Avoid Monoculture. Travel. Read Widely. Let Experience be Your Compass.

Posted on Aug 25, 2011 | 75 comments


I sometimes feel that the Silicon Valley culture and we as technologists more broadly can breed monoculture in our approach to entrepreneurship, problem solving, market analysis and technology solutions.

Experiences way beyond any hack-a-thon, startup blog or your current company engagement can enrich your thinking and challenge you to think more broadly about the solutions you offer in the market.

I remember once sitting on a panel with Esther Dyson who is one of the most travelled and broad-experienced technologist I know. It was an “enterprise 2.0” panel at the dawn of what people began calling “web 2.0.”

Esther was talking about problems and entrepreneurs as far away as Russia. She was talking a lot about how the broader world doesn’t operate how we in Silicon Valley always perceive that it does. She encouraged people to get out and travel, see the world, see how other people live and operate.

I was living in Silicon Valley at the time of the panel, but I had been living abroad for 11 years before returning having lived in England, France, Italy, Spain and Japan as well as establishing physical offices in India. I felt that each of these experiences were data points – input – for me in establishing a compass for my own personal sense of the where the world would head.

You’ll see a world like I did – with limited landlines and electricity (India), a world with tiny apartments and thus less room for extra tech equipment & TVs (Japan), where having a sale anytime you want it isn’t legal (Germany), where corporate boards split the role of Chairman and CEO, which is much better corporate governance than the US (the UK) or where a version of the Internet (the Minitel in France) existing long before it became realized globally and we had open standards

Om Malik was also on the panel. As was Shel Israel. In retrospect it was quite an established, senior and worldly panel.

I don’t profess to have all the answers or to always be right. But I do make sure that I have a broad horizon from which to make decisions. My intuition is not born of monoculture.

I have talked about this before. Even from a young age, my experiences as president of my college fraternity were more formative in my experiences as an entrepreneur than my economics classes were.

My political science degree was more helpful than my economics degree. Don’t get me wrong – I loved economics. But poly sci taught me critical thinking and writing skills that I didn’t get in my econ classes.

It’s not always the obvious sources of education that shape you the most.

Challenge conventional wisdom. Fight monoculture. Question authority. Take lots of inputs but then let your internal compass set your course. If “all the cool kids are doing it” make sure you have strong internal logic for why you’re going to follow them. Often it’s not the best course.

Experiencing the world will be a lesson in and of itself. Reading widely can also broaden your thinking.

I love reading Eric Reis, Steve Blank, Clay Christenson, Brad Feld and others. You should draw inspiration from all of them.

But when you’re in the mood to draw in a few new sources for entrepreneurship you might consider these two books non-traditional books on entrepreneurship that had an impact on me.

1. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
(I won’t give away any great spoilers, don’t worry)
Philip Roth is one of America’s great treasures. He writes about the fabric of American life, often from the perspective of his Jewish, New Jersey roots.

American Pastoral is a story of generational aspirations of Americanism. The protagonist grows up in an upper middle class neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. He is the son of a successful glove manufacturer.

The story gets framed from perspective of immigrant families with no money and no means of acquiring wealth. These were in the days where you couldn’t just be super smart, be disciplined, program computers well and get rich.

The patriarch of the family works his arse off developing expertise in making gloves for other people. Slowly he branches into selling them on a small scale and the whole family joins him in the endeavor.

The next generation takes the baton from their patriarch’s achievements and learn how to do better distribution, how to win over large customers, how to scale manufacturing, how to develop a niche market and be known as best-in-class in that niche.

But then the world changes. It globalizes. They struggle to maintain cost advantages. Many manufacturing companies move operations abroad leading to urban blight in Newark, New Jersey. Unions have more power and exert their pressure.

They are faced with decisions about whether to support their long-time employees who are increasingly hostile but have worked hard for generations with the need to compete on costs and quality.

And the generations who inherit the “easy life” of a family that has acquired wealth and prestige take their riches, their comforts and indeed their country for granted.

I won’t tell you where it goes but American Pastoral is a wonderful read for thinking about the city beyond you. For thinking about the physical and not just the virtual. For understanding the struggles of those who came before us. It is also a historical novel offering perspective of the US’s struggles through the 1960’s and 70’s. It’s not an “entrepreneurship manual” but it will broaden your thinking nonetheless.

And don’t just trust me. American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize! It was also voted by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 novels of all time.

2. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
The White Tiger is set in India. It’s a story that I think Vivek Wadhwa would appreciate because it tells the story of modern entrepreneurship in the broadest sense. It shows us how the other 6 billion humans live, compete, struggle for resources and find clever ways to rise above their means. (I don’t know if he’d agree or disagree with the book, but he’s always encouraging us to think more broadly about the definition of “entrepreneur” is a global sense)

The White Tiger was Adiga’s first novel and won the Man Booker Prize (which is similar for the UK & Commonwealth to winning the Pulitzer Prize in the US).

The protagonist is Balram Halwai. He is born in abject poverty in the city of Laxmangarh in India. He grew up in what people in India call “the Darkness” and he is of the class that is called “untouchable.” To put things for perspective for those of you sipping Café Lattes at Coupa Café, there are approximately 200 million untouchables in India or about two-thirds of the entire US population.

Balram is smart and stands out in school. He is lauded and told that he should study. But family needs place him into work at a young age so he has to leave formal schooling. He parlays his experiences into learning how to drive a car so that he can get ahead.

From here he figures out how to get a wealthy family in Delhi to take him in as a limo driver for them. It is very common for wealthy families in India to have drivers.

The story is that of Balram’s struggles to get ahead. He is enterprising and liked. But his society doesn’t make it easy for him to succeed. The way the wealthy family protects itself from staff going astray is to make sure that they get to know the extended families of each employee. Any wrongdoing offers the threat of collective punishment against the family of perpetrator.

Balram commits a murder to get ahead. Shocking, I know. But I’m not giving anything away. He talks about this early in the book as a foreshadowing technique. He explains how he parlayed murder into becoming a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore later in life. Trust me, it’s not as “obvious” as you might think.

The book is framed in the context of Balram writing a letting to the leader of China trying to explain how India works. He wants him to see beyond what the politicians will tell him about the country. He wants him to understand how it really works. The author wants us to understand these lessons. That india isn’t just a headline about call centers, computing programming and offshoring. These topics all feature in the book.

Balram goes on to describe the system how he sees it. He takes on tough issues such as corruption – not just in politics but also in business. He takes on the class system and what he perceives as its inherent biases in keeping poor people poor. He shows how in business a small act of corruption makes the difference between his become a prominent entrepreneur or being out of business.

Shocking, I know.

But in my limited experience in India I dealt with “payoffs” directly. We shipped servers to set up in our Bangalore office (before we relocated to Pune) and they somehow got “stuck” in the import process. A local government official was willing to go and look for our equipment personally, but it would cost money. I’m not trying to paint an unkind version of India – I found it a wonderful place and I’m very fond of the people. I just want to point out that the world isn’t always as it seems at the surface.

And it doesn’t take a huge imagination to see parallel’s in Adiga’s assessment of Indian politics in our own country, where powerful lobbying groups line the pockets of politicians who increasingly need big money to win the never-ending campaigns in which they must participate. I’m not saying it’s absolutely corrupt, but it’s clear the interests of the poor and disenfranchised are not always adequately represented. That is part of his tale.

Whatever the “truth” is, you will gain from understand entrepreneurship from a totally different class structure and political environment from which you have come. It has dark comedic undertones that make it a page-turner and pure enjoyment.

I hope some of you get to enjoy it.

  • Anonymous

    Goes to Amazon Wishlist!

    BTW, would love to hear your opinion on email newsletters (not daily deals like Groupon, but more like Thrillist, DailyCandy, etc). How would you rate them as businesses, would they be attractive investment opportunity. Some said email is dead, Groupon proved wrong but they have trouble making money, for now..

  • Greg Mand

    Mark…thanks for this post. Having visited 49 countries (and counting!) and having worked for Lonely Planet I can attest to the powerful impact that travel can have in shaping one’s outlook on life, respect for other cultures, and new ideas.  Travel, btw, does not always mean the other side of the world. I have been inspired as well by the people I have met in visiting all 50 of the U.S. states. My point is to encourage your readers to expand their boundaries, to stretch their imagination, and to challenge themselves to understand and absorb different viewpoints.

  • http://www.chuckeats.com/ ChuckEats

    Great post – it’s the reason I love reading fiction, instead of business books.  They re-wire your brand w/ new ideas, concepts, & metaphors; that, while not be directly applicable to day to day work, do influence your world view over the long-term

  • kevinprentiss

    This post is a very positive way of framing perspective.  In the “Real Deal With Angelist” post from a while back, you had mentioned not wanting to be the sober guy no one wants to hear from.  

    Focusing on “What’s the real (rest of the) world doing?” is a great antidote to cocktail parties where everyone is drunk on their own kool-aid. It’s a good way for you to help a few people put down their drinks.

  • Anonymous

    Right on point, Mark. It’s interesting how much dynamism you get from traveling the world. Experiencing the world outside-of-Silicon-Valley is something I feel is key to unlocking dynamic solutions to common problems around the world. I hope my comrades from Texas can read this :)

  • http://www.yibish.com Michael Gnanakone

    White Tiger seems like a good read… I wonder how he can justify murdering someone to get ahead, but I bet it was a good reason. By the way, how long were you in India? 

  • http://www.grooveshark.com sbmiller5

    ‘The White Tiger’ and ‘The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ have always been my two favorite fiction entrepreneur books and wrote a Quora Answere here:  http://www.quora.com/Book-Recommendations/What-are-some-must-read-books-you-would-recommend-on-operation-execution-strategy-to-an-entrepreneur

    Excited to read American Pastoral.

  • http://twitter.com/urbanophile Aaron M. Renn

    Excellent post.  There’s another side of the coin as well. You also need to value those types of experiences in others, especially when recruiting talent.

  • http://twitter.com/digvijayVJsingh DigvijaySinghRathore

    Agree totally.  I read a couple of business books and soon find my articulation dying down and have to get back to literature – fiction or non. 

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    Having just returned from Africa this past Tuesday (for the third time in three years), I can tell you that mobile continues to explode. I’ll bet here and now that affordable Android smartphones will be the universal computer of that continent in less than five years.

    It’s so incredibly important to understand how the world is interconnected.

  • http://twitter.com/timbarnes10 Tim Barnes

    A thought for a This Week in Venture topic – conduct an interview with Adam Miller, CEO of Cornerstone onDemand.  I recently read that he spent 2 years travelling around the world and that inspired him to start Cornerstone.  The article I read did not give much details about his travels, but a TWiVC conversation could provide more depth and insights for your listeners/readers. Thanks for the book recommendations.

  • Nicolas S Xu

    love this post!

  • Sean

    Hey Mark,
             I definitely agree with this.  I’m 24 and after getting my business degree  traveled to 12 countries in the last 2 years  while running a 4 hour work week inspired cash flow business from my laptop.  I loved the business classes, but the travel gave me a much broader perspective and really allows you to see or feel the world outside yourself more and gauge how people would react to your venture outside of the room you are in.

    Right now, I just moved to LA and I’m in a startup with a princeton professor and a fulbright scholar targeting a really large market.  I’ll be at the schmoozd event tonight and around at the startup events in los angeles.  I know you are very busy but I hope I get to meet you sometime. 

  • http://www.franklinbi.com Franklin Bi

    Huge fan of Philip Roth’s work — he so impressively captures the American narrative (and teaches me Jewish slang)!

    The way I see it is that minds are like kitchen knives and the new & unfamiliar are the grindstones we use to sharpen them. Regardless of where we find the unfamiliar, whether in travel or in books or in engaging with people from strange & far-off places, it’s always a gift – grab it, take all you can from it, and force yourself to not run back to the safe & dull.

    Your 2nd recommendation sounds inspiring, I’ll def add it to my list. If I can humbly offer my own in exchange — Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee. Your 2 rec’s cover the foreign and American experiences, Native Speaker captures the in-between: the modern immigrant experience.

  • http://about.me/saketmundra Saket Mundra

    Hello Mark. I have just moved from New Delhi to Toronto and couldn’t agree more with your views. Statistics could be misleading and it is important to understand each place, its people their sensitivities to come up with a product or solution that appeals to all. Broadening ones horizon not only helps in becoming a better professional but also a better individual.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Email converts better than any other platform that I’ve seen. I ask every entrepreneur who does them and they all say the same. See my “This Week In VC” interview with Ian Rogers.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I totally agree. Every time I hear entrepreneurs saying, “everybody has an iPhone” or similar I shake my head. Visit the rest of the US and you’ll see that it isn’t all like it is in the major tech centers. And if you want to build a big business you need to understand “normals” as well as “techies.”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I greatly prefer fiction. That said, I like what my wife calls “faction” or books that are based on real history or context. I’m reading Master & Commander right now.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks. It still feels like midnight out there. Plenty of time to boogie, I guess.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thanks, Chuks. And obviously you can attest to this. Are you still in Texas??

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: White Tiger … read to find out! ;-)
    re: India – not long enough. I set up our development center in Pune, spent some time in Bombay and Bangalore. But that’s it. Haven’t seen New Delhi, Kerala, Rajasthan, Gujarat or many other places. But that only gives me stuff to look forward to!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    hear, hear!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I wish I had been to sub-saharan africa. sadly, I have not. It’s on the list!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Sounds like a great recommendation, Tim. Thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Sadly I won’t be there. I’m on vacation, sorry. But hit me up soon and remind me of this comment so I’ll remember who you are.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I can attest to this…first hand experience. Still in Dallas, but spent the past 5 weeks in Seattle and have fallen in love with the city’s entrepreneurial and über geeky tech and urban culture. After almost 15 years here in Dallas, I’m finally moving to Seattle next month.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I’ve taken note of it, thank you. I love modern immigrant story because I grew up with it. Stories like The Joy Luck Club that talk about the tension between 1st generation and 2nd generation really hit home. Thanks.

    BTW, if you like Roth and haven’t read it, “The Human Stain” is also really good. I just finished “Everyman.” It’s unbelievable realistic and touching. But a bloody hard read. It’s about aging and dying. Told from the perspective of a person in his 70’s. Feels somewhat autobiographical. Hard to read. But also important and eye opening. 

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    great minds … ;-)

  • http://www.aaronklein.com/ Aaron Klein

    It’s amazing and exhilarating. My daughter was born in Ethiopia so it has become our second homeland.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    I’ll be glad to invite you to my wedding in a couple of years, Mark. You can cover most Tamil Nadu and Kerala on that trip. 

    (Do give it a think before saying yes. I WILL actually take you up on it.. haha)

  • Marita

    Yes, traveling and living in different countries will definitely give you better perspective of the world. But so will any experience that rips open your mind. To continuously learn something new, put yourself yourself in new and uncomfortable situations will also get you to see a bigger picture.

    Learning a foreign language for example can change your perspective completely, because the language of each country inherently includes all the nuances of the life of its people.

    You can spend time in another country, but if you never bother to really learn their language (and explore by walking and not driving everywhere) you will miss out on the depth of the culture and only learn about practicalities.

  • http://byJess.net Jess Bachman

    Maybe the lack of travel is why so many young entrepreneurs look to solve “first world problems”.  Perhaps travel should be a component of all these incubators.

  • Shefaly

    That Philip Roth reference reminds me of one of my favourite quotations that I can see evolving amongst the Indian diaspora already. “I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to
    study mathematics and philosophy, natural history and naval
    architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting,
    poetry, music, architecture, tapestry, and porcelain.” as John Adams said.

  • http://joeyevoli.com Joe Yevoli

    I still have yet to travel, but want to and plan to for the exact reasons you mention.  However, I can honestly say that reading has been the best thing I’ve added to my life since starting a company.  In 2009 I read 100 books in a year, a goal I set for myself, and I haven’t stop reading since.

    I really believe reading is one of the secrets to a great a life.

  • Anonymous

    Amen and Amen. 

    Mark I’d also like to suggest that the bigger global view can be gained from within your own company by making it a personal mission to bring content, ideas – and most of all – people into your company from all parts of the globe and different parts of the country, heck even different parts of your state.  I have the luxury of doing my startup within the of the University of Missouri and so I work with students and peers from literally all over the world.  From teenagers straight off the hog farms of northern Missouri to Nigerian MBA’s, brilliant Pakastani programmers, to NYC bulldog student journalists, kids of Chinese industrialists, and Columbian researchers. In fact, I just had tremendous success using a Bosnian designer to help create the interface for  new type of news game…  Never met him, probably never will but I found someone who created a look I just could not find locally and at reasonable rate. And we’ll keep working together.My own employees have brought me in to China and we may now be headed to Europe and South America.  Opportunities I would not have had without their knowledge, savvy and networks.  Sometimes it’s frustrating to try and communicate ideas through the huge limits of English. Especially when you have half a dozen ESL team members all talking at the same time.  But when the breakthroughs occur, and they always occur, the product ideas and the services generated are dramatically richer with greater potential then those that come from the homogenous brain boxes of most local companies.Personally I will refuse to hire people who are too much like me because I don’t know enough about the world to add the richness we need for disruptive ideas. Bring on the startup Visa!

  • http://RogerEllman.com Roger Ellman

    One of the most satisfying, inspiring  and rewarding experiences of my life was giving a talk to and answering questions  from students in International Studies at Santa Barbara University to throw in some of my experiences and hints about looking at the world, different postage stamps. telephone numbering systems, social behaviours and culture – all things that the understanding of is one essential for  pursuing international – anything.

    Your post points to the importance of understanding wider pictures and by doing so learning more and hence standing a better chance of thinking newer and better thoughts. Creating new ideas is helped along by this process.

    Come to think of it a trip to Santa Barbara is long overdue!

    Thanks for the reading tips.

    Roger E

  • http://argylesocial.com/ Eric Boggs

    Very cool to find another entrepreneur that reads Philip Roth.  His stories of bleak situations and broken people are strangely inspiring.

  • Jack

    Thanks for this, especially the good reading list. Having been abroad a lot, and now based in Austin, the “monoculture” in both Austin and the Bay Area is claustrophobic and seems to restrict product / tech evolution. We called it, “insular” but monoculture is a cool way to say it, too.

  • Bob H

    Fantastic topical commentary. The world knows more about us than we know about them, and I can’t believe that’s good for business at home or abroad. You give me even more encouragement to act on a business concept that I’ve held inside me for too long. Many thanks for the book suggestions. I’m an avid reader and these two weren’t known to me. I’m eager to read them.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the inspirational post Mark. As an Australian living in Europe and seeing first-hand the way Europeans react to their US counter-parts I think there’s a lot people can learn from your advice

  • http://lmframework.com David Semeria

    I’m totally convinced that any internet entrepreneur should take time to study physics and in particular Richard Feynman.

    The key difference between physics and mathematics is the notion of how valid a proof is. 

    In maths 2+2=4 regardless of which part of the universe you live in. Whereas in physics, even things like Newton’s law of gravity or e=mc2 are  innocent til proven guilty. In other words, as long as nobody can come up with a counter-example, the community “assumes” these “laws” actually hold.

    Feynman was brilliant because he didn’t take anybody’s word for anything. If you told him that “water always flows downhill” he would go away and find an example of water flowing uphill, even it occurred in a black hole.

    That’s actually quite entrepreneurial. 

    Feynman would never believe that social networking has reached its apogee with with FB, or Apple can’t be usurped, or search is done.

    He would work his bollocks off to find that elusive counter example.

    Bring on the internet Feynmans!

  • http://merricklozano.com/ Merrick

    You don’t even have to go abroad, there is a whole world of people in the US that are under served because it’s easy to overlook their challenges. I know you’re backing companies addressing this market:

    – People with an ipod touch vs iphone (textplus)

    – People with no bank accounts (zestcash)

  • http://www.bradysadler.com Brady Sadler

    I agree with Mark on the value of email. Since you’re username has music in it, here’s something relevant to that and email – I recently launched http://www.1band1brand.com and email is a critical component of the plan (weekly features of emerging musicians along side emerging fashion brands with special offers on both).

  • http://www.bradysadler.com Brady Sadler

    Mark – Thanks for another great post. I do a lot of work on the agency side of the marketing business (which is obviously tied in with technology more than ever these days) and we can be guilty of the same thing when it comes to reading similar blogs, trade pubs, etc. I recently wrote about a visit to Walmart and how all marketers should go there to experience what over 100 million people do each week in the US alone. From a business development perspective, it was incredible to see some of the unique promotions, partnerships and merchandising techniques that were on display. 

    I was thinking about my recent trip to Israel when I was reading your comments on the importance of international travel. In addition to the cultural and spiritual education I received, the trip exposed me to their impressive tech scene and the relationships I established have translated to my work here in the US. The world is truly flat these days….

  • http://www.missi.com/ Peter Beddows

    Only someone who has spent time living and working in the UK would say ” But a bloody hard read”: Classic :) Use of the term “bloody” is very English and somehow Freudian here! I love it.

  • http://www.missi.com/ Peter Beddows

    And yet another subtle clue indicating someone living and working in another country but still living the language of origin: Who but an Ex-Pat Brit’ or of English origin would ever say “He would work his bollocks off”? :)

    Fascinating how expanding one’s horizons enables multicultural assimilation except, perhaps, when one deliberately chooses to live exclusively amongst ones own kind even when in a foreign land.

  • CindyB

    Travel has been infinitely valuable in my understanding of the world.  I encourage all young people to travel, “See America” via Greyhound if you have to!  I still jump on the ol’ Greyhound every now and then to remind myself: we do not all live alike, we do not all value the same things.

    Thanks for the post/reminders.

  • http://twitter.com/Sirachm Sirach Mendes

    Awesome article Mark
    I love traveling too as it helps broadens ones perspective of the world and ones mindset too.
    One reason of foreign entrepreneurs doing well in Valley is traveling across into a new culture where they have the drive to make it and see business through a whole new lens

    Btw – there is this great book called ‘Siddartha’ by Herman Hesse (all time classic which is set in Indian culture too) – very interesting read :)

  • http://www.franklinbi.com Franklin Bi

    Ah, The Joy Luck Club — might surprise you, but a lot of young Asian Americans actually hate it! It’s definitely an interesting 2nd/3rd generation dynamic to observe. Reasons are prob too complex to get into here, though personally I appreciated the book.

    Haven’t read Everyman yet, but I have read The Human Stain. My first Roth novel actually, got me totally addicted to his writing style. I’ll trade you another by Roth: The Plot Against America <- oops, may have just alerted your blog to the FBI. It's a rewriting of WWII in which an anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh wins the presidential election against FDR and the Nazis have won. Alternate universes get bonus points with me as a comic book lover at heart, but even without superheroes, it's a fascinating historical-fic story about charismatic leaders & patriotism & morality.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yeah, I have Plot but haven’t read it yet. I need to. Thanks.