The One Book Rule

How to do research? Read a book – about them, not yourself

Imagine spending the night at someone’s house and your host has taken time from his schedule to read a book about you and your world.

If you spent the night at Teddy Roosevelt’s White House, you might have expected him to trot out hunting trophies or war stories. Maybe he did – but only if he knew you’d be interested. Or that’s my guess, at least.

That’s because every time he invited a guest to spend the night at The White House, he read a book about them before their visit. Maybe a book they’d written, or a book about their country or region, or one about their profession, industry, hobbies, or interests.

This was more than about ensuring good dinner conversation, of course. 

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Now consider 3 of Venkateh Rao’s 42 imperatives for indie consulting:

Learn what’s unique about the sector and its history

Learn the sector’s paper-napkin math and unique measures of itself

Demystify the industry’s science and technology stack for yourself

And ask yourself – do you think Teddy Roosevelt ever failed to grok these basics?

I don’t think he could have broken up the rail and steel cartels if he hadn’t known their numbers, the history, the science and technology.

I don’t know if Teddy Roosevelt was a good person, but I know that he faced down people even more formidable than Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg combined – and prevailed. As did a thriving economy left in his wake.

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The One Book Rule is dead simple: for every one of your 5-10 important clients in a given year, read one book pertinent to each. This is totally experience-based advice, by the way. 

Feel free to augment that book with blog posts, films, documentaries, white papers, podcasts, etc. I watched The Notebook when I had an Alzheimer’s research client. Just don’t skip the book. If you don’t like reading, listen to it.

What is pertinent? Anything that helps you understand the client – their business model, their industry, their customers, their solution. 

What’s not necessarily pertinent? Stuff that makes you or your company a better person or business person. That’s great material, of course, but the One Book Rule is about understanding the client’s world. (Imagine Teddy reading a book about how to be a better leader instead of a book about his guest – no.)

What’s a “most important client”? You have to define that for yourself. But this is a useful frame if your business model is to serve dozens or even hundreds of clients per year, as opposed to the traditional consulting model of serving 5 to 15 or so.

Why a book?

A. Depth of engagement in an activity (most business books take at least 100 hours to write) lets you pull insight out of it. Check your Audible listening times:

  • Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss – 8 hours and 7 minutes
  • This is Marketing, Seth Godin – 7 hours and 2 minutes
  • To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink – 6 hours and 5 minutes

A good book, even a short one, takes 6 to 8 hours to read aloud without stopping. Imagine scripting yourself speaking for 6 hours straight and everything you say is value. How much goes into that.

B. Hardly anyone else does this, so you will set yourself apart. This takes you beyond sine qua non’s such as the basic industry numbers, the tech stack, and company financials. You want to bring 1000s of little ideas to the table, or be able to.

And of course, you get bonus points if you find a book few others have read (“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking”, says Nagasawa in Norwegian Wood).

And on that note, I’d love to hear what you’re reading (: