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Book-Talk with Anant Jain, Co-Founder of CommonLounge: Common Entrepreneurial Mistakes & Reading Habits

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Anant Jain is building CommonLounge together with two friends, an online learning platform with short, wiki-based courses on tech related topics such as Machine Learning, Data Science, Web Development. Their courses are lists of text-based tutorials, quizzes and step-by-step projects, instead of videos – which are more expensive to produce, to keep updated, and slower to consume.

Anant is from New Delhi and took his Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology. As part of his undergrad studies, he had a short stint at Microsoft Research, Bangalore, where he worked on improving Bing image search results.

After graduation, he moved to San Francisco Bay Area, to help co-found a startup called EagerPanda. The company aimed high: they wanted to organize all of the world’s knowledge on the web, by building better creation and curation tools. It went on to raise $4.4 million from several angels and VC firms in Silicon Valley.

In 2016, seeing a more realizable opportunity in the education space, the team decided to focus on a new project: CommonLounge. Anant believes that higher education should be fully democratized, and this project is his effort in that direction.

From our interview you’ll learn more about the entrepreneurial mistakes he made, how he organizes his reading, and the many books he recommends. He’s a long-distance runner and he ocasionally writes book reviews on his website.

What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.

There are so many amazing books out there that I know I’ll do injustice to many by picking a favorite.

Still, if I had to pick one, I’d say The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz is on top of my list of must-read business books. It’s full of straight-to-the-point, hard-hitting advice coming from one of the most successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.

On the non-business side of things, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami is my recent favorite. I’m a long distance runner and I was extremely delighted to find out that one of the top fiction writers in the world draws a huge chunk of his inspiration from long distance running. In this book, Murakami beautifully connects running to writing, which are two skills close to me that I want to get better at.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell us about it?

I remember that reading the book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl was a pivotal moment for me. It’s the story of Frankl’s survival through Nazi concentration camps during World War II. It made me think long and hard about what living a fulfilling life really means for me and what are the things that I truly value. It’s a short read, and I highly recommend you read this one.

What books had the biggest impact on you? Perhaps changed the way you see things or dramatically changed your career path.

The five-book series Incerto by Nassim Nicholas Taleb has had a profound impact on how I think about the world. The books in the series are Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, Antifragile, and Skin in the Game. There’s some overlap across the books — but you’ll likely find the repetition helpful in retaining the content better.

What five books would you recommend to young people interested in your career path & why?

1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. It provides an excellent framework for life design. Being a successful entrepreneur requires you to truly internalize why you do what you do and how it connects to your inner values, motivations, and goals. This book will help you build your own framework to help you achieve that.

2. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This book is like an “Interpersonal Skills 101” course. It was published in 1936, but is still highly recommended by most successful people today!

3. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini. If you build products for others and think what you make genuinely makes your users’ lives better, you will still have to influence them to try your product for the first time. This book will help you understand what makes us act.

4. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This one is a deep dive into behavioral science and human psychology. It’s shocking, entertaining, and introduces you to the fallibility of your own brain in quite a delightful way.

5. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. In this book, the author introduced me to the idea of a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset. I truly believe that having a growth mindset is a prerequisite to doing well in any field.

Tell us more about your reading habits. How often do you read? What format do you prefer? Do you have any favorite places?

I read whenever I find an empty time block during the week.

I use all possible reading/listening platforms — the Audible, the Kindle device, the Kindle iPad/iPhone apps, and even physical books. At any point in time, I have multiple books that I’m going through at each of the platforms. If I’m working out or running and I get bored, I put on the Audible book. If I’m stuck in a Lyft or waiting in a line, I usually pull up the Kindle app on my phone.

I don’t think I prefer any one format over the other — my current favorite is the good old Kindle device, which I recently set up again after it ate dust for multiple months 🙂

How do you make time for reading?

I try to spend a good chunk of my Sundays buried in a book. I put up a calendar event for this, and try to strictly follow the time I block out for reading. Other than that, as I mentioned in the previous answer, I default to audiobooks and Kindle app over podcasts or social media when I have those “free moments” with my phone. These little blocks of time do really add up!

Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?

I don’t take notes while reading. I really like what Naval Ravikant, the co-founder of Angelist and one of the smartest minds in Silicon Valley, has to say on this topic — taking notes while reading is pretty much the same as clicking photographs when traveling. It prevents you from living in the moment. On top of that, you almost never get a chance to go back to your notes anyway.

However, I do understand the value of spaced repetition. In my opinion, there are so many great summaries of the best business books online that you can just read them whenever you feel like you need to brush up on the book again.

I did something interesting last year. To make myself revisit books I’d read in the past, I started a book review project. Every weekend, I went through online summaries of a book I’d read and tried to write down one or two key learnings that impacted me. You can read all the book reviews that resulted here. There are about 50 of them 🙂

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How do you choose what books to read next? Do you prioritize books recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

I try to keep a mental count of how many times a book has been recommended to me by my close friends / mentors / coworkers. If I get more than 3 recommendations for a book, I usually buy it and add it to my queue on Kindle. In addition, I may pre-order new titles of authors that I really liked in the past. For instance, I’m a big fan of Julie Zhuo’s newsletter and blog posts — and her first book, “The Making of a Manager” has been on my pre-order list since the day it was announced.

If you’re looking for a reliable source for book recommendations, I recommend Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans. It’s a collection of 300+ interview summaries by some of the most inspirational and successful people in the world. At the end of each interview, he asks each of the interviewees for their book recommendations.

What book are you currently reading? What are you expecting to gain from it?

I’m mildly embarrassed to admit this, but I must be in the middle of over ten books right now. I’m listening to Educated by Tara Westover on Audible. It’s an amazing memoir of growing up as a survivalist in the mountains of Idaho and stepping into a classroom for the first time as a seventeen-year-old.

On my Kindle, I’m about to finish The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. It’s an excellent, modern-day recap of the Stoicism Philosophy, and I highly recommend it.

Book-talk with @anant90, co-founder of CommonLounge: 'To make myself revisit books I'd read in the past, I started a book review project.' Click To Tweet

What do you think are the common mistakes made by entrepreneurs?

Given the number of mistakes I have made, I can probably write a whole book on it myself 🙂 If I were to pick one, I’d say that looking at poor/bad metrics is the most common one. I didn’t realize how our brain unconsciously optimizes whatever’s more visible. Early on in one of my startups, we ended up focusing on “vanity metrics” that were easy to measure and more visible in our dashboards, although everyone on the team understood that they’re not good indicators of our progress.

Another common mistake is when entrepreneurs are chasing to find a problem that fits their dreamed-up solution. It has to be the other way around. First, find a problem worth solving by talking to potential users, and then solve their problem with them in the loop.

Last, and this is characteristic to Silicon Valley more than any other place — I’ve seen a lot of teams raise a lot of venture capital money without understanding if that’s the correct next step for their product, market, and stage of the team. Raising venture capital comes with its own set of goals and expectations, and entrepreneurs have to be mindful about those.

Most successful people give the advice “follow your passion”. What would you recommend to someone who’s very young and not yet aware of their passion? Where should they begin their professional journey?

Don’t follow your passion. Follow whatever you’re so good at that they can’t ignore you — this is the premise of Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and I highly recommend reading this one as well. As Dr. Newport (who is not only an excellent author but also a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University) says, being satisfied with work is connected to passion, which in turn is related to intrinsic motivation. Three essential components of intrinsic motivation are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. You should feel you have some sense of control over your time, that you’re good at what you do, and finally, you should be able to relate to others in the process.

What common myths related to your industry do you encounter on a day-to-day basis?

A lot of tech founders understand that ideas are worth a dime and execution is everything. However, very few truly understand that the biggest component of that execution is distribution — i.e., how will you reach your customers? What’s your sales or marketing strategy? Building the product is usually the easier bit. It’s what you do next that requires more thought.

Links where you can follow Anant Jain or find out more about his projects:

All books mentioned by Anant Jain in our interview:

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