Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book Review: Escape from Cubicle Nation

I found this book via an actual friend (as in, know him in person, not just electronically) on Twitter, and I was intrigued by its punchy title. Escape from Cubicle Nation is written by Pamela Slim, an energetic "escapee" from corporate America who became a consultant for big businesses in Silicon Valley before turning her attention toward teaching individuals how to become entrepreneurs like her. And she's not fooling around: this book is definitely for people who are ready to strike out bravely on their own and turn their lifelong dreams into profitable businesses. If you're not up to it, she wisely advises her readers to stay where you are. It's not so much that starting your own business isn't for the timid, though that is certainly true; but Slim makes it clear that when corporate America turns on you in some fashion or starts to make your life miserable, "Hating your job intensely is not a business plan."

As it happens, I'm more of a corporate type than an entrepreneur. For the most part, I like working for large organizations and letting other, more interested people handle the bookkeeping, lawyering, insurance, and other stuff that doesn't fall under the realm of "communications." But all is not lost, according to Slim. More on that in a moment.

What won me over with this book was the author's "Open Letter to CXO's [chief executive officers] Across the Corporate World," which was her manifesto for why she decided to "take your best, your brightest, most creative, hard-working and passionate employees and sneak them out the hallways of your large corporation so that they are free of the yoke of lethargy, oppression, and resentment." What follows is a series of suggestions for how to make drastic (but unlikely) changes in American corporate culture, such as "Teach people how to get rich like you," "Don't ask for your employees' input if you are not going to listen to it," "Ditch the PowerPoint when yoiu have town hall meetings," "Focus on the work people do, not how or when they do it," and my favorite guffaw, "Forbid people to work while they are on vacation." Those might be fun changes to some point.

Something became clear to me about one third of the way through the book: Slim's advice applies to a very specific, though admittedly large, segment of the American workforce: white-collar workers working in positions with high technical skills. Some jobs just aren't exportable. The first example that popped into my head was a line assembly worker at GM or Boeing, which is a job you really can't just pick up and do anywhere in the world, like a couple of her examples of successful entrepreneurs. You need to go where the work is. Of course those folks could start up their own machine shop, perhaps, but that involves investments in heavy equipment that isn't very portable or transferrable.

I don't say this to be critical, but Slim's emphasis on portability will not always resonate with people who want to open their own flower shop or set up some sort of business that requires a physical inventory. The choir she's preaching to is mostly folks who use their brains and computers to get their jobs done. The reason this emphasis is unfortunate is that her readership could have been broader if she'd focused on just starting one's own business. A lot of her advice does apply to any type of business, as she addresses all the practical concerns a potential entrepreneur needs to consider before starting. However, some of her advice, references, or analogies might fall on deaf ears because not everyone is operating in a corporate office environment.

All that said, the rest of the book rings true for me, and the author moves along briskly (as opposed to the science fiction book I've been slogging through on my Kindle for months, I got through Escape from Cubicle Nation in about a week). She covers not just the practical concerns of running a business, but also the social aspects of entrepreneurship, including overcoming doubters among your friends and resistance from your significant other, especially if you've enjoyed a great deal of success and stability in your corporate life. I appreciated her balance of encouragement and "reality checks" throughout the book. The bottom line for Slim, as you might suspect, is that you have to keep your eye on the ball and love what you're doing, or you'll crash and burn. More importantly, if you do crash and burn, you have to be willing to get back up again and work your backup plan(s).

So after reading this book, am I ready to jump out on my own? Actually, no. Escape from Cubicle Nation is not something I'm eagerly craving at this point in my life, and I'm honest enough with myself to know that I don't want to do all the paperwork entailed in running my own business. Plus--and this is probably most important--I don't have a specific thing that so sets me on fire that I think I can only do it well by starting my own business. At some point, maybe. In which case, I will return to this book, and reread its lessons, because Pamela Slim has all the bases covered.


Unknown said...

A single note: your beef with the book's lack of applicability to certain careers, while admirable, misses the point of the title. The careers you cite as not viable for the portability? Those people aren't living in Cubicle Nation by definition.

Cubicle Nation is expressly the domain of people who do their work with brains, computers, and telecommunications devices, basically.

Bart said...

Agreed. I guess what I was trying to convey was that there are folks in other lines of work (retail, manufacturing, etc.) who might benefit from her business-starting advice, but who might not pick up her book because they are NOT living in the "cubicle nation." But I think if folks in those industries did want to start their own businesses as the author suggested, they will need to find something more portable.