When I got out of college I was obsessed (some would say possessed) with developing a successful business. I had long been infatuated with the idea, having run small door-to-door businesses when I was in middle and high school. After college and a short experience working at a bank, I felt even more strongly that I wanted to run a business of my own. Starting from that point, I made entrepreneurship the dominant theme of my professional career. As a result, I have read between 200 and 300 books on (or related to) entrepreneurship. These books have covered many different topics, written mostly by practitioners, but even some academics.
Below I’ve listed the three most powerful books that I’ve read on this subject. While nothing can substitute for the experience of actually struggling to create, run and grow one’s own business, I genuinely believe that these books have helped me immensely as an entrepreneur. You will note that not all of these books are just on entrepreneurship, per se, but nevertheless they have been most helpful to me in building successful businesses.
Growing a Business by Paul Hawken. I read this book in the late 1980s, after graduating from college. Even today, I crack open this book when I want to brush up on things I’ve either forgotten or not had the discipline to fully implement. What I like most about his book, is that he takes a very different tack on growing a business. Paul likens the development of a business to the development of an organism, making the basic tenets of running a business (customer service, revenue growth, etc.) easy to grasp. For example, while he’s not necessarily averse to hyper-growth, he notes that if a business grows too quickly, like a plant, it becomes difficult for it to sustain itself. This concept has stuck with me over the years.
Another lesson from Paul stands out in particular: He’s not a big proponent of businesses borrowing money. Today in the popular press (and even in some political circles), there’s an assumption that to grow a business, you need to get access to capital. Paul was the first author I read who roughly indicates that the problem with growing a business isn’t the lack of access to capital, but having and borrowing capital before your business is ready to grow and before you’ve fully developed your business model. The profundity of that never really struck me until later on in my career, and to this day, I happen to think he’s dead on.
Over the years, there’s so much I borrowed from the book in running Sageworks that it has become hard to discern between his book and my core philosophy of business. He reduces something complicated (in this case, the essence of a running a business) to its very basic principles, without simplifying to the point of meaninglessness — this is the sign of a fantastic writer. Now obviously he’s a very well-known and successful entrepreneur himself, but that’s not why I like the book. I like the book because it hit me at exactly the right time. To this day, it’s the single most important book I’ve read specifically on building a business
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This is not necessarily an entrepreneurial book, but it teaches basic philosophies of working with and dealing with people. Unless you have such a disruptive and innovative technology that it will succeed regardless of your effectiveness as a leader, most successful businesses are built by people who are excellent at cultivating relationships. Carnegie very carefully, with case studies, stresses the importance of having an orientation outside of one’s own self in all aspects of communication. Carnegie highlights how, in working with people, it doesn’t matter at all what you want; you must instead think about how the other person benefits. It seems so trivial, but very few people in business actually follow these principles. Like Hawken, he provides you very basic principles, but illustrates them with a plethora of examples. After more than 70 years in print, Carnegie’s principles are still just as relevant and influential today as the day the book was published.
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Written in 1937 by Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich is a reduction of The Law of Success, written by the same author. The author interviewed hundreds of successful people, attempting to highlight a common pattern of behavior and attributes amongst successful people. Some of the later chapters, in my opinion, get a little bit “out there” for me, but the first four to five chapters are really incredible, conveying the idea that thoughts are not intangible, but incredibly powerful things. He was the first to really bring that concept home to me.
I’ve personally dedicated a large part of my life to business, and I’ve developed a sort of general philosophy about business (and life). At this point, it’s very difficult to draw the distinction between these books and my personal experiences. The truth is that we’re all a compilation of what we think and what we learn.
That said, I believe that someone could read these three books carefully, and discard the other 200 to 300 books on entrepreneurship that I’ve read, and still come away with 90 percent of the “book knowledge” I’ve gained over the years on entrepreneurship and business success. It’s incredibly easy to get off course in life and business (to not think of customers, to treat your employees poorly, to get away from the core tenets and mission of your business) and it has been incredibly helpful for me personally to identify a few books and thinkers that I feel comfortable returning to over the years. Hopefully Hill, Carnegie, Hawken and others will help you stay on course, as they’ve helped me.