Jonathan Guthrie: For your New Year to-do-list

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I assume you seek success in business, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this column. So get down on the floor on your back. Bend your knees and raise your bum up in the air. That’s it. Nice and easy. And down. And up again. And relax.

If that doesn’t make you a multimillionaire, don’t come crying to me. Blame Bill Cullen, author of Golden Apples. The Irish entrepreneur has broken new ground in business self-help books by including a fitness plan alongside such familiar pep-ups as “believe you can achieve”. There are even drawings of people with appropriately bulbous behinds, going for the burn.

I have just ploughed through a stack of business books seeking volumes readers can peruse over Christmas, or at least put aside to read in the New Year, when the daily gym visits and harpsichord lessons are also due to begin.

Golden Apples (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99) was the most amusing, if not always intentionally so. Mr Cullen grew up in Dublin in the kind of grinding poverty that provided Frank McCourt with the material for literary gloomathon Angela’s Ashes. Mr Cullen, a person blessed with a more upbeat personality, went into business and turned round the struggling Renault Ireland franchise. He became a big wheel in the Republic, where his autobiography It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples was a bestseller.

Golden Apples, his second book, also contains plenty of what the great satirist Flann O’Brien described as “truly Gaelic poverty”. Mr Cullen’s angle is to combine the threadbare childhood essential to a rags-to-riches yarn with commercial smarts learnt as a street trader, along with such crazily extraneous material as a profile of camp hoofer Michael Flatley.

The authors of low-brow self-help books such as this, and higher-brow business books influenced by management theory, often share the same flaw. They imagine that the selected characteristics of successful businesses can bring success to imitators operating in very different environments. Developing New Business Ideas (FT Prentice Hall, £19.99), for example, cites Amazon, the online bookseller, as exemplifying the benefits of leisurely product development.

The failure of the telecoms company Iridium, in contrast, is a warning against “rushing in with a preferred solution without adequately shaping the business opportunity”. My bet is that had Iridium thrived, it would now be a case study in the wisdom of entering a market swiftly.

Still, this book is an interesting attempt to suggest a framework for inventing and refining business concepts. There is even a questionnaire for wannabe entrepreneurs, a bit like the ones in Cosmopolitan for readers anxious to self-diagnose nymphomania or frigidity. I discovered after totting up my own score that I was “a master whole-brain thinker” like “Ingvar Kamprad, [founder] of Ikea”. If I start trying to flog you flatpack furniture, you’ll know the reason why.

Startups that Work (Portfolio, £13.41) is in a similar mould to Developing Business Ideas and annoyed me by assuming that all new businesses must inevitably involve IT. The authors seem unaware that you can make money by selling cakes or shoes as well as whizzy software. The book includes interviews with US tech entrepreneurs who suffer such fearless questioning as: “Monster.com has been an amazing success. What do you attribute it to?” The work also reveals the results of “unprecedented research” that includes a survey of 350 start-ups. Research just as unprecedented clogs the inboxes of every business journalist in the western hemisphere.

EasyJet (Aurum, £9.99), a corporate biography of the low-cost airline, is a better read. It tells how serial entrepreneur Stelios Haji-Ioannou revolutionised UK air travel starting with nothing except determination, an idea and a cheque for £5m from his dad, a shipping tycoon. By offering cheap, no-frills flights Stelios put paid to the notion that scheduled air travel was a prestige activity. He also filled the streets of stunned continental cities with lager-swilling British louts. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, and Barbara Cassani of Go get their own share of credit and blame in this formidably detailed account.

The metamorphosis of a streetwise, chain-smoking rag trade operator called Philip Green into the UK’s most famous retail entrepreneur is dissected as comprehensively in Top Man (Aurum, £13.29). Unauthorised biographies usually have a void at their centre where the direct testimony of the subject should be. But the deficiency is barely noticeable in this scrupulously researched book, recently reviewed at greater length in this newspaper.

Mr Green was more forthcoming with schmatte industry chum David Jones, providing a foreword to his autobiography Next to Me (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £18). Ironically, Mr Green is closer in type to George Davies, the fiery retailing genius that Mr Jones, a career administrator, displaced at the top of the Next fashion chain. If your New Year to-do list includes a boardroom coup, read chapter two and take notes.

The aspirational style of Next was popular in the greedy, shoulder-padded 1980s, but the company almost came unstitched on high debt and rash brand extensions. Mr Jones meticulously tailored a turnround. That would have been difficult enough for a healthy person. Mr Jones was suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease. Despite a few longueurs, this is a remarkable story, lucidly and modestly told. It might even lure you away from such festive amusements as overeating and family rows. Next week: harpsichord for beginners – locating Middle C.

jonathan.guthrie@ft.com

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