What books are a “must read” list for startups?

By Erica Virtue, Co-founder, Vitogo.com

I originally wrote this post for my blog – http://unsolicitedadvice.org/2012/03/28/startup-book-club/, but I thought it might be helpful if I also posted it here.

Here is my collection of essential startup reading. Although many of these books cover an array of topics related to entrepreneurship, I’ve organized them based on their primary theme.


Founders at Work – Jessica Livingston

Founders at Work is a collection of interviews with founders of famous technology companies about what happened in the very earliest days. Includes stories from founders like Steve Wozniak (Apple), Caterina Fake (Flickr), Mitch Kapor (Lotus), Max Levchin (PayPal), and Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail).

This is a great book to read if you are thinking about founding a startup, or if you already have, and want to hear some advice and words of encouragement from entrepreneurs who made it. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:

“I’m a big believer that constraints inspire creativity. The less money you have, the fewer people and resources you have, the more creative you have to become … There were times when we were really broke before we had our angel investment, when only one guy who had children was getting paid.” – Caterina Fake (Cofounder, Flickr).

“First we built the audience and then we figured out a product” – David Heinemeier Hansson (Cofounder, 37signals).

“If you want to shoot a duck, you have to shoot where the duck is going to be, not where the duck is. It’s the same with introducing technology.” – Charles Geschke (Cofounder, Adobe Systems).

Art of the Start – Guy Kawasaki

The Art of the Start focuses on how to get anything (business, event or any idea) up and running. It’s a practical and useful guide based on Guy Kawasaki’s years of experience working in Silicon Valley as a startup founder, evangelist at Apple, a VC, and a writer.

In the book, Kawasaki encourages entrepreneurs to make meaning, make mantra, and get going. His FAQ sections address the questions that people starting a company are most likely to have. Overall, it’s a great book, and it comes highly recommended.

If you want to get an idea of what it’s about, you can read the Art of the Start Manifesto.

Good to Great – Jim Collins

Over five years, Jim Collins and his team analyzed the histories of eleven companies to uncover the key determinants of greatness – why some companies make the leap from mediocre to great and others don’t.
Collins discovered that at the root of these companies’ successes is something called the “Hedgehog Concept” – a product or service that leads a company to outshine all worldwide competitors.

Some people question Collins’ research methods for being unsystematic and biased, and his conclusions may be a bit too general to be that immediately useful. You can read a review of why Good to Great isn’t Very Good on Business Pundit.

However, if you are looking for interesting ideas on how to improve your business, thenGood to Great might be worth reading. It won’t give you the secret recipe for success, but it will give you some food for thought!

Ideas and Product/Market Fit

The Four Steps to the Epiphany – Steve Blank

Based on Steve Blank’s class at Berkeley’s Haas school of business, The Four Steps to the Epiphany lays out a customer development process that complements a startup’s product development process. Blank gives his step-by-step strategy of how to successfully organize sales, marketing and business development for a new product or company.

Touted by some as required reading for anyone starting a business, there is no doubt that there is some useful info in this book. However, it’s also very difficult to read. A better option might be to skip the book and head straight to Venture Hacks’ summary, which includes slides and videos. Eric Ries also has a nice post that pulls out the main points of the book.

The Lean Startup – Eric Ries

In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries describes his “Lean Startup” methodology, which advocates for the creation of rapid prototypes designed to test market assumptions, and uses customer feedback to evolve them much faster than via more traditional product development practices. Ries was inspired by the lean manufacturing process, which focuses on eliminating any work or investment that doesn’t produce value for customers.

The Lean Startup methodology has been criticized by some. Marc Andreessen, a co-founder of Netscape and now a VC, says that some entrepreneurs have misinterpreted the Lean Startup methodology as a reason to remain small and not go for big opportunities. Others have complained that the book is a bit too self-promotional.

However, there is no denying that The Lean Startup has had a big impact on the startup community and the way that many entrepreneurs approach their companies. Many of Ries’ ideas are timeless and applicable to companies of any size – reduce waste, learn quickly, make data driven decisions, focus on customer value, and pivot when needed.

Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath

Made to Stick examines why some ideas thrive while others die. The Heaths explain what makes an idea sticky and how you can make your startup stickier by using the “human scale principle,” the “Velcro Theory of Memory,” and creating “curiosity gaps.”

The book is easy to read, simple, and well researched. Definitely a good resource for anyone trying to gain traction for their product.

Customer Service

Delivering Happiness – Tony Hsieh

In Delivering Happiness, Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, chronicles his entrepreneurial life and shares how he built most successful online retailers by focusing on stellar customer service and company culture.
“I wanted to write a book to talk about the journey that I took in life in terms of what would bring myself long-term happiness, and what I accidentally discovered is that you can actually take concepts from happiness and apply it to businesses,” says Hsieh.

If you are looking for a great review of Delivering Happiness, mixed with some musings on startup customer service, check out Wells Riley’s blog.

The Thank You Economy – Gary Vaynerchuk

In The Thank You Economy, serial entrepreneur, Gary Vaynerchuk, shares how any company can scale old-time, personal, one-on-one attention to its entire customer base using the same social media platforms that carry consumer word of mouth.

According to Vaynerchuck, social media isn’t a new way of doing business, rather, it’s a tool to get us back to a time when “[b]usinesses lived and died by what was said via word of mouth and by the influence people had with one another. That meant every person who walked through the door had to feel like he or she mattered.”

The Thank You Economy demonstrates how sincerely engaging with customers through social media can create brand loyalty, and includes detailed and recent examples like Zagat and Yelp.

Venture Capital

Venture Deals – Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson

Inspired by a series of blog posts by the managing directors atFoundry Group, Venture Deals demystifies the process of VC financing. This is a great book to refer back to as you progress through the different stages of fundraising and it can help you avoid some rookie mistakes.

The book includes a breakdown of the mechanics of a Term Sheet, how valuations are set, and even contains examples of standard documents that are used in VC transactions. It’s a must read if you’re thinking about fundraising or are currently fundraising.

Mastering the VC Game – Jeffrey Bussgang

Jeffrey Bussgang offers his high-level insights, colorful stories, and practical advice gathered from his own experience as well as from interviews with dozens of successful entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, including Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman. He reveals how to get noticed, perfect a pitch, and negotiate a partnership that works for everyone.

Mastering the VC Game is a great introduction and general overview of how venture capital works and what to expect, but it is by no means a complete resource. If you are looking for more detailed and practical information about raising venture capital, there are a lot of great blogs out there, like Venture Hacks, AVC, and Both Sides of the Table.

Design and Usability

Don’t Make Me Think! – Steve Krug

Don’t Make Me Think! concisely explains everything that you need to know about getting started with web usability. In this book, usability expert, Steve Krug, explains how to design pages for scanning, not reading and how to write for the web. “When I wrote Don’t Make Me Think, my intent was to help people learn to think like a usability expert: to ask the same questions that were in my head when I did a usability review.”

Don’t Make Me Think! is a short and engaging read. It’s a great resource for designers or for anyone involved in making things for the web.

Above the Fold – Brian Miller

“Above the fold” is a design concept that refers to the location of an important news story or a visually appealing photograph on the upper half of the front page of a newspaper (or for webpages, the part of a page that’s visible without scrolling).

Above the Fold (the book) covers the fundamentals of effective graphic communication in web design. The book is broken into three sections that focus on site design, planning and usability, and SEO and other marketing issues. If you’re just starting out, reading Above the Fold will give you a solid foundation in all aspects of the web design process.

ReWork – 37 Signals

ReWork is basically just Signal vs. Noise, the design and usability blog by 37signals, in book format. If you’ve already read the blog, then it’s probably not worth also picking up the book.

If you haven’t heard of the blog, and you want all the best info in a compact format, then this book is for you! The authors share the philosophies at the core of 37signals’ success and push you to rethink everything that you thought you knew about strategy, customers, and getting things done.


Purple Cow – Seth Godin

Depending on who you talk to, there might be four, five, seven, or more “P”s of marketing – pricing, product, promotion, publicity, packaging, place, process, physical evidence, and people. According to Seth Godin, marketers have been ignoring the most important “P” of all: the Purple Cow.

Cows are boring. But a Purple Cow is anything phenomenal, counterintuitive, exciting, or remarkable. Every day, consumers ignore a lot of brown cows, but you can bet they won’t ignore a Purple Cow.

Not ready to commit? Read an excerpt from Purple Cow in Fast Company.

Crossing the Chasm – Geoffrey Moore

Geoffrey Moore argues that high-tech products require marketing strategies that differ from those in other industries. Early adopters of a technology are not necessarily the same as the mainstream market, which is why some high-tech products see initial sales that level off.
The book is long-winded and wordy, so be prepared to skim. Or, you could just read this review.


Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson

This is one of my favorite books of all time (not just out of the startup books). You probably already own a copy of Steve Jobs, but if you don’t, then you probably know someone who can lend you their copy.

The book covers every phase of Steve Jobs’ life – from his adoption, to college, Apple, NeXt, Pixar, and Apple again. It’s extremely comprehensive and objective – Walter Isaacson doesn’t sugar coat Jobs’ personality or quirks.

Even though it’s long, it’s very well-written and a compelling read.

… and the Ones that Didn’t Make the Cut

There’s nothing wrong with these books, necessarily … I just wasn’t feeling them (or I thought they repeated concepts available in one of the books above). Let me know if you disagree and maybe I’ll give them a second chance.

The 4-Hour Workweek – Tim Ferriss (Unrealistic, unethical, and the only guy who ever recommended it to me was a real piece of work).

Crush It! – Gary Vaynerchuck (Came highly recommended, but I just liked The Thank You Economy better).

Do More Faster – Brad Feld and David Cohen (This just seemed like a 352 page marketing brochure).

Getting Real – 37 Signals (Similar content to ReWork, which is a newer book from 37Signals).

Built to Last – Jim Collins (I already included Good to Great … can anyone tell me why you would read both?)

The Accidental Billionaires – Ben Mezrich (There’s this movie that came out a while ago that you should watch. Maybe you’ve heard of it?)

Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Johnson (Just watch this illustrated talk).

Check out this post on my blog, Unsolicited Advice: http://unsolicitedadvice.org/2012/03/28/startup-book-club/


Author: Prajakt Raut

Prajakt Raut is the founder of Applyifi.com, and author of the book for startups - ‘Starting Up & Fund Raising’ Prajakt personal goal in life is to encourage and assist a 100,000 people to become entrepreneurs. _____________ Prajakt is the founder of Applyifi - an online platform that provides startups a 36-point scorecard and assessment report on the venture's investment readiness [www.applyifi.com], and helps them improve their odds of getting funded. Prajakt is also the founding partner of The Growth Labs, a platform where growth-stage companies get sharp, incisive advice from senior professionals and experienced entrepreneurs. [www.thegrowthlabs.in] Before starting Applyifi, Prajakt was the head of operations at IAN, founding member of a leading incubator, and the Asia-Director for TiE (2004 - 2007). Previously Prajakt had co-founded Orange Cross, a healthcare services company, and was part of the founding team member of Idealake Technologies. While in college Prajakt had founded a printing business and has spent over 10 years working in leading advertising agencies. Prajakt’s book, ‘Starting Up & Fund Raising’, helps startups understand an investor’s perspective, and helps them improve their odds of getting funded. The book also helps entrepreneurs understand the building blocks of a business.

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