Avoid Monoculture. Travel. Read Widely. Let Experience Be Your Compass.

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I sometimes feel that the Silicon Valley culture and we as technologists more broadly can breed monoculture in our approach to entrepreneurship, problem solving, market analysis and technology solutions.Experiences way beyond any hack-a-thon, startup blog or your current company engagement can enrich your thinking and challenge you to think more broadly about the solutions you offer in the market.

I remember once sitting on a panel with Esther Dyson who is one of the most travelled and broad-experienced technologist I know. It was an “enterprise 2.0” panel at the dawn of what people began calling “web 2.0.”

Esther was talking about problems and entrepreneurs as far away as Russia. She was talking a lot about how the broader world doesn’t operate how we in Silicon Valley always perceive that it does. She encouraged people to get out and travel, see the world, see how other people live and operate.

I was living in Silicon Valley at the time of the panel, but I had been living abroad for 11 years before returning having lived in England, France, Italy, Spain and Japan as well as establishing physical offices in India. I felt that each of these experiences were data points – input – for me in establishing a compass for my own personal sense of the where the world would head.

You’ll see a world like I did – with limited landlines and electricity (India), a world with tiny apartments and thus less room for extra tech equipment & TVs (Japan), where having a sale anytime you want it isn’t legal (Germany), where corporate boards split the role of Chairman and CEO (the UK) or where a version of the Internet (the Minitel in France) existing long before it became realised globally and we had open standards

Om Malik was also on the panel. As was Shel Israel. In retrospect it was quite an established, senior and worldly panel.

I don’t profess to have all the answers or to always be right. But I do make sure that I have a broad horizon from which to make decisions. My intuition is not born of monoculture.

I have talked about this before. Even from a young age, my experiences as president of my college fraternity were more formative in my experiences as an entrepreneur than my economics classes were.

My political science degree was more helpful than my economics degree. Don’t get me wrong – I loved economics. But poly sci taught me critical thinking and writing skills that I didn’t get in my econ classes.

It’s not always the obvious sources of education that shape you the most.

Challenge conventional wisdom. Fight monoculture. Question authority. Take lots of inputs but then let your internal compass set your course. If “all the cool kids are doing it” make sure you have strong internal logic for why you’re going to follow them. Often it’s not the best course.

Experiencing the world will be a lesson in and of itself. Reading widely can also broaden your thinking.

I love reading Eric Reis, Steve Blank, Clay Christenson, Brad Feld and others. You should draw inspiration from all of them.

But when you’re in the mood to draw in a few new sources for entrepreneurship you might consider these two books non-traditional books on entrepreneurship that had an impact on me.

1. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
(I won’t give away any great spoilers, don’t worry)
Philip Roth is one of America’s great treasures. He writes about the fabric of American life, often from the perspective of his Jewish, New Jersey roots.

American Pastoral is a story of generational aspirations of Americanism. The protagonist grows up in an upper middle class neighbourhood of Newark, New Jersey. He is the son of a successful glove manufacturer.

The story gets framed from perspective of immigrant families with no money and no means of acquiring wealth. These were in the days where you couldn’t just be super smart, be disciplined, program computers well and get rich.

The patriarch of the family works his arse off developing expertise in making gloves for other people. Slowly he branches into selling them on a small scale and the whole family joins him in the endeavour.

The next generation takes the baton from their patriarch’s achievements and learn how to do better distribution, how to win over large customers, how to scale manufacturing, how to develop a niche market and be known as best-in-class in that niche.

But then the world changes. It globalizes. They struggle to maintain cost advantages. Many manufacturing companies move operations abroad leading to urban blight in Newark, New Jersey. Unions have more power and exert their pressure.

They are faced with decisions about whether to support their long-time employees who are increasingly hostile but have worked hard for generations with the need to compete on costs and quality.

And the generations who inherit the “easy life” of a family that has acquired wealth and prestige take their riches, their comforts and indeed their country for granted.

I won’t tell you where it goes but American Pastoral is a wonderful read for thinking about the city beyond you. For thinking about the physical and not just the virtual. For understanding the struggles of those who came before us. It is also a historical novel offering perspective of the US’s struggles through the 1960’s and 70’s. It’s not an “entrepreneurship manual” but it will broaden your thinking nonetheless.

And don’t just trust me. American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize! It was also voted by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 novels of all time.

2. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
The White Tiger is set in India. It’s a story that I think Vivek Wadhwa would appreciate because it tells the story of modern entrepreneurship in the broadest sense. It shows us how the other 6 billion humans live, compete, struggle for resources and find clever ways to rise above their means. (I don’t know if he’d agree or disagree with the book, but he’s always encouraging us to think more broadly about the definition of “entrepreneur” is a global sense)

The White Tiger was Adiga’s first novel and won the Man Booker Prize (which is similar for the UK & Commonwealth to winning the Pulitzer Prize in the US).

The protagonist is Balram Halwai. He is born in abject poverty in the city of Laxmangarh in India. He grew up in what people in India call “the Darkness” and he is of the class that is called “untouchable.” To put things for perspective for those of you sipping Café Lattes at Coupa Café, there are approximately 200 million untouchables in India or about two-thirds of the entire US population.

Balram is smart and stands out in school. He is lauded and told that he should study. But family needs place him into work at a young age so he has to leave formal schooling. He parlays his experiences into learning how to drive a car so that he can get ahead.

From here he figures out how to get a wealthy family in Delhi to take him in as a limo driver for them. It is very common for wealthy families in India to have drivers.

The story is that of Balram’s struggles to get ahead. He is enterprising and liked. But his society doesn’t make it easy for him to succeed. The way the wealthy family protects itself from staff going astray is to make sure that they get to know the extended families of each employee. Any wrongdoing offers the threat of collective punishment against the family of perpetrator.

Balram commits a murderer to get ahead. Shocking, I know. But I’m not giving anything away. He talks about this early in the book as a foreshadowing technique. He explains how he parlayed murder into becoming a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore later in life. Trust me, it’s not as “obvious” as you might think.

The book is framed in the context of Balram writing a letting to the leader of China trying to explain how India works. He wants him to see beyond what the politicians will tell him about the country. He wants him to understand how it really works. The author wants us to understand these lessons. That india isn’t just a headline about call centres, computing programming and offshoring. These topics all feature in the book.

Balram goes on to describe the system how he sees it. He takes on tough issues such as corruption – not just in politics but also in business. He takes on the class system and what he perceives as its inherent biases in keeping poor people poor. He shows how in business a small act of corruption makes the difference between his become a prominent entrepreneur or being out of business.

Shocking, I know.

But in my limited experience in India I dealt with “payoffs” directly. We shipped servers to set up in our Bangalore office (before we relocated to Pune) and they somehow got “stuck” in the import process. A local government official was willing to go and look for our equipment personally, but it would cost money. I’m not trying to paint an unkind version of India – I found it a wonderful place and I’m very fond of the people. I just want to point out that the world isn’t always as it seems at the surface.

And it doesn’t take a huge imagination to see parallel’s in Adiga’s assessment of Indian politics in our own country, where powerful lobbying groups line the pockets of politicians who increasingly need big money to win the never-ending campaigns in which they must participate. I’m not saying it’s absolutely corrupt, but it’s clear the interests of the poor and disenfranchised are not always adequately represented. That is part of his tale.

Whatever the “truth” is, you will gain from understand entrepreneurship from a totally different class structure and political environment from which you have come. It has dark comedic undertones that make it a page-turner and pure enjoyment.

I hope some of you get to enjoy it.

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