There are way too many terrible business books out there. Most business books aren’t even books—they are business cards for the writers or ego trips for CEOs. But the great business books? They are worth their weight in gold. They can change your life, they can pay for themselves a thousand times over. Consider that Warren Buffett believes the greatest investment he ever made to be The Intelligent Investor, written by his mentor Benjamin Graham. As Buffett put it, “of all the investments I ever made…[it] was the best.”
Certainly some of the books below were (albeit slightly less profitable) some of the best investments I’ve ever made in my life with time or money. I don’t think business books are all a person should read. Many of the most helpful books I’ve read in my career were works of fiction or were ancient classics. But this is a genre that has value—no matter how much literary snobs may look down on it—and below are my favorites (in no particular order). If you’re looking for a business education, they are a lot cheaper than an MBA.
Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son by George Horace Lorimer — This book of letters is great—I wish my father had written me stuff this good. It is the fictional correspondence between Old Gorgon Graham, a self-made millionaire in Chicago, and his son who is coming of age and entering the family business. The letters date back to the 1890s but feel like they could have been written in any era. Honest. Genuine. Packed with good advice for anyone trying to make their way in the business world.
Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight — Ostensibly the memoir of the founder of Nike, it’s really the story of a lost kid trying to find meaning in his life and it ends with him creating a multi-billion dollar company that changes sports forever. I’m not sure if Knight used a ghostwriter (the acknowledgements are unclear) but his personal touches are all over the book—and the book itself is deeply personal and authentic. The main thing I took from it? You actually have to love the thing you’re going into business to sell. Live and love it and breathe it.
Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years by Paul B. Carroll — Most business books are about what went right. This one isn’t. It’s about painful failures. The ones that get repeated over and over and over. This book will humble future CEOs and keep them conservative—which is an important balance for any ambitious person.
The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen — This book tells the incredible story of Sam Zemurray, the penniless Russian immigrant who, through pure hustle and drive, became the CEO of United Fruit, the biggest fruit company in the world. The greatness of Zemurray, as author Rich Cohen puts it, “lies in the fact that he never lost faith in his ability to salvage a situation.” For Zemurray, there was always a countermove, always a way through an obstacle, no matter how dire the situation.
Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow — I found Rockefeller to be strangely stoic, incredibly resilient, and, despite his reputation as a robber baron, humble and compassionate. Most people get worse as they get successful, many more get worse as they age. In fact, Rockefeller began tithing his money with his first job and gave more of it away as he became successful. He grew more open-minded the older he became, more generous, more pious, more dedicated to making a difference. And what made Rockefeller stand apart as a young man was his ability to remain cool-headed in adversity and grounded in success, always on an even keel, never letting excessive passion and emotion hold sway over him. Obviously the Steve Jobs bio is great too but if you could only read one giant bio of one figure, go with Rockefeller.
Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office by Zack O’Malley Greenburg — This is a biography that also functions as a business book. It shows how as a young man in Brooklyn, Jay applied hustling techniques to the music business and eventually built his empire. A true hustler, he never did only one thing — from music to fashion to sports, Jay dominated each field, always operating on the same principles. As he puts it, “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” And related to that, I also recommend The 50th Law, which tells the stories of many such individuals and will stick with you just as long. I also liked Zack’s follow up: Michael Jackson, Inc.: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of a Billion Dollar Empire
How They Succeeded: Life Stories of Successful Men Told By Themselves by Orison Swett Marden — Written in 1901 these are uplifting business oriented biographies of men like Marshall Field, John D Rockefeller, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison and women like Helen Gould and Julia Ward Howe (creator of Battle Hymn of the Republic). I was referred this book by Maria Popova over at Brainpickings and loved it—I’ve referred to it many times since reading it.
What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan — With each and every successful move that he made, Jim Paul, who made it to Governor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, was convinced that he was special, different, and exempt from the rules. Once the markets turned against his trades, he lost it all — his fortune, job, and reputation. That’s what makes this book a critical part in understanding how letting arrogance and pride get to your head will ruin your business. Learn from stories like this instead of by your own trial and error. Think about that next time you believe you have it all figured out. (Tim Ferriss produced the audiobook version of this, which I recommend.)
Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Seth Godin — You wouldn’t tell anyone that you saw a cow. You would tell them if you saw a purple cow. Seth wrote this book many years ago but it’s a classic because it says something basic, timeless and important. Make remarkable things, do remarkable marketing. It’s the best way to grow. It’s the best way to sell. Even Jay-Z has recommended this book—to Oprah no less! As a marketer, the clearest takeaway from the book is: Represent people who stand out, it makes it easier to do what you do. Pair with his other books Permission Marketing and The Dip.
22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk! by Al Ries and Jack Trout — It’s a short quick read and but I think you’ll come away with one or two key lessons that with stick with you. Personally, I found the valuable lessons were a bit front loaded (the first couple laws are the best). In short: turns out the best “marketing” decisions you’ll make come long before the paint is dried (or even applied) to the product. Forget the notion that marketing is something that is applied after the product is completed and aim to achieve Product-Market Fit. As I write in Growth Hacker Marketing, the single worst marketing decision you can make is to work on a product that nobody wants. Quick note: I have heard better things about the old version of this book so consider that before getting the “updated” one.
The $100 Startup: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable by Chris Guillebeau — This book is my favorite of Chris’s and a must read. You don’t have to have a lot of money to start a company, and not every idea has to be some massive world changing thing. Start small. Be smart. Be creative. Chris has been in the trenches and knows what he is talking about.
Monster Loyalty: How Lady Gaga Turns Fans into Fanatics by Jackie Huba — I picked up this book almost by accident but it has some good stuff in—and I say this as someone who is not a Lady Gaga fan. How does a pop artist manage their sudden fame? How does one consciously craft a career so that one might still be filling stadiums decades from now? (As Gaga has said, her career model is Iron Maiden not other singers.) How does one reward and excite their most loyal fans? Anyway, solid book that has stood up surprisingly well.
Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown — My friend Noah Kagan told me this was the best book he’d read that year. This is a book that focuses you, that makes you question many of the projects and commitments and assumptions you’ve said yes to over the years. Though the book is about applying design-style thinking to your life, I really think it is just a solid book of philosophy, stories and anecdotes that make you reconsider your priorities. That’s all you can hope for from a book and it more than delivers.
Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy — Very old but good. Unfortunately, the title overstates a bit as Ogilvy doesn’t exactly confess to anything. He just shares his wisdom. Surprisingly, most of the best lessons in this book are not about advertising but about leadership, client management and presentation. Follow this with The Unpublished David Ogilvy.
Choose Yourself! by James Altucher — The message of the book is this: the record label, the Fortune 500 company, the college, the book publisher—these institutions are decayed and broken. They are not coming to sign/discover/hire/choose you. It’s just not fucking happening. You have one option: choose yourself. Make your own way. Especially if you want to run your own business. The idea that some investor or mentor is going to spot you? A myth.
Unlabel: Selling You Without Selling Out by Marc Ecko — One of the best business memoirs and books on branding I have ever read. I’d recommend it if I hadn’t worked on it or consider Marc my friend. Marc left pharmacy school and hustled to build from scratch Marc Ecko Entreprises, what is now a billion-dollar empire and later founded Complex Media, which now boasts over 90 million unique views per month. Marc knows how to create compelling spectacles (tagging Air Force One), knows how to use celebrity, knows how to design products people like and is an expert on what they call convergence culture. This is an underrated book—but only because it’s relatively new and not enough people have discovered it.
Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne — The best law in the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing is “invent your own category.” Well, Blue Ocean Strategy is entirely about that. It’s about competing where there is the least amount of competition. It teaches you how successful businesses focus on being different, about carving out a new space for themselves. This book will help with marketing and every other part of business life. The sequel, Blue Ocean Shift, is coming out this fall.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building A Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz — Ben Horowitz wrote a fantastic book. If it was the only thing he’d ever done, I’d consider him a master. But it’s not. Building billion-dollar companies, slogging through the depths of multiple recessions, mentoring hundreds of entrepreneurs—these are the things Ben does for his day job. Writing for him is just a side project distilling that hard won experience into lessons we can use. This book is inspiring, it’s honest, it’s practical and it’s actually real. There’s a reason Horowitz’s essays have taken hold online second only to those of Paul Graham. There’s been a backlash about this book, but it’s one of the best business books I have read in a very long time. Also, what a title right?
The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich by Tim Ferriss — Tim often likes to joke about how his book titles sound like infomercials—which is a blessing and a curse—but this book continues to sell in and out every day for a reason. Tim forces you to think hard about what do you really want out of life, how to think about the way you want to run your business and where to focus your efforts.
Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel — People think business is about competition. Really it’s about avoiding competition and creating something new. If most business books stretch an idea that could be contained in a chapter—or ideally not written at all—Peter’s book takes the opposite approach. Each chapter is deeply unconventional, contrarian and profound coming from one of the most successful investors and thinkers of our time. Thiel puts into question many of today’s business best practices and offers lessons that I think back to almost daily.
The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb — Nassim Taleb is in the same category as Peter Thiel—a deep, thoughtful, well read writer and thinker whose work breaks new ground. This book is a required reading for any executive trying to think about risk but it is really for anyone who wants to make better decisions and not fall prey to our common cognitive fallacies. Pair this one with his Fooled by Randomness and the aphorisms in The Bed of Procrustes.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport — In most fields today, if you can’t cultivate the ability to have quiet, insightful, deeply focused periods of productive work, you’re going to be mediocre at best. This is a book that explains how to cultivate and protect the most important creative and leadership skill—the ability to do deep work. I strongly urge you to begin this practice now—if you want to get anything done or perform your best. His other book So Good They Can’t Ignore You is also essential career advice.
The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success by William N. Thorndike / Personal History by Katharine Graham — This book is also one of Warren Buffett’s favorite books. Instead of focusing on celebrity business figures who were good at self-promotion, it studies the heads of companies like the Washington Post, Berkshire Hathaway, General Dynamics, Capital Cities Broadcasting, TCI, and Teledyne who created billions of dollars of wealth through a series of unorthodox business and leadership strategies we can all learn from. I discovered the book after reading Katharine Graham’s epic autobiography in my efforts to read more books by and about women. She really was an exceptional leader and CEO.
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins — There is a little pseudo-science to Collin’s research but I don’t care about that. This is a great book and a timeless classic for reason. He creates a framework for how to think about building a great company. You get the right people on the bus, you spend time and energy winding up the flywheel and if you’re lucky you break through. It’s not a complicated formula but the examples in this book are helpful. Even if you don’t read it, the title is helpful. You don’t want to be good, you want to be great.
Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston — This book is basically like reading 20 short books about a bunch of different startups from the early web to Web 2.0 era. It comes from Jessica Livingston, one of the founding partners of Y Combinator, which has invested in everyone from Airbnb to Dropbox to reddit. The book is a collection of interviews with prominent Silicon Valley technologists and while some of the companies might sound almost irrelevant now, as the book was originally published a decade ago, the fundamentals in business and in starting companies haven’t changed.
The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman — As I said, if you are looking for a business education, books are a lot cheaper than an MBA. And this one provides the most important concepts covering everything from marketing to sales to finance. If you’re a business veteran looking to brush up on old concepts that you’ve studied years ago or simply want to have a well-rounded understanding of business, this book is for you.
Be skeptical of most business books—because most of them don’t last (they aren’t, as I say, perennial). But the ones that have lasted that have helped people for years? You would be foolish not to pick them up.
Of course there are many other books that belong on this list (sorry to any friends I forgot). If you want some more related book recommendations, here is a list of great marketing books, essential strategy books, biographies and you can get books recommended each month by signing up here.