The Best Books on Start-Ups for General Reader

Tyler C., a loyal reader of many years, asks in an email:

What is the best book on start-ups?  Not a how-to book, but a fun book for the general reader.

Another way of putting the question: What is a good book that conveys the fun spirit of start-ups that’s not an explicit how-to?

I replied:

1. Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston is a collection of transcripts with start-up founders from companies like Flickr and PayPal and Google. No editorializing, no analysis, no conclusion. Just long Q&As with founders that give a surprisingly good glimpse of what it’s like to build world-changing technology companies. The lack of narrative spine may make it hard for non-insiders to get into it, though. And there’s no sugarcoating the long, hard slog.

2. Startup by Jerry Kaplan was the classic book of this genre for a long time. It tells his story of developing a pen-based computer. Written in 1994, it’s a bit dated (pre-internet), but still good. I remember reading this several years ago and feeling inspired by the journey.

3. The MouseDriver Chronicles is very fun. Two young Penn grads start a company that develops a computer mouse in the shape of a golf club / driver. Company ends up failing but super entertaining.

4. eBoys by Randall Strouss is a fun book about venture capitalists. It follows Benchmark Capital as they invest in Webvan and eBay during the dot-com boom. Gives a sense of the era.

I think the best how-to book on entrepreneurship, by the way, is Richard White’s The Entrepreneur’s Manual. Amazingly, it’s out of print. Amazon has used copies.

14 comments on “The Best Books on Start-Ups for General Reader
  • I would recommend High Stakes No Prisoner. The author is a very good writer (an MIT educated political scientist who founded Vermeer Technologies and sold to Microsoft.) And he was not afraid to take shots at incompetent Venture Capitalists and Netscape management. Great read!

  • It seems your post caused a spike in the price of “The Entrepreneur’s Manual.” I bought a used copy on Amazon on saturday for $30. I got an email this morning that the order was canceled (presumably b/c of the price/demand increase). I went to buy another copy and the price is up to $95! I’ll be waiting for prices to go back down (which hopefully happens).

  • Great suggestions Ben: I’m going to have to take a look at your own book for sure.

    I bought “The Entrepreneurs Manual” back in the very early ’80s and used it as a framework to write a business plan and proposal for an Business Incubator business to start up in Silicon Valley. It was around the time that Nolan Bushnel and his crew had released his first set of PC games that you could play by using a TV as the video screen and was way before Netscape or the internet was established ~ ah yes; I remember those days so well! We’ve come a very long way in such a relatively short space of time.

    The Manual was – and is, if you can get a copy – a terrific book for a startup if you plan to venture into producing some form of physical product, Biotech or other such business that has large, upfront capital requirements and a long gestation period between initial idea and customer-ready/deliverable product.

    The Manual is, however, perhaps not the best book for the typical web based startup of today: It is too involved in details that most web businesses do not need to worry about to get up and running.

    For example, while very clear and helpful in guiding you through the process of creating a business plan, yet by the time a business plan has been developed, your competition will most likely already be ahead of you ready to launch beta service if not full production.

    Also bear in mind that most VC’s for web business type opportunities do not care about your wonderfully detailed plans as much as they care about demonstrable results: In fact, for a web business, presenting a detailed plan my have them may even think that you are too anally retentive to be suited to a web based startup opportunity. You may even have to pivot during the initial stages to move in a quite different direction than originally seen as the realities of the ever changing market place and potential is discovered/verified thus rendering the wonderfully crafted Biz Plan moot if not actually having it become a drag on potential.

    So for web startup guidance, perhaps by far the best information available today lies in books and seminars presented by people such as Eric Ries who’s books “Startup Lessons Learned” (also a web blog by this title) and “The Lean Startup” ~ are not only a whole pile cheaper than “The Entrepreneurs Manual” by today’s Amazon price but also far more relevant.

  • Points well taken. *Thinking* through the business plan points is still
    valuable IMHO, even though actually writing and printing out the plan is
    somewhat worthless, as you say.

    The price of Entrepreneur's Manual has spiked since my post. Hopefully it
    drops again.

  • Ben,

    Thanks for The MouseDriver Chronicles plug! It’s great to see you, and others, continuing to reference our story as an entertaining view into the ups and downs of entrepreneurship.

    Just one clarifying point: The company didn’t fail. We sold the company assets, returned money to our investors, paid off all debt, lived a phenomenal San Francisco lifestyle and fulfilled our overall vision (get in an out in 24-36 months). We did not, however, meet our $10M revenue mark by year 3. Not even remotely close. 🙂

    Thanks again.

    John Lusk

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