I set out to discover just what makes Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google tick, but I abandoned the book once I had discovered what made the author tick.

Finesse is not Scott Galloway’s strong point. The Four (2017) claims to explain what we can learn from the success of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, but the author appears to be side-tracked while telling his story. The tone throughout it that of the business book – and that part of the business book market that is primarily concerned with making money. But, to be honest, I never got to the section of the book about the four companies, because I was so astonished to read the author’s views on male and female roles. You might ask what that has to do with the success or otherwise of the leading technology companies.

You would think that choosing four of the world’s biggest (and richest) companies would be enough for one book, but Mr Galloway strays into irrelevance as early as page 20, when he reveals his true colours talking about early humans: he has no problems with the mythical hunter/gatherer distinction. “Men tend to be better at evaluating at a distance – where prey is first spotted. By comparison, women are typically better at taking stock of their immediate surroundings.” Now we have put women firmly in their place, we can get down to the real business, with the men hunting for stuff. These questionable statements keep popping up.

Even without the dubious view of evolutionary biology, the book’s tone is typical of many business books: a little qualitative research (not enough to stand up in a statistics class) surrounded by not very relevant and questionable statements; and an emphasis on punchy slogans and short sentences.   

To be fair, the author is also capable of some startling revelations. Apparently, 55% of all product searches start on Amazon; 28% start on Google. Their biggest competitors, not surprisingly given these statistics, are each other.  

Scott Galloway teaches brand strategy at a major business school, and reports without a hint of criticism that the school “(remarkably) does accelerate students’ average salaries from $70,000 to $110,000 in just 24 months”. I’d like to think there was more to business school than that, although to be fair, many business-school metrics are based on that single statistic, the starting salaries of new graduates. But Galloway then writes “The second year of business school is mostly a waste: elective (that is, irrelevant) courses that fulfil the teaching requirements of tenured faculty.” As one of the staff, you think he might be a little more cautious about his view of the course and of his institutions – or at least make an effort to change the situation. But most importantly, what has this to do with a book about what makes the world’s leading technology companies so successful?

Galloway cheerfully describes consumption and hoarding as a fundamental part of our being. This explains, for him, apparently, the astonishing success Amazon has had in fulfilling our need to consume. But the statistics and Galloway’s theories of human behaviour are all jumbled together: for example, Galloway reveals that Amazon Marketplace represents 40% of all Amazon’s sales. He interprets this as “The need for stuff is real: stuff keeps us warm and safe. It allows us to store and prepare food. It helps us attract mates and care for our offspring.” This doesn’t explain why Amazon has been so successful; there are plenty of e-commerce sites around as well as Amazon. So this book combines dubious theories without them fully explaining what the book has set out to show. In the end, I abandoned the book; I’d prefer to think for myself what has led to these companies’ astonishing success. I’d write about Amazon’s astonishing customer service, always ready to sort out any problems I have; but at the same time, Amazon’s cavalier attitude to metadata, which makes it all but impossible to search for a 27” monitor without seeing hits for a 24” monitor. In the longer term, I believe this shortcoming will be seen increasingly as a drawback in the customer experience. Amazon is in a position to impose some order on the metadata provided to them by suppliers. But that is a subject for another post – and not the subject of this book.