs keep suggesting that it would work well.

It's a good book. It has some good jokes, too. Check it out.

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Book Report: The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest

Just hours left until BANG XX. Can I claim that this is an appropriate time for a book report for a book that has 20 in its title? It's my blog; I can claim anything.

The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest: A fun fluffy novel set in Silicon Valley. I sure hope that these characters were exaggerated for comedic effect. The characters in this book seem even more warped than the nerds I deal with on a daily basis. There is something to be said for fun fluffy novels.

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Book Report: Growing a Business

This is a book about running small businesses. The title says "growing", but it might as well have said "evolving". Hawken is thoughtful and wise, reminding the reader not to take on too many problems at once, to treat people well, to... I'm not running a small business, but there was still some good advice in here, a lot of it is about running your life.

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Book Report: Crossing the Chasm

This book is about marketing; about marketing for products which are at a certain stage: they have enthusiastic "early adopters", but no big uptake. This stage sounds familiar to me based on my experience--and apparently it should sound familiar, because it happens a lot. It's so amazing to ship a product, so awesome when you hear that people like it--and then things stall out. Your team works on the next version, polishing your features, waiting for the word-of-mouth to spread... but the word-of-mouth doesn't seem to spread and you start thinking about doing dumb crap like superbowl ads just so that more people will hear about your project because of course if they just hear about it they'll love it like the early adopters did and pick it up too... But that doesn't seem to work out either.

I don't know if the approach espoused in this book works--I haven't tried it. But it sounds reasonable.

You've probably been going after the whole world as your "target market". That's been fine so far. But if you're trying to reach folks beyond the small, enthusiastic fringe of the "early adopters", you want to appear credible. Part of how they decide whether to use your product is--looking around to see if anyone else is using it. You want to aim for 50% of the market so that conservative folks can choose you without finding themselves hanging out with the lunatic fringe. How do you bootstrap your way to that?

Choose a small market. Choose a small market segment with a problem you can solve in a year. You've been trying to solve the world's problems. How about solving the problems of... dental office administrators? If you can tweak your product so that it's the logical choice for dental office administrators, you can probably break into that market. So far the dental office administrators have been struggling along with generic, uhm, calendars that haven't been tweaked to fit their specialized needs. (No optimization for six-month checkups, say.) You'll want to set up comparisons to folks' other choices because folks are more comfy with A/B choices. You're probably going to have to do a bunch of specialized stuff that wasn't part of your original idea. You're probably going to have to think about standards, compatibility... Spread to another small market segment. Another; maybe, like the Macintosh creeping its way out of each company's art department, you can take over the world.

Beware: your company's pioneers, the smart folks who got you this far--they might not enjoy this stuff. Find something else for them to do, pronto. They'll want to keep being disruptive. But the customers you're going after now don't want "disruptive", they want "safe". There are other people-role issues. You'll want someone market-ish to figure out this new market you're muscling in on--someone who can become an expert on dental office administration. This person will spend a year figuring out product stuff, a year during which you won't actually be selling much to the dental folks. Then the sales folks will start selling to the dental admins--and if the marketer did it right, the product will seem to sell itself. But the marketer might have already moved on to develop the next market segment. How do you figure out who did the great stuff--the marketer or the salesfolks? No easy answers; as time goes on, it might be more important to hire folks that work well together than folks who, uhm, accomplish great things on their own.

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Not exactly Puzzlehunts

Tom Lester and Annie Burnham got married today. You might remember them from BANG 13... but it's been a couple of years, so you don't have to feel bad if you don't remember. But they're married now, which is cool and also there was a reception party where I got to see a bunch of people I hadn't seen in... in years, in some cases. Some of them were up to interesting things.

Dave Litwin is making puzzles. These are not Game-ish word puzzles. These are physical-manipulation puzzles. You read about these gatherings in which puzzle freaks get together and trade the puzzles they've made. Dave phrased it "After a while, to support your addiction, you have to start dealing."

Not at all puzzle-related but arguably interesting: Kiem's become interested in antique sock knitters. They're these devices kinda like if you take the cross product of a loom, a cylinder, and a set of knitting needles. Kinda. She says a lot of them were sold at some point in history through a sort of pyramid scheme about as evil as Kirby vacuums. This outfit sold knitters and yarn to ladies across the country as an investment, the company would buy socks produced. Except that it didn't buy many socks--it turned away most as being low quality. So there's a lot of these knitting-devices out there.

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Book Report: Wireless Nation

I'm getting some writing done this weekend, finally putting together notes from the Midnight Madness: Back to Basics game. And I'm listening to some music by Dengue Fever. They perform in the style of 1960s Cambodian rock music. OK, that's gimmicky, but it works. And they've updated the songs, some of whose stylings sound cheesy today. Yes, I've been listening to some of the original Cambodian songs--the internet is a wonderful place, full of pirat-- uhm, archived media. But the story behind the music is sadder than anything you'll hear on VH-1 Where are They Now. "Probably died in a Khmer Rouge labor camp," is not how you want anyone's story to end. But singer Ros Serey-Sothea was a big star in Cambodia in the 1960s, which was an unfortunate time to be in Cambodia; her story is sad, and probably ended in a Khmer Rouge labor camp. Luck is important. Timing is important. It's better to be lucky than talented.

Oh, right, my point. The book Wireless Nation is about lucky people.

This book is about how the USA's FCC apportioned spectrum to early USA cellular telephone companies. There weren't always auctions--the FCC wasn't even allowed to run auctions. So it tried giving the spectrum away based on merit. But that was hard. Then it tried a lottery. Things got really weird as tons of little companies joined the lottery.

It's a strange story full of strange personalities. The USA came late to the world of mobile phones. Its mobile phone industry has been slow to develop. Back when I worked on mobile phone software platforms, those platforms weren't for the USA--they were for Europe and Asia, where people actually used mobile phones.

Why is the USA so backwards? Because its phone providers are a gaggle of randomly-chosen mountebacks. This book tells their story.

One interesting fun bit of history: You know that "fact" that using cell phones in automobiles causes car accidents? The AAA was saying that before there were car phones. It wasn't based on research, it was just a concern, a worry. We should pay more attention to abusive husbands and totalitarians taking over government. We know that these problems recur. They were bad for Ros Serey Sothea. They are bad for us today.

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Book Report: India Unbound

In this book, Gurcharan Das whines about life in India under the "License Raj". For many decades, India's government was over-regulated. The government was in charge of everything. Bureaucrats had great power--but not enough time or enthusiasm to carry out their duties. So anyone who wanted to run a business neeed licenses, and would probably spend about two years (a) figuring out who they needed to bribe, (b) bribing them, and (c) figuring out who they needed to bribe next. Corruption reigned. If you succeeded in business, your taxes were likely to be around 97% and could go over 100%. Perhaps this tax rate was fair punishment--you were probably a criminal if you'd made this much money, considering how many people you'd probably bribed. This state of affairs did not turn out well. In recent years, many of the regulations have gone away. Many new small businesses have sprung up. Mr. Das says this is pretty significant, and makes a good case.

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Link: BillMonk, Billing for the People

I was just checking out BillMonk, a web site that allows people to keep track of the money they owe each other. You and five friends go out for lunch and you need to deal with the bill? Let one guy pay and enter the amount in the BillMonk. Next time, someone else can get lunch, and tell the BillMonk. The BillMonk will keep track of who paid what. So if you paid when people went to the expensive place, and Pat paid when people went to the cheap place, Pat still owes you a bit. Use it to keep track of which roommate owes rent, to handle one-on-one transactions, whatever.

The bad news is that BillMonk is a service of the company "Code Monks", and one of the founders of "Code Monks" is Chuck Groom, and I still owe that guy three bucks for coffee back from when we worked together at Blue Mug.

So I guess I'll sign up for the service. But in this BillMonk transaction, I think Chuck is the monk, but I am the monkee.

(via DLoft)

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Book Report: The Big Rock Candy Mountain

Back when I was telecommuting, I'd listen to DJ Toby's show on KUSF Tuesday afternoons. Some days, she'd play the song Big Rock Candy Mountain, a song about the Promised Land for Bums.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountain
The cops have wooden legs
The bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs

This book isn't about bums, but is it about a man who works very hard in search of the easy life. He's always trying some new scheme or scam. He makes his family miserable moving from place to place. But along the way, they visit many places and you get a hint of what America was like before there was cable TV, back when whiskey was some of the best entertainment around.

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