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The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google Hardcover – October 3, 2017
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“An existential alarm bell wrapped in a business lesson wrapped in an entertaining and often hilarious (and, yes, occasionally blue-languaged) series of stories built with great writing. It keeps you entertained to make sure you’re informed.” – 800-CEO-READ
“Galloway takes the reader through a refreshingly clear-eyed look at the nature of dominance at Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google. He is interested in how these companies become more valuable with use instead of less, how they benefit from low cost of capital and the implications for things [that] could further strengthen their dominance.” —Brad Stone, Bloomberg Technology
“As the power of technology’s biggest companies comes under more scrutiny, NYU business professor Galloway reveals how Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google built massive empires.” —Publishers Weekly, “The Top 10 Business Books of Fall 2017”
"This is that rare book that not only informs but entertains. You'll never look at these four companies the same way again." - Jonah Berger, author of Contagious
“Scott Galloway is honest, outrageous, and provocative. This book will trigger your flight-or-fight nervous system like no other and in doing so challenge you to truly think differently.” —Calvin McDonald, CEO of Sephora
“The Four is an essential, wide-ranging powerhouse of a book that, like Scott Galloway himself, marries equal parts incisive, entertaining, and biting. As in his legendary MBA lectures, Galloway tells it like it is, sparing no business titan and no juggernaut corporation from well-deserved criticism. A must read.” —Adam Alter, author of Drunk Tank Pink
“If there is a blunter, more opinionated, faster-talking expert on the Internet than Scott Galloway, I haven’t come across him. Or her.” —Philip Elmer-DeWitt, Fortune
“Scott Galloway’s The Four is a bareback ride upon the four horses of the economic apocalypse – Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. It is a timely exposition of the nature and concentration of power in the world today and, as a result, is much more than just a business book…The book contains more insights and provocative ideas than Amazon has Boeing 767s… My recommendation is to walk down to your local book store and buy this – or more likely, buy it on Amazon.”
Tom Upchurch, Wired
About the Author
Scott Galloway is a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, where he teaches brand strategy and digital marketing to second-year MBA students. A serial entrepreneur, he has founded nine firms, including L2, Red Envelope, and Prophet. In 2012, he was named one of the “World’s 50 Best Business School Professors” by Poets & Quants. His weekly YouTube series, “Winners and Losers,” has generated tens of millions of views. This is his first book.
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Why not a five star rating then? Well, while the book has some big thesis insights into the internet corporate behemoths and online commerce, it generally stays with the big part. This is valuable, and I’m guessing most readers will walk away with some fresh insights. However, once a big idea is noted, he tends to not delve deeper (particularly notable when the subtitle promises "the Hidden DNA." There were even a few times when The Four feels like a blog rant, giving him an opportunity to vent at one of the big companies (most notably that Apple wouldn’t help the FBI crack the code of an iPhone to help them gather evidence on a San Bernardino shooter/terrorist). He also spends a bit of time telling us some obvious things, though in fairness to Galloway, it is tricky to know what to leave out as common knowledge when you are writing for a general audience. As someone who knows a fair bit about ecommerce, I may be showing my bias here, but confirming my sense of some obviousness is the notably lower rating (at this writing at least) that Amazon readers of business books give the book compared to general readers.
I also wish Galloway would have delved deeper into the cultural and political implications for society when a handful of companies dominate the digital economy and have outsized influence in nearly every sphere. He touches upon this, but just touches. Perhaps that is too much to ask of a business book, but even the bigger picture business implications don’t get considered in a sustained way. Originally I wanted to say Galloway could be superficial, but that isn’t quite right--especially since he can definitely be trenchant and often has a wicked sharp wit. What I finally realized is that the shortfall comes from his impatience. He says as much as he describes himself and his impatience comes across in some of the stories he tells about himself (most notably in his handling of his efforts to bludgeon the New York Times to change). Ultimately this impatience leads to the book's greatest weakness.
Another example of The Four's superficiality/impatience: he casually refers to evolutionary “explanations” for business phenomenon. I am very much inclined toward evolutionary explanations for human behavior as well, but they come off as tossed out there instead of carefully thought through. Galloway’s breezy style also doesn’t help here. That is, Galloway enjoys being flip and cussing a fair bit. I’m not prudish in the slightest and think that he can often be quite amusing, but there is something about using LOTS of f-bombs and s-bombs (<not spelled out only because I assume Amazon would delete curse words) that take away their power when they are used too often. And ultimately they diminish some of the very weighty issues. Even that suggests a kind of impatience. That is, a tossed out flip dismissal is often used as a substitute for well crafted writing.
In short, The Four has value, but it had potential be lots more. So I definitely wouldn’t turn other readers away, but don’t get your hopes up for a masterpiece.
The prose is quick and witty. Some of the witty is admittedly built on more than a whiff of cynicism: “At its core, Apple fills two instinctual needs: to feel closer to God and be more attractive to the opposite sex.” And,“Facebook is a platform for strutting and preening…Few people post pictures of their divorce papers or how tired they look on Thursday.” You will, nonetheless, smile.
And the book is chock full of interesting trivia: “The cocktail of low-cost product and premium prices has landed Apple with a cash pile greater than the GDP of Denmark, the Russian stock market, and the market cap of Boeing, Airbus, and Nike combined.”
In the end, while the book admires what each of the Four has accomplished, it begs the question being increasingly asked: What is our digital future and are we better off for it?
It is a legitimate question. Google has more power than Standard Oil or AT&T ever dreamed of and yet the government and its regulators seem not to care. The government, in fact, cheers on the consolidation, despite the degree to which the Four contribute in a very real way to the country’s debilitating political and social polarization. “So, Facebook, and the rest of the algorithm-driven media, barely bothers with moderates.” And “This is how these algorithms reinforce polarization in our society.”
Fake news and Russian influence are the news stories of the day, but, as Galloway points out, this is the tip of the iceberg. Google, in the end, is a public utility managed as if it weren’t and Facebook is no less a media company than the New York Times or CNN. To dismiss Facebook’s power on the notion that it is a mere platform for personal expression defies common sense. “Don’t kid yourself: Facebook’s sole mission is to make money. Once the company’s success is measured in clicks and dollars, why favor true stories over false ones?”
Each of the four, moreover, yields monopoly-enabled financial power in the market, allowing them to make huge bets in things like artificial intelligence and driverless vehicles; bets that the likes of General Motors and IBM and their employees could not begin to finance out of their comparatively pedestrian and competitively constrained returns.
While Galloway clearly has a love/hate relationship with each of the Four and attempts to provide a balanced assessment, the prose devoted to the negative is definitely more acerbic in tone and more than a tad personal. I admit particular discomfort in his portrayal of Steve Jobs, suggesting that fans like myself “conveniently ignored the fact that Steve Jobs gave nothing to charity, almost exclusively hired middle-aged white guys, and was an awful person.”
Without disputing Jobs’ humanity tit for tat, as I didn't know him, he was a person with passion and authenticity; two qualities sorely lacking in many C-suites toady. There is a fine line between not suffering fools (a good thing) and bullying (a bad thing), but I still choose to believe Jobs was on the right side of that line.
Style and discrete substance aside, I do think Galloway’s main theme is accurate. “A devouring beast, Facebook will continue with more of the same. With its global reach, its near-limitless capital, and its ever-smarter data-crunching AI machine, Facebook, in combination with Google, will lay waste to much of the analog and digital media worlds.” And the Four “pursue a Darwinian, rapacious path to profits and ignore the job destruction taking place at your hands every day.” Whatever the intentions and good will of their leaders, we are allowing a consolidation of corporate power never before seen in history. Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Genghis Khan were mere street corner tough guys in comparison.
I further agree with Galloway that the notion that we are promoting a culture that believes that individuals, entrepreneurial or not, should be rewarded with billion dollar paydays is both dangerous and indefensible. Ultimately, no person, no business, and no idea exists in isolation. Rugged individualism is a romantic myth. Every one of us benefits from our membership in a society that protects us, educates us, and gives us roads to drive on. Every company, the Four included, enjoys both these advantages and the benefits of sound and accessible credit markets, the protection of intellectual property, and a body of publicly funded research that they can lease for pennies on the dollar.
The philosophical school of skepticism, most often associated with Pyrrho of Elis, who lived in the fourth century BCE and traveled to India with the armies of Alexander the Great, put it best. Skepticism is the suspension of judgment, called epoché, that flows from the paradox that what we know and how we know it cannot be known independently, thus precluding a definitive answer to either question. However exciting it may be, the entrepreneurial culture that empowers the digital world is built on a well-defined dogma, and is thus worthy of our legitimate skepticism.
Galloway ultimately notes that every dog has its day. All of the Four face great risk going forward; risk that has clearly not been baked into their market valuations. Google is likely to be seen for the public utility it is. Facebook will likely be stymied in its effort to facilitate meaningful communities by the inevitable erosion in public trust that is structurally inherent in its algorithmic model. Amazon, Galloway notes, will face potential backlash over the impact of its digital efficiency on retail and last mile employment. And Apple, like all companies, faces the risk of management missteps and changing tastes, although neither has threatened it to date.
I don’t share Galloway’s pessimism regarding the future of brands, but I do agree that, “No technology firm has solved the problem of aging—losing relevance.” It reflects, in part, the sine wave of development that seems inherent to the universe itself. Only Apple, Galloway notes, has yet survived beyond the cult of its original founder(s).
In the last two sections of the book Galloway tackles what it will take to be the fifth of Five, or a replacement for one of the Four, (What he calls the T Algorithm) and offers advice to young people just starting their career. The ideas are okay but a bit superficial. Everyone should be likeable, for example. If your parents didn’t teach you that you’re admittedly starting in a hole. It’s a quality you should expect of your pets, much less yourself.
The latter part of the book does lose some intensity, as a result. Some of the material, such as the need for curiosity, emotional intelligence, and a college degree are a bit redundant. And he makes a lot of generalizations, such as his observed tendency of young men to preen in meetings and what he considers the limited bandwidth of the average CEO. He readily admits his own excesses, which are, at times, a bit off-putting although the authenticity, I think, ultimately wins out.
The book, in the end, is a worthy read on an important topic. The author is sometimes a victim of excess, but aren’t we all. Gallagher has both an experience worthy of being heard and the chops to make us listen anyway.
Additionally, I came across numerous glaring factual errors (many of which would be easily verifiable with public information) in this book. While they generally weren't material to the argument he was making, it does undermine the credibility of the book. If so many things that I personally know about are incorrect, which other things are incorrect and I didn't know?
Galloway has a distinctive voice and peppers his prose with wry observations that make this as entertaining as it is thought provoking. There are strategic lessons for businesses here, but it's far more than a "Secrets of Apple's Success"-esque book and instead more of a "what does it all mean and where are we going?" I look forward to hearing more from Galloway, as this story is only getting more interesting.
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