A few years back, I caught up for coffee with a book publisher who was intent on publishing my next book. From memory, the (brief) conversation went something like this:
Book publisher: “Your next book should be a guide to getting rich.”
Barefoot: “Why would I want to do that?”
Book publisher: “Because it will sell well.”
Barefoot: “So the way to get rich is by writing a book on how to get rich?” (This was starting to sound like a Dr Seuss book – which, to be fair, would probably still make more sense than most get-rich-quick books).
I’ve read hundreds of “how to” titles, and I’ve found that when you condense many of them they’re really just 10 pages of information spread into 285 pages to make a book.
If you really want to increase your likelihood of success and decrease the time it takes for you to achieve it, actively seek out people who’ve actually achieved what you’re trying to do – and then model their ideas, strategies, behaviours and decision-making. But getting to these people is easier said than done.
Which is why these days I’m much more interested in reading biographies of business people (as opposed to autobiographies, which are more often than not PR puff pieces). It’s the gritty, unauthorised exposes on those who have made it to the top that are the best business books to read.
Why? They have to be factual (or the author will get sued), and they more often than not go behind the scenes and paint the person as they really are, rather than the public profile – that carefully crafted image that’s stage-managed by a public relations department.
Here are some biographies to add to your library that are not only cracking reads, but may also make you a better money manager:
1. The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder
Hundreds of books have been written on “how to invest like Warren Buffett” – all of which have been penned by authors who most certainly don’t invest like him (if his investment philosophy could be broken down into a series of steps and sold in a 30-buck book he wouldn’t be a billionaire).
While the title is a play on the “snowball” returns that Buffett has achieved over his career, that’s not the reason you’d devote yourself to reading this 800-page monster.
Rather, it’s the character traits, experiences and life lessons that have produced the man, who has become one of the richest in the world while keeping his ethics, integrity and down-to-earth perspective intact.
2. Branson, by Tom Bower
This is a muck-raking hatchet job of a book that exposes Richard Branson as a conniving, ruthless capitalist. It’s a nasty read, and the perfect antidote to the Virgin king’s PR spin.
Bower argues that contrary to Branson’s hype, the Virgin group is generally in crisis, borne out of bad decisions and venturing into businesses without a coherent plan.
The book follows Branson from his teen years and shows him learning his business shtick and strategy – which hasn’t changed much in decades: grab the media’s attention by doing a stunt (semi-naked girls are preferred), make a bold claim about your future success, establish yourself as the underdog, and then move on to the next business. These are lessons that even the smallest of businesses can learn and profit from.
Bower set out to destroy the facade Branson has carefully built over the years but in doing so, he lays bare a man who is much more interesting than the king of spin ever lets the masses see.
Read this book and appreciate the real genius that is Branson – warts and all.
3. The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer (uncut), by Paul Barry
I first read this book years ago – back when “KP” was still smoking ciggies and, probably closer to the point, still able to sue Paul Barry, who had to chop out much of the salacious stuff in the first edition (the mistresses, high-class hooker – and her suicide).
Yet, even without reading the “uncut” details, this book changed my perception of the big man. While many idolised him for his money and power, Barry’s book took a knife to his public persona and paints a very dark picture of a very troubled man.
Buy this book to see first-hand the downside (in graphic detail) of being born into an extremely wealthy, powerful family.
4. Trumpnation: The Art of Being the Donald, by Timothy L. O’Brien
This book is a parody of the parody that is the comb-over king. Trump gave O’Brien – a journalist from the New York Times – exclusive access to his life and has regretted it ever since.
At last sight, the two were still in court fighting over the allegations in the book.
Trump is probably one of the most recognisable and admired business people on the planet, though this has been achieved by his brilliance at playing the role as a media celebrity, rather than his business exploits.
Case in point: during the finale of his hit show The Apprentice, Trump Hotels was buckling under a mountain of debt and filed for bankruptcy.
5. Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, by Muhammad Yunus
For the last book, I’m going to break my own rule and go with an autobiography – but there’s good reason for it. This is the inspirational story from the man who pioneered “small micro loans”, which are directly responsible for pulling millions of the world’s poorest people out of poverty.
It started in the 1970s when Yunus, a university economics professor in Bangladesh, grew frustrated teaching elegant economic theories while people around him died of starvation.
The answer was micro loans (under $30) to impoverished women (yes, 97 per cent of borrowers are women) who used the money to set up small businesses (food, sewing, trading) which lifted themselves, their families, and their communities out of poverty.
Yunus received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. His Grameen Bank – as it would later come to be known – now has eight million borrowers, and has granted $US8.26 billion in loans since its inception.
In these times of capitalist crooks, this is a book I find myself coming back to over and again. It’s the ultimate lesson in the power each of us has to really change things – and how very fortunate we all are.
And if you want to get started in investing, here’s my guide to getting started – but you won’t get rich quick, that’s a promise.
Tread your own path!