321 Brain Food: The Startup Canon Edition

321 Brain Food: The Startup Canon Edition

By Carey Houston

Our Take on the Best Books to Get Growing


As far as we know, there’s no such thing as the Startup Canon, but, hey, why isn’t there? Based on our adventures, founders and startup folk are the curious kind and always keen to learn more (most especially when it’s relevant to their burning startup challenges). So, we set out to create a list of essential growth titles (or at least the start of one, since we’re hip to living lean and iterating. Following is our take on the best books to help kickstart growth for scaleups and startups:


“The Lean Startup” by Eric Reis

We’d so be remiss if we didn’t start the list off with this one! The Lean Startup is a great introduction to an experiential, ‘lean’ approach to building a business. Part backgrounder, part examples of a lean approach and largely a ‘how to’ this book is a startup essential. If you’ve been hearing people in the startup world throw around terms like MVP, test, iterate and wondering how to get in on this action, this is the tome for you. Why we love it? The best overview of lean methodology: learn it and use it!


“The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Ben Horowitz

Anyone who’s ever worked in a startup (and especially, most especially anyone who’s ever founded a startup) knows that pretty much every day you ride the oscillating “height of possibility” and “trough of disillusionment” roller coaster. On one of those days where things are going very badly (or as one of my co-workers used to say “ding ding here comes the shitmobile”) you may want some solace from someone who’s been-there, done-that (and landed extremely well to boot). Someone who can spin a tale and share the hard learnings that came from living the dream. Well, now, there’s a book for that and it’s The Hard Thing about Hard Things. Why we love it? A relatable story from the startup trenches with leadership lessons that rings so, so, so true. 


“Radical Candor” by Kim Scott

There’s no way around it: at 321 we are officially Raving Fans of Radical Candor. For emphasis: Raving Fans (ok, anyone who’s met me has practically had this book thrust upon them; it’s true!). Radical Candor is both a framework for giving (and receiving) honest feedback (including praise and criticism) and a guidebook for managing, replete with tools on how/when/why to run different kinds of meetings, how to attract and retain superstars and rockstars on your team and even how to analyze workflow to do what matters most. Why we love it? It’s seriously the best book on the why and how to develop a practice of honest communication and it’s written by a person with serious street cred (and it shows!)


“Work Rules!” by Laszlo Bock

If you’re an early stage startup, you may currently be focused on getting to product-market fit and gearing up revenue traction. Yet if you’ve started to build out a team, sooner rather than later you’re going to be thinking about People and your People function (hopefully sooner rather than later!). That’s where Work Rules! comes in. Written by the former SVP People at Google (who’s currently CEO at a startup called Humu) this book presents a refreshing take on People management. Maybe it’s because Bock entered HR after stints in various business roles first, maybe it’s the heaps of things he learned at data-driven Google, maybe it’s a bit of both, but this book is such a superb primer on what matters and what doesn’t in the People realm and contains tons of ideas that you can put into action, whatever your stage of company. For every Founder who’s told us “we just want our culture to be Googly” this book is for you. Why we love it? You had us at evidenced-based HR and a new data-driven approach to People management.


“How F*cked Up is Your Management” by Jonathan Nightingale and Melissa Nightingale

Don’t be offended by the title (we weren’t ;) Reading How F*cked Up is Your Management is like getting in on a fireside conversation (and a virtual drink, naturally) with the brilliant minds of Melissa Nightingale and Jonathan Nightingale and getting the insight that their collective adventures have imparted. They’re tech veterans so they get the quirky goodness (and not so goodness) that comes with the tech space. The book is a collection of essays on a range of management topics that Will Ring True. Trust us, you are grappling with these challenges now so read it and learn. Our favorite essay in the book? So hard to choose but with our Product Management escapades (good and bad) we’d have to select You Know Your Product Team is Failing – Do you Know Why?. We kind of think of it as an Ode to True Product Management. Why we love this book? It’s funny and it’s full of relatable, relevant and really important management issues ranging from diversity, to supporting parents in the workplace to communication practices to managing meetings for impact, to…You get the idea. Brain food!


Phew! Well, that’s all for now, but we welcome your feedback. What did we miss? Share your essentials and grow the Startup Canon.


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