Want to know what Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg have in common?
It’s not just the gazillion dollars in their bank accounts. It’s not just fame or world-changing corporations they founded.
One big, important thing they all have in common is that they are voracious readers.
Best Business & Startup Books Recommended by World-Class Entrepreneurs
Reading books is crucial for them, and for so many other successful entrepreneurs, for the simple reason that they are constantly learning, hoping to expand their mental capabilities, looking to discover new ways to do things and improve themselves.
Considering these are some of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in history, not to mention how often I’ve heard other elite founders swear that they are die-hard bookworms, it got me thinking. What exactly do they read? 🤔
Are we talking Harry Potter or Game of Thrones? Ancient philosophy? Or do they churn through modern self-help and business theory books?
So I set out to build the ultimate entrepreneurship reading list, based on the habits of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. First of all, I wanted to know which business books they liked the most. Then, I looked at the overall topics they read about. Finally, I narrowed it down to just those that are relevant to management and business. (No offense, Khaleesi fans.)
Surprisingly, my research led me to discover that folks like Richard Branson and Warren Buffet don’t read as many business books as I had imagined—at least those aren’t the ones they recommended the most. The majority of their favorite books are in subjects as varied as spirituality (particularly Steve Jobs), biology, anthropology, and politics.
That alone is a big lesson to keep in mind. It seems that by keeping their minds open to new ideas from a wide and unrelated range of topics, they get to see beyond the narrow business world scope.
That being said, business icons have read a lot of business books, many of which they love and recommend.
Today, I want to share with you the list of the best books about business and management that seven of the top modern entrepreneurs loved.
Business Book Recommendations from Bill Gates
Measure What Matters, by John Doerr
In the fall of 1999, John Doerr had made the biggest investment in his venture capitalist career—$12.5 million—to a recently founded tech startup from a couple of Stanford Ph.D. students. The startup was Google.
The company, which began with a paper written by one of the founders, a young man named Larry Page, was about to change the world.
To help the founders make the tough choices needed to survive the first few years of existence, Doerr taught them a management methodology that’d help them track relevant, timely data. Called Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), the ultimate goal of this approach was, as the name of the book suggests, to measure what matters most.
As Doerr explains in the book:
In this goal-setting system, objectives define what we seek to achieve; key results are how those top-priority goals will be attained with specific, measurable actions within a set time frame. Everyone’s goals, from entry-level to CEO, are transparent to the entire organization.
OKRs have helped organizations like Google, IBM, and the Gates Foundation to focus their efforts around specific goals, foster coordination among different teams, keep everyone accountable to their tasks, and strengthen the entire company’s mission and values.
- “We must realize—and act on the realization—that if we try to focus on everything, we focus on nothing.”
- “Key results benchmark and monitor how we get to the objective. Effective KRs are specific and time-bound, aggressive yet realistic. Most of all, they are measurable and verifiable.“
- “The hairier the mission, the more important your OKRs.”
Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight
What can you do with $50? Buy a nice dinner for your loved ones. Pay for a yoga class. Get a gift for your best friend.
Why not found a $90 billion company? I know this sounds a bit crazy, but that was the money Phil Knight borrowed from his father back in 1962 to start his company, Blue Ribbon Shoes, with the simple mission of importing high-quality, low-cost athletic shoes from Japan.
Eventually, his little company would become Nike, hauling in annual sales above $30 billion, with 73,000 employees, and over 500 factories in 41 countries.
Personal, beautifully narrated, and sometimes melancholic, this memoir shares all the stories behind the start of the ultimate sports fashion company.
- “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
- “Life is growth. You grow or you die.”
- “So that morning in 1962 I told myself: Let everyone else call your idea crazy…just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”
The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande
To say we live in a complex ever-changing world would be an understatement. We all know that, but the way professionals deal with this fact makes all the difference in their work life. The responsibilities of any professional, whether highly skilled or not, are constantly changing: New techniques to learn, new forms of competition that require quick adaptation, and modern technologies that change the way we do business.
In this book, acclaimed surgeon and writer Atul Gawande shares the solution to all these concerns through a simple old-school technique: the checklist.
The checklist has helped professionals like pilots fly sophisticated aircraft and doctors respond to new epidemics in little time. Gawande even shows that checklists were responsible for lowering the fatality rates by more than a third in complex surgeries.
This book isn’t just a manifesto about checklists, rather, it’s about productivity, simplicity, and effectiveness. Better yet, it’s a wake-up call to anyone who’s facing mind-boggling challenges and lack of organization.
- “Good checklists are precise. They are efficient, to the point, and easy to use even in the most difficult situations. They do not try to spell out everything—a checklist cannot fly a plane. Instead, they provide reminders of only the most critical and important steps—the ones that even the highly skilled professional using them could miss. Good checklists are, above all, practical.”
- “We don’t like checklists. They can be painstaking. They’re not much fun. But I don’t think the issue here is mere laziness. There’s something deeper, more visceral going on when people walk away not only from saving lives but from making money. It somehow feels beneath us to use a checklist, an embarrassment. It runs counter to deeply held beliefs about how the truly great among us—those we aspire to be—handle situations of high stakes and complexity. The truly great are daring. They improvise. They do not have protocols and checklists. Maybe our idea of heroism needs updating.”
- “Checklists seem able to defend anyone, even the experienced, against failure in many more tasks than we realized.”
Business Book Recommendations from Mark Zuckerberg
Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull
In the mid-1980s, Ed Catmull was a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah with the dream of making the first computer-animated movie. By mere coincidence, he got to work with George Lucas, director of the Star Wars trilogy. This partnership would eventually lead to the founding of Pixar with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter in 1986.
From the studios of Pixar, Ed Catmull would be behind the launch of a movie that would change the movie industry forever: Toy Story. What helped Pixar launch this and other 13 wildly successful movies was the development of a unique philosophy built around the creative process.
In this book, Catmull explains all the techniques the Pixar team created to help make it an admired and highly profitable company.
- “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”
- “Failure isn’t a necessary evil. In fact, it isn’t evil at all. It is a necessary consequence of doing something new.”
- “If you aren’t experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by the desire to avoid it.”
The Idea Factory, by Jon Gertner
The younger generation might not think of AT&T as a leader in innovation. But for much of the time between its founding in the 1920s until its eventual demise in the 1980s, its research and development wing Bell Labs was the biggest and most important laboratory in the world.
Consider some of the technologies Bell Labs was able to develop in the 60 years that it functioned:
- The transistor (you know, the little electronic thing that makes everything work, including your phone and computer)
- The laser
- Radio astronomy
- The Unix operating system (which is behind Linux and Apple’s OS)
- The programming languages C and C++
We’d hardly be able to recognize the world we live in if we didn’t have Bell Labs. The question we must then ask is, “What made Bell Labs so innovative?”
In The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner takes you through the story of Bell Labs, revealing the origins of some of the 20th century’s most important inventions.
- “‘You get paid for the seven and a half hours a day you put in here,’ Kelly often told new Bell Labs employees in his speech to them on their first day, ‘but you get your raises and promotions on what you do in the other sixteen and a half hours.’”
- “If you haven’t manufactured the new thing in substantial quantities, you have not innovated. If you haven’t found a market to sell the product, you have not innovated.”
- “To an innovator, being early is not necessarily different from being wrong.”
Zero to One, by Peter Thiel
Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and early investor of Facebook, is an enigmatic man. He’s well known for his conservative and libertarian views, his open support for Donald Trump, and his feuds with Gawker Media (which he eventually took down, as shown by Conspiracy). Yet behind his problematic reputation lies a brilliant mind, one that was responsible for the growth of several multibillion-dollar, highly innovative companies.
In Zero to One, Thiel explains his philosophy and beliefs around technology. As he states in the book, there’s a lot of innovation in the technology sector, but this could be achieved in any industry or area of business so long as its leader can think independently.
The most interesting concept in the book, which lends it its name, is the idea that innovation is when we go from 0 to 1. The next great innovation won’t be a new, better operating system (which would be like going from 1 to 10), but a whole new concept altogether which we can’t imagine yet—just like we couldn’t imagine the operating system back in the 1970s.
The new innovators of the future will grow and succeed by escaping competition thanks to the uniqueness of their business. The key is to go from 0 to 1; to uncover the new innovations.
- “The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside. A great company is a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.”
- “Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina by observing: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Business is the opposite. All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.”
- “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”
Business Books Recommended by Jeff Bezos
Built to Last, by Jim Collins
In contrast with most of the books in this article, Built to Last came to existence after a six-year research project developed by the authors, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, professors at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business.
Their research took a deep look at 18 highly successful companies like General Electric, Walmart, and Disney, with an average age of around 100 years and whose performance has beaten the stock market by 15 times since 1926. The team studied each business compared with one of their top competitors to see what the former did differently.
Throughout their study, the authors asked, “What makes the truly exceptional companies different from other companies?”
They break through the clutter and explain how focusing on more than profits, developing almost cult-like cultures, and having big hairy audacious goals, among other things, has helped these businesses find rare success. In other words, they explain how they were built to last.
- “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
- “Visionary companies are so clear about what they stand for and what they’re trying to achieve that they simply don’t have room for those unwilling or unable to fit their exacting standards.”
- “Visionary companies pursue a cluster of objectives, of which making money is only one—and not necessarily the primary one.”
Sam Walton: Made in America, by Sam Walton
When you think about Walmart, you probably think about cheap prices, low wages, and bad customer service. Unfortunately, this was neither what Sam Walton represented nor what he wanted his company to be.
Walton founded Walmart as a rural kid who wanted to help the common consumer by selling products at low prices. He was a crusader for the common man.
In this autobiography, Walton explains the story of the founding of Walmart and the philosophy on which he built it. If you want to know the true story of the retail giant and learn more about the original idea from which it was born, you will love this book.
- “What we guard against around here is people saying, ‘Let’s think about it.’ We make a decision. Then we act on it.”
- “Great ideas come from everywhere if you just listen and look for them. You never know who’s going to have a great idea.”
- “Every time Wal-Mart spends one dollar foolishly, it comes right out of our customers’ pockets. Every time we save them a dollar, that puts us one more step ahead of the competition—which is where we always plan to be.”
Data-Driven Marketing, by Mark Jeffery
Analytics are paramount for any marketer’s life. The only way to be a high-value member of your company is to have a clear idea of the results your efforts—and your department’s efforts—bring. In other words, you need to think analytically, being able to tell how much money you’re spending and how much revenue each dollar you spend brings your company.
According to a study by BlueVenn, data analysis is considered the most important skill a professional can learn, with 72% of marketers saying it’s the most vital in the current job market.
Data-Driven Marketing is the ultimate book for marketers who want to uncover this often overlooked skill. This book, as the subtitle suggests, explains 15 key metrics every marketer should know and master. Spoiler alert, here there are:
- Brand awareness
- Customer satisfaction (CSAT)
- Take rate
- Net present value (NPV)
- Internal rate of return (IRR)
- Customer lifetime value (CLV)
- Cost per click (CPC)
- Transaction conversion rate
- Return on ad dollars spent (ROAS)
- Bounce rate
- Word of mouth
Based on original research from Kellogg School of Management, this book uses data from a rigorous survey on strategic marketing performance management of 252 Fortune 1000 firms, capturing $53 billion of annual marketing spending.
- “The overarching best practice is to focus, get early wins to build trust, and build momentum based on these wins.”
- “The trick is to take a phased approach to gradually build the capability in your organization, realizing results at each stage and developing an actionable process that is easy to follow by employees.”
- “You have to have a good marketing and business strategy, but this is not enough. You need sound work processes that monitor all marketing efforts against their objectives to ensure that these strategies work.”
Business Books Recommended by Elon Musk
Screw Business As Usual, by Richard Branson
It’s no secret that we love Richard Branson at Foundr. He’s a charismatic entrepreneur who brings more than business acumen and a knack with people, but also a unique vision to everything he does.
In this book, the third he’s written, Branson reveals his latest thoughts on the future of business. Specifically, he believes that we are at a time when business people should to turn capitalism upside down and shift our values, from a focus exclusively on profit to caring for people, communities, and the planet. It’s an intimate journey through the bright mind of one of the most unique, likable, and charismatic business leaders in the world.
The Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
There’s no economist or business executive who hasn’t heard of Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations. A foundational book not only in economics, but on philosophy, politics, and sociology. So much so that it is the second-most cited book in the social sciences published before 1950, with 36,331 citations, right behind Karl Marx’s Capital (to the dismay of many liberals 😅).
First published in 1776, The Wealth of Nations is a book that laid the foundation for much economic thought that followed. Whether it is John Keynes or Milton Friedman, Karl Marx or Friedrich Hayek, pretty much anyone who has studied economics has been influenced by it in some way.
In this book, Smith takes a deep look at the reasons behind the rise of modern capitalism, namely, the division of labor, productivity, and free markets.
- “Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.”
- “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. Nobody ever saw one animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to another, this is mine, that yours; I am willing to give this for that….But man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is in this manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of.”
- “The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities.”
Business Books Recommended by Steve Jobs
The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen
When I got involved in the startup community, I remember I used to see a book recommended over and over. That book was The Innovator’s Dilemma.
The reason for the community’s fixation on this book (along with some of the other books Steve Jobs recommended) is that it talks about a key aspect of a startup’s life: the capacity to steal market share from the established, well-funded leaders in a given industry.
Clayton M. Christensen, a Harvard professor, explains that what killed companies like Kodak, Xerox, and Alcatel, among many others, was the prominence of new “disruptive technologies.”
In order to avoid the dark fate of disappearance, successful companies need to work with managers to abandon traditional business practices and aim to innovate—before it’s too late. New startups, on the other hand, needs to tap into those disruptive technologies in order to beat the existing giants.
- “Disruptive technologies typically enable new markets to emerge.”
- “To succeed consistently, good managers need to be skilled not just in choosing, training, and motivating the right people for the right job, but in choosing, building, and preparing the right organization for the job as well.”
- “Disruptive technology should be framed as a marketing challenge, not a technological one.”
Inside the Tornado, by Geoffrey A. Moore
Along with The Innovator’s Dilemma, another book that was recommended to me over and over within the tech entrepreneurial community was Inside the Tornado. According to its author, once a company “crosses the chasm,” a concept he developed on another highly influential book, it needs to face the “tornado,” a time where mainstream customers determine whether the product takes off or falls flat.
In this book, the author explains a diverse set of marketing strategies that will help you make sense of this chaotic time and take advantage of living inside the tornado.
- “The winning strategy does not just change as we move from stage to stage, it actually reverses the prior strategy.”
Get It Here
Editor’s note: We couldn’t confirm 100% that this book was Jobs’ favorite, but it’s often associated with his philosophies.
Only the Paranoid Survive, by Andrew S. Grove
Nowadays, hardly anyone is aware of the key role Intel had in bringing the latest wave of thin laptops, smartphones, tablets, and wearables that you love so much. What all these devices have in common are their tiny yet extremely powerful microprocessors Intel developed for them.
The man responsible for pushing the microprocessor industry to the next level is Andrew “Andy” Grove, former CEO of Intel.
In this book, Grove explains the philosophy of leading a company in a highly competitive industry where, as the book is appropriately called, “only the paranoid survive.”
According to Grove, the critical moment every company needs to be aware of is the “Strategic Inflection Point,” the point when the traditional rules of business go out the window. If you are able to make it to that point safely, your business will be able to win in the marketplace and emerge stronger than ever.
- “The Lesson is, we all need to expose ourselves to the winds of change.”
- “Businesses fail either because they leave their customers or because their customer leaves them!”
- “People in the trenches are usually in touch with impending changes early.”
Business Books Recommended by Warren Buffett
The Intelligent Investor, by Benjamin Graham
Before Warren Buffett became Warren Buffet, he was a young Columbia Business School graduate working for someone who has been called one of the greatest investment advisors of the 20th century, Benjamin Graham.
In this monumental book, Graham explains his philosophy of “value investing,” an investment paradigm that consists of buying underpriced securities and holding them to maximize the long-term returns.
If you want to learn what Buffett learned from this book, then check out this video of the man himself:
- “The intelligent investor is a realist who sells to optimists and buys from pessimists.”
- “An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.”
- “Investing isn’t about beating others at their game. It’s about controlling yourself at your own game.”
Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, by Philip Fisher
Along with The Intelligent Investor, this book by a widely respected and admired investor has been incredibly influential in the world of finance.
In this book, Fisher explains how to increase an investment’s value in the long term by concentrating on a few sets of outstanding firms with excellent management teams.
Fisher’s investing philosophy is focused on investing in potential blue-chip stocks—the stock of a large, well established, and financially sound company that has operated for many years, like IBM or Apple—when they are still small. Once these stocks get to become a blue chip, you reap the results of your early investments. In order to get to see those stocks become blue-chip stocks, however, you need to play the long game, something Warren Buffett is famous for.
Buffett learned so much from this book that in the 2018 Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting, he called it a “very very good book,” some of most enthusiastic words Buffett has ever shared publicly.
- “The greatest investment reward comes to those who by good luck or good sense find the occasional company that over the years can grow in sales and profits far more than industry as a whole. It further shows that when we believe we have found such a company we had better stick with it for a long period of time. It gives us a strong hint that such companies need not necessarily be young and small. Instead, regardless of size, what really counts is a management having both a determination to attain further important growth and an ability to bring its plans to completion.”
- “Never promote someone who hasn’t made some bad mistakes, because if you do, you are promoting someone who has never done anything.”
- “One, which I mention several times elsewhere, is the need for patience if big profits are to be made from investment. Put another way, it is often easier to tell what will happen to the price of a stock than how much time will elapse before it happens. The other is the inherently deceptive nature of the stock market. Doing what everybody else is doing at the moment, and therefore what you have an almost irresistible urge to do, is often the wrong thing to do at all.”
Jack: Straight from the Gut, by Jack Welch
If you had to name a “traditional corporation,” there’s a decent chance you’d name General Electric. With more than 120 years of existence, this company is so old that in 1896, General Electric (GE) was one of the original 12 companies listed on the newly formed Dow Jones Industrial Average.
The author of this book was GE’s CEO and chairman for 20 years, between 1981 and 2001. Considered by Fortune as “The Manager of the Century,” during his tenure, GE’s value rose 4,000%. So yeah, he was a darn good manager.
Throughout his career, Welch defied the conventional wisdom prominent in the industrial behemoth and turned it into a lean engine of growth and innovation. This autobiography, while not a “how to” on running an enterprise, goes deep into the intricacies that what went on at GE that made it grow as much as it did.
- “Control your own Destiny or somebody else will.”
- “Only satisfied customers can give people job security. Not companies.”
Richard Branson’s Favorite Management Books
Remote: Office Not Required, by Jason Fried
At Foundr, we love remote work. As I write these words, I’m in Buenos Aires, while the rest of the team is distributed in cities as far as Boston, New York, Kuala Lumpur, and Melbourne, among many other cities around the world. The huge distances that set us apart haven’t negatively impacted on our growth one bit—they have actually fostered it.
In this book, authors Jason Fried (Founder and CEO of Basecamp) and David Heinemeier Hansson (creator of the popular Ruby on Rails and partner at Basecamp) explain how the Industrial Revolution’s “under one roof” model of conducting work isn’t going to make it in the 21st century.
As they explain, companies should “move work to the workers, rather than workers to the workplace.” By tapping the remote world, companies can increase their talent pool, reduce turnover, their real estate footprint, and improve the ability to conduct business across multiple time zones, just what Foundr has done.
- “You can’t let your employees work from home out of fear they’ll slack off without your supervision, you’re a babysitter, not a manager. Remote work is very likely the least of your problems.”
- “Meaningful work, creative work, thoughtful work, important work—this type of effort takes stretches of uninterrupted time to get into the zone. But in the modern office such long stretches just can’t be found. Instead, it’s just one interruption after another.”
- “You’d be amazed how much quality collective thought can be captured using two simple tools: a voice connection and a shared screen.”
Start With Why, by Simon Sinek
Have you ever asked yourself why you do what you do? If you haven’t, then this book will ask you that so many times that you won’t be able to avoid answering that question by the time you finish reading it.
Throughout this book, which was based on a popular TED talk, the author Simon Sinek explains how finding your why — your purpose — is what drives the success of all companies and entrepreneurs alike.
According to Sinek, people like Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright Brothers all started with why, which is the reason they were able to change the world with little resources.
Some Amazon reviewers have said this book can be easily understood by watching the video above alone, but I believe reading through these pages will help you truly find your ultimate purpose. I know that, like Richard Branson, this book positively affected me in my finding my purpose.
- “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”
- “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.”
- “Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them.”
To Thrive in Business, Cozy Up With a Great Book
If there’s one habit you need to acquire to become a more successful entrepreneur, it’s reading. You do have time to read, you only need to cut on the useless distractions—TV, social media, sports games—and devote even half an hour a day to reading.
These books have helped the modern era’s most successful entrepreneurs step up their games, likely playing key roles in their successes.
Now that we’re done with our list, here’s what we recommend for you:
Pick three books from this list, buy, borrow, or check them out today (we have no affiliate links in here), and start reading them as soon as you have them. Your learning starts today.
What are your favorite business and management books? Share them in the comments below.