Monday, August 20, 2007

Chapters

I am embedded in Michael Chabon’s latest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It is an enjoyable, consume-til-your-eyes-shut read, a nice break from business books. Therein a line caught my eye last night: The lady has been in and out of the hospital lately, dying in chapters, with a cliff-hanger at the end of every one. Though morbid, it metaphorically struck a cord: Companies (like people) create stories over time (in chapters) replete with cliff-hangers. A strange and probably fruitless thought to sleep on, which I did.

I awoke to a cup of coffee and visions of companies-as-chapters dancing in my head, recalling a ballad from one of my favorite Buffett tunes, Lone Palm: I knew this girl made of memories and phrases, Who lived her whole life in both chapters and stages, Danced til the dawn, wished all her worries away. Strange. Back to my coffee and PowerBook. First task: Check email. Second: Peruse an executive summary from a less-than-nascent startup. Interesting, incomplete read reaffirming my Sunday night concept.

I’ve analogized how companies are like gardens, how entrepreneurs are like gardeners. In the same vein, companies and entrepreneurs (CEOs) are analogous to books and their authors. Here’s how…

At the outset, entrepreneurs (like authors) have an idea. Their idea is framed and prophesized, typically in the form of a business plan and its junior compadre, the executive summary. Great entrepreneurs, as we’ve opined, are great storytellers. They know little more than the premise (story line), and have enough ammo and gusto to write the first chapter or two of their ambitious tale. Their stories then come to life; they begin acting it out, solidifying embryonic chapters and archetyping future prose. The characters and scenes and around-this-corner results aren’t yet known, but they drive (blindly?) deeper. Characters come and go, stuff happens, past chapters are rewritten and future chapters are re-calculated. Some stories are fictional, some non-fiction, and a few the rite of legend (fairy tales?).

How are startup companies and their work-in-progress stories similar to fairy tales? Here are a few commonalities of fairy tales:

  • Include fantasy, supernatural or make-believe aspects. (As do most early-stage business plans.)
  • Typically incorporate clearly defined good characters and evil characters. (Think: Microsoft is evil; we are supernatural saviors!)
  • Involves magic elements, which may be magical people, animals, or objects. (Entrepreneurs are magicians [or so they trumpet].)
  • May include objects, people, or events in threes. (Whoa … think of the Rule of Three in business, specifically advertising and communication.)
  • Focus the plot on a problem or conflict that needs to be solved. (Sounds like a situation analysis and related business model/value proposition.)
  • Often have happy endings, based on the resolution of the conflict or problem. (IPO or bust!)
Sounds like a good read to me.

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Post-script (14 Feb 08): Speaking of chapters -- though this relates more to the Long Tail -- Monday's WSJ featured an apt story, Publisher Tests Selling by the Chapter. Ironically, the guinea pig is a book I'm reading, Made to Stick. Here are a few morsels from the story:
Taking a cue from the music business, a major publisher today will begin selling the individual chapters of a popular book to gauge reader demand for bite-size portions of digital texts.

Random House Publishing Group's experiment appears to be the first time a major consumer publisher has offered a title on a chapter-by-chapter basis. It will sell the six chapters and epilogue of "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die" for $2.99 each.

Random House will post "Made to Stick," written by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, at www.randomhouse.com/madetostick. Customers will receive a digital link via email enabling them to download the chapter onto their computers. Random House expects that eventually users will be able to download chapters onto other devices, such as BlackBerries.

"We want to get our content out there in new and different ways," says Matt Shatz, vice president of digital at Bertelsmann AG's Random House Inc.

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