One can learn more from one business failure than from ten tales of business success. Too frequently, writers become enthralled by their successful subjects, unquestioningly repeating their established myths and self aggrandizing messages. The result? A moment-in-time “puff piece” that seldom holds up to future review. Failures, on the other hand, are like specimen slides prepared and examined by scientists; they offer stories that are far removed from the influence of celebrity CEOs or trending Founders. So, in the spirit of continued education, I recommend the following five books about business failure:
The Revolution That Wasn’t: GameStop, Reddit, and the Fleecing of Small Investors, by Spencer Jakab
Contrary to reports at the time, the January 2021 meme stock squeeze was not the Robin Hood moment it was portrayed to be. Small investors saw their initial gains disappear. Ultimately, the “house” won. This book is an in-depth review of the Reddit/Gamestop phenomenon, and yet another reminder that initial reporting and hype are not always to be trusted.
Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou
This is the story of Theranos and its Steve Jobs wannabe founder, Elizabeth Holmes. It describes how a supposed breakthrough health technology turned into one of the largest corporate frauds in US history. Read this before watching The Dropout on Hulu.
The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion, by Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell
I have a difficult time offering an unbiased opinion of Adam Neumann. The fact that he received a $445 million exit package and profited greatly at the expense of WeWork’s investors and employees is a matter of record. That Neumann’s firm charged one of my CA startup clients an exorbitant monthly rent is known to only a select few. It still rankles me. Many an impressionable entrepreneur fell victim to WeWork’s highly priced, hip café office space. A very high premium was paid for supposedly collaborative work environments that more often resembled singles bars for out-of-work twenty somethings. If you, too, think that profiting from business failure is abhorrent, read this book.
Beer Money, by Frances Stroh
This one is an oldie (2016) but a goodie. It’s the story of how the Stroh family squandered a billion dollar fortune in seemingly record time. Stroh’s fire-brewed beer was among the top three US beer brands in the 1980s and into the 1990s. By the year 2000 it was out of business. Frances Stroh describes her own jaded upbringing and recounts how the grandchildren of the company’s founder, Bernhard Stroh, transformed profits into losses, debt, and bankruptcy. Family Business Failure 101.
Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California, by Frances Dinkelspiel
Another book of some age (2015), this story is a marvelous blend of business reporting and mystery writing. It is a must-read for anyone who has even spent more than $20 on a bottle of California wine. So, grab a bottle of said wine and sit down to read this book. You won’t regret it.
Peter has spent the past twenty-plus years as an acting/consulting CFO for a number of small businesses in a wide range of industries. Peter’s prior experience is that of a serial entrepreneur, managing various start-up and turnaround projects. He is a co-founder of Keurig.