Prologue: Startup Story Learning

My Story

Today is day 1 of an experiment I am starting. As with any experiment, I have no idea where this is going. I just know that my fear is that it will end up nowhere. But that is not true, I know this already. It is for sure that in the end, I will have an archive of posts. If at least one person on this planet (except for myself) has read each post, then I will call it a success. Written words don’t die. The internet does not forget, as we know. So, at least, I will leave behind some kind of written legacy.

Maybe I got inspired to do this experiment by a movie I recently watched. It is called “Julie and Julia” with Meryl Streep, one of my favorite actresses (well, I am not much of a movie expert which means I hardly know any other actors…). It is about a young woman in NYC who has always dreamed about being a writer but instead has to spend her days with a routine job that sucks. In the evenings, she loves to cook. And when she discovers a book about French cuisine, her boyfriend inspires her to start a blog and write about cooking these recipes day in and day out for an entire year.

I do not have a boyfriend but I have Tobi. Tobi has become something like a friend already, even though we hardly know each other. Still, we bonded. Or rather: Our stories clicked without us even knowing about the details. He was among the first startup founders I had the privilege of meeting in Berlin when I started my business in 2018. Now, Tobi is a career guru and helps young people of the Generation Z navigate their way through the job application jungle. I shared my frustration with Tobi yesterday that I need to write in order to live. It is that simple. Whenever I had the darkest moments of my life, writing helped. However, I was actually trained as a literary and cultural studies scholar. One might think that offers plenty of opportunities for writing. True — at least in theory. We do write scholarly stuff that nobody ends up reading. So, I decided to not do that.

Tobi, however, instead of letting me continue to mourn and be mad at myself for wasting my potential, had a very practical piece of advice: You need to share content on a regular basis and you should not be dependent on anybody else, e.g., by doing interviews or any of that stuff. Of course, all this was not new but it came in a moment when his words met my deepest level of frustration and desperation. So, this is how I came to sit down here at 8:00 am on Saturday when Germany is celebrating Reunification Day. Maybe this is a good omen and it will unite my thoughts, wishes, and desires. Maybe it won’t. Frankly, I do not give a shit if there is some mystical connection. I just need to start.

Why Startup Stories?

From teenage years onwards, I started reading business biographies. Well, “started reading” is an understatement. I got obsessed with them. They became part of my world — the world that you create in your head and heart when you dive into stories. These were stories of German and American entrepreneurs as well as managers, including Burda, Quandt, but also McDonald’s, Disney and many others. All these books deeply triggered my wish of becoming a business manager or even entrepreneur myself.

Unfortunately, life wanted it (slightly) differently. My brain is not wired to study frameworks by heart and do numbers crunching. So, I dropped out of business school after two semesters and ended up in a university career in the humanities. But the business books never left me. They kept motivating me, they taught me everything I never learned in university. All the important stuff for life and work I always learned from people. And biographies are just that — accounts of lived experience. They are such rich resources of knowledge and empowerment. No matter how trivial they might appear, my contention is that you can learn something from every life account — as long as you read closely enough.

Close reading is also what I did with the startup biographies that I started reading when Silicon Valley startups became more famous. They fascinated me even more than the traditional business biographies because many of the founders were even more crazy and determined. But, as I write this, I realize that this judgement is stupid. Every person who follows his or her heart to found a business on a market that might not even have existed before is considered crazy. In my world, “crazy” is just the new “normal.” Most people in academia, unfortunately, have unlearned to be crazy (if they ever were in the first place). This used to be different in the past when there were still polymaths who taught many subjects and were able to connect many different things in their brains. I had to unlearn to care about those who insist on one-way-street learning as a way of life. As Steve Jobs would have said: “This is fucking bullshit.” And obsessing over bullshit and dumbheads only makes you sick.

All this probably explains why I am writing about startup stories, i.e., mostly startup biographies and other founder stories from eras before the digital age. But the reason why I am sharing them is because the only social setting in which I completely feel calm and in piece with myself and the world is when I am surrounded by startup people. Maybe this sounds strange because I cannot write a single line of code and I constantly fail when trying to calculate the simplest business models. Still, I feel deep attachment to the startup community and I want to contribute. Since the only things I can do really well are reading, thinking, and writing, there is not much else I can do. I hope this will be enough. And if not — at least writing about startup stories gives me a sense of purpose in this world.

Why Story “Learning”?

As a literary studies scholar (which I am — at least sometimes), you read massive amounts of text in the course of your education. Then, if you decide to become an academic by profession, you start teaching these books and you discuss the content with your students and, if you wish, with colleagues. The only problem I have always had with this is that the books that are considered ‘literature’ in our field are not the books that immediately help you in your daily lives — at least not directly. Indirectly, all books help you in life because what you learn from them becomes part of you. Still, when reading books about startups, you learn hands-on things that you can transfer to your business practice. The problem is: When I teach students in literary studies, they are not startup founders and many of them are not even interested in that. Maybe I can help change that, who knows…

Still, I insist that the skills people like me have regarding reading and analyzing (life) stories are helpful for people in the business world and even beyond. (Part of the problem why this is not being noticed and used is because humanities scholars themselves have not realized it.) I bet — no, I know deep down in my heart — that even the most analytical and technical people are touched and intellectually triggered by stories told by successful role models in business. And how do I know? Of course, from the books themselves! There is hardly any business (auto-)biography which does not talk about the fact that successful entrepreneurs are lifelong learners and much of their learning continues to come from books — even in the digital age. Just think of Elon Musk. His love liaison with rocket launching — as most of his entrepreneurial endeavors — started with books on rocket science.

The problem with book reading today, however, is that people hardly ever really read books. What I mean by real reading is very simple: Start on page 1 and finish on page x, i.e., the last page of the conclusion or epilogue. People, especially people in the current Generation Z but also across all other generations, do not do that because they think they have no time for it and it is not necessary. There are tons of apps, blogs, and YouTube clips today that promise to teach you the most important content of each book by just reading a short abstract or watching a 10-minute clip or talk. I am not saying that this is not helpful. In fact, breaking down complex content to a few words takes real genius. However, there is something that gets lost: The story!

Books, especially if they explicitly seek to be helpful for practitioners, employ storytelling to convey content. And there are usually plenty of stories in one bigger story that the book wants to tell. What happens when you just boil it down to executive summaries is that you lose all that. And what comes along with this: You lose the magic that storytelling brings to your brain. Stories are powerful because they combine head and heart. They intertwine factual information with narratives that touch your heart because you can relate to them and more often than not identify with the characters (real or fictional ones). And this is real deep learning — the learning that I want to contribute to by providing you with between-the lines reading that many other book summaries and abstracts leave out.

How this will work

In each and every post from today onwards for the upcoming 365 days of this experiment (holy shit, I cannot believe I am getting myself into this!), I will start with a short passage from the book I will be discussing. I have no idea at this point how I will be able to come up with so many passages. For sure, I have not read more than 300 startup biographies so far. At least, I think I have not. However, I do believe that I can gather together many key passages if I sit down and take because there are so many in each and every single book. Thanks to my habit of actually underlining these passages in books (always with a pencil, not a pen), I should be able to find them again. So, what is going to happen is that the material will come from a limited number of books at the beginning but the topics and respective learnings will be different each time. And I will certainly try to provide a range of topics and also expand my book repertoire.

After all, the very challenge of doing this experiment will also motivate me to read more and more books. And that is something I look forward to. If you are a writer, at least I think that, there is hardly anything you can do to actively make yourself become a better writer except for one thing: reading. As Fran Lebowitz once said (I am quoting from my head): “You cannot teach people how to write. But you can teach them how to read.” So, reading as the engine behind writing is a continuous task for writers and readers alike. And I have to admit that I also stopped reading for a while because I was afraid that it might make myself want to write. Since my writing never ended up being read because I never published it, this became an extremely devastating vicious cycle of suppressing my pleasure of reading along with my nurturing impulse of writing.

So, after quoting the key passage, I will as briefly as possible provide my thoughts on the respective short story. I have to underline that these thoughts are my subjective insights on the passages I am sharing. They have no claim for legitimacy, appropriateness or scientific standards. They might not even be helpful for you, despite my honest intention to be of help for founders and other members of the startup community. All I can do is share my learnings with you and these in turn might add to your personal reflections. After all, there is no universal truth one can tell or discover. All learning is about adding perspectives and thereby slowly discovering the beauty of this life with all its colors and sometimes painful surprises. If there is one thing writing can do — this is it.

Read, Think, Live

One last word about the books I am choosing: As with my insights, the selection of books is subjective and motivated by my own preferences and interests. No publisher is paying me for doing this and I am not doing any commercial “reviews” to raise the sales of specific titles. I am aware that this might sound counter-intuitive because, after all, I am doing this to share my deepest conviction that books are powerful and reading them (in addition to reading whatever other media you want to read) is a substantial asset for a happy life.

So, of course, I want to trigger the joy of reading and learning. Thus, if you actually end up reading the entire book based on what I am writing about a certain passage, I would be happy. Still, it is important to highlight who makes that decision based on which intention. Life and business are all about making decisions. And the decision itself always only tells part of the story. The reason why you decide in favor of or against reading and buying a book makes a difference.

If you pick up a book because some colleague or marketing guy tells you that you will become a millionaire by reading it — that is o.k. You end up reading and this is perfectly in line with what I am preaching here. If you end up reading a book because you could not help continuing to think about it based on what I wrote or an inner voice yells out “I just have to read this story” because my lines reached your heart — that is a different story behind the purchase decision. And the latter, of course, would bring me joy, no doubt.

But honestly, the intention, i.e., the path to reading, even though I am describing it here in some detail, is not important. This entire experiment is about leaving behind any intention. That is the secret that any religious guru of whatever denomination or culture will teach you. Happiness is not about intentions, it is about being who you are. I only know that I have to write in order to live out my true self. It is the only thing that truly makes me happy and calm. If I can contribute to your learning, that would be a nice side effect. If this entire endeavor only brings me joy and a reason to get up every day, it can already be considered “overdelivery” for my personal happiness barometer. And at the end of the day, this is the only thing that counts: spending your lifetime wisely with a happy heart and honest intellect. Let’s read…

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