Lessons from books this year for startups

Time is one of those great levellers. Everyone has precisely 24 hours in a day, no matter who you are. Obviously, how you fill that day will differ. I’m pretty sure I waste a large proportion of the day, through browsing social media too much, checking e-mails incessantly, eating burger (obviously) etc. However, despite that, there are occasional pockets of time that I do find for reading. I always make sure I have a Kindle in my coat pocket, so I try to pick it up when I’m on the bus or train. Whilst I end up getting through quite a few books in the year, I always tend to fall short of my aim. I suppose that will be my new year’s resolution for 2020, to read more books (and of course I shall break this resolution with flying colours!)


So what have I learnt from the books I’ve read this year and how has that influenced how I work at the fintech startup, Cuemacro? Aside from technical books, which I tend to dip into and browse, rather than reading cover to cover, most of what I read this year was skewed towards history/politics, travel and the occasional novel. Below I’ll talk about some of the books.


I ended up reading a few books on American history, both about the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton (by Ron Chernow) and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (by Jon Meacham), as well as several about Ulysses S Grant, who came to prominence during the Civil War (both his autobiography and Ron Chernow’s recent biography). The first lesson, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that perspective makes a big difference. Grant’s autobiography is incredibly well written, so much so, that some even thought he didn’t write it. Chernow’s books address the sensitive topic of Grant and drink, which as you might expect, aren’t really covered the autobiography. Reading both books together however, gave me a much better picture about who Grant was, and what a brilliant general he was, able to overcome his own personal battles to win on the real battlefields. Obviously, there’s still a lot I don’t know about his life and about the Civil War period more broadly, so there’s much more left to read in the future.


This idea of having multiple perspectives is very important, not only in trying to understand history. It is something I can relate to when running my own startup, hearing. It can be very easy to have tunnel vision when you are running a business, and be fixated about specific points, when you are in the thick of it. However, clients and other folks in the industry will have a different viewpoint and are invaluable in giving feedback. I am not saying everyone else is always right, but I can say with certainty, it isn’t the case I’m always right!


This notion of different perspectives, is also true of the books I read on Hamilton and Jefferson, which covered a period where both characters were hugely influential in shaping the United States. Chernow and Meacham’s portrayed the period in different ways. In both books, you can see the beginning of the tension between those who favour a larger government role and those who favour less, which is still a major feature of politics in the US. If anything, understanding the start of all this, has shed a light (at least for me) into modern US politics.


As a general point, not just here, understanding the past, is the first part of making any sense of the present, whether it is on a broad level or simply looking at what we’ve done ourselves. On my own startup journey, understanding what has gone wrong, has probably been more important than what went right. Let’s face it, mistakes are easier to make. It’s fine to make them, but at least learn from them. 


Closer to home, I read Haven’t You Heard by Marie Le Conte, which took a lighthearted view on the way politics operates in the UK, and also taking a look at how journalists interact with politicians. It was definitely a eye opening book, and left me somewhat more critical of any information I receive.


I also read Netflixed (by Gina Keating), which was one of the only books I read about startups this year! It ran through the founding of Netflix and how it evolved from a mail order DVD business, to an online video business as it is today. Being a startup it was able to quickly pivot in a way that incumbents did too late (ie. Blockbuster). The key takeaway from the book, was that it is important to be pragmatic, and not to be wedded a specific strategy. If you need to pivot and try something else in a startup, do it. Lastly, I’m currently reading The Man Who Solved the Market: How Jim Simons Launched the Quant Revolution by Greg Zuckerman, which is excellent, and talks about the legendary quant firm founded by Simons, Renaissance Technologies. Not sure, if I’ll be able to replicate their trading strategies (!), but it’s nevertheless a very insightful and gripping read.


So in conclusion, it’s been a good year of reading. I’ve learnt a lot, but still even more left to learn. Whilst, the subjects of many of the books have had little to do with startups, reading them nevertheless influenced how I think about my own business. Best of luck for 2020 and hope you have a very merry Christmas too!