If You Read Only 10 Startup Books in 2020, Here’s What I’d Recommend...
“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.” - Oscar Wilde
Words have the power to change us.
While articles are a healthy part of any information diet, books often reflect a deeper wealth of wisdom. (It’s quite an accomplishment to put 200 or more pages-worth of witty words of wisdom together).
If you read only 10 startup books in 2020, here’s what I’d recommend you read...
10. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Why Buy: Business is difficult. Especially as the CEO of your startup.
Ben Horowitz has been there and back as the CEO of Opsware, product manager of Netscape, and venture capital co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz.
Pros: In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Horowitz gets into the nitty-gritty details of managing a company. He covers topics like firing employees, the dangers of promoting the wrong people (and the right people at the wrong time) and managing the company and yourself.
Cons: Until you’re about to manage employees, this book may not be valuable. Further, some of the high-stress moments were self-inflicting from taking venture capital. The profanity in this book may be off-putting to you too (one use of the “n” word, several uses of the “f” word, and several other cuss words sprinkled in it).
9. Built to Sell by John Warrillow
Why Buy: Even if you have no intention of selling your business, it’s valuable to know what you should do to remove yourself from being a bottleneck in your business.
Pros: Built to Sell gives you the mindset and strategy to make sure you spend more time working on your business rather than in your business.
Cons: Unless you’ve got a lot of capital to invest in employees, you need to be the bottleneck to do the work. That said, even as a one-person business, standardizing your business will help streamline your productivity.
8. Monetizing Innovation by Madhavan Ramanujam and Georg Tacke
Why Buy: Pricing your product right is often an overlooked growth lever.
A $10/month product would pull in $1,420 a month in revenue if you reinvest all revenue into acquiring more customers (yay compounding interest!). But bumping up your product to $29/month would pull in over $1.1 million a month! That’s 819x more monthly revenue.
Pros: Monetizing Innovation is the best book I’ve read on pricing strategy. Some books only talk about the psychology of pricing or tell you to optimize for “value-based pricing.” This book goes over several elements of pricing strategy and why you should pick one strategy over another.
Some of the principles I talk about on pricing strategies I’ve borrowed from this book.
Cons: Some of the principles aren’t easy to apply without several potential customers to do a price-test. This is why I recommend you use the Van Westendorp pricing method to find the acceptable price range of your potential customers.
7. The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox
Why Buy: Business operations are an often overlooked part of building a healthy company.
Pros: Yes, the cover of The Goal looks like a boring business book from the ‘80s. But you’ll find the story inside to be very compelling and insightful on how to operate a company. There were a few counter-intuitive principles Goldratt teaches, such as why having employees doing nothing is a necessary part of business efficiency.
Cons: You may find the story used in the book a little unrealistic at times. But there are moments when the story does help paint a clear picture of the importance of the core concept.
6. What’s Best Next by Matt Perman
Why Buy: Entrepreneurs often lack a clear sense of purpose in what they are doing and why.
What’s Best Next will give necessary clarity on productivity, understanding your life goal, and your life mission without all the fluff I’ve read from other books on this topic.
If you have an open mind, this book comes at productivity and purpose from a Christian perspective.
Pros: Having a clear mission and life goal has been my greatest source of motivation. This book inspired Growth Ramp’s mission to help 1,000 entrepreneurs from idea to scale, along with several other life goals I am pursuing.
I’ve gifted and recommended this book to fellow entrepreneurs the most.
Cons: The last 1/3 of the book on Perman’s productivity system wasn’t super insightful.
Further while having a life mission and goal is a great motivation, in itself it won’t pay your bills. Like a few other books on this list, that’s not the fault of the author, but the necessary limited scope of this book.
5. Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss
Why Buy: Whether you’re selling yourself to a co-founder, selling your idea to an investor, or selling your product to a customer, you need to know how to sell. Negotiation is a critical and often overlooked part of successful sales.
Pros: Never Split the Difference provides a gripping story in one chapter, followed by a valuable negotiation lesson in the next chapter.
I used one suggestion in this book to retain ~$3,000 MRR in one negotiation.
Cons: As important as negotiating is, you only need it in the area of formal and informal sales.
4. Positioning by Jack Trout and Al Ries
Why Buy: If you struggle to separate your startup from the competition, Positioning is an excellent primer to point you in the right direction.
Pros: Much of the fundamental principles of positioning come from this book. You’ll learn about principles like why you should be #1 in your market, what to do when you’re #2, and why market leaders attempt to own a single word.
Cons: Trout and Ries don’t share many specific how-to details in this book. Much of the data also seems to suffer from survivorship bias as they only mention what works after-the-fact.
Honorable Mention: Marketing Warfare, 20th Anniversary Edition by Jack Trout and Al Ries. This book dives deeper into positioning and gives some how-to guidance. Like Positioning, this book also suffers from survivorship bias.
3. Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares
Why Buy: Having a great product is one thing. Having traction is quite another.
Pros: Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares pull their experience of creating and growing successful startups. The duo then interviewed over 40 founders and pooled their knowledge to help entrepreneurs learn what it takes to get customers in their book, Traction.
Weinberg and Mare’s work inspired my article of the 12 core marketing channels.
You’ll find a lot of solid ideas to test and frameworks to apply in this book to help you get your first 1,000 customers and scale from there.
Cons: What’s missing from this book is understanding the messaging you need to get traction. There’s a chance you may stumble upon the right words you should use to sell more product. But I don’t like leaving anything to chance.
2. Reality in Advertising by Rosser Reeves
Why Buy: Do you want to improve your messaging? Yet do you hate all the over-the-top copywriting which screams “BUY NOW!!!” in bold red letters and yellow highlighter?
If so, you’ll likely connect with Rosser Reeves’s copywriting philosophy as I have from reading Reality in Advertising.
Reeves was one of the greatest American advertising executives very few people know about today, which is a shame. In addition to popularizing the power of a strong USP, Reeve’s career highlights include creating:
- Anacin’s “a headache medicine for fast relief.” (Yup, the same USP Advil borrowed 30 years later). In 18 months, Reeve’s Anacin ad campaign increased its sales from $18 million to $54 million (source).
- M&M's "melts in your mouth, not in your hand."
- Colgate toothpaste’s "cleans your breath while it cleans your teeth."
- Dwight Eisenhower's presidential ads for the 1952 election. Reeve’s TV ads helped Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson 442 to 89 in the electoral vote (source).
Marketing legend David Ogilvy spoke highly of his mentor Reeves, saying, “Reeves taught me more about advertising than anybody I’ve ever known.” (Source)
Pros: Reality in Advertising has a lot of solid information on USPs and general information on marketing. Reeves takes a similar philosophy on marketing as I do: emotional marketing is valuable (e.g. brand image, video, “originality,” and “creativity.”). But a clear message which sells is more valuable to increasing sales.
Cons: Some of Reeves’s case studies to back up his claims has very little verifiable evidence. Still, some of what he teaches aligns with my experience, so I won’t throw out all claims he makes.
1. The Lean Product Playbook by Dan Olsen
Why Buy: Nearly everything I wish The Lean Startup covered, Dan Olsen covers in his phenomenal book, The Lean Product Playbook.
Olsen was a product leader at Intuit, one of the first tech companies to create a culture of the importance of creating customer-first products. He’s also consulted for Facebook, Box, and Medallia as a product manager. Much of his experience shines through in this book.
Pros: Throughout the book, Olsen provides a lot of frameworks and step-by-step advice on how to create a successful product. Olsen covers a lot of ground in his book, including:
- How to conduct customer interviews.
- How to define your value proposition.
- How to prioritize features.
- How to create an MVP.
- How to apply user experience principles to your product.
Cons: I felt Olsen lacked on the marketing-side as a product manager (i.e. product marketing). His discussion on creating customer personas wasn’t thorough and the information on marketing MVP tests was rather thin. His focus is very SaaS-centric, but I’ve used Olsen’s principles for non-SaaS products and they still work.
For more articles to help you from idea to scale, check out the Growth Ramp blog.