5 Books That Matter for Startups and Growth Hackers

First of all, I should mention that I don’t buy books much anymore. At one time I carefully collected the important titles and neatly lined up my favorites in my office bookcase as a testament to my technical and business acumen. I’ve reformed my view and now see this sort of display more as an indication of my insecurity and advanced years. To keep up with the tech scene, and startups in particular, I tend to rely on my favorite sites, blogs, Twitter, Quora and other online sources. Hey, all the cool kids are doing it! But there are exceptions and I still tend to purchase a couple books each year on subjects I need to understand well. Plus, the covers are so dang colorful!

I like to occasionally look back on the milestones that have had a substantial impact on my career. For example, during my vocational pilgrimage, these books, to varying degrees, but in the chronological order shown, had an impact on my thinking and changed my perspective:

  • Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction by Steve McConnell (1993)
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (1989)
  • Peopleware: Productive Products and Teams (2nd ed) by DeMarco and Timothy Lister (1999)
  • Effective C++: 50 Specific Ways to Improve Your Programs and Design (2nd Edition) by Scott Meyers (1997)
  • Extreme Programming Applied: Playing to Win by Ken Auer and Roy Miller (2001)
  • The Art of the Start: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything by Guy Kawasaki (2004)
  • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler (2002)
  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim Collins (2001)
  • Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application by Jason Fried, Heinemeier David Hansson and Matthew Linderman (2006)
  • Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2007)
  • Inbound Marketing: Get Found Using Google, Social Media, and Blogs by Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah (2010)
  • The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries (2011)

In the list below I’ve attempted to rank the top 5 books that have mattered most to me as a technical startup guy who fancies himself part Growth Hacker (not the meaningless designation but the cool new-fangled title!). They changed the way I thought about a topic and/or serve as core references. As with the above list, I only selected from books that I own and have read. Links to Amazon (non-affiliate) are to the most recent editions.

#5 Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2007) Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (2007)

This book is a fantastic read: a blend of Freakonomics style anecdotes and communication fundamentals. Just about anything I do that’s customer facing is now filtered through the SUCCES (Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotional, Stories) acronym. This book is packed with guidance for anyone trying to get their ideas to stick with an audience. If you’re involved in startup marketing you should start right here.

#4 The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf (2012) The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf (2012)

I feel bad not putting this book in the #1 position. It’s fantastically thorough, packed with great information on startups and, unlike some sections of Steve Blank’s earlier book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany, the ideas are cleanly presented and well organized. While not as compelling to read as some of the others on this list (it’s more of a textbook), this tome of entrepreneurial lore by the father of customer development (oh please) walks through every step of the lean startup methodology. This is the startup reference you’ll keep coming back to.

#3 Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (2010) Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (2010)

It’s possible to do less and get more done? Nobody told me. I was caught off guard by just how much this book’s predecessor, Getting Real by 37signals, would change my thinking. Rework is no different. It’s easily the most concisely written and powerfully impacting set of guidelines on rethinking how you work that I’ve ever read. Years before customer development, lean startups, and, yes, growth hacking, became popular these outliers preached the virtue of startups that build less, embrace constraints, ignore details, scale later and test in the wild. Embrace your inner minimalist!

#2 Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler (2011) Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler (2011)

This entry may seem a little out of place but there are few books that have been more meaningful in my career. Have you ever struggled to understand why people react the way they do? Or how they could come to such bizarre conclusions? Or why meetings can be so frustrating? Or why a customer seems to love you one day and hate you the next? I have. A lot. It’s baffling, but this book opened my eyes. I must have read this thing 5 times now because effective, meaningful communication is everything in a startup, whether between team members or between you and your customers. Get it, read it, internalize it.

#1 The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries (2011) The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries (2011)

I’d been following the Lean Startup movement for a while before grabbing this book but that didn’t make it any less impactful. The text is clearly written, insightful and inspiring and wraps up years of hard-earned knowledge on effective startups. You can’t help but be energized to drive change after reading it. For me, it forced a rethinking of how we were using analytics to drive decisions in our startup, among other things. Even something as simple as Eric Ries’ Build, Measure, Learn cycle is permanently ingrained in my thinking and influences how I work. Too many startups fail for the simple reason that they build something no one wants. Now you can fail different.

What kind of list in this? Where are the core software and marketing titles? How could I miss The Design of Everyday Things, The Art of the Start, Hackers and Painters or The Innovator’s Dilemma? Either I haven’t read them, I didn’t like them or they just didn’t rock my world. My current view is that coding, marketing and analytics techniques, while core to the Growth Hacker role, are topics that, for me at least, are best served by online resources. BTW, I reserve the right to reject the above ranking as foolish nonsense (and likely will) as I read/learn more. A genuinely shameful omission here could be the almost universally acclaimed Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston. I really should grab that.

Disagree with my choices? What doesn’t belong and what did I miss? Let me know in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “5 Books That Matter for Startups and Growth Hackers

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