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.


Here's what investors recommend for startup founders.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Click banner image for more holiday coverage for 2021

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.


You need a healthy ‘debate culture’

From their first day, employees at Appian are encouraged to disagree with anyone at the company — including the CEO. Here’s how it works.

Appian co-founder and CEO Matt Calkins wants his employees to disagree with him.

Photo: Appian

Matt Calkins often hears that he’s polite, even deferential. But as CEO of Appian, he tells employees to challenge each other — especially their bosses — early and often.

“I love arguments. I love ideas clashing,” Calkins said. “I regard it as a personal compliment when someone respectfully dissents.”

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.

Gopuff says it will make it through the fast-delivery slump

Maria Renz on her new role, the state of fast delivery and Gopuff’s goals for the coming year.

Gopuff has raised $4 billion at a $15 billion valuation.

Photo: Gopuff

The fast-delivery boom sent startups soaring during the pandemic, only for them to come crashing down in recent months. But Maria Renz said Gopuff is prepared to get through the slump.

“Gopuff is really well-positioned to weather through those challenges that we expect in the next year or so,” Renz told Protocol. “We're first party, we control elements of our mix, like price, very directly. And again, we have nine years of experience.”

Keep Reading Show less
Sarah Roach

Sarah (Sarahroach_) writes for Source Code at Protocol. She's a recent graduate of The George Washington University, where she studied journalism and criminal justice. She served for two years as editor-in-chief of GW's independent newspaper, The GW Hatchet. Sarah is based in New York, and can be reached at


AT&T CTO: Challenges of the cloud transition are interpersonal

Jeremy Legg sat down with Protocol to discuss the race to 5G, the challenges of the cloud transition and nabbing tech talent.

AT&T CTO Jeremy Legg spoke with Protocol about the company's cloud transition and more.

Photo: AT&T

Jeremy Legg is two months into his role as CTO of AT&T, and he has been tasked with a big mandate: transforming the company into a software-driven business, with 5G and fiber as core growth areas.

This isn’t Legg’s first CTO gig, just his biggest one. He’s an entertainment biz guy who’s now at the center of the much bigger, albeit less glamorous, telecom business. Prior to joining AT&T in 2020, Legg was the CTO of WarnerMedia, where he was the technical architect behind HBO Max.

Keep Reading Show less
Michelle Ma

Michelle Ma (@himichellema) is a reporter at Protocol, where she writes about management, leadership and workplace issues in tech. Previously, she was a news editor of live journalism and special coverage for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she worked as a staff writer at Wirecutter. She can be reached at


How Canva uses Canva

Design tips and tricks from the ultimate Canva pros: Canva employees themselves.

Employees use Canva to build the internal weekly “Canvazine,” product vision decks, team swag and more.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Ever wondered how the companies behind your favorite tech use their own products? We’ve told you how Spotify uses Spotify, How Slack uses Slack and how Meta uses its workplace tools. We talked to Canva employees about the creative ways they use the design tool.

The thing about Canva is that it's ridiculously easy to use. Anyone, regardless of skill level, can open up the app and produce a visually appealing presentation, infographic or video. The 10-year-old company has become synonymous with DIY design, serving as the preferred Instagram infographic app for the social justice “girlies.” Still, the app has plenty of overlooked features that Canvanauts (Canva’s word for its employees) use every day.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at

Latest Stories