Diana Kander, with a strong presence in the Kansas City area and a new home address in Columbia, Mo., is gaining attention throughout the nation because of an unusual book she has written, “All In Start Up: Launching a New Idea When Everything Is on the Line.”
A business entrepreneur herself, Kander is a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which Kander calls “the largest non-profit in the world dedicated to entrepreneurship and education.”
Kander is certainly a go-getter in her personal life; after leaving the Soviet Union at age 8 and living in Brooklyn, she eventually graduated from Georgetown University Law School in Washington. She ended up in Missouri with Jason Kander, also a Georgetown law graduate, who represented Kansas City in the Missouri legislature and then won a bid to become Missouri secretary of state in the 2012 elections.
The couple, with a young son, have called Columbia home since last fall.
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The new book, distributed by a major U.S. publisher — Wiley is well known for business-related titles — takes some explaining because it is a genre buster. Aimed primarily at current or potential business entrepreneurs, the book offers reams of practical advice on how to succeed with a startup.
But Kander decided to embed the advice in a didactic novel, featuring fictional characters Owen Chase, his wife, Lisa, and entrepreneur Samantha Donovan.
A book of business advice presented as a novel? An unfortunate title that made little sense to me before reading the book? And me as reviewer, an entrepreneur only in the sense that I must pitch my ideas to magazine editors and book publishers to earn a living?
I am pleased I said yes. The business advice is presented clearly and compellingly. Furthermore, the novel itself works. I began to care about the fates of Owen and Lisa and Samantha.
The setting worked for me, too. The story unfolds during the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas — Owen and Samantha meet there because they are both competing. I am not a poker player. But my son Seth is and lived in Las Vegas for three years, earning his living playing in poker tournaments.
In the novel, Owen is trying to earn his living with a startup building bicycles with used parts and then selling them for a reasonable price through the Internet. He is convinced the business will find a niche and do well financially. But the orders have been sluggish, even though traffic to the website seems voluminous.
While competing in the World Series of Poker as a talented amateur, Owen is simultaneously worrying about whether he can keep the business from dying. His wife, back home, is worried, too, providing the fictional story an extra dollop of tension.
Meeting the savvy, attractive Samantha by chance at a casino, Owen shares his thoughts about his business after learning she has been a successful entrepreneur, creating and selling businesses.
Samantha must overcome Owen’s resistance to hearing difficult-to-accept advice. Oh, and should I add that Owen and Samantha seem attracted to each other sexually? He is married and Samantha knows it. She is not married and is certainly no prude. Will they hook up in a hotel bedroom? After all, what happens in Las Vegas supposedly stays in Las Vegas.
As for the business advice Kander conveys, I see no reason to worry about a spoiler within this review. Here is the short version — four bullet points:
Startups are about finding customers, not building products.
People don’t buy products or services; they buy solutions to their problems.
Entrepreneurs are detectives, not fortune tellers.
Successful entrepreneurs are luck makers, not risk takers.
The 44 chapter headings offer scads more wise sayings about entrepreneurship. A few of the most informative:
You can’t sell anything by doing all of the talking.
Vanity metrics can hide the real numbers that matter to your business.
Test your assumptions before committing any resources to an idea.
Nothing else matters until you can prove that customers want your product.
Prepare for bad luck by building up reserves.
Beyond the chapter headings, the actual text of the novel offers copious detail about successful entrepreneurship. I reckon publishing a genre-busting book constitutes entrepreneurship in a pure form.
Steve Weinberg of Columbia, Mo., is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the author of eight nonfiction books. His ninth book will be a biography of Garry Trudeau.
All In Start Up: Launching a New Idea When Everything Is on the Line, By Diana Kander Wiley (283 pages, $24.95)