3 business books that changed my life: Andrew Birt, co-founder of Angelcube and LIFX Labs

 

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Andrew Birt, who I recently profiled on my Enterprise blog, is a very busy man.

Not only does he help other would-be entrepreneurs get on their way via his start-up accelerator, Angelcube (along with co-founders Adrian Stone and Nathan Sampimon), he has also taken the plunge into raising money for his own new venture, LIFX Labs.

Andrew will be the first to tell you that it pays to heed the advice of those entrepreneurs who have gone before you, and he heartily endorses taking the wisdom of others and using it to fuel his own entrepreneurial journey.

That’s why I asked which business books had really spoken to him and why for our continuing series “3 business books that changed my life”.

Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson
It was Christmas 2001, and my Mum gave me a copy of Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing my Virginity. Thinking back on it, it’s pretty incredible present because at the time I was 19, had a only vague interest in business and hadn’t really heard of Virgin at the time.

From memory in 2001 Virgin Blue had only recently launched in Australia, and so the brand and the man behind it weren’t quite as well known as today but after reading the first chapter I was completely hooked.

The beauty of this autobiography (and later writings) is that it’s very generous; and the narrative reads better than most scripts.

Branson doesn’t really pull any punches in this book either and readily talks about the failures of the Virgin Group (Virgin Cola etc); tough personal times he went through on the road to success, and he’s so open and honest throughout the book that you get a real peek into how the mind of an amazing entrepreneur like Branson thinks.

The book is human and humble, there’s no double-speak, no corporate bullshit and I don’t know of any other billionaires who’d write so honestly on topics ranging from a bad acid trip they had, Keith Richards sleeping with their friends wife or the time they got arrested for breaking a tax law.

It’s just cool.

You can tell from reading this book too that Branson’s has an inquisitive mind that leads him to venture into industries where people fear to tread e.g. Airlines, Cola, Telco, Trains.

Losing My Virginity demystifies entrepreneurship as well.

I can just picture Branson taking his pen and paper to meetings and asking, “How can we make this a better experience for the customer?”

Once he finds and goes into these categories he makes himself and his staff hell bent on delivering an amazing experience to customers.

And it works.

I love flying Virgin for this exact reason. It’s personable, irreverent and fun. The staff treat you like a real person. They’re cool. Just like the rest of the brand and the man behind it, and this book.

I must’ve read this book 8-10 times by now, and every time I feel I need an injection of entrepreneurial thinking and to re-spark this enthusiasm for business, I read it again.

I’ve got a signed copy at home too, but that’s another story.

If you’re starting out as an entrepreneur you must read this.

Lessons Learned

  • One opportunity leads to another. Branson wouldn’t have started a mail order record label if he didn’t own a magazine. He then wouldn’t have started Virgin Records if a postal strike didn’t nearly kill the mail-order business. In Branson’s words “opportunities are like buses there’s always another coming around.”
  • Shake up boring, traditional or lazy industries with fun and humor.
  • Be a naïve optimist. Throw yourself into industries where others fear to tread, and don’t be afraid to take it up to the big end of town.
  • Structure companies around your brand; but give them the operating freedom and incentives e.g. joint ventures to take things to IPO faster than you could possibly do on your own.
  • Ride the wave. You have to be willing to back yourself to make key and company defining decisions.
  • Move with the times. Virgin continually redefines itself.
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The Nudist on the Late Shift – and Other True Tales of Silicon Valley by Po Bronson
My first two books seem to have kind of similarly crude titles but, what they really have at the core is great story telling and a narrative that weaves you through the entrepreneurial journey and puts you smack bang back in the time they were writing about.

For example when Branson writes about buying “The Manor” (Virgin Records first recording studio) you feel like you’re there and almost a part of the creative process of bringing together this incredible space designed to get acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Mike Oldfield to record there. This narrative makes Losing My Virginity so brilliant and I think a big part of the reason I love The Nudist on the Late Shift too.

In The Nudist… the year is 1999 and the dot com bubble hasn’t burst.

Bronson is a straight talking Wired journalist who heads to Silicon Valley to report on the incredible riches and tales being spun out of the tech boom time.

His journey leads him to a heady world of seemingly endless opportunities, Ultimate Frisbee games and secretaries cashing in multi-million dollar stock options and turning up to work in Ferraris.

The party hadn’t stopped yet, and the whole book is this intoxicating mix of diverse and unusual characters, true stories, and a landscape of people trying to navigate their way in an industry that didn’t really exist before 1995 and the advent of the internet.

This book was the first experience I had of Silicon Valley. Although I’ve only recently started heading there regularly I’ve had a vague understanding of the landscape and a real passion for the “US way” of doing startups since reading this in my early 20s, that wasn’t fully reignited when until I first learned about Y-Combinator in 2007.

This has obviously been a large influence on setting up the companies I’m involved with, like AngelCube and now LIFX.

Lessons learned

  • Eco-systems are important.
  • Boom-times must be capitalised upon.
  • The power of a startup to compress your entire financial life into a few short years.
  • Mind boggling pace and scale of Silicon Valley.
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Singo: The John Singleton story by Gerald Stone
John Singleton is one of my favourite entrepreneurs. He’s this laid back, knock about character who, at the core of it, is just a really good hearted guy; a bit of a rogue of a character who just happens to be a bit of a genius when it comes to marketing.

I love copy-writing, branding and advertising and after graduating my marketing degree and reading about Singelton and the way he did business I wanted to work for STW (applying for their graduate program).

As I was a pretty average under-graduate student (cause: partying, entrepreurial ideas, complete boredom) I didn’t have the grades to hit the threshold STW were looking for, so that opportunity lead nowhere and so after looking for a few different ways to get into the industry I eventually decided to set-up my own marketing agency, Startup Marketing.

I think this was partly inspired by reading about when Singleton first set-up his first agency, and how hard they had to work in the early days.

From reading this, I realized how young and inexperienced he was when he first set-up shop too, and I think that gave me the confidence to get out there and start Startup Marketing when I was 25-26.

Perhaps I was a little young and under qualified to be giving others marketing advice, but I think when you’re passionate about something, have a knack for it, and work hard, you build up a real core competency in that topic before you know it.

I think reading about Singleton’s career, combined with my own few years as a fledgling little marketing company, gave me enough experience and insights to feel comfortable that marketing’s my core competency (but inside entrepreneurial companies). I’m glad to have cut my teeth in that type of marketing environment and still think it helps me today.

Lessons learned

  • Be yourself – you don’t have to be this corporate sheep, and being a bit knock about and fun won’t hold you back.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell people to get stuffed. Sometimes you need to in business if people are being unreasonable and unjust. Stand up to people who are trying to take you for a ride.
  • Advertising is really about communicating with people en-masse on their level. If you’re a person of the people, instead of some over-educated, patronizing suit, you’ll do far better when marketing to a mass audience. You’ll be more authentic and give a clear voice to the brands you work with.
  • Entrepreneurship starts with a core competency. Singleton’s was marketing and advertising and he’s built companies and a career off the back of that defined skill set.
  • Get out on your own. If you’re not happy with your career path, e.g. working in some ad agency (or any business) who’s values you don’t really share, don’t be afraid to get out on your own and just start.
  • Make friends. Singleton is obviously a very popular and lively character. There’s no doubt his friendship group and his reputation for being a good mate played a key role in his success. I kind of subscribe to the same thinking. Enjoy yourself. Make friends. Be humble. Help others out and you’re half-way there. The rest is really just seizing the opportunities this attitude exposes you to.

 

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About Valerie Khoo

Valerie Khoo is founder and national director of the Australian Writers' Centre, the country's leading centre for writing courses. She is a journalist, blogger and author. Her latest book is "Power Stories: The 8 stories you MUST tell to build an epic business" (Wiley). Valerie is co-founder of SocialCallout.com and is an investor and mentor to startups and businesses in Australia.