Groundbreaking ideas don’t just come out of thin air – they are the result of study, effort, and a bit of luck. That’s why so many top entrepreneurs make reading a top priority in their lives, even after they’ve “made it”.
What are the best books that business leaders recommend, and what are the common threads that connect them? This is what a handful of great business minds had to say on the subject.
MBA programs, advanced certifications, online courses – there are so many resources for business leaders, but sometimes a good old-fashioned book is an ultimate catalyst.
Some books are more conceptual, while others offer step-by-step instructions for starting a business. Both types of reads are required to make big things happen.
“A favorite entrepreneurial book of mine would be Zero to One by Peter Thiel,” said Tyler Giroud, VP of Operations, Reason to Smile. “I personally believe Peter Thiel is an icon investor/ founder and this book is a must-read (or listen) for any entrepreneur with a vision toward the future that goes beyond himself or herself. Any best-selling self-help book is an asset worth investing in as well. You can’t be an effective leader in any facet of society if you don’t prioritize your mind and reflect on your journey.”
Pro tip: find your favorite entrepreneur idol and see if they have a book published under their own name or enterprise. There’s bound to be some gems in the mix.
Psychology Meets Business
The human mind is an endless puzzle, impossible to fully understand. Unlocking psychology isn’t just an interesting endeavor – it also helps us create better products and sell to people more effectively.
We’re not saying you should go back to college to get a psych degree, but there are some powerful books out there to help you learn the concepts as they relate to business.
“Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, was a fascinating and enlightening read,” said Michael Scott Cohen, CEO of Harper and Scott. “In the book, Robert Cialdini delineates the six ways a ‘compliance professional’ will lead us down the yellow brick road – to do things which are often both foolish and against our self-interests. People tend to return a favor, thus the pervasiveness of free samples in marketing. The good cop/bad cop strategy is also based on this principle. This means we have to be vigilant to make sure we are not being taken advantage of.”
When you discover what influences and incentivizes people on a psychological level, that’s a huge advantage in the world of business.
Newcomers to the business arena need all the help they can get, especially with regard to the technical side of things. Experience is ultimately the best teacher, but there are some fantastic books that can help along the way.
Not every book on your shelf should be about heavy subjects like analytics, but sooner or later you’re going to need to dive into these topics, so pick the best books available.
“Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Google Ventures’ Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz is my favorite book on business analytics,” said Chris Vaughn, CEO of Emjay. “It’s loosely based around teaching from Stanford’s design school course Design Thinking, and it explains how to test ideas through a formula that works for businesses of any size. It’ll save you money and time on developing products that you can now apply to other areas of your business.”
Lessons from History
Not all entrepreneurs found inspiration from books that explicitly discuss business. Works of non-fiction and historical accounts can be equally powerful for business leaders seeking examples of incredible human achievement.
Topics might include military history, the rise, and fall of civilizations, or just stories about great sports teams from the past. You never know when inspiration may strike.
“The best business advice I’ve ever received is to be loyal,” said Tyler Boyd, Chief Strategy Officer at Squeeze. “Loyalty and integrity go hand-in-hand. Who are you loyal to? What does that mean to you? These two questions will guide you through your entrepreneurship journey more than any technical advice, and you’ll only succeed if you’re able to follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That’s why I consider Daniel James Brown’s account of American Olympic triumph in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics an essential book for any business owner—it teaches you compassion, hard work, determination, grit, and luck, which is basically all starting a business is about.”
The lesson here is to try to find value in everything you read, even if it doesn’t directly pertain to running a business on the front lines.
You may be a lifelong marketer looking for that extra edge, or maybe you work in a completely different area of business and you just want a marketer’s perspective on things.
Some of the best business books are focused on marketing because they draw from so many different disciplines, such as design, psychology, sales, and strategy. These types of books are great starting points for young folks and help business veterans stay sharp, too.
“The book that I absolutely love is 1-Page Marketing Plan: Get New Customers, Make More Money, And Stand Out from The Crowd by Allan Dib,” said Jordan Dwayne, CEO and Founder of 6ixIce. “This book easily lays out a plan for marketing in a way that is easy to understand, yet is suitable for either beginners or more advanced marketers. it also really delves into being innovative, which is imperative if you want you and your company to grow.”
There is no shortage of advice out there, and let’s be honest – most of it is pretty useless. Our friends, family members, and teachers all have our best interests at heart, but sometimes we need advice from business leaders who have a “been there, done that” point of view.
“Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals, by Rachel Hollis, is filled with actionable tips that any female entrepreneur can apply at any stage of her journey,” said Heidi Robinson, Chief Operating Officer at Because Market. “However this book is unique in that each chapter teaches how to shift your thoughts from believing a particular lie that you’ve been told about being a woman in business, to taking control of your career. The results are nothing short of inspiring!”
Avid readers know the incredible power of words on a page. They can energize and inspire in seconds! These are books you’ll want to keep on the shelf for regular revisiting.
Nobel Prize Winners
With books, you have access to the greatest minds to ever exist on planet earth. Not only are they some of the smartest people in history, but these works are often among their greatest achievements!
Maybe you aren’t interested in dense scientific texts from the winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics, but there are many fascinating reads from “pop” scientists who have a lot to offer in the way of business and mindset.
“I recommend a book called Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman,” said Oren Frank, Co-Founder and CEO of Talkspace. “He’s the first and only psychologist that won the Nobel prize for economics. The notion that people, emotions, and relationships determine so much of the decisions we make and these are deeply rooted mechanisms is something that is becoming more understood and accepted. It’s basically the fundamentals of business, because who do you do business with? You do business with people.”
Entrepreneurial-minded people know this best of all: people are going to judge you no matter what. If you start a business, they’ll always be ready with a million explanations for why it won’t work – not very helpful!
This is where books can be powerful sources of motivation that remind us we can do anything. Personal stories, philosophy readers, interviews – they can all be highly effective for pushing us in the right direction in life.
“Untamed by Glennon Doyle,” said Rachel Jones, Head of PR at Hope Health Supply. “This book really grabs the reader’s attention with simple, effective ways for women to empower themselves and others. It speaks volumes regarding looking within and trusting our own instincts, rather than relying on the judgement and expectations of others. In short, it offers actionable tips to empower everyone around us, while also discovering our true selves.”
Many aspects of business appear simple on the surface, but reveal a ton of complexity when you start digging deeper. SEO is the perfect example of this: easy to learn, nearly impossible to master.
Blog articles and YouTube videos might help you learn SEO fundamentals on the fly, but at some point you’ll need to crack a professionally written book to fully immerse yourself in the art and science of SEO.
“Marketing in the Age of Google by Vanessa Fox,” said Amir Yazdan, M.D., Founder of GroMD. “Not everyone is an SEO or marketing expert, which is why it’s so important to find a book that can provide actionable steps in a manner that’s simple enough for beginners to understand, yet filled with information that can provide even the most seasoned professional with new strategies. You can learn about the latest tools, Google’s policies, and the most successful search strategies. Read one chapter, and you’ll be bursting to brainstorm with your colleagues to really start 2021 strong!”
Shark Tank Stars
Beware when shopping around for business books, because a lot of those self-proclaimed “experts” haven’t actually ever started a company of their own!
Many authors have a lot to say on the theory of running a business but fall short when it comes to providing real-life examples and experience. In other words, it’s important to know about the person who wrote the book in your hand. Stick with the pros.
“Daymond John is an influential voice for founders who don’t have a ton of money to get their small business started,” said Sean O’Brien, CMO of Modloft. “In his book, The Power of Broke, he discusses how being broke and on a tight budget can motivate you to achieve great things, so long as you’re hungry for success. The Power of Broke is about mindset. Daymond describes it as ‘substance over flash, creativity over certainty, and taking a chance over playing it safe.’ He says that no matter how much money you have, that it will never be enough to buy the passion, ingenuity, and determination it takes to have success over the long haul. I find value in every single book I read and there was certainly good value in this one.”
Read books by authors you recognize and admire, and save the theory for later.
To launch a business, you’ve got to have your life in order (to some degree, at least). That’s why so many entrepreneurs start off in the personal development and self-help sections of the bookstore before moving into the realm of business.
Personal development means something different to everyone, so decide what it means to you and pursue it relentlessly. Eventually, you’ll build the mental fortitude and vision to begin a successful business of your own.
“The first one that comes to mind is The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch,” said Jeff Goodwin, Sr. Director of Marketing & E-commerce at Orgain. “This book is not particularly about business or entrepreneurship, yet it has given me so much insight into personal development that is necessary for elevating professionally. This book emphasizes the “importance of overcoming obstacles and enabling the dreams of others” and about living your best life along the way. I believe these are vital pillars any businessperson should ground themselves with.”
Classic Business Books
From a biological standpoint, we humans are pretty much the same as we were thousands of years ago. Technology has advanced in incredible ways, but we still respond to incentives and interactions with some level of predictability.
Therefore, business classics from writers like Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie should not be underestimated. They may be a bit dusty on the outside, but the ideas within remain golden.
“How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie,” said Dave Rusenko, Founder and CEO of Weebly. “It’s a nice reminder and blueprint on how to be a good person. It’s effectively saying that if you could pay more attention to other people’s needs, it will benefit you.”
Rethinking the Workweek
The 40-hour workweek has been the foundation of corporate life for most people since the 20th century, and in many cases, that’s just the bare minimum. Silicon Valley, we’re looking at you!
Aspiring entrepreneurs are now looking at ways to rethink the typical 9-to-5 schedule by implementing things like automation, outsourcing, and anything else that helps them keep the cash flowing when they aren’t on the clock.
“My favorite entrepreneurial book is The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss,” said Grant Hosking, Co-Founder of Total Hydration.” Ferriss flips all the common business wisdom on its head and maps out a way to live life on your own terms as an entrepreneur. This is a book that you should read no matter where you’re at in life – there’s so much value in those pages.”
Sure, some of these titles are sensationalized (4-hour workweeks aren’t likely), but these are the mindset shifts that lead to great accomplishments.
Just reading a quote from a great business mind can inspire a world of new ideas and insights – imagine spending hours absorbing their entire life story and learning every last detail!
This is what you achieve by reading extensive biographies and getting a glimpse into the inner workings of the top business leaders from history.
“Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography is by far one of my favorite entrepreneurial/business books,” said Louis Leidenfrost, CEO of Paint Your Numbers. “The book took me through the life of Steve Jobs and gave an insane amount of detail. Steve Jobs is iconic and probably one of the best product-centric CEOs in history. One of the few takeaways I was able to gather through this book was the obsession with getting the product right. There are many lessons and experts that convince you to be lean and test the smallest hypothesis which is a great strategy but sometimes, you need to follow your gut.”
Some lessons will resonate, others won’t. Pick and choose your favorite parts from these books and forget the rest if it doesn’t apply.
Podcasts and video interviews are all the rage right now, and it’s great to watch your favorite business figures talk about their stories and offer insights.
However, having these interviews on paper is also very powerful. You can absorb the information faster and apply the lessons to your life more directly.
Keep a collection of your favorite interviews nearby and review them when you need a boost of motivation or encouragement. They can be a lifesaver.
“I recommend Female Innovators at Work: Women on Top of Tech,” said Lezlie Karls, CEO of Mid-Day Squares. “Danielle Newnham is the author of this book, and not only is she an excellent writer, but she is a great businesswoman and interviewer. She is also an inspiration to all who are looking for success in the world of technology and business entrepreneurism. Her latest book captures the personal struggles and achievements as told, in person, by famous female innovators around the globe. This book is a very inspiring read.”
Strategic thinking is at the heart of any worthwhile endeavor. Athletes review game footage, lawyers study cases, and business leaders look at case studies to see where they can gain a competitive edge.
Some books offer high-level strategic insight from long ago, but the lessons are still extremely relevant. Browse the classics section to see what great thinkers were talking about thousands of years ago – it’s bound to spark some interesting ideas.
“Sun Tzu’s The Art of War,” said Ben Cook, Jr., Vice President and General Counsel of Cook Capital Group which owns Printed Kicks. “Not a pure business book, but as a lawyer, business owner, and entrepreneur, I’ve found it very helpful. If anything, it gets you into the process of thinking through competitors’ moves, adapting to situations quickly, and managing information.”
Groundbreaking Success Stories
In the business world, it’s easy to feel like the odds are stacked against you. Competition is stiff, and the people in your immediate circles may not offer the encouragement you need.
Great books help you make critical mindset shifts by showing you what’s possible when everyone else is thinking small.
Look for books that recount stories of how your favorite brands were born and you’ll likely relate to the founders when they were just starting out. These stories can offer some real perspective and light a fire under you to go all-in on your dreams.
“My favorite book is Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike written by Phil Knight,” said Jay Shah, CEO of Auris, Inc. “In the book, he tells the story of the early days of Nike when it was just a startup. He then weaves in the tale of how the company grew to become one of the most successful and iconic brands worldwide. It’s a powerful story.”
Some people just seem to be cut from a different cloth. They are able to burn the candle at both ends while inspiring others and maintaining a balance between work and life.
These are the business superstars that we all admire, but reading their books reminds us that they are real people just like you!
Instead of scrolling social media and seeing the never-ending “highlight reels” from the business world, read books to get the behind-the-scenes accounts.
“Delivering Happiness is a fascinating book about how to grow and nurture a company,” Eric Gist, CEO of Awesome OS. “It is written by Tony Hsieh who is the founder of Zappos, the online company that started out selling shoes and has now branched out to selling clothes, watches, and eyewear. In this book, he talks about how he got where he is today and how he learned important values and lessons. He also talks about creating a culture that would outlast him. He believes that if you get the culture right, then most of the other things like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand or business will be a natural byproduct.”
After reading a stack of business biographies, you’ll realize that top entrepreneurs face real challenges and insecurities – what sets them apart is resilience and dedication.
Mindset and Motivation
Where do our mindsets come from and what does it take to improve them? These are deep questions that matter to entrepreneurs who aim to operate at extremely high levels.
To succeed in business may sometimes mean stripping away old ways of thinking and “installing new software” to the mind that helps us think and act more effectively in work and life.
This is the power of books, which work to reprogram our thought patterns and help us level up in every area. Keep reading to continue evolving.
My favorite business/entrepreneurial books are: Traction, Never Lose a Customer Again, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and The Road Back to You. Which is about the Enneagram,” said Sarah Morgan, CEO of Even.
Rapid Value Boosters
Many business books are slow burners. They take time to work through and digest. They’re the books that require months to read and sometimes they seem impossible to finish. While they can be valuable in the long run, sometimes you just want a quick hit of value!
“As a digital marketer, I found Hook Point by Brendan Kane to be one of the best reads for our work,” said Jonathan Snow, COO and Co-Founder of The Snow Agency. “It’s all about grabbing people’s attention and standing out quickly. You have 3-seconds, how will you do that? He’s straightforward, and his focus on standing out with value is something I keep in mind working with our clients. As a growth strategist, his ideas reinforce what we implement to help our clients scale quickly. He got me thinking creatively about how we can consistently improve their impact and results by being the best in class in a unique way. Highly recommend it if you’re feeling like your message or business is getting buried in the noise.”
The phenomenon of “fast-digesting knowledge” explains the rise of things like ebooks and online courses in recent years. Books aren’t going anywhere – they’re simply changing form.
The top business books are often accounts of a singular journey of one person or company, or a rags-to-riches tale about a family or team of innovators.
These are useful to get the magnifying-glass insights, but sometimes you want a grab-bag of different examples and experiences.
“Carving new territory with a brand is exciting,” said Ashley Troutman, Senior Director of Brand Management at Mother Dirt. “The possibilities for what to do and which direction to go with an initiative are fun. But that can also feel like a great weight. So my go-to book to get my thoughts realigned is Good to Great by Jim Collins. I love reading all the examples of companies that made specific decisions early on, impacting their trajectory and the staying power of their brand 30 years later. It’s inspiring and thought-provoking with a potent reminder that we need to think decades ahead to create a brand that stands the test of time.”
The best aspects of this style of book? Fast-paced, no fluff, all value.
Lessons from Leaders
Crafting your own leadership style is a crucial part of starting a business. This is how you interact with clients, investors, colleagues, and even yourself.
A great way to develop a distinctive approach to leadership is to read how successful business founders faced their own challenges along the way to the top. You’ll get concrete examples of conflict resolution, compromise, and self-motivation that will help you win the day.
Danielle Newnham’s book, Female Innovators at Work: Women on Top of Tech is an excellent read for anyone looking to succeed in business and entrepreneurship,” said Lauren Bosworth, CEO of Love Wellness. “This book captures the personal struggles and achievements as told, in person, by famous female innovators around the globe. This book’s featured interviews highlight exceptional women in business and tech will inspire you and your mindset.”
With this list of great books, there shouldn’t be much space left on your shelf! Check out these excellent reads for yourself and never stop building your library of knowledge.