Ten Classic Business Books for Entrepreneurs / Startup Founders

I often get asked by technical founders what business / marketing / strategy books they should read.  While there are many excellent relatively new books (e.g., The Lean Startup), the primary purpose of this post is to list a set of classic business books that most (older) business people have read — and that I think every budding entrepreneur should read as part of their basic business education.

  • Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy.  It’s getting a bit dated at this point, but still well worth the read.  The media have changed, but the core ideas remain the same.
  • Positioning by Al Ries and Jack Trout.  They, well, wrote the book on positioning.  Very focused on the mind of the customer.
  • Public Relations by Edward Bernays.  Another classic which studies PR in both history and application.  (I’m told Autonomy’s Mike Lynch swore by Bernays and Propoganda.)
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen.  A newer book than many of the above, but an instant classic on the theory of disruptive innovation.
  • Guerrilla Marketing by Jay Conrad Levinson.  Oldie but goodie reinforcing the important idea that marketing doesn’t have to be expensive.
  • Blue Ocean Strategy by Renee Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim.  Again, a newer book than many of those on the list, but still an instant classic in my mind.  I particularly like their strategic levers analysis as shown in, e.g., the Cirque du Soleil case study.
  • Solution Selling by Michael Bosworth.  There as almost as many books on sales as there are salespeople.  I’ve read dozens and this, while superseded by Bosworth himself, remains the classic in my mind.
  • The Art of War by Sun Tzu.  The oldest book on the list by a few thousand years, so you want to find a version that is adapted to business.  While I like military-business analogies, On War remains on my to-read list.

Note that I have deliberately omitted Good to Great for three reasons:  (1) the case studies have largely under-performed undermining the book’s core thesis, (2) the book has generally been discredited, and (3) in my experience it is the most abused business book I have seen in terms of misapplication.  Despite reasons 1 and 2,  it nevertheless remains a top-seller; so much for rationality in business.

As a supplement, here are some newer books of which I’m a big fan:

  • The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig.  A must read for anyone who wants to understand the weaknesses of business books and the business press.
  • Trust Me, I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday.  A simply amazing book by a self-confessed media manipulator and how he worked the top blogs.
  • The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.  Quickly becoming a new classic, on the art of iterative innovative (and frugal) strategy.
  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  Amazing book by a psychologist who won the  Nobel prize in economics on human rationality and irrationality.

And finally, here are some near classics that didn’t quite make my top ten list.

  • The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.  A great book on groups and their functions and dysfunctions.
  • Permission Marketing by Seth Godin.  Godin is an amazing speaker and thinker, but I have trouble identifying his one classic; he’s written too many books so it’s hard to find one to recommend.  This is my best shot.
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.  Lencioni has also written numerous strong books on leadership, teamwork, and organizational dynamics, but I think this was his best.

7 responses to “Ten Classic Business Books for Entrepreneurs / Startup Founders

  1. Awesome collection Dave!, Time to take action :)
    However, I would like to add, “The Art of the Pitch,” by Peter Coughter


  2. Fantastic list; there are quite a few here that I have to be sure to check out for myself :) I also wanted to recommend a book I just finished
    called “Conversations That Sell” by author and business woman Nancy
    Bleeke (http://www.conversationsthatsell.com). What I loved about this
    book is that it outlines modern and realistic strategies for personal sales
    techniques. It is so important to know your client, and know how to have
    a proper business conversations without coming across as “canned” or
    generic. This book uses real world examples to demonstrate the power of
    preparation and foresight when entering into a sales/business, meeting,
    pitch, etc. I really feel like I’ve had a shot in the arm after this
    read and fully plan on utilizing several of the strategies and ideas I
    found in this book in my business going forward. I hope this book can make it on a future list of yours.

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  4. Cool thanks – Of these, I have only read The Art of War though I have had solution selling training back in the mid 90’s and am currently reading – and am surprised to find it on your list (I found it from a very tangential source – it was recommended by a neurosurgeon in his book “Do No Harm”) – Thinking Fast and Slow. Though on second thought it makes sense when considering this statement in the introduction: “I hope to enrich the vocabulary that people use [at the proverbial watercooler] when they talk about the judgement and choices of others. the company’s new policies, or a colleague’s investment decisions.” and “Even statisticians are not good intuitive statisticians”

  5. Something tells me from your list above you’d enjoy Smart Growth by Edward Hess (in my top 5). Appreciate your comments on Good to Great.

  6. Something tells me from your list above you’d enjoy Smart Growth by Edward Hess (in my top 5). Appreciate your comments on Good to Great.

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