Forty-three. It’s a little young for an American president and a bit old for a pop idol. As it turns out, however, it’s a great age for a business book.
Since Bill Gates blogged about his admiration for the John Brooks book Business Adventures, it has been reshelved at the top of the Amazon and NYT bestseller lists. Business Adventures isn’t new, but it’s beloved by business tycoons like Gates and Warren Buffet for the evergreen lessons it contains.
Business Adventures details 12 critical moments in American industry, including the rise of Xerox and Piggly Wiggly, the Ford Edsel fiasco, and the GE and Texas Gulf Sulphur scandals. Perhaps above all, Business Adventures teaches lessons about people – how they act, what makes them thrive and flounder, and what devilry they’re likely to get up to if left to their own devices. Business Adventures’ lessons are about human nature in the context of business, and though technologies and best practices change, people never do.
Penned by a long-time New Yorker contributor, one of the main strengths of Business Adventures is its wonderful prose and stories. In his blog, Gates writes:
“Brooks wrote long articles that frame an issue, explore it in depth, introduce a few compelling characters, and show how things went for them… Unlike a lot of today’s business writers, Brooks didn’t boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success.”
We agree that the 12 case studies that comprise Business Adventures resist summary. But if you’re in it for the key lessons from Business Adventures rather than the book’s elegant prose, we’ve rounded up a few for you here.
1. A lesson from the 1962 Flash Crash:
At their core, humans are basically emotional, irrational beings. Over the course of only three days, fear and panic led the stock market to plummet $20 billion only to boomerang back up a day later. Facts are a lot less compelling than the dictates of the lizard brain.
2. A lesson from the Ford Edsel fiasco:
Pay close attention to your market. Customers’ wishes can change very quickly and it’s important to keep a finger on the collective pulse. When Ford wasn’t looking, mid-sized dropped off of their buying radar.
3. A lesson from the federal income tax system:
Sometimes, the best solution is to scrap it. Over the years, the US tax system became so convoluted, corrupt, and loophole laden that it now encourages inefficiency. The only real recourse would be a do-over.
4. A lesson from the Texas Gulf case of 1959:
Just as people are inherently irrational, you can also count on them to be pretty self serving, too. In summary: when Texas Gulf executives found out about mineral-rich ground the company had just struck, they slowly began buying up stock shares and telling their families to follow suit – all the while denying the find to the public. Thus, insider trading laws were born.
5. A lesson from Xerox’s rollercoaster success:
Never trust a rapid success. Nobody expected copy machines to take off when Xerox launched its product in 1959, but by 1964, revenue was so good that the company could afford to drop $4 million to support the UN. By 1965, however, Xerox was in trouble: while they’d been busy philanthropizing, competitors had caught up fast.
6. A lesson from Piggly Wiggly’s investment debacle:
Revenge isn’t actually so sweet – and it certainly doesn’t pay. To teach them a lesson, incensed Piggly Wiggly owner Clarence Saunders sought to buy back all of his stock from tricksy prospectors. What he got instead was near bankruptcy.
7. A lesson from the Bretton Woods Conference of ‘64:
A small group of determined individuals can prevail against a bigger, stronger foe. When a collective of savvy prospectors believed Britain couldn’t keep up the currency exchange rates, they started betting against the pound in the market. Despite odds (and a strong central bank alliance against them) they won.
We’ve skipped any mention of five of the other case studies here, but you can read all of the blinks from Business Adventures in the Blinkist library. For some clever, elegant writing, check out John Brooks’s full book.
This article has been originally published on Page19.