Best Business Books

It’s not worth reading bad books, but good, concise business books can be worth thousands of times the price of the book. Here are the books I’ve found to be worth thousands of dollars. My list is for entrepreneurs, although they can be useful for anyone in business. There are hundreds of great books, so I’ve been as stingy as possible in listing the ones I’ve found the most influential.

If I were to give one tip in finding great books that aren’t on this list: look for old books that people are talking about, rather than books that got popular last week. It often takes decades to really prove the value of a great business book.

Building a Company

  1. The Hard Thing About Hard Things (Ben Horowitz– This now officially tops my list of books for entrepreneurs. In the opening Horowitz talks about reading all sorts of business books that talk about pricing, or marketing, or leadership, and how the things they talk about were never the really hard things when he was running a business himself. If you want a snapshot of the things that might break you as an entrepreneur — your spirit and your body — read this. Either it will convince you not to become an entrepreneur, or it will inspire you and prepare you.
  2. The Lean Startup (Eric Ries) – The foundation of the new business. For a fairly new book, this one is a big deal. It’s how new businesses are started: by focusing the beginning on learning rather than designing. That means designing and building as little as possible upfront, spending as little as you can, assuming you don’t really understand the product or customer yet, and focusing on a high rate of learning rather than trying to maximize profits right away. It’s a book that responded to an existing revolution in agile practices in software and lean practices in manufacturing, but that articulates and guides this revolution so well it’s like the bible of the modern startup.
  3. The E-Myth Revisited (Michael E. Gerber) – How to be an entrepreneur, not your own employee. While it’s a little focused on making the next big McDonalds rather than the next Google, that’s a good thing for those of us starting non-tech businesses.
  4. The Incerto Series (Nassim Taleb) – A series of several books by a successful trader that cover crucial ideas about uncertainty that every entrepreneur should read, combining math and statistics with practical financial and life advice. Taleb is known for his irreverent and often arrogant style, but he’s also ridiculously erudite, funny, and right most of the time.
    • Fooled By Randomness – The first one he wrote and the most entertaining introduction to his ideas on uncertainty. It’s a good one to read first.
    • The Black Swan – Essentially a scare story about the things that people are terrible at predicting but don’t realize it.
    • Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder – How do you build things that get stronger over time and react positively to stressors and even existential threats? This book is the whole point of the Incerto series and takes the ideas from the previous two to interesting places. I found the beginning a bit too ranty even for me, but once he gets going, there’s a lot of gold there.
  5. Built to Last (Jim Collins Jerry I. Porras– What makes great companies great. An absolute must-read. This book was released in the 90’s and has been criticized for hindsight bias and cherrypicking, but I still feel it captures some of the most important things about great companies, such as how to build a great culture, and ideas that are fundamentally the antifragility that Taleb talks about.
  6. Founders at Work (Jessica Livingstone) – Really inspiring interviews with founders (and some early employees) of some of the most famous and successful startups.
  7. Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time (Howard Schultz) – This story resonated with me very strongly, because it tells you the story of a man who grappled with the question of the soul and survival of a company he believed in. He had to balance out a commitment to promoting a respect for quality coffee with the demands of a less discerning market in order to achieve amazing growth and brand recognition. Starbucks today often gets maligned by self-styled coffee aficionados, but it was the company’s growth that brought coffee quality awareness to North America and enabled the growth of the hipster cafes that followed.
  8. One Up on Wall Street (Peter Lynch) – Investment book with sound business advice. Peter Lynch’s investment approach was a lot like Warren Buffet’s, but modified to run risk-averse mutual funds. What I got from this book was a good idea of what makes a business a sound investment. Lynch writes as an outside investor, but it’s great advice for an entrepreneur. One interesting point was about how many of the best businesses don’t sell technology, they use it, since the cost of any technology goes down over time.
  9. Bulldog: Spirit of the New Entrepreneur (Ellie Rubin) – Great pep-talk and getting-through-it book by someone who’s actually been there, in the trenches. Fun stories about renting office space for the day to seem bigger to a potential client, and so on!

Marketing

  • Guerilla Marketing – How to spend the least money on marketing for the greatest effect! Lately everyone is getting on the online marketing and social media bandwagons, but this is the book for people bootstrapping a typical new business.
  • Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Robert Cialdini) – Such an important book on understanding how people influence each other that everyone should read it even if they don’t care about business. Cialdini’s book makes you more aware of the things influencing your own decisions, and it’s personally been of enormous help to me in becoming better at both marketing and personal sales. You should never market a product without integrating at least two of Cialdini’s rules of influence.
  • The Purple Cow – The most important modern concept in marketing: making your product itself your marketing focus. Strangely that makes it an interesting response to Naomi Klein’s No Logo.
  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – This is an amazing book that helps with product design, user experience, leadership and personal growth. It helps you understand the process of what makes people have great experiences and even what makes us truly happy, from a rigorously scientific and analytical perspective.

Working Effectively

  • The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People – Doing the right thing, the right way.
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity – ‘Nuff said! This book and Allen’s methods are legendary for a good reason. And if you’re a Mac user looking to implement these principles, I personally recommend OmniFocus, although I’ve also heard good things about Things.
  • Zen To Done (Leo Babauta) – Leo’s thing is simplifying life, and his ZTD system is a riff off GTD (above) that’s designed to be a lot simpler, and much easier to implement one step at a time. That’s really valuable because GTD is very much a hardcore all-or-nothing system, so ZTD for many people is the less perfect system that you’ll actually use.

People – Leading, Networking and Getting Along

  • Leaders Eat Last (Simon Sinek) – The central idea of this book is a focus on leadership as a responsibility more than a privilege, which I believe is one of the most powerful lessons you need to fully understand to be a leader. Poor leaders protect themselves by using people; great leaders make sacrifices to protect their people. If you want a teaser for how good the book is, watch this Leaders Eat Last video on YouTube.
  • Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High– (Patterson, GrennyMcMillan & Switzler) – A lot of the lessons I’ve learned succeeding through difficult conversations are here. The authors believe that the thing that makes people stand out as the most effective in an organization, regardless of role, is how they’re able to engage people through conversations about difficult things.
  • Never Eat Alone (Keith Ferrazzi, Tahl Raz) – It reads like a modern version of the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People (see the Oldies section), but with more emphasis on the networking side. Similarly to Carnegie’s book, a big emphasis is on things that ultimately make you a better person. Ferrazzi emphasizes that the most valuable networks are created by consistently trying to find ways to help other people.
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People (Dale Carnegie) – This is one of the most time-tested books related to business, it’s about the art of getting along with people.
  • Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive (Harvey B. Mackay) – Tips, mostly about sales and networking, by a man who ran a successful paper company in an era when paper companies were already a commodity business. He explains how to beat your competition when your product actually isn’t any different, mostly by focusing on personal sales, having systems in place to understand your customers better, offering superior service when your product isn’t necessarily better, and other elements of strategy and leadership.
  • Delivering Happiness (Tony Hsieh) – Amazing book about a great culture of employee and customer happiness fueled the rise of Zappos as an online shoe retailer with the best customer service and an inspiring corporate culture. See below for why the audiobook is especially great.
  • The Virgin Way: “a book on leadership from someone who has never read a book on leadership in his life.” This is a very light yet inspiring read. With all of the books on business and entrepreneurship I’ve read that focused on how to work hard and do things right, this one emphasizes one of the most powerful concepts: FUN. Richard Branson tends to start and run businesses because he thinks it will be fun, and he’s happily trod through grandiose mistakes on his golden path to success. Takeaways were things like the power of note-taking (and how to do it right), ideas about marketing and hiring, and a general attitude towards happiness and success.The main theme is creating a fun culture through fun leadership.
  • In Search of Excellence – Awesome, kind of the “Built to Last” of the 80’s. It could be in the Company Building section but my favourite insights from it are about people. Reading this book had a huge effect on my views of business and entrepreneurship, especially understanding the importance of small teams and the art of fostering innovation, aka. “intrapreneurship” within a company. Reading this book helped me understand some of the mistakes of a previous company I started (GDSAF), mistakes I worked hard to avoid with my subsequent company Swing Dynamite. While exciting in some parts, it’s a bit of a dry read in others, probably a relic of those days when business books tried to seem like textbooks. I read the book after it had already become “old” in the world of business books, and that’s precisely why it’s worth reading: because it’s one of the few books that has stood the test of time.

Negotiating

Product Design

  • The Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman) – It’s hard to imagine a day when I don’t invoke ideas from this book. Every designer must read it, whether an industrial designer or a UX specialist working on web or mobile apps. The lessons are so important and easy to understand that every entrepreneur involved in creating products that are used, should use it. Originally called The Psychology of Everyday Things, the focus is on how design can communicate the qualities of an object and make it natural for humans to more effectively use them. One of the biggest lessons in the book is how poor design caused a nuclear reactor disaster.
  • Popcorn Report (Faith Popcorn) – Surf the true trends, skip the fads. Technically it’s a marketing book but I think its greatest application is in deciding new products to make. It’s one of those great business books that is fading from memory, but was truly influential when it came out. Some of the trends it describes are no longer as current as they were, but other ideas just started to appear over a decade after she advocated the product category, such as Vitamin Water. But main value of the book was in the ideas about how to identify long-lasting trends and to align your business with them.

The Art of Beginning

  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Shunryu Suzuki) – The inspiration for the title of this blog: the thrill of always beginning. It’s not even slightly a business book, but rather about things like understanding how to enjoy life with the newness of a child. Most books on “Zen” are utter crap, worse than reading nothing at all about it. This one is great.

Audiobooks Are Amazing, Too

I’ve become a huge fan of Audiobooks in the last few years. I’ve always loved reading, but I started listening to audiobooks to make productive use of my time when travelling by car. Now I also love using audiobooks throughout my daily life. They’re great for any situation where your body is busy but your mind is underused. I listen to audiobooks when I’m putting away dishes, tidying up, or shaving, and they’re great for taking a walk. If you commute to work they’re great whether you’re driving or using public transit, and they can be more practical for travelling by plane, because you can grab a coffee, walk to the gate, stand in line, and board the plane, all while listening. You don’t need to keep taking your book out and putting it away.

Audiobooks are also amazing if you’re in a relationship and like to read before sleeping, because there’s no night light to disturb your bedmate, and you can just put on earphones, set the sleep timer, and drift off to sleep. It’s bedtime stories for adults, plus you inspire your subconscious to think about things that will help you in the morning.

Podcasts? I also use podcasts in the same way but the higher quality of books makes them a better use of time. The exception is that podcasts are great for tracking recent technology and news.

I’m personally a big fan of Audible–I had nearly 80 books in my library last time I checked–and here are some of my top favourites, which are of course also in the above list, but the audiobooks favourites list is specifically for books that were also good to listen to. They need to pass tests like “can I absorb this information while walking or driving?” and “does the narrator make me smile or make me want to claw my ears out?”

Favourite Business Audiobooks

  1. The Hard Thing About Hard Things — As above, I think this is one of the most valuable books to read if you intend to lead a large company in a C-level executive position. What’s weird about this recommendation is that I don’t think the narrator sounds a lot like Ben Horowitz, the author, which is usually a plus; but I still really like his style of narration, and the book itself is a great listen as an audiobook. I blazed through it as I was packing and moving across country and it was insightful and engaging.
  2. Delivering Happiness (Tony Hsieh) – The audiobook is a fantastic listen because it’s read not just by the primary author, but by other people who were asked to contribute their stories to the book. It’s already an amazing story of how the author, CEO Tony Hsieh, learned from his experience with his previous startup developing culture and happiness problems, to turn Zappos into a company where culture drove its success in a very difficult online retail space. Everyone knew people wanted to try on shoes before buying them, but with amazing customer service by happy employees, they achieved the trust they needed so that people would buy first and try second.
  3. The Virgin Way There are two things I liked especially about this audiobook. One was that the narrator sounds amazingly close to Richard Branson himself and conveys a really similar outlook and attitude. The second great quality was how uplifting and inspiring it is. If you want something to listen to as you walk or drive to work, or while you walk off the plane to a big business meeting, it will energize you.
  4. Fooled by Randomness This is a great audiobook listen because it’s more a collection of ideas and stories than a traditional business book, so it’s easy to stop and start, a quality I’ve found important with audiobooks. And it’s also a fun listen, because Nassim Taleb’s arrogance, keen observations and acerbic wit are never boring and often completely hilarious.

Here’s an affiliate link to what got me personally hooked on Audible. I definitely get a tiny bit of revenue if you click here, but it wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t gotten addicted myself after starting my first free book.