Book-Talk with Dave Child, Founder of Readable.io
Dave Child is an entrepreneur and PHP developer, founder of one of my favorite projects: Readable.io, a collection of tools that improve the quality of your writing.
He started it in 2004, as a small side-project, while looking for something that will help him exercise his coding skills. Nowadays, it’s used by those who make a living out of writing and want to measure how easy their text is to read, but also how well it targets certain words or phrases.
Dave’s been building websites since the early 90s. He’s currently focused on growing Readable, but he founded a few other projects, such as ApolloPad (a feature-packed online writing environment for writers), Cheatography (cheat sheet generator and repository you can use to find quick references for work, home or hobbies, or to make your own cheat sheets), @CrosswordBot and @TriviBot (fun Twitter bots for crossword clues and trivia quizzing), and many others.
In 2012, Dave decided he wants to make a change and started his very own small web agency, which allows him to focus on his own side-projects as well. His ultimate goal is to gain financial and location independence.
When he’s not taking care of his projects, he likes to write fiction, play squash, and spend time with his family.
Keep reading to find out more about his favorite books, how he feels about books by entrepreneurs and why you should be aware of survivorship bias, and how his reading habits changed over time.
What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.
Wow, straight in with a tough question! You expect me to narrow down my favorites to just two, one business and one non?
Well, let’s start with the business one, as that’s a bit easier. Focus: The Future of Your Company Depends on It by Al Ries is a few years old by now, but the advice hasn’t changed. I suffer (for want of a better word) from something I call Shiny Thing Syndrome – I’m easily tempted by new features, or a new website, or some new technology, and while I absolutely think there’s value in exploring tangents and building things for the fun of it, it’s also critical to not be too distracted by something which isn’t going to help you get where you want to be. Focus is a great exploration of what it means to be focused and the costs of distractions.
For the non-business one, I don’t know that I can pick just one. Growing up, I loved fantasy worlds – Middle Earth, Discworld and Narnia were where I loved to let my mind wander. I think if I had to pick a favourite then, it would be Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett. That was the first Discworld book I read where I realized there was another level to it – that Discworld was satirical. I went back and started reading the whole collection from The Colour of Magic onwards, and haven’t missed one since.
As a web developer, there are not many opportunities to interact with your favourite people, and when Terry himself retweeted something one of my projects posted, even though it was just a bit of fun, it made me grin like an idiot for days.
In my 20s, it would have been The Secret History by Donna Tartt. It’s a shame you can only read a book for the first time once, because this doesn’t fare so well the second time around, when you already know what happens. I’m not sure I’ve found another book quite like it since, but then I’m not really sure what sort of book it is. It isn’t a murder mystery, except when it is. It isn’t a crime thriller, except when it is. It isn’t a love story, except … you get the idea.
And now I’m in my late 30s, I find myself reading more biographies and histories, and my favourite is Pyke – The Unknown Genius by David Lampe. Geoffrey Pyke’s story is the kind you might read about in a work of fiction and dismiss as unrealistic. And today, he’s virtually unknown. I particularly like the story of Project Habakkuk, the aim of which was to build a gigantic aircraft carrier out of “pykrete” – ice with added sawdust – which, apocryphally, gained traction when Pyke dumped a large block of pykrete into Churchill’s bath and it refused to melt.
Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?
Recently, I’ve been reading Traction by Gabriel Weinberg. Readable.io has been growing well, and we’ve been exploring new marketing avenues and ideas. Traction is a really useful book to read in that regard – it explores a variety of different approaches to marketing, each paired with some direct experiences from someone who has achieved success with that approach. We’re a small team, with limited resources, and the approach of Traction is working well for us so far. Seeing ideas explored and balanced with some real-world experiences is a nice way to get yourself to think about marketing possibilities, and less dry than some of the other books I’ve tried.
What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)
Triggers by Marshall Goldsmith was eye-opening for me. I was going through a period of greater introspection, and trying to improve my ability to identify when I was being productive, and then to develop an understanding of what led me to have famines and gluts of productivity. Triggers helped me spot more connections and as a result I’m better at spotting when I’m struggling and when I’m in a good place to push myself.
The other book which had a huge impact on me was Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman. At school, I’d done well in maths and the sciences, but when it came time to go to university, I just wanted to work on the web, so didn’t take up my place. Reading that book rekindled my enthusiasm for science in general, and it was shortly after that that I started a Physics degree with the Open University. Going back to academic study had a huge impact on me. I’d go as far as to say I’d been in a serious rut for a few years at that point, but studying with the Open University gave me clarity and self-confidence enough to start making some big positive changes. And that all started with Mr Feynman.
What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)
That’s a difficult question. There are some obvious answers – books to teach you how to code, how to get clients, how to build a product business, how to manage people … there are lots of practical books that might help along the way. Perhaps Managing Humans by Michael Lopp would be the most practical – it’s a great read, and for people making the leap from developer to manager, it’s full of useful advice.
One trap people fall into is survivorship bias – reading books by successful entrepreneurs talking about what they did along the way. The problem is that for every successful entrepreneur who credits a particular book or idea or technique with their success, there might well be 100 who read the same book or used the same technique and failed, but you’ll never know because nobody asks them what didn’t work. So I try to take success stories with a hefty pinch of salt.
Instead, I’d recommend reading anything that helps develop your ability to understand and solve a problem. Triaging issues by importance and properly identifying their causes is critical in almost every aspect of business. Without that, you can easily spend a lot of time on the wrong problem, or an ineffective solution, and your time is, more or less, your most valuable commodity. So I’d suggest books like A Certain Ambiguity by Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal, or Freakonomics by Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner – books which will explore different ways of delving into problems and understanding their impact.
I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?
Haha, well, I’ve got a four-year-old and twin two-year-olds at home, so I read at least three books a day. Unfortunately, most of them are about a Big Yellow Digger or The Yoga Ogre. Great stories, but perhaps a little light. Otherwise, I try to make some time to read every day, but there are times when I just fall asleep as soon as I open a page. I don’t finish as many books as I used to!
I still love dead-tree books. I always read a lot when I was younger, everything from Agatha Christie to HP Lovecraft, and maybe that’s why. I love the idea of an ebook reader, but for some reason I find it harder to become as immersed in a story in that format. Maybe that’s a result of growing up with paper books, or maybe it comes from spending so much time looking at screens – looking at paper is further removed from my work.
How do you make time for reading?
When I was commuting in my 20s, it was easy – 3 or 4 hours on a train every day gives you plenty of time to read! Now, with a young family and a business, it’s not so simple. I’ve got to eke out time when I can. When the twins are teething and have a raging cold, we’re just trying to get enough sleep to function. The rest of the time, it takes some conscious effort to not just switch off in front of the TV. It helps to marry another bookworm!
Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?
I make notes constantly, and I’ve struggled to find a system that works. Notepad by the bed, post-its all over the wall … nothing has really fit with my way of thinking. At the moment, I’m using Google Keep, which is great – available everywhere, no install required, simple, easy, quick and both organised and disorganised at once. It mirrors my brain pretty well.
How do you choose what books to read next?
I don’t have a particular system. I tend to pick up books based on recommendations or a few pages read in the bookshop, and then they go onto a to-read shelf along with books I’m given. Maybe I should get a better system!
Do you prioritize those recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?
No, not particularly. I have friends and family whose recommendations I pay attention to, of course, but beyond that I don’t think there’s any single person.
Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?
I’m in the middle of Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I really liked Fahrenheit 451 but for whatever reason I didn’t read anything else by him. When he died in 2012, I picked up a few more of his books and this one had sat on my shelf for a while. So far I’m loving it, and that’s enough of a gain for me.
Links where you can follow Dave Child or find out more about his projects:
- Follow Readable on Twitter
- Follow Dave on Twitter
- Dave’s interview @ IndieHackers
Books mentioned by Dave Child in this interview: