What does one astute young man do when he forgets his USB thumb drive full of important time-sensitive work on a four-hour bus ride to New York?
First, sheer panic. Second, how about go to work to start building a 10-billion-dollar company creating technology so files can be accessed on the go across any platform anywhere in the world. Drew Houston’s frustration on one bus ride turned into Dropbox—a company with more than 500 million users worldwide.
Drew began coding at the ripe old age of five while most children were out racing big wheels and playing hopscotch on the chalked up inner-city playgrounds. His early tech prowess was evident. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from MIT and worked for many tech startups along the way. Drew knew his coding and engineering skills were stellar, however he was lacking the business acumen needed if he one day wanted to start his own company.
According to an article in Forbes magazine, one of Drew’s business skill sets could have very well came from his brotherhood at the college fraternity house. He served as the fraternity rush and social chair, which Drew referred to as “a crash course in project management and getting people to do stuff for you.” Let this be a lesson to parents everywhere that fraternities are not all about booze, parties and debauchery.
The rest of Houston’s business skills were derived from working for many startups and devouring several business books. He explains in a Mixergy interview how he approached his reading:
If you’re interested in understanding how something like sales works, I would literally just go to Amazon and search for the top rated few books on sales and just read them. You are not going to become a great sales person just by reading a book any more than you would become a great basketball player by reading a book; but it still gives you a context and these useful mental frameworks for thinking about different kinds of problems beyond engineering. I did that for books on sales, finance, management, and negotiations—all the things where I just knew nothing about.
Acting on his self-directed learning philosophy, Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman convinced Houston that “smarts weren’t enough” if he wanted to run a company so he spent an entire summer on the roof of his fraternity house reading business book after business book. Emotional Intelligence served as the fuel that ignited the desire to start a company.
During the same Mixergy interview, Drew spoke highly of the following business books:
- The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen
Innovator’s focuses on disruptive technology and how business leaders need to keep up with new innovation in order to thrive. Innovator’s happens to be the book most highly recommended to Drew. He goes on to explain, “it kind of helps you understand how startups can survive, exist and beat the big companies with so many orders of magnitude and more resources.”
- Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston
The title says it all. The book features interviews from successful startup founders during the pre-launch days. The book features many successful companies including PayPal, Apple and Yahoo!. Drew states, “It really gives a good flavor of how these companies got started. I think that’s one of the biggest hurdles. If I wanted to go make a movie, I don’t know how to do that. I guess I’d move to L.A. and that’s all I know about that. I think that’s something that prevents people from launching startups is that they just don’t know where to begin. Founders at Work is about how all of these people got started—especially in the days when they weren’t well known.”
- Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Charlie Munger
A collection of talks by the wise and all-knowing Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Houston describes this as a fascinating read about how to think clearly and become wise about the world around us.
- Damn Right: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway Billionaire Charlie Munger by Janet Lowe
This biography of Mr. Munger takes you inside the mind of the successful billionaire businessman. Drew Houston said, “The biography of Charlie Monger is where you get to see his reasoning; how he logics out a decision to invest or not invest in a business.”
- The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Stephen Blank
The bestselling book is described as the book that launched the Lean Startup revolution and is considered responsible for launching 10,000 startups and new corporate ventures.
Drew Houston values learning outside of the classroom. Most of the books recommended by Houston relate to pure business fundamentals and inspirational startup stories. He was able to build a solid knowledge base of business skills to compliment his computer science expertise. He chose to forego the traditional MBA route that many take to acquire business skills when launching a company. Houston chose to build his own personal MBA program through self education.