Startup Books: Top Picks to Make Your Business Better


There are a lot of books out there about entrepreneurship, innovation, and startup culture. Now that we're in our third year of providing guidance and support to startup companies through our accelerator program, we've come across just about everything ever published about entrepreneurship and business. Everybody has advice to offer — some groundbreaking, innovative, and exciting, and others not so much.

We've amassed quite the library of startup wisdom and thought we'd share our picks for the best of the best. These four books have been passed from company to company and from mentor to mentor, and they never fail to jumpstart in-depth discussions about business theory and practice. We recommend them to our companies when they're struggling and need extra inspiration, and we highly endorse them to anyone who wants to get a better sense of startup culture or help their business grow and thrive.

Top Sources of Startup Wisdom

1. Start With Why — Simon Sinek

This is the book that skyrocketed Simon Sinek to top business thought leader status. His TED Talk on the topic is one of the most watched talks ever. If you haven't seen it, take the time to watch. Start With Why lays out Sinek's theory that successful businesses focus on Why, rather than What and How, they do what they do.

Think about it: when someone asks what we do, we say "we help early-stage startups accelerate their growth." That's great and it's true, but it's less compelling than telling them why we do what we do. "We want to make Kansas City happier, healthier, and wealthier by supporting its booming startup and technology culture." When we start with why, we not only build businesses that are purpose-driven, we connect with our customers (or investors) in a much more compelling way. Read this book to rediscover meaning and purpose in your work.

2. Running Lean — Ash Maurya

We've talked about Ash Maurya in this space before, specifically his idea of the Lean Canvas, which we strongly endorse. The lean canvas is a one-page business plan model that focuses you on the most important factors for building a high growth business. Think of it like a blueprint rather than the full specifications for building a house.

Running Lean offers more than just the lean canvas. The book has great insight about focus and how to add value where it counts rather than trying to fit into someone else's mold. Not focusing on what's important (selling your product, earning money) robs you of your valuable time and energy. As Maurya says, 

"Instead of chasing a mythical perfect plan, what you need is a well documented starting point and a systematic process for going from your Plan A to a plan that works before running out of resources." 

Instigator Blog calls Running Lean a winner, and we couldn't agree more.

3. Zero to One — Peter Thiel

Peter Theil, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, wrote this game-changer of a book on entrepreneurship and innovation. His premise is that although telecommunications and information technology are rapidly developing, otherwise we live in an age of "technological stagnation." Thiel's solution: we must learn to think for ourselves, looking outside of established paradigms. Thiel writes,

"The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. Copying others takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But when you do something new, you go from 0 to 1. Tomorrow’s champions will not win by competing ruthlessly in today’s marketplace; they will escape competition altogether, because their businesses will be unique."

The Atlantic says "Peter Thiel's Zero to One Might Be the Best Business Book I've Read" and calls it "a lucid and profound articulation of capitalism and success in the 21st century economy." Read. This. Book.

4. Startup Communities — Brad Feld

Feld's book is about "Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City." He defines four essential ingredients based on his experience in the startup world and as a co-founder of The Foundry Group and Techstars. While this book has a broader scope than the first three (focusing on communities rather than individual companies) it still contains valuable insight for entrepreneurs about creating and sustaining vibrant communities.

As we know in Kansas City, community support is vital to fostering successful entrepreneurs and companies, and creates a resource-rich environment where innovation flourishes. Kansas City's own Kauffman Foundation produced a sketchbook video called "StartupVille" that summarizes Brad Feld's four main points in an educational and entertaining way. Watch the video and buy the book!

Pick Up A Book

While every startup company is different and has unique needs, strengths, and weaknesses, all can benefit from the experience and advice offered by these authors. There is something of value for everyone in the books we've listed above.

So if you're building a company and looking for inspiration and guidance, or if you've got a startup dream and don't know where to start, there are many valuable resources available. Grab a highlighter and pick up a book — you and your company will see the benefit!

What are your favorite startup books and authors? Share them by tweeting @SparkLabKC!