I just concluded Ben Casnocha’s crisp and informative memoir — quite a feat for a 19 year old. My Start-Up Life covers the eight years of his career as an entrepreneur, beginning at the age of 12. I believe it was Brad Feld who pointed me to this book and he has a cameo role or two in the book.
Ben does a nice job of capturing the early years of an entrepreneur’s life. Although he experienced them earlier than most, the lessons and challenges are very similar to what others — myself included — have faced in starting companies for the first time. Of course, he had unique challenges to confront as well. He had to get Mom or Dad to drive him to meetings for the first few years since he didn’t have his license yet and in high school his grades suffered significantly as a result of his entrepreneurial activities.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot to chew on here for anyone who has started, is starting, or is considering starting a company. Everything from funding (including entertaining memos he sent to his Dad asking for his first “friends and family” money, as well as angel and VC efforts) to hiring, product development, and sales. But even if you’re not an entrepreneur, this book offers lots of great anecdotes and ideas that will help you do any job better or improve your career path.
Reading this book today has filled my head with a bunch of ideas for my own blog posts, so I can attest to the mental stimulation value of his book. And he has a crisp, clear writing style that wastes little time on platitudes and navel-gazing and focuses more on sharing his lessons learned and vision. Some of what he says strikes me as a bit off the mark, but that’s the beauty of entrepreneurship — we all do things differently.
The only structural complaint I have with the book is excessive use of sidebars. I found them to be a bit distracting because they broke up the flow of the narrative. Often they provided real value, but I would prefer that they be presented inline at an appropriate breaking point rather than in a call-out box often in the middle of a paragraph.
Some things that jumped off the pages for me:
- Chapter 4 (I refuse to use the gimmicky “4.0” styling employed by the book) has a great sidebar about “Why Some People Get More Stuff Done.” In short, these people are: committed to themselves, focused on “good enough” not perfection, focused foremost on the short-term, held accountable by sharing their goals with others, and devoted to taking the first step.
- In hunting for a COO as employee #1 for the company, the final 3 candidates were interviewed by the company’s advisory board. “We’re not here to pick the best of three. Rather, we’re here to see if there’s a superstar — by our budget — who can lead Comcate to the next level. If none of these guys blows our skirt up, we will keep searching.”
- “I have an analytical turn of mind and enjoy being around more creative types (who don’t wear tattoos and have tie-dyed hair).” Though I’m more Brooks Brothers than beach bum, I’ve learned over the years not to judge people by appearance, so this is one area where Ben might want to expand his horizons a bit.
- “I would spend an hour or more to customize the look and feel of the product for each city — it makes a big difference.” Amen to this. Prospects love seeing personalize product demos.
- Pricing is the subject of a sidebar in Chapter 10 and is well worth reading. Ben correctly points out that most start-ups have trouble in this area. Poor pricing in the early days can sometimes be difficult to resolve later on, especially if you price too low (people appreciate discounts more than price hikes). He also points out: “How you price your product affects how good your product is thought to be.”
- Another entrepreneur who got started as a teenager, Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com, wrote the forward, but he’s also the subject of a sidebar on “cold-call emails” in Chapter 12 where Ben focuses on personal branding (hey, Mitch Joel, you should have this guy on 6 Pixels of Separation!). The focus is on turning cold emails warm by Googling your target and otherwise gathering information to make yourself relevant and valuable in your opening email.
- The ever-present tension between management and development teams reared its head at Comcate. If you’re on either side of this fence — and let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog you probably are — you should at the least pick up Ben’s book and read Chapter 13 (“The Product Development Process: Cheap, Good, or Fast?”) to understand the tension and see how it was resolved in this case.
- “Dare to be Mediocre: Good Is the Enemy of Perfect” is one of the sidebars in the product development chapter. This resonates with me because I have 3 simple rules for those I work with. One is “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” (The other 2 I’ll share in an upcoming blog post.) The sidebar includes a good anecdote about Google making a good compromise in its cafeteria, understanding where to cut corners. Ben says the food is great, but the tables and chairs suck.
- Ben properly stresses frugality. He also emphasizes the value of time. Both are correct. But he offers conflicting anecdotes on rental cars. On the one hand, the COO was spending money on Hertz and Ben and his Dad felt that was wasteful. On the other, he relates a story about going with a cheap rental agency and it taking 2.5 hours to get the car. My point of view is like the Google food example: save money where it makes sense. I use Hertz because with their Gold service you can walk up, get in the car, and drive away. Saves 30-60 minutes by avoiding lines, paperwork, etc. My time is more valuable than the $20 a day I might save.
- “One issue of the New York Times contains more information than somebody in the Middle Ages was exposed to in an entire lifetime.” It’s a cliche, but true. It also underscores why people find themselves overwhelmed by information and why a real opportunity exists for creative thinkers to solve the information overload problem (or at least make it better).
- Early in the book — I can’t find find where as I write this — Ben talked about the difference between wants and needs when it comes to customers. It’s easier to get prospects to pay for “antibiotics” than “vitamins.” Steve Bracy, our EVP at CustomScoop, prefers “painkillers” to “antibiotics” in this analogy (as do I), but the point stands. If your product solves a problem it’s more likely to sell than one that just adds icing to the cake.
The book concludes with Appendix B which provide 30 days of tips (1 a day) about how to make yourself a better entrepreneur (and, as I said before, even entrepreneurs will benefit from most of the advice). It’s a great list and I highly recommend reading it. Lots of good ideas you can implement this month.