The 6 best startup books to read before starting your company

Most of the startup learning curve is a learn-on-the-job endeavor.  Nothing replaces the real experience of managing your own company; however there are some lessons that are worth learning ahead of time.

Smart entrepreneurs learn to pick out which teachings should be followed and which should be discarded. 

This is my common response I send when friends ask for a book list.  I actually think blogs are far more important because they're real-time and often include comments that can help the reader learn the subtleties and exceptions of an argument.  As I've said before, instead of reading this blog, I highly recommend these:

But there's something nice about books.  Books are consumed in a different setting.  They linger on bookshelfs.  They get highlighted and earmarked.  If you're new to the startup world, I would recommend reading and re-reading the following 6 books.  In fact, I would go farther and say that you should not start your company until you read through this list:

The 6 best startup books to read before starting your company

Lucky Or Smart? by Bo Peabody

A lot of this book is understanding how to put luck on your side.  I put this book as first though because it can help you understand if you want to be an founder or a manager.  Founders are a special breed.  Peabody claims it's the B- players that like to hack systems so that they get 80% of the result for 20% of the efforts.  Managers are early employees, A+ players, that can take a founders vision and create something remarkable.  It's helpful to understand which one you are.  And it's helpful to know how luck and intelligence work together.

As he says: "I was smart enough to realize I was getting lucky"

Getting Real by the guys from 37 signals


If you've never built a product or if you're a non-technical MBA, start here.  The purpose is to learn the basics of agile development early on.

The m.o. of 37 Signals is:

"We believe software is too complex. Too many features, too many buttons, too much to learn. Our products do less than the competition – intentionally. We build products that work smarter, feel better, allow you to do things your way, and are easier to use."  

Getting Real is how they teach you to do the same.

Guy will show you how to start the company and how to raise money.  This is your replacement for whatever textbook you used in your entrepreneurship class.  It's a nuts and bolts guide to what you do at each stage of start-up process.  Kawasaki is great about helping you understand how investors will view you.  

One great example, he directs you against putting a competitive profile slide in your pitching deck that shows your features vs. their features.  He's seen this enough times to know it's a useless cliche: the entrepreneur always claims to have more features than the competition.  His solution is to list out your unfair advantages and their unfair advantages in order to prove you have a reasonable perspective on your market.  Good stuff.

The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank

From my vantage point, Steve Blank is this year's favorite author, blogger, professor, and speaker.  I know that some venture capitalists give his book out to all newly-funded management teams.  (To show how aware I am of my own hypocrisy--Steve Blank teaches entrepreneuship at a business school--perhaps better than anyone else anywhere.)

Blank outlines a method called customer development.  In his words:

"Your startup is an organization built to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.  Your job as a founder is to quickly validate whether the model is correct by seeing if customers behave as your model predicts. Most of the time the darn customers don’t behave as you predicted."

Rework also by the guys from 37 signals

Rework is a collection of essays from their wonderful blog, Signals vs. Noise.  Reading it as a whole is a nice way to learn about how to think of your startup as a business that needs to make money.  These guys are pro-bootstrapping, pro-profits, and anti-venture investing.  They're a nice counterpoint to much of the startup literature that focuses on how to raise money as the primary goal in the early part of a company.  

This is a good last book for this list because it gives you insight into founder culture.  One of the most interesting (and unexpected) aspects of being in Y Combinator is that we got to see so many other founders working on their startups.  Entrepreneurship can be a lonely endeavor and it's nice to have some perspective on how other founders manage ups and downs while executing at very high levels.  The early days of the startup are the most interesting and unlike anything that comes afterward.

In her words:

"This is what productivity looks like.  This is the Formula 1 racecar.  It looks weird but it goes fast."


Those are my 6.  Would love to hear in the comments what other books you recommend.

Find discussion of this post on Hacker News.



I'm Jason Freedman.  I co-founded FlightCaster.  

 I would be remiss not to recommend the following opportunity: @JasonFreedman.

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113 responses
By far my favorite book is Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham. I bought it in 2006 and have read it at least once a year since.

Now, I'm not sure it's going to offer as much direct advice as the six you've listed, but it makes up for that by teaching people (especially not-so-technical people like many MBAs) how to think about technology. Sure, many of them still aren't going to get a lot out of chapters like "The Hundred-Year Language" and "The Dream Language" but others like "How to Make Wealth" and "Taste for Makers" are amazing.

Of course, the rub is that you could just read all his essays on his website for free if you wanted, so why bother buying the book? I guess I just like being able to read without a screen sometimes.

Thanks for the list. I read The Art of the Start (don't like it) Rework (is good) Founders at Work (is perfect). Will try to read other three :)). One more I'd add - Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good - .
I found a lot of inspiration and guidance from "The Martha Rules" in addition to The E-Myth and some mentioned in your post. Thanks for the list.
Great List... The art of the start is one of my favorite. I also recommend Change by design by Tim Brown .
Interested by Innovation and entrepreneurship just watch of those video at
Nice list. Thanks. I've read a few of these and added some new titles to my wishlist.
How about "The Four Hour Work Week" by Tim Ferriss - I know there is a lot of fluff in there, but there are also some great ideas on outsourcing. I also like the "muse" concept Tim talks about in the book...
I haven't read, but obviously two more are growing in popularity in the tech start up space:

1) Customer Development (sp?) but it obviously overlaps a lot with the Steve Blank book
2) Do More Faster, Feld and Cohen

I think you have to read "The Four Hour Work Week" with a filter. But, good ideas around focus, outsourcing, and using $25 or so in Pay Per Click spend to pick a name or decide if an idea is viable.

Read Rework and it is really great. You have some really good choices, but I think you might want to add Four Hour Workweek. Another one that I absolutely recommend is Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman. Josh also has a list of the best business books in his website.

I think Poke The Box by Seth Godin would be great. Sure it is meant to inspire, but it will help people start. They will undoubtedly encounter Resistance, so War of Art would be good.


For french entrepreneurs, I did some reviews , in French, of Rework and Guy Kawasaki books on my posterous blog :

I don't know the book of Peabody,i'll buy it soon ;)

thanks for your article,


You forgot Business Model Generation. I am a huge fan of that book.
"but I think you might want to add Four Hour Workweek"

Did you read the book? I dont think so. Tim Ferris' Book contains less than 20% Knowledge that is for Start Ups. It's more a Self-Improvement Book. Nice Ideas on productivity, but definitely not if you want to start a start up.

Just another great book Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. You can watch an interview here :
In addition to great list forming here I would also suggest:

- Good Strategy / Bad Strategy and

- my own free ebook "Startup Best Practices, Interviews with Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs"

How did you get the hacker news share button? Where can I find the source code?
Only the first book was new to me. Here's my favorite list to anyone interested in further reading

* Business Model generation
* Entrepreneurs Guide to Customer Development
* Founders at Work
* Art of Start
* Hackers & Painters
* Getting Real
* The Design of Everyday things
* Four steps to Epiphany


Consider the new book Startup: An Insider's Guide to Launching and Running a Business. No fluff, straight to the point. Quick to read, and highly rated by entrepreneurs. 5 Stars on Amazon.
I like Founders At Work, and as another commenter pointed out, Change by Design is also quite good. Another favorite of mine: "Finish What You Start" by Craig Copeland ( Have any of you read it?
In addition to the startup books by Steve Blank and Guy Kawasaki I've also read and recommend Nail It Then Scale It by Nathan Furr.
Great list!
I would love to add Peter Church's book The Added Value - the life stories of Indian Business Leaders.
To add to the list and Minute Millionaire by Robert Allen
I would recommend Peter Church's book Added Value-the life stories of Indian business leaders. Amazing insight on some truly inspirational people. You should read this book not only because it was fantastically insightful and interesting in relation to the individuals but also gives the reader an incredibly helpful view of the mindset of the business leaders. The book is an excellent primer for anyone seeking to do business.
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The books you should read depend on how much they'll teach you. How much they'll teach you depends on what you already know. I would make this post more along the lines of who should read what. For example, I read all of Paul Graham's essays. Should I still allocate my limited time to reading Founders at Work?
comment after reading
Now that it's 3 years since you posted this - are there other books / blogs / resources that I'd recommend? Thanks for all the nuggets of wisdom and words of encouragement you've shared through your blogs.
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The vast number of folks starting an enterprise do not read books before starting. Even more important, few know much about their target market. It is why so many fail
I've read a couple of these already. Will read the rest. Would really recommend The Click Moment by Frans Johansson. Again, all about aligning with luck and being open to chance.
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