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Book Review: The Martha Rules

Martha Stewart has written a book about entrepreneurship that is almost an MBA primer. In her newest book, The Martha Rules, Stewart covers not the latest recipe for sticky buns or the latest in glue-gun advancements, but the topics of our first year MBA program in hopes of offering readers a guide to starting their own business. As I was reading it, I said to myself, “OK, this is the strategy chapter” and “Here come Porter’s Five Forces” or “This is the marketing five C’s.”

I found each of these chapters did cover the material, as I know it, generally very well. I mentioned marketing and strategy, but she also covers entrepreneurial finance (how to structure the deal), lead (how to hire and who to partner with), operations (efficiencies), entrepreneurship (managing risk). However, I am not sure in which class “make it beautiful” would apply.

I also had to wonder if it would have been more clear just to come out and say “this is my take on Porter’s Five Forces,” but then it wouldn’t be Martha’s rules, would it?

Did she set out to cover all these first-year MBA subjects? If not, she did a heck of a job doing it. The key messages of our first year were really clear in the book.

Martha does a great job, in particular, in talking about the “Big Idea” and when and how to bring the idea to market. She clearly dissects the market: customers, company, competitors, collaborators and context. She spent a lot of time discussing customers and fixing a need versus giving them something for which they won’t find a use (which I feel is the most important point of entering a new market, so I was happy to read this). On the Four P’s, she also discusses product and service in depth, place/channels and promotion a little (Kmart!), and didn’t really discuss pricing. I thought it would have been interesting to hear her talk about how she prices fancy roasted, baby mushrooms at Kmart.

In covering these topics, I found she used two types of examples: some from her experience starting MSLO and the people she interacts with every day, and the others were examples of ultra-successful entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Steve Jobs among others. I found that the examples from people she knew were much richer in explaining her points or expanding on her lesson/rule. These bi-modal examples also yielded a gap in discussing mid-sized companies and their paths to growth or issues with managing a growth product and firm.

Martha used a lot of examples from the creative business world: pet care, knitting, catering and decorating. This makes sense since it is the world she knows. However, it is unclear to me how much of an expanding market there is for another knitting shop or gourmet pickle company.

Although she mentions tech products, Martha doesn’t discuss much of the other areas of business. To me, the book is clearly meant not just for the entrepreneur, but more specifically one who wants to start, build, or manage a creative, craft-inspired business. Since I don’t want to start a gourmet butter company any time soon, these examples proved a little tiresome. However, I think Martha’s target market (and typical reader) is one thinking of monetizing his or her creative side who would value these examples.

Martha addressed her stint at Alderson very early in the book. She is blunt about it and considers it an event that helped her learn. She doesn’t devote a chapter to (the first year MBA class) ethics, and how could she? But I think by being really forthcoming about it throughout the text, she earns a lot of points for self-awareness and humility. In my mind, this adds a great deal to her credibility.

One also wonders, since she is coaching the reader on starting a business, what other entrepreneurs she has advised using these rules? We know that she coached several of her fellow inmates at Alderson, but has anyone ever used her advice successfully? It doesn’t seem so. I believe discussing a mentee would have added weight and influence to her “rules.”

Lastly, I was disappointed to see Martha in the typical blue blazer on the cover! I thought she would have at least worn a nice pin, not just the plain, conservative suit. Such a touch would have made the cover even more “beautiful” (Rule 10).

November 21, 2005
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