You’re a startup founder, whether actual or aspiring. You’re a constant learner; a student of life. Also a student of reading.
You own a wall of books, or perhaps a Kindle or iPad bulging at the edge of its hard disk with non-fiction you’ve earmarked for future reading. Business books are a founder’s learning tool. A way to stand on the shoulders of giants.
So let me tell you why you should stop reading them.
The Gladwell Effect
Every entrepreneur has read at least one book in the “Gladwell/Godin” genre. These books are fun to read, focus on a single high-level premise and are packed with entertaining anecdotes to demonstrate or support that premise.
(Confession: I’ve been Seth Godin fan-boy for years. I am completely stoked that we are speaking at the same conference in October.)
The problem is not that these books are a series of anecdotes disguised as science. The problem is that the premise of all of them – whether true or false – is irrelevant to you as a startup founder.
The knowledge that you need 10,000 hours to master a subject, that certain trends become viral after the 412th person adopts it, or that you should make your product remarkable, is not going to help you launch. Nor will it save you a single minute during product development, or sell one more copy of your application.
“But wait a minute,” you say “isn’t knowing about tipping points and purple cows going to help me in the long-run as I run a business. I mean come on, I need to know about marketing and trends and stuff, right?”
There’s a slight chance it will. But probably not. There are actually two problems with this line of thinking:
- The amount of actual information garnered from this kind of book can be summarized in a page or two of written text.
- The information is at such a high level that it’s downright impossible to implement. Knowing you need to make your product remarkable is one thing. Knowing how to do that is another thing entirely.
How many times have you finished one of these books and thought: “Great…but what do I do now?”
The “Everyone is in the Fortune 500″ Effect
Ok, so high-level, feel good books about social/marketing trends are not going to help my startup. But what about other kinds of business books? Books that deal with real data and have actual case studies?
I was on paternity leave a few weeks ago and I had time to catch up on reading a long list of books that have sat stacked on my desk for months. These books are more specific and rigorous than your standard Malcolm Gladwell fare; things like Getting to Plan B, The New Business Road Test, and Business Model Generation. I’ve read similar books like this in the past as well, some of my favorites are Good to Great and Built to Last.
As a serial entrepreneur these books should be right up my alley. They cover topics like how to pivot your product and/or revenue model to find market fit, how to test a business idea before building the business, how to find a business model for your company, and how to build great companies.
And these books are great at doing just that…if you’re Sony. Or Proctor and Gamble. Or Panasonic.
The thought that kept running through my mind as I read them was:
“This information would be helpful if I needed to generate a huge business plan to impress a business-school professor.”
The problem here is also twofold:
- Many of these books are weighed down with so much theory it’s like sitting in a horrific MBA course from the 1950s (the first three I mentioned are in this trap, the last two not so much)
- They speak to markets and business opportunities measured with 8 zeros or more. Massive markets that you don’t need to understand to run a software company.
Before you know what kind of company you want to start this can be helpful. Think of it as a survey course you take in college that shows you all of your options for starting a company.
But if you’re past the point of needing a survey course, and you’ve settled on a focused type of entrepreneurship involving self-funded, organically grown companies, you will find the vast majority of business books have no relevance to this path.
Even if you’re going after angel and VC funding, your choice of books that actually apply to your market instead of the one billion people who will buy toothpaste next year, is slim.
Once you’ve decided to start a startup and you know if you’re going to self-fund or raise capital, you need laser-focused books (or better yet blogs, podcasts and mentors) that speak in-depth about your particular situation.
Starting a self-funded startup but listening to how a bunch of venture-backed companies made it is a waste of your time. Inspiring stories aren’t going to help you unless you’re in desperate need of inspiration; you need knowledge that comes from someone with actual experience.
The Information Overload Effect
Finally, if you find a book that has some tidbits of semi-actionable information that you’re not ready to implement in the next month, think really hard about investing the time to read it.
Given the amount of information we consume every day, the portion of the info that you can retain, synthesize, and put into action is plummeting.
The problem is that we’re addicted to consuming. Addicted to the fire hose of tweets, blog posts and books because it makes us feel productive and informed. When what they really do is kill time.
Reading a business book that does not have a direct impact on what you’re going to be working on in the next 1-2 months is about as productive as watching Lost. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that:
For entrepreneurs, reading business books is the new television.
Here are two potential objections that I’d like to address:
Objection #1: “I like reading Seth Godin because everyone’s talking about it and it makes me feel informed.”
Great. Me too.
But instead of spending hours reading the book, read a detailed review of the book, or listen to an interview about the book. Trust me, you will pick up all of the salient points in 30 minutes. The only thing you’ll be missing out on are the copious examples.
I’ve done this with the last 3 Seth Godin books, and the previous 2 Malcolm Gladwell titles. It works amazingly well.
Objection #2: “I like reading business books as a hobby.”
Then by all means do this in your spare time. But know that it is a hobby akin to stamp collecting or gardening; it makes no contribution to your productivity as a startup founder. If you think that reading a Seth Godin book will ever put a single item on your task list that will help your startup, you are mistaken.
“Ok, I buy this preposterous idea you’re proposing…what should I do now?”
Let me re-iterate that I’m not saying you should stop reading books. What I’m saying is that once you’ve determined your area of focus, you should spend the vast majority of your time reading books in that genre, instead of general business/entrepreneur fare we all seem to get sucked into.
In other words, look for resources that provide actionable take-aways to improve your business and that focus on topics that are specifically relevant to your situation. You want laser-focused, just-in-time learning.
This is the reason I focused my startup book on a tight niche instead of giving it broad appeal, even though it means I will sell fewer copies.
I narrowed the focus because it allowed me to speak directly to my audience, and to be ultra-specific about tools and approaches instead of copping out and using a stack of generalities that provide little value to the reader. And I think I made the right call.
I’ve received numerous emails with the same basic sentiment: “I’ve taken away more action items from this book than any other startup book I’ve read.” This was my goal, and one I could only accomplish by focusing on the small niche of developers looking to launch startups.
With that said, here are a few examples of the types of books I recommend reading. Books that offer specific approaches that you can put into practice immediately (assuming you have launched or are launching soon). Any of the following will provide a 100x return on your time investment compared to the titles I’ve mentioned above:
Moving Beyond Books
One final thought. As I’ve traveled this entrepreneurial journey I’ve noticed that my two biggest sources of learning have been my own first-hand experience, and the knowledge of other entrepreneurs.
So my first piece of advice is to get to work on your startup. Your code isn’t going to write itself, and every hour of first-hand experience you gain launching your own product means you are better equipped to deal with the craziness that is a startup. No book can teach you that.
My second piece of advice: Find some kind of accountability group or startup community. If you can do it in person, all the better.
Hit Meetup.com for starters, and search Facebook for other tech entrepreneurs in your area. Find like-minded startup founders and get to know them.
Then hand pick 3-5 others and organize a small, private, committed accountability group that meets every 1-2 weeks where you can discuss your projects. You’ll be amazed at the impact this has on your motivation, your progress and your overall success.