The 25 Best Startup Books For Kansas City Entrepreneurs – Ranked & Summarized
“I see you constantly reading and talking about books; what are the best startup-centric ones that you’ve read in the last year alone?” -Anonymous entrepreneur from BetaBlox Batch 8
When I went to answer that question I had a hard time doing it; it’s like asking a movie buff what their favorite movie is. Difficulty aside, I’ve attempted to answer his seemingly easy question with this article. The books chosen for this profile got here because of these two prerequisites:
*It Was Read In The Last Year
The books on this list weren’t necessarily published in the last year – nor is it a list of everything I’ve ever read on the subject. Instead these are the books that I’ve read in the last 400-or-so days. Most of them are new-ish and some of them brand new (I have three or more pre-orders on my Amazon account at all times). That being said, there are a couple of older ones on here too (relative to startup’s definition of old). Remember, these are just the ones that I’ve read recently, and nothing else.
*Relevant To Early-Stage & Scalable Startups – Not Big Business
I capped the list at 25. The ten or so others that didn’t make it got that way because I refused to finish due to lack of unique thought or relevance to what we care about: early-stage, high-growth potential and scalable startups. Early stage ventures are a different science than big business. Big business is incredibly important, but it’s not what we do. We do startups, and it’s imperative that we keep our expertise relevant. Occasionally I’ll branch out into other types of economics and corporate management books – but only to keep my finger on their pulse.
In a handful of these summaries I will mention the book’s biggest drawback, but that doesn’t take away my endorsement. A counter-argument should do nothing but add credibility to the summary as a whole. My intention was to provide enough information to make it easier for you to shop for your next favorite book. If they’re on the list (and the description sounds interesting and relevant to you) than I recommend it. Please return the favor. When you read something incredibly relevant (and awesome), shoot us a tweet or write us on our contact page. We’re always looking for recommendations for the next great startup book to inhale. In fact, please go to here now, and jot us a note on the best book you’ve read on the subject in the last year-or-so.
Without further ado, the best startup books I read in 2014 – ranked in order from 25th to 1st:
25. Infographics: The Power Of Storytelling by Jason Lankow
This book is my go-to inspiration anytime I need to create an infographic or great piece of design. He walks you through the process from ideation to completion. The problem is it’s not a beginner’s design book. It won’t do you much good if you’re a rookie, unless all you want to do is look at sexy infographics. That said, a more experienced designer could use this as their literary muse for many years to come.
24. Give And Take by Adam Grant
This book’s thesis is about how there are givers, takers, and people in-between. His psychology-based argument is that givers have the most long-term success. He goes on to provide advice on helping others first-and-foremost whilst not getting taken advantage of in the long-run.
23. The Marketing Agency Blueprint by Paul Roetzer
The guiding principle of this book is that traditional ad agency and freelance work has evolved massively in the last decade. The revolution has shifted to mostly digital strategies and line-item-based pricing structures. This is a great book for companies that are starting consulting, development, or design businesses. In a manner of speaking the Mad Men of every city haven’t disappeared, they’re just using different jargon and pricing it differently. The author very creatively articulates that this new methodology is exactly what the customer wants nowadays; but also argues that it has extreme advantages for the agency servicing the business. A win-win.
22. The Age Of The Platform by Phil Simon
Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Apple each impact a startup’s livelihood in more ways than all other platforms combined. It’s important to follow these companies so we can learn how they got there, but also important so we can utilize the platforms themselves to empower our own startups. This is the most in-depth all-in-one book profiling the big four on the market.
21. 101 Design Methods by Vijay Kumar
Kumar goes through the steps associated with the creative process. I highly recommend this book for people that are either a.) still in the ideation-phase of their business or b.) are leading creative teams within a larger corporation.
20. The Startup Of You by Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha
Anything that Reid Hoffman says, you should do. This was a fun book, but definitely geared too much towards career development. Their argument is that by using lean and startup principles, but geared toward your career (instead of your startup), you’re more likely to become a successful person. I had never thought of it that way, but it’s true. Everything you can learn from The Lean Startup can be applied to a lot of verticals, including yourself. There was an especially good chapter on how to form professional personal allies and strong networks (chapter 4). I recommend the book for that chapter alone. They also introduce the notion of a “permanent beta.” A beta in the startup world would be your first market product that you put out into the world in search for data. That data will then come back and dictate what to build next. If you consider yourself in a perpetual state of beta you’ll be constantly testing new avenues, bettering yourself, perfecting your skill-sets, etc.
19. Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Autlet
Autlet profiles what he considers to be the necessary steps to starting a company in the most basic form. There’s not a lot of fluff in here, it’s very well outlined, and the design is beautiful. My biggest dig on this book is he spent too much time in the ideation phase. Meaning if you’re an entrepreneur that knows what type of company you want to start, but aren’t ready to launch – this is a great read. If you’re a little further than that than this might not be the best usage of your time. In my opinion, brainstorming and early-research should be an incredibly quick exercise, relatively speaking. Spending too much time on it isn’t “disciplined” at all.
18. Starting A Tech Business by Alex Cowan
This is a great and easy read for someone that is starting a tech company – especially if it’s their first one and/or they’re not a technical co-founder. I didn’t find anything profound within his methodology, but I also didn’t disagree with anything he was saying. This won’t blow your mind, but would be great to add to your arsenal if you’re building software. As with a handful of other books on this list, reading The Lean Startup first is an unspoken prerequisite.
17. The Connected Company by Dave Gray
Companies are being started in different ways these days. We’re only a couple clicks away from investors, customers, and advisors all over the world. This book emphasizes the usage of modern tools and trends to build successful businesses through newfound connectedness. It’s supplemented by a great deal of very relevant case studies that emphasize the points Gray is making while simultaneously coming off more of a narrative. Anyone working in the digital age of connecting people and businesses should be up to date on this one.
16. Attracting Capital From Angels by Brian E. Hill
This book is angel investing 101. For someone navigating these waters for their first time, I’d consider it highly valuable. All too often I meet with entrepreneurs that don’t know the first thing about angel investing, especially in Kansas City. It’s not their fault – all of us were rookies at this at one point or another. That said, if you’re asking someone, or a group of strangers for money, you better know what you’re talking about. At the very least so you can protect yourself from structuring the deal incorrectly. This book can help with all of that. It won’t make you an expert – only experience can do that; but it will definitely help you get on solid ground.
15. Loyalty 3.0 Rajat Paharia
This is a great book about how gamification can leverage both your fans and your team. It explains what gamification is and how other companies are implementing it into their strategies. My only concern is that startups should rarely start with making their business a game. There are other theories to prove first before points, badges, leveling, etc. are worth the risk. No one wants to play a game alone, so go get customers first and then come back to this one. That said, a gaming company should obviously start testing gamification features right from the start.
14. Contagious by Jonah Berger
Why do certain things catch on and some don’t? That’s the guiding principle of this book. Berger goes through the main characteristics of what makes something viral – and argues that it has very little to do with luck. This was an incredibly entertaining book, and I left having a much better idea of why things go viral. It is hard to take the case studies and apply it directly to your own work though. The book had great explanations of the theories and grade A proof to back them up, but it lacked a step-by-step guide for using it for your own projects.
13. Without Their Permission by Alexis Ohanian
Alexis is the co-founder of Reddit and competing for the all around best guy on the internet award. I found it to be incredibly inspiring and fun to read. I was hoping for a heavier emphasis on how he built Reddit and the fighting he had to go through at the early-stages to increase user-adoption. If that’s what you’re looking for – this isn’t it. It’s far more on the generically motivational side; mostly sliding towards his argument that there is no better time to start a company than right now. The internet has flattened the world and no matter who you are you have a shot at doing something cool for this world. This book is masked as a memoir/business book – but in truth spends too much time on the politics of keeping an open internet. Meaning an internet that isn’t owned or policed by gatekeepers. A lot of it had to do with his behind-the-scenes perspective of being a leader of the SOPA rebellion (Stop Online Piracy Act) – which would have essentially put hurdles all around the internet for anyone but gigantic companies. I have never seen someone explain the drawbacks of SOPA better, so if you’re interested – this is a great read. That said, there should be two books here; founding Reddit and what he learned and his take on SOPA.
12. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Like Ohanian’s book, this is less for education and more for motivation. Horowitz is a prolific venture capitalists and a spartan-like leader with a proportionate work ethic. The drawback to this book is that he tells you what he learned from his perspective – which is a perspective that most of us will never get to. His company went public relatively soon; did so with resources most of us don’t have access to; and for a reason that is debatably unethical (they needed massive funding but had no proof yet that they could build a sustainable business). He then went on to create one of the most successful venture capital firms in the world and fund the 1% of the 1% of the 1% ventures – yet again, not very relevant to the average person. All that said, he’s an investing and business legend and I highly recommend the book. Just don’t think you’re going to read it and turn-around and apply that knowledge to brand new company. Read it for the entertainment of his memoir, or the motivation to watch a man fight professional death for a decade and never give up. I also highly recommend it for anyone working at (or managing) a tech company experiencing rapid-growth and hiring.
11. Startup Communities by Brad Feld
Anyone trying to help catalyze their community into the next great place to start a company would be doing themselves a disservice by not reading this book. At the very least it would be considered an important read because he’s made up a couple of phrases (“leaders and feeders” being one example) that are now commonly-cited across various startup communities. They’re terms you probably won’t hear in business school, but will in the real word – so read the book to keep up. There are entire consultation firms selling packages to small governments based on this methodology.
10. Just Start by Leonard A. Schlesinger & Charles F. Kiefer
This book is complementary to The Lean Startup (and others like it) in that it puts an emphasis on how starting now, and small, is the best way to get big. These are points that we all needed to be reminded of at some point or another. It’s a great read for the year-or-two after you’ve read The Lean Startup and you need a refresher. I found it to be incredibly well written and easy to take down. An essential element to an author’s skill at transferring knowledge is his or her ability to distill difficult concepts down to their most simple form. The title of the book alone is a testament to this point. Just start. It would be hard to give better startup advice with less syllables.
9. The Tech Entrepreneur’s Survival Guide by Bernd Schoner
This is a great book that’s centered around my favorite topic: bootstrapping a tech startup. There are a handful of profound tidbits that I found crucially relevant. He profiles the advantages and disadvantages of certain company structures that you wouldn’t see in a business book. Instead of telling you his reasoning, he shows you case studies that let you infer the point making. I also have never been explained in more human-terms (as opposed to legal) the blueprint to starting a company – or investing – with someone that’s not a United States Citizen. Next time I find myself helping one of our companies navigate citizenship, I will surely look back for reference. In essence, there is a lot of crucial legal structure in the book – except he knows how to explain it in human terms.
8. How To Be Your Own Lawyer…Without Being a Fool by Thomas C. Brown and Anthony J. Luppino
I was asked to read this book before it was published to provide notes. It was written by two Kansas City-based lawyers, one of which is a personal mentor of mine who is also a law professor at UMKC. I’m biased because the author is a shining example of how to be a good role model, but the book itself should be a prerequisite before starting a company. The idea isn’t to read it and then skip lawyers altogether. Instead it’s about making you a better consumer of legal services. With this book’s help, you can show up at a law office with the basic understanding required to help your lawyer do a better job helping you. This will provide an added layer of protection, as well as save you time and money.
7. The Organic Entrepreneur Economy by Seth Meinzen & Steve Meinzen
This is another fabulous book on building entrepreneurial ecosystems. There are very few men in this world that have done more for their early-stage communities than the author. What’s even better about this book is he uses a lot of Kansas City and Midwest-based case studies to emphasize what he’s learned over the years. This is a great read if you’re a politician, EDC, school, or community leader. It also doesn’t hurt that the book refers to BetaBlox as a model program. Think of this like “Startup Communities” on steroids and written from someone who builds companies in Kansas City.
6. The Like Economy by Brian Carter
This is a stellar roadmap for people looking to add a degree of sophistication to their social media mix. Carter provides excellent explanations of various ad interfaces and strategies that follow paid campaigns. This is highly recommended, but not for social media newbies. I find that most “social media” books are just a bunch of fluff that anyone with half a brain could figure out quickly on their own. Yet your business is going to need to know more than just basic stuff to have any sort of effective impact. This is the book that can actually help with that. Lastly, he allows his readers to join a private Facebook group where everyone can discuss new trends and ideas as it relates to social media marketing.
5. Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder
Business plans are dead and a thing of the past; The Lean Startup is in. But there has to be a common ground between sprinting right from the start versus planning for months (or years). The compromise is Osterwalder’s framework: the business model canvas. What he’s done is distill a traditional business plan into the nine most important categories that define your business model. Things like distribution, pricing, cost structure, etc. It’s a great tool and a highly suggested activity for people that are in an academic environment trying to learn how to be an entrepreneur.
4. Why Startups Fail by David Feinlab
Learning from the mistakes of others is the smartest way to not make as many of your own. This book diagnoses the nine most important reasons why startups fail. The failure-driven case studies mask an inherently valuable checklist of things worth paying more attention to. Although it sounds a little depressing at first glance, it’s actually far more motivational than you might think. After finishing I felt excited to get back out to the battlefield, except I now had a map that diagnosed where the land mines were. They say a dumb person doesn’t learn from their mistakes, but an even dumber one doesn’t learn from others.
3. The Fundraising Rules by Mark Peter Davis
I’ve never read a more comprehensive and well-written blog/book on the rules of raising capital than this book. Although this is geared towards raising money from venture capitalists, it’s incredibly relevant for the angel investing stage as well. Ten years ago, no. Today, yes. Kansas City angel investors are starting to form teams and alliances with each other more so than ever before. What used to be stand-alone high net-worth individuals betting on companies are now packs of sophisticated investors. To accomplish this, angels are streamlining processes and adding red-tape that is similar to a VCs setup. Learning how to do these activities on a VC level will make it easier to do it on an angel level. If you’ve already raised an approximate $100,000 round from your customer’s revenue, personal savings, friends, or family – and are now setting out to raise your first formal angel or VC round – this book is for you.
2. Slicing Pie by Mike Moyer
I have seen more equity splitting disasters in my time that I care to mention. Virtually all of them could have been prevented had they read this book first. His simplistic thesis is raw genius. It’s all about slicing up equity as you’re creating the business – as opposed to before you’ve started or after it’s valuable. No one has been able to explain a more fair strategy for compensating the founding team for their contributions. Where this system falls short is it can’t be used unless it’s with friends or highly trusted co-founders. It’s too complicated to put into a true operating agreement, and thus it won’t work unless you exclusively rely on a gentleman’s agreement. There is an answer however, and it’s called a vesting schedule. Is it as fair as the framework provided in the book? No. But it’s the closest thing you’re going to get that a lawyer is comfortable creating in an affordable manner. Ultimately I would mandate the entire team read the book to scare the crap out of everyone, and then have a lawyer write up a more traditional vesting contract. No author has done a better job helping the true founder of a startup set a precedent for what should be required to take equity from them.
1. ReWork by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
This is by the 37Signals guys, which is an umbrella of software and tools that empower people to work better with teams. Their most powerful and famous tool is Basecamp, an online collaboration tool. The book’s format is very creatively laid out. I’ve never seen quicker injections of fabulous points distilled down to simple explanations. I had been hearing a lot about this book for sometime and now I know why. They tell it like it is and don’t care about what you think about them because of it. Want to know how it is? It’s hard, very hard. So if you’re the type of person that wants positive reinforcements and fluffy compliments to get to the next level, this book isn’t for you. But if you’re the person that picks the meanest looking hardbody at the gym to be your personal trainer, this is your book.
So there you have it folks, the best business books that I’ve consumed in the last year. I urge everyone to read more. It will make you a better speaker and writer – which are two essential skills for a startup leader. I also want to point out that 90% of the info in these books was non-existent five years ago. What I’m getting at is that an entrepreneur’s world changes so fast that you can’t rest on what you know now – you have to be perpetually taking on new knowledge. Not just new to you, but new to the world. Your startup’s success depends on it.