The Startup Books That You Should Avoid

If you search “best startup books” on Google, just like almost every other time when you are unsure of something, you are sure to get the following titles. Yes, reading is fun but if you are a founder of an early-stage startup, you should really avoid reading them.

Which Books to Avoid And Why.

Zero to One

This seems like the go-to book for the startup community. Maybe because it’s really short or maybe it’s Peter Thiel’s brilliance that simply overwhelms us -- the averagely-witted majority (heck, I don’t even know all the rules of Monopoly, let alone playing and winning multiple chess games concurrently).

Startups love this book. It’s the ultimate ice-breaking question between two early-stage startup founders: “Have you read Zero to One? It’s great, isn’t it!” Sure, I also love the question “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” but no one whom I’ve met have ever tried to answer that question when they mention about the book.

If no one is intelligent enough to answer that question, why would people say they enjoy the book so much?

Fine, we can pretend we could comprehend Peter’s logic and intelligence. But the whole concept of monopolizing a niche market sounds very much like “Blue Ocean Strategy” to me, a book that came out in 2005. And for 10x? Really? How on earth do you even measure that objectively? Except of course when you are looking back at it after the fact.

Read This Instead

So the legend of Paypal Mafia lives on… but you, as the founder, should read something more practical like “Think and grow rich” or “How to make friends and influence people.

The Lean Startup

The whole concept of lean, or agile, is useful. But come on, the Japanese started this whole deal about lean manufacturing back in the 1990s! Alright, recycling traditional wisdom is understandable. But it is important to note that it is only particularly relevant for certain software startups.

Whilst some concepts may be applicable to hardware startups, if you get too fancy with this concept, you are only going to be one of those Kickstarter programs that never end up delivering anything. Because you will simply continue to build unusable product after unusable product. No, 3D printing is not your answer to every problem you face.  

What about the concept of pivot?  It’s certainly true that we need to change when we should change. But how do we know for sure? How do we balance between being persistence and being completely stupid? This is another classic after-the-fact proposition.

As for the other management concepts, it’s like cramming an entire MBA course into this short book. Don’t be fooled, MBA is still good (at least some programs) and you don’t need to be a college dropout to be successful in startup (yeah, the logic can be easily tweaked).


So either go and study a proper MBA or at least read something more practical such as “How to lie with statistics.

The Hard Things About Hard Things

First, it’s a really weird title. High school kids would have a heyday making fun of the title. Since we are adults, we won’t. More importantly though, I just don’t see how this is related to startups. The challenges and tough situations that Ben Horowitz went through were really for big companies.

Loudcloud and Opsware were huge!! Opsware was sold to HP for a cool 1.6 billion USD in cash (back in the days too)!! Maybe that’s why startups love to read this. They want to imagine that they are Ben, fighting for the survival of their startups but when the reality is that the valuation of their startups is really only worth about… zero (same for all currencies).  

Also, there are just too many ways you can interpret how Ben managed to get through all the bad breaks. Sure, luck is one interpretation. But who doesn’t need luck? If you read carefully though, every time Ben faced a dire strait situation, he always seemed to be able to negotiate his way out.

Negotiation is not as glamourous as you may think though. It’s not about the yelling and swearing as Ben portraits it. There are a lot going on. Try it yourself, try to negotiate your way out of not paying the rent for your co-working space. See what happens?  Does this book really inspire you or teach you how to do so?

Try This Instead

I share with Ben’s taste on Hip Hop though. Listen to those songs!  But if you are serious about your startup, you should read something more practical such as “Good strategy Bad strategy”.

So should you really avoid them?

Actually, those are all good books. Fine, the title is just to scam you to read this blog, just like all those cheesy titles such as: “10 ways to achieve xxx.” But the important thing is not about what you read.

The key is to observe the chemistry between you and the book. If you are not changed, in terms of the action that you are taking, just go and watch StartUp on Netflix instead.