Episode 228 | 9 Must-Read Books for Founders

Show Notes

In this episode of Startups For the Rest Of Us, Mike and Rob discuss 9 must read books for founders.   They compile a list of book s that are tactical, deal with mindset, and how to setup and work remotely.

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Transcript

Rob [00:26]: In this episode of Startups For the Rest of Us, Mike and I look at nine must-read books for founders. This is Startups For the Rest of Us episode 228.

Welcome to Startups For the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products. Whether you’ve built your first product, or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.

Mike [00:27]: And I’m Mike.

Rob [00:31]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. What’s the word this week, sir?

Mike [00:48]: Well, we’ve got a nice email from Ryan van Schoor from agentivity.com and he says, “Hi, guys. We’re now a successful startup in our fourth year, and we contribute a lot of our success from listening to your podcast. Just wanted to say thanks and if you ever needed to ask us a few ‘how did that work for you’ questions just give us a shout. Best wishes, Ryan.”

Rob [01:20]: Awesome. Thanks for writing in, Ryan. Yeah, if you have a success story, if you’ve been able to launch product, quit your job, we always love to hear it. We do have a success stories page on our website where we will link out to you, get a little bit of SEO juice, and a little bit of recognition. If we’ve had some type of impact on you, whether it’s MicroComf, the podcast, or the Micropreneur Academy, or my book, and your forthcoming book. I know you’ve talked about it on the podcast, but if you haven’t signed up for Mike’s mailing list, go to singlefounderhandbook.com and Mike’s looking to get his book out here in the next couple weeks. Is that right?

Mike [01:31]: Yes. I’m hopefully finalizing the editing probably tomorrow. And then after that I have to go back and forth with CreateSpace and get a printed copy of it to see how it looks and then after that it’s good to go I think.

Rob [02:32]: Very cool. I wanted to re-visit a question that had come through two or three episodes ago. The person who asked it originally asked : which magazines do we read? Because he likes to read physical paper in the morning. And I realized that I went off on a tangent and said “Oh, I don’t read any anymore, and I cancelled all my subscriptions.” But he did ask – assuming he’s listening to the podcast – what stuff he might have available to him? What magazines might there be? A couple came to mind actually. Ink Magazine and Entrepreneur Magazine, they’re reasonable periodicals. I’ve always liked the articles in there. Over time I realized it’s more Entre-porn than anything else. There’s not a ton of tactical stuff. However, if you really are reading this as a hobby – just like you’d read the morning paper just to keep your mind occupied while you’re having breakfast – it’s not a bad thing. There’s worse things you could read for sure. I also used to subscribe to Fast Company but it’s so design focused that it does a lot of fashion and other things that just aren’t that interesting to me. And then, for news I will read Time Magazine now and again. How about you, any other ideas come to mind?

Mike [02:44]: No. Like I said, I stopped looking at magazines in any way, shape, or form after my wife left the publishing industry. And at the time, really the only one I even looked at was hers because she brought it home and it was free.

Rob [03:05]: No, I get it. That’s the thing, you aren’t missing anything if you’re not reading these. But if you really do want a physical copy of something, I used to stack them up, get a month’s worth on my desk and then whenever I’d go on an airplane I would bring them and basically I had to leave them there or throw them away. And this was before you could have Kindles during takeoff and landing. When I don’t have electronics I want to keep myself occupied.

Mike [03:07]: What year were you born?

Rob [03:12]: Just within the last six months they’ve allowed Kindles.

Mike [03:12]: I’m kidding.

Rob [03:21]: Yeah, all right. I was like, “Dude. It’s not like it happened that long ago.” You sound like the old guy at the club saying that though. Anyways, what else? We have any other questions or comments?

Mike [05:14]: We have an email from Mike Buckbee who says, “Hey, Mike and Rob. I run Expedited SSL which is a Heroku add-on for rapidly installing SSL onto your Heroku site.” I think this ties back into a previous episode we did where we had talked about some of the different levels of products and moving up the ladder and somebody had commented how building on an existing platform was essentially step one-and-a-half. You could essentially tie into an existing application infrastructure and leverage the benefits that that platform gives you, and essentially helps establish a recurring revenue stream for you. And Mike goes out and he lays out a couple of the benefits and the downsides of having an app like this. The first on he says is “Being on Heroku pre-selects an audience that’s willing to spend money instead of man-hours to accomplish infrastructure goals. [Discovery?],” he said, “probably ninety percent of my customers come from the official add-ons directory, greatly simplifies MVP because billing user management, et cetera is all handled for you.” It also forced him to have a very narrow target for his prospects which is a huge differentiator for something like GoDaddy, which sells certifications to everybody under the sun. Now some of the downsides he said was things like cash flow, because there’s this gap between when people buy stuff and when he gets paid for it. And in his case he needs to buy credits from a certificate authority in order to be able to re-sell them to people he’s servicing. And then, in addition, they take thirty percent off the top. So for every fifteen dollar plan that he sells he only gets ten dollars of that. So depending on what his customer acquisition plan looks like, and the sales funnel, it can be a little bit limiting. It obviously impacts your flexibility in terms of negotiating for some of those credits. And then there’s also limited customization of landing pages for the sales funnel because, obviously, you’re tied to that platform. So whatever they offer you, in terms of the sales page for being able to offer those add-ons, is going to impact how you can present it to the customer. So there’s definitely benefits to this, but obviously there’s downsides to that approach as well.

Rob [05:42]: Yeah, thanks for writing in Mike. This ties back into the stair-step approach , where someone had written in and said, This might be step one-and-a-half, where it’s a small piece of software in someone else’s ecosystem with a single marketing channel, but it’s recurring. So it could be that branch between that WordPress plugin and a Joomla add-on or Magento add-on and a SaaS app. There’s that in between of still having a small thing that has recurring revenue. Love to hear about it. Thanks for writing in, Mike.

Mike [05:44]: So what are we talking about this week?

Rob [07:55]: Well, we’ve put together a list of our nine must-read books for founders. Obviously, this list would change over time. I don’t feel like this is a timeless list that’s going to be around forever, because tactics change. The idea for this episode came out of a question from Jeff Hines at touchpointdashboard.com. He say, “Hi, guys. I’ve been enjoying the podcast and I know sometimes you recommend books to read. I’m going to by Rob’s book Start Small, Stay Small, but is there a compiled list of books you suggest?”

The answer to that is no, we don’t have a compiled list. That list would change pretty frequently. But we did sit down and think through what are a handful of books that if someone was asking, How can I market my startup or my SaaS app or my software add-on, what books should I think about reading? So we have a mix of tactical. We have some about how to set up and work remotely, and then we have some about more of the mindset. So today, in all, we’re going to cover nine books.

To kick us off I’m going to start with the book Traction. It’s by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares. What I really like about Traction is that in my idea notebook I have several pages of writing ‘what should my next book b?,’ because I always knew I was going to write a second one, and I had three ideas I liked the best, and one of them was almost identical to what Traction turned out to be. And that is a list of a bunch of different marketing approaches. I think there’s twenty-something chapters, and each chapter covers a single marketing approach that you could use to market your startup or software product. Each one is an interview, or a case study, with someone who does that really well. So, they talked to Noah Kagan about a certain topic. They talked to Andrew Chen, I think about paid acquisition. They talked to several others, and overall, the book is an awesome overview. It’s not super tactical in a sense that you can read it and go do that approach right away, but what I like is it’s a big list that I would build my marketing plan from. If I’m going to launch a new app, I can just go down the Traction list and say, “Which of these could possible apply to my new app? And which do I want to prioritize at the top? And then individually go and research and dig in further somewhere else on the actual tactics that I want to attack.

Mike [09:49]: Yeah, and in the book they even go through and give you essentially a mechanism for trying to figure out which of those tactics you should start trying out first, and what is going to tell you whether or not it’s successful or not. So definitely take a look at that book. I would highly recommend it. We had Gabriel on the show previously when the book first launched, but it is very, very good.

Our second book on the list is Remote, and Remote comes from the guys over at Basecamp, formerly 37Signals. Remote talks about what it takes to run a remote team, for the most part. But I think that there’s a lot of this book that can actually apply to people who are running their own businesses. So, for example, there is an entire section on how to deal with the fact that you are a remote worker. So it’s not just for the people who are running the team, it’s also about what the people in the team should do, what they should expect, and how they should interact with one another, because if you’re running a business by yourself then you probably have contractors working for you around the world or in different time zones. The book addresses a lot of the issues with that. One of the other things this book goes into, which I’d highly recommend for people, is dealing with the excuses of why remote work won’t work for you. It goes through them and basically addresses them one by one about all the different excuses that somebody could come up with and say “Well, I don’t want to run a remote office,” or “I can’t run a remote business,” because of X, Y, or Z. It just lists them out and digs right into them and says this is why that line of thinking is wrong. So for example, losing culture. I need an answer from people now about whatever question you might have, or if I can’t see somebody how do I know that they’re working. The reality for a lot of those things is it almost doesn’t matter. It’s more about the people that you hire. If you can’t see somebody, how do you know they’re working? Well, even if you can see them, how do you know they’re not sitting there playing solitaire or some online game all day long? You can pretty easily alt tab into a different screen when somebody comes to walk by your desk. So there’s all these excuses and they basically walk through and debunk those.

Rob [11:27]: I think Remote is a good book for you if you’ve never worked remotely before, you’ve never worked on a distributed team, or you’re trying to basically pitch that case to someone in order to work remote. When I read it I didn’t get very much out of it, but it’s because I’ve worked from home for ten years, and I worked on remote teams for twelve or fourteen years. So I did like the way they thought through it, and I liked some of the stuff they referenced, but I didn’t take a ton of actual ways that I think will change the way I do business. But with that said, obviously, if you haven’t had that, if you don’t have that experience and you are trying to figure out if you want to build a remote team, or have everyone on site, I think it’s a good book to read.

The third book on our list is SaaS Marketing Essentials and it’s by Ryan Battles. What I like about this book is its laser focus. Obviously, if you’re not going to launch a SaaS app, then this may be one you want to skip. But I like the way Ryan dives into niche validation, he talks about some really tactical things on marketing, on building the app, on what it takes to support it and get it launched, and the whole process of getting it out into the world. It gives you a realistic expectation of what to expect, and gives a ton of resources that you can follow and learn more about. In my opinion, this is the most tactical and comprehensive book out there today on launching a SaaS app. Because a lot of the stuff that you read, if you do subscribe to blogs – let’s say SaaStr Jason Lemkin, he has really good posts – but a lot of it is aimed at the five to one hundred million dollar SaaS apps. It’s not aimed at bootstrappers. And while Ryan’s stuff can be applicable to both, it really is more focused on launching a product on your own with no funding.

Mike [13:13]: The next book on our list is Work the System. Work the System, it’s more of an advanced version of the book The E-Myth Revisited, whereas the E-Myth Revisited basically addresses – or at least brings to light the problems of – being an entrepreneur, and that the main problem that it brings to mind is that when you start out a business you start it for a number of reasons, probably because you looked at what somebody else was doing and said “Well, I can do that,” Or you didn’t like how things were being run, so you created your own business. Typically is starts out as a freelancing business and as you start promoting your business you start doing more and more of the work yourself. So eventually, what you find is that the business can’t run without you. Obviously, that’s a poor way to run a business, and the E-Myth Revisited essentially brings that to light, versus Work the System which essentially assumes that you know that that’s what the problem is. It talks a lot more in-depth about the systems, and documentation, and all the different considerations you need to take into account in order to build a business that is going to run without you. So in Work the System, they really drill down deep into those different things, tell you what you need to do, how you need to think through some of the different problems and the different processes and how to create, essentially, an operating document for your business that other people can follow.

I actually modeled a lot of the stuff that I did in my business around this concept because it’s so much easier to just have a document that people can go to if they have questions, or if they need information about how to do something. I’ve actually gone in there myself, where somebody else has written documentation and I’m like “Oh my God, this is an emergency. This had got to be done and it’s got to be done right now. How do I do this?” Instead of muddling my way through it, I was able to go to the documentation that somebody else – who I’d hired to do a different job – they did the documentation, they updated it, and I was able to follow it, which was awesome.

Rob [14:39]: Our next book is The Ultimate Sales Letter by Dan Kennedy. There are a lot of books out there about copywriting and there are some decent books about copywriting on the web specifically. But what I like about The Ultimate Sales Letter is it’s based in this history of direct email marketing and almost all of what’s in here applies also on the web. I think Dan Kennedy’s a mixed bag. We were talking before the show that some people love him, some people hate him. He really is a polarizing figure. And I’ve taken from Dan Kennedy the things that I like about his approach. I do think that he takes things too far sometimes, and I don’t necessarily agree with some of his stronger sales tactics – just not my style. With that said, he’s very smart, and he’s a very good copywriter and a talent marketer. What I like about The Ultimate Sales Letter is it gives you a really solid formula of how to think about the purchase process in a buyer’s mind. He talks about it in terms of a long form sales letter, but it can be broken down into a sequence of emails. It can be broken down into a sequence of web pages on a SaaS marketing website. It works in many different forms, and if you can pull the theory out of this, and not get caught up in, Oh, this is a stapled piece of paper being mailed to someone, the copywriting fundamentals that he talks about in here are really quite valuable.

Mike [15:49]: The next book is The Ultimate Sales Machine by Chet Holmes. Chet, in this book, goes through essentially what is a high-touched marketing engine for getting sales for your products. There’s a lot of different, I’d say, techniques in here that are more about gaining attention and standing out from the crowd. For example, one of them is to send people a mailer that is going to stand out from all the other things. Instead of just sending a postcard, you might send them a box, and that box might have some smaller things in it. It might just have some papers in it, but the fact is it’s a box. Or if you send somebody something in overnight mail, that’s going to rise to the front of somebody’s pile because they’re looking at it saying “I just got this thing that was overnight mail. It must be important.” There’s a lot of different techniques and strategies in here that he goes through, and talks essentially about the entire process of getting the attention you need from the people who are going to be involved in that high-touched sales process. It’s also about trying to optimize that sales process, putting the right people in place, and then make sure that your focusing on educating the people in that process in your organization, the skills that they need in order to do the jobs that they need to do to facilitate that process.

Rob [18:29]: This is one of the few books that I listened to on audio, then I purchased a physical copy of it. And it’s one of maybe twenty or twenty-five books that I still own a physical copy of, because it was so valuable to me when I read it. I’ve never actually implemented his process in full. His process is definitely for higher-priced items. It’s more of an enterprise sales thing, because he goes into spending a lot of time and a lot of money chasing after your dream one hundred customers. However, there’s so much else in this about the mindset of sales, the mindset of marketing that you can take away. He starts it off with time management secrets of billionaires – is the first chapter. Instituting higher standards and regular training is the second one. How to run effective meetings. Even if you’re not working in an office, all of this stuff is valuable. And he’s such a smart guy and he applies his systematic thinking to all of these topics. It’s one that I have listened to multiple times and I still reference back to the physical paper copy I have in front of me.

Our next book is more of a high level thought provoking book rather than a tactical one. It’s called Zero to One and it’s written by Peter Thiel. To be honest I didn’t think I was going to like this book. I listened to it because a lot of people recommended it, and I heard folks talking about it. And I have now listened to it twice. Again, it’s almost like he’s so smart that everything he talks about is not trivial,and it’s not obvious. I think that’s a big thing. When I’m listening to a book and I hear a lot of obvious advice, obvious time management advice, obvious ways of thinking about starting companies, it just gets boring, because I’ve either heard it before or I’ve thought it myself. Very, very little in this book is stuff that I’ve heard about or thought about before. It’s incredibly thought-provoking. He does talk a lot more about starting billion dollar companies. The idea is that most companies started go from one to, which means their incremental improvement. So all the business that our bootstrappers are starting, in general, in our community, are one two businesses and they are improving upon an existing idea. He talks in the book about going from zero to one, meaning starting from nothing and building a SpaceX or a Tesla, completely revolutionizing an industry. But as a bootstrapper don’t let that scare you away because while he does spend a chapter or two on that, the rest of the stuff he talks about is just how to have an open mind, how to think about things intelligently. He talks about how to focus more on marketing. He doesn’t go into tactics, in particular, but I loved when he starts talking about how engineers don’t know how to market their stuff. It’s a lot of what we see in dealing with developers who tend to build first and then think it’s going to market themselves. Overall, when someone this smart sits down and thinks about writing a book, anything he talks about is going to be eye-opening, and I think you need to check it out if you haven’t read it.

Mike [20:24]: The next book on our list is a little bit different from previous ones. It’s called A Guide to the Good Life. Rob you had mentioned this book, I think, on last week’s episode. But essentially, the Guide to the Good Life is about how to prioritize your life and the goals that you have in life and how to view them differently than you might otherwise be doing now. It really delves into, what’s called stoicism. Stoicism is a philosophical point of view where you look at things and you try to purge negative emotions. Let’s say that you’re trying to become an author. You’re going to have to submit your book over and over and over again to publishers – assuming that you’re going the traditional publisher route. And you’re probably going to be rejected time after time after time again. The way the stoics would view that is that instead of viewing each one of those things as a rejection, you view it as something that was essentially a milestone that you had to overcome. I think that I’ve heard Steli Efti talk about this on a couple of his sales presentations before, where, let’s say you’re doing sales calls for example. Instead of looking at it and saying “Well, I want to call somebody,” and you work up the energy and you call and they say no, or they get off the phone with you very quickly, instead of looking at that as a failure, look at that as a check box that says, I made one call. But your goal is not to make a sales call and land a deal, it’s to make the call. So by changing your perspective and what your goals are, you’re essentially helping to purge a lot of the negative energy from your life and allow you to do things that you might not otherwise be able to do, mainly because most people have psychological barriers that they simply can’t overcome. I thought that the book was really well put together, and there’s a lot of really good techniques in there that are extremely helpful. And in some ways you can look at that stuff and say you’re lying to yourself. But at the same time if those tricks are working for you, and they’re allowing you to reach what your ultimate goals are, then who’s to say that using those methods is wrong.

Rob [22:04]: Yeah, that’s the thing. I think when people hear stoicism they might roll their eyes, or think this is really touchy feely. I really like the framework that it gives. And of course, as with any book, it’s like you don’t have to believe or buy into everything that’s said, but there’s a lot in this book that I took away. I have several pages of notes actually, which is a sign that something was impactful to me. Some of the things I really enjoyed were, they talk about meditation, and they talk about dealing with difficult people, and how to avoid whiny and melancholy people. They call them [seep sorrows?]. This is two thousand year old, three thousand year old stuff. So it’s really interesting that people don’t change. We see them in our lives today, and you saw them two thousand years ago. He also talks about negative people kind of like trolls, essentially, or haters – as you put in the outline last week. He talks about gossiping. But it’s not just obvious stuff. As I say all that you probably think, “Oh, well he says don’t gossip, and stay away from those people.” But they give an entire framework of why that works, and then actual techniques and tactics of how to think about all this so it makes sense. So I’m a big fan of this. I actually heard some people talking about stoicism, I think it was Tim Ferris interviewed the author of The Obstacle is the Way. I listened to that book and I was not particularly impressed with it. So I was like I’m not going to get into this stoic stuff. Then I hung out with Travis Jamison from Supremacy SEO, he’s in the tropical NBA crowd, and he said that this was the book to read if I wanted to get an entry level into it. So I read it, I was blown away, I took a bunch of notes. I re-read it and I’ve been trying to implement pieces of it certainly over the past six months, since I originally listened.

Mike [22:51]: I think the other thing that I really liked about it was that it focused on living in today. A lot of us have smartphones, so what we’ll be doing is we’ll constantly be out with our families and checking your phone. It talks about being able to live your life today, like if God forbid something happen to one of your kids tomorrow, would you feel bad about the five minutes that you were spending on your phone as opposed to paying attention to your kids. It really puts things into perspective about what you should be paying attention to and how you can focus on the here and now, because it may not be there tomorrow. Or how are you going to feel if you weren’t paying attention and you’re going to have all of these regrets. You’re still going to feel bad no matter what if something were to happen to one of your kids, but you’re not going to feel as bad about all that wasted time that you weren’t present even though you were there.

Rob [24:06:] I want to wrap up the list with number nine, it’s called Essentialism. I mentioned this book a few episodes back as well, but what I like about this one is it’s also a mindset book. If you find yourself taking on too many things, if you find yourself saying yes to things and then getting to a meeting and wondering why you’re there, or if you find yourself overloaded with stuff that isn’t moving yourself or your business forward, this book is amazing. It reinforced a ton of stuff, of hard decisions that I’ve made over the past five to seven years of saying no to a lot of invitations, of saying no often. Basically making no my default answer. And that’s not always easy to do, and it doesn’t always feel good, but this book basically backs all that up and it solidified it and it gives a lot of reasons why, and it gives examples. It really goes into the ramifications of not saying no and of accepting everything, and then the ramifications of saying no and how it can change the way you work, change your productivity, and change your focus. So this – kind of like A Guide to the Good Life – might be one of the most important books on this list. Even though it’s not a tactical thing about marketing, it’s a five or a ten-Xer because it gets within your mindset, and it can make mental shifts within you, and that’s where enormous productivity gains can often happen.

Mike [24:41]: So just to recap, our nine books are Traction, Remote, SaaS Marketing Essentials, Work the System and the E-Myth Revisited – by default association -Ultimate Sales Letter, The Ultimate Sales Machine, Zero to One, A Guide to the Good Life, and Essentialism. And if you have a question for us you can call it into our voicemail number at 1-888-801-9690 or email it to us at questions@startupsfortherestofus.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Out of Control by Moot used under creative commons. Subscribe to us on iTunes by searching for startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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