Last week I read The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. If you are starting a high potential venture or are investing in one, this book has a lot of useful information.
The main thesis of the book is that prediction is very difficult and the statistical tools used to manage risk are flawed because they don’t deal well with “Black Swans” — really rare events with outsized effects, like September 11.
The book makes several useful points for entrepreneurs and investors that come from the existence of Black Swans.
- One of these is that a valuable investment strategy is to put the vast majority of one’s investments in very safe instrument like treasury bills and the rest in venture capital-type investments. If you are lucky, one of those VC-like investments will be a Black Swan and give you a Google-type return.
- A second valuable point is the uselessness of forecasting when you can’t predict the future with much accuracy. From the arguments in the book, it is easy to see how much time entrepreneurs waste preparing financial projections that invariably are incorrect.
- A third valuable point is the sensitivity of outcomes to the variance in initial conditions. If there is even a moderate amount of variance in those conditions — like the talent of entrepreneurs or the attractiveness of their opportunities — the amount of variance across ventures becomes so magnified over time that one can explain tremendous differences between the most and least successful start-ups from minor differences in initial conditions. To me this point helps to explain how we get tremendous successes like Google from start-ups that, on day one, look only a little different from the typical start-up.
The one recommendation I would make to entrepreneurs interested in the information in this book is to get a book summary. The author is long-winded and spends a lot of time trying to impress readers with his knowledge of philosophy and superiority over other experts. I found that tiresome; and it detracts from the message. A good summary would just avoid the problem.
Editor’s note: In keeping with Professor Shane’s suggestion of reading a book summary, I found a free summary of The Black Swan over at BookJive. BookJive looks to be a helpful service that will even email new book summaries to you. There’s also a short YouTube video excerpt describing the Black Swan theory, delivered by Nassim Nicholas Taleb himself. — Anita Campbell, Editor
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About the Author: Scott Shane is A. Malachi Mixon III, Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of eight books, including Illusions of Entrepreneurship: The Costly Myths that Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live By; Finding Fertile Ground: Identifying Extraordinary Opportunities for New Ventures; Technology Strategy for Managers and Entrepreneurs; and From Ice Cream to the Internet: Using Franchising to Drive the Growth and Profits of Your Company.