James Caan – Autobiography of a business genius

I listened to this Audio Book over a 2 week period without any real previous knowledge of James Caan, other than a few episodes of Dragon’s Den. My expectation was positive from a few reviews I had read prior to purchase, the other Dragon’s books were apparently more prescriptive and less biographical. I also like James Caan from his cameo appearances in Dragon’s Den, he comes across as gentle and measured. He also seems to have lots of cash and he’s willing to spend it, unlike Deborha Meaden for example.

The Real Deal: My Story from Brick Lane to Dragons’ Den

I just wanted to include the brief note below diverging from the topic but relevant to Audio Book users:


Hooking up my iPhone and Griffin iTrip Auto meant I listened almost exclusively to this Audio Book while driving. A good way to spend my time in the car, not listening to junk radio with ad breaks every 5 minutes. I’m finding my transition to Podcasts and Audio Books makes my “radio listening” completely “ad-free”. I also watch only recorded Sky + programmes now on TV, and fast forward at 30x speed through the Ads.This has to be a massive problem for Advertisers, all the best content can be plucked out ad-free by the savvy digital consumer like myself. Its very liberating for the consumer, after decades of enduring whatever the broadcasters bombarded us with.


Ok, now back to the book.

As a young entrepreneur I was really looking for insight in this book to what made James Caan so successful in his life, I wanted to see if I could learn something to apply to my own life. Furthermore I also wanted to interpret James Caan’s story and digest it for myself rather than listen to a prescriptive “ten-steps to success” format, as so many of these books adopt.

Format of the Book

Fortunately there are only 4 or 5 lines of “advice” in the entire book, what you get here is the life story of an exceptionally brilliant business man. Its not detailed or descriptive in large parts, and it took me some time to figure out what made James Caan so different from almost everybody else in business.

The book is narrated from start to finish by James Caan himself, and he is very well-spoken and has a voice that is easy on the ears.  Just by the fact that he sat down in a studio and recorded the whole thing proves his commitment to the book, he obviously put a lot of effort into it, that is reassuring.

What you get in this book is a pretty fast-paced account of James Caan’s life from childhood right through to 2008 (current day). He speaks quite openly about most topics, but I did get the feeling that he glossed over some aspects of his life and he doesn’t really dig too deeply into the darker side of his own character.


It is truly extraordinary how Caan demonstrated the consistent ability to make large amounts of money quickly, starting from a very young age. I didn’t understand how he actually did it fully until I had finished the book and used logic to fill in the missing pieces. After several chapters about his early business career in the 80’s I felt confounded in trying to rationalise how this young man could persuade so many people, often older than him and with more experience. Analysing Caan’s personality offers the explanation, he combines the following qualities:

  • charismatic leadership
  • infinite ability to charm people
  • exceptional work drive
  • ruthless business acumen
  • desire for wealth and success
  • individualism


James Caan is not a perfect person, but he is the perfect business man. It would be very interesting to find out if his own assessment of his family life and relationships ties up with the account he gives in his book. There are inconsistencies that are difficult to rationalise in several cases, most notably his working 15 hour days and ability to maintain a happy home life. He admits that he overcame his work-life balance by throwing money at the problem: hiring nannies, cleaners and gardeners to look after the house and children. Perhaps James’ wife Aisha was exceptionally business-focused also and they shared a common vision, in my experience working these kinds of hours makes one’s personal life very strained (but maybe large amounts of money can help).

I am an atheist and therefore sceptical about people holding deep religious beliefs. James Caan makes infrequent references to his muslim faith but finishes out the book by expressing that he is actually quite religious. It is confusing that Caan brings forward this side of his life as it is in contrast somewhat with the sales techniques he used in his earlier life which many people would consider amoral. It would seem that he rediscovered his faith after he became very wealthy, and it would not have been terribly useful to him in his early career when he just wanted to make money. It seems in the book that Caan’s transition began after he sold his business and had enough cash in the bank to finally step back from his career. Perhaps it was after his time at Harvard that Caan discovered a new side to his life and really stepped up his charity work and his “contentment” with his life achievements and family situation.

Finally the last bone I have to pick with Caan is his changing of his name from Nasim Khan to James Caan, and his outright rejection of his Pakistani identity. He  quickly anglicised himself and seemed to socialise with caucasians more than other Pakistanis and Indians. This was possibly down to the fact that he grew up in a “white” area, and I don’t think he deliberately avoided his own ethnic group. Caan’s desire to cut himself away from his roots, his family and his ethnicity seem unfortunate today in 2009, however I would think it was a shrewd business move at the time when everybody wasn’t so multi-cultural. Caan chose very traditional English names for both his companies: “Alexander Mann” and “Hamilton Bradshaw”. He simply invented these names from his imagination, in an attempt to project to customers a brand that was established and corporate. It worked!

So you can see from these inconsistencies I have highlighted that Caan was willing to sacrifice everything in the interest of his business success. This ruthless streak was crucial to his success I believe.


My own conclusion from James Caan’s autobiography is much like his own at the very end of the book. Caan concludes that many other people (even his own brother) have businesses, work just as hard as James Caan, have even more intellect and invest even more resources but do not even come close to achieving his level of success.

Caan shows some humility in his acceptance that a combination of luck, circumstance and natural ability are what make him so successful. The final ingredient was Caan’s cunning and ruthlessness, he is the ultimate brass-necked salesman. He sold and bought items that didn’t exist, he created something from nothing by charming people and telling them what they wanted to hear, whether it was true or otherwise.

I have encountered brass-necked salesmen, in my experience they tend to be full of hot air and promising great things but never delivering. Caan managed to deliver on the promise, his karma was “painting blue skies” for people. He applied this to his own staff, and incentivised them with commission-only pay where they could earn a fortune if they bought into the intensive sales environment and delivered results.

The initial success with Alexander Mann inspired Caan to start the Humana franchise and he never looked back from there. Caan is the ultimate “head-hunter” and built all his successful companies on luring the best people and persuading them to come on board with him, thereby reducing the chance of failure all the time.

That brings me to the final point, Caan never took any crazy risks. The biggest punt he really ever took was to fund his future wife’s boutique store in an effort to get a date with her. Apart from that you will find that Caan always leveraged his position using his sales skills, he rarely exposed himself to risk and always took action to minimise his chances of failure.

So there you have it: James Caan, a brass-necked salesman who never took risks

…now that’s a hard trick to follow!


One thought on “James Caan – Autobiography of a business genius”

  1. hi mate i just wanted to disagree with a couple of things just basically to show my view no hard feeling
    James caan is always tied to his roots from pakistan the reason i say that is because he always tries funding charities hes got business in pakistan and also he separated from his family because he wanted to show he can live by himself and build a empire which he did
    He always had family in heart thats why hes got a school for less privilaged people named after his dad

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