Book Review – Anything You Want

Anything You Want is a short book that contains the lessons learnt by Derek Sivers while developing the business CD Baby. It is meant for those interested in starting their own business.

In the following I have collected some of the advice found in the book:

On Starting a Business

The story of CD Baby begins like many stories of entrepreneurship: accidentally. Sivers looks for a way to sell CDs of his own music over the Internet, and finding none, decides to develop his own website for the purpose. Eventually other musicians ask to have their music included as well, and from there CD Baby grew to a place thousands of musicians use to sell their music.

I think it is interesting here to consider that very few entrepreneurs start off with a grand vision of how their business should look and then develop it from there. Richard Branson would be another example of this (for anyone interested in another book about music related entrepreneurship, see Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson). Steve Jobs likewise. I think the closest person with a grand plan I have come across would be Rockefeller, who systematically built a business around the emerging importance of oil and the profitability in squelching competition (see the excellent Titan by Ron Chernow).

I think what this teaches most of all, that to become a very successful entrepreneur, one must not only have a basic business acumen, desire to take on risk, but also be at the right place at the right time.

On Customers

Another common theme found in Anything You Want and other discussions of entrepreneurship is a very strong commitment to serving customers. Sivers describes many instances where the needs of both musicians and of people buying CDs would take priority, like having a rule that the phone should be picked up within two rings between 7 am and 11 pm. One of the 40 rules in the book is ‘Care about your customers more than about yourself’.

On Ideas

A good argument is made that ideas are many but execution is what counts. A brilliant idea with no execution is worth nothing, an average idea with perfect execution is worth billions. We should not become too attached to ideas but rather see them as one of our resources to work with. Here three quotes related to this from the book:

You can’t pretend there’s only one way to do it. Your first idea is just one of many options.

If it’s not a hit, switch

No "yes." Either "Hell yeah!" or "no."

On Running a Business

Another sound advice in my opinion is that if something goes wrong, one does not need to try all the time to come up with a ‘grand policy’ to prevent it from ever happening again. Sometimes some things going wrong are worth the price to pay to avoid having another policy.

On Entrepreneurship

Sivers did not study accounting or got an MBA, he started off as an artist. And I think his perspective of starting a business is quite valuable and there is a lot of evidence that this perspective was ingrained into CD Baby. Here two quotes in this spirit about Entrepreneurship:

Business is not about money. It’s about making dreams come true for others and for yourself.

Making a company is a great way to improve the world while improving yourself.

Another very interesting point made later in the book is about when to stop being engaged with your business. Sivers recommends that when our heart is not in it anymore, and we don’t get joy from what we are doing, we can start looking for something else.

Some Concerns

I think that the founding of CD Baby was a great accomplishment, and that it really demonstrates how starting a business can make a positive difference to the world. Sivers, apart from being at the right place at the right time, brought many unique skills that helped make CD Baby a success; a strong customer focus, the ability to fashion a business around core values, ability to learn coding and develop the website. Notwithstanding that, I think that some of the advice in the book should be considered with some caution. I believe Sivers is the last not to admit that he has made plenty of mistakes, however for some of the advice in the book, rather than constituting a mistake, it is more something that I disagree with, and here are some of these things:

  • Sivers suggests not to worry about hiring, and just to ask for referrals from your staff. I think this not a good way to go about things. I think it is important to put some effort into understanding the requirements for a role, and then trying to design a fair, unbiased recruitment process around these requirements. It will never be perfect, but we can try our best.
  • He mentions an episode where the staff (using his authority) adopted a profit sharing arrangement that would result in all profits of the company being shared with employees. Sivers once he finds out, disagrees with that, which makes him very unpopular with the staff. He considers two options; either firing all 85 of his employees or never to speak to them again. I think neither of these options seem like the right thing to do. Sivers suggests that this can be fixed by just ‘delegating’ but not ‘abdicating’ – however, I think a better strategy here may be to keep clear lines of communication open with the staff, and most of all, to care about them and their wellbeing.
  • Sivers also advises that a business does not need formalities and regulations we usually associate with a corporate. I think here too, as many policies and rules corporates have that are superfluous, there are also many that result in better outcomes for workers, customers and society.
  • There is also the abovementioned advise that one should care more about ones customers than oneself. I do think that this can be conducive to success. But, at the end of the day, I think one can make a positive difference to the world, oneself and those around us, without finding some balance and time for self care. Maybe this may result in even better outcomes eventually.

This is a very short book and I would recommend anyone interested in starting their own business to read it. Even though I do not agree with every advise in the book, I think it is still contains many interesting and thought provoking ideas. Most importantly, I think it shows that entrepreneurship often comes with great sacrifice. There is of course a chance for great riches as well, but we also need to keep in mind that for every CD Baby, there are nine ventures like it that fail.

Also see this review on Goodreads

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