A little over two years ago, during one of my trips back to London, my best friend Sarah Lacy called me from San Francisco. Following the success of her first book, Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good, she’d been kicking around ideas for her second. Now those ideas had coalesced into a coherent pitch, and she was keen to hear my feedback.
Like all major reporting projects, Sarah’s book has evolved hugely since that first conversation; but its core idea – that entrepreneurs in emerging markets will provide the driving force for a new revolution in global business – remained constant. Sarah spent over 40 weeks traveling in emerging markets and many, many more weeks researching, planning and eventually writing. But she wasn’t far into her journey – which took her from Rwanda to Beijing to Jakarta and beyond – before she identified the theme that became her title: “Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos“.
Of course my friendship with Sarah renders me incapable of presenting an unbiased review, but after two years of seeing the book develop, I can’t resist sharing some highlights.
The book opens with Marco Gomez, a young entrepreneur from Brazil who defied an upbringing surrounded by criminals and drug dealers to become a wildly successful technology entrepreneur. His story neatly sets the tone of the book, which provides all of the insight and practical wisdom of a business book but delivers much of that wisdom through a series of remarkable personal stories. At several points in the story, if you didn’t know that you were holding a painstakingly researched piece of journalism, you could be forgiven for thinking you were reading a movie.
Where else but the realms of fiction would you meet Jean de Dieu Kagabo, a Rwandan entrepreneur who, having survived his country’s genocide, identified a need in the landlocked nation for locally manufactured everyday staples – toilet paper, tomato paste, toothpaste – which previously had to be imported from neighbouring countries. Determined to make those items – and countless others – affordable for Rwandans, he taught himself Mandarin and then traveled to China to acquire the necessary manufacturing equipment to start his new business. The growth of Kagabo’s empire has been rapid, punctuated with reminders of his past – including the moment when the son of the man who murdered his parents came looking for a job. If someone doesn’t buy the movie rights for the book, based on that chapter alone, there’s something wrong with the universe.
Equally inspiring – and Hollywood-ready – is the story of Frederick Ndabaramiye who had both of his arms hacked off during a brutal attack by his own people, only for the assailants to accidentally save his life. And how about the comically inspirational adventures of Israeli movie mogul Erel Margalit; or Xu Xiong’s Chinese driving school and petting zoo (petting xu?); or Lakhal Lal and his shop of tiny things; or Ravi Ghate’s mini mobile media empire; or “Ciputra”, the one-named Walt Disney of Indonesia or… or… or…
As a writer, it’s these characters who make the book such an utterly engrossing read. If, on the other hand, I were the CEO of a major company – either in the US or elsewhere in the western world – Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky… would grip me for quite different reasons. Because from all of the amazing stories, there emerges a common thread: these entrepreneurs are building businesses which, today, are reshaping their countries but tomorrow will likely begin reshaping the world. And in many cases they’re doing it without any help from America.
In fact, in many cases, the emerging world’s “top 1% of entrepreneurs” couldn’t give less of a damn about Silicon Valley or the Nasdaq or the FTSE or any of the other supposed cornerstones of global capitalism. In China alone, there are several multi-billion dollar companies poised to expand into the US, not as supplicants but as aggressive acquirers. Meanwhile, in India – a country with 1.1 billion people – the technical geniuses who would previously have got on a plane to Silicon Valley to code the next Hotmail or co-found the next Sun Microsystems are instead staying home to build their own companies. And hell, consider Africa: if Rwanda – a country where 15 years ago people were still murdering their neighbours – is producing world-class entrepreneurs – just imagine what’s happening on the rest of the continent.
There have been countless books, of course, which tell us why we in the west should be worried about the rise of emerging markets, particularly China. But Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky… is the first I’ve read which truly personalises the fearsome potential of the rapid growth of emerging markets. If I were a CEO in Silicon Valley or New York or London or even Israel, I would read these stories with all the sense of impending doom of a Stephen King novel. And then I’d act on the advice found in the book’s conclusion, actively engaging with this new class of emerging market entrepreneur before it’s too late. (Meanwhile, for the rest of us, corporate America’s emerging nightmare is our engrossing expose of everything we ever wanted to know about emerging markets but were too inward-looking to ask.)
At the end of our phone conversation two years ago, Sarah asked me the question that all authors ask their friends before they embark on a new project. “Do you think it’s a book?” I assured her that not only did I think it was a book, but that it sounded like it could be a superb one.
Like a CEO underestimating the threat of China, I underestimated the talent of my friend. Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky… is way more than a superb book – in fact, it’s three superb books: a brilliant piece of business journalism, a crazy collection of larger than life entrepreneurial profiles and – yeah – an appropriately cocky smack-down to any western business leader who dismisses the potential of emerging markets.
It’s out in hardback (in the US) on January 25th but available right now on Kindle. If you only buy one book this year, you’re almost certainly an idiot – but you should at the very least make it this one.