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It is not every day you interview a voracious reader who has consumed over 2,000 business and personal development books and continues to read a book every day.
Steve Cunningham condenses the top points from a book each day into a 12-minute video recap for Read It For Me, his book summary service for entrepreneurs and business executives. Cunningham headed a digital marketing agency until 2016 and provided book summaries at first as a side project. The Canadian native launched his San Antonio-based startup in July 2017 after noticing how many marketing vice presidents and business owners he’d meet lacked time to read the business books in their offices. Read It For Me has thousands of global members, from solo entrepreneurs to smaller businesses and Fortune 500 companies.
Cunningham will speak Oct. 24, 1-2 p.m. as part of the San Antonio Startup Week lineup on how successful people learn. You can register for his panel here.
Startups San Antonio spoke with Cunningham about how he became an active learner, the business insights he’s gleaned from all those books, and the books he recommends. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Startups San Antonio: How did you learn to extract the key insights from so many books?
Steve Cunningham: There’s a distinction between learning for a test and learning for a result. The most successful people learn how to produce a result. When you’re learning for a test, you highlight text, write notes, and struggle to remember so you can regurgitate it on a test. What ends up happening is you forget most of what you memorized. This approach closes your mind to new ideas that would compel you to take action.
I realized one day how differently successful people learn. Once, a presenter was talking about Dale Carnegie’s book on how to influence people. I had read this book already, so I put my pen down and soon found myself zoning out.
At the break, I walked up to Dean Chudleigh, who encourages his workers to attend Dale Carnegie seminars. I asked him what he thought of this speaker and was taken aback when he told me, “I don’t judge speakers on the content of their presentation, I judge myself on the number of ideas I generate.”
I had learned my first lesson: Successful people think more creatively and question everything.
My second lesson came out of observing how successful people challenge speakers. It’s part of their process to wrestle with the ideas being presented—they are thinking critically, out loud. I’ve seen this firsthand every time I’ve been in a meeting with a group of CEOs. Successful people are not passive consumers of knowledge.
I learned to turn information consumption into an active act of creativity and analysis. I read 50,000-word books and summarize them into useful information for decision-makers. My driving reason is to generate ideas and make yourself and others better.
SSA: What insights have you gathered from books that you use the most yourself?
SC: Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio, I continue to go back to it as I remind myself to create my principles. For example, because of my digital marketing background, I’ve developed a principle about sales.
The more times we email people, the more customers we create.
There’s never been an exemption to that.
Grouped: How small groups of friends are the key to influence on the social web (Voices That Matter) by Paul Adams provided the insight that ideas spread through networks of people rather than through “influencers.”
Because we run our business through partner affiliates, we think of everything as a network and look for ways to tap into more. There are obvious ones like social networks, but we’re finding ways to spread our service inside companies via employees who use it, then share it among colleagues.
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel taught me you need to explain things in plain English. If you can’t explain why you do something simply, it means you don’t understand it. I keep working on content until I can explain it simply [in my book summaries].
SSA: What insights are most useful for those just launching their startups? What books would you recommend every founder read?
SC: Don’t ask people for their opinion [of your product or service], ask them for their money. That’s how you find out if your business model works or not. Customer interviews are good up to a point, but then you need to put your company into action and see what happens.
I find founders including myself overthink things—you need to launch and execute. Get into action. I think the lean startup is a good framework for that.The elemental reading list for founders should include Lean Startup, Zero to One, Principles, and as many books as you can read on sales and marketing so you can monetize. Click To Tweet
What matters most at the end of the day is that you have customers.
SSA: It sounds as if you could write a book about building a startup company. How do you operate your business?
SC: I see building a company as a repeating cycle of complexity and simplicity. You launch, and operations get complex, then you go through this iterative cycle of reducing execution down to the simplest elements [as you streamline operations]. Then you try something new, and it’s complex again. It’s my version of testing concepts.
I also learned to focus on the one, two, or three things I am going to do and always walk out of a meeting with a few things to do. You can learn from The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller how to focus on what matters most.
Also look for higher-level principles [such as author Ray Dalio describes in Principles]. Is there a golden rule that you would apply to generate better results in your personal life or business?
Building a successful company comes down to a combination of three things: Critical and creative thinking while actively consuming information, always executing a list of action items, and applying timeless principles and making them your own.
Featured image is of a pile of entrepreneurial books. Read It For Me founder Steve Cunningham reads and summarizes a business book daily. Photo credit: Daria Nepriakhina.