Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Genghis Khan, Modern Man

What do you know about Genghis Khan? Before reading Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, my knowledge was limited to a few keywords like “barbarian invader.”

Although it’s true that Genghis Khan conquered more land and people than anyone in history, Weatherford focuses on the less known but more interesting story of what Genghis Khan did with his winnings, the Mongol Empire:

In American terms, the accomplishment of Genghis Khan might be understood if the United States, instead of being created by a group of educated merchants or wealthy planters, had been founded by one of its illiterate slaves, who, by the sheer force of personality, charisma, and determination, liberated America from foreign rule, united the people, created an alphabet, wrote the constitution, established universal religious freedom, invented a new system of warfare, marched an army from Canada to Brazil, and opened roads of commerce in a free-trade zone that stretched across the continents.

These are not allegorical statements. Around the year 1200, Genghis Khan actually did establish freedom of religion, the rule of law, free trade, military and civil ranks based on merit rather than bloodline, and a long list of other societal innovations presaging the modern world.

Although many of Genghis Khan’s innovations were from his own instincts, his most important innovation was building a culture of assimilation. The Mongol Empire systematically learned from and connected the disparate civilizations it conquered. In the process, it acquired technology and know-how far beyond anything the original Mongol tribes had—and in many cases, beyond what Europeans of the time had. For example:

In 1269, [grandson of Genghis Khan] Khubilai Khan established a printing office to make government decisions more widely disseminated throughout the population, and he encouraged widespread printing in general by nongovernmental groups as well. This included religious books and novels in addition to government publications....Presses throughout the Mongol Empire were soon printing agricultural pamphlets, almanacs, scriptures, laws, histories, medical treatises, new mathematical theories, songs, and poetry in many different languages.

In Europe, Gutenberg’s printing press came 200 years later.

So why aren’t we more aware of Genghis Khan’s and the Mongol Empire’s achievements? One reason is that the Mongols never occupied and assimilated Western Europe. As a result, Western historians saw the Mongols from the outside: as mysterious, militaristic foreigners from primitive lands. And to be fair to that view, when the Mongols were on the move, they did not bother projecting their good side. Instead, their goal was to scare enemies into submission—for example, by not just defeating but also devastating a resistant town so the people would flee to the next town to tell how fearsome the Mongols were, thereby causing the next town to surrender without fighting.

Yet Weatherford argues that many pre-Renaissance Europeans, through travel and trade, saw past the “barbarian invader” headline and grasped the Mongol Empire’s modern aspects, which were like seeds for the Renaissance.

Europeans experienced a renaissance, literally a rebirth, but it was not the ancient world of Greece and Rome being reborn: It was the [then declining] Mongol Empire, picked up, transferred, and adapted by the Europeans to their own needs and culture.

It is a testament to the book’s effectiveness that such a point—placing Genghis Khan as a godfather to the modern world—seems uncontroversial by the end.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World adroitly balances storytelling with historical detail and analysis. The subject matter is epic and engaging history, and a worthy upgrade to the view of Genghis Khan as just a barbarian invader.

Thursday, March 17, 2011 Competitive Mischief

My review of Marc Benioff’s Behind the Cloud focused on the big picture of what his company,, has done. I should note that the book also recounts some of’s scrappier sales and marketing tactics, to entertaining effect.

For example, when’s then-larger rival Siebel Systems was holding a user conference in Cannes, France, rented every taxi in nearby Nice, where most attendees would be flying in.

We rented all the taxis and used the forty-five-minute drive, which we provided for free, as an opportunity to pitch our service. We decorated the vehicles with NO SOFTWARE logos and filled them with marketing brochures. The [Siebel] executives, with no other option than to take our rides, became irate and called the police (again).

You’ll have to read the book to see what the “(again)” is about. ;)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Behind the Cloud co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff owns a rightful place at the table of Internet visionaries who delivered. In 1999 he saw that the Internet would allow business software to be offered as a service: Instead of buying, installing, and maintaining complex software, companies would rent access to the same functionality, accessed via Web browsers. Twelve years later, companies are doing more than a billion dollars of that per year with

Behind the Cloud tells how Benioff and did it. The format is a “playbook” of lessons learned, from Benioff’s take on truisms like “Believe In Yourself” to less familiar nuggets like “Seize Unlikely Opportunities to Stay Relevant.” These “plays” are organized into themes: starting up, marketing, events, and so on. While that may sound like a reference book for entrepreneurs, Benioff and his co-author Carlye Adler combine the parts into an effective whole that works as a start-to-finish read.

Those familiar with Benioff will be unsurprised to hear Behind the Cloud also serves as a sales pitch for’s greatness. Although the book covers mistakes and tough times, those are the exceptions to a long run of achievements.

What sets the book apart from the typical executive victory lap is Benioff’s history as a creative disruptor. He didn’t just play the game well; in many respects, he redefined the game.

For example, along with delivering software differently, sold it differently. Whereas the traditional business-software sales model was to woo the information-technology (IT) department into a single big deal, exploited the fact that it could sell directly to end users, each representing a tiny deal. The end users already had the only software necessary (a Web browser), so IT didn’t need to be involved—that is, until use of had spread virally within the organization. At that point, it was easier for IT to arrange a site license than to fight the tide.

This bottom-up sales model represented a big change, as does software-as-service more broadly. But much of the change has yet to play out. As it does,’s challenge is to be as effective a big dog as it was an underdog. Whatever happens, Behind the Cloud makes a compelling case that has already changed the world of business software.

So if you’re interested in business, especially technology-driven businesses, Behind the Cloud is a worthy read.