Author Archives: Hervé Lebret

Advice to young (and old) people by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba

Thanks to my dear colleagues for mentioning to me this moving, inspiring interview from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba. He is giving advice to people from any age related to work and entrepreneurship.

If you’re 25 years old, do not worry, any mistake is an income.

Before 20 years old, be a good student.
Before 30 years old, follow somebody. Go to a small company, you learn the passion, you learn to dream. It’s not which company you go, it’s which boss you follow.
Between 30 and 40 years old, work for yourself. Time to be an entrepreneur.
Between 40 and 50 years old, do the thing you are good at. It’s too late to do something new.
When you are 50 to 60 years old, work for the young people.
When you are over 60, spend time for yourself. Go to the beach!

But when you are 25, make enough mistakes. You fall, you stand up, you fall, you stand up.

Aaron Swartz – The Idealist

I had heard like many of you probably of Aaron Swartz who committed suicide in January 2013 at age 26 after beging prosecuted for computer fraud. So when I was advised to read The Idealist, I did not hesitate much before buying it.

The book is divided in two parts: a short history of copyright in the USA since the beginning of the nineteenth century and the story of Aaron Swartz himself. In the first part, the author, Justin Peters, shows the complexity of one of the pillars of intellectual property. You may have a look at my previous posts on the topic with tag #intellectual-property and particulaly the profound work of Boldrin and Levine Against Intellectual Monopoly. I will only mention a short paragraph, page 46, of Peters’ book: But in nineteenth-century America, the concept of intellectual property was not yet sacrosanct – and the interests of the readers were not inextrically bound to those of authors. In congressional chambers, lawmakers openly wondered whether international copyright constituted a tax on knowledege and compared literary property to industrial monopoly.


© The Dusty Rebel

As for Aaron Swartz, Three years after [he] died, his story is still on many people’s minds. A large street-art mural of his face, set next to the words RIP AARON SWARTZ, adorns the side of a building in Brooklyn. […] Every year around his birthday , Swartz’s friends and admirers worldwide organize a series of weekend-long “hackatons” intended to stimulate the sorts of social projects Swartz cherished. [Page 14]

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock – Conclusion: the obligation to dissent

It took me a while to read Bock’s book. It is dense, ambitious, convincing, despite the fact that “Google sounds too good to be true” [Page 318]. There would be so much to say and the diversity of topics addressed by Bock is so broad. If you deal with people, if you manage teams, I think you should read it (I do not manage people and still I think it will be immensely useful to me!).

Another example after my four posts: Bock mentions of of McKinsey values: “uphold the obligation to dissent” [Page 319]. And an example follows on the same page: I was serving a client whose merger was yet to prove disastrous. The client asked for a recommendation on how best to set up a venture capital business. The data were pretty clear. Aside from a few notable examples, like Intel Capital,most corporate venture-capital efforts were failures. they lacked the expertise, clarity of purpose, and physical proximity to where the most lucrative deals were being hatched. I told the senior partner it was a bad idea. I showed him the data. I explained that there were almost no examples of these kinds of efforts being successful, and none that I could find that were thousands of miles outside of Silicon Valley and run by people who lacked any engineering background.
He told me that the client was asking how to set it up, not whether to to set it up, and that I should focus on answering the client’s question.
Perhaps he was right. Or perhaps he had some superior insight into the issue that trumped my data, Maybe he’d already made that argument to the client, and they’d rejected it.
But to me it felt like I’d failed.I thought the obligation to dissent required me to speak up, so it was all the more gut-wrenching to see my concern brushed aside.

Again Google might sound too good to be true, but this is the 5th or 6th book I read about Google from insiders and from outsiders, and the messages are quite consistent. A final quote from page 339: In the introduction I posited that there are two extreme models of how organizations should be run. The heart of this book is my belief that you can choose what type of organizations you want to create, and I’be shown you some of the tools to do so. The “low-freedom” extreme is the command-and-control organization, where employees are managed tightly, worked intensely, and discarded.The “high-freedom” extreme is based on liberty, where employees are treated with dignity and given a voice in how the company evolves.
Both models can be very prfitable, but this book presumes that the most talented people on the planet will want to be part of a freedom-driven company. And freedom-driven companies, because they benefit form the best insight and passion of all their employees are more resilient and better sustain success.

Steve Jobs: “Just Ask”

It’s a famous story for Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs fans. But I had never seen it told by the founder of Apple himself. It shows not only what an entrepreneur is but also the openness of the region at the time and probably still today… It’s nice and short… Watch it.

“I never found anybody that did not want to help me if I asked them for help”

Thanks to the student who gave me the link! 🙂

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock (part IV) – Managers

Google has been famous for defiance of authority. Bock develops this further.

At google, we have always had a deep skepticism about management. This is just how engineers think: managers are a Dilbertian layer that at best protects the people doing the actual work from the even more poorly informed people higher up the org chart. But our Project Oxyygen research, which we’ll cover in depth in chapter 8, showed the managers in fact do many good things. It turns out that we are not skeptical about managers per se. rather, we are profoundly suspicious of power, and the way managers historically have abused it. [Page 118]

Acton who said “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” also wrote: Great mean are almost always bad men, even when tehy exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority, there is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which … the end learns or justifies the means. [Pages 119-20]

It was such a deeply held belief that in 2002 Larry and Sergey eliminated all manager roles in the company. We had over three hundred engineers at the time, and anyone who was a manager was relieved of management responsibilities. Instead every engineer in the company reported to Wayne Rosing. It was a short-lived experiment. Wayne was besieged with requests for expense report approvals and for help in resolving interpersonal conflicts, and within six weeks the managers were reinstated.
[Page 190]

Still Project Oxygen initially set out to prove that managers don’t matter ended up demonstrating that good managers were crucial. [Page 188]. I will let you read Chapter 8 and here are the 8 rules from the study [Page 195]:
1- Be a good coach.
2- Empower the team and do not micromanage.
3- Express interest/concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.
4- Be very productive/results-oriented.
5- Be a good communicator – listen and share information.
6- Help the team with career development.
7- Have a clear vision/strategy for the team.
8- Have important technical skills that help advise the team.

I cannot finish this new post without mentioning a link given by Laszlo Bock about the histroy of Silicon Valley: “Silicon Valley’s Favorite Stories”, Bits (blog), New York Times, February 5, 2013.


Robert Noyce, right, set up an atmosphere of openness and risk at Fairchild Semiconductor.Credit Courtesy of Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock (part III) – (the invisible) women in the workplace

The gender gap has become a much more visible issue in 2018 and Bock is no exception (even if his book is older). But before I mention what he says about it, here are two recent and very interesting references:
– The New Yorker just published an article about the gender gap at work and particular at BBC: How the BBC Women Are Working Toward Equal Pay.
– France Culture tells the story of Margaret Hamilton, a software programmer on the Appolo project: (in French) Margaret Hamilton, la femme qui a fait atterrir l’Homme sur la Lune.


Margaret Hamilton during the Apollo program.• Credits : NASA

Now Bock: In one study conducted by Maura Belliveau of long Island University [1], 184 managers were asked to allocate salary increases across a group of employees. The increases aligned nicely with performance ratings. Then they were told that the company’s financial situation meant that funds were limited, but were given the same amount amount of funds to allocate. This time, men received 71 percent of the increase funds, compared to 29 percent for the women even though the men and women had the same distribution of ratings. The managers – of both genders – had given more to the men because they assumed women would be mollified by the explanation of the company’s performance, but that the men would not. they put more money toward the men to avoid what they feared would be a tough conversation. [Page 170]

[1] “Engendering Inequity? How Social Accounts Create vs. Merely Explain Unfavorable Pay Outcomes for Women” Organization Science 23 no 4 (2012) 1154-1174 published online September 28, 2011, https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.1110.0691

Bock mentions another study on page 137 about graduates from Carnegie Mellon that is also mentioned in the New Yorker article as “As the economist Linda Babcock and the writer Sara Laschever explain, in their book “Women Don’t Ask,” women are less likely than men to negotiate for higher salaries and other benefits. At Carnegie Mellon University, for example, ninety-three per cent of female M.B.A. students accepted an initial salary offer, while only forty-three per cent of men did. Women incur heavy losses for their tendency to avoid negotiation. It is estimated that, over the course of her career, an average woman loses a total of somewhere between half a million and a million and a half dollars.” Additionally “Even when women do make it to the bargaining table, they often fare poorly. In “What Works: Gender Equality by Design,” the behavioral economist Iris Bohnet examines data from a group of Swedish job seekers, among whom women ended up with lower salaries than their equally qualified male peers. “Not only did employers counter women’s already lower demands with stingier counter-offers, they responded less positively when women tried to self-promote,” she writes. “Women, it turns out, cannot even exercise the same strategies for advancement that men benefit from.” When women act more like men, she suggests, they are often punished for it. Lean in, and you might get pushed even further back.

Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock (part II) – the GLAT

In Work Rules!, Bock mentions briefly the GLAT (Google Labs Aptitude Tests) that were also mentioned in David Vise’s Google Story. But he just quickly says they may have been overused and sometimes a waste of time and of resources. But let me refer to his page 73:

That page begins with the image above which can be also found on google blog’s page Warning: we brake for number theory. It’s never too late solve math problems… If you solved it at the time, you got access to the following one:

The second puzzle:
f(1)=7182818284 
f(2)=8182845904 
f(3)=8747135266 
f(4)=7427466391 
 f(5)= __________

Again feel free to try… you will find answers here. Bock just adds this: The result? We hired exactly zero people.

Maybe this will help you:

2.71828182845904523536028747135266249
7757247093699959574966967627724076630
3535475945713821785251664274274663919
3200305992181741359662904357290033429
5260595630738132328627943490763233829
8807531952510190115738341879307021540
8914993488416750924476146066808226480
0168477411853742345442437107539077744
9920695517027618386062613313845830007
5204493382656029760673711320070932870
9127443747047230696977209310141692836
8190255151086574637721112523897844250
5695369677078544996996794686445490598
7931636889230098793127736178215424999
2295763514822082698951936680331825288
6939849646510582093923982948879332036
2509443117301238197068416140397019837
6793206832823764648042953118023287825
>0981945581530175671736133206981125099

as well as this:

x = 1
2.71828182845904523536028747135266249
7757247093699959574966967627724076630
3535475945713821785251664274274663919

x = 2
2.71828182845904523536028747135266249
7757247093699959574966967627724076630
3535475945713821785251664274274663919

x = 3
2.71828182845904523536028747135266249
7757247093699959574966967627724076630
3535475945713821785251664274274663919

x = 4
2.71828182845904523536028747135266249
7757247093699959574966967627724076630
3535475945713821785251664274274663919

x = 5
2.71828182845904523536028747135266249
7757247093699959574966967627724076630
3535475945713821785251664274274663919
3200305992181741359662904357290033429
5260595630738132328627943490763233829
8807531952510190115738341879307021540
8914993488416750924476146066808226480
0168477411853742345442437107539077744
9920695517027618386062613313845830007
5204493382656029760673711320070932870
9127443747047230696977209310141692836
8190255151086574637721112523897844250
5695369677078544996996794686445490598
7931636889230098793127736178215424999
2295763514822082698951936680331825288
6939849646510582093923982948879332036
2509443117301238197068416140397019837
6793206832823764648042953118023287825
0981945581530175671736133206981125099

Work Rules! by Googler Laszlo Bock

I had been advised many times to read Work Rules! with Subtitle “Insights from inside Google that will transform how you live and lead”, yes, another book about Google but not just another.

I just began reading it and the first pages are revaling: a company success is linked to its culture, and its culture comes from its founders. So Bock talks about page and brin early life. He refers to three portraits, Larry Page: Google should be like a family by Adma Lashinsky, Fortune, 2012; Larry Page’s University of Michigan Commencement Address in 2009; and The Story of Sergey Brin by Mark Malseed, Moment, 2007. Let me extract a few little things:

My father’s father worked in the Chevy plant in Flint, Michigan. He was an assembly line worker. He drove his two children here to Ann Arbor, and told them: That is where you’re going to go to college. Both his kids did graduate from Michigan. That was the American dream. His daughter, Beverly, is with us today. My Grandpa used to carry an “Alley Oop” hammer – a heavy iron pipe with a hunk of lead melted on the end. The workers made them during the sit-down strikes to protect themselves. When I was growing up, we used that hammer whenever we needed to pound a stake or something into the ground. It is wonderful that most people don’t need to carry a heavy blunt object for protection anymore. But just in case, I have it here.

It is said that the future of any nation can be determined by the care and preparation given to its youth. If all the youths of America were as fortunate in securing an education as we have been, then the future of the United States would be even more bright than it is today.

And about Brin entrepreneurship skills or unique personality: The Brins’ story provides me with a clue to the origins of Sergey’s entrepreneurial instincts. His parents, academics through and through, deny any role in forming their son’s considerable business acumen — “He did not learn it from us, absolutely not our area,” Michael says. Yet Sergey’s willingness to take risks, his sense of whom to trust and ask for help, his vision to see something better and the conviction to go after it — these traits are evident in much of what Michael Brin did in circumventing the system and working twice as hard as others to earn his doctorate, then leave the Soviet Union.

“I do somewhat feel like a minority,” he says. “Being Jewish, especially in Russia, is one aspect of that. Then, being an immigrant in the U.S. And then, since I was significantly ahead in math in school, being the youngest one in a class. I never felt like a part of the majority. So I think that is part of the Jewish heritage in a way.” Today, of course, being a young billionaire, he’s again in a class by himself. “I don’t feel comfortable being one of the crowd,” he reflects. “It’s kind of interesting — I really liked the schools that I went to, but I never rooted for the sports teams. I was never one of the crowd supporting something or not. I like to maintain my independence.”

A final note of serendipity in what I just read: The history of Russian Jewish emigration in the mid-1970s can be neatly summarized in a joke from the era: Two Jews are talking in the street, a third walks by and says to them, “I don’t know what you’re talking about but yes, it’s time to get out of here!” Just have a look at my recent post about A History Of Communism Told Through Communist Jokes. Nice coincidence…

Business Lessons by Kleiner Perkins (Part IV): Straight Talk for Startups – Randy Komisar

I promised more about Straight Talk for Startups in my previous post which was describing the book first part. After Mastering the Fundamentals, which is indeed a fundamental must-read, his part II about Selecting the Right Investors is as good.

But before describing these 13 new rules, let me jump directly to rule #100: Learn the rules by heart so you know when to break them.
“Apprentices work furiously to learn the rules; journeymen proudly perfect the rules; but masters forget the rules. So it’s been since the Middle Ages, and venture capital and entrepreneurship are no different. The venture capital world is minting more and more apprentices, while the masters, like Tom perkins, are few and far between.
The rules in this book are battled-tested. Acquainting yourself with them will help you spot issues before they arise. Intuition is not just fast thinking from the gut; it is good judgement informed by knowledge.
Most rules are made for the average situation; they are meant to be broken when circumstances require. Our rules are no diffeent. Let these rules serve as touchstones to guide you own difficult decisions along the way, not millstones to bug you down. Only you can decide which rules to apply, bend, or ignore as you face your own novel problems and opportunities.
You may well find a rule or two that you adamantly disagree with. If we have encouraged you to examine your own experience and arrive at a considered but contraditocry conclusion, then we have done our job. Just don’t mistake an exceptional event for a guiding principle.
We are seldom able to achieve exactly what we want in business. Compromise is not a dirty word. But you will do better in the end if you acquaint yourself with what others have done before. You know best, so be fearless, trust your intuition, and make you own rules ocne you’ve mastered these.”

And here are rules 29 to 41:
#29: Don’t accept money from strangers
#30: Incubators are good for finding investors, nor for developing businesses
#31: Avoid venture capital unless you absolutely need it
#32: If you choose venture capital, pick the right type of investors
#33: Conduct detailed due diligence on your investors
#34: Personal wealth ≠ good investing
#35: Choose investors who think like operators
#36: Deal directly with the decision makers
#37: Find stable investors
#38: Select investors who can help future financings
#39: Investor syndicates need to be managed
#40: Capital-intensive venture require deep financial pockets
#41: Strategic investors pose unique challenges

I do not know if I will add a post about this book but these two should have been enough to convince you of the quality of Straight Talk for Startups.

Business Lessons by Kleiner Perkins (Part III): Straight Talk for Startups – Randy Komisar

With subtitle 100 Insider Rules for Beating the Odds–From Mastering the Fundamentals to Selecting Investors, Fundraising, Managing Boards, and Achieving Liquidity, Randy Komisar has an ambitious goal in writing his new book Straight Talk for Startups and he executes!

Komisar is a Silicon Valley veteran (and brilliant) investor. I have already mentioned here his previous books The Monk and The Riddle and Getting to Plan B, as well as many of his advice. In his new book, he is trying to give precious advice because “entrepreneurs today don’t have the luxury of learning by trail and error.” [page xix of the introduction]. The Times They Are A-Changin’ and the stakes are just too high…So Komisar gives “the crucial things, like creating two financial plans, not one; hiring part-time epxerts rather than full-time trainees; knowing what to measure and the pitfalls of doing it too early: and the criticality of unit economics and working capital.” [Page 1]. I have to admit I was a little surprised with reading the previous sentence, but after discovering the next first rules, Komisar convinced me again.

If you do not have any time for reading the book, which would be a real pity, at least have a look at his 100 rules. Here are the first 28 form his Part 1 – Mastering the fundamentals:
#1: starting a venture has never been easier, succeeding has never been harder
#2: try to act normal
#3: aim for an order-of-magnitude improvement
#4: start small, but be ambitious
#5: most failures result from poor execution, not unsuccessful innovation
#6: the best ideas originate with founders who are users
#7: don’t scale your technology until it works
#8: manage with maniacal focus
#9: target fast-growing, dynamic markets
#10: never hire the second best
#11: conduct your hiring as if you were an airline pilot
#12: a part-time expert is preferable to a full-time seat filler
#13: maage your team like a jazz band
#14: instead of a free lunch, provide meaningful work
#15: teams of professionals with a common mission make the most attractive investments
#16: use your financials to tell your story
#17: create two business plans: an execution élan and an aspirational plan
#18: know your financial numbers and their interdependencies by heart
#19: net income is an opinion,, but cash flow is a fact
#20: unit economics tell you whether you have a business
#21: manage working capital as if it were your only source of funds
#22: exercise the strictest financial discipline
#23: always be frugal!
#24: to get where you are going, you need to know where you are going
#25: measurements comes with pitfalls
#26: operational setbacks require swift and deep cutbacks
#27: save surprises for birthdays, not for you stakeholders
#28: strategic pivots offer silver linings

It is a great complement to Measure What Matters and the proof (if what was needed) of how great great venture capitalists are…!

More to come.