Thursday, August 27, 2015

Reading :: The Origin of Species

The Origin of Species
By Charles Darwin

Late this summer, I mentioned to a colleague that I had just finished Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and was working on Karl Marx's Capital. He replied: "Now you just have to read Darwin's The Origin of Species." Of course he was right: Darwin's book had a huge impact on everything, but especially on economics via Marx and Engels. So, as is my practice with classic books, I downloaded the cheapest Kindle version I could find.

The Origin of Species didn't provide me with any fundamentally new ideas, of course—but that's because it's one of those basic texts whose ideas have been worked into most subsequent works. The fundamental shift was in understanding the world in terms of "modification and coadaptation," as Darwin put it, rather than as static systems. Darwin applied this viewpoint to the biological world (and, through Lyell's work, the geological world); Marx and Engels made their breakthroughs by applying it to the economic and social world as well. Engels is clearest about this borrowing in Dialectics of Nature, in which he makes clear that biological evolution is just one example of dialectics.

Darwin's approach to the argument was interesting to me as well. He brings the reader along quickly, starting with a basic discussion of coadaptation with which no one could disagree, then using that discussion as a basis for challenging the notion that each species was created in place, as is. As he builds the argument, he uses Lyell's work in geography to give us an idea of the vast spans of time in which the coadaptation process could work. Later, he answers the question of why we don't see continual adaptation in the fossil record—the record is incomplete. (Modern evolutionary theory suggests that this answer is only partial and that coadaptation typically happens in spurts rather than gradually.)

Overall, I was glad I read this book, especially in terms of my current project, understanding how it provided the basis for Marx's and Engels' work.

Reading :: Running Lean

Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works
By Ash Maurya

At the end of this book, Maurya tells us: "A book, like large software, is never finished—only released." And that's the approach he took: as he describes the process in Running Lean, he floated the idea of writing a book on his blog, iterated the concept and ideas with his community, released the book, and now invites us to enter the conversation via his blog, workshops, and newsletter.

Running Lean describes the lean startup approach well, and it's easy to read and follow. The subtitle emphasizes the key lesson, which is to iterate. And iteration spreads across the entire startup, including the product but also the business model, marketing, value proposition, and the other parts that make up a successful startup.

Beyond iteration, Maurya provides plenty of other advice that may be surprising to new startups:

  • "Your product is NOT 'the product'": The solution you offer is only part of the overall product you produce; your overall product is actually the business model within which the product makes sense.
  • Your key question is: "Do I have a problem worth solving?" A problem worth solving must be a must-have (something the customers want); viable (either the customers or someone else must be willing to pay for it); and feasible (something you can actually solve).
  • "How do I accelerate growth?" Maurya offers this simple principle: "pivots are about finding a plan that works, while optimizations are about accelerating that plan."
But the book isn't just principles, Maurya offers several pieces of advice for setting up feedback loops and iterating, including running experiments, performing customer interviews, and engaging in rapid contextual design. 

The result is readable, easy to follow, and interesting. If you're interested in the Lean approach, but Steve Blank's books were too thick and Eric Ries' book seemed too repetitive, this might be the book for you. I just wish I had read it earlier—I might have used it for my course on Writing for Entrepreneurs. Maybe next time!