Book Review: How to Castrate a Bull

By Jake Cornelius Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Yes, the title sucked me in. You've got to admit it, though; How to Castrate a Bull is an eye-catching title for a business book. And yes, it does have a section about bull castration. The bland subtitle gives the intention of the book: Unexpected lessons on risk, growth, and success in business. Written by NetApp co-founder Dave Hitz, the book summarizes the nearly 20 year lifespan of the company and how they went from just 3 guys with an idea to over 4000 employees and more than $4 billion in annual revenues.

The title comes from Hitz's time spent at Deep Springs College in California. Deep Springs is a combination ranch and liberal arts college. Students work 20 hours per week on the ranch while they do their studies. When Hitz worked as a ranch hand he learned humility by shoveling cow patties, the risk management involved when taking a knife to a 500 lb. bull, all while learning precious critical thinking and writing skills. Although Hitz majored in computer science at Princeton, he gives more credits to the writing and thinking skills learned as a liberal arts student than to his computer science education; in fact, he writes that learning how to write clearly was probably the best thing could have happened for his success. There's a powerful lesson for the rest of us.

Some of the other lessons Hitz offers are to find a new or young market that you can quickly dominate. That's obvious, but even Hitz admits that before NetApp even got a good grip on their market, a different market had found them and they ended up completely changing their strategy. That is another lesson offered: be flexible. One should also be flexible enough to know when to make big changes. Hitz tells of coming to the realization that one of the other founders had to be fired. Hitz writes that he hated having to make that choice, but it had to be done if the business was going to grow. Unfortunately, it took 14 months; so another lesson is that replacing your CEO should be done quickly!

When I first started reading this book, I didn't think that I would make it past the first chapter. I didn't want to read a "Hey! I'm awesome!" story. Once I got past the introduction, Hitz did provide an interesting story about building a huge company. He gave interesting anecdotes and funny stories about how to and not do many of the things that must be done to grow. Even if you aren't planning on taking your business to $4 billion annually, Hitz's story is still a good one about business life.

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