As a startup founder, you have to assume that the best startup advice is no startup advice. Every situation and every company is unique. So listen to those you respect, then do whatever the f*ck you want.
"The best startup advice is no advice." – Paul Graham
However, I somehow enjoy getting book recommendations from other founders and people I admire. I never take any business book as a "requirement for building a successful business", but if a bunch of smart people recommend me a specific reading, I try to give it a chance. On the other hand, I also try to avoid reading books that EVERYBODY recommends. I think that once a book reaches a sufficiently large number of readers, there's no alpha left in reading it. Its contents will become common knowledge in the startup world and eventually flow to you – but that's just a contrarian take of mine. However, this contrarian belief might create a more interesting article, as the books that you will find here are probably not as mainstream as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, The Innovator's Dilemma, Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston, Rework by Jason Fried or Creativity, Inc with the story of Pixar.
So, here's the list where I tried to answer the question: If I could go back in time and only read 7 books, which books helped me the most as an early-stage startup founder?
🧘 Navalmanack by Eric Jorgenson
This is not the best startup book, but I think it's necessary to balance your personal and professional life first – and learn to be happy while doing something as crazy as building a startup.
This book collects and curates Naval’s wisdom from Twitter, Podcasts, and Essays over the past decade. The wisdom of Naval Ravikant, created and edited by Eric Jorgenson, with illustrations by Jack Butcher, and a foreword by Tim Ferriss.
The entirety of the book is free to read on the book's site.
🌱 High Output Management by Andrew Grove
As Brian Chesky (founder and CEO of Airbnb) said: "If you have to learn a new skill and you have a week to do it, you should pick the best 2 or three books on it. If I had to learn management from scratch, I'd read High Output Management by Andy Grove." (or something close to that 🙃).
In High Output Management, Andrew Grove, former chairman and CEO (and employee number three) of Intel, shares his perspective on how to build and run a company. Born of Grove’s experiences at one of America’s leading technology companies, this legendary management book is equally appropriate for sales managers, accountants, consultants, and teachers, as well as CEOs and startup founders. Grove covers techniques for creating highly productive teams, demonstrating methods of motivation that lead to peak performance and world-class metrics. High Output Management is a practical handbook for navigating real-life business scenarios and a powerful management manifesto with the ability to revolutionize the way we work.
🏔 The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
As per A16Z's website:
"There are lots of people talking about how great it is to start a business, but only Ben Horowitz is brutally honest about how hard it is to run one. Filled with Ben Horowitz's trademark humor and straight talk, The Hard Thing About Hard Things is invaluable for veteran entrepreneurs as well as those aspiring to their own new ventures, drawing from Horowitz's personal and often humbling experiences."
Ben Horowitz, the co-founder of the venture capital firm A16Z, addresses problems with no easy answers using his own experience, such as:
- How to fire a good friend.
- How to handle titles and promotions.
- The morality behind hiring people from a friend’s startup.
- How to manage your own psychology and external expectations.
- What to do when smart people are bad employees.
- How to become a founder CEO.
- How to sell your company and why or why not you should do it.
🧪 High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil
Elad is the co-founder of Color Genomics, former VP at Twitter, and investor/advisor to Airbnb, Coinbase, Pinterest, and others. As he explains:
Every high-growth company eventually needs to tackle thet same set of challenges around organizational structure, late-stage funding and secondary stock sales, culture, internationalization, hiring executive for roles the founders don’t understand, buying other companies, and more. This is the handbook for navigating those challenges.
I think this book is definitely worth reading for growth-stage venture capital-backed startups. Some critical lessons as distilled by Tren Griffin on Reforge:
1. Rule-breaking is necessary. The best founders, CEOs, and employees know when to follow rules and when to break them. Breaking too many rules is a bad idea (the crowd is usually right), but breaking no rules guarantees that you won't outperform the market average. There is no good generic startup advice. All advice needs to be filtered through the unique context of your own company.
2. Avoid the three things that kill early-stage companies: (1) failing to find Product/Market Fit, (2) co-founder conflicts, and (3) running out of cash.
3. Shift from product focus to distribution focus. As companies grow, individual products become less important, and the focus has to shift toward distributing multiple products. The most successful companies have powerful distribution engines.
4. Unit economics matter. If you have a high margin, negative churn business, and a good acquisition funnel, you'll succeed 99% of the time. If you grow fast but keep churning, you'll die. Recurring revenue is critical—unless you can monetize via a secondary mechanism (like selling data).
5. Don't get distracted. Many founders spend time on unnecessary areas: speaking events, over-hiring, constant fundraising, chasing fake signals from their customer, etc.
6. Use benchmarks to prepare for hypergrowth. The mission of every founder or CEO is to reduce risks and hit milestones that demonstrate the business's value.
👟 Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
If I had to choose a biography, this would be it. I think it's so inspiring because Phil Knight really portrays himself as a normal person, so you can really put yourself in his shoes. It combines Phil's trips worldwide with going from a small business idea to a world-changing company; what else could we ask for?
If you're curious about the title...
Shoe dogs were people who devoted themselves wholly to the making, selling, buying, or designing of shoes. Lifers used the phrase cheerfully to describe other lifers, men and women who had toiled so long and hard in the shoe trade, they thought and talked about nothing else.
🏀 Play Bigger by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead, Kevin Maney
I got this book recommended during my time as Swiss Army Knife Intern at Airwork in Silicon Valley the summer of 2019.
At that time, I used to read (and did not understand) so many references to category creation from venture capitalists. This book lays out a playbook to understand category dynamics and case studies to learn how to create them like Apple, Salesforce, or Amazon did. It a must-read for any startup founder.
🚀 Zero to One by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
Zero to One completely changed the way I thought about entrepreneurship and encouraged me to start my first startup in the Fall of 2018. It is almost completely contrary to the common belief in favor of the lean startup from Steve Blank and Eric Ries – which I believe it's useful for startup founders in later stages but not in the early days. It was also how I discovered the Thiel Fellowship.
Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and the first investor of Facebook, lays out so many exciting concepts in this book:
- If you want to build a better future, you must believe in secrets.
- The great secret of our time is that there are still uncharted frontiers to explore and new inventions to create.
- We live in an age of technological stagnation, even if we're too distracted by shiny mobile devices to notice.
- Doing what someone else already knows how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1.
- The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won't make a search engine.
- Tomorrow's champions will not win by competing ruthlessly in today's marketplace. They will escape competition altogether because their businesses will be unique. Competition is for losers.