Perhaps the chief challenge of books by entrepreneurs is that they tend to fall into two common traps. The first is a deep-seated belief that what worked for the author will work for everyone else. That the path that lead them to success, fame and fortune is infinitely applicable to others – for we are all humans, after all, and if you just apply a little elbow grease you’ll find yourself as successful as they are.
The problem with this is that it is generally in the details that the differences matter, and that the particulars of one entrepreneur’s success – from timing to geography to demographic to simple dumb luck – can be what separates global domination from abject failure.
The second trap is the blind faith that everyone who picks up their book is as fascinated by everything the author has to say as they themselves are. And that means even if the topics should touch on the particulars of their own love lives, their opinions on politics, their views on health, and nutrition and child-rearing and god knows what else.
Readers of books by entrepreneurs are not, by and large, interested in these things at all. They buy these books because they seek a guide for their own success, a template which they can lay down upon their own lives in an effort to transform them from the mundane to the fabulous. Thus anything that doesn’t help them achieve that success is irrelevant, no matter what the author may think.
We acknowledge these pitfalls to point out that it’s not fair, then, to complain when any one particular book succumbs to them. They are, to a certain extent, cost-of-entry, and if you’re going to get your knickers in a twist about an entrepreneur’s blindspots or ramblings, then you might as well dismiss the whole category.
The sin, therefore, for books by entrepreneurs, is when they don’t provide anything more. Is when, after wading through pages of highly idiosyncratic methods for success and wildly self-indulgent screeds on what’s wrong with Major League Baseball, say, that one is left with nothing to actually apply to one’s own life, or indeed, apply to any life.
For starters, her advice, delivered again and again, in different contexts and guises, to put yourself into the shoes of the person you’re pitching to. It sounds mind-bogglingly fundamental, and it is, and yet, as we have often remarked, it is a truism that continually seems to elude marketers of brands big and small. The fact that Ms. Agrawal has developed a talent for it at such a young age – and recognizes it as such – is much to her credit.
There’s also the valuable insight that, as she says:
“Business is iterative. Nothing is ever absolutely perfect, and it often takes much longer than you’d expect for a business to get on its feet. It’s OK. Just keep improving. Never stay stagnant. The minute you do, that’s when the business stops.”
Why is this important? Because it admits what many entrepreneurs – and successful business people generally – have figured out that most others haven’t; that we do not build static monoliths when we build businesses. We build machines that are very good at constantly reacting – airplanes, as a friend of mine likes to say, that we are building as we are flying them. This has perhaps always been true, but never has it been truer – or more possible – than in today’s digital world.
There’s also her extremely keen observation very early on that “you never know what wonderful, unexpected surprises can come from being brave and introducing yourself to new people.” Basic? Yes. But business is invariably about connections, and screwing up your courage to make them is often a surprisingly difficult task.
And, lastly, there’s her simple reminder that “Freaking out never helps”. Again, not rocket science, but curiously resonant for anyone who’s ever witnessed members of a failing startup’s C-Suite in a knock-down, drag-out.
And what’s not so valuable?
The highly idiosyncratic. The personal from which one cannot extract more universal advice. And, unfortunately in the case of Do Cool Sh*t, much of what is found in the book’s final third – a section which feels padded and drawn out, as if Ms. Agrawal had run out of things to say and was filling a contractual obligation. And coming as it does in the book’s final hundred pages, this leaves a bit of a bad taste in one’s mouth.
But that should not diminish the value of the book’s first 2/3rds. For as we said, there is much good advice here, and anyway, a certain amount of hubris is perhaps the one thing that all entrepreneurs can agree upon.