“I would never read a book. (…) I am very sceptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that (…). I think, if you wrote a book, you f***ed up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”
Sam Bankman Fried – Interviewed by Johnny Diamond
To never a read a book??? Finance for Dummies is longer than six paragraphs, but it was the first book recommendation that came to my mind for our friend Sam Bankman Fried. The former crypto wunderkind known as SBF is in seriously hot water these days. I am not an avid reader myself for a simple reason: I am surprisingly slow at reading. Therefore, I find it a lot easier to fit audiobooks in my schedule. The school run is one of my favorite times to catch up. I listened to a lot of books last year and fear not SBF, here are a few about business that you would have found highly entertaining. I even condensed the key takeaways for you. Enjoy!
His childhood is a surreal path through the Brazilian jungle, Lebanon, and France. He started his career with Michelin before becoming the globe-trotting, cost slashing CEO of both Nissan and Renault. Carlos Ghosn was larger than life in the automotive world. He was so famous he had his own manga comic book in Japan and a stamp in Lebanon. After a while, it seems Ghosn believed his own press, especially with a ridiculously lavish birthday party in Versailles. His head did not roll in France but he was arrested in Tokyo right off the private jet. Four charges were levelled against him, including one accusing him of hiding more than $85 million in compensation. He might end up more famous with his escape in a music box from Japan than his business career. In Lebanon, he is a free man continuing to plead his innocence, but he is still a wanted man in Japan, and more recently France. The authors do not make claims about his guilt or innocence, but the depths of their investigation certainly raise a lot of red flags: the yacht in his wife’s name, the LLC in the Netherlands that paid him off the books, and the flow of money from a Nissan distributor in Omman. The SBF takeaway is that as a business leader you must know how to count. Carlos Ghosn knew how to count, maybe a little too well.
This was a cocktail for the ages. The main ingredient was a charismatic and pedigreed female founder, Doctor Ruja Ignatova. Add the best multi-level marketers in the world. Combine the technology du jour, cryptocurrency, and finally the masses’ fear of missing out on the next BitCoin. OneCoin was supposed to revolutionize finance and to make cryptocurrency accessible to all, according to Doctor Ruja anyway. When Ruja promised to double the coins in people’s accounts, people cheered. They never stopped and thought it was impossible. Isn’t the number of coins you can mine a fixed quantity (you know, Crypto 101)? Jamie Bartlett hosted a fantastic podcast about Doctor Ruja as he chronicles her modest upbringing in Bucharest before becoming a world wide celebrity. The SBF takeaway is that yes, you can successfully run a crypto market exchange. Unfortunately, it is the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. You will be forced to disappear because you are at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list.
To spare SBF too much reading, we will lump those two books together about Adam Neumann (We Work) and Travis Kalanick (Uber). First, they shared the vaunted status of “founder”. They started their companies from scratch and turned them into unicorns, the adored Silicon Valley term when a start-up’s valuation passes one billion dollars. Up until the 2016 US election, a tech founder was worshipped and could do no wrong. Most important, they even shared the same benefactor, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son. Son was among a group of venture capitalist firms that poured an obscene amount of money into both companies. With no shareholders to answer to and a freedom to spend and expand at will without oversight, We Work and Uber used their billions to “blitz scale”, to bury their competitors, or anyone or anyhing standing in their way. Both men were comfortable pushing ethical boundaries. Kalanick deceived authorities worldwide using Greyball. Neumann milked WeWork starting with $80 million of real estate, after he sold WeWork stock, something most founders or Kalanick never did to his credit. Unfortunately, both personified everything the public despised. Neumann was notorious for doing tequila shots with his subordinates in the office. Kalanick called Uber “Buber” because his newfound fame made it a lot easier for him to meet women. The SBF takeaway is that you can behave like the worst “white men tech bros” in the world and still make a legal and insane amount of money, three commas worth. The downside is that some people will really hate your guts.
But at least you won’t go to jail…