The Entrepreneur’s Essential Bookshelf

Written by on January 10, 2014

When you’re building a company, you’ll find there’s a great deal of knowledge and skill that will be required of you–and it’s the stuff they don’t teach you in school. You’ll have to learn it quickly, too.

When we first started our company, Software Advice, I knew nothing about starting or building a company. But Don had a big library of business books. If I couldn’t hike or ski, I didn’t have much else to do on weekends in Montana. So I started reading. A few of these books really helped me get through the early days, and I think they would be helpful to other first-time entrepreneurs who find themselves in a similar position.

So here are the books that have been most helpful to us, sorted by category:

Business Strategy

These books cover the high-level, conceptual stuff that you may initially think is most important–though you’ll come to realize that the other categories are just as vital. Here are the texts that will help you think big-picture:

Good to Great, by Jim Collins: This book outlines the key ingredients required to build a great company. It draws upon examples of companies that grew relatively mundane operations into market-dominating giants, such as Gillette and Wells Fargo. Don and I have referred to this book periodically over the years to make sure we are on track.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton M. Christensen and The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor: These classic works break down the process of “disruptive innovation”: when new companies enter a market and disrupt the top incumbents, even though those established leaders seem to be doing everything right. These books also teach you how to establish barriers to entry and protect your business from disruption once you’ve become a leader.

Blue Ocean Strategy, by W. Chan Kim: This book takes innovation a bit further, exploring how you can create an entirely new market–a “blue ocean” of uncharted commercial waters–and dominate it. You’ll also learn why this is the best way to move forward and position your company for success. We’ve tried to apply these principles when carving out our niche in the enterprise software demand generation market.

Sales Strategy

Sales is another bucket of knowledge you can’t learn in a classroom. While a book can’t exactly teach it to you, either, it can at least familiarize you with the lessons you’ll really learn when you get out there and start doing it. Sales are often the foundation for growing a company, and you’ll have to close a lot of them to get off the ground. I had never done sales when we first started, and back then, I was terrible at it! But I tried my best to learn quickly, primarily with the help of these books:

Cold Calling Techniques (That Really Work!), by Stephan Schiffman: Here you’ll find the textbook approach to cold calling. It’s a must-read even if you aren’t cold calling, because it outlines basic sales techniques and strategies for dealing with potential customers. Schiffman will teach you how to take control of calls, drive them where you need them to go, and overcome phone sales obstacles.

Closing Techniques (That Really Work!), by Stephan Schiffman: In the follow-up to his guide to cold calling, Schiffman walks you through the basics of how to close deals: an indispensable skill when starting a new business.
Selling 101: What Every Successful Sales Professional Needs to Know, by Zig Ziglar: This classic sales book presents the essential ingredients of an effective salesperson. Ziglar also walks you through the emotional side of selling, and teaches you how to deal with the emotional rollercoaster every salesperson encounters. I found these techniques also helped me get through the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

Hiring and Management

Once your business gets going, you’ll need to hire people, and manage them well. Finding and retaining the right people is absolutely crucial to your company’s success. It’s also a lot harder than most people think. Here are the books that helped us the most:

Who: The A Method for Hiring, by Geoff Smart and Randy Street: We’ve written a lot about the lessons this book has taught us. We learned the hard way that hiring isn’t something you can do from the gut–rather, you need to have a formal, rigorous structure behind it. This book will present you with a hiring system that is more science and less art.

First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently, by Curt Coffman: This book explains how to be a great manager and retain your best employees. It also debunks a lot of the old myths surrounding management. As it turns out, the most common management techniques tend to be the least effective. I think this is an important book for anyone in a managerial role to read.

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, by The Arbinger Institute: Here, you will essentially learn how to become a strong leader by getting your ego out of the way. This is an especially important concept to understand, because as your company grows, your domain expertise will become less valuable. Your leadership skills, however, will become much more important to the continued success of your business.

Personal Development and Strategy

Personal development is just as important as any of the preceding business-specific categories, if not more so. Just as there is strategy involved in starting and growing a business, there’s strategy behind improving yourself as a person. Entrepreneurship is really tough, and your chances of success will be higher if your personal life is in good shape. The following can serve as your strategy guides:

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie: Carnegie is world-renowned as a leader in relationship building. Personally, I think the world would be a better, happier place if everybody read this book. There is a good chance you will be a better businessperson, too, if you follow his instructions.


What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith: As the title implies, the skills and talents that got you from point A to B as an entrepreneur won’t help you get your business from point B to C. Goldsmith will teach you how to realize your full potential as a leader–and he’ll also tell you what not to do, which is just as important.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Steven R. Covey: Like Carnegie’s, this is another book with “legendary” status. Covey forces you to take a step back and look at your life from a big-picture perspective, and provides simple steps for how you can improve it. The book covers everything from time management to positive thinking, and I consider it another must-read.

While there are countless business books out there, these have been the most helpful to me. At Software Advice, we’ve actually started a book club where we read one of these titles at a time and then get together to discuss them. It has been fun to share these books with the rest of our team, and I think they would help anyone trying to build a successful company.

Have I missed any books that have been particularly helpful to you? Let me know in the comments below.

Posted Under: Execution, Hiring, Management, Sales & Marketing
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Austin Merritt is COO of Software Advice. He has performed a number of roles at the company, ranging from marketing and research to taking out the garbage. Austin is an avid outdoorsman and can often be found running the Town Lake trail in Austin, TX or exploring the mountains of Southwest Montana with his wife, Melissa.

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