7 Great Books for Super-Early Startups (that you can get for free!)

When you’re thinking of starting a new venture, it’s always good to read up and immerse yourself in the new thoughts around it. But just which of the more than 10,000 business books published each year should you read?!

I named this list “7 Great Books for Super-Early Startups” because I know about you – you’re already a bit overwhelmed with new information. So I’m not going to say these are “must reads” (although, OK, really, they are…).

Many, many business books deal with mechanics. If your business begins to take hold, understanding mechanics will be important. The books here are not so much about mechanics as about mindset, attitude, and habits. Where they are about mechanics (The Founder’s Dilemmas and The Startup Owner’s Manual), they are mechanics that are most important to you and most overlooked by dry “How to start your own business” guides.

Now here’s the best part – I give away one of these each month! Just ask me a question or make a comment on any post or page in this site, and you’ll be entered into my monthly drawing for a free book – your choice. Each time you ask a question or make a comment, you get a new entry and therefore increase your chances of winning one. It’s that simple.

PS – You’ll find that the links on these books take you to my local bookstore. I get no financial benefit if you choose to buy any of them. But I hope you’ll try to win one first!

Think and Grow Rich – Napoleon Hill

This is my one and only “must read”. The only problem with this incredibly powerful book is the name – it sounds too good to be true, making many people shy away. But don’t! Read it at least 3 times, and make sure that you have truly taken its powerful message in. There is but one thing that you truly control, and that is your thoughts. Use them well, and there will be little that can stop you!

Growing a Business – Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken knows an important secret – inside most people burns a desire to turn their dreams into a business. Growing a Business is about the intersection between heart and practicality that is a passion-based business. Using examples like Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream, and University National Bank of Palo Alto, California, Hawken shows that the successful business is an expression of an individual person. The most successful business, your idea for a business, will grow from something that is deep within you, something that can’t be stolen by anyone because it is so uniquely yours that anyone else who tried to execute your idea would fail. He dispels the myth of the risk-taking entrepreneur. The purpose of business, he points out, is not to take risks but rather to get something done.

Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way – Richard Branson

Richard Branson isn’t going to tell you how to start your company in this often outrageous story of his business career (at least some of it – he never seems to stop). Many of Richard Branson’s companies–airlines, retailing, and cola are good examples–were started in the face of entrenched competition. The experts said, “Don’t do it.” But Branson found golden opportunities in markets in which customers have been ripped off or underserved, where confusion reigns, and the competition is complacent.What Branson shows you is how the man who is arguably the world’s most successful entrepreneur did it – while continuing to stand by his principles and be an all around good person.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Stephen Covey

To my mind, this is the only “personal organization” book you ever need to read – but it is so much more than that. Covey’s “7 Habits” shape my days – every day – in how I treat my body, in how I manage my time, and in how I approach other people. This is one of a handful of books that have truly changed my life. Read this one slowly, take your time, and let it sink in. You will need to be at your best to succeed at this – Covey has the secrets and has laid them out so that you can easily understand them.

The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About It – Michael Gerber

It’s not really a small business you are trying to start with your commercialization, is it? But unless you manage to get many millions in venture capital right out of the gate (at which point you will probably not be running the business anyway, because the VCs will want to bring in someone with experience…), yours will be a small business for a while. Gerber’s true classic is a quick read that will be invaluable to you, and in fact what he tells you here is how to set things up so that you don’t stay small but have everything in place to succeed when you become large. Like several of the books I recommend, Gerber focuses on the roles of people in your business and on your team. What is your role? How do you delegate without abdicating? By actually writing down all the hats you are wearing, you can begin to understand when to bring in employees and what they should be doing. You will begin, at the beginning, to set things up so that you run the business instead of the other way around.

The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company– Steve Blank and Bob Dorf

Without fluff, Blank and Dorf lay out the steps to build a super-successful company. Written specifically to very early stage startups, The Startup Owner’s Manual is customer-centric from the get-go, and that, the author’s claim (and they’ve been there, multiple times), is the secret. Learn to pivot while you can. Understand that launching too soon or too expensively can take you down – fast. Read this disruptive book and build a disruptive technology.

How to Win Friends and Influence People– Dale Carnegie

There’s little to say about a book that has sold over 15,000,000 copies and that remains relevant and important nearly 75 years later. Whether you admit it or not, you are an influencer. To succeed in business, you will need to hone this valuable skill, which will also serve you well in life. I recommend this book here because many of you in labs and universities have not honed this critical skill. Stepping out into the world of business will get you labeled “an academic” (which you are and should be proud of, but to them it will be a synonym for “can’t handle business”). So learning how to talk influentially and make people like you is a skill that can and should be learned.

In case you’ve already read all of those, here are more great reads that I recommend (and that you can choose if you are the month’s winner):

The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup – Noam Wasserman

Normally I steer you away from business school books, but Noam Wasserman, who teaches at Harvard, hit many very important nails on the head with this one. The problem with the “Biz School Approach” is that it often begins with writing a business plan. But that isn’t the hard part. The hard part comes when you have to make choices that hurt in the short term but are best for the business in the long term. What Wasserman has done is gone beyond the anecdotal approach (“Here’s what worked for me, so surely it will work for you…”) and looked at what worked in many companies. Questions such as who should your co-founder(s) be (should I have any???), how do we split the equity (ouch!) – all of these are foundational questions that can make or break you later.

Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup – David Cohen and Brad Feld

Warning: People either love or HATE this book! To get the critics out of the way – yes, it’s a bunch of blog posts. Turns out it’s a bunch of really great blog posts packed with nuggets of information that you can use – like what free stuff is out there that you really should be using right now. In stark contrast to The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which absolutely must be read cover to cover, catching every word, you can read Do More Faster in little pieces. Skim the chapter titles and see what calls your name. There is great stuff here. [Caveat: Cohen and Feld’s focus is purely in the software world, and this book is primarily relevant to that world. But it’s very relevant to that particular world.]

About Marilyn Walker, Ph.D.

Marilyn Walker is Founder and Lead Consultant at Grow Your Org. She helps businesses plan and manage growth, with a specialty in technology.

17 Responses to 7 Great Books for Super-Early Startups (that you can get for free!)

  1. Gwen November 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm #

    Great list! Going to look into all of these further as there are a few I haven’t heard of.

    • Marilyn Walker, Ph.D. December 26, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

      Great! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Mark December 20, 2012 at 10:02 am #

    Great list! Will fill quite a few days of my upcoming holiday :)

    • Marilyn Walker, Ph.D. December 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

      Mark – Have you read any of these books? Would love to hear your thoughts.

  3. chandan December 26, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    Great article and recommendations.
    I would love to add Peter Church’s book The Added Value – the life stories of Indian Business Leaders. Amazing insight on some truly inspirational people. You should read this book not only because it was fantastically insightful and interesting in relation to the individuals but also gives the reader an incredibly helpful view of the mindset of the business leaders in the region.

    • Marilyn Walker, Ph.D. December 26, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

      Thank you for the suggestion. I don’t have a Kindle so I can’t read it right now.

  4. Rick January 2, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    Very interesting list Marilyn, I’ll start with “Think and Grow Rich” – ordering it today. Can you give me/us a little insight into how it changed you?



    • Marilyn Walker, Ph.D. January 4, 2013 at 3:53 pm #

      Great question, Rick! I really appreciate it. I’ve been sitting on this answer for a few days because it’s not trivial. This book has had a profound impact on me, and in more ways than one. It’s to the point that whenever I talk with anyone who is discouraged about where things are for them, I want to shove a copy into their hands and say, “Here, read this! It’s not what you might think from the title.”

      The most important single point of the book is that every great or small thing that we accomplish, that we create, begins in the mind, comes from our ability to imagine and envision. Now, many will say that this is well known, that it’s in all the success literature, and that is definitely true! Because all those other success experts have read this book, and it’s at the heart of the matter. There is almost nothing we control in this world, but we all have our own minds. If we can control our minds and direct them appropriately, we can do anything. The second thing in the book that most influenced me were the stories of people’s successes, against amazing odds or very late in life. I think that often people who have not experienced success assume that the successful had amazing breaks, luck, talent, etc. And perhaps, yes, luck and talent definitely help. Although it happened well after the book was written, I know that Napoleon Hill would have included the story of Jim Carrey writing a $10 million check to himself for “Acting Services Rendered,” at a time when all hope seemed lost. Carrey’s background was anything but lucky. His family lived out of their car at one point, and the entire family were working as janitors. Carrey was working 8 hour shifts while still in high school. Think and Grow Rich is filled with stories like that, of people who just decided that things were going to work out, and then they did.

      And finally, there is the concept of the “Mastermind”, and ever since reading it I have been careful to always have some form of Mastermind in my life and in all my businesses, to make sure that I have a group of people around me who can help me. In businesses the board or the executive team often serves this purpose, but it can get lost if you aren’t careful to think about it in that way.

      We live in an age where many people feel that they are victims, that they just didn’t have a chance, or that circumstances make it impossible for them. And there is no doubt about it that we don’t all come into the world with equal backgrounds, families, etc. But those who are willing to take command and control of their own destinies, to envision what they truly want, are going to be much more fulfilled and much more likely to succeed.

      I’d love to hear your impressions of the book – enjoy it!

      • Rick January 5, 2013 at 12:38 am #

        Thanks Marilyn, great answer! I just received the book today, hope to report before the end of the month. :)


      • Rick January 6, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

        Hello again,

        I’m not real far in the book, just started chapter 2, but wanted to run an analogy by you. One of the items I sell on my website is called the 2 ball game. It’s the only facilitation aid that I sell because to me it’s the most powerful facilitation tool you can use in my line of work (continuous improvement). In a nutshell, the exercise is used for a group of say 20 people. There are some basic rules and the group has to “process” 1 or 2 balls as fast as possible. Baseline time are typically 20-30 seconds and through the process of continuous improvement using their own ingenuity they can achieve performance in under 2 seconds. While there are many teachings from the exercise one of the key ones is that when they were processing at 20 seconds they had no idea they could achieve 2 seconds. It doesn’t happen instantly and requires some coaching but all ideas are theirs.

        In my brief time with this book, this seems to be a key theme. You can achieve than you literally know. Am I on track with this?



        • Marilyn Walker, Ph.D. January 9, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

          I would agree that, yes, a theme of Think and Grow Rich is that we all can do much more than we know. But I would take it a step further and say that ultimately the theme is that those people who can see what it is that they want, who can visualize that and have faith (real faith) that it’s possible, even if they don’t know how they will get the capital or the know-how. Those who see and believe in the possibilities make it happen.

  5. Marilyn Walker, Ph.D. January 4, 2013 at 4:01 pm #

    Congratulations to Sarah Dugo, my book winner for December 2012. Sarah can choose any of these books, and I’ll have it shipped to her.

    Now the fun continues as we move into January. Ask me a question or leave a comment, and you’ll be entered into our next drawing. I’ll also be adding more books to the page this month, so you’ll have even more choices.

  6. Eugema Ings February 18, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    Quite a variety of bookss which helps pique the interest. Always great to hear stories of where people’s business adventure or critiques of what works for them in a business world.

    • Marilyn Walker, Ph.D. February 18, 2013 at 6:05 pm #

      Thanks for stopping by, Eugema, and for the kind words!


  7. Marilyn Walker, Ph.D. March 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

    Our January and February book winners are Rick and Jared. Use the Contact page to drop me a line about which book you’d like to receive. Congratulations and thanks for participating.


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