Why Startup Founders Should Stop Reading Business Books

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:

  1. The amount of actual information garnered from this kind of book can be summarized in a page or two of written text.
  2. 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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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.

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#1 Fernando Labastida on 08.05.10 at 8:15 am

I suffer the reading too many books syndrome. I have to hide new books that I get from Amazon now from my wife, but she still finds them laying around and she says “you bought ANOTHER business book?!?!?”

However, I believe you’re right, and it’s often a crutch against action. You’ve got to let the rubber meet the road, because inevitably all those theories crash on the hard rocks of reality.

I have been reading some real practical stuff, such as how to come up with great headlines or copy that sells, but at the end of the day even I have to go back to old-school selling sometimes, and pick up the phone to make cold-calls instead of waiting on my SEO and social-media optimized website to generate leads.

Good stuff man!

#2 Allen on 08.05.10 at 9:37 am

Excellent article.

#3 John Gallagher on 08.05.10 at 12:16 pm

Once again, Mr Walling, you’ve hit the bullseye with this post. Couldn’t agree more.

I’ve wasting far too much time reading books that were recommended. I’ve realised I could have been using this time way more productively.

One highly recommended book that was particularly disappointing to me was Founders at Work. I got partway through it and realised none of it was relevant to me at all, even the 37 Signals interview.

How many of us building an app with a sales target of 1 copy a day really get anything from knowing that PayPal changed their product a few times before striking gold? Boring, unhelpful and totally irrelevant.

Reading books is just another way of delaying the inevitable – the moment when you’ve got to get stuck in and work hard on your marketing, support and product. The stuff that really matters.

#4 durbin on 08.05.10 at 2:45 pm

Just because there are a lot of over-simplified, tabloid-headline creating blogs that are trying to get to the front page of Reddit or Hacker News, it doesn’t mean I am going to tell people to stop reading all blogs. In the same vein, there are a ton of amazing business books that entrepreneurs should be reading in spite of the others. The Map of Inovation for example. The key to to pick the right ones and read faster.

#5 Rob on 08.05.10 at 4:07 pm

>>The Map of Inovation for example.

Thanks for the recommendation. I’d love to hear what you implemented from this book in your startup?

#6 Alex Radzie on 08.05.10 at 4:27 pm

“For entrepreneurs, reading business books is the new television”

Rob, this phrase is pure gold.

#7 Christopher Parsons on 08.05.10 at 5:56 pm

I disagree.

You can spot the over-simplified “I took what should have been a blog post and turned it into a book” books a mile away. 10-15 seconds on Amazon should help you on your way.

Four Steps to the Epiphany
Getting Real
Made to Stick
Blue Ocean Strategy

I read all 5 of these books very early on in our company’s history and each one of them had a profound impact. Especially 4 Steps to the Epiphany.

I’m tempted to suggest you amend your title to “Why Startup Founders Should Stop Reading Business Books by Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin.”

However, we built a tribe to help us develop a niche market and it has been amazing. (Truth be told, that was based on Seth’s TED talk not book.)

And I wouldn’t consider Gladwell’s stuff business-related.

So let’s try this:

“Why Startup Founders Should Stop Reading Malcolm Gladwell Books.”

See you in Boston.

#8 Rob on 08.05.10 at 7:48 pm

Hmmm…I disagree and in fact, I think you’ve agreed with me from the examples you gave:

Four Steps to the Epiphany – Not a business book. A book that covers product development (quite specific).

Re-Work – We need to disagree on this one. It is a business book and I had a tough time getting through it. Did you actually apply anything from it?

Getting Real – Not a business book; a book about building software applications. 37Signals says this themselves.

Made to Stick – Ok…I’ll actually give you this one. A business book about trends, but I did take several things away from it. A solid book and perhaps one of the few exceptions I’ve encountered in years.

Blue Ocean Strategy – I haven’t read this one, but did you specifically apply anything from it, or was it just an interesting read?

Regarding Seth Godin – you may have built a tribe, but this proves my point exactly. You only needed a 17 minute TED talk to learn all the salient points. You likely didn’t read the book to build one (or at least didn’t need to).

Same goes with Linchpin, Purple Cow, All Marketes are Liars, etc… Brilliant concepts, ahead of their time, but they can be explained/learned in a two page document or 15 minute presentation.

#9 Christopher Parsons on 08.05.10 at 9:12 pm

Rob – I guess it depends what your definition of the term “business book” is. 😉

I actually see 4 Steps to the Epiphany as a great book for building a business in any industry. Steve Blank says as much in his intro. Our customers are architects and engineers and I recommend it to them all the time.

We have applied quite a bit from ReWork. A good example would be their “underdo the competition” meme. We have done our best to keep our features to solving real, simple problems that a wider audience cares about rather than getting hung up on creating advanced features for a couple noisy customers. You might call this common sense – but the combination of their writing plus the fact that we run Basecamp serves as a sort of mentor/role model for us and keeps us from making Rookie mistakes.

In some ways, having a book like ReWork which we have all read gives us a shared vocabulary.

Blue Ocean Strategy’s strategic canvases are great. The first time I really hit the road to explain our product to potential customers I built a strategic canvas to help position our product and delivery model against the traditional products and delivery models in the space.

The diagrams and vocabulary I created from that strategic canvas are still in my roadshow today.

I think we agree more than disagree here. Perhaps there is a modifier that is missing. “Applied” business books vs. “Pop” business books?

For example, I just read Multipliers and Different. Interesting. Well written, both of them. And they generally just confirm things that I think we are doing well. But not much to apply back at the ranch.

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#11 Jeffrey McGrew on 08.05.10 at 10:08 pm

Here’s one of the problems: anyone can write a business book, but not everyone can write a book that specifically covers a topic in depth with real solutions for real problems. However, both are lumped in together most of the time. I like Seth Godlin as much as anyone here, but come on, his books are pretty fluffy when compared to the great Four Steps book. Fluff is fun, but heck I could even write a fluff business book. It can be hard to know the difference at times. So I do agree with the ‘Pop’ vs. ‘Applied’ terms.

The other problem I see a lot is that there is more than one truth here. Some business books do represent a proper path for A business, but not MY business.For example, I’m in the middle of reading ‘The Goal’ right now. I figure, hey, we make (real, physical, heavy) stuff, I should bone up more on Lean Manufacturing. And all I can see so far is an asshole of a guy with screwed up priorities ruining his family for a factory he doesn’t even own. Lean principals be damned, I just can’t get past the fact that he’s being a belligerent and stupid jerk. This is a great business book? I’d never treat people the way that guy treats his wife, and I’d never ruin my life for something I don’t even own a part of.

In the end however, some of the pop/fluff books do serve a purpose that has been useful for my business. I’ve found that some of these books (esp. the Rework one) have been great in confirming my initial hunches, and letting me get back to work without worrying too much about business stuff. When you’ve got zero business background and are trying to do something creative and different within your industry, there is a lot of doubt there. Sometimes all you need is a little confirmation that someone else out there thinks the way you do, and heck they make money, so maybe you can too. If you GET BACK TO WORK. 😉

So I think what the real issue here is to throw out what I call the ‘business voodoo’, the thought that if I do the same things, read the same things, act the same way as someone else who’s successful, than I too will be successful (regardless of focus or work actually done). Pop vs. non-pop business books isn’t the problem, it’s the attitude that there are ‘secrets’ to getting rich other than the obvious: work hard, be smart, and be lucky.

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#13 Karan Vasudeva on 08.05.10 at 11:05 pm

I half-agree with this post but I think the advice here is too coarse-grained.

There are two problems here:

1. Non-prescience: there are both useful and useless books out there. I agree that you have to spend less time on the useless stuff, but how do you know which is which in advance? You certainly don’t want to miss out on the genuinely new and good material because of a broad filter.

Reviews help a little, but sometimes you have to sample a little material yourself first. The point is to draw the line somewhere and stick with it.

Personally, I know now to skip anything by Gladwell, Godin and even 37 signals unless I’m feeling indulgent.

2. Time management: Rob and Mike’s podcast ‘Startups for the rest of us’ has great advice about estimating a launch date for your product.

My question is: if you already have an estimated launch date, and you already know what you’re supposed to do for the day, how does it matter whether or not you have an unopened Malcolm Gladwell on your desk?

If you don’t have the time to read it or anything else, then that’s that. It’s a hard constraint. Stick to the plan.

#14 David on 08.05.10 at 11:07 pm

Great article, great advice

…there are always exceptions but your concept is right on.

#15 Sanjay Singhal on 08.06.10 at 7:33 am

I was about to write that Good to Great should be required reading for anybody in business, startup or not, but then realized I just keep quoting a few of his 5 principles (especially getting the right people on the bus) and the book really can be condensed to 5 pages. So I agree with you… But without the anecdotes and data, how do you get people to believe what they’re reading?

See you in Boston!

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#20 hacene boudebaba on 08.11.10 at 2:34 pm

Nice article, really beneficial to save time, money and to focus on your job.

#21 Sean on 08.13.10 at 9:19 am

I agree with your general sentiment here, but i think the argument is completely relative. There are several books that I have found to be energizing.

Nobody learns business in a book, or at an MBA or whatever school. You have to live it. But there is something to be said about reading how other’s lived it. You can learn a lot from their stories, and think about what motivates them, and try to apply it to your own life.


#22 Liz on 08.16.10 at 11:20 am

Very interesting post — I have to say I found myself agreeing with you quite a bit. I think in my case I tend to read books, telling myself I need the info, but it’s really a way to postpone the actual doing. I also liked how you focused on books that teach you a particular skill and that you found those worthwhile. Of course, I purchased a few of those 3 months ago and they’re still in the bag. But that’s my fault, certainly not yours.

#23 Sean on 08.16.10 at 11:48 am

The two books that I just finished that have really shaped my thinking are: “Twitter Power” and “Inbound Marketing.”

Especially Inbound Marketing, because I truly believe this is the best way for small businesses to grow, and be able to compete with large outbound marketing efforts. Startups today need to realize that Engagement = Growth. The more you establish yourself as an expert in the field, the more your own personal brand grows, as well as your company’s.

Simply blasting out self promoting posts is no way to gain traction. However, building a community around a specific topic that your brand encompasses and is far more effective.

Marketing online is about engaging and Engagement =Growth

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#27 Business Doctor on 08.23.10 at 2:55 am

“These days it seems like any idiot with a word processor can write a book… at least, that’s what I’m hoping!”
– Scott Adams, “The Dilbert Principle”

This phrase could easily be applied to the business world. I agree that most books could be condensed into a white paper, but a reader likely won’t spend $24.95 on a five-page document. I think blogs do a better job distilling and offering wisdom, much like providing the Cliff Notes version of a number of business books codified by real world experience.


#28 Michael on 08.26.10 at 10:48 pm

What a great post.

I have read all Seth’s book and I think you are spot on. I was actually thinking the other day that reading more and more books won’t help. It is really a TV for me.

But now I have a problem that I need to start reading your blog (I just discovered it) … It is a catch22 isn’t it?

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#30 Justin Hong on 10.11.10 at 8:18 pm

Hi Rob,

I want to thank you for this post because it really made me think more strategically about my reading. I’m all about reading business books, but prior to reading your post, I wasn’t sure if I was getting the most out of my reading.

After I saw this post, I looked into different ways to make my business reading much more effective and was able to come up with a strategy, which incorporates Actionable Items (GREAT tip, by the way).

Thanks for this helpful post, Rob!


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