27 books every startup ought to read

Startup Books

I published this list a while ago, but thought it could use a little refresher. As a lifelong reader and Audible fanatic, the list is always growing.

In 2003 when I started my first Internet company, there wasn’t much knowledge out there for startup entrepreneurs beyond a few books and a handful of early bloggers. The best ways to learn were to ask someone who was in a startup for advice or by doing things yourself, failing and figuring it out along the way. Over the last few years there’s been some great books that have come out for startup people to learn what they need to know.

Learning (fast) all the time becomes a habit whether you are the founder or a team member in a startup. What you focus on learning is dependent on the current stage of the startup.

Here’s a compilation of the books that I have found most valuable, organized by the three high-level stages of a startup.

Stage 1: Idea

When coming up with an idea, it can seem like you could choose anything. What you are really doing is making decisions about which market to enter, the opportunity that gets you excited and identifying target customers. The following books will help you think better about the idea you decide to pursue. They are much more strategic and less tactical, and help you narrow your scope, focus on how to win, and get things in the right direction from day 1.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel

When building a company, Peter Thiel argues that you can’t try to build a better version of something that already exists. You need to think beyond that. To do so, Peter Thiel asks probing questions about ideation, creativity, and where you can create value in the world.

Business Model Generation By Alexander Osterwalder

Having an innovative business model is just as important as having an innovative product. This book is a how-to guide for developing your unique business model. It helps founders think about how tactical items like revenue stream connect to big-picture strategies, like core value proposition.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Eric Ries’ lean startup series is ground 0 for any founder. His methodology emphasizes continuous learning, leveraging creativity, and embracing being wrong. The Lean Startup helps companies grow at a breakneck pace without actually breaking anything by teaching you how to learn fast and fail faster.

Diffusion of Innovations by Everett M. Rogers

So you want to make your idea spread? One of the most valuable things you can do is take a look backwards at how ideas have spread historically. This book is a classic on how ideas have spread throughout human history, and how they spread now in the Information Age.

Mindset by Carol Dweck

After decades of studying what makes someone successful, Carol Dweck concluded that it’s not innate talent that dictates whether someone will succeed. It’s whether they think they can. Her book teaches you how to develop what you really need to succeed: a growth mindset.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young

It’s amazing that a book about innovation published in the 1940’s can still speak to today’s creatives. It’s a classic book by a Mad Men-era ad guy about how to produce creativity even when you’re under pressure. These are great exercises to get the creative juices flowing, especially when stuck.

The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield

Resistance is the true enemy of creativity. This is a self-motivational book more than anything else, but it really teaches how to overcome that resistance—how to recognize when you’re in a creativity block and how to get the hell out of there.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

I love checklists. They’re a super effective way of getting the little things right, every time. If you need convincing, read this book. Doctor Atul Gawande explains in this book how one tool can help you from the inception of your project through its completion, and can be more efficient than any high-tech tool on the map.

Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why it Matters by Richard Rumelt

There are good strategies and bad ones. It’s as simple as that. You need to find one that fits for your business, and Richard Rumelt teaches you how to find a good one by centering your strategy on one thing: responding to obstacles to progress.

Stage 2: Product

It’s critical to solve the core problem that your customers have. Otherwise you risk building something people don’t want. Once you’ve figured out the problem, you need to actually create a product. Ideally, your product has a great user experience that sets your business up to scale.

These books cover the tactics you’ll need at the product stage including analytics, customer development, product design and user research, and the leadership tactics you need to guide a team through this stage.

Lean Customer Development by Cindy Alvarez

You can’t build a good product without talking to your customers. But a lot of people waste time and energy building stuff that no one wants to buy. Lean Customer Development teaches you how to build products that people love by validating your idea first.

Lean Analytics by Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz

Writing code is expensive, which is why so many startups have adopted a lean approach to building products. This book is filled with case studies and interviews that show you how to use data to build faster and learn more.

The Startup Owner’s Manual by Steve Blank

Engineers on the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps are given a grant and the contents of this book. The Startup Owner’s Manual is a guide to Steve Blank’s Customer Development process. It helps guide founders through the customer development process, with helpful case studies, checklists, and how-tos for every step of customer development.

Product Design for the Web by Randy J. Hunt

Like most things in life, building a product for the web is about learning. You won’t have all the answers but the right attitude allows you to discover the right answers.This book provides useful frameworks for how to think about building and designing web products.

Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug

People don’t want to think, and that’s okay. Steve Krug’s practical guide to user navigability is a great read if you’re figuring out how to make your product more user-friendly. Getting to an intuitive product isn’t always an intuitive process, but Krug’s advice can help you get there.

Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug

Steve Krug’s companion to Don’t Make Me Think is a tactical guide to how you can achieve some of the strategies in his other book. Through little exercises and thought experiments, Krug teaches you how to make room in your day for thinking about how to continuously improve your product, and why it’s so important.

The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast! by Josh Kaufman

While it might take 10,000 hours to become an expert in something, it only takes 20 to get really good at it. When you’re developing a product, you need to learn on the job. This book teaches you how to teach yourself the ropes of something new as fast as possible.

The Score Takes Care of Itself: My Philosophy of Leadership by Bill Walsh

What does a football coach have to say about leadership, let alone product? The Score Takes Care of Itself is a guide to conducting a team that’s focused on winning and building something together. Rather than just talking about how a team is performing, Bill Walsh tells leaders to focus on what they’re producing.

Rework by Jason Fried

The grind is important, but it’s not all that determines your success. Jason Fried’s Rework argues that you don’t need to be a workaholic, or make a business plan, or have a ton of meetings. You just need to do the work.

Stage 3: Scale

Recommendations for the scale stage used to be books written over 15-20 years ago for really large companies. These books are more recent, and will help you think about how to scale your business. This list includes both strategic and tactically oriented information about business operations, culture, experimentation, growth and sales.

Tested Advertising Methods by John Caples

Think of this as your crash course in writing copy. It’s an oldie, but John Caples’ notes on compelling headlines, how to stoke someone’s curiosity, and the importance of user testing are just as true for writing web content as they are for billboards.

Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares

Even a killer product won’t live in this market unless you find people who are going to use it. Traction teaches you how to use channels like email marketing, SEO, and sales to get the user base you need.

Speak Human: Outmarket the Big Guys by Getting Personal by Eric Karjaluoto

If you keep chasing after the big guys, you’re just going to lose. What startups need to do is actually leverage how small they are. Agile companies need to harness their passion and leverage it to communicate to users. By “speaking human” in channels that users actually like, you can outmarket even the biggest competitors.

Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist by Brad Feld and Jason Mendelson

If you’re looking to scale fast, inking a deal with a VC is a great way to do that. But if you’re not careful, you can lose control of the ship you’ve been navigating this whole time. This book teaches you how to remain in control when you bring on lawyers and VCs into your small company.

Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors by Brad Feld and Mahendra Ramsinghani

If you’re a first-time founder or haven’t dealt with a board before, there’s a lot you need to learn. This is your manual for how to run meetings, choose your board, and leverage your team to save you from yourself as your company grows.

Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright

As companies scale, they experience a lot of different stages of how people interact with one another. Tribal Leadership examines the different stages at companies, which ones are the most successful, and how to set your team dynamic up for success.

The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

This book tackles the less sexy side of company building: how to actually run one. As you scale, you’ll fire your friends. You’ll disappoint customers. You’ll poach from competitors. Horowitz tells it like it is to help you get through the tough stuff.

High Output Management by Andy Grove

Sustaining a high-performing team even as you continue to grow just comes down to one thing: management. In this book, Andy Grove offers up insight on how to create and motivate your team, with some great techniques on how to get better.

Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders by David Marquet

Great leadership isn’t about getting people to submit to your will—it’s about empowering them and creating more leaders. Former Navy officer, David Marquet, tells stories about creating a culture of leaders, not followers. His book is inspiring and instructional for anyone with a growing team.

What are you reading? Leave a comment with your favorite startup books.