20 Books Every Startup Founder Should Read
In the age of constant distractions, finding time to read anything can be challenging but if you’re able to, you should definitely give at least one or two of these books a try. Plus, they’re all likely to be available as audiobooks so that you can listen to them on your commute or while you’re in bed.
They range from leadership books to books about self-discovery. Hopefully, they’ll have you thinking more creatively and help you embrace yourself for who you are and what you do.
1. Start With Why (Simon Sinek)
Start With Why is a good book to read if you’re struggling with a mission statement, or searching for a purpose.
No one truly cares what you do, they just want to know why you do it and if you get the ‘why’ part right, you can sell it. People will buy a ‘why’, they won’t buy a ‘what’, there are probably plenty of other ‘what’ options to choose from! Your company philosophy and values make all the difference, more so than your services or products.
If you like (or prefer) videos, Sinek gave a great Ted Talk called ‘How great leaders inspire action’, which essentially summarizes everything in this book.
2. Outliers: The Story of Success (Malcolm Gladwell)
This book is the epitome of the phrase ‘practice makes perfect’.
In Outliers, Gladwell goes into detail about how success is a result of both the time you put into something and the opportunities you’re presented with at any given time.
Not giving up once you’ve started is largely the key to pursuing your dream. The biographical examples used throughout are memorable and in many ways useful to reflect upon. It’s written in a way that makes you consider your own life in comparison and although it’s never a good idea to compare yourself to others, it is an interesting lesson in self-reflection.
3. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Noah Harari)
Knowing how to be human and understanding (or at least trying to understand) your fellow human beings is quite important.
Business is all about people, knowing them, buying from them, selling to them. This book isn’t for everyone but if you’re interested in anthropology, history, business and how the world is evolving with us, you won’t be disappointed. Some of you may not enjoy ‘Sapiens’, or may find it a little too simplistic. Although this only really applies if you’re an academic or have some kind of background in the subject.
It is, however, a great read for anyone who enjoys or would like to learn more about sociology or social intelligence.
4. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Carol S. Dweck)
If you’re interested in learning about different mindsets or understanding your own a little better, then this is a nice choice. Mindset reads as a typical self-help book which is not necessarily a bad thing, it is what it is.
The book uses the word ‘mindset’ instead of, or as a synonym for ‘self-esteem’ and it’s interesting how people with high or low self-esteem often lead contrasting lives.
It is about how your mindset (as implied by the title) can affect the way you lead (and live) your life. The same messages are touched upon throughout so it may seem quite repetitive at points.
Whether it’s a ‘growth mindset’ or a ‘fixed mindset’, you’ll surely learn something.
5. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Stephen Covey)
This book is considered a classic in terms of its continued popularity. With mixed reviews, it’s not for everyone.
However, if you read it with an open mind (and take into consideration when it was written) it is a practical, informative guide and a nice insight into the business world of the late eighties, early nineties.
We’re of course referring to the use of what could be considered outdated ‘corporate buzzwords’ of which we have our own twenty-first-century versions. If you’re able to use this book to effectively change your perspective in order to accomplish something, even if it’s something small, then you’ve learned from it.
The actions you take in order to develop lifelong habits is a useful takeaway, be prepared and set clear goals.
6. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg)
Contrary to popular belief, this book isn’t only for rich, privileged women with too much time on their hands (although of course, they’re welcome to read it). It is first and foremost a book about leadership.
It’s about being able to make a decision and run with it. It’s about inequality (which in industries such as technology or finance is often prevalent).
Lean in is a book relevant to conquering your fear of failure, your fear of being judged and your fear of the unexpected, regardless of your gender.
The book also covers some topics which are rarely brought up, it’s brave in parts and encouraging in others, you’ll learn a lot about the way women feel in the workplace and what you can do to support them.
7. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni)
This is a short book which manages to combine your typical business book with a fictional twist, making it easier to visualise the main causes of problems within teams.
The concepts pertaining to the examples are explained in a way which is entertaining and informative. Trust, engagement, commitment and focus are all key themes.
It emphasises the importance of people being able to work as a team because choosing the right team for your company is crucial to reaching your goals. We’ve also written about rapidly growing teams here.
A team full of unpredictability may lead to unexpected issues at a later date.
8. First, Break All the Rules (Marcus Buckingham)
Although at first sight this appears to be yet another boring book on ‘management’, it isn’t. The content is surprising as it’s less about the manager and more about the people they manage.
It’s about hiring the best talent. When you hire successful people, their success becomes your success as a manager. This is an ideal book to read if you’re just starting up and you want to rethink the way you approach your leadership or management style.
First, Break All The Rules makes it clear that great managers care about the people they work with, on a personal level. They need opportunities and space to grow and most of all they need to be praised and feel supported as they do so.
9. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t (James C. Collins)
This isn’t a great book, it’s a good book. However, according to the book ‘good’ is the enemy of ‘great’. It contains a number of valuable notions and is particularly helpful when you’re building a business from scratch.
When you read it, remember that knowing what is great for you, might not be great for someone else and that if you’re content with being good, just be good. Striving to be the best version of yourself is more important than simply striving to be the ‘best’. The definition of what is best or what is
good, or even great differs between individuals. Know yourself.
Good to Great is quite accessible in the way that it was written and it’s easy to read in that everything is set out clearly.
10. The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (Steven Pressfield)
The Art of War was almost added to this list but instead, we’ve chosen to recommend The War of Art. Creative thinking is relevant to success. If you always think within the box, you’ll never be as innovative as you hope to be.
This book is considered to be less about nonsense and more about resistance. You are strong, you are in control of your decisions, you need to find your passion and use it to motivate yourself. At times, the book could be considered to be a little overbearing or slightly aggressive as the author writes down his thoughts with recognisable intensity.
This can be difficult for some readers but if you start it with that knowledge, you should still gain something useful from it.
11. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (Matt Ridley)
The Rational Optimist is a book about innovation. It makes you feel as though you should invent something, do something, try something to make the world a better place.
You can’t change the world if you don’t try and if no one tries, then everything just remains the same. If you like books about the fall of corporations, you’ll love this. It might even make you feel more confident about your startup or company.
This book has clearly been well researched, it contains facts and information that will be undoubtedly beneficial to the reader. The future of humanity is put into question and as we’ve mentioned previously, there is no business without people.
12. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (Susan Cain)
The people who talk the most or the loudest aren’t always the ones with the best ideas (although it does depend on the individual).
Although this book will help introverted personalities feel less alone and more content within themselves, it’s a good idea for extroverts to read it too. Extroverts will surely learn more about their ‘less confident’ counterparts.
If you don’t consider yourself to be either introverted or extroverted, you should read it anyway. The data within this book and the research provided is incredibly helpful. Although social intelligence is considered key to running a successful business, that’s not always the case.
Ideas matter. If you’re not a ‘people person’ you can always hire someone who is!
13. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
We all know that it’s your mistakes that make you who you are, they’re the things we learn the most from (sometimes) and they’re the things we usually fear the most.
Not worrying what people think of you and not worrying about making a mess (as long as you’re able to clean it up or get someone to help you) is something that most of us need to work on. Several systems and societies throughout history have thrived on disorder.
The writing isn’t particularly pleasant to read at times and the author might come across as being a little bit full of himself but if you ignore that, you’ll surely find what you’re looking for in this book! Use your stress and learn to be less fragile.
14. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Daniel H. Pink)
Why do you do what you do? Who do you do it for? If the answers to those two questions aren’t ‘I enjoy it’ followed by ‘I do it for myself’, then you need to read this book. Drive encompasses how management styles have changed, no more putting up with micromanagement, no more bosses that don’t trust their employees. Trust leads to drive.
You can’t suffocate other people to get them to do what you want. It’s unethical to make another human being feel like they’re worthless, both in and outside of a work environment. What helps you feel motivated? What doesn’t? The latter needs to be considered carefully. If something or someone in your life is affecting your ability to do well, let it/them go.
15. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration (Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull)
If you’re hoping for a concrete way for your company to be more creative, you are not going to find it in this book. Creativity, Inc. is an honest account of how creativity is something which may come and go. There are no rules you can put in place to make your teams more creative if they’re just not feeling the project or the people they work.
Founders will appreciate this book, particularly when it comes to design and development teams. The author Edwin Catmull knows a lot about technology and being creative, so there are some great insights into leadership. Allowing employees to be their authentic selves will help (to a certain extent) to keep creative company culture thriving.
16. The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (Daniel Coyle)
There are some groups of people who are more successful than others, we’re all aware of this fact and likely to accept it but we don’t often question it. Now is the time to start asking the right kinds of questions, this book can help. What is it that sets a successful group apart? How are they different? Why are they different? What steps should I take to be part of such a group? Should I start my own?
Now replace the word ‘group’ with the word ‘business’, ‘company’ or ‘startup’.The Culture Code will help you redefine your company culture, your mission statement and overall purpose. It might also help you to not worry about being seen as vulnerable.
When your team know that you as a leader need them, they’re more likely to connect with you on a human level.
17. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (Barry Schwartz)
If you’re looking to change the way you think, even just a little bit, this book is the right choice for you. It’s definitely a perspective shifter. We often think that more channels means more time spent watching the television shows we like but that’s just not true. The same can be said for having too much choice in any situation.
Too much choice can be overwhelming and can result in a loss of productivity due to time wasting. That’s not to say that choice is a bad thing, it isn’t. Think of all the time you’ve spent struggling to make a firm decision.
Whether you’re a satisficer or maximizer, this book will no doubt help you improve your productivity skills.
Figure out what you want, go and get it.
18. Thinking Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)
Most of us are emotionally led, we make decisions based on our emotions even when we don’t realise we’re doing it. We’re not always as rational or logical as we’d like to be.
This book is a smart reminder of how we all come with our own perspectives and biases. It isn’t really a psychology book, it’s more philosophical.
Thinking Fast and Slow talks about the different kinds of self, it alludes to the fact that most of us are inherently quite lazy and that as a whole we generally make poor choices.
Making decisions and sticking to them with confidence is a useful lesson to learn.
19. Ego is the Enemy (Ryan Holiday)
Ego is the Enemy is another book we consider to be relevant philosophically. It’s straightforward, interesting and genuinely quite a useful read! Aspire, Success, and Failure are three sections of the book which offer insights into each of these themes. “While the history books are filled with tales of obsessive, visionary geniuses who remade the world in their image with sheer, almost irrational force, I’ve found that history is also made by individuals who fought their egos at every turn, who eschewed the spotlight, and who put their higher goals above their desire for recognition.” (Ego is the Enemy, Prologue)
It’s wise not to let your accomplishments go to your head. Be humble.
20. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work ( Mason Curry)
If you’re looking for a book to read from cover to cover, this probably isn’t it. It’s more of a coffee table book in the sense that you can pick it up and enjoy it whenever. This book is an amazing glimpse into the lives of successful people throughout history. Surprisingly, there are a lot of correlations between success and isolation, working for shorter periods of time (in bursts rather than let’s say the standard eight hour day), coffee and walks! Daily Rituals will inevitably convince you to try all sorts of new routines. The book does have a significant lack of successful women’s (or anyone who isn’t an old white man’s) routines, which is a little disappointing.
It’s quite fun to read through the informative anecdotes though in order to memorize some of the facts for future conversations: “Did you know that …?”
We’d Love to Hear from You
Is there anything you’d like to add, have we missed anything? What do you think of the books we’ve chosen? Have you read any of them? Which is your favourite?
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1. [Life-span cognitive activity, neuropathologic burden, and cognitive aging, Robert S. Wilson, Patricia A. Boyle, Lei Yu, Lisa L. Barnes, Julie A. Schneider, David A. Bennett, Neurology Jul 2013, 81 (4) 314-321; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e31829c5e8a [Online] http://n.neurology.org/content/81/4/314 (Accessed 09/05/2018)]↩
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