The 18 books VCs think startup founders need to read

From business advice to a history of mankind, here’s what investors think is fundamental reading for entrepreneurs.

Books

Here's what investors recommend for startup founders.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

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There’s no such thing as a manual for building a company, but there are things founders can learn along the way. It’s a go-to question for me when interviewing VCs for Protocol Pipeline: What’s a book you’ve read that you’d recommend?

From the psychology of selling to understanding TikTok to appreciating sleep as a productivity booster and not a time-suck, here are 18 books — including a fiction pick — that investors think startup founders should read.

Business inspiration

“The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO” by Robert Iger. "Not only did this book give me a greater appreciation for Disney, but it also has some great takeaways for entrepreneurs about important leadership principles, like remaining curious." —Christine Tsai, 500 Global

“Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok and China's ByteDance” by Matthew Brennan. "It is the story of TikTok and ByteDance, and is a great lesson in that sometimes you must step outside your lens of the world to see how much bigger you could be thinking." —Lydia Jett, SoftBank

“Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United” by Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz. "This book taught me what it means to be truly 'world class.'” —Chris Olsen, Drive Capital

Get in your head

“Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker. "As a founder, the job is a grind, and there’s an inordinate sense of pressure to always be on. Sleep can easily fall by the wayside. This book reframed how I think about sleep as a productivity booster instead of a time thief." —Jocelyn Kinsey, DFJ Growth

“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. "I think it’s a great foundation for understanding how humans make decisions, which becomes increasingly important as founders scale their companies. At the end of the day, a business is just a collection of people making products, and understanding human psychology is super useful." —Mo Islam, Threshold

“Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds” by David Goggins. "His story is so inspiring. In his childhood, he experienced poverty, prejudice and physical abuse, but through self-discipline, mental toughness and hard work he became the only man in history to complete elite training as a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger and Air Force Tactical Air Controller — in addition to becoming an accomplished athlete. Most of us really only use about 40% of our capabilities, but once we push past the pain and demolish fear, we’re able to reach our full potential — an inspiring concept for any startup founder." —Tsai

“Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success” by Adam Grant. "It is a great book by my friend Adam Grant on having a giver mindset." —Mike Ghaffary, Canvas

“Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini. "It’s basically a handbook to cognitive biases and other human 'flaws' that impact how we make decisions. When I recommend it though, I always feel like it should come with a 'contract' on the cover that states you’ll only use this knowledge for ethical purposes (and if you read the book, you’ll realize why this contract would work!)." —Hunter Walk, Homebrew

How to build a better business

“Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing” by Harry Beckwith. "It’s a very basic reminder on how you sell yourself." —Chris Barbin, Tercera

“Get Backed: Craft Your Story, Build the Perfect Pitch Deck, and Launch the Venture of Your Dreams” by Evan Baehr and Evan Loomis. "I see far too many founders go out and try to raise money without being able to succinctly articulate what their company does, and why it is valuable. Typically the delta between the companies that raise inordinate amounts of money and those that just squeak by isn’t so much the science or product, but how well they tell the story. Moreover, going out and having a bunch of investor discussions without having your pitch nailed is just wasting your own precious time. 'Get Backed' is the most straightforward and practical book I’ve ever seen on how to structure a pitch. Worth its weight in gold when you realize that it could be the difference between raising a round and not, or very easily doubling your valuation." —Greg Smithies, Fifth Wall

“Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. "The best book I’ve read on negotiations, which is a key discipline for any founder." —Ghaffary

“The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers” by Ben Horowitz. "Company building is hard. This is a founder’s guidebook." —George Mathew, Insight Partners

About the past, present and future

“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. "It’s a good reminder of how important building a set of beliefs or vision is for motivating large groups of people to work together on big, hairy, audacious goals." Derek Zanutto, CapitalG

“Seeing Like a State” by James C. Scott. "It addresses the concept of 'legibility' in the context of government. I think most startups are also solving legibility problems for businesses and consumers alike — the book provides a number of interesting mental models and is a great read." —Eric Tarczynski, Contrary Capital

“Average is Over” by Tyler Cowen. "Important for understanding what the economy and labor market might look like in 20 years." Ghaffary

“Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari. "As we enter an 'unevenly distributed' future, how will we co-exist with the machines?"—Mathew

“AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, And The New World Order” by Kai-Fu Lee. "The new 'commanding heights' is accelerating toward AI-first competitive advantage of nations." —Mathew

For something different

While most of the recommendations from venture capitalists have focused on nonfiction, USV’s Rebecca Kaden thinks founders should take a different approach: Try reading a novel instead. “Novels remind us that it's possible to dream up whole worlds, that stories can be transformative and that it always comes down to the characters, or people, involved,” Kaden said. “Getting out of our own heads and environments and stepping into another, even temporarily, can be so important, especially when you are focused on creating something new and transformative yourself.” A personal favorite of hers is “Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov.

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