Required Reading for Startup Founders and Wantrepreneurs
A year ago today, I quit Microsoft to found a startup called Outdrsy. About 6 months ago, after failing to recruit a cofounder or develop a market for my product, I decided to join GoPollGo as employee #1 after Ben (the founder) had raised some seed funding. Since becoming a startup founder/employee, I regularly get asked by friends for advice about startup ideas. Although I happily offer my strong, mostly unqualified opinions on any subject, I still consider myself a wantrepreneur. So before listening to me, I recommend reading a few selections that I wish I had read before starting a company. Then, bookmark this list and forward it to your friends when they start asking you for advice.
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. Eric Ries is the founder and spokesperson of the Lean Startup movement, which seeks to treat startups as a series of scientifically measurable hypotheses to be validated and breaks down the pop culture myth perpetuated by The Social Network et al. that startups are created by a visionary founder doggedly following a golden idea against all odds. If you only have time to read one book before taking the plunge, read this one.
- Getting Real by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried. David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH) wrote the Ruby on Rails web framework and the collaboration service Basecamp in a year working 10 hours a week while in business school in Denmark. Needless to say, he and business partner Jason Fried have some ideas about building a business that run counter to the conventional "shoot for the moon" wisdom of Silicon Valley and lots of great practical advice for building a software company. This one's free on the internet and you could read it on an airplane. Skip their New York Times Bestseller Rework if you're building a software startup - it's mostly the same material stretched out and applied to generic business. DHH is also a great speaker - I recommend checking out "Unlearn Your MBA" on his personal website.
- Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steven Gary Blank is the bible on Customer Development, one of the core concepts of the Lean Startup movement - how to find a good market and avoid wasting time building a product that nobody wants. A bit long-winded, but worth reading the first few chapters at least.
- The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. Yes, the title is sensationalist, but ultimately this book is about an alternative startup model - how to build a "lifestyle" business, i.e. one that allows you to live comfortably with a minimal amount of work (as opposed to a traditional Silicon Valley startup, whose motive is to change the world and/or allow the founders and VCs to buy yachts after 7 years of 80-hour work weeks). This book will help you dig into your own motives and philosophy for starting a company and offers a lot of tips for working more efficiently and avoiding distraction.
- "Startups are Hard" by Chad Etzel. This was published when I was going through many of the same issues and really resonated with me. I don't think an essay alone can convey just how hard startups are, and I don't think reading this would have deterred me, but you should at least be informed of the sacrifices. Caveat emptor.
- Every essay by Paul Graham. Paul Graham essays are Chicken Soup for the Startup Soul. Whenever you're in the dreaded startup "trough of sorrow," read some of his essays to get you pumped again. Just go to paulgraham.com and start browsing by title. Some of my favorites: "What Startups are Really Like", "Why to Not Not Start a Startup", "Six principles for making new things", and "The 18 mistakes that kill startups."
- "Why You Shouldn't Keep Your Startup Idea Secret" by Chris Dixon. His other essays are worth perusing as well, and you should follow him on Twitter.
- "The Long Grind Before You Become an Overnight Success" by Vinicius Vacanti gives a great overview of his years of struggling before achieving success. He has a lot of great blog posts on his site.
- Mark Suster's blog. Mark Suster is an entrepreneur turned VC with a lot of great advice. Just start reading from his curated list of startup advice and follow him on Twitter.
Twitter can be a great place to see what successful entrepreneurs and VCs are talking about. If you aren’t already following a lot of tech influentials, get started by following my short list.
Looking for a technical co-founder?
You don’t need to have been programming since you were 12 to start a software company. You do need to understand and respect programmers. This topic has been beaten to death, but my favorite essay on the subject is Will Micelli’s personal story, “Technical Co-Founders are Overrated”. Try not to take this personally, but remind yourself of “The Craigslist Reverse Programmer Troll” before pitching your idea to a potential technical co-founder - and make sure you aren’t “that guy.”
Did I forget anything?
This list is not written in stone - let me know your favorite pre-startup founding reading in the comments below and I may add a few to the list. And one last word of caution - don’t spend so much time reading wantrepreneur porn that you don’t spend any time building and validating your ideas and learning important technical skills.