As an early-stage entrepreneur you oversee everything for your new venture. You are faced with many challenges and are doing many things for the first time. Learning from peers and especially founders who are 2-3 steps ahead is the best way to work on yourself while working on your business. Entrepreneur books can be truly helpful in gathering such knowledge, especially in the beginning. I recommend setting aside around 10-15 minutes each day, preferably in the morning, to read. That way, you will get through at least one book a month! To make choosing the right ones easier, I’ve put a few together that are certainly worth your time.
- The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you
- The Culture Code: The Secrets of highly successful groups
- How to Win Friends & Influence People
- Honorable mentions
1.The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you
As an early-stage entrepreneur, you are so excited, motivated, and driven by your idea, that you want to bring it to life as fast as possible. Unfortunately, this makes you highly susceptible to biases and following your own perceptions, rather than listening to your target audiences. Luckily there is help.
“The Mom Test” is one of the must-read entrepreneur books about the process of customer development. It helps you overcome the barrier you might have when talking to potential customers, and it guides you in how to conduct interviews in a highly effective way. The book takes modern human psychology into account to make sure that, when you talk to customers, you get answers that are unbiased and truly helpful in your path towards building a successful business. It teaches you to ask the right questions, how to ask them, and how to derive the right learnings.
“Rule of thumb: You should be terrified of at least one of the questions you’re asking in every conversation.”
Rob Fitzpatrick, The Mom Test: How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you
For me, it is an absolute must-read as an early-stage founder. It helps you overcome the fundamental mistake, that so many founders (including myself) have made in the past, which is talking to your customers only when you have something to sell when you are already on the mission to convince them to buy your product. The book helps you understand the value of talking to your customer before you have even written a single line of code (if you are building a digital startup). If you follow the advice of the book and get into conversations with your target audience from day one, you can only win.
Read this if you want to:
- understand the problem you are trying to solve
- understand your customers and build a base of early adopters before you even launched your product
Next to understanding the problem of your customers, the most important thing as an early-stage entrepreneur is to build a team. Not any kind of team, but one that follows your vision, works together extremely well, and has the potential to become highly successful.
“Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they’ll find a way to screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a good team, and they’ll find a way to make it better. The goal needs to be to get the team right, get them moving in the right direction, and get them to see where they are making mistakes and where they are succeeding.”
Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups
“The Culture Code” takes you on a journey through cultures of highly successful teams from various walks of life – from the military through startups to sports & schools. It is also heavily based on research and scientific experiments, that show why certain cultures and leadership styles are more successful than others. These examples help you as a future leader to understand and empathize with the way others created successful groups. This is what makes “The Culture Code” a very easy and even gripping read.
However, this book also doesn’t fail to deliver concrete learnings and steps you can directly put into action:
Make sure that everyone in your organization feels safe to give feedback often and to contribute their best – both will lead to the best result for the group.
Since (in most cases) your team will be made up of people with whom you don’t have a lifelong relationship, trust is something that needs to be built. This can only be achieved if you take risks and allow yourself to be open and vulnerable first. Seeing this, people will reciprocate, and sharing risks together will create mutual trust.
Without a clear end goal in mind, a problem to solve, or a vision to follow, groups tend to have a hard time creating a strong bond as unclarity is closely linked with unsafety. That’s why you should create a shared culture and clearly define where you’re headed to establish high standards.
For me, this book is a must-read as it breaks down what differentiates good cultures from exceptional cultures. As an early-stage founder, you will certainly face many challenges on your way. And you will want to share both the good and the bad times with the right team. Because that team will work the hardest to overcome any challenge, and then will celebrate with the biggest joy when you achieve a milestone. The book also highlights the importance of giving and welcoming feedback (in the right ways) as a means to reach exceptional results for the whole group. In recent years, there is no other book that has influenced me more than “The Culture Code”.
Read this if you want to:
- build an organization that supersedes your own imagination
- build a DNA of modern leadership and success into your team
- enjoy working within your startup every day
From the same author, there is a book that is a great read later on in your entrepreneurial journey: The Talent Code. It helps you understand how we humans learn — and thus will help you be a better leader in developing the talent, the future stars, and leaders in your growing organization.
Next to building your business and your team successfully, you must also develop yourself and understand how to learn, listen, inspire & sell.
While this book dates back almost a full century, its basic principles do hold true till today. It uses well-picked examples that also show you when and in what context these principles can be effective. It’s divided into three categories and corresponding principles:
3 Ground rules for good human interaction
12 Ways to win people over
9 Ways to be a leader and help others change their behavior
The book is nice to read, but also nice to work with. I have more than once picked it up from the bookshelf to look on a specific passage or to remind myself of a principle again. While some tools seem manipulative, the book shows examples of why you won’t succeed if these methods are used with the wrong goals in mind. The true value of the book can be felt when you put the theory to practice and try to honestly improve on one of the principles each day. Go out, talk to your (potential) customers, try a few of the principles and see the results in action!
Read this if you want to:
- master the basics of good human interactions
- learn how to sell your product by building relationships (which is in most cases the most rewarding type of sales)
- learn how to become influential without being manipulative
aka other entrepreneur books that are great:
It’s hard to not include this in the list. Since the old saying “build it, and they will come” doesn’t work in reality, the Lean Startup approach offers solutions and a way to build successful startups by working from the problem “backward”.
Read these (not-necessarily) entrepreneur books if you’re interested in self-improvement. What they preach is that if you start to work on yourself, your perceptions, and paradigms (especially in the morning), you will be more effective with others and thus make greater progress. While they are quite theatrical and sometimes too esoteric – the two books definitely have their merits. They helped me structure my reflection, self-improvement and my morning in a way that makes me feel good and excited for pushing our organization forward every single day!
Check this book if you are interested in learning from a successful founder’s story, who describes well the ups and downs of the startup life. It allows you to reflect on tough decisions, understand that you are not alone, and that hard situations (especially ones that you are faced with the first time) are part of the job and are not a reflection of your own incompetence (think imposter syndrome).
I recommend reading this book 1-2 years into your startup journey. Especially then a big part of building a successful startup is building a successful organization of people. And for that the right leadership is key. “Turn the ship around” can provide you with the tools to build an organization of self-empowered people that are capable of leading others, who in turn also lead themselves (Leader-Leader relationship definitely trumps the Leader-Follower relationship in startups).
While there is a vast number of great entrepreneur books out there, the few mentioned here are worth a read. They can truly help you avoid a few of the mistakes that early-stage entrepreneurs fall into regularly. Most importantly, though, it matters how you read them. If you just skim through them and then think you got this, you are wrong. All of these books can be powerful as soon as you try to “work” with them — when you put the ideas into practice and then reflect on how you did and how you can improve. If you don’t trust me — read “The Talent Code” and let science tell you why that is a good idea!