Business curriculum for startup founders

During the last six months I have been reading several business books to prepare me for my ongoing startup journey. I found three particularly helpful:

1. SPIN Selling, by Neil Rackham

Different from most other sales books, SPIN selling was created as a scientific study on selling techniques, conducted by a third-party organization. The main premise of the book is that the best salespeople ask questions, of a specific type, in a specific order. Specifically, most successful salespeople for large (i.e., B2B) sales go through a process of Situation, Problem, Impact, and Need-payoff, hence SPIN. Because it is conducted as a series of experiments, the book debunks many of the typical sales lessons (e.g., “always be closing” or “first impressions matter most”).

This book changed how I approach sales conversations. I now actively study how to ask better impact and need-payoff questions, for example by recording conversations, replaying them, and seeing how much of each question I ask.

2. Zero To One, by Peter Thiel

When I originally read this book as a series of Stanford lectures it did not grip me. (I attended one of Thiel’s lectures at Stanford in April 2012.) Now, as I am starting a company, I found this book packed with helpful insights. In fact, I forced myself to read no more than one chapter a day, because each was packed with such thought-provoking ideas.

Thiel’s book engrained the idea that if you start a business, you want to go after a monopoly. Thiel also hands 7 questions in the final chapter that you should answer before committing to a business. This book made me think more about strategy.

3. High-Impact Management, by Andy Grove

This book is somewhat of a bible in Silicon Valley technology companies. Written by the former CEO and president of Intel, High-Impact Management gives very practical advice on how to manage a team.

After reading this book, I started to look at my activities from the lens of organizational leverage.

These three books had the most direct impact on my thinking and actions, which is, to me, the hallmark of a great book. I read other books that were well-written and enjoyable, but did not influence me as strongly at present. The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz was entertaining, but it is probably more relevant for leaders in companies that have hired staff beyond the founders. The Everything Store by Brad Stone carried interesting lessons about Amazon’s growth from zero to one of the most valuable companies in the world. Nail It Then Scale It by Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom could be a helpful guide for new startup founders, but I already knew and implemented many of the practices the book suggests, such as “going out of the building” and using a weekly business model canvas to record how you’re thinking changes.

I also read several domain-specific book. The Master Algorithm by Pedro Domingos is a technical introduction to machine learning. The book lists different approaches to machine learning. Energy Trading & Investing by Davis Edwards is an introduction to wholesale market trading, which was relevant background for our conversations with retail electricity providers.

My curriculum for the rest of the year

Now that we have are serving our first clients, I want to focus my learning in the coming months on a few specific areas:

  • Startup finance, specifically on: seed round structures; investor negotiations; basic financial reporting (accounting and tax); economic modeling of the business (unit economics, economic model). I plan to tackle this by reading blogs and asking other founders for advice.
  • Sales and product marketing, specifically on: how to uncover explicit customer needs when they expect a pitch and how to move from proof of concept to recurring revenue. I plan to tackle this primarily by seeking out mentors to review my work and to discuss open questions.
  • Data science, specifically a training in pandas (a python library); writing functions; visualizations. I plan to tackle this primarily by making 30 minutes daily in which I’m writing code.
  • Electricity market operations, specifically contract structures (hedges, swaps, etc.); market volatility. I plan to tackle this through more detailed reading.

What do you consider the best books (or other learning structures) for startup founders?

Do you have specific recommendations for the topics on my list above?

Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.


PS Of course, starting a business is a dynamic affair. The topics I’m studying and the books I’m reading may change!



One thought on “Business curriculum for startup founders

  1. Good luck Titiaan with your new business. Good reading is both inspiring and enjoyable. Wishing you success and fulfilment.

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