40 great business books
The best one in each industry.
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Today, we’re talking about the best business book for every industry (eg. The Prize is the go-to book for oil).
Also this week: Some smart links (Adobe’s $20B Figma deal) and some dumb memes (the problem with Walgreen’s).
40 great business books
If you were to ask me what single business book most changed my perception of the world, it is The Prize by Daniel Yergin.
Published in 1991, the book — which won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a PBS show — details the history of oil from its discovery in 19th century Pennsylvania all the way through to the The Gulf War (a very good sequel called “The Quest” was published in 2011).
A friend of mine is from a prominent oil and commodities family. And about 15 years ago, he told me his grandfather said that Yergin’s work is “the bible” for the energy industry. That was the catalyst for me to finish the 982-page book.
With The Prize in mind, I asked Twitter for the single best business book about other industries.
The Twitter hive mind delivered huge. HUGE!
There were lot of recommendations I’d never heard of (and way more than I’ll ever be able to finish…especially since I’m on my 89th failed attempt to read Infinite Jest).
Before we get to the book recommendations, let me explain why The Prize hits so hard.
So, I was born in Alberta and always “knew” the importance of oil and energy, but that knowledge was very superficial. Stuff like, “oh America invades places because of oil” or “wow, gas prices are pretty high right now”.
What The Prize hammers home is the fact that oil isn’t just an industry. In the 20th century, it was everything.
To make the point, let me ask you a question: what name would you expect to show up the most in a book about the history of oil?
Here are some of the industry’s biggest icons (you may heard of the first dude):
John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil (his name shows up 364x in the The Prize)
Henri Deterding, GM and builder of Royal Dutch Shell (211x)
Calouste Gulbenkian, British-American petroleum engineer who was instrumental in making Middle East oil available to the West (138x)
J. Paul Getty, legendary American founder of Getty Oil (116x)
But you know what names get just as many mentions as these oil barons? The 20th century’s most prominent world leaders. Why? Because oil decided the fates of nations:
Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, US Presidents (269x)
Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty and British Prime Minister (215x)
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Expedition and US President (147x)
Adolph Hitler, the worst person in history (135x)
Mohammed Mossadegh, Iranian Prime Minister (135x)
Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia (134x)
I love business books that help me better understand general history.
The Prize hits all the notes: it literally starts with a story of Churchill in 1911 deciding whether or not to switch the British Navy from coal to oil (he did). In the following decades, oil’s role in deciding historically significant events only magnified .
Petroleum was central to the course and outcome of World War II in both the Far East and Europe. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor to protect their flank as they grabbed for the petroleum resources of the East Indies. Among Hitler's most important strategic objectives in the invasion of the Soviet Union was the capture of the oil fields in the Caucasus.
But America's predominance in oil proved decisive, and by the end of the war German and Japanese fuel tanks were empty. In the Cold War years, the battle for control of oil between international companies and developing countries was a major part of the great drama of decolonization and emergent nationalism.
The Suez Crisis of 1956, which truly marked the end of the road for the old European imperial powers, was as much about oil as about anything else. "Oil power" loomed very large in the 1970s, catapulting states heretofore peripheral to international politics into positions of great wealth and influence, and creating a deep crisis of confidence in the industrial nations that had based their economic growth upon oil.
The importance of securing oil — and broader energy security — is as important as ever (and dealing with the industry’s environmental externalities is the challenge of this century).
To truly understand the world, The Prize remains a must-read. And that’s the bar of excellence I hoped to match for other “single best business book about other industries”.
Back to the Twitter book recommendations. I whittled the list down to 80 titles and will make a spreadsheet for everyone (once I teach my 4-year old how to use Excel).
Today, I’ll share 40 books.
The following books (and the related industries) were mentioned the most in the Twitter thread:
Containers: The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger (Marc Levinson, 2006)
Commodity Trading: The World For Sale: Money, Power, and the Traders Who Barter the Earth's Resources (Javier Blas and Jack Farchy, 2022)
Nuclear: Making of the Atomic Bomb (Richard Rhodes, 1986)
Hedge Funds: More Money than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite (Sebastian Mallaby, 2010)
Post-deregulation Airlines: Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos (Thomas Petzinger Jr., 1995)
Fast-food: Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Eric Schlosser, 2005)
Both The Box and The World For Sale have comparable breadth as The Prize in terms of globe-spanning industries. Making of the Atomic Bomb isn’t really a “business book” but is as good as it gets in describing the development of the nuclear industry (it won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize).
I filtered the remaining recommendations for books with a minimum of 1,000 reviews on GoodReads and listed them here in order of ratings (high to low):
Footwear: Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike (Phil Knight, 2016)
VC: The Power Law: Inside Silicon Valley's Venture Capital Machine (Sebastian Mallaby, 2022)
Auto: The Reckoning: Detroit's Ford Motor Company vs. Japan's Nissan (David Halberstam, 1994)
Urban planning: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Robert A. Caro, 1975)
Hip-hop: The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (Dan Chamas, 2010)
Chemicals: The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler (Thomas Hager, 2008)
PC gaming: Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture (David Kushner, 2004)
Cable TV: Cable Cowboys: John Malone and the Rise of the Modern Cable Business (Mark Robichaux, 2002)
PE: Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco (Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, 2005)
Digital music: How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy (Stephen Richard Witt, 2015)
Animation: Creativity Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, 2014)
Bitcoin: Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money (Nathaniel Popper, 2016)
Early PC: Fire in the Valley: The Making of the PC (Paul Freiberger and Michael Swaine, 1999)
Trading: Liar's Poker: Rising through the Wreckage on Wall Street (Michael Lewis, 2010)
Post-70s Hollywood: Easy Riders & Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-And-Rock-'N'-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (Peter Biskind, 2014)
Machining: The Perfectionist: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World (Simon Winchester, 2018)
Pharma: Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (Ben Goldcare, 2013)
Digital ads: The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Tim Wu, 2016)
Rare metals: Rare metals: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age (David S. Abraham, 2016)
Bananas: The Fish that Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King (Rich Cohen, 2012)
Operations: The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement (Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox, 2004)
Electricity: Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World (Jill Jonnes, 2004)
Confectionary: The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside the Secret World of Hershey and Mars (Joël Glenn Brenner, 1998)
Sand: The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization (Vince Beiser, 2018)
Restaurants: Laying the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business (Danny Meyer, 2006)
Biotech: Genentech: The Beginnings of Biotech (Sally Smith Hughes, 2011)
Beer: Dethroning the King: The Hostile Takeover of Anheuser-Busch, an American Icon (Julie MacIntosh, 2010)
Railroads: Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-69 (Stephen E. Ambrose and Jeffrey DeMunn, 2001)
Management consulting: Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World (Walter Kiechel III, 2010)
Trash: Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Adam Minter, 2013)
Banking: The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance (Ron Chernow, 2011)
Talent: Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood's CAA (James Andrew Miller, 2016)
Media platforms: The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires (Tim Wu, 2010)
Contemporary Art: $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (Don Thompson, 2008)
Thanks to everyone that dropped a reply. I’ll get my toddler started on the spreadsheet (in the meantime, just start reading The Prize).
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Links and Memes
Adobe x Figma: Adobe — the $150B software giant — spent ~$20B to acquire design startup Figma (half stock, half cash + $2B in retention grants). The Adobe-Figma deal is the biggest private tech acquisition ever, topping Facebook’s $19B deal for WhatsApp.
For the uninitiated, Adobe is primarily known for its suite of creative design tools like Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator and After Affects. Figma was founded in 2012 and has taken serious share in the design market by being a web-based tool. Moving design work away from file management (REPORT_FINAL_FINAL V.10_PLS BE FINAL) to real-time collaboration (like Google Docs) allowed anyone — from engineers to sales to clients — to participate in the design process without gumming up the final product.
Some folk were trolling Figma founder Dylan Field for saying last year that “our goal is to be Figma, not Adobe”…but let’s be real, $20 billy is a pretty fair answer for any “what is your number?” game (Dylan and co-founder Evan Wallace each own 10% of the startup).
Figma was enough of a threat that Adobe paid 50x Figma’s projected annual recurring revenue (ARR) in 2022. The stock fell more than 10% on the apparent overpay (there's a thought that the sell-off may also be because the government could block the merger and Adobe just admitted to the market that it's getting its lunch eaten by Figma).
Some running themes I saw in the commentary:
A necessary defensive move by Adobe: Hunter Walk explains that Adobe’s rational for this deal boils down to “What percent of our market cap do we need to spend to protect the rest of it?" Elsewhere, this is a good thread explaining why it is “nearly impossible to make legacy software applications multi-user collaborative”, which was the challenge that Adobe faced (version control is a very thorny problem).
Users are unhappy: People are worried that Figma’s very user-friendly interface is going to get trapped in Adobe’s slower product cycle and subscription hell. Comments in the Hacker News thread are very unhappy with the prospects of dealing with Figma within the Adobe machine (shady subscription pricing and janky products are major complaints).
Capital efficiency: Sheel Mohnot points out why software wins, “[Figma] raised $332M in equity and is selling for ~$20B. Possible they only spent ~$200M of equity capital to get to the $20B outcome. By contrast Lyft gobbled $7.3B of capital and is worth $5.1B.” (Figma seed investors got a 456x return)
As it happens, there is no group better prepared to make memes about an M&A deal they don't like than people that use Figma.
…the next one had me crying (I’m a big Toy Story fan).
$3 billion: That’s the value of outdoor brand Patagonia. Its founder Yvon Chouinard — and his family — recently transferred their entire ownership in the business to irrevocable trusts and non-profits, per NYT. Chouinard set up these vehicles to make sure the $100m in annual profits (from $1B+ in sales) is directed towards solving climate change and protecting undeveloped lands. Translation: the profits will no longer go to Chouinard, his wife or his two adult children (but they will control the trusts and direct funds to causes).
As with all things trust, you have to ask “what are the tax benefits?” Well, the Chouinards would have owed ~$700m in capital gains tax if they sold the company outright (or been hit with an inheritance tax if passed down to the next generation). Somewhat blunting the “they dodged taxes” charge is that the trust and non-profits were established in such a way that Chouinard received minimal tax benefits in transferring the assets, when he otherwise could have maxed out tax savings (also, Patagonia has been walking the walk for decades, allocating 1% of sales to environmental causes).
Either way, the funniest part of the story is that Chouinard started the process of unloading the company in 2020 in part because he showed up on a Forbes Billionaire list.
"I was in Forbes magazine listed as a billionaire, which really, really pissed me off. I don’t have $1 billion in the bank. I don’t drive Lexuses,” he told NYT (yes, he said “Lexuses).
Shortly after, he instructed his team to find ways unload his ownership to fund the environmental causes he wanted to support. When they took too long to put a plan together, he threatened to start cold-calling other billionaires on the list to sell Patagonia lol.
In sum: No one has ever been more pissed at being on a Forbes list (take note “30 under 30” aspirants).
Surveillance art: Ok, this is wild. An artist by the baller name of Dries Depoorter — who also has programming chops — made an art project called “The Follower” which scrapes public cameras and matches them with Instagram images to show the moment a photo is taken.
Here are two very creepy examples (IG photo on left; public camera on right):
And, here some gold tweets/memes for you:
My wife laughed at this next one…then slapped my arm (mixed signals):
On Friday, FedEx CEO reported dismal results and said he expected a “worldwide recession”. Company shares fell more than 20% but my buddy Doug brings up an even more important point in the following tweet…
Now some good book jokes. First, this next tweet is nearly 10 years old but remains the funniest book-related tweet ever…
…but this next one — from a few weeks ago — is so so close to dethroning it: