Reading is fundamental

I have recently been reading a few books on business and entrepreneurship, with the goal of trying to determine if starting a business is something I’d be interested in exploring. In the past, I’ve browsed through various business books at the bookstore, but never really committed to reading one all the way through. Part of this is because many books I’ve flipped through rely too heavily on quoting other business writers (Jack Welch and Lou Gerstner are common), and plumbing the same well-worn collection of quotes from Bartlett’s interspersed at random intervals. I just don’t get the sense that the author is contributing thoughts and ideas of their own — rather, they’re just quilting a book as it were.

Rather than worry about possibly subsidizing poor business writing, I decided to just borrow some books that looked decent at the library. It’s amazing how liberating it can be to make choices like this when money is not a factor, and when my time is in relatively abundant supply.

The first book I read in this recent binge was Bruce Judson‘s Go It Alone!. The basic premise of the book is that the advances in communication and business in the Internet age have made it possible for individuals to carve out their own niches and construct successful businesses. This can be done because there is a lot of business functionality out there for sale on the Internet, which can be leveraged by a motivated individual to construct a profitable business. A good example of the types of software and services Judson talks about is WordPress, the free software behind this blog. WordPress is relatively easy to use, even for someone like me who’s been out of the loop with regards to Web software and technology for 7 years now. And, at the same time, it’s robust and scalable enough for companies like Ford to use it. For a prospective user, the only expenses would involve Web hosting and time spent learning to use the system.

The prevalence of open source software and services has really changed the landscape of the software industry — it’s now possible to construct software systems that can compete with almost anyone out there, without needing to have massive capital and hardware expenditures. Look at Google, perhaps the most famous example of this — their entire search business is based around commodity hardware, and clever ways of using it.

Unfortunately, Judson sometimes strays a little too close to the “trendy couple sipping Chardonnay in their living room” model lampooned by Joel Spolsky, where entrepreneurs simply string together off-the-shelf software components and sit on their sofa while the cash pours in. While he does stress that any new business venture has to have added value somewhere in its chain, the idea that custom software can fill this role receives short shrift in the book. As a matter of fact, there’s a passage in the book describing his experience with custom software as being very negative — his philosophy is, “wait 6-18 months, and you’ll be able to buy that functionality for pennies.” Personally, I think this does his readership a disservice by suggesting that it’s never a viable option. I’m sure that some of this is because of Judson’s background, but completely dismissing the idea of building a startup around custom software is short-sighted in my opinion.

As it turns out, you can actually read this book for free on his website, so give it a whirl if you’re curious. It’s a pretty quick read.

The other two books that I picked up have been less useful. Starting on a Shoestring is really focused on more capital-intensive businesses, about which I’m not really interested. It does present some interesting anecdotes about thrift, legal protection, and starting businesses almost entirely with other people’s money. Likewise, The Entrepreneur’s Information Sourcebook also focuses on more traditional business types. It’s more of a collection of pointers to more detailed information about topics related to starting a business, with very little authored content. I found the sections relating to legal aspects of a business and accounting to be useful, but most of the rest of it was either inapplicable to the kinds of things I would be interested in, or a rehash of things that I had learned from the other books.

I’m sure I’ll be reading some more on these topics in the future — after all, I have a long string of plane flights coming up soon, and a need to kill a lot of time sitting in airports. I’ll be making another visit to the library to get some fresh reading material…

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  1. what kind of business would you be interested in starting??? i think i am far too scarred by, er, certain aspects of my/our childhood to ever want to start a business for real, so i salute your bravery!

  2. One aspect where a person can add value to open source solutions is with expertise. Businesses want someone to solve their problems in a reliable way and in my experience there is a reasonable gap in terms of consistent quality and documentation between commercial or open source. Some who knows how to properly integrate, customize, and document an open source solution is a valuable resource.

    There is a middle ground between completely custom and completely off the shelf also. Most of these software packages make it easy to add your own modules and plugins to extend them so you can nicely add your value that way. I get a little confused, but I think some open source license flavors may require you to contribute your additions to open source as well, which might be a concern if you want to greedily hold on to your advantage.

  3. Yeah, I’m already fairly aware of the various licensing types out there — in my last couple of jobs I was frequently utilizing third-party code and components, and had to be very cognizant of what our obligations were under the license of each package. That being said, I think that selling customizations for open source software is not a good long-term strategy — if your changes are commercially successful, a free competitor will no doubt arise, leaving you with only a short window of opportunity.

    I think the ideal entrepreneurship situation would be one where income is decoupled from time spent on development and production. That is to say, selling a product that is easily duplicated, can be sold at any time, at any place, and which does not necessarily require time to be spent training a customer on how to use it. Software falls into this category, either in the form of downloadable software or Web services.

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