Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"My Start-Up Life" - A Review








Ben Casnocha's book, My Start-Up Life: What a (Very) Young CEO Learned on His Journey Through Silicon Valley, is a disarming tale of a startup told by an young entrepreneur who, instead of trumpeting his tale as a tribute to his own genius, shares the real inside story, a rollercoaster of a journey. Ben's story shows the value of being humble enough to ask questions when you don't understand and being determined enough to put one foot in front of the other and build a real business. I especially appreciate the way Ben portrays the crucial role of mentors in his successful business. In addition, Ben clearly understands one thing that often evades entrepreneurs (young and old) : the value proposition of a business must be defined from the customer's point of view. And Ben's story does hinge on what I call the twin devils that plague all entrepreneurs: cash flow and people issues.

The book has interesting discussions of so many practical issues, including how to: teach yourself about finance and accounting, build a board, ask the right questions in a sales pitch, find the right kind of money, pay close attention to detail when presenting, and move a product from small scale to large scale.

It would be tempting to focus on Ben's age (indeed, he is a whiz-kid in every sense of the word), but I think the real value of the story is that it has so much in common with entrepreneurs of all ages. Ben struggled to be a "normal high school kid" in the same way I see many talented entrepreneurs struggle to reconcile their own highly empowered view of life with others who are on more passive tracks. Most of Ben's mistakes are not a function of being young, but a function of being human and therefore fallible at times. His successes are equally disconnected from age and result from an unyielding personal commitment to his passion to make his business work and the desire to hear "yes" instead of "no" from the Universe.

Probably the most compelling part of Ben's story is his description of the product development process. What Ben calls the "long hard slog" is the process of taking Comcate from a piece of software initially created from a an simple sketch sent by a teenaged American to a young programmer working overseas to a consistent product, designed for scale and focused on "good revenue" (money coming from product features that don't require extensive support). The slog is where Ben seems to have learned the critical life lessons that will surely help himpursue his entrepreneurial vision.

Ben's book does have two specific messages that I think are extremely important to high school and college audiences. One of them is to manage your "personal brand." In this You-tube, MySpace, facebook world, young people tend to forget that future recruiters and investors will quickly find the footprints students are leaving in the digital world right now. I would love to see more highschoolers and college students resist the urge to share their most intimate moments with the rest of the world in the name of social networking. The second message is the call to be philanthropic. Entrepreneurship education understandably attracts individuals with ambitious income goals, but many do not understand the power of using that wealth in philanthropic ways.
Ben ends his book with an interesting reading list. We hope in future editions, he'll include a "Listening List" from eClips!

Interested in learning more about the book? Check out the book's website.

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