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Our Delusional Celebration of the Entrepreneur

Kevin Winter/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty

Startups are morale boosters for our economic self-image. The entrepreneurs behind them are like lottery winners and gold prospectors combined: self-made but lucky, glamorous but hardworking, delusionally optimistic by definition. They inspire movies (The Social Network) and television shows (ABC’s Shark Tank and Bravo’s Start-Ups: Silicon Valley). In February of this year, Mayor Bloomberg—whose Twitter bio lists “Entrepreneur” first and “Mayor of New York City” second—launched yet another initiative to lure startups to New York, holding his press conference at BuzzFeed’s Flatiron district office.

But all of this celebration is disproportionate to startup success rates: somewhere between 10 and 25 percent, depending on how you define “failure.” One study suggests that those who take the entrepreneurial route wind up earning 35 percent less over a ten-year period than they would have earned in a “normal” job. The odds are a bummer.

Still the myth persists. Despite our scarce knowledge about what they actually contribute, entrepreneurs “embody the promise of America,” as President Obama put it at the 2011 launch of a White House initiative intended to “celebrate, inspire, and accelerate” high-growth small businesses. Last year’s Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act—aka the JOBS Act, intended to ease the startup difficulty of raising equity capital—was one of few bills to pass with bipartisan support in Congress. Entrepreneurial activity has been on the decline since 1992, but the men and women (well, mostly men) who venture into the unknown with mission statements and MacBooks are still our most cherished economic cheerleaders.

Along with Randi Zuckerberg, President Obama, and the ABC network, a subset of the publishing industry is devoted to applauding them. Titles appearing on The New York Times business best-seller list of last year include: The $100 Startup, The Lean Startup, Entreleadership, The Start-Up of You, and Risky is the New Safe. That’s not counting books written by entrepreneurs, like Michael Saylor, or about entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs. As with diet books, the demand for these titles is fueled by their essential uselessness, and they share a similar reading experience: a jolt of inspiration followed by inactivity followed by the seeking of another jolt. (Repeat.)

A new book, however seems poised to burst the startup publishing bubble—not because it dispels the myths, but because it has hopscotched over the publishing industry entirely. Nolan Bushnell’s Finding the Next Steve Jobs is a book written by the founder of a startup and published by a startup publishing firm bootstrapped by a former Yahoo executive. (The joke writes itself.) Finding the Next Steve Jobs is the first release from NetMinds, whose CEO, Tim Sanders, has said that “Every new book should be organized and run like a new startup. Take a great idea, build a talented team to help, make deals, develop the product, launch it, and get paid.” In a way, Bushnell’s book is the perfect test of the startup model: screw the status quo, disrupt an industry, do it creatively, and then take a bow.

So, is the book successful? Business books, like their kin in the Self Help category, follow trends, and these trends have created predictable patterns. The startup ethos might be one of iconoclasm, but startup books stick to a formula. Within the “entrepreneurship” subcategory, three species have emerged to dominate the past few years: truisms in zany packaging (Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable, The Start-Up of You, Winning the Story Wars), paeans to a company culture written by the person who created that culture (Tony Shieh’s Delivering Happiness, David Novak’s Taking People With You, Vineet Nayar’s Employees First, Customers Second), and lightweight “case studies” of people who have discovered miraculous ways of monetizing their passions (The $100 Startup, The Start-Up Playbook, 4-Hour Workweek). Technically, Finding the Next Steve Jobs falls into the second category. But it is nothing like its peers.

For one thing, it’s slimmer—280 generously-spaced pages, which is about the size of a cursory Skyrim Walkthrough. Those pages are divided into bite-sized chapters on various topics, a few involving Steve Jobs and the rest making no mention of him. (What we learn about Jobs: he was a genius, he disliked bathing, he kept a futon under his desk.) Mostly, we learn about Bushnell, who is the kind of person who sincerely recommends against hiring felons and who asks surreal interview questions like “What is the opposite of a table?” (Answer: “Nothing, as far as I know. Certainly not a chair.”) He writes the way smart people talk when they have 2.5 drinks in them, and this makes him an interesting kind of management guru.

Bushnell grew up in Utah and founded Atari, a pioneer in video games, in 1972, when he was in his late twenties. Two years later he hired a bearded 19-year-old named Steve Jobs to work as a technician at the company. “Steve had one speed: full blast,” Bushnell writes, noting that he hired the teenager specifically for this intensity. As the company grew, the trials of managing Jobs taught Bushnell a few lessons about managing creative types, which he shares in his book. If the ideas—invent random holidays, ply workers with booze, reward failures—are a bit Silicon-Valley-circa-1999, the tangents in which they nestle reveal the true value of the book, which lies in Bushnell’s unfiltered voice.

As it happens, tangents make up about 90 percent of the book. “I remember one beautiful Sunday morning in May when Steve Jobs visited my house in Woodside,” Bushnell writes. “Steve brewed some tea with one of the odd Indian tea bags he carried and I drank my usual espresso macchiato. We then strolled up to the redwood grove behind my house and sat on our favorite rocks while he talked about getting too much of the credit for Apple's creativity.” These are men who are capable of having favorite rocks.

This pattern of spouting koans that are seemingly inane, then truthful, and then (possibly?) profound animates most of Bushnell’s book. “At an interview, people with passion do not look shifty,” he observes in a section about hiring. Or, on the benefits of information asymmetry in a workplace: “People like secrets. Creative people really like secrets.” To make decisions, Bushnell numbers To Do list items, rolls a dice, and completes the task that corresponds, noting that “I use my set of Dungeons and Dragons dice because they’re twenty-sided.” An example of one such task: this book. Reading these axioms and confessions gives the impression of talking to Bushnell with no publicist around; his weirdness has not been tamed into anodyne advice.

Does his candor make Finding the Next Steve Jobs more useful than the average startup playbook? Well, no. Most entrepreneurs couldn’t follow Bushnell’s rules if they tried—he’s suis generis, and so was Steve Jobs. (Which may explain why Bushnell hasn’t found another one.) Still, it’s impractical in a different way than its peers. A certain filtering of the self is a condition of working in an office, and it is a rejection of this notion that our iconic entrepreneurs, with their hoodies and nocturnal habits, represent. Entrepreneurs succeed by ignoring the advice of their predecessors. The fact that so many of them go on to publish advice for future entrepreneurs is a puzzling contradiction—or maybe just a sign that disruption is a young man’s game. The real success of Bushnell’s effort is that it makes the possibilities of entrepreneurship in publishing concrete: It’s a portrait of a person without a filter published by a platform that hasn’t imposed one. A startup book, in other words, that exemplifies the ethos it touts.