No textbook can replace real life experiences, especially when it comes to running a business — the hard judgment calls, the late nights, rolling up your sleeves and getting dirty down in the trenches with your team. Remember this though, it is possible to pave a smoother path for yourself by looking to the successful founders who came before you. After all, when aiming to make it big, who better to learn from than those who’ve already been put through the ringer and come out on top? Read about their experiences and study their failures, then consider how you might approach similar challenges.

Proactive learning like this can change the way you think, improve the way you work, and transform the meaning of success for you and your business.

Not sure where to start your research? Check out these fifteen books every entrepreneur should read:

15 Business Books Startup Founders Should Read

1) The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers


Ben Horowitz, cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz, offers up a brutally honest look not at what’s needed to start a business, but what it takes to run one. Readers can appreciate the equally entertaining and shrewd descriptions of his journey from software engineer to venture capital CEO. His no-nonsense approach and relatable wisdom are characteristics I consider to be invaluable for anyone in a leadership role, whether at a startup or a Fortune-level corporation.

2) Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences


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Whether you’re doing the dog and pony show for funding, seeking to effectively communicate with your team, or looking to position yourself as a thought leader in your industry, you’re going to need to learn to make and give stellar presentations. Ask any business owner and he or she will tell you, strong in-person presentation and communication skills are the difference between the remembered and the forgotten.

In her book Resonate, presentation expert and Harvard Business Review contributor Nancy Duarte explores a number of proven techniques for transforming any presentation into what she describes as “an engaging journey” for audiences. As the leaders of our companies, it’s imperative that we maintain a thorough command of the spoken word in such a way that elicits any number of desired responses from clients, investors, and colleagues alike. This book spells out the how-tos behind these key communicative skills.

3) Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers


With social networks, blogs, and daily startup life generating more din than an oncoming freight train, knowing when and how to cut through the noise can be tough. Business Model Generation zeroes in on today’s shared language of success while educating readers about the building blocks of businesses, beginning with a concept known as the business model canvas. This book stands as an invaluable tool for defining, iterating upon, and innovating your business model.  

4) This is Service Design Thinking: Basics, Tools, Cases


The core of every successful startup today hinges on the product and the experience, be it for a user or consumer. Here Mark Stickdorn highlights the importance of human-centered design and discusses methods for customer and design research. I’d say without reservation that this one’s a must-read for any active or aspiring business owner or product marketer.

5) Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers


Brainstorms possess the ability to either exhilarate and excite or frustrate and discourage those participants charged with creating from them products, campaigns, or brand concepts. Many reports point to the latter, maintaining that most brainstorms are toxic and a complete waste of time. Says organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham, “Evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups.”

But before you run off and eliminate groupthink from your toolbox, I suggest you read Gamestorming by Dave Gray. This self-described playbook serves as a how-to for overseeing effective team collaboration. Grab yourself a copy if you’re looking to shake up the ways in which you co-create and ideate with employees or customers. I should know– this book inspired an entirely new method of growth hacking at our company, which we’re now calling the 50/50 experiment.

6) Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services That Customers Want


By the same team that brought us Business Model Generation, this book lays the groundwork for defining and understanding successful value propositions. Whether that success translates into a sound business with engaged and happy customers or a major acquisition from Google, it’s safe to say this book is a worthwhile buy. With applicable exercises and workshop ideas for colleagues and clients alike, Value Proposition Design undoubtedly lives up to its title.

7) The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You


These days you can’t scroll through a marketing blog without being inundated with headlines about shiny SAAS tools. Analytics, social listening, you name it. But with enough gizmos and services to fill our minds and browser extensions, it’s amazing how often we overlook the need to equip ourselves with the single most important tool: our own ability to lead. That’s because ultimately, it’s on us as the founders to instill that same virtue in our teams. As education expert John Holt once noted, “True leaders, in short, do not make people into followers, but into other leaders.”

8) The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses


Eric Ries is the Tony Robbins of the startup world. Thanks to his refreshingly concise writing style, his book is chock full of relatable lessons. His pointed honesty is one of the many reasons I refer this book to just about every entrepreneur I know. His explanation of the Build-Measure-Learn framework educates readers on the uses of customer-based observation, a tool that ought to exist at the heart of every startup.

9) The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup


This one stands out for its ability to convey the many challenges you will inevitably face as a founder. Author Noam Wasserman frames what he calls the “three R’s”– relationships, roles, and rewards– as factors every founder must constantly evaluate and adjust. He places special emphasis on the ways in which organizers can confidently go about making tough choices about human and financial capital. My favorite part about this read is how in-depth the lessons it contains actually are. Suffice it to say, I wish it existed when I was starting my business.

10) Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less


As the founder, owner, and veritable captain of your ship, you can expect to encounter countless distractions, both personal and professional. Great leaders know how and when to be myopic in their scope of work. Essentialism teaches us the ways of a modern day “essentialist”. That is, how to be the type that works smarter, not harder, in order to maximize on productivity levels across the board.

11) Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration


When we talk about failure being the foundation for success, Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. is treasured by many for its candid story and style. In it, he recounts the inception and creation of his company (for those unaware, that’d be the world famous Pixar Animation Studios). It’s not your average philosophical recipe for management or bland, chest-pounding tale of overcoming the odds, but rather a simple narrative of one man’s childhood passion for art and technology. How he forged that into the ideals and experiences behind one of the most innovative companies of our time, is something every one of us can stand to learn a thing or two from. This one’s a remarkably insightful look at how even the most successful careers are comprised of countless failures. Catmull’s introspection and empathy are incredibly inspiring.

12 & 13) Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action & Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t

    StartWithWhy        LeadersEatLast

Speaking of empathy, Simon Sinek’s books Leaders Eat Last and Start With Why are two truly reflective books that out to be in every founder’s literary arsenal. He uses biological evidence to assess the psychological and sociological impact of empathy, and offers various frameworks for ways in which empathy itself can be utilized as a tool to drive your organization’s success. Though similar in nature, both of Sinek’s books carry unique sets of takeaways for today’s founders. Start with Why explains the fundamental need to know and articulate our business’ “why”, while Leaders Eat Last teaches us how to uphold the tenets of our “why” as we incorporate new people into the folds of our business.

14) Outliers: The Story of Success


When we think about what drives success, we often point to fundamental elements like hard work, passion, and commitment. But what about more arbitrary factors like a person’s birth date, cultural background, or familial upbringing? Author Malcolm Gladwell encourages readers to consider how individualized one’s own potential for success actually is. Redefine your definition of success–and learn how the “10,000-Hour Rule” applies to you– in this thought-provoking bestseller.

15) Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Others Don’t


Let’s be real, not every company among us breeds excellence. While some possess the DNA makeup conducive to long term success, countless others simply do not. But is it possible, still, for those companies classified as “mediocre” to carve out permanent places for themselves in today’s market?  To make the leap from good to great? Jim Collins examines this question, and in the process uncovers a certain set of characteristics capable of distinguishing a company’s potential for enduring greatness. The findings in Good to Great reveal the qualities of successful leaders, the importance of technology, and the need for a disciplined culture, among a number of other truths that will almost certainly impact your business.

So whether you’re still watering the seedling of an idea, or currently running a full-fledged startup, there always stands the need to learn from those before you. The entrepreneurial mindset is quite erratic, so a solid foundation of lessons, learnings, and guidelines is important to moving onwards and upwards… in the right direction!

Are there any standby books in your library that I didn’t include here? Tweet them my way @petesena.

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