7 must-read books for entrepreneurs

You never finish learning, especially as an entrepreneur. By standing on the shoulders of giants, you can see farther. That is why we started a book club at StartDock.

In this article you will find seven books every entrepreneur should definitely read!

5 min
Vincent Siderius

Table of contents

1. Start With Why - Simon Sinek

Why did you buy the computer that you own? The first thought you probably had while purchasing it was: Apple or not Apple. That is quite strange, isn't it? Apple computers have less than 10 percent of the market share, not really a figure of market dominance. Why is this the first choice someone - consciously or unconsciously - makes? I bet the choice between Apple and not Apple was an easy one for you to make. You either love or (perhaps secretly) hate Apple. If you don't choose Apple, then the real fun begins. Which brand of computer should you in God’s name choose, and why?

Why is making the choice between Apple and not Apple such an easy one, but between Dell, HP, Acer, or any of the others, such a difficult one?

Apple stands for something. They know why they do what they do. They have a vision, their own set of values, and are very good at communicating them. So, it's very clear to you to decide whether you agree with this vision and these values, and then make your choice: Apple or not. The product doesn't actually have much to do with it, they happen to make computers. On the other hand, every brand makes good computers. You don't buy a product, you join a way of thinking, a set of values, an identity.

At Apple, they know WHAT they're doing, HOW they're doing it, but they also know WHY they're doing it. Sinek calls this: The Golden Circle. People don't buy what you do, but why you do it.

  • WHY: Apple wants to challenge the status quo and they applaud the creativity of the individual. The slogan: 'think different' illustrates this beautifully.
  • HOW: They do this by making sleek products that are easy to use.
  • WHAT: They make computers.

For all other brands the WHY and HOW are a lot more difficult to formulate and so they are a lot more difficult for you to differentiate between. The WHAT is the same everywhere: they make computers. Apple's WHY is a belief they have. The HOW is the actions they take to achieve that belief. And the WHAT is the result of that. That is Apple's order. The other computer companies are starting from the wrong end. They start with WHAT they do: they make computers, and HOW to make the best. That's why it seems so strange to you when Dell or Acer starts making watches, whereas it is a very logical step for Apple. They are not a computer company, they are challenging the status quo.

These steps also apply to you as an entrepreneur. Why do you do what you do? And how do you do it? When you have this in mind it is a lot easier to promote your product or service. This is the reason that people come to you as a customer. Not because you have the fastest, the best, or the most beautiful thing.

Sinek outlines what the world will be like if companies do not start with WHY and then explains the principle of the Golden Circle. He even makes a link to the biology of the human brain and how we make our decisions - on the basis of reasoning and emotion. With a number of illustrative descriptions of successful companies (yes, Apple is relatively prevalent in them) Sinek shows that when you start with WHY, and HOW you communicate WHAT you do, success often follows.

The Golden Circle theory has given me a better understanding of why I'm attracted to certain companies, and why other companies don't do anything for me. A good example is Oatly, the oatmeal drink. A few months ago, I hadn’t heard of it, until I saw the screaming, brutal advertising billboards hanging in the centre of Amsterdam. They appealed to me. I had to laugh at the hyper-transparent way of manipulating the audience in which they explain exactly how they want to influence me. They, too, go against the status quo.

I even started following Oatly on Facebook and Instagram, where I found out that sustainability and human health are paramount, this is their WHY. HOW to them is through the constant playful way they tell their message - maybe in the case of Oatly the HOW is a bit too strong relative to their WHY, but the combination appeals to me. You would almost forget, but they happen to also make an oatmeal drink, it seems almost superfluous. People don't buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY - and also a little HOW - you do it.

2. Outliers — Malcolm Gladwell

There is no single formula for success. Everyone has their own story, their own way, and yes, their own luck. There are, however, a number of basic principles that can be universally applied in order to explain the success that someone has demonstrated. In Outliers, Gladwell recounts these principles and reveals the antecedents of exceptional performance.

We may not want to hear it, because we like to be self-made and have our fate in our own hands, but luck plays a big role in the success of the very best of all time. It makes a difference where and when you were born. Being born between 1831 and 1840 in America, for example, would have created a lot of opportunities for you. The richest 20% of people ever (from the Egyptian Pharaohs to the present day, adjusted for inflation) were born in one generation, in one country. This generation was the perfect age when Wall Street came into being and the American railways were built; a golden opportunity. There is a crucial time frame for the origin of every major undertaking. For computers, these are the people born around 1955, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and a huge number of other computer billionaires. Gates also had the luck that he went to a progressive school that had some of the very first computers. This created the possibility for Gates to program as a 14-year-old in the stone age of computers. Perhaps the right time to be born for the blockchain is in the nineties to ride the wave of current (and future) success.

For opportunity, you don't have to buy anything. You just have to spend some time on it. About 10,000 hours. When we see someone excelling with the utmost ease, we think: 'what a naturally talented person, it comes to him/her just like that'. But what we don't think of is that this achievement is the only one visible and that the countless hours of practice and training behind it remain hidden. Because Bill Gates had the ability to program at such an early age, and he made the effort to spend time on it, he was approaching 10,000 hours when he launched his 20th Microsoft.

It sounds boring: luck and time, but Gladwell is a natural storyteller and could probably even make the description of paint drying interesting. He would have practiced it for a long time, because as Macklemore sings in his song Ten Thousand Hours: ‘the greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint. The greats where great because they paint a lot.’

3. Thank You for Being Late - Thomas Friedman

Do you ever feel like you’re running on a treadmill and if you stop, you’ll fall off? Put on your seatbelt, this edition dives into Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late – An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations to explain why.

Friedman, a well-known columnist for the New York Times, combined his years of experience, research and interviews into a seamless work on living in “the age of accelerations”. Friedman weaves together the tale of three accelerations that are occurring at the same time in technology, globalization and climate change.

These three factors are now accelerating at such a dramatic speed that the world is plummeting into an unknown future, like a space ship re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. But Friedman is optimistic for the future. The advances in technology, mostly due to Moore’s Law, and the globalization of world markets have enabled entrepreneurs around the world to make previously unthinkable advancements; open source coding has allowed programmers to build on each other’s work; and massive open online courses have brought education to previously un-reachable corners of the earth.

Thank You for Being Late is a vital read for any freelancer working in what Friedman calls the world’s “flows”. As we hurtle toward the future with the accelerations that are now outside of our control, trying to stop the flow will cause more inertia and instability. The way to survive is to jump in and, like white-water kayaking, keep paddling.

Governmental and societal structures have not been able to adapt to the rate of change. Many companies and business models are based on old societal norms, making them less agile in this new environment. But for entrepreneurs, it is the perfect time to be creative, solve problems and provide skills that are outside the current structure. Here at Startdock, we have a network of entrepreneurs that support each other in tackling these challenges. According to Friedman, if you keep paddling, you will be able to enjoy the ride.

4. Zero to One — Peter Thiel

Creating something is more difficult than copying something, because you are doing something that has never been done before. Peter Thiel's Zero to One is about companies that make something new instead of making something that exists better. Peter Thiel is the co-founder of PayPal and after selling the company for more than 1.5 billion euros in 2002, each of the 7 founders has set up a new company that is worth more than a billion euros (think: Space X, Tesla, LinkedIn, Youtube and Yelp). For this reason, they are now known in Silicon Valley as the PayPal Mafia.

The most important thing you can do to go from zero to one is to create a monopoly. Unlike a world in which you have competition and everyone tries to grab a piece of the same cake, you make your own cake. If you compete like a madman you will undoubtedly become good at what you are competing in, but your scope will narrow and focus on defeating the people in your immediate surroundings. The downside of this is that you no longer see what is important or valuable.

If your company has the ability to make something ten times better, faster or easier than the current solution, you have a potential monopoly. You can achieve this by becoming extremely good in a small niche, so that you are quickly the best in that niche. As a result, you dominate the market you are in. From there you can expand. Just look at Amazon. They began by offering ten times more books than a normal bookstore and then expanded to CDs and games and now it seems as if they are on their way to becoming just about the biggest provider in everything.

Do not be afraid, however, that all monopolies are already taken. Every now-known idea was once unknown and thus a secret. And there are still enough secrets left in the world.

5. Leaders Eat Last — Simon Sinek

When we feel safe in a team, our natural response is to express trust and cooperation. This is necessary for the team to become better than the sum of its parts. When the safety disappears and insecurity sets in, these feelings change into cynicism, paranoia and self-interest. A leader's job is to create a safe environment. But what characteristics do you need for this?

Sinek has stopped with the differentiation between a good and a bad leader, it's more black and white: you're a leader, or you're not. There are people who lead, and there are leaders, and that is a world of difference.

Leaders are willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the team. They ensure that others feel safe so that they can rise above themselves. The title of this book is very literal. In the army, the officers eat last. They are willing to step aside and take care of their men first, before they take care of themselves. Leadership and self-interest do not go hand in hand. The main reason that soldiers don’t hesitate to put themselves in danger to save their fellow soldiers is because they all know that the others would do it for them as well. This is absolute trust.

When we used to live in small tribes, the alpha male always had the first choice: the most beautiful woman, the best place to sleep, the tastiest piece of meat. But there were also conditions attached to this social contract. If there was a threat, everyone expected him to be the one running towards the threat to protect the rest of the group. This is the price of being the alpha: being willing to sacrifice yourself to protect the group in case of danger. That is why the bonuses of bankers are so blatantly shocking to us. They leave the sinking ship not last, when all employees are safe, but first, with a big bag of money in their hand.

The most beautiful definition of love Sinek has ever heard is: ‘giving someone the power to destroy you and trusting them they won’t use it.’ And that's how it is in a company. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of you. After all, “it is not the genius at the top giving directions that makes people look great. It is the great people that make the guy at the top look like a genius.”

6. Willpower — Roy Baumeister en John Tierney

A few dubious experiments in the early years of psychology have made unethical studies almost inconceivable. Nevertheless, psychologists like to play a bit. In his study, Baumeister allowed test subjects to enter a room with a bowl of freshly baked chocolate cookies and a bowl of radishes. They were asked to eat only the food that was assigned to them (either chocolate cookies or radishes), on the pretext that they were doing a taste test. Having to resist eating the tempting chocolate cookies costs self-control, or in other words: willpower. This self-control was needed for the second task: an unsolvable puzzle. The test subjects who expressed self-control by suppressing the urge to eat the chocolate cookies stopped trying to solve the puzzle more than twice as quickly, than participants who were allowed to eat the cookies.

You can see your willpower as a kind of muscle. The more you use it, the more your muscle gets tired and the less power it has. As it were, your willpower runs out as the day progresses. This has implications for how you organize your day. As an entrepreneur, you often have the opportunity to decide for yourself what you do and when, and this is a great advantage. It can also be a pitfall. If you decide to move that difficult task forward to the end of the day, there is a chance that when you start thinking about it, you will think: 'well, I'll do it tomorrow'. This is because of the small amount of willpower that remains after a day of doing mentally tiring tasks. Why do you think it's so difficult to make the decision to go to the gym at the end of the day?

Just like a muscle that you train regularly, your willpower also gets stronger the more you use it. This can help you achieve long term goals compared to short term distractions. The world-famous marshmallow experiment is a good example of this - here, too, the “teasing” of test subjects by psychologists resurfaces. In the marshmallow experiment, children are put in a room with nothing but a large, tempting marshmallow in front of their nose. The challenge: don't eat the marshmallow and you'll get another in 15 minutes. For this - certainly for a child - there is an enormous amount of self-control required. The results of this study are remarkable. The children were followed decades after the research was completed, and what became apparent? Those who left the marshmallow, among other things, achieved better school results, exhibited less addictive behaviour, had better social skills and were better able to cope with stress, i.e., they were more successful. So, what is your marshmallow?

7. Blink — Malcolm Gladwell

Two seconds. That is what Blink is about. What happens in the first few moments of a meeting, decision or judgment? Within those first two seconds we often have an idea or opinion about what we think; this comes to us in one way or another, but it is not a conscious process. Unconscious thoughts come into being in a closed space in our head, a space that we ourselves find difficult to access. What happens in this closed space? And how can we recognise and perhaps exclude our own bias? By training one's own behaviour and interpreting and deciphering it, the door of this room can be opened carefully.

Not only a decision made consciously is one to trust, but a quick, unconscious decision can be just as trustworthy, if not better. Call it intuition. Gladwell shows at which moments intuition can best be listened to and at which moments awareness of one's own bias can prevent a failure. Perhaps the most important lesson he wants to convey is the fact that initial impressions and snap decisions can be trained and improved.

As an entrepreneur, you make decisions all day long. Sometimes this happens subconsciously, but when making an important decision you sometimes have to consider and weigh how you can achieve the best end result. What do you base important choices like this on? And how is that process going for you?

We usually want to base a consciously-made decision on as much information as possible. When we have more information, we think that we will improve the quality of our decision. However, a snap decision is based on the essential available information and reduces it all to the minimum amount necessary. This is called thin slicing and is a crucial part of rapid cognition. A slice of information is all you need to make an intuitive and informed decision. For example, when assessing how good they find a teacher they have never seen before, students come to the same conclusion after a two second silent film, as if they had followed a full semester course. Or, after seeing a discussion between a couple for a quarter of an hour, an American psychologist can say with 90% certainty whether they will still be together after fifteen years. Another example shows that a short sound bite of a conversation between a doctor and a patient can be used to predict which doctors will be charged after they have committed a medical blunder. More information is not always better. Relevant information is better, and your intuition knows that.

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