Transitioning Into The Fall Season: My Five Top Summer Reads

Picture Credit: https://www.wanderwithjo.com/6-modern-libraries-worth-visit/

Marathon reading is my favorite mental stimulation. This summer, almost every day I took time to unplug and let my brain feast on some fascinating reads. I’ve rounded up the list of five of my favorites:

  1. Troublemakers by Leslie Berlin
Picture credit: Amazon.com

Between 1968 and 1976, five landmark industries that shaped the modern world launched within thirty miles of each other: personal computing, video games, biotechnology, modern venture capital and advanced semiconductor logic. Here are the people and stories behind the birth of the internet and the microprocessor, as well as Apple, Atari, Genentech, Intel, Xerox, PARC, and the iconic venture capital firms Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Troublemakers introduces the fascinating men and women who brought technology from Pentagon offices and university laboratories to the rest of us.

I was deeply impressed by two people in particular:

Picture Credit: Google.com

Sandy Kurtzig, who started ASK and by 1983 turned it into the fastest-growing software company and the eleventh-fastest-growing public company in the USA. She owned 87% of ASK before the IPO and 66% after — remarkably high percentage. Most other companies that had gone public in the previous years had done so with shareholders equity three to twelve times that of ASK’s. Kurtzig had shown that women could, indeed ‘compete in this league’.

Picture Credit: Google.com

Niels Reimers, who founded Stanford University Office of Technology Licensing and changed how universities use patents and transfer research to the private sector. The recombinant DNA (The Cohen-Boyer) patent which he pushed hard to be issued in 1980 after six years of back and forth ended up earning Stanford and UCSF over $100m in royalties. In 2016, the cumulative income from Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing was nearly $2B.

Reimers played an important role in the Passage of Bay-Dole Act through Congress which legitimized the right of universities to claim ownership to an invention that had been funded by Federal Research grants.

2. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thomson

Picture Credit: from Amazon.com

Don Thomson took a deep dive into the very dysfunctional world of expensive contemporary art which in 2019 was valued at over $64B. Definitely recommend it for anyone who thinks they might ever own art. The book explores the economics and marketing strategies that enable the art market today charge these ridiculously high prices.

The stuffed shark by Damien Hirst that was sold for up to $12M in 2004. Picture Credit: Google.com
Mark Rothko’s White Center (Yellow, Pin and Lavender on Rose) sold for $72.8M at Sotheby’s in 2007. Picture Credit: Google.com

Also I could not stop drawing parallels between the economics and psychology of Art and Venture Capital markets:

  1. Demand for art does not follow the normal distribution. It follows the same power law curve as VC / tech market. The sales that make headlines are art anomaly. These sales are driven by a small group of very wealthy collectors who pay astronomical prices for artworks made by a small group of trendy artists. Majority of artists will never make money on their art just as majority of start up founders will never build a multi billion dollar business.

2. Why is art so expensive? “The art market functions as a big consensus marketing machine,” says Olav Velthuis, a professor at the University of Amsterdam. “So what people do is look at quality signals. Those signals can be for instance what an important curator is saying about an artist; if [the artist] has exhibitions in museums; if influential collectors are buying his work. Because everybody is, to some extent at the least, looking at the same signals, at one point they start agreeing [on] who are the most desirable artists.” I think similar thing is happening when important VCs start to bet on some industries like fin-tech or infrastructure for creators, driving valuations up.

This book forced me to re-think what art is and the role marketing and influencers play in defining it. And honestly, I am fascinated by the marketing geniuses like Jeff Koons and Damien Hurst that produce art at the industrial scale and still maintain the highest price tags.

Jeff Koons’s Rabit sold at Christie’s for $91.1m in 2019 breaking the record at an auction for a work by a living artist. Picture Credit: Google.com

3. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Picture Credit: Amazon.com

In this digitally native crowded world what will differentiate us is our ability to do deep work, to intensely concentrate and defeat the distraction. This book prompted me to re-think my professional habits and the culture of connectivity, where one is expected to read and respond to incoming communication quickly. I dramatically decreased the amount of shallow work I do daily, stopped answering emails / WhatsApp messages right away and introduced 2–3h deep work blocks to my calendar.

Here is my favorite quote from the book:

“The complex reality of the technologies that real companies leverage to get ahead emphasizes the absurdity of the now common idea that exposure to simplistic, consumer-facing products -especially in schools- somehow prepares people to succeed in a high-tech economy. Giving students iPads or allowing them to film homework assignments on YouTube prepares them for high-tech economy about as much as playing with Hot Wheels would prepare them to thrive as auto mechanics.”

Love that throughout the book we are encouraged to deploy our minds to the fullest capacity to create hard things that matter long term and live focused life.

4. Range by David Epstein

Picture Credit: Amazon.com

David Epstein built a powerful argument for how to succeed in any field: develop broad interests and skills while everyone around you is rushing to specialize. He argues that accelerated specialization creates intellectual archipelagos. Stating that US educational system is designed to rush young people a to specialize before they learn how to think, Epstein builds a compelling case for broad education and ’test-and-learn’ approach.

5. Unlocking the Customer Value Chain: How Decoupling Drives Customer Disruption by Thanales S. Teixeira

Picture Credit: Amazon.com

The key argument-

New technology isn’t driving most disruption today. Consumers are. And that in turn means incumbents require a different kind of innovation in order to thrive — not technological innovation, but a transformation in business models.

The book is especially relevant for established businesses that are forced to go through digital transformation. It introduces the concept of decoupling, the act of breaking apart the links between how a customer discovers, evaluates, chooses, buys, and uses products and services. On the example of fast-growing marketplaces like AirBnb, Etsy and Uber Teixeira introduces many valuable business principles.

I will publish my next books recommendations in the end of Q3'2021. Happy reading and please send me your reading suggestions at olga@mercervc.com!

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Stanford GSB alum, early stage VC in consumer and SaaS, angel investor in ClassPass and Vinebox

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Olga Maslikhova

Olga Maslikhova

Stanford GSB alum, early stage VC in consumer and SaaS, angel investor in ClassPass and Vinebox

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