This Symbl for Startups content series separates facts about the founder journey from fiction — with a little help from program mentors and startup experts. For additional information about how early stage businesses can benefit from the Symbl for Startups program, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
You’ll find no shortage of voices out in the world clamoring to tell you what and what not to do when going about launching a startup. This can be extremely overwhelming at the outset.
However, while every business is unique—and you should absolutely seek out personalized advice from mentors who can analyze your business strategy in real time—there are some hard-and-fast rules that will increase your chances of survival.
Below, the Symbl.ai for Startups team summarizes 10 books that will ensure you start your journey as a successful founder off on the right foot.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things
“Take care of the people, the products and the profits—in that order.”
The life of a startup CEO is full of tough decisions, lonely nights, irreversible mistakes, and failures both small and large. In “The Hard Thing About Hard Things,” Ben Horowitz doesn’t gloss over these daunting aspects of leading a startup; instead, he teaches the reader how to learn from the difficult times and offers actionable advice for managing one’s team while scaling. Think of this book as a powerful source of inspiration for when things inevitably go sideways. “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” is our No. 1 reading recommendation for founders, and we don’t say that lightly!
Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business
“Leadership, at its core, is about making people better as a result of your presence—and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”
This book, written by a Harvard Business School professor and the founder of The Leadership Consortium, explains how companies can achieve excellence by baking customer service directly into their business models. Per the book, great service results when management identifies the “operating segments” that are most important to their target customers and optimizes those at the expense of other company attributes. They also delve into four mechanisms that can fund your service model and go over some best practices for managing both customers and employees (hint: simplifying your product helps a ton).
The Design of Everyday Things
“Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding.”
“The Design of Everyday Things,” written by usability engineer and cognitive scientist Donald Norman, studies the relationship between humans and the real world, which includes artificial creations such as software and digital interfaces. The main underlying theme throughout the book is Norman’s concept of “Human Centered Design.” This means designing things in order to serve the user’s capabilities and needs rather than the other way around; without a deep understanding of people, Norman posits that designs are destined to be faulty and both difficult to use and understand. This book gives the reader a great overview of
“Failure is a key part of entrepreneurship, but, as with many things in life, attitude impacts outcome.”
“Venture Deals” is the brainchild of renowned investor Brad Feld and is just about the best book entrepreneurs can read to prepare them to raise venture capital. Securing sufficient funding is no small feat in this day and age, and there are surprises around every corner. For instance, the simple fact that it’s always better to wait for the VC investor to speak or act first when you enter negotiations—honing your ability to wait and listen in these scenarios will serve you well in the long run. Other tips are more obvious but bear repeating, such as championing transparency to avoid ruining your reputation.
The Lean Startup
“The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.”
Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup” breaks down starting a profitable business into three steps. First, founders must validate their business strategy through what Ries refers to as a “semi-scientific” approach. This means formulating a hypothetical business strategy and immediately getting out there and determining whether or not it can make you money, and not just from friends and family. Next, continuously determine the value of a given product or feature by creating two versions and comparing customers’’ reactions to both. Finally, make sure you’re not focusing on vanity metrics—having a lot of likes on a LinkedIn post is great for visibility, but in the end that’s not what pays the bills.
How to Win Friends and Influence People
“Don’t be afraid of enemies who attack you. Be afraid of the friends who flatter you.”
An oldie but a goldie. If you’ve ever rolled your eyes when someone suggested you read this (to some, practically ancient) book, we strongly urge you to reconsider. Throughout, Dale Carnegie effectively explains how to network while selling yourself in the most charming and unobtrusive way possible. Many of his tactics boil down to being genuinely interested in, respectful, and nonjudgmental of others, which is still a rarity in today’s business landscape, and especially among startups. This text is a great reminder that the best way to get someone to do what you want is to fully understand his or her viewpoint and light up that same desire within them.
The Startup Owner’s Manual
“A startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.”
If you’re looking for a complete reference guide when starting a company, “The Startup Owner’s Manual” is the perfect place to start. Startups run fundamentally differently from larger established businesses, and this text is chock-full of insights into product introduction, customer development methodology, discoverability, and validation. This book will take you step-by-step through the exact processes you should follow when attempting to establish a successful startup, although be warned that it’s written very much in a manual format and isn’t the type of text that is meant to be read cover to cover in one sitting.
Zero to One
“A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.”
Peter Thiel’s acclaimed book “Zero to One” reveals a philosophy and strategy for building valuable businesses that offer something entirely new to the world. Thiel distinguishes between companies that enter novel markets vs. those that enter existing ones, and then makes the controversial (but well backed-up) assertion that it’s in a startup’s best interest to avoid competition altogether. Thiel believes that much-maligned monopolies are actually what drive innovation, and he notes that it’s in the consumer’s best interest for a startup to achieve a monopoly—because this would mean that the product is so good that others can’t compete.
The E-Myth Revisited
“Contrary to popular belief, my experience has shown me that the people who are exceptionally good in business aren’t so because of what they know but because of their insatiable need to know more.”
“The E-Myth Revisited” takes a stab at dismantling some common myths about the entrepreneurial journey, as well as explaining why so many of today’s early stage businesses never get off of the ground. The “myth” in question states that having great technical skills or a solid understanding of any business’ technical work will allow you to effectively run a business. When you start a business, you become much more than the person doing the technical work. You’re the CEO, CFO, CTO, CMO and way more. Throughout, Gerber does an excellent job of incentivizing founders to plan extensively before launch.
Start With Why
“The role of a leader is not to come up with all the great ideas. The role of a leader is to create an environment in which great ideas can happen.”
If you’ve ever wondered what separates a truly great CEO from a run-of-the-mill-one, “Start With Why” is an excellent read. This book explains that leaders who are able to foster a sense of purpose and belonging among their employees, independent of external incentives, will always come out on top. This is because the “why” that drives a business is what people buy into, more so than the “what.” At points during your founder journey you might find that your “why” becomes foggy or nebulous, and when this happens reflection is a necessity.