gatesnotes
The blog of Bill Gates
gatesnotes
The blog of Bill Gates

The Best Business Book I’ve Ever Read

GO
Filter By
Posts
Videos
Your search for "", with selected filters, does not match any posts. Please try again with a different search term or reset filters.

Popular searches include: Books, Malaria, and Future of Food.
RELATED ARTICLES ON
Please complete your account verification. Resend verification email.
This verification token has expired.
Your email address has been verified. Update my profile.
Your account has been deactivated. Sign up to re-activate your account.
View all newsletters in the newsletter archive
You are now unsubscribed from receiving emails.
Sorry, we were unable to unsubscribe you at this time.
Logout:


Become a Gates Notes Insider
- or - Sign up with email
This email is already registered. Enter a new email, try signing in or retrieve your password
Send me updates from Bill Gates
Sign Up
Join the Gates Notes community to access exclusive content, comment on stories, subscribe to your favorite topics and more. We will never share or spam your email address. For more information see our Sign Up FAQ. By clicking "Sign Up" you agree to the Gates Notes Terms of Use / Privacy Policy.
Account Settings
VIEW & EDIT PROFILE
Your Information
First name
Last name
Save
Cancel
Email address
This email is already registered
Save
Cancel
Please verify email address. Click verification link sent to this email address or resend verification email.
Password
Save
Cancel
Send me updates from Bill Gates
You must provide an email
Your Interests
Saving Lives
Energy Innovation
Improving Education
Philanthropy
Book Reviews
About Bill Gates
Deactivate Account
Click the link below to begin the account deactivation process. Deactivate account If you want to permanently delete your account and remove its content, please send us a request here.
Ok
Gates Notes Insider Sign Up FAQ

Q. How do I create a Gates Notes account?

A. There are three ways you can create a Gates Notes account:

  • Sign up with Facebook. We’ll never post to your Facebook account without your permission.
  • Sign up with Twitter. We’ll never post to your Twitter account without your permission.
  • Sign up with your email. Enter your email address during sign up. We’ll email you a link for verification.

Q. Will you ever post to my Facebook or Twitter accounts without my permission?

A. No, never.

Q. How do I sign up to receive email communications from my Gates Notes account?

A. In Account Settings, click the toggle switch next to “Send me updates from Bill Gates.”

Q. How will you use the Interests I select in Account Settings?

A. We will use them to choose the Suggested Reads that appear on your profile page.

Forgot your password?
This email is already registered. Enter a new email, try signing in or retrieve your password
Reset Password
Change your header photo
your image
 
Change
your image
Uh Oh!

The image you are trying to upload is either too big or is an unacceptable format. Please upload a .jpg or .png image that is under 25MB.

Ok
First name
Last name
Enter a first and last name. For example, "Richard Feynman"
Bio
0/160 characters
Edit Profile
Account Settings
Save
Cancel
Suggested Reads
Reset your password.
Set New Password
Your password has been reset. You will now be redirected to the sign in page, or you can click here
Ok
Get emails from Bill Gates
Send me updates from Bill
You must provide an email
This email is already registered
Continue
We will never share or spam your email address. For more information see our Sign Up FAQ. By clicking "Continue" you agree to the Gates Notes Terms of Use / Privacy Policy.
 
your image
Uh Oh!
The image you are trying to upload is either too big or is an unacceptable format. Please upload a .jpg or .png image that is under 25MB.
Ok
Welcome FirstName!
You are now a Gates Notes Insider
Update Your Profile Information
First name
Last name
Save
Cancel
Email address
This email is already registered
Save
Cancel
Please verify email address. Click verification link sent to this email address or resend verification email.
Send me updates from Bill Gates
You must provide an email
Select Your Interests
Saving Lives
Energy Innovation
Improving Education
Philanthropy
Book Reviews
About Bill Gates
Continue
Confirm
Are you sure you want to
deactivate your account?
Deactivating your account will unsubscribe you from Gates Notes emails, and will remove your profile and account information from public view on the Gates Notes. Please allow for 24 hours for the deactivation to fully process. You can sign back in at any time to reactivate your account and restore its content.
Deactivate My Acccount
Go Back
Your Gates Notes account has been deactivated.
Come back anytime.
Welcome back
In order to unsubscribe you will need to sign-in to your Gates Notes Insider account
Once signed in just go to your Account Settings page and set your subscription options as desired.
Sign In
Request account deletion
We’re sorry to see you go. Your request may take a few days to process; we want to double check things before hitting the big red button. Requesting an account deletion will permanently remove all of your profile content. If you’ve changed your mind about deleting your account, you can always hit cancel and deactivate instead.
Submit
Cancel
Thank You! Your request has been sent
Become a Gates Notes Insider for access to exclusive content and personalized reading suggestions
Sign up to receive occasional updates from the Gates Notes
Sign Up
Privacy Policy
It looks like you're using an older version of Internet Explorer which may not display all the features on this site. Upgrade Now » close
A Neglected Classic

The Best Business Book I’ve Ever Read

Not long after I first met Warren Buffett back in 1991, I asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. He didn’t miss a beat: “It’s Business Adventures, by John Brooks,” he said. “I’ll send you my copy.” I was intrigued: I had never heard of Business Adventures or John Brooks.

Today, more than two decades after Warren lent it to me—and more than four decades after it was first published—Business Adventures remains the best business book I’ve ever read. John Brooks is still my favorite business writer. (And Warren, if you’re reading this, I still have your copy.)

A skeptic might wonder how this out-of-print collection of New Yorker articles from the 1960s could have anything to say about business today. After all, in 1966, when Brooks profiled Xerox, the company’s top-of-the-line copier weighed 650 pounds, cost $27,500, required a full-time operator, and came with a fire extinguisher because of its tendency to overheat. A lot has changed since then.

It’s certainly true that many of the particulars of business have changed. But the fundamentals have not. Brooks’s deeper insights about business are just as relevant today as they were back then. In terms of its longevity, Business Adventures stands alongside Benjamin Graham’s The Intelligent Investor, the 1949 book that Warren says is the best book on investing that he has ever read.

Brooks grew up in New Jersey during the Depression, attended Princeton University (where he roomed with future Secretary of State George Shultz), and, after serving in World War II, turned to journalism with dreams of becoming a novelist. In addition to his magazine work, he published a handful of books, only some of which are still in print. He died in 1993.

As the journalist Michael Lewis wrote in his foreword to Brooks’s book The Go-Go Years, even when Brooks got things wrong, “at least he got them wrong in an interesting way.” 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. (How many times have you read that some company is taking off because they give their employees free lunch?) You won’t find any listicles in his work. Brooks wrote long articles that frame an issue, explore it in depth, introduce a few compelling characters, and show how things went for them.

In one called “The Impacted Philosophers,” he uses a case of price-fixing at General Electric to explore miscommunication—sometimes intentional miscommunication—up and down the corporate ladder. It was, he writes, “a breakdown in intramural communication so drastic as to make the building of the Tower of Babel seem a triumph of organizational rapport.”

In “The Fate of the Edsel,” he refutes the popular explanations for why Ford’s flagship car was such a historic flop. It wasn’t because the car was overly poll-tested; it was because Ford’s executives only pretended to be acting on what the polls said. “Although the Edsel was supposed to be advertised, and otherwise promoted, strictly on the basis of preferences expressed in polls, some old-fashioned snake-oil selling methods, intuitive rather than scientific, crept in.” It certainly didn’t help that the first Edsels “were delivered with oil leaks, sticking hoods, trunks that wouldn’t open, and push buttons that…couldn’t be budged with a hammer.”

One of Brooks’s most instructive stories is “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox.” (The headline alone belongs in the Journalism Hall of Fame.) The example of Xerox is one that everyone in the tech industry should study. Starting in the early ’70s, the company funded a huge amount of R&D that wasn’t directly related to copiers, including research that led to Ethernet networks and the first graphical user interface (the look you know today as Windows or OS X).

But because Xerox executives didn’t think these ideas fit their core business, they chose not to turn them into marketable products. Others stepped in and went to market with products based on the research that Xerox had done. Both Apple and Microsoft, for example, drew on Xerox’s work on graphical user interfaces.

I know I’m not alone in seeing this decision as a mistake on Xerox’s part. I was certainly determined to avoid it at Microsoft. I pushed hard to make sure that we kept thinking big about the opportunities created by our research in areas like computer vision and speech recognition. Many other journalists have written about Xerox, but Brooks’s article tells an important part of the company’s early story. He shows how it was built on original, outside-the-box thinking, which makes it all the more surprising that as Xerox matured, it would miss out on unconventional ideas developed by its own researchers.

Brooks was also a masterful storyteller. He could craft a page-turner like “The Last Great Corner,” about the man who founded the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain and his attempt to foil investors intent on shorting his company’s stock. I couldn’t wait to see how things turned out for him. (Here’s a spoiler: Not well.) Other times you can almost hear Brooks chuckling as he tells some absurd story. There’s a passage in “The Fate of the Edsel” in which a PR man for Ford organizes a fashion show for the wives of newspaper reporters. The host of the fashion show turns out to be a female impersonator, which might seem edgy today but would have been scandalous for a major American corporation in 1957. Brooks notes that the reporters’ wives “were able to give their husbands an extra paragraph or two for their stories.”

Brooks’s work is a great reminder that the rules for running a strong business and creating value haven’t changed. For one thing, there’s an essential human factor in every business endeavor. It doesn’t matter if you have a perfect product, production plan, and marketing pitch; you’ll still need the right people to lead and implement those plans.

That is a lesson you learn quickly in business, and I’ve been reminded of it at every step of my career, first at Microsoft and now at the foundation. Which people are you going to back? Do their roles fit their abilities? Do they have both the IQ and EQ to succeed? Warren is famous for this approach at Berkshire Hathaway, where he buys great businesses run by wonderful managers and then gets out of the way.

Business Adventures is as much about the strengths and weaknesses of leaders in challenging circumstances as it is about the particulars of one business or another. In that sense, it is still relevant not despite its age but because of it. John Brooks’s work is really about human nature, which is why it has stood the test of time.

Become a Gates Notes Insider for access to exclusive content and personalized reading suggestions

Read previous versions of the Annual Letter


Discussion
comments powered by Disqus