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Book-Talk with Marvin Liao, Partner at 500 Startups, Avid Reader & Tsundoku

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The book-talk you’re going to read next is with Marvin Liao, investor, avid reader and tsundoku. Marvin is a Partner at the micro venture capital fund 500 Startups, running the accelerator program based in San Francisco, and investing in seed stage startups.

He previously worked at Yahoo! Inc. for more than a decade, where he had various roles in the departments of sales, business development, ad operations and marketing.

Mavin also serves on the boards / advisory boards of several internet advertising and ad tech companies across the globe.

Keep on reading to find out more about his passion for reading, the books that helped him, what red flags he’s looking out in entrepreneurs’ pitching process, and common bad advice in the startup industry.

Estimated reading time for this interview is 12 minutes. If you'd rather listen to it, you can do it on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher.

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

SUCH a hard question to answer because there are so MANY favorite books of mine. For Business, I’d say either 80/20 Principle (Koch) or 4 Hour Work Week (Ferriss) for the principles it teaches on how to optimize work & life.

For Non-Business, I’d have to say Dune (Herbert), Emergency (Strauss), The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald) or Flint (L’Amour). I re-read these books every year because they are just so well written & great stories that I get new perspective & details every time I read them.

Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you?

I’d say it was back during my teenage years at High School, feeling very down when my grandfather passed away & overall just feeling VERY lost direction wise in life. I retreated to my books & the ones that still stick with me are Louis L’Amour’s “The Education of a Wandering Man” & his Medieval adventure “The Walking Drum“. They entranced me & helped me to get my spirits back up.

What books had the biggest impact on you?

SO MANY books here. The Joy of Not Working (Zelinkski), Flash Foresight (Burrus), The Art of Worldly Wisdom (Gracian), Sapiens (Yuval), The End of Jobs (Pearson), Deep Work (Newport), Sovereign Individual (Davidson), The Fourth Economy (Davison) & The Monk & the Riddle (Komisar).

Every single one of these books completely changed how I looked at everything in the world & literally pushed my life in a new direction. They were Paradigm Shifting as they say. (hate that word but it really was a Paradigm Shift for me)

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

Well, I think the absolutely best business people & investors are generalists so my suggestion is to read everything in every genre. Their goal should be about becoming as interesting as fast possible. Travel is one way but the best hack in my view is really reading a TON of books & develop multiple new frameworks to look at life.

My list would be (besides the ones I mentioned in answer to the previous question) both business & Fiction/Sci-Fi and ones I personally found helpful to myself. The business books explain just exactly how business, work & investing are in reality & how to think properly & differentiate yourself. On the non-business side, a mix of History & classic fiction to understand people, philosophy to make sense of life and Science fiction to picture what the future could be like (not always utopian).

Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Kiyosaki)
Zero to One (Thiel)
Startup of You (Hoffman)
Snowball (Schroeder)
48 Laws of Power (Greene)
Never Work Again (Bakke)
Give & Take (Grant)
AntiFragile (Taleb)
Industries of the Future (Ross)
Investment Biker (Rogers)
Adventure Capitalist (Rogers)
Street Smarts (Rogers)
Right on the Money (Casey)
Tribe of Mentors (Ferriss)
Tools of Titans (Ferriss)
Anything You Want (Sivers)
Liberation Management (Peters)
Good to Great (Collins)
Innovator’s Dilemma (Christensen)
Positioning (Ries/Trout)
Purple Cow (Godin)
Smart Cuts (Snow)
10% Entrepreneur (McGinnis)

Diamond Age (Stephenson)
Snow Crash (Stephenson)
Speculator (Casey)
– Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations
Spent (Miller)
Storm Before the Storm (Duncan)
Void Star (Mason)
Ship Breaker (Bacigalupi)
Drowned Cities (Bacigalupi)
Wind Up Girl (Bacigalupi)
The Obstacle is the Way (Holiday)
Ego is the Enemy (Holiday)
Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
Great Expectations (Dickens)
Meet Your Happy Chemicals (Breuning)

I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?

I read as often as I can. I’m a traditionalist so I actually prefer Hardback or Paperback books. But Kindle does make the load easier when I travel & causes less clutter around the house (although I still do have a crazy amount of books around my house in San Francisco and at my folks place in Vancouver).

How do you make time for reading?

Well, I read on my commute to work & back (20-25 min each way) on SF Muni train, usually on my Kindle. At home before bed, I read paperbacks or Hardcovers (no Electronic blue light before bed where possible 🙂 for about 30-60 minutes. On weekends I try to put aside 1-3 hours on Saturday & Sunday to read.

I am also fortunate to be able to travel a lot for work typically long haul flights (10+ hours) to Europe or Asia 1-3 times a month so I get A LOT of reading done on these flights. Usually on Kindle.

One of the things I’ve been trying to do more in 2018 is put aside time in morning at home to read as Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger do. As they say, Leaders are Readers. I’m in the business to think about & invest in the future so I do need to prioritize this (and I just plain enjoy reading too).

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

Nah, I just do my best to absorb it. Basically I just keep reading until I get bored by it.

How do you choose what books to read next?

I just read what strikes my fancy or whatever subject or topic I happen to be interested in. Or if I get a good recommendation. Don’t really have a system to be honest.

Do you prioritize those recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?

Definitely do, follow certain folks recommendations. I’ll read anything that my friends Taylor Pearson (author & thinker) & Azeem Azhar (of famous Exponential View newsletter) recommends. Also anything Shane Parrish, Marc Andreessen, Naval Ravikant, Tim Ferriss, Sebastian Marshall & the good folks at Lux Capital suggest. These are very smart people so you can’t go wrong.

A book that you gave as a gift to young founders more times than you can remember.

Work the System (Carpenter), which is one of the best books you can get on scaling yourself & your business. It’s excellent & wish I had read it earlier in my career. Additionally it’s a free PDF on their website! 🙂

The other book I recommend is “The Hard Things About Hard Things” by VC & ex-Operator extraordinaire. It reflects the real reality of startup founder life & gives very excellent advice. A must read for all founders.

What books are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from them?

I tend to jump from book to book and may switch if I am interested in some new topic. This is a pleasure for me (which I also do benefit work wise from too). It’s quite a random list because I have eclectic interests (or just scatterbrained most likely) on tech business, AI, general global economy, geopolitics, rising Biotech economy & history. I’m basically 15% to 50% into all these books.

The Content Trap (Anand)
Entrepreneurial You (Clark)
The Attention Merchants (Wu)
CryptoAssets (Burniske)
The Great Leveler (Scheidel)
Clean Meat (Shapiro)
Homo Deus (Yuval)
Seeing Like the State (Scott)
A Crack in Creation (Doudna)
Streaming, Sharing, Stealing (Smith)
Streampunks (Kyncl)
The Creature from Jekyll Island (Griffin)
Regenesis (Church)
Who Can You Trust (Botsman)
Principles (Dalio)
The Son (Meyer)
The One Million Dollar One Person Business (Pofeldt)

What red flags do you look out for when entrepreneurs are pitching you?

There are a couple of key things:

1) When it’s very clear the founder is only interested in starting something to sell very quickly to Facebook or Google. Nothing wrong with this per se but for a VC it shows they aren’t interested in building something BIG or long lasting & probably likely to quit when things get hard. ie. more Mercenary than Missionary.

2) Don’t have any idea about competitors which shows they have not done their research.

3) Don’t know anything about their customers or really understand the Customer pain. Or think their customer is everyone. It’s Usually NOT, as for most startups the smaller the customer segment you target in the beginning, the more likely u will get market traction.

In an interview from last year, you were saying that: “There’s too much of this bullshit cult of product, like build it and they will come right, all you need is a good product, and it is patently wrong”. What other bad advice do you constantly come across in the startups industry?

So much bad advice out there. The issue is that while there are generally universal challenges that all startups face, every startup has very unique situations, so context is so important & the market is incredibly dynamic. So best advice is custom & specific for the founder’s & company’s situation.

Having said that, the 2 pieces of bad advice I hear all the time is about:

1) How important the idea is in a startup. It’s actually the least important thing. The only thing that matters is decisive action & execution.

2) Always be Fundraising, how VC Fundraising is everything & that you need to raise as much as you possible can. This piece of advice is ridiculous, it ALWAYS really depends. Most businesses & business models are better off not raising any $$ at all. I’ve seen just as many startups blow up for raising too much $$ and scaling too quickly.

Links where you can follow Marvin Liao or find out more about him:

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