Book review: Starving to Death on $200 million

I was in Valley Fair mall last week and a store had gone out of business. A discount bookstore was filling up 2/3rds of the empty space. Book sales are a long-standing weakness of mine; I love Book Sale Finder. The notion of paying $3-4 for a bag full of books is just hot. I have a hard time not forking over whatever’s in my wallet and walking away with as much as I can carry (“Utopia? Sure. Erewhon? Why not. Victor Hugo? Hey, maybe I’ll read it someday”).

The Valley Fair bookstore wasn’t bag-sale cheap, but it was pretty cheap. I couldn’t resist picking up

  • Starving to Death on $200 Million (about the Industry Standard)
  • Dumb Money (about daytrading)
  • The Big Red Fez: How to Make any Web Site Better (I needed to try a Seth Godin book)
  • Slack (Tom DeMarco’s book Peopleware is awesome)
  • The Microsoft Edge (a light read, but fun)

I used to read the Industry Standard back in the day, so it’s neat to get a peek behind the curtain (and to hear more about John Battelle from before The Search). If you want a view of Bubble craziness, I’d go with Dot.con. If you just want the gestalt without as much excess, it’s hard to go wrong with Po Bronson’s The Nudist on the Late Shift or eBoys by Randall Stross about the venture capital firm Benchmark.

If you like this genre, you’ll like Starving to Death. The author James Ledbetter has experience commenting on the media, so you can feel him trying to be measured, but the value of a book like this is the dish. The book isn’t gossipy, but it’s neat to hear about the rooftop parties and some of the situations that happened (e.g. when a public relations firm was representing a company and the Industry Standard, the magazine sometimes suffered from the conflict of interest: the author suspected that the PR firm tipped off the client company about impending stories).

It was also fun to read about the importance of getting scoops. A couple times during the book, I found myself wondering what it would be like to be a journalist, and what questions would be interesting to ask. For example, Several folks have noted that MSN announced a plan to scan books. The wannabe reporter in me wants to ask other companies questions like “If the Google Print lawsuit ends up going in Google’s direction, would you also scan books that aren’t out of copyright?” I think it’s probably a lot more difficult to be a journalist than most people give credit for.

My overall recommendation would be to pick up Starving to Death on $200 Million, especially if you enjoy and have read most other books about Silicon Valley business/tech/media. Or of course if you find a good deal at a book sale. 🙂 What Silicon Valley-ish books have you enjoyed?

20 Responses to Book review: Starving to Death on $200 million (Leave a comment)

  1. As a journalist – yeah, it’s tricky at times. But mostly, it’s about being curious on other peoples’ behalf, and being able to write.

    Seeing from your blog, you’d do excellent 🙂

  2. Microserfs by Douglas Coupland. The classic! No engineer’s bookcase is complete without it. Beats me if it’s an entirely accurate portrayal of the Valley in the early ’90s, as I was, like, twelve at the time, but it’s a lot of fun and has a lot of Valley-specific details to it (e.g. black turtlenecks at Apple, or Fry’s before Fry’s metastatized and started doing the store theme thing). I think since it got stuff I’m familiar with correct (having been born and raised in the Valley), I also took as gospel stuff that I know nothing about. I just moved to Portland, and whenever I meet someone from Intel (including your colleague Adam from UNC), I ask, “So, is Intel’s culture still all macho?”, as that’s how it’s portrayed in the book. The Intel employees invariably give me odd looks and reply, “Er… not really?” I guess art doesn’t always accurately imitate life.

    I would also nominate Guy Kawasaki’s The Computer Curmudgeon. Like Microserfs, it’s quite dated now, but Kawasaki is such a Valley fixture and has left such an indelible imprint on the high-tech industry that I cannot but mention his name.

  3. Matt,

    I can’t relate to your choice of books but boy can I relate to bagging up old discount books at book sales boiy! 🙂

    …also a strange thing happens when I put in the “security code” in these comment fields, I have to do it 3-4 times and even have to cut/paste what I wrote and re-enter the post again to submit the comment? Could it just be that I am taking to long to hit “submit”?


  4. Matt,

    Loved eBoys. I did the audiobook version while on a long car ride. (Can you believe audiobooks cost as much as the retail hardcover? Go figure).

    A funny, and light read, was dot.bomb. It was about the company ‘Value America’ (remember the full page USA Today ads back in the day?) and was written by their former VP of communications, David Kuo.

    21 Dog Years is another good one.

    Bob L.

  5. I really enjoyed “Big Red Fez”. It makes a nice reference guide to flip through on occassion too. Fast and easy read, and plenty of “Don’t Make Me Think” type info that is definitely valid.

  6. Nice to know that I won’t be the only one at the next Book Buyers Anonymous meeting. I can never get past step 1…

    Cringely’s Accidental Empires is a fun read in the same tech/biz genre.

  7. I really need to try getting some more books — most of the time I am just plain lazy but I realize there are a lot of great books that I can get great ideas from. I think I may add a few books from your list to mine, namely Starving to Death on $200 million and The Big Red Fez.

  8. I’m really enjoying “The Search” by John Batelle. Especially interesting is how AltaVista succeeded as a project but failed at biz – seems a common theme in history – the “Tesla” effect. As Batelle notes Google has succeeded at both search and in business.

    Matt- have you eaten at Calafia yet? Do they have a website?

  9. Dot.bomb is another good book about life at the height of the bubble. The book talks about Value America, Crag Winn’s failed attempt at reinventing retailing on the internet. It’s a great read and teaches a lot of good lessons about how NOT to run your internet business 🙂

  10. I am a big Seth Godin fan. His books, taken together, present a pretty comprehensive set of tools for marketing on little or no budget (although the ideas work well if you’ve got money behind them as well).

    The key thing I’ve gotten from reading Seth is that you’ve got to design a product that blows people away, then focus on getting the message out to a targeted group of people. Chose folks who will become so enamored and enthused that they want to spread the word to others for the glory it will reflect back on them. Easier said then done, but worth shooting for.

  11. That kind of business book isn’t really my thing. The only book in the 900 I’ve reviewed so far that qualifies is probably Adam Barr’s Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters: What I Learned in Ten Years as a Microsoft Programmer.

  12. I know this book is ancient (like, pre-Internet, man!), but I have to say that “Soul of a New Machine” is still brilliant. It’s great just for the historical value of understanding how we got here, but software engineers will also still be able to recognize and relate to a lot of the Data General experience. It’s a fantastic introduction to the software industry for the non-technical, too. Got a spouse or SO you’d like to have understand your job better? Hand them this book. It’s very readable–it’s a Pulitzer Prize winner for a reason.

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  14. Good point, AdriaK. That book kicked off a lot of possibilities for future books.

    Mike, glad you liked it. I read like a, um, a person who reads a lot, so I’ll try to drop some in. 🙂

    Michael Bell, I hit Seth Godin today and I’m a total fan now. He’s like the Googliest non-Googler I know:
    – don’t annoy the user
    – get them where they want to go fast
    – make the UI clear on where to go and what to do
    etc. Good stuff.

  15. I work in a marketing department with a ton of Godin-obsessives, and never really got it until seeing him speak at The Power Within conference. If you get the chance, I’d highly recommend seeing him in person– his books seem to be literally taken from his lecture notes, and he’s very charismatic live. It’s basically a live-action, interactive version of his writing.

  16. I have been a journalist for a long time. The skills required are fairly basic. Mainly the ability to write English in the style of the publication. (Some newspapers work on an average 12 words sentence, some longer.) You also need an insatiable curiosity and a real love of news.
    If you do not read the news in one form or another several times a day it is probably not for you.
    With blogs it is different. You can go off on tangents; indulge yourself; conjecture rather than ascertain. No newspaper in the world would run those pictures of you in fancy dress. One picture, just possibly, small and below the fold.
    My guess is that the talents needed for a good blogger – expertise in a field, an ability to write, a way of following a thread of a subject – are not dissimilar to those needed for journalism. But journalism imposes a lot more discipline from rewrite, house style, editors and, in the case of the New York Times, the owner.


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  18. The Microsoft Edge. I have read it just and get very fun.

  19. funny reading 😀

  20. Matt- have you eaten at Calafia yet? Do they have a website?