No matter where your business is on the journey to scale, learning from the successes and failures of other businesses can give you the tools to approach costly and risky growth dilemmas with confidence. Reading books about startup growth can therefore be one of the cheapest and most effective ways to identify your path of least resistance to scale.
The problem is, you don’t want to waste your time trawling through bad business advice. So we asked successful founders to share their top recommendations to create the definitive list of must-read books for startup founders and their teams.
This list of essential startup books to read in 2021 features a selection of titles we’ve been recommended most often by startup founders. If you have a book recommendation you think needs to be on this list, just send us an email.
One of your favourite things to do with startup founders, investors and growth marketing experts is to geek-out on what ideas and experiences have influenced their growth mindset. Although this list will help save you time searching for the right books to read, taking the time to read a book from cover to cover takes commitment. To ensure you can effectively turn insights into action, here’s two habits we recommend adopting when making your way through this list:
No pun intended. There’s nothing worse than loosing a good source of recommendations.
Not only will this give you deadlines to stick to, reviewing books a group is a great way for growing business to align thinking and inspire better approaches to product development and marketing.
At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarise what you’ve read and how it relates to where your business is at currently. Once you’ve completed the book, you can pick it up again and quickly find what inspired you.
Created from over 30 years experience founding, co-founding and funding startups, The Start-Up J Curve provides entrepreneurs with a predictable pattern of success and a forecasts the challenges to overcome at each of the six discrete stages. The blueprint this book provides a shared model which can help founders and investors to anticipate the challenges, overcome the obstacles, and increase the chances of becoming one of the few startups who make it to scale and beyond. Although less known than bestsellers like The Lean Startup or Zero to One, Howard Love’s tools, case studies, and principles provide founders with an essential big picture perspective on the process of growing a business of any kind.
Howard Love has broken down the steps which each successful scale-up has gone through and allowed you to benchmark where you’re at and prioritise what is required to take you to the next step. It’s really good at being able to prioritise activity that actually delivers impact rather than anything that’s just going to distract and take away control.
Ben Horowitz cofounded the the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz alongside fellow ‘super angel investor’ and best selling author, Marc Andreessen. With all the wisdom gained from investing in technology companies (including Twitter, Skype, Stripe, Medium and many others), Horowitz is celebrated for its practical advice on how to navigate the most difficult parts of running and growing a business; from hiring and firing, to managing your own psychology. The Hard Thing About Hard Things is therefore an essential survival guide for any founder CEO or aspiring founder CEO.
An overall incredibly engaging story about companies we all know delivered as a valuable mix of real examples with actionable learnings. It essentially taught me that even the people I look up to had low points and had to learn on the spot. No one is born ready for this and drive and continuity can be just as valuable as experience and existing know-how. This book reminded me to keep fighting even when things felt impossible.
This book is both in inspiring and informative. It shows you just how nimble and resilient you must be to manage the challenges of the start-up world; team issues, funding issues etc. I often reflect on its contents.
Verne Harnish’s Scaling Up, addresses practical ways to navigate the common challenges that businesses face when new products fail to generate revenue or meet growth objectives. Breaking down the elements of what is needed to scale a business, Harnish details the practicalities of leading a team, templates to help strategically deliver the product objective, routines for effective execution and managing cash flow. Due to the book’s prescriptive model, many startup founders and entrepreneurs regard Scaling Up as a Bible for keeping growth on track.
Extremely specific guidance from how cash works in a company to how to think about building a people culture that enables high performance to the role of marketing (spoiler: company strategy = marketing strategy).
As an easily digestible source to prompt better connection and leadership within teams, this book is an excellent resource for anyone in a leadership role.
The core concept of the book is embracing and recognising the potential in people and their ideas. Framed as choosing courage over comfort, Brown’s theories around vulnerability in the workplace are also explored in her Netflix documentary The Call To Courage and the Dare to Lead podcast. Although not written specifically for startup founders, Dare to Lead is a great read for anyone looking to embed genuineness, dialogue on differences, and empathy into team dynamics at an early stage.
The way we lead people is crucially important everywhere, but particularly in startups. It’s people that make the startup succeed or fail. Brené Brown’s thoughts on vulnerability and how authentic connections and care between team members are vital for a productive work culture are useful for anyone building a team and aiming for healthy growth. An open, empathetic, and trusting culture is a fruitful ground for both happy employees and great company success.
Following the bestselling Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, in Leaders Eat Last, author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek encourages leaders of teams to understand the impact that leadership roles have on the people they lead. For startup founders, the concept that good leaders empower their teams to function on their own is crucial. Drawing lessons from military protocol, parenthood and evolutionary theory, Leaders Eat Last provides a wide range of examples of how to navigate stress in the workplace and foster an environment that lets a team do their best work.
Business is ultimately about people. It’s the people in your team who build the growth. Simon Sinek understands deeply what drives people and how to use this knowledge in building your business.
The phrase “when the world’ zigs, zag.” was originally coined for Levi’s ad campaign but branding guru Marty Neumeier uses it to illustrate how organisations can develop “radical” brand differentiation to effectively cut through noise of the competitive marketing landscape. Although only 178 pages, ZAG contains essential advice for startups who have found product/market fit and are ready to translate their value proposition into a brand that out-positions competition and avoids being considered a me-too product.
Helped myself and my team get to clarity on brand strategy.
Written by the founder of Michael E. Gerber Companies, an American business skills training company, The E-Myth Revisited provides a business approach philosophy to become an “illuminated entrepreneur”. Highlighting the common flaws in the businesses models of small enterprises rather than startups, Gerber positions the reader as a client that he is helping restructuring their business. One of the book’s main recommendations is focussing on building systems to allow processes to be automated or managed by multiple people with limited training. As a result, The E-Myth Revisited is a great read for any entrepreneurs who aim to step away from time consuming processes and focus on what they are best at or enjoy doing most.
Michael E. Gerber argues that new business owners typically fail because they focus on technical expertise rather than on developing business knowledge. He looks at focusing on the business as a commodity instead.
Seven-time, New York Times best-selling author Harvey MacKay’s casual, down-to-earth style of delivering advice is one of the main reasons for this book’s popularity. Never claiming to reinvent the wheel when it comes to thinking strategically and tactically, Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive outlines realistic methods for improving sales in the marketplace, outperform competitors and being a good leader. Although aimed a more general entrepreneurial reader rather than startup founders, Harvey Mackay’s advice is still relevant and applicable despite being first published in 1988.
This book’s practical, down-to earth sometimes even cynical advice is nothing like the rubbish in all the “grow your business” books that never relate to real life!
The New Digital Age combines the predictions of what’s coming next with technology of the Former CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011, Eric Schmidt, and CEO of Jigsaw (formerly Google Ideas), Jared Cohen. Although first published in 2013, the book looks far beyond the present. Building on the idea that the digital and physical worlds are two distinct civilizations, one thousands of years old and one brand new in comparison, Schmidt and Cohen predict how socio-political concepts of states, revolution, terrorism, citizenship and identity will be disrupted over time. This book is most celebrated for its exploration of the future of technology and it’s most obviously useful for founders searching for clues as to which future of business opportunities will develop as the world changes in response to these advancements in technology.
Everything is a process… Look at the horizon not your feet.
Getting to Yes is based on the findings of the Harvard Negotiation Project, a group that works to share innovative theories and practices of conflict resolution and negotiation. The book outlines the authors’ proven, step-by-step strategy for finding to agreements in conflict situations that are mutually acceptable. The idea of striving to create win-win relationship instead rather than positioning for a win-lose scenario can be applied to all the relationships a startup founder must foster to become successful.
Negotiation is a crucial skill for founders to master. Whether bringing onboard new team members, closing first customers or navigating a fundraise… negotiation happens every day at a start-up. You can, and should, learn to become great at it. Fisher and Ury outline in this book a simple framework to apply to negotiations based on their work for the Harvard Negotiation Project. Using this framework has helped me more-or-less daily at Juro.
American author and professor at INSEAD Business School, Erin Meyer researched and analysed the subtle differences in how different cultures around the world conduct business in order to provide a practical framework and advice for navigating the complexity of collaborating and negotiating deals internationally. The book breaks down business behaviours into discrete categories: communication, persuasion, leadership, performance evaluation and negative feedback, decision making, trust, disagreement and scheduling. Although obviously prone to generalisations this book is a useful tool for any founder looking for an academic head start before doing business internationally.
A great observation of leadership styles from different cultures around the world which provides a great insight into your own management approach.
Taoism, also referred to as Daoism, is an ancient Chinese tradition of philosophy and religious belief is a religion of unity and opposites; Yin and Yang.
In this hugely accessible introduction to the general concepts of Taoism, Benjamin Hoff juxtaposes quotes from A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories which Taoist teaching by Chuang-tse as well as quotations from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching. The lessons of self-development and virtuosity that Toaism teaches are useful for any startup founder and this books is a great introduction to them.
A beautiful read that tells you all you need to know about how to live life and find peace. Helped me realise that we only have one life and we need to find balance between everything that is important to us – there is no time to waste choosing to be unhappy.
Although this hugely popular book about the science of sleep by neuroscientist Matthew Walker may seem like an odd fit for a list of best books for startup founders, it’s insights have been championed by Bill Gates. In Gates’ review of the book, he said “I realize that my all-nighters, combined with almost never getting eight hours of sleep, took a big toll. Neglecting sleep undercuts your creativity, problem solving, decision-making, learning, memory, heart health, brain health, mental health, emotional well-being, immune system, and even your life span.” For any founders and their teams feeling the pressures of startup life disrupt their sleep patterns, this book clearly illustrates how more sleep can be used to be more productive and the dangers of not getting enough.
For me as a founder, sleep has always been “a waste of time”. I always felt sorry that sleep needs to be, and wanted to fight it off, and limit its hours to as few as possible. This is the culture and mantra of the busy and productive people. This book has made me realise that sleep is actually hard work for the brain and time well spent. If we don’t sleep enough – we don’t just become prone to sickness and irritable, but we are not learning, and not able to collaborate with others as well. Without sleep can lose 40% of what we’d learned the day before. Founders need to sleep 8 hours per night, and they need to sensibly organise the work schedules of their teams.
Having analysed the attributes of 2,600 CEOs and over 13,000 hours of interviews, The CEO Next Door draws practical insights from the patterns in the ways CEOs of top companies think and behave. With this information, Botelho, Powell and Raz share valuable leadership lessons to help would-be-CEO’s to prepare for the job, get hired for the job, and succeed at the job. In addition to offering advice on how to tailor your approach to individual situations, the books research also provides the data to prove that many CEO’s did not go to top top universities and many of the most successful have had turbulent careers.
Another recommendation taking inspiration from outside the business advice category, this book written by a former FBI hostage negotiator draws heavily on behavioural and neuro science to explain which negotiating techniques worked and which didn’t in real life situations. Although touted for it’s usefulness in gaining a competitive edge in everyday negotiations such as buying a car or negotiating a salary, Chris Voss’s lessons on emotional intelligence, intuition and building trust are hugely valuable for founders who regularly need to persuade people to help them build their vision.
Bill Walsh is celebrated as one of the greatest coaches in history of the NFL, famous for transforming the fortunes of the San Francisco 49ers franchise. He is also remembered for innovating an offensive style of play that changed the way the sport was played. Made up of a series of exclusive interviews between bestselling author Steve Jamison, Walsh and some of his past players, this book provides actionable advice for any leader, and endless down-to-earth stories of success and failure. This “non-corporate” perspective on leadership is a great way to gain new perspectives on how to lead and build a startup team.
Written by co-founders of Strategyzer.com, this is a fantastic resource for anyone disappointed by the failure of a good idea who wants to learn how to design, test, and deliver what customers actually want. Packed full of practical tips and frameworks, this book not only shows you what makes a great value proposition, it also helps you to avoid getting distracted by wasting time and energy with ideas doomed to fail.
It’s no surprise that the book that coined the term ‘early adopters’ has gained a reputation as the bible for bringing cutting-edge products to larger markets. Crossing the Chasm provides a realistic view of marketing technology. Written by Geoffrey A. Moore, a startup advisor who has helped establish high-tech enterprises including Salesforce, Microsoft and Cognizant, this bestseller lays out the mechanics of formulating and evolving a marketing strategy when take a fundamentally new product to the marketplace. This book is a must-read for any startup founder looking for tools to help navigate the stages of product life and for an understanding of the difficult decisions that come along with growth.
Famed for its scientific approach to entrepreneurship, this book popularized the now commonly understood idea that business growth is achieved through learning, testing, measuring, and rapidly innovating. Although Ries’ methodology is biased toward tech, this disciplined approach is now widely adopted by startups, small business, and for new initiatives within large corporations because it provides a guide for how to make the process of starting a company less risky. Focussing on the core basic principles of being lean and agile in response to customer feedback, its concepts of “minimum viable product” and “pivoting” are now ubiquitous business terms. If you think you’re already taking a lean startup approach to your business, its essential you read this book to check you’re doing it properly.
In this instructional book by Steve Blank, guru of Customer Development, he outlines a disciplined process for ‘learning and discovery’ which helps startups search for a business model that will actually work. Often cited as the precursor to The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, The Four Steps to the Epiphany is more demanding of the reader, packed full of charts, graphs, and providing a far more detailed and manual-like introduction to key concepts. For the best learning outcome, we recommend reading the The Lean Startup first and then moving onto this more advanced theory.
Running Lean is another popular guide for anyone looking to adopt the lean startup approach and currently testing whether an idea has the potential for product/market fit. Ash Maurya details a systematic process to ensure you’re business idea actually solves a problem that people need solved and that your solution is needed enough that people are willing to pay for it. Due to its level of practical detail such as customer interview templates, its is widely regarded as an essential handbook for any entrepreneurs who is looking to increase their odds of success, without wasting time.
For anyone who has read Running Lean, completed each step in the process, built a minimum viable product and wondering what to do next, Ash Maurya’s is the logical next read. Drawing lessons from unicorns like Airbnb and Dropbox, Maurya presents a model for plotting and measuring the success and failure of startups as they attempt to scale. By defining what metrics are important and when this tactical handbook is ideal for any founder daunted by the prospect of product development, iteration, optimisation and scaling.
Whether you’re a beginner or expert in product management, The Lean Product Playbook provides clear, step-by-step guidance on how to adopt a Lean approach and how to use it to build a product that customers will love (and pay for). Ideal for hands-on founders earlier stage startups looking to validate product/market fit, the concise methodology Dan Olsen outlines offers an ideal extension principles outlined in The Lean Startup by Eric Reis and the Lean series by Ash Maurya.
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