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The Marginalian

2010’s Best Long Reads: Business

Longreads and Brain Pickings have teamed up to highlight the most compelling in-depth stories published on the web this year. Earlier, we featured the best of Art, Design, Film & Music. Next up: Business. Here are 10 must-reads from 2010, from “wrongness” as a business strategy to procrastination to how culture can make (and break) a company.

Don’t miss our related selection of the year’s best books in Business, Life & Mind.


Error Message: Google Research Director Peter Norvig on Being Wrong (Kathryn Schulz, Slate, Aug. 3, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (4,050 words)

Norvig explains what happens when a company (in this case Google) takes an engineering-centric approach to its products and business. First, it means that errors are actually a good thing.

“If you’re an engineer, you essentially want to be wrong half the time. If you do experiments and you’re always right, then you aren’t getting enough information out of those experiments.”


A Cocktail Party in the Street: An Interview with TGI Friday’s Founder Alan Stillman (Nicola Twilley & Krista Ninivaggi, Edible Geography, Nov. 15, 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,193 words)

Before it arrived in strip malls around the country, TGI Friday’s was the first “singles bar” in New York City. Alan Stillman reflects on his transition from “looking to meet girls” to running a business.

“The restaurant business does come down to real estate … A restaurant owner is renting or sub-letting you a piece of real estate for the evening.”


What Amazon Fears Most: Diapers (Bryant Urstadt, Businessweek, Oct. 7, 2010)

Time to read: 14 minutes (3,468 words)

That which one fears… one buys. Just before Amazon plunked down $540 million for, Businessweek profiled co-founders Marc Lore and Vinit Bharara, whose company studied Amazon’s every move.

“We’re obsessed with Amazon … Recently I read every 10-K since 1996. It’s interesting to read all those 10-Ks in a row. They were doing so many things so soon.”


Later: What Does Procrastination Tell Us About Ourselves? (James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, Oct. 11, 2010)

Time to read: 14 minutes (3,574 words)

Take comfort in this exploration of the “basic human impulse” of putting work off.

“The idea of the divided self, though discomfiting to some, can be liberating in practical terms, because it encourages you to stop thinking about procrastination as something you can beat by just trying harder.”


The New Gawker Media (Felix Salmon, Reuters, Dec. 1, 2010)

Time to read: 25 minutes (6155 words)

There were almost as many Gawker long reads this year as there were Insane Clown Posse stories. None revealed more about the business of Nick Denton’s blogging empire than Felix Salmon’s breakdown of the company’s operations.

“The problem with Gawker Media’s current model—and this is true of many other sites, too, including the Huffington Post—is that it’s based on pageviews and those tyrannical CPMs. It’s essentially a junk-mail direct marketing model.”


A Q&A with a Vacuum Cleaner Salesman (Mike Riggs, The Awl, Nov. 24, 2010)

Time to read: 25 minutes (6,342 words)

Tense, depressing, and sometimes very funny, interview with “Darrell,” a door-to-door salesman in Florida whose specialty is selling elderly people on products they don’t need.

“I was like, ‘Ma’am, it’s called a referral. We’re gonna call them, and we’re gonna tell them you referred us. I’m just being honest with you.’ She was like, ‘No, no.’ And I was like, ‘Ok, just write down their name,’ because we are going to f—ing do this.”


What Happened to Yahoo (Paul Graham, August 2010)

Time to read: 8 minutes (1,935 words)

Was it all that banner-ad money being thrown at them? Or their ambivalence about technology? Paul Graham offers theories as to why Yahoo has struggled.

“The company felt prematurely old. Most technology companies eventually get taken over by suits and middle managers. At Yahoo it felt as if they’d deliberately accelerated this process.”


At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture (David Carr, The New York Times, Oct. 5, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (4,081 words)

An archived Times piece from the swinging, inappropriate 1970s? No, a stunning present-day account of eyebrow-raising behavior by executives at the troubled Tribune Company. (CEO Randy Michaels resigned soon after.)

“After CEO Randy Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, ‘watch this,’ and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.”


Why I Sold Zappos (Tony Hsieh, Inc., June 1, 2010)

Time to read: 9 minutes (2,271 words)

The Zappos CEO reveals the events leading up to his company’s purchase by Amazon, and the internal tensions over preserving its famously familial corporate culture.

“The board wanted me, or whoever was CEO, to spend less time on worrying about employee happiness and more time selling shoes.”


A Bully Finds a Pulpit on the Web (David Segal, The New York Times, Nov. 28, 2010)

Time to read: 24 minutes (5,881 words)

The story that introduced us to the term “utterly noxious retail.” Online retailer DecorMyEyes cheated, threatened and stalked its customers — and then claimed to earn better Google rankings because of it.

“He might also be a pioneer of a new brand of anti-salesmanship that is facilitated by the quirks and shortcomings of Internet commerce and that tramples long-cherished traditions of customer service, like deference and charm.”

See more Longreads 2010 “best-of” lists here.

Mark Armstrong is a digital strategist, writer and founder of Longreads, a community and Twitter service highlighting the best long-form stories on the web. His thoughts about the future of publishing and content can be found here.

Published December 17, 2010




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