In 2014, Bill Gates posted a review of Business Adventures on his personal blog, GatesNotes. Gates wrote that the book was “old, hard to find, and the best business book ever.” One of those things is no longer true—after Gates publicized the book, it was put back into print and quickly became a bestseller.
John Brooks wrote the book Business Adventures in 1969, but it took a little more than two decades for Gates to find out about it. In 1991, not long after he had become friends with Warren Buffett, Gates asked him to recommend his favorite book about business. Buffett responded with Business Adventures, and sent Gates his personal copy. (And according to Gates’s 2014 blog post, he still has it.)
Years later, Bill Gates is still recommending Business Adventures to anyone who asks. In a 2017 Reddit AMA, . Bill Gates’ reply? “I have recommended a book called Business Adventures that chronicles some big successes and failures - I learned a lot from that.”
What Sets Business Adventures Apart
This business book is not like most you’ve seen before—it’s actually a collection of New Yorker essays that examines different ventures in business history. BIll Gates acknowledges that it might seem like 50-year-old business essays shouldn’t be relevant today. But the fundamentals of business haven’t changed, and “Brooks’s deeper insights about business are just as relevant today as they were back then.”
Plus, Bill Gates likes how Brooks dug deep into analyzing what was happening in each situation—as he put it, ”Brooks didn’t boil his work down into pat how-to lessons or simplistic explanations for success.”
For example, in an essay about price-fixing at General Electric, Brooks explores how miscommunication was deeply affecting the business. Brooks wrote that there was “a breakdown in communication so drastic as to make the Tower of Babel seem a triumph of organizational rapport.”
And when discussing where Ford went wrong with the infamous Edsel, Brooks didn’t simply chalk it up to too much poll-testing—instead, he suggests Ford executives strayed from science.
Bill Gates points us to this quote from the book: “Although the Edsel was supposed to be advertised, and otherwise promoted, strictly on the basis of preferences expressed in polls, some old-fashioned snake-oil selling methods, intuitive rather than scientific, crept in.”
What’s more, John Brooks had the ability to write about what most would consider a dry topic and make it interesting. Bill Gates couldn’t wait to see how things turned out In “The Last Great Corner,” an essay about the man who founded the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain and tried to foil his investors. (Apparently, it was not a good business decision.)
Business Adventures: More Than a Business Book
At the end of the day, John Brooks’s essays on business are so interesting because they’re not about comparing profit margins or ROI or owner’s equity—they’re about people, and how the right leadership can lead a company to success. Or, to quote Bill Gates, “John Brooks’s work is really about nature, which is why it has stood the test of time.”
“The prose is superb. Reading Brooks is a supreme pleasure. His writing turns potentially eye-glazing topics (e.g., price-fixing scandals in the industrial electronics market) into rollicking narratives. He’s also funny. . . . He tells entertaining stories replete with richly drawn characters, setting them during heightened moments within the world of commerce.” —Slate
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