27 Sep 2019 01:23pm

Book reviews: corporate success models

This month we review books focusing on business models, challenges faced, and risks taken behind corporate success

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Caption: Image: Rex/Shutterstock

Stories of corporate success rarely acknowledge the bumps in the road, which is why Marc Randolph’s account is so refreshing

That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea

Marc Randolph

Most companies start with a spark of inspiration – at least that’s the way the founder tells it. So it’s refreshing that Marc Randolph, the first CEO of Netflix, admits that before he and Reed Hastings came up with the idea of renting movies online, he had suggested such surefire winners as customised pet food and personalised shampoo by mail.

Netflix, today a video-on-demand giant known for original series such as The Crown and Orange is the New Black, has its origins in the first bubble. As a result, readers are spared the Facebook era’s tech triumphalism. Instead, That Will Never Work documents the less glamorous aspects of a start-up founder’s life.

After the idea of movies finally came up, it was almost discounted due to the bulkiness of video cassettes (the duo took an early bet on DVDs). Randolph was asked to step aside from his CEO role as his personal limitations became clear. When the bubble burst, the firm was forced to lay off much of its staff.

Randolph still drove an old car and worried about school fees up to the point Netflix finally floated. As Randolph left the company shortly after this point, the book only touches on Netflix’s evolution into a global presence since then.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of omens of what was to come. He describes an early investor who rejected them because he believed digital streaming, not DVDs, was the future (he was right, but a decade early), and a meeting with intimidating Blockbuster executives who utterly failed to see how the tables would turn.

There is also a fascinating early glimpse of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (he did appreciate the value of Netflix). That Will Never Work may inspire a few dreamers – and leave everyone questioning their blind spots.

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company

William Dalrymple

Imagine if Walmart hired its own private army and began making deals with local politicians in a particularly turbulent part of the world. William Dalrymple’s latest book charts the early years of “the world’s first aggressive multinational corporation” – the East India Company.

Founded in 1599 by merchants in London to trade with Asian empires, 250 years later it controlled most of the Indian subcontinent, and paved the way for the British Empire. Dalrymple goes into detail about the exploits of the unscrupulous East India Men, but his real theme is the title of the book: anarchy.

The East India Company’s opportunity to grab territory came in the 18th century, with the Mughal empire, which had given India many of its most famous landmarks including the Taj Mahal, went into decline.

Into the power vacuum stepped greedy British merchants but also regional leaders who quickly adopted European military tactics and formed states of their own, including the South Indian leader Tipu Sultan, who kept a well-stocked library and dressed his ferocious soldiers in tigerstriped uniforms.

Although a reader new to the history may find it overwhelming, the result is a book that is a rich overview of India in the 18th century.

Julia Rampen is a writer and editor specialising in culture, politics and finance