Posts Tagged ‘book club’

International BS Book Club V: Gang Leader for a Day

November 13, 2009

It’s been a long time between book reviews on here. Here’s a tome I picked up on my way home from the US earlier this year (and read from cover to cover on the flight from LA to Sydney).

Suhhir Venkatesh Gang Leader for a Day Gangleader book cover FreakonomicsSome of you may have read the very popular Freakonomics, If so, you no doubt recall the fascinating discussion of the machinations of running a Chicago street gang (i.e. regarding incentives, monitoring, trickle down of rents/profits) and specifically a drug-dealing business.

Much of that material was based on research by Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociologist from the University of Chicago, who spent almost 10 years undertaking PhD research in a housing project near said college.

This book sees Venkatesh reflect upon his extraordinary journey from naive scholar to…well, a still pretty naive scholar. His process of embedding himself in the gang, mainly by hanging round and asking questions, is really a tale of blind luck coupled with an apparent lack of forethought about the risks he was taking.

The organisational insights gathered through his immersion are occasionally profound, although in many ways they were clearer in the Freakonomics chapter, and their implications more adeptly explored therein.

The gang is shown to be a complex hierarchy of relationships, with sophisticated monitoring mechanisms, incentive schemes (not just financial, but also with rewards built around status, sex and privilege) and extra-legal enforcement (i.e. punishment by force and/or exclusion).

Anyone who has watched more than a few episodes of The Wire (the TV series about Baltimore gangs and police) will find this all pretty familiar. There are parallels to strategy in most chapters, which should not surprise. These guys are running a lucrative set of businesses in some hotly contented markets.

Given that this book doesn’t add too much more to our understanding of gang mechanics, what does it provide? Well, for any budding scholars, especially those contemplating anthropological work around organisations, you do get some refreshing insights into what is involved, and what can go wrong.

Venkatesh repeatedly makes some astounding errors in judgement about the implications of his questions, his actions and his associations. He sporadically puts subjects’ lives at risk, yet seems to learn so little from these mishaps. Perhaps the biggest lesson from this book might be the reinforcement of the stereotype of us academics as pretty socially ackward (possibly borderline autistic)?

Nevertheless, this is a rollicking read that lingers long after you’ve raced through it. It just doesn’t make you want to join a gang, or a PhD programme.

The International BS Book Club IV – Brewing up a Business

February 4, 2009

You may have noted a more than passing interest in beer around here. I do tend to drink a bit of the stuff, but I am also intrigued by the emergence of smaller, craft brewers in recent years.

While in Copenhagen back in 2007, I stumbled across this book at an excellent microbrewery that I frequented on more than one chilly afternoon. I raced through the front half over a couple of visits, and subsequently ordered my own copy on my return to Oz. And finally I got back around to finishing last week.

brewing-up-a-business-sam-calagione-dog-fishThe book is an autobiographical account from Sam Calagione, founder of one of the US’s most successful small-scale breweries, Dogfish Head. This brewery (motto: off-centered beer for off-centred people) was, at one point, the smallest commercial brewery in America. It has subsequently expanded considerably, with a strong focus on extreme beers (which can mean high alcohol, lots of hops, odd flavours or all of the above). Such a story is certainly worth hearing.

Calagione is a one-time college lit major, and clearly has an inquisitive mind, an ability to digest and apply ideas, and a strong capacity to weave a coherent tale. This book thus becomes much more insightful than the typical business bio one sees on airport bookstore shelves.

I’m not usually one for motivational stories of entrepreneurship, simply because I find such works tend to lean towards mis-attribution of cause and effect (especially through the lens of hindsight e.g. I did this and I think it worked, so you should do the same) and often showcase highly idiosyncratic experiences.

dogfish head ales logoThis book falls for few of those traps and instead offers strong analysis and a clear message for budding brewers and niche businesses more generally. Calagione integrates a lot of pretty mainstream strategic management concepts (environmental analysis, the importance of unique resources, value chain decisions, specialisation, diversification) and explains them in a non-academic, non-technical fashion, fleshed out with fascinating (and often outlandish) tales from the brewing coalface.

Calagione has a pretty neat take on his experience, and the lessons for entrepreneurs. He considers what he does alt.commerce (as in alternative, like alt.country music). His business is all about expanding a niche. The firm succeeds by delivering a truthful and resonant product and experience (i.e. customers become fans and advocates). By the end of the book, Dogfish Head is still fielding more orders than they can supply (despite considerable expansion), and has certainly become a cult producer of beer, rum and soap(!), as well as running three restaurant/brewpubs. Offering $20 beers becomes viable!!

I can highly recommend this book to budding entrepreneurs, strategic management professors and beer-nuts (the aficionados, not the snacks). For more on Dogfish Head’s extreme brewing see this excellent article from the New Yorker magazine, and this video interview: