Getting into the startup world can be really scary - it certainly was for us. The same goes for the people trying to build something completely new and innovative within existing company structures.
Without proper guidance, it’s incredibly easy to fall into traps that a) waste a lot of time and money and b) simply don’t lead anywhere.
That’s why I’ve spent considerable amounts of time trying to cut through the noise of all the advice out there. After launching several businesses and making all kinds of stupid mistakes, I’ve found the following books and essays invaluable for getting better at what I am doing and what our team at OfferZen is doing.
We made these books and essays part of our philosophy. It gives us a set of battle-tested ideas and approaches that help us tackle the problems OfferZen faces as a team.
Fundamental startup reading
If you want to understand the startup way of thinking - whether you are a software maker planning to turn an awesome product into a new business or a member of an innovation unit within a larger corporate - these books provide practical tips, examples and mental models to help you get started.
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
What is it about? The biggest question in entrepreneurship and product development is not: "Can it be built?” but "Should it be built?". The Lean Startup principle introduces a scientific way of making sure that you’re building something that people actually want. It talks about getting customer feedback on concepts with small, quick and cost-effective iterations; putting out early prototypes and testing with customers.
Why is this interesting? The biggest risk for a startup is generally not a lack of technical skill. It is building something that customers don't really want. Software makers (including me) tend to struggle to acknowledge this: Because they enjoy making things, that is where they spend most of their time. They are comfortable here, know the trials and tribulations and then assume that this is where the risk lies. Often, however, the solution doesn’t lie in new code but rather in re-directing the product.
One of my key learnings from this book is this: What you think you know about your customer is probably wrong. But there’s a quick fix: Ries introduces the concept of the Build–Measure–Learn loop, emphasizing speed as a critical ingredient for product development. The rapid iteration allows the teams to find their right product-market fit, and to optimize and refine the business model afterward.
A bit of backstory: You’ve probably heard about the “lean startup movement”. But while most people know about this term in relation to Ries, it actually started with a guy called Steve Blank. He wrote the book Four Steps to the Epiphany, which is effectively a set of class notes from a course he taught at Berkeley. Eric Ries attended Steve Blank's startup classes before being “lean" became a global trend. He applied those lessons to his own startup IMVU, wrote up his learnings in The Lean Startup and through that launched the Lean Startup revolution.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
What is it about? The Hard Thing About Hard Things is sort of a startups-in-reality book; a manual for all the people thinking about starting their own business (you!). The name is very apt because, (sadly,) there are no easy answers. It’s a book about what happens when things go wrong - because they will - and what to do then. It's a simple, authentic explanation of what startups are like and how insane it can be. I don't think there's any book that comes even close to Horowitz’s brutal honesty and I’ve found it to be an incredibly valuable account.
Why is this interesting? Startups. Are. Scary. All new things that could potentially break or break other things are. Founders, however, tend to act like everything is fine and easy and they're winning all the time - in the past, we’ve been guilty of that too. Now, if you are just starting out and that is all you are looking at, you can easily start thinking that you're the only muppet who is struggling. Reading this book really helped me to realise that I’m not crazy or uniquely screwed: It really just is this hard.
On a personal note: The Hard Thing About Hard Things is one of the books that I re-read periodically. A lot of the things in it don’t necessarily make sense when you first read it. But once you've experienced them yourself, you go back: "Okay, I've got a situation similar to this. What do I do?" And that can be incredibly powerful. Horowitz uses practical scenarios and examples of challenges he has faced himself. He is a super credible entrepreneur who shows that it didn't always work out, that it's sometimes just a mess - something very few people like to admit.
Zero to One by Peter Thiel
What is it about? Zero to One is about building significant companies (read: monopolies). Compared to the first two books, Zero to One is more abstract, but I think it provides useful mental models, a philosophy if you so wish. You might encounter some of the mentioned challenges down the line and then you'll be glad that you have something that helps you think about them.
Why is this interesting? The eccentric libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel is quite a character: After supporting Trump, sue-murdering Gawker and offering $100,000 to kids who will drop out of college, “Silicon Valley” didn’t need much parody to write the fictional character, Gavin Belson. That’s why it comes as little surprise that Thiel’s advice is quite out there: For example; while we tend to think about competition as a good thing because it makes the markets work, Thiel argues that competition is for losers. His point is essentially that, if you want to build a valuable company, you should create a monopoly.
A bit of backstory: Zero to One originates from class notes that one of Thiel’s students, Blake Masters, took during his lectures. Thiel taught a Stanford entrepreneurship class called Zero to One and Masters put his personal notes online where they became incredibly popular. Eventually, Thiel suggested to Masters that they should write a book together.
While this, strictly speaking, is not a book, I still highly recommend you look at Paul Graham's blog. PG, as most people call him, is a founder of a Y Combinator (YC) - arguably the most successful startup accelerator in the world. The value proposition is simple: Graham does a great job at helping you to avoid a bunch of very common and costly mistakes. Here are my two favourite pieces:
Do Things That Don't Scale is probably the most famous example of PG’s advice because it pretty much made Airbnb. He explains why you should do almost anything to delight your first users, even if there’s no way these tactics will work at scale.
Another example is Startups Are Growth. I’ve done this time and time again in the past: It’s so easy to focus on other metrics than growth when growth is really all that matters. This applies both to products and startups: Just like me, most software makers often focus on a lot of things that they think are useful when really, they should rather just stick with growth. It’s a surprisingly good metric to inform all of your actions, especially at the early stage of a venture. So the advice in this essay is pretty safe to follow.
Human-related startup books
Humans matter. That’s why, in my opinion, the following two books are absolutely startup books, even though that might not be immediately obvious. Every individual you work with has a fundamental impact on your endeavours’ outcome, no matter whether it’s a new business or a new team.
Mindset by Carol S. Dweck
What is it about? Dweck’s insight is solidly embedded in psychological research*. Here’s how I understand it: Fundamentally, there are two ways of thinking about a challenge. The one is to see it as a test. If I succeed, I get a “brownie point”, a tick for my name. If I fail, it's a tick against me. That describes an achievement mindset. The other way to think about it is with a growth mindset. The growth mindset sees challenges as opportunities - opportunities to try, iterate, learn and essentially become better.
Why is this interesting? I believe that thinking about challenges with a growth mindset makes you better at what you do. Dweck’s research confirms that it makes you happier and more willing to try really difficult things. In the startup world, trying really difficult things without getting hung up on the fear of failing is an imperative. In my opinion, this book provides the best blueprint for thinking about a startup, a new product or any other challenge, for that matter.
Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street
What is it about? Who is a clear, applicable and practical book about hiring people and building teams. If you are hiring people, you’ll want to read this book. Smart and Street provide specific interview questions, actionable guides on things to do and warnings about concrete mistakes people often make. If I had to recommend a single book on hiring, it would be this one.
Why is this interesting? Hiring is notoriously hard. This book provides the most practical, clear way of actually having a good hiring process. The advice is directly applicable and uses what I consider good data - it's not just made up. You can definitely do a lot worse than just following their process.
My key learning from this book was that just going with your gut is not a good idea. In the beginning, this was not obvious to me. For example: “Just winging” interviews is a terrible idea. All you end up doing is hiring people who don’t fit and adding a massive bias to your process. On the actionable side, Who recommends having a scorecard for every role you are trying to fill. That one element alone turned out to be absolutely key for OfferZen.
Why read in the first place?
Most of the skills needed to build amazing tech and run a successful startup cannot be learned by reading - you have to jump in and do it. Books have however helped me to recognise when and if I’m doing the right things. There are certain universally dumb things that cost a lot of time that books can help you identify and avoid.
Turns out, knowing the right from the wrong stuff is not quite as easy as one would think. Often, we are doing a bunch of the right stuff and a bunch of the wrong stuff at the same time. Reading helps me to filter the right stuff, and crystallise what I am doing.
In companies and teams, having everyone read the same books also helps to give you a common framework, a common verbiage to discuss things. This is especially useful for product teams, new startups and innovation units that don’t just consist of developers. Coders or tech makers often have a better intuitive understanding of some of the startup principles because they are the same principles software is built on. Sales- and business people don’t necessarily function in the same manner.
#AskMeAnything with Malan and get a Startup book**
Malan will be answering questions on the OfferZen Community between 12:30 and 14:00 on Wednesday 20th December.
The first 5 people to post a question will get a free copy of one of the books listed above!
** Doesn't apply to OfferZen employees or affiliated members.