In the startup world, I’ve found that the best books for entrepreneurs are like treasure maps. “Here there be dragons”, they say, helpfully charting the waters of things to avoid, and routes that might be easier than others. I’ve not yet found one that has an “X marks the spot” but then I guess that would be cheating.
I thought I’d keep a running update of the books I have read and what I liked or disliked about them, in reverse order of reading. A treasure map of treasure maps, as it were.
I’m still going, so if you have any recommendations for me, let me know!
Make Time: how to focus on what matters every day
by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
The simplest way to make time would be to not read this book.
At 287 pages, it is 286 pages too long. The tips and tricks it suggests are all very sensible, but its insight could be condensed into the following summary:
- Decide what your priority for the day is (your “highlight”), and do it.
- Reduce screen time, app time and generally behave like an adult rather than an excitable man-child.
- Don’t eat like a pig, excercise regularly and sleep well.
If the authors intended this book as a wordy example of irony, well done to them, and if you like that kind of joke, this book is for you. This is not one of the best books for entrepreneurs: if you actually want to make your time count, read something else.
‘His British accent took some getting used to, but Holly was right. I liked it a lot.’
by Eric Ries
Along with the Mom Test, this is the book I have been recommended most often and there is a very good reason for that. It is one of the best books for entrepreneurs that I have read.
Less of a book and more of a movement, the ideas are a way of thinking for founders, based on the build-measure-learn loop of constant small scale innovation which puts the customer front and centre. It’s not about you: it’s the system, stupid.
This book is a must read, probably one of the first you should go to. And then structure your business around that. I wish I had read this at the beginning of the journey with Adviserly, but better late than never.
One anecdote stood out to me, from the Chapter 9, Batch, because it confounded my initial expectations. Which is more efficient when sending out a load of paper newsletters – breaking the tasks into stages (folding them all, then stuffing them all, then sealing them all) or doing each newsletter one by one, start to finish?
It’s the latter: the small batch beats the production line. This is because while the efficiency of the individual task improves if take the division of labour approach, the overall inefficiency of the system outweighs it (piles of letters and envelopes everywhere… what happens if the newsletters don’t fit etc?)
I even downloaded the app which is the centre of Eric Ries’s story, IMVU. Playing around on it for 10 minutes I’m not quite sure I get it. A classic laggard, alas.
“He and his daughters each took half the envelopes and competed to see who would finish first. The father won the race, and not just because he is an adult.”
by Dale Carnegie
A classic from 1936, whose thesis could be summarised as “Don’t be a d*ck.” It has been so influential over the years it feels like you’ve read it before.
This is a book of behavioural economics avant la lettre, so the principles will be familiar to readers of Freakonomics, Thinking Fast and Slow, or Nudge.
Where it differs, and is still actually useful (almost unbelievably, given how old it is) is in practical hints and tips for specific situations.
An underperforming mill? Don’t criticise, chalk the number ‘6’ on the floor! (Charles Schwab)
Need children on your street to feed your rabbits? Don’t pay them, just name the rabbits after the children you want to pick the clover! (Andrew Carnegie).
There are also countless examples and principles of how to behave in business situations too, usually boiling down to variants of: be kind and listen.
It’s so charmingly done, I found myself nodding along to the simple principles rather than being irritated by what otherwise might be a bit twee.
“This is an action book,” says Carnegie (the author, not the steel magnate) and he’s right. This is one of the best books for entrepreneurs, but is also a book that everyone should read.
“The unvarnished truth is that almost all the people you meet feel themselves superior to you in some way, and a sure way to their hearts is to let them realize in some subtle way that you recognize their importance, and recognize it sincerely.”
by Rob Fitzpatrick
Everyone and their dog recommended this book (including John Mullins – see below – who is quoted on the cover of the paperback edition I read).
The book provides techniques to obtain useful information from potential customers (hint – don’t feed customers the answers you want) and what to be wary of when interviewing customers (compliments are evil).
Of all the books so far, this is the shortest and most pleasurable to read. It is genuinely funny and makes things you never thought of seem blindingly obvious.
I highly recommend. Not least because when people inevitably recommend it, you can smile smugly to yourself before asking another question (see the chapter, ‘Asking important questions’).
Incidentally, the moral of the story is NOT to NOT ask your mum questions, it’s that if you ask questions correctly, you can ask anyone, including your mum, and get good data.
(And yes, it’s ‘mum’, not ‘mom’. In the same way it’s ‘Adviserly’ not ‘Advisorly’. Ahem.)
“People stop lying when you ask them for money.”
by John Mullins
A book about the business side of things BEFORE you write a business plan.
It sets out a ‘seven domains analysis’ which looks at both macro and micro factors by which an idea should be judged. It distinguishes ‘industry’ from ‘market’ and also looks at a ‘team’ domain.
This book is best when looking at the industry and market issues, and forces readers to face reality that their own ideas might not be great.
I found myself assessing my own ideas as I was reading, thinking about how well they would score. Reading is a bit of an ordeal, but I think ideas come out the end stronger for it.
Definitely worth a read early on in the journey.
“Every year there are 2 million entrepreneurs in the UK actively engaged in starting a new business. Many of their ventures will never get off the ground. Of those that do, the majority will fail.”
By Noam Wasserman
This book explained many of the mistakes I made with a previous idea, so would definitely make it into my ‘best books for entrepreneurs’ list.
This book is mainly about the people founding a business, rather than the business itself. It offers plenty of data to back up the various conclusions.
It explores in detail what tends to motivate founders, and what the results are for founders with different motivations, the principal motivations being a desire for wealth and control.
The wealth-versus-contol paradigm runs through the book, forcing founders to confront and challenge their own motivations.
It contains many a cautionary tale of founders teaming up with the wrong people for the wrong reasons and aligning their interests really badly.
I wouldn’t say this book is why I’m a solo founder (I would like one!) but it certainly makes me think more fully about why I would want one.
This is vital reading right from the start, before you’ve even had the first idea and certainly before you even THINK of getting a co-founder.
“It’s unfortunate but true: if entrepreneurship is a battle, most casualties stem from friendly fire or self-inflicted wounds.”
By Bianca Miller-Cole and Byron Cole
I read this one first, as I’d heard it was a good introduction. Having read it, I don’t think that’s quite right.
It’s not one of those books that is useful to read from start to finish, but rather contains useful tips and tricks as you go along.
If you are looking for the granular detail of how to tweet successfully, this one’s for you.
I would recommend reading this once you’ve already started, and by ‘read’ I mean dip into the relevant section as it becomes useful. It is OK, but not one of the best books for entrepreneurs.
“Ultimately, you need to ensure that there is a demonstrable demand, and that you are not simply inventing a problem to solve.”