If you plan to start a business, or are a business owner, I commend you because it is NOT an easy way to make a living or to get rich. I find that so many people see successful entrepreneurs once they have already summited the mountain and assume the climb was smooth.
Let me tell you, it is not smooth and the climb to the top when starting a business is not a straight path. That path goes up, and down, and back and left and right and around and has you dizzy and confused and simply trying to put one foot in front of another.
Then when you think you’re close there is a giant rockslide and you have to go back to the last turn and find a different route. Sometimes business owners finally find that right route and reach their ultimate goal and sometimes it all ends in failure. That is what owning a business in the real world is like and anyone that tells you otherwise is full of you know what!!
So, why would you even start a business? Well, I started my first businesses in high school because I wanted to make money and I wasn’t going to get it from my parents.
As an adult, I realized I couldn’t be happy working for the man but I had no other ideas in place so other than winning the lottery this was my only real option.
Some people realize that they have a groundbreaking idea, a way to improve on an existing model, a need for freedom, grow a side hustle, or just get bored in Corporate America and decide to go for it.
For anyone that makes that leap I have mad respect for you, and I wish you the best. However, what I have learned from my success and failures is that not everyone willing to take the leap is well prepared for the ride.
Too many people go into business thinking that they are special, smarter, more innovative, or have more funding but in the end, there is always someone smarter, actually special, vastly innovative and richer that you will have to compete against.
All of those things matter, but what really truly matters in business is hard work, persistence and process. This is not going to be your typical list of business books with the “Lean Startup” because most of those are written for the Facebooks, Airbnb’s, and startups that will IPO.
Now, let me tell you I certainly hope that your business grows to a level that you will be able to IPO and make you fabulously wealthy, but for most businesses that is not the case. It is more likely that you will never sniff going public with any of your businesses, sorry to disappoint. (Also don’t let me crush your dreams, and if you do have that IPO worthy business message me I’m always looking for new opportunities. haha. But seriously though…)
However, you can still live comfortably or be rich by building a business that is never listed on the Nasdaq. For that reason, this list of books to read is for you, and I and those that are one-person operations that will grow to behemoths under your watch or will remain small but successful.
This is for the grinders, the ones that understand they aren’t the smartest but they are going to outwork their competitors. They are going to build processes so that their business can run on its own and they are going to wade through the muck for months or years before they come out smelling like roses.
If this is you and you are willing to do what many small business owners are not, then read the list and be on your way to the grind. In descending order, these are books that for unique reasons I see as valuable tools that new business leaders should understand.
9 Must-Read Books Before Starting a Business
9. How to Win Friends and Influence People
This is an oldie and a goodie, and it has aged well because the business principles are timeless. Despite what the name might lead you to believe, there is literally nothing condescending or sneaky about what Dale Carnegie teaches.
A more accurate title for the book might have been, “How to care about people which in turn will cause them to like you and listen to you.” Now that isn’t quite a catchy and it’s a little wordy so that’s probably why the original book has done much better over the decades than my alternately titled book would have.
Even if you aren’t going to join the ranks of small businesses this is a book worth ready or listening to the audiobook.
This book reminds us of how to be considerate and interested in human beings. How about being appreciative and asking someone about themselves, and then OMG listening to what they have to say. (I am still a work in progress by the way)
Successful business owners are often liked by people, and how do you think they go about that? They ask the other person about themselves and what they enjoy and they smile at them.
Smiling is a great way to positively influence people and helps to put any negative idea out of their head. Your employees, customers, vendors and even competitors are going to like you when you treat people this way. Those people that begin to like you will be loyal and honest with you, things you will desperately need to be at your best in business.
8. Work Rules
Laszlo Bock was in charge of human resources at Google, which they refer to as People Operations, and despite my previously zealous statement about public companies, there is good info to be learned from this book even for small companies.
My company used to be as guilty as any as treating employees like assembly line workers that we could just plugin. That mindset cost us a lot of money over the years, and while at the time we didn’t realize what we were doing, hindsight taught us that we could have done things much better. This was a book that inspired me to do things differently with subsequent companies and man was it harder than it seemed.
Even with a new company, the fact that we had carried over staff, our old bad habits wanted to be carried over as well. it was Laszlo Bock that helped me to understand the difference between real true corporate culture and some window dressing that made no difference. The book references case studies from Google and research that can be applied to even small companies.
Because Google in many ways runs like a much smaller company the ideas can be leveraged to your benefit. The first thing to understand is that people tend to thrive in an environment where they feel part of. That means trusting your employees with more information than you might otherwise expect.
In my early ventures, I would never discuss revenue, profitability goals, or even general goals. In my new businesses, the employees have incentives laid out periodically that incentivize them to help us with those goals. When we have to make a change we explain to them why. Culture is every day, not just on the days we say are culture days.
Our team understands that while we expect performance from them we also welcome their input, and many suggestions have been implemented. These are all principles that have built more cohesion and are things I would not have known to do or had the guts to do without reading this book.
7. 4 Hour Work Week
I am going to be entirely upfront with you, I avoided this book for years because I hated the title. I still do, but obviously, millions of others were drawn to the title. I wish I had read the book sooner. It’s like when Netflix recommends a show with a 98% rating but there isn’t anything about it that sounds interesting.
Then you watch it and you think, “why did I avoid it so long, that was silly Netflix knows what it’s talking about” (maybe that’s just me though). Anyway, this is a must-read for any business owner regardless of if you want to only work 4 hours per week or not. Tim Ferris is a take action kind of person but he takes action in calculated and controlled ways.
He wanted to have the flexibility to travel, make a living, and still be able to throw himself into his pursuits. For that reason, he created himself a day job that he didn’t really see as a job. Then over the years, he weened himself off of as many of those work responsibilities as he could. His approach in many ways is a non-starter for me and many entrepreneurs, but his principles are sound. Process and automation are the name of his game. I cannot stress enough how important process is in a successful business.
Consider if you go into your favorite pizza place and today the food from the menu is amazing and cooked perfectly. Then next week you go in and the pizza is undercooked, toppings are clumped up, and there is almost no cheese. Chances are you would not be happy and would not consider that high-quality food.
That is a process; getting a repeatable result over and over again. Unfortunately, too many small business owners make themselves the process. If you are the process you can never take a vacation, get sick, grow your business, or retire. As Tim mentions, you have not created a business, you have created an intensive job for yourself. The process allows you to automate and outsource.
You can outsource tasks to staff in your company, outside contractors, part-time workers, or companies overseas, and get repeatable results with a solid enough process. Outsourcing is your key to growth, reduced stress, and increased financial success.
It is important that you have a hand on your business, but it is not important for you to do every task yourself. If you can’t teach someone else to do your job then you are not a startup success because you don’t have a process and you need to start creating one. Then create another, and another. Process, process, process.
6. Ego is the Enemy
This author spent years in the high energy, high-pressure business world, and according to his claims had an excessive ego. I have never seen a business plan that addresses the ego of a founder or officer, and I don’t think that Guy Kawasaki covers that topic either, but it is important to understand.
I have an ego, just ask my wife or anyone that knows me, but my ego does not cloud my judgement when it comes to my strengths and weaknesses. I am clear-headed enough and can put my ego to the side to allow for learning and self-evaluation. Many people cannot, and the more successful they become the more their ego grows. Your ego can be deadly to a new business because you will not see the pitfalls and you will overestimate your own abilities.
This book is one of several by the author related to Stoicism in modern life and the stoic philosophies including not allowing your emotions (or ego) to control your decision making. Let me be clear that ego is different than confidence or persistence.
Confidence is earned not once, but all the time, day in and day out, and is absolutely necessary for any entrepreneur but isn’t discussed enough in business books. Being driven by confidence is not blinding or debilitating.
Being drive by your ego means that you cannot admit being wrong. Ego often means that you feel like you’re too good for the dirty work of your business, whether that be flipping burgers, throwing out the trash, or answering late-night emails. Your ego, when left unchecked, can turn a sound business idea into an utter failure. It takes continuous innovation to create, but ego leads you to believe you are a finished product when you are certainly
5. The Coaching Habit
Most of us leaders talk too much and say too many things when what we need is to ask questions and coach. Telling someone what or how to do something versus coaching them to do something is the difference between teaching someone to fish and giving them a fish.
I spent a LOT of my life telling people things when I should have been coaching them. I then passed down that experience and engrained it into others. That is not an easy habit to break, but it is vital to your success.
Consider the telephone game where information gets passed and distorted and the end result is vastly different from the original words. If you want to create radically successful businesses you have to do things radically differently. Start by asking questions, specifically How and What questions.
The opener he suggests is “what’s on your mind,” because with “what” questions, people cannot give yes or no answers and must put in some thought. When other people are doing the talking they feel more invested in the conversation and they give you valuable insight they may not have intended to provide.
An entrepreneur is often starved of information, but this is a wellspring. You can be lucky or smart in business, but really you need a combination of the two. Asking questions as part of your coaching model can help you be both. When you are providing advice you feel empowered, but the road to change is limited.
When the person being coached engages and expends mental energy they can often come to the solution on their own, and if not, are ready for coaching and guiding rather than telling or instructing. Coaching is ongoing, all the time informally and formally until the individual being coached is actually able to be a coach. When you can create and coach coaches, you are officially an expert.
4. High-Performance Habits
Habits are king for any venture you want to be successful in, but they are not included in templates you’ll find for business plans. Motivation is important and for self-starters that is sometimes all that is needed, but habits create discipline.
Discipline is much greater than motivation. Discipline is moving forward even when you don’t want to, whether that be related to your business ideas, exercise, school work, or anything else that is necessary. The author simplifies the habits of success that he outlines, but there is a lot of truth to the importance of those habits. These 6 habits are not the end game for me, but as far as a business book goes, it is extremely valuable.
The habits outlined, starting with seeking clarity, are valuable tools that allow you to operate at a higher level. Things such as hard work and perseverance are not diminished by these habits but complement one another. There is a lot of ambiguity in life that can do damage, and much of it is self-inflicted.
When we put something together, many of us don’t grab the instructions and read before starting as we should. Instead, we make some mistakes and then go back to them to find out that while we thought we had it under control, we would have been better off using the instructions the first time.
Clarity as both the person making the request and the person following through on the request is key. There are so many opportunities as an entrepreneur to adapt to problems the world throws at you that there is no reason to create more for yourself. These habits will help put you in a position for success in the long term and a highly profitable business.
Again, habits! Habits are our mind’s Tesla Autopilot for the real world and they allow us to accomplish things without expending valuable mental energy thinking about it. Consider how tiring it would be if we had to think about breathing for each inhale and exhale throughout the day.
You literally wouldn’t have the energy for anything else. Starting a business is extremely taxing and it can often be that way for years ahead, so allow your mind to be trained to accomplish things without wasting precious mental energy.
Triggers in reference to a habit are something that starts a habit loop without you needing to actively think about it. This habit loop can be something positive for us as entrepreneurs or something negative.
Consider that if you go to the gym on certain days but you can’t seem to get yourself there on other days. Break down your behavior and consider the factors. There is likely a trigger on certain days that sends you to the gym that isn’t present on other days.
Or, on those other days, there is a negative trigger that ends up leading you to happy hour instead. The structure of a habit is the trigger that starts things off, the action, and then the reward. The reward is not always positive, but we can train our brains in that moment to consider it a reward.
The idea is to understand what is triggering your habits so that you can retrain your brain. This retraining allows entrepreneurs to focus on their businesses and to maximize productivity without the mental drain of decisions. One thing to make sure you understand is habits are not easy to create or break. However, simply being aware of the structure of your habits is an important first step. Your goal is to make money with your new business, so build the habits that support that and retrain the ones that do not.
2. Leaders Eat Last
This is a must-read and might be as important to you as the most well researched and written business plan. Simon Sinek is one of my favorite authors and I believe I’ve read all of his books.
This book is a beautiful read for anyone thinking that they are going to be a business mogul or just wanting to have the best barbershop in town. This is hands down one of the best books for starting a small business and I recommend it for anyone that ever intends to have an employee or more.
Starting with the title says it all, but does not do even a bit of justice to the book. True leaders do NOT eat first, they see that their people are taken care of and then they may take care of themselves. From military to business leaders the principle is the same, you as the leader or entrepreneur are not important enough to put yourself above anyone else.
You do not matter without those around you and when you turn your business ideas into real-life businesses there will be situations where you literally eat last. There will be times that you have paid your bills and all of your employees have been paid their salary, bonuses, etc and there is little to nothing left for you.
You might be ordering off the dollar menu while your team spends their sales bonus or overtime money on a nice dinner. There is absolutely no getting around that if you want to build a lasting company with people that give a damn about you or your customers more than just a paycheck.
For 3 years of building my first business, my partner and I literally made less money than any other person that worked for us. For a period of time I made zero dollars, and then a little more than zero until one day I had a real salary. Then I started earning large profits and at that point we shut down our old company and started a new one.
As tends to be the case with an entrepreneur, my next venture was bigger and better-funded, which meant more of my money being reinvested. As we had sales reps making six figures, I had personally poured in a half a million dollars and seen no return.
Then, we turned a corner and started seeing a profit that is continuing to grow. If you want the opportunity at the back end for success, you’re going to have to take it in the shorts on the front end. This is the part that nobody sees or truly understands, but you must accept in order to push through the muck.
1. The Hard Thing About Hard Things
This book is flat out the best book I can recommend for anyone starting a business. In fact, before I consider an investment with anyone, I make them read The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Nothing else on a “books to read for entrepreneurs” list comes close to the raw in your face reality of what owning a business is like.
This book will either entertain you and then cause you to fold up your tent and your business idea and go home, or it will invigorate you and prepare you for the fight ahead. Starting a business is a fight. Sometimes it is a fight for your financial future, independence from the man, or your sanity, but it is a fight nonetheless. NO matter how many books you read or if you build a lean startup, if you are not ready to push through stress, doubt, and dismay, you are not ready to own a business.
I have seen potential entrepreneurs invest hours or months into a 20-page business plan without ever understanding what it truly means. Everyone wants the riches and the glory but very few are willing to endure the pain that comes before. Peter Thiel, Pat Flynn, Gary Vaynerchuk, Guy Kawasaki, and Tim Ferris are all entrepreneurs that have experienced these pains and come out the other side, but none has been able to capture that struggle like Ben Horowitz.
Perhaps his truly deep understanding of what starting a business means makes him uniquely qualified to be a venture capitalist funding the dreams of hundreds of future entrepreneurs through Andreessen Horowitz, a company that has been on or near the ground floor of some massively successful ventures. If you take nothing else away from this post, it is to read this book. Or rather listen to the audiobook, as the audible narrator is fantastic!!.
Crushing It: Gary V, as mentioned earlier, is a highly motivational and highly realistic expert for an entrepreneur to follow. His social media insight is invaluable, and I highly recommend you follow him on social media as well. If your small business isn’t leveraging social media in some way you are doomed to fail. This is often considered one of the great books for business in the new world.
Range: This is an excellent book to open your eyes to the misconception that being an expert at one single thing is enough. You can build a great career being great at one thing, but you can’t build an empire. Builders of more than themselves must have range and flexibility.
Narconomics: This might seem like a very unusual pick, and no I am not suggesting that you drop your current idea and start being a drug kingpin after listening to one audiobook, but I do suggest you take some principles.
Too often I have seen individuals starting a business without knowing their numbers. You can read all the books you want, but even street corner dealers understand the numbers of their business without any best sellers to guide them. Drugs are huge business from top to bottom, so don’t you dare convince yourself that you can’t figure out how much your cost is to replace an engine, make a pizza, or staff your hotel.
I can guess that if you made it through this whole blog that your mind is a little wobbly and possibly flat out blown because I threw a lot of books and a lot of info at you. I tried to do my best to make it logical and organized but business isn’t always either of those things.
I highly recommend audible, and your first audiobook is usually free. It is a great way to consume valuable information while keeping your mind fresh. If this hasn’t scared you away, I wish you nothing but the best on your grind.