A new book provides the antidote for the creeping feeling that the business world is hopelessly out of ideas and awash in get-rich-quick schemes

A new book provides the antidote for the creeping feeling that the business world is hopelessly out of ideas and awash in get-rich-quick schemes
LinkedIn chairman Reid Hoffman speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2016 conference. Steve Jennings/Getty Images
  • It can feel like the startup and business world is full of half-hearted get-rich-quick schemes.
  • but Reid Hoffman's new book based on his podcast "Masters of Scale" combats that feeling.
  • The interviews with successful founders and executives makes you realize how entrepreneurs can be a positive force in the world.
  • Jonathan A. Knee is Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Business School and a Senior Advisor at Evercore.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

Anyone who has watched the movie version of a play or vice versa intuitively grasps the challenges in translating content created for one medium to another. It can be done, but more often than not the attempt falls flat. Successful efforts inevitably require a fundamental reconception of the original work to align its themes and objectives with whatever characteristics make the alternative distribution channel most effective. Simply grafting the old onto the new makes for a distinctly unsatisfying user experience.

Iconic tech entrepreneur Reid Hoffman has taken on these challenges by attempting to transform his highly successful podcast, Masters of Scale, into a coherent book.

And the challenges here are immense. The very diversity of the over 100 podcast interviews that the book attempts to synthesize - with leaders at companies of radically different size, stage, structure and, frankly, quality - does not easily lend itself to establishing a clear set of common business precepts. Hoffman tries to overcome this problem by continuously referencing (and plugging) his earlier books, which outline his management theories.

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What's more, the book never actually defines what precisely constitutes "scale" or even for that matter, success. At one point Hoffman says that the phrase "Masters of Scale" denotes "leaders who have taken a company or idea from zero to a gazillion." Various other metrics are mentioned - 100 million users, $100 million in value, closing a modest funding round, or just finding a buyer - although these rarely pertain to company financial performance.

And since this is all based on friendly interviews rather than investigative journalism, the lessons sometimes not surprisingly have an air-brushed quality to them. In her telling, if those impatient investors had given former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer another year, she could have turned the deeply troubled company around despite all evidence to the contrary.


Despite all the reasons that "Masters of Scale: Surprising Truths from the World's Most Successful Entrepreneurs" should be an unsatisfying book, it somehow manages to work.

This is not due to Hoffman's chapter-ending lists of his hokey business theories: "pay attention to the flashing neon sign," "you can never raise enough money," "experiment to learn, and learn to experiment." The success of the book is due to the combined impact of the stories Hoffman elicits from the entrepreneurs that provide a hopeful reminder of the positive force business leaders can still play in the economy and society.

At a time when the start-up culture has come to be viewed as little more than a get-rich-quick scheme - a junior varsity version of the attitudes and values increasingly associated with the largest tech companies - it is useful to remember that many entrepreneurs really are driven by a desire to change the world for the better.

The best stories in Masters of Scale come from the less boldface names who sound a little less practiced and are willing to open up about their journeys. Some of the women entrepreneurs are particularly inspiring.

Whitney Wolfe Herd, for instance, was a co-founder of the infamous dating app Tinder, that ultimately became rife with misogyny and harassment. She left but felt responsible and started Bumble to create "a dating app that could offer a safer, more respectful experience for women."


Similarly, the founders of Spanx and Rent the Runway each willed their businesses into existence by addressing unmet needs of women, holding on to the epiphany that "this should exist." One of them had written in her journal, "I want to invent a product I can sell to millions of people that will make them feel good."

Over 20 years ago, John Doerr, the legendary Chairman of venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins argued that truly great ventures are led by missionaries, not mercenaries. The explosion of interest in entrepreneurship in recent years among freshly minted graduates unfortunately does not feel driven by missionary zeal. But this does not mean that such inspiration does not continue to drive a significant subset of the early-stage impresarios. Hoffman himself represents the best of this tradition. And the fact that many of the businesses he helped build - as a cofounder of Linkedin, a founding board member of Paypal and legendary angel investor - have proven so resilient makes him a particularly credible and effective interlocutor for these entrepreneurs.

Masters of Scale the podcast works primarily as a business and finance show. "Masters of Scale" the book succeeds instead as something closer to the self-help category. For aspiring entrepreneurs, yes it provides some tips, but mostly it conveys a message of resilience and the importance of establishing and defending core cultural values. For the rest of us, who fear the worst about not just the intentions of big tech but the true aspirations of the next generation of tech entrepreneurs, it provides a glimmer of hope that it doesn't have to be that way.

Jonathan A. Knee is Professor of Professional Practice at Columbia Business School and a Senior Advisor at Evercore. His most recent book, "The Platform Delusion: Who Wins and Who Loses in the Age of Tech Titans," will be released by Portfolio this week.