September 8, 2022
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13 of the most inspiring books for startup founders

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Editor's note: 

When it comes to books for, by, and about entrepreneurs, there’s no shortage of “best-of” recommendations on topics ranging from marketing to leadership to product development and more.

But what about a holistic round-up of books that inspire the entrepreneurial experience? Far from exhaustive, this is Team Unusual’s short list of recommended reading for founders of early-stage companies.

What books do you suggest for founders? Share your suggestions with us on Twitter.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

Recommended by John Vrionis, Co-founder and Managing Partner, Unusual Ventures

In Shoe Dog, Nike Founder and former CEO Phil Knight opens up about the company’s humble beginnings, messy challenges, crushing setbacks, and ultimate ascent to household-name status.

Far from a demi-god depiction of his life, Knight’s memoir is candid about navigating the ups and downs of building the legendary Nike brand, which actually started as Blue Ribbon Sports. The book’s messages about belief in the company mission, the importance of perseverance, the culture of tenacity set by the early employees, and product obsession are powerful thought-starters for any aspiring founder or startup operator.


Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days by Jessica Livingston

Recommended by Sarah Leary, Venture Partner, Unusual Ventures and Co-founder of Nextdoor

Founders at Work features eye-opening interviews with 32 tech founders, including Max Levchin of PayPal, Steve Wozniak of Apple, Caterina Fake of Flickr, and Charles Geschke of Adobe.

Compiled by Y Combinator Founding Partner Jessica Livingston, each chapter provides an unvarnished view into founders’ mistakes, key learnings, and sometimes-surprising a-ha moments. Humbling for sure, a number of the founders talk openly about how they didn’t initially know what they were doing nor realized they were on to something big. It's a healthy reminder of the twists and turns of the entrepreneurial journey, even for the most successful founders.


The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston

The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston

Recommended by Lars Albright, General Partner, Unusual Ventures and Co-founder of SessionM and Quattro Wireless

The Wild Trees is a true story about Steve Sillett, Marie Antoine, and a group of botanists and amateur naturalists who found a lost world of redwoods in California. In other words, it’s not a business book, but there are some great themes that are relevant for the entrepreneurial journey. Here you’ll delve into harnessing passion and curiosity to discover new environments, the willingness to take risks and push one's limits, working together as a team when the stakes are highest, becoming deep experts in their subject.



Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Ph.D.

Recommended by Sandhya Hegde, General Partner and former EVP of Marketing & Growth, Amplitude

There are two big things every founder needs to do for success: find product-market fit and be a strong leader as their company grows.

The most inspiring book I’ve ever read on leadership is Carol Dweck’s Mindset. Unlike most pop leadership books, it doesn’t preach specific techniques. Mindset helps you understand how to grow and evolve as a leader. This is critical because high-growth startup CEOs need to lead differently every six to 12 months as their company hits new milestones and shifts focus to new challenges. Mindset also helps you (particularly when paired with Pixar by Ed Catmull) to create a startup team culture that’s empathetic, collaborative, and can respond quickly to disruptive forces in your industry.

Mindset helped me shift my identity from needing to be the know-it-all to wanting to be a learn-it-all. Satya Nadella also credits it as his primary inspiration behind Microsoft’s epic turnaround story.


High Output Management by Andrew S. Grove

Recommended by Wei Lien Dang, Unusual Ventures General Partner and former StackRox co-founder

High Output Management by former Intel President Andrew S. Grove is an oldie but a goodie — a must-read for any founder, with sage advice on how to lead and manage a team. Grove’s insights continue to influence a number of organizations — for example, GitLab talks openly about how many of its organizational principles are derived from High Output Management.


The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox

Recommended by Rachel Star, Principal, Unusual Ventures

Originally published in 1984, The Goal is a thrilling novel about a harried but lovable plant manager working desperately to improve performance and save his company. But the story is about so much more than factories. The Goal introduces a fresh take on goal setting and process improvement that's continually relevant to any organization. 

The Brand Gap: How to Bridge the Distance Between Business Strategy and Design by Marty Neumeier

Recommended by Caleb Bushner, VP Marketing, Unusual Ventures

I think the 30 minutes it takes to read this book is among the highest ROI time a founder can find. In a short span you can go from very limited knowledge of an important function of your company all the way to achieving a deep, insightful mindset shift.

In my experience, marketing — good, audience-centric marketing — is often among the most foreign skill sets for early founders. But they don’t have time to spend on getting a full marketing education. That’s why The Brand Gap is so great — it’s actually a presentation more than a book, which means that it’s clear and persuasive while also being concise. In nearly 150 — very sparse — pages/slides a founder can learn the fundamental approach to building a strong brand, and then go about their day with these new insights in place forevermore.


The Art of the Start 2.0: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything by Guy Kawasaki 

Recommended by Jamie Langskov, Senior Director of Community, Unusual Ventures

 

Sure, all startups begin with a big idea, but Guy Kawasaki goes deep to answer a critical question: what does it take to turn that idea into action? As a former leader for Apple and now Canva (as well as professor, consultant, and investor in various companies), Kawasaki draws on decades of experience to help crazy ideas stick. 

In his signature efficient (read: cut to the chase) style, Kawasaki dishes out tools for entrepreneurs to hone their pitch and positioning, nail down their business model, refine the art of recruiting and branding, and much more. 

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Recommended by Scott Schwarzhoff, Founder Services Partner, Unusual Ventures

Why do we all remember the Golden Rule? Why do Hollywood scriptwriters say things like, “it’s like <this movie> but in space?” Some messages are more memorable than others, which is so essential to stand out in today’s noisy digital world.

In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers dissect ideas that people remember and explain methods for making ideas stickier, such as using the Velcro Theory of Memory and creating “curiosity gaps.”

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, Lansing, Alfred, eBook -  Amazon.com


Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

Recommended by Ryan Thompson, COO, Unusual Ventures

Strap in for a hell of a true-life adventure story. Endurance is a harrowing story of British explorer Ernest Shackleton's 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole with a crew of 27 sailors. Trapped for more than a year in the world’s coldest climate, Shackleton’s gives founders plenty to think about leadership, optimism, determination, and, well, endurance.


Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

Recommended by Hannah Steinhardt, Director of Programs, Unusual Ventures

Atomic Habits is thought-provoking and immediately actionable, offering a clear framework for thinking through how you want to spend your time each day and which tasks you might want to build habits around. "Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become,” writes author James Clear, a leading expert on habit formation. “No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity. This is one reason why meaningful change does not require radical change."

I particularly love the idea of every action you take being a vote for the person you want to become. Clear’s website includes ample accompanying content and worksheets if you want to really dig in, but even a quick read of this book will get your wheels turning as it relates to building time-saving habits. Psst: Here’s a PDF of a bonus chapter.


Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher and William Ury

Recommended by David Larason, Controller, Unusual Ventures

Everyone negotiates something every day and founders deal with everything from fairly simple decisions to extremely stressful and impactful decisions. Getting to Yes offers straightforward, universally applicable methods for reaching mutually satisfying agreements — in business, at home, and with people in just about any situation.

It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy by Captain D. Michael Abrashoff

Recommended by Virginia Graham, Community Manager, Unusual Ventures

“What’s needed now is a dramatic new way of inspiring people to excel while things are happening at lightning speed.” 

That’s just one of the takeaways in It’s Your Ship, a depiction of how Captain D. Michael Abrashoff’s leadership singlehandedly flipped the worst-performing ship in the navy to the top, through trust and empowering his 300-person crew. The people-centered management techniques he used are directly applicable to building a startup. This easy read highlights how leaders can make or break an organization and how to become a more effective leader.

Header photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

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