The BusinessZone book review: Chaos Monkeys

Antonio Garcia-Martinez
HarperCollins
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If you’re opening Chaos Monkeys hoping to find a loveable narrator then you're bang out of luck. Antonio Garcia-Martinez, the author, just isn’t that nice of a guy.

He’s a cocktail of almost self-parodying braggadocio, un-PC ickiness and retrograde masculinity. Luckily, Martinez’s character is the least important part of this book.

In spite of the author’s plenitude of flaws, Chaos Monkeys is an comprehensive, bracingly honest startup guide. And although you mightn’t want to grab a beer with Martinez, there can be no doubt over his uncanny ability to slice through startup gobbledygook and repackage them as digestible lessons.  

The lingering danger is that it’s easy to read Martinez’s account as a how-to guide.

This is the real core of the book. In the parts where Martinez emerges from his fortress of self-regard, he shows himself to an adept teacher, capable of synthesising complex ideas in laymen’s terms.

The breadth of Martinez’s experience means you’ll become versed in the intricacies of VCs, starting up, ad revenue, IPOs. These eureka moments alone, when a previously mysterious idea suddenly becomes understood, justifies the book’s selling price.

The first section will resonate with BusinessZone’s readers the most. It details Martinez and two other partners’ tumultuous exit from one startup to strike out on their own. Suddenly adrift with not much money to speak of, the fledgeling enterprise manages to make it into the legendary accelerator Y Combinator.

This isn’t to detract from the second half, which details Martinez’s travails at Facebook. It’s fascinating stuff and, again, it strikes the balance between the personal colour and genuinely insightful educational asides. But it’s pretty high level stuff that’s more concerned with boardroom intrigue than startup derring-do.

Once you swallow the red pill presented to you by Martinez, Silicon Valley begins to resemble any other aspect of corporate America.

Laced between Martinez’s pedagogy is some cogent social commentary. Silicon Valley has accrued an enormous amount of social and economic capital. But with Martinez acting as tour guide, it becomes an infinitely more human place, populated by people just like you and me.

And it begins to resemble any other aspect of corporate America. Much as in The Matrix, once you swallow the red pill presented to you by Martinez, you’ll be able to read between the lines of the breathless, access journalism hagiographies that swirls around Silicon Valley.

The lingering danger is that it’s easy to read Martinez’s account as a how-to guide. Books like Chaos Monkeys have a tendency to assume that mantle. Look at what happened with the Wolf of Wall Street: the main lesson many seemingly took from that book (and film) is that quaaludes are rad. Similarly, young entrepreneurs, hungry for success, might actually find the cautionary aspects of the book alluring.

If that’s all you extract from Chaos Monkeys then that would be a damn shame. The real lessons from the book aren’t the juicy stories, debauchery, and personal vendettas. These stories are, naturally, very entertaining (albeit suspiciously one-sided).

The really valuable stuff is much more prosaic. Martinez isn’t just a lucid observer; despite his flaws, he’s a legitimately thoughtful business and policy analyst. For all the inane bullshit that gets cast as ‘thinkfluencing’ these days, this is the real deal: a formidable intellect tackling a formidable topic.

 

About Francois Badenhorst

Francois

Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.

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