Every entrepreneur is a life-long learner.
And that’s not just because you have the mindset for it. You don’t have a choice. New challenges appear every day and you need to learn and figure out how to solve them.
That’s true for you, as it is for any one of my founders here at Altar.io. They are all ex-startup founders that learned the lean way by doing it, but also by reading an unhealthy amount of books over the years.
So I sat down with them, as well as some of the entrepreneurs we work with, to discover which books had an impact on them and shaped their entrepreneurial journey.
The result of those conversations is this list. In which I’ve combined the top 12 recommendations, and why they found them so valuable.
In the interest of full transparency: Neither myself, Altar.io or the entrepreneurs I spoke to create this list receive any money to recommend the following books. They were chosen based on personal experience and the experience of those I spoke to.
The Best Books for Entrepreneurs in 2021
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
- Zero to One by Peter Thiel
- Start With Why by Simon Sinek
- Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
- The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick
- The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
- Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore
- The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau
- The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
- How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- Radical Candor by Kim Scott
- Mindset by Carol Dweck
- Unapologetically Ambitious by Shellye Archambeau
1. The Lean Startup by Eric Reis
The Lean Startup is a must-read and easily tops the list of the best business books for entrepreneurs. This book is all about how to turn your startup idea into a sustainable business.
The detailed approach Eric Ries takes can help you build a product or service that customers want, and are willing to pay for. All with minimum wasted time or effort.
The book starts with identifying your biggest assumptions. The:
- Value Assumption
- Growth Assumption
The value assumption is the belief that customers are going to find value in what you’re about to build.
The growth assumption is all about how you’re going to attract customers to your business over time in a profitable way.
Ries then takes you through the process of converting these two assumptions into testable hypotheses.
Then he guides you to find quick and inexpensive ways to test and validate those hypotheses, including building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or creating a promotional video and landing page.
The combination of these processes and insights will help you navigate the uncertainty all businesses face and give you the tools you need to build a lasting, sustainable company.
2. Zero to One by Peter Thiel
In Zero to One, legendary entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel explains why you should “focus on businesses that create something new.”
He talks about how many of today’s businesses are focused on moving the world from 1 to N. Or iterating and improving existing products.
In this book, Thiel is calling entrepreneurs, as the title suggests, to take the world from zero to one – to find entirely new solutions and products that create more value.
He breaks this down further into actionable tips on what you need to do (and not do) before jumping in and creating your solution or product.
Written in 2014, this is undoubtedly one of the best books for entrepreneurs out there and well worth adding to your reading list.
3. Start with Why by Simon Sinek
Start with Why is an A to Z on how leaders inspire people to take action. If you apply this book to your business, it can help you attract loyal customers. It can also help you create a company culture and have a greater impact on the world.
Sinek does this by sharing his insights on discovering the deeper, underlying purpose of your business, brand & product.
He stipulates that there are two ways to influence human behaviour, manipulation or inspiration.
He theorises that brands that are unable to inspire their customers rely on manipulation tactics to get them to take action. This can be in the form of fear or peer pressure to name but two.
And while this tactic may help drive initial sales, Sinek warns that using manipulation will become less effective over time. Importantly, this tactic will rarely result in a customer forming a long-term relationship with your business.
His solution is that you inspire your audience by starting with why. He poses that clarifying and communicating why you’re doing what you do is the key to inspiring your customers and developing a long-term relationship with them. In a nutshell, Sinek is telling us:
“People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.”
Start with Why is one of the best books for entrepreneurs looking to hone their leadership skills and inspire customers, employees & colleagues alike.
4. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the best books for entrepreneurs for breaking down the psychology behind decision making and judgement.
He splits this psychology into two systems:
“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. [Fast Thinking]
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. [Slow Thinking]”
Throughout this book Kahneman looks closely at the differences between System 1 & 2, explaining them in great detail to help you understand how and why you make the decisions you make and how to identify which system you’re using and which you should be using.
5. The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick
Primarily focused on startups that are bringing a new product or service to market, The Mom Test helps you learn how to properly talk to customers and how you can learn more from them.
The books cover hook sums it up perfectly:
“How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you.”
It starts by teaching you that, when talking to new customers, you should talk about their lives and not your idea.
When you talk to friends, family or potential customers about your idea they will see the passion you have for it.
The problem with this conversation is that people will often offer what Fitzpatrick calls “blind encouragement & generic support”. The natural, socially polite response.
If you truly want to get genuine feedback Fitzpatrick suggests that you talk to them about their life in the context of the problem you’re trying to solve with your product.
They will then reflect on the problem, and how they would want it to be solved. This allows you to compare what your customers are saying with your idea, to see if the two are aligned.
This is just the first idea Fitzpatrick covers in his book. This is one of the best books for entrepreneurs when it comes to learning the strategies and tips to ensure you’re talking to your customers in a way that garners valuable feedback on your idea.
6. The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
The 4-Hour Workweek is essentially a blueprint to free yourself of your 9-to-5, create a business and live like a millionaire (without actually having to be one).
The key idea Ferriss starts with is to be effective, not efficient. Here Ferriss uses the idea of the 80/20 rule – also known as the Pareto Principle to explain this.
One of the more interesting insights in this book is the idea that you don’t have to be a millionaire to live like one, in what Ferriss describes as The New Rich.
He poses that if you want to live a life of luxury you should focus on flexibility and mobility. In other words, the ability to do whatever you want, wherever you want. For example, if you’re paid in dollars but spending in Pesos, your money is going yo go a lot further.
Throughout this book, Ferriss provides you with the tools to accomplish this New Rich lifestyle, from outsourcing tasks to virtual assistants to redefining your approach to work.
This is one of the best books for entrepreneurs looking to take their passion and turn it into their full-time job.
7. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a candid, brutally honest look at how hard it is to run a business.
Horowitz was very conscious of the fact that he didn’t want to write “just another management book”.
He felt, however, that there was something missing in the market of business books for entrepreneurs.
That gap he saw? No one was writing about what happens when everything goes wrong, and it’s on your shoulders to fix it.
He starts the book by describing his own story and how his career unfolded. He gives you a glimpse behind the curtain at his humble start as an engineer at NetLabs, through to setting up his venture with business partner Marc Andreesen.
The latter half of the book is spent on imparting actionable advice on how to effectively run your business. Horowitz shares anecdotes at various intersections throughout to contextualise his advice.
“This is not your typical, how-to entrepreneur book. It is however one of the best books for entrepreneurs on the market.”
What separates this book is the way Horowitz tackles the real problems and challenges entrepreneurs face. He includes many of the questions he asked his mentors and problems he faced himself.
Furthermore, Horowtiz provides advice on how to control your own psychology. As well as insights on how to keep your demons in check as a CEO and founder:
“By far the most difficult skill I learned as a CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology. […] It’s like the fight club of management: the first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.
At the risk of violating the sacred rule, I will attempt to describe the condition and prescribe some techniques that helped me. In the end, this is the most personal and important battle that any CEO will face.”
8. Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A. Moore
Crossing the Chasm is all about how to market and sell disruptive products to mainstream customers. It focuses on any new service or product that asks customers to change or alter their behaviour in a significant way.
Moore starts the book by describing what he calls The Technology Adoption Lifecycle – breaking people into five groups and how each group adopts disruptive tech solutions, they are:
- The Innovators (2.5% of Customers)
- Early Adopters (13.5% of Customers)
- Early Majority (34% of Customers)
- Late Majority (34% of Customers)
- The Laggards (16% of Customers)
Each of these groups responds to disruptive products in different ways. For example, an innovator will typically buy a new product because they want the latest and greatest tech innovations. Think of the first people to by Apple Airpods, for example. Innovators want to be first just for the sake of being first.
This is different from the early adopters. They tend to look for new technology that will give them a strategic or competitive advantage in their market and/or everyday life.
“Early adopters focus on technology that has a practical use for their needs and are willing to adopt that early to leverage the benefits.”
Early majority, are costumers who want evolution not revolution. They will adopt new technology when they see it becoming the new standard. A good example here is the majority of people using Blackberry phones until they saw that iPhones were becoming the new standard.
Moore continues through these groups in greater detail. But, critically, the book focuses on “crossing the chasm” between early adopters and (the most valuable segments in the market) Early Majority & Late Majority. A fundamental part of this is learning how to deliver a complete solution to those customers which Moore explains fantastically.
This is one of the best books for entrepreneurs when it comes to working out how to reach the most profitable groups of customers in your market.
9. The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau
The aim of The $100 Startup is to help prospective entrepreneurs gain awareness of the challenges that come from building a successful small business and escape the 9-to-5.
Throughout the book, Guillebeau lays out the possibility of starting and running a successful business with a small team of one to five people. He uses real-life case studies to achieve this.
The three main lessons Guillebeau covers are:
- Using your current skills even if they don’t immediately seem relevant
- When starting small, hustle for good marketing
- Action beats planning, especially in a small business
Lesson one revolves around the idea of not spending your entire bank balance on learning new skills you think you need.
Instead, it suggests you should focus on utilizing what you’re already good at while working on those other aspects – because odds are you have related skills to help you run your business of choice.
Lesson two focuses on getting creative with your marketing, instead of burning through money on advertising and hoping it pays off.
Guillebeau suggests blogging as a first step to achieve this. Then, he advises you to hustle your way into effective marketing. This could be collaborating with similar businesses, contacting journalists or guest blogging on other websites. Essentially, doing anything you can to get your name out there without spending millions.
Lesson three is exactly what it says on the tin: don’t plan, take action.
“Guillebeau states that over-planning can lead to a quick death for many small businesses.”
He continues to say that taking action and adjusting your course along the way as needed leads to more results than using all your time to plan every little detail.
This is one of the best books for entrepreneurs who’re looking to start a side-business and scale it to their full-time job. Guillebeau has packed this book with actionable insights and tips that any entrepreneur could benefit from learning or re-learning.
10. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
Since its initial publication in 1967, Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive has helped millions of executives (or knowledge workers as Drucker calls them) improve their effectiveness.
Throughout this book, Drucker shows how you can develop personal effectiveness. The idea behind the book is that in a world that is increasingly dependant on knowledge-based work, the more knowledge workers need to improve their effectiveness.
Drucker poses there are five habits that are crucial to becoming an effective executive:
- Knowing & managing your time
- Focus on results and contributing to your organisation
- Building on strengths, rather than weaknesses
- Set priorities and concentrate on the few major areas that will achieve outstanding results.
- Make effective decisions
Despite the time it was written, Drucker’s insights are just as relevant today as they were then. Drucker’s timeless insights and observations make The Effective Executive one of best books for entrepreneurs to read.
11. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
Similarly to The Effective Executive, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People sets out a series of behaviours that will make you more effective. Covey takes an integrated approach to help entrepreneurs improve their personal and interpersonal development.
The book is designed in a way that each habit (when implemented in order) will prepare you for the next and strengthen the previous.
Covey’s seven habits that will help you reach your full potential are:
- Being proactive – Don’t react to the world. Instead, take charge of your life.
- Beginning with an end in mind – Visualise your ideal future, and design a roadmap to get there.
- Putting first things first – Prioritise what brings you closer to your vision of your ideal future.
- Thinking “win-win” – Build positive relationships that accelerate you towards your ideal future.
- Seeking first to understand, then to be understood – Learn to listen, then learn to speak.
- Synergising – Find a way to harmonise with both others and yourself so you can achieve more.
- Sharpening the saw – Make sure you find time to recharge so you can be effective in the long term.
The first three habits are designed to help you develop “self-mastery” – or personal victories.
Then habits four through six will focus you on teamwork, cooperation, and communications – or public victories
Finally, habit seven teaches you how to balance and renew the preceding habits.
This is by far one of the best books for entrepreneurs looking to improve their daily habits to become more effective both professionally and personally.
12. How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie
In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie brings us a series of techniques on navigating relationships and influencing the people around you, without offending them.
The first idea Carnegie brings up in the book is the idea that you can’t win an argument, and that they should be avoided at all costs. He poses that nine times out of ten, an argument ends with both parties believing that they are absolutely right.
He also tells us that even if you win an argument you still lose. As you’ve made the other person feel inferior and hurt their pride.
Which leads to Carnegie’s next lesson, never telling someone they’re wrong. Instead, you should instead collaborate with them through a series of questions to get to the bottom of why they think they’re right.
Carnegie found that, more often than not, this method can go a long way to influencing people to your way of thinking.
These are just two of the many insights Carnegie imparts in what has become one of the best books for entrepreneurs.
The book is packed full of actionable tips from why remembering names is so important to why you should ask people to do things instead of giving orders.
13. Radical Candor by Kim Scott
In Radical Candor, successful manager Kim Scott shares what she calls a “vital new approach” to effective management.
Throughout the book, she condenses her years of experience managing at companies like Google and Apple into actionable lessons.
Scott has identified three simple principles to build better relationships with your employees:
- Make it personal
- Get (sh)it done
- Understand why it matters
She explores these throughout the book to help you create an environment where your employees feel both challenged and cared for.
14. Mindset by Carol Dweck
Carol Dweck describes her work as bridging developmental psychology, social psychology, and personality psychology. She examines the mindsets people use to structure the “self” and guide their behaviour.
The result of this extensive research is manifested in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Throughout the book, she explores how both our conscious and unconscious thoughts affect us and how simple factors can have a powerful impact on our ability to improve.
The book is based around two mindsets, the “Fixed Mindset” and the “Growth Mindset”
Essentially those with a fixed mindset, who believe that abilities are fixed, are less likely to succeed compared to those with a growth mindset – the belief that abilities can be developed.
In the latest edition, Dweck has expanded her mindset beyond the individual – applying it to cultures and organisations.
This is one of those books for entrepreneurs that is considered a must-read for anyone looking to motivate and lead their team.
15. Unapologetically Ambitious by Shellye Archambeau
Named a Best Business Book of 2020 by Fortune, Unapologetically Ambitious tells the story of Shellye Archambeau – one of Silicon Valley’s first female African American CEOs.
Archambeau recounts how she overcame the challenges of managing her personal and professional responsibilities while climbing the ranks at IBM as a young black woman, wife and mother.
On her journey through the busts and booms of Silicon Valley in the early 2000s, she learned that ambition alone is not enough to achieve success.
In the book, she shares practical strategies and tools that you can use to increase your chances of success, including steps on how to:
- Dismantle imposter syndrome
- Develop financial literacy
- Build your network
- Balance your professional and personal life
- Take time for self-care.
This bold and inspiring book teaches you how to carefully navigate the entrepreneurial journey and give yourself the best chances of success.
I recommend you choose one or two of the books from the list that you think can help you straight away and give them a read.
As an entrepreneur time is always of the essence. Not everyone has the time to sit down and read for hours every day.
I would recommend however getting into a simple daily reading habit. Take five minutes every morning to make a little bit of progress into whichever book you’re reading. Never increase that minimum of five minutes. But if you have time and feel like reading more, don’t limit yourself to that.
If you set the five-minute habit, and stick to it, you’ll have developed a consistent routine. You’ll be surprised just how quickly you can go through some great entrepreneurial books.