One of the most important things that every entrepreneur should focus on is continuous improvement and learning. After college education is over, learning becomes pretty much haphazard and rather experiential. The biggest drawback of experiential learning is that it is slow. When you have a fast-growing startup, you can’t wait to learn or else, you’d become the bottleneck in the growth of your startup.
We at Cogno AI grew to $1M in revenue in 2.5 years. In this period, I had to learn a bunch of things - hiring, negotiations, team building, customer acquisition, selling, support, and whatnot. I had to constantly learn new things every day. In this post, I will talk about some of the books I read that helped me learn important things that led to this growth.
Think and Grow Rich
This is one of the most important books that every entrepreneur should read. It is not about money or business. It is about building the right mindset.
We all have heard - motivation is temporary, but habits are forever.
You know what’s better than motivation? An Intrinsic burning desire. Motivation is essentially of 2 types - extrinsic motivation and intrinsic. Mostly, when the word motivation is used, it refers to extrinsic motivation. However, the book talks about how a burning desire (intrinsic motivation) helped some of the biggest men the world has seen, in achieving their goals.
The book is written in a bit of old-fashioned style. However, the essence remains the same - a burning desire is the most important thing to achieve a goal.
Rich Dad Poor Dad
This book is a must for all entrepreneurs because it talks about the right financial habits that every entrepreneur must build. To be able to make money, one must understand the rules of how money works. You are sure to lose a game where you don’t know the rules of the game. Read this book to understand the rules of the Money game.
How to Win Friends and Influence People
As an entrepreneur, you have to work with a lot of people - team members, customers, investors, advisors, etc. This book talks about how to deal with people. An Entrepreneur must know how to behave in a certain situation, how to speak with people, how to motivate people, and many other things. The book talks about all of these factors.
This is one of the best books for SaaS founders. This book talks about how Sales can be converted into a predictable process. To scale sales, it’s important to scale lead generation. That’s what this book focuses on - how to get leads predictably. Once your leads funnel is set, the rest of the things is merely a numbers game.
This book is written by a former Salesforce employee and so, the pointers mentioned in the book are quite practical and can be directly applied to most businesses. At Cogno AI, we are using a lot of ideas from this book. For instance, the book mentions that the Business Development Team should be separate from the Sales Team. The Salespeople should be focused only on closing the deals and the Business Development team is focused only on outbound prospecting.
We have implemented the same and it has grown our lead generation by manifolds.
From Impossible to Inevitable
This is another fantastic book where the Author of Predictable Revenue is also a co-author. The book is a larger version of Predictable Revenue and answers the question - “How to build and run a SaaS startup?”
The book talks about a lot of things - lead generation, sales, team structure, hiring, client relationships, etc. Like Predictable Revenue, the most important theme of the book is around lead generation. One of the best things that I personally enjoyed in this book is that it contains a bunch of case studies of other successful startups and so, it is quite relatable.
A must-read for all SaaS founders.
The Hard Thing about The Hard Things
This book talks about the journey of Ben Horowitz, one of the leading Silicon Valley Investors. The first part of the book talks about his journey and the failures he faced. Every time he tried to rise up, something came pulling him down. However, Ben Horowitz was highly persistent and he emerged successful.
The latter part of the book is more like a reference guide and focuses on “How to deal with specific situations in business”. For instance, how do you promote people? How do you lay off people gracefully in an uneventful situation?
Hire Smart from the Start
We faced a lot of issues in hiring because we didn’t know how to evaluate candidates in the right way. This book talks about a structured approach to hiring. The best part about this book is that it has a lot of sample questions that can be asked to the candidates to uncover certain traits and behaviors.
The book also talks a lot about value-based hiring as against merely skill-based hiring. Skills can be taught, but values can’t and therefore, it is important that there is a value alignment between your team and the candidate. For instance, if your team is fast-moving and growth-focused, a process-oriented slow person might be a huge misfit. Process orientation is definitely important in a lot of situations. But in early-stage startups, there are no processes! So, such a person might be a misfit.
So, it’s not about the candidate being good or bad. It’s about whether your startup’s values align with the candidate’s values or not. The book has built a fantastic framework around this.
The Lean Startup
For Founders who are in the early stage, trying to find the product-market fit, this is a fantastic book. This book talks about the most important thing - the customer feedback loop. Founders who have an engineering background tend to focus a lot on the product and the engineering aspects, rather than focusing on the core pain point of the customer and what they really want.
This book talks about the problems that this may create. Further, the book establishes a fantastic framework for building a product in a “lean fashion”. The idea is to build the first version, show it to the customers and get feedback. Based on their feedback, build a second version, again get feedback, and iterate. This way, you are essentially co-creating the product with the customers and so, it will turn out to be what they want.
The lean approach helps you prevent building something that might be an engineering marvel, but useless for the customers.
We all have the same 24 hours in a day. However, some people are highly productive. How? Because a lot of the work they do is on autopilot and so, they’re able to accomplish it without any mental energy being spent.
Habits help you do tasks on autopilot without brain involvement. For instance, every day you’d be taking multiple small decisions - what clothes to wear, what time to wake up, etc. These small decisions consume mental energy when you already have a shit ton of things to handle in your startup. So, the best idea is to either not take these decisions or to find a way to take these decisions without consuming your time and mental energy.
How do you do that? Build a habit. Confused whether you Confused about whether you should exercise or not today? Well, make a habit that you’d exercise on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. End of story. It helps you eliminate 3 decisions a week.
The book talks about how to build the right habits. It talks about how the human mind works and how it can be manipulated to build the right habits easily. The book also talks about the impact of the environment on habit building. For instance, your bed gives your mind a cue that it’s time to sleep and so, never work from the bed.
Blue Ocean Strategy
This is another great book on identifying the “blue oceans” - areas that are uncontested where you can build your niche. Essentially, the idea is to avoid contesting in the “red oceans” because they are brutally competitive. The book builds a framework for identifying blue oceans (opportunities) and red oceans (competition) so that you can avoid getting into a price war with a large competitor.
The book talks about some interesting case studies on how companies innovated to find the gaps in the market and built products around them that scaled to billions. Sometimes, it is important to be different as against being better, in order to win a customer.
Measure What Matters
This is a fantastic book that talks about how can Founders bring alignment within their team. When a startup grows, multiple team members start to become decision-makers and take decisions around product development, sales, engineering, etc. It is important that these all members take decisions in a single direction so that their strengths add up, as against trying things in different directions that cancel each other out.
For instance, if your sales team wants to target the Middle Eastern market, but the Product team is focused on unnecessary optimizations rather than adding an Arabic language feature in the product, it is going to be a disaster. How do you align the Sales and the Product team in the same direction?
Using OKRs - Objectives and Key Results. The book talks about the OKR framework on how can Founders decide the objectives for the business and use key results to measure them accurately. The OKR framework helps align all the team members in the same direction so that the decision-making is consistent with the direction of movement of the business. We’ve used the learnings of this book to build an effective incentive structure for our client-facing teams.
I am sure there are many other useful books. These are some of the books that I found really interesting to read and helpful. These books have taught me some or the other important concept that has helped me in my entrepreneurial journey. Hope that they help you too.