The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google

The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google

Posted by jack_miller | Published 6 months ago

With 733 ratings

By: Scott Galloway, Jonathan Todd Ross, et al.

Purchased At: $17.00

Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google are the four most influential companies on the planet.

Just about everyone thinks they know how they got there.

Just about everyone is wrong.

For all that's been written about the Four over the last two decades, no one has captured their power and staggering success as insightfully as Scott Galloway.

Instead of buying the myths these companies broadcast, Galloway asks fundamental questions. How did the Four infiltrate our lives so completely that they're almost impossible to avoid (or boycott)? Why does the stock market forgive them for sins that would destroy other firms? And as they race to become the world's first trillion-dollar company, can anyone challenge them?

In the same irreverent style that has made him one of the world's most celebrated business professors, Galloway deconstructs the strategies of the Four that lurk beneath their shiny veneers. He shows how they manipulate the fundamental emotional needs that have driven us since our ancestors lived in caves, at a speed and scope others can't match. And he reveals how you can apply the lessons of their ascent to your own business or career.

Whether you want to compete with them, do business with them, or simply live in the world they dominate, you need to understand the Four.

Let me start with the strengths of The Four. Scott Galloway clearly has a sharp business mind; he is street smart, likeable, down-to-earth, and often funny; he can hold an audience’s interest and knows the online landscape very well. He also presents business concepts in a clear and well synthesized way, and doesn’t seem to be trying to sell us his own products or services (well, okay, he’s definitely selling his opinions hard—more on that below, but he’s subtle about promoting his company, which I appreciate).

Why not a five star rating then? Well, while the book has some big thesis insights into the internet corporate behemoths and online commerce, it generally stays with the big part. This is valuable, and I’m guessing most readers will walk away with some fresh insights. However, once a big idea is noted, he tends to not delve deeper (particularly notable when the subtitle promises "the Hidden DNA." There were even a few times when The Four feels like a blog rant, giving him an opportunity to vent at one of the big companies (most notably that Apple wouldn’t help the FBI crack the code of an iPhone to help them gather evidence on a San Bernardino shooter/terrorist). He also spends a bit of time telling us some obvious things, though in fairness to Galloway, it is tricky to know what to leave out as common knowledge when you are writing for a general audience. As someone who knows a fair bit about ecommerce, I may be showing my bias here, but confirming my sense of some obviousness is the notably lower rating (at this writing at least) that Amazon readers of business books give the book compared to general readers.

I also wish Galloway would have delved deeper into the cultural and political implications for society when a handful of companies dominate the digital economy and have outsized influence in nearly every sphere. He touches upon this, but just touches. Perhaps that is too much to ask of a business book, but even the bigger picture business implications don’t get considered in a sustained way. Originally I wanted to say Galloway could be superficial, but that isn’t quite right--especially since he can definitely be trenchant and often has a wicked sharp wit. What I finally realized is that the shortfall comes from his impatience. He says as much as he describes himself and his impatience comes across in some of the stories he tells about himself (most notably in his handling of his efforts to bludgeon the New York Times to change). Ultimately this impatience leads to the book's greatest weakness.

Another example of The Four's superficiality/impatience: he casually refers to evolutionary “explanations” for business phenomenon. I am very much inclined toward evolutionary explanations for human behavior as well, but they come off as tossed out there instead of carefully thought through. Galloway’s breezy style also doesn’t help here. That is, Galloway enjoys being flip and cussing a fair bit. I’m not prudish in the slightest and think that he can often be quite amusing, but there is something about using LOTS of f-bombs and s-bombs (<not spelled out only because I assume Amazon would delete curse words) that take away their power when they are used too often. And ultimately they diminish some of the very weighty issues. Even that suggests a kind of impatience. That is, a tossed out flip dismissal is often used as a substitute for well crafted writing.

In short, The Four has value, but it had potential be lots more. So I definitely wouldn’t turn other readers away, but don’t get your hopes up for a masterpiece.

- zahir_rogers

This is one of a number of recent books from authors who had a front row seat at the birth of the digital economy. In this case the journey unfolds through the proxy of Four—Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook.

The prose is quick and witty. Some of the witty is admittedly built on more than a whiff of cynicism: “At its core, Apple fills two instinctual needs: to feel closer to God and be more attractive to the opposite sex.” And,“Facebook is a platform for strutting and preening…Few people post pictures of their divorce papers or how tired they look on Thursday.” You will, nonetheless, smile.

And the book is chock full of interesting trivia: “The cocktail of low-cost product and premium prices has landed Apple with a cash pile greater than the GDP of Denmark, the Russian stock market, and the market cap of Boeing, Airbus, and Nike combined.”

In the end, while the book admires what each of the Four has accomplished, it begs the question being increasingly asked: What is our digital future and are we better off for it?

It is a legitimate question. Google has more power than Standard Oil or AT&T ever dreamed of and yet the government and its regulators seem not to care. The government, in fact, cheers on the consolidation, despite the degree to which the Four contribute in a very real way to the country’s debilitating political and social polarization. “So, Facebook, and the rest of the algorithm-driven media, barely bothers with moderates.” And “This is how these algorithms reinforce polarization in our society.”

Fake news and Russian influence are the news stories of the day, but, as Galloway points out, this is the tip of the iceberg. Google, in the end, is a public utility managed as if it weren’t and Facebook is no less a media company than the New York Times or CNN. To dismiss Facebook’s power on the notion that it is a mere platform for personal expression defies common sense. “Don’t kid yourself: Facebook’s sole mission is to make money. Once the company’s success is measured in clicks and dollars, why favor true stories over false ones?”

Each of the four, moreover, yields monopoly-enabled financial power in the market, allowing them to make huge bets in things like artificial intelligence and driverless vehicles; bets that the likes of General Motors and IBM and their employees could not begin to finance out of their comparatively pedestrian and competitively constrained returns.

While Galloway clearly has a love/hate relationship with each of the Four and attempts to provide a balanced assessment, the prose devoted to the negative is definitely more acerbic in tone and more than a tad personal. I admit particular discomfort in his portrayal of Steve Jobs, suggesting that fans like myself “conveniently ignored the fact that Steve Jobs gave nothing to charity, almost exclusively hired middle-aged white guys, and was an awful person.”

Without disputing Jobs’ humanity tit for tat, as I didn't know him, he was a person with passion and authenticity; two qualities sorely lacking in many C-suites toady. There is a fine line between not suffering fools (a good thing) and bullying (a bad thing), but I still choose to believe Jobs was on the right side of that line.

Style and discrete substance aside, I do think Galloway’s main theme is accurate. “A devouring beast, Facebook will continue with more of the same. With its global reach, its near-limitless capital, and its ever-smarter data-crunching AI machine, Facebook, in combination with Google, will lay waste to much of the analog and digital media worlds.” And the Four “pursue a Darwinian, rapacious path to profits and ignore the job destruction taking place at your hands every day.” Whatever the intentions and good will of their leaders, we are allowing a consolidation of corporate power never before seen in history. Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Genghis Khan were mere street corner tough guys in comparison.

I further agree with Galloway that the notion that we are promoting a culture that believes that individuals, entrepreneurial or not, should be rewarded with billion dollar paydays is both dangerous and indefensible. Ultimately, no person, no business, and no idea exists in isolation. Rugged individualism is a romantic myth. Every one of us benefits from our membership in a society that protects us, educates us, and gives us roads to drive on. Every company, the Four included, enjoys both these advantages and the benefits of sound and accessible credit markets, the protection of intellectual property, and a body of publicly funded research that they can lease for pennies on the dollar.

The philosophical school of skepticism, most often associated with Pyrrho of Elis, who lived in the fourth century BCE and traveled to India with the armies of Alexander the Great, put it best. Skepticism is the suspension of judgment, called epoché, that flows from the paradox that what we know and how we know it cannot be known independently, thus precluding a definitive answer to either question. However exciting it may be, the entrepreneurial culture that empowers the digital world is built on a well-defined dogma, and is thus worthy of our legitimate skepticism.

Galloway ultimately notes that every dog has its day. All of the Four face great risk going forward; risk that has clearly not been baked into their market valuations. Google is likely to be seen for the public utility it is. Facebook will likely be stymied in its effort to facilitate meaningful communities by the inevitable erosion in public trust that is structurally inherent in its algorithmic model. Amazon, Galloway notes, will face potential backlash over the impact of its digital efficiency on retail and last mile employment. And Apple, like all companies, faces the risk of management missteps and changing tastes, although neither has threatened it to date.

I don’t share Galloway’s pessimism regarding the future of brands, but I do agree that, “No technology firm has solved the problem of aging—losing relevance.” It reflects, in part, the sine wave of development that seems inherent to the universe itself. Only Apple, Galloway notes, has yet survived beyond the cult of its original founder(s).

In the last two sections of the book Galloway tackles what it will take to be the fifth of Five, or a replacement for one of the Four, (What he calls the T Algorithm) and offers advice to young people just starting their career. The ideas are okay but a bit superficial. Everyone should be likeable, for example. If your parents didn’t teach you that you’re admittedly starting in a hole. It’s a quality you should expect of your pets, much less yourself.

The latter part of the book does lose some intensity, as a result. Some of the material, such as the need for curiosity, emotional intelligence, and a college degree are a bit redundant. And he makes a lot of generalizations, such as his observed tendency of young men to preen in meetings and what he considers the limited bandwidth of the average CEO. He readily admits his own excesses, which are, at times, a bit off-putting although the authenticity, I think, ultimately wins out.

The book, in the end, is a worthy read on an important topic. The author is sometimes a victim of excess, but aren’t we all. Gallagher has both an experience worthy of being heard and the chops to make us listen anyway.

- keyla_mendoza

This book is entertainingly written, but it comes off much more as a rant about how bad these companies are than a straightforward look at how they operate. If it were a newspaper article, this would go in the opinion section, not the business section. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it wasn't what I was looking for or expecting.

Additionally, I came across numerous glaring factual errors (many of which would be easily verifiable with public information) in this book. While they generally weren't material to the argument he was making, it does undermine the credibility of the book. If so many things that I personally know about are incorrect, which other things are incorrect and I didn't know?

- india_hughes

The book is a long chat over cocktails, the f-bomb dropped left and right, a scattering of incomprehensible sentences here and there (where was that copy editor?), and drifts from (1) the big four to (2) who might be next in the big-boy category to (3) nice fatherly advice to young ones concerning how to succeed in life and make a million (or maybe even a billion) dollars. Having read the Steve Jobs bio, and having worked in tech for 15 years, the interesting bits for me could have been whittled down to a couple of pages--a chapter at most. Your mileage may vary.

- cameron_reyes

An outstanding work - entertaining and brilliantly illuminating in equal measure. You don't have to subscribe to every aspect of Mr Galloway's at times scathing analysis or his prescriptions to survive his four horsemen of the apocalypse to nonetheless gain an immense amount of insight from his prescient take. Galloway also has an extremely sharp wit - I actually can't remember a book this (unexpectedly and literally) LOL - always an effective way to package evisceration! Highly, highly recommended!

- rosie_wood

OK, so this is really a game of two halfs. Half 1: an interesting and insightful analysis of the big 4 tech companies and a brief look at some of their smaller competitors. Half 2: business advice from - according to his own account - someone that has been only modestly successful in business.

I'm personally not even slightly interested in advice from the author and wouldn't have bought the book for that. The first half is very good though, but too short and too shallow.

This book could have been very good and very useful, but I'm affraid the author really failed to concentrate his energy on the topic at hand - ie. the title of the book - and settled a score or two and gave an unwanted fire side chat. Also, the author turned the air blue. I know that some academics like to swear to impress their students, but come on. It's a childish and unhelpful distraction. Grow up Mister!

- cason_williams

This one book worth more than 2 years of MBA.
A great book, this will take you into the Disney world of the businesses of future. Once you have read this you won't be able to see yourself as same man in the mirror. sir Scott has not only succeeded but also failed in so many ventures, this is what makes this book as important as Zero to one or Antifragile if not more, not a single word will fail to amuse you. I am trully honoured to read this book.

- jamari_edwards

A fundamental for anyone who's interested/involved in the "digital world". Actually scratch that, this is a must read for all of us. Galloway pulls off a coup in leading us, at pace, through the genesis, evolution and make-up the big Four. A fascinating and somewhat sobering read.

A shortish, readable book that clearly explains where we are, where we're (probably) going and the case for anti-trust measures for the Four. His style won't be to everyone's taste but Scott Galloway rips through the subject with energy, passion and a bit of "adult" language.

Feels as timely and relevant to us now in 2018 as previous digital commentaries such as "The Long Tail" and "The Search" were in the mid-noughties.

- alonso_hall

This is terrifying and hilarious and necessary. Everyone should be reading this—especially policy makers and young people. The horsemen of the apocalypse will not be faceless nameless terrifying beasts. They’ll be the friendly trustworthy platforms we all use. What do we even do as consumers? That’s the most depressing part. We need the ease and speed of amazon because we’re too overworked to sown our days at Target. As for apple, he’s got my number. Why have I been holding on to the fancy boxes my iPhones come in? They know our primal instincts and are cleverly exploiting them. As for Google as God, that was spot on.

- ramon_edwards

Unputdownable and brilliant analysis of why the four digital giants are successful and all the underhanded ways they get you to do things and buy stuff. But like "Dow 36,000", books about Japan in the early 1990s, books about real estate in 2005, books about China now and all the other books that put forward the inevitable dominance of the current most fashionable capitalist concept (big data and its uses), the seeds of downfall and destruction are already sown. It's like when you read about a company on the front page, it's the beginning of the end - in these cases, a collective decision to switch off and get out more, plus "peak stuff". So scary - but not that scary.

- tate_gomez

Once you get past the author's particular writing voice, and if you can cope with his sometimes tenuous metaphors - Apple shops as temples, for example - then a number of good points are made.
It's not happy reading, though. These firms are changing the world, and not necessarily for the better.

- briella_bennet

Found this book insightful and thought provoking. I liked Scott’s style of writing as very often with many business books it can get quite boring. He has a good way of mixing shocking statistics with business school theory and opening up your mind. There are some great learnings for any business, employee or manager in there....something for everyone.

- jose_watson

Galloway has an engaging, punchy style, asking some pugnacious questions that really get you thinking.

This is more than the shallow opinion we see too frequently these days - it backed up with solid research.

A very thought provoking book; more importantly great to see people like Galloway are helping stimulate and develop our future business generations. If this book is anything to go by I bet his lectures are full and energised every session.

- royal_davis

A very insightful (and fun) business read.
Felt I was back to business school sometimes.

Scott Galloway, with his unique style, offers his perspective on how the most influencial companies of our time have achieved great results so fast...and what is about to come in the future.

Interesting questions raised and analysis along the whole book.

- anthony_young

Awesome book, I devoured this book on 2 short haul flights. Cut through the hype and media smoke blowing and you get to understand the power and agenda's of some of the largest most powerful companies in the world. Nothing is for free but we all love to think we are getting something for nothing. What will be the price? read this book and get an insight.

- ryan_nelson

It is an amazing book if you want to understand how are those 4 firms growing so fast and why are they so important and will continue to be in the future. The author style of writing is fantastic. It is a simple and powerful style, he is very good at analogies when he want to explain a concept; so even thought the book is deep regarding to concepts, he uses great analogies and simple language to communicate them.

- lizbeth_moore

What should have been a fascinating insight into these four tech giants, turned out to be a boring rant about all their warts with precious little about their achievements. I felt that I was being patronised, lectured to. Very disappointing, I abandoned the book well before the end. There are more interesting tomes to read on this very topical subject.

- ishaan_wilson

I choose the book because I listened to Scott Galloway interview on Bloomberg's Master of Business podcast, I found his conversation with Barry enlightening. Scott analysis of the four and other contenders is second to none, he presented a challenging or difficult topics in an easily digestible way.

- claire_carter

Good book, has info everyone should know about concerning the four. Gets slightly repetitive at the end but overall worth buying it!

- isaiah_campbell

A great insightful read backed up by loads of sources. As a novice in this area the book was a great introduction about the pathways the Four biggest take companies have taken and the potential future ahead. A riveting read thanks to the authors casual but direct style.

- ezequiel_green

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