When I quit a perfectly good job as a magazine staff editor in 1979 and went out on my own to start a direct marketing business, I read every book on the topic I could get my hands on. I found six or seven written by entrepreneurs in my chosen field that offered priceless information that helped guide my journey from a stumbling startup to an established, quite profitable brand.
After I sold my company 11 years later and walked away a free man, I ended up writing a book of my own: Chicken Lips, Wheeler-Dealer, and the Beady-Eyed M.B.A.: An Entrepreneur's Wild Adventures on the New Silk Road. Happily, my book ended up No. 6 on the 20 Biographies Every Serious Entrepreneur Should Read list.
If you are an entrepreneur-in-the-making, I recommend reading every book on that list. For $400 or so you can buy every title and glean a ton of information to steer your startup around unforeseen, inevitable pitfalls. That $400 may buy you $250,000 of consulting information. That's a pretty good value. And, there's an even better one.
Instead of just using the aforementioned non-textbook biographies as entrepreneurs' fun-to-read general learning tools, you can look for biographies and company history titles in your chosen field that tell how great products were discovered and developed. It's the right product or service, after all, that is the fuel that will or won't drive your company to success.
My current favorite is -- okay, don't laugh out loud -- a story about...a dog. Yep, I am saying that a dog's story can teach you things about product development and brand management better than most business school professors. The book I am referring to is the tale of the most famous dog of all time -- Rin Tin Tin.
I'm serious. Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, by New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, is the inside story of one of the most famous and successful brands of all time.
For six decades, along with IBM and Coca-Cola, Rin Tin Tin was one of the three most recognizable brands in the world. It spanned the lives of generations of dogs that played the lead dog's role, from silent films, to "talkies," television and movies. Consumer appetite for Rin Tin Tin had legs in more ways than one, for generation after generation of kids and their parents. The audience just couldn't get enough of the storyline. Writes Orleans:
"...the narrative of Rin Tin Tin is extraordinary because it has lasted. He is that rare thing that endures when so much else rushes past; he is the repeating mark in our memory, the line that dips and rises without breaking. It is the continuity of an idea that makes life seem like it has a pattern that is wise and beautiful and indelible, one thing leading to the next; the individual beads of our lives, rather than scattering and spilling, are gathered up and strung along that endless line..."
"Rin Tin Tin ... began as a story about surprise and wonder, a stroke of luck in a luckless [World War I] time, and he became a fulfilled promise of perfect friendship; then he became a way to tell stories that soared for years. He made people feel complete. ... The lesson we have yet to learn from dogs, that could sustain us, is that having no apprehension of the past or future is not limiting but liberating. Rin Tin Tin did not need to be remembered to be happy; for him it was always enough to have that instant when the sun was soft, when the ball was tossed and caught. ... Such a moment was complete in itself, pure and sufficient."
Thanks to Orlean's top-notch research and writing, we get the full story of the people and their tumultuous lives, personal and financial, and market forces behind this unexpectedly robust, enduring brand. I learned more about product and brand management in this book than I did in two semesters of business school. And it was 10 times as much fun.
If you are an entrepreneur wannabe, there is no getting around the fact that you will need an enduring product to fuel sales and growth. What else is guaranteed to put checks in your mailbox?
To drive that stream of checks into your mailbox, and sustain success, you need a product that captures the public's imagination and fulfills a strong, recurring need. The two best places you can learn about such products are by reading between the lines in Warren Buffet's annual reports, covering the financial performance of his mostly commodity-driven empire (candy, jewelry, razor blades, carpets, soda pop, insurance, coal transportation, etc.), and books like Orlean's. The reading will be more enjoyable than the dry texts you will come across in business school, and the information will be real and easy to digest.
So if you are thinking about going out on your own, seek out and read product stories and entrepreneurs' biographies by the bucketful. You will get invaluable information right at the source -- not after it has been distilled for the dry classroom deliveries of tenured professors.
Sure, we're in an era of dominant tech brands like Apple and Facebook, but past brand-name giants can teach us just as much -- and there is more written about them, since more time has passed. That's why I suggest you boost your product research with books such as these, with Rin Tin Tin, a great story of an amazing dog and his place in American entertainment history, being one of the first.
Frank Farwell is founder and past president of the WinterSilks catalog (www.wintersilks.com). His book, "Chicken Lips, Wheeler-Dealer, and the Beady-Eyed M.B.A.: An Entrepreneur's Wild Adventures on the New Silk Road," was nominated for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book of the Year Award. It is sold in most English-speaking countries, and at Amazon.com and www.wiley.com.