Every mistake in the book

Stories of successful entrepreneurs abound in the literary universe. Stroll down the aisles of your neighbourhood bookstore and you would find plenty of literature lavishing exorbitant praises on certain wealthy individuals. A general lack of skeptical view often blinds people to the sweat, perseverance and a constant threat of failure that beset the world of startups. For one successful entrepreneur, there are thousands who founder without a decent shot. My beef with the credulous glorification of a few thriving individuals is that it makes the suckers out of others who aspire to take the plunge. Technically, a booming venture brims with the magic ingredients of hard work, faith, grit, money, timing and luck (its importance always understated in case of success) whereas a doomed business despite the same ingredients (of course, barring luck) often fails to get off the ground. Thus, to the reader, the circumstances that drive hundreds of entrepreneurs out of business may present a better learning opportunity than the boasting, narrative-fallacies-littered autobiography of someone basking in the aura of success.

“Every mistake in the book” comprises personal memoirs of a failed entrepreneur, FJ Lennon, who could not make it to the shores. Buoyed by his passion for video games, Lennon – without a formal background in the business – ventured into entertainment software industry in the ’80s. After seven agonizing years of hardships and struggles, Lennon had to sell his company. Unfortunately, his miseries did not end there. Two years later, to save his hide, Lennon bought the company back only to trade it once more. The newest buyer allowed him to stay. However, his stint as the remnants-of-the-acquired-company came to haunt him and added to his agonies and fortunately, to his wisdom, too.

FJ Lennon recounts everything about his trials and tribulations: the blunders that he committed while starting up, the erroneous judgments that led to the fateful eventuality of winding up of his company and his outside-in view as a freelancer. All dished out with delicious slices of wit, wistfulness and sarcasm.

Author segregates his advice to business world newbies and aspiring entrepreneurs into five categories: biz basics, money matters, how to manage managing, in the trenches and let’s get personal. His much-practical advice packs a punch. It’s actionable, teachable guidance from someone who had a harrowing time as an entrepreneur. Lennon does sound vitriolic and grouchy at times, but then he gleaned his wisdom the hard way.

Lennon’s from-the-trenches advice to the novice entrepreneurs strikes the right chord. He remarks that getting your business off the ground is the hardest part. You must stay lean and grow small in the early days. Hence, any fantasies of a posh office peppered with mahogany furniture and funky chairs should be kept at bay until the business starts to kick in some serious money. To quote the author,”Work on top of each other. Forget about securing more office space until it’s impossible to move sideways without it. In twenty years, you won’t remember the expensive desk you have your eye on today.”

Managing finance is a pivotal part of managing a start-up and the author had apparently flubbed it in his day. He urges the entrepreneurs to not take too many investors on board while starting a company. A horde of investors – each with their tiny contributions – could lead not only to a piecemeal financing scenario, but also to a rather awful ownership structure. And that is anathema to a new venture! Not the one to equivocate, Lennon asserts, “If you can’t attract the attention of legit venture capitalists, underwriters and banks, then you probably don’t have a business worth funding.

If managing finance is not the most entangling aspect of a new venture, then, by all yardsticks managing people is. For the benefit of both managers and entrepreneurs alike, Lennon shares a stockpile of advisory on leadership and people management. I would hate to launch into hyperboles but I personally found Lennon’s counsel to be the most practical and the most relatable than that of all leadership pundits out there. For instance, while making his point as to how certain dictatorial managers tend to shoot down the ideas of their subordinates, Lennon remarks, “As a manager, learn to make suggestions, sometimes firm suggestions, not demands. Even when it’s your way or the highway, respect what people have to say.” Devoid of any fluff and leadership parlance, Lennon’s narrative steers clear of call-it-right-down-the-middle road and settles for call-a-spade-a-spade route.

While the book both entertains and galvanizes the reader, it does have its share of imperfections. Firstly, for a large part, the nucleus of the book appears to be people management than entrepreneurship. How to manage various stakeholders forms a meaty part of the book. Marketing and Finance get a look-in but that’s about it. Secondly, author’s emotions seem to get the better of him on several counts in the book. He opines like a giant flaming gasbag especially when he recollects accounts of his personal run-ins with crazy bosses, non-committal employees and apathetic clients. The idea of calling your colleagues and subordinates snakes and wishing for disembowelment of your boss – no matter how rotten he is – may not sit well with a lot of people.

The whining tone of Lennon’s memoirs may induce you to categorize him. Admittedly, it did occur to me, too, during the reading that perhaps this book was just a catharsis for a disgruntled, failed entrepreneur who always got the short end of the stick. But how far you want to go with that notion as a reader is your call. I discarded the idea since the positives appear to outweigh the negatives and in any case, Lennon’s book could have carried the impression of a Scot Adams imprint had he not been his original self. In the end, it’s a book worth your time and money. Required reading.