Best Business Books: 50 Small Business Owners Share Their Picks

Discover which titles made the list and lessons you can learn without even reading them.
head-bookshelf
Need a good book? Find out the best reads from other small business owners. (Photo: studiovin/Shutterstock)

What do small business owners read in their spare time? (We know: What spare time?)

NCR polled more than 50 small business owners to discover their favorite business books and what lessons they learned from them.

The winner

the e-myth revisitedThe E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What To Do About Itby Michael E. Gerber was the most-recommended title.

“A straightforward and sensible book, it taught me to re-evaluate what running a business means,” said Ed Mellett, 
co-founder of U.K company WikiJob. “In short: Running a business doesn’t mean that you need to be involved with everything, work 12 hours a day, get stressed out, confused, overloaded and ultimately be unproductive.

“A business has many different parts and each one needs a system and/or a person in charge of that part of the business,” added Mellett. “Breaking your business down into separate parts helps the business focus on the most important tasks. Hiring great people to focus on key parts of your business helps the business do a better job.”

John Kinskey, president and founder of AccessDirect, said, “I always remembered the concept that to be really good at one thing is not enough, an entrepreneur needs to compensate for their weaknesses and surround themselves with talent to fill in the gaps.”

Second-place winners

Four titles tied for second place:

askgaryvee“#AskGaryVee: One Entrepreneur’s Take on Leadership, Social Media, and Self-Awareness” by Gary Vaynerchuk.

“Gary Vaynerchuk, a successful entrepreneur, investor, author, public speaker, makes it very clear that any business owner can crush it and be successful by being savvy with digital marketing,” said Jason Parks, owner of digital marketing agency The Media Captain. “The most important lesson from the book is that you no longer need to be a huge brand with a large marketing budget to spread the word about your business. If you are an expert in your field and find the right digital channel to spread the word about your industry and business, you can grow your brand like crazy on a shoestring budget.”

good-to-great“Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t” by Jim Collins.

“This book has a lot of real-life case studies that show how business leaders have turned around companies (or started them), and illustrates clearly what makes the difference between a good leader and a great leader,” said Kari DePhillips, owner of The Content Factory. “Most business owners I know love the work that they do, but hate the management side of things (myself included). This book helped shift my perspective on how I manage my company and employees.”

how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people“How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie.

“Business is all about relationships,” said K.B. Lee, founder and CEO of Ever Bamboo. “The book talks about self-awareness and being sensitive to others. ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’”

“It is a classic with timeless advice on manners and people/human nature,” said Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls.

purple-cow“Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable” by Seth Godin.

“‘Purple Cow’ is all about standing out from the crowd. Seth gives an example of a purple cow standing in the middle of a field surrounded by a bunch of regular cows. He gets noticed,” said Eric Brantner, founder of Scribblrs.com. “The lesson is to not settle for being ordinary. Don’t be just another copycat business that offers nothing special or different than your competition. Be distinct or become extinct.”

Other contenders

The list of favorites was remarkably varied. Check out some of the other suggestions (listed in no particular order). There’s something for every type of business owner.

“The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be” by Jack Canfield. “It is the single best thing I know in the self-help genre. Lots of inspiration and practical tools from the co-creator of Chicken Soup for the Soul. It’s a big book and I revisit it every several years,” said Shel Horowitz, founder of Going Beyond Sustainability.

“Ogilvy on Advertising” by David Ogilvy. “It talks about the big picture and it also gets into some of the details about successful advertising,” said Robert Barrows of R.M. Barrows Advertising & Public Relations.

“The Richest Man in Babylon” by George S. Clason. “When I was in high school I was very fortunate that my father gave me this classic book from the 1920s. The book talks about the concept of paying yourself first 10 percent to 20 percent each month’s earning before you pay any of your bills,” said Bryan Clayton, CEO of the lawn care bidding company GreenPal. “When you are forced to pay yourself first each month is acts as a forcing function to live within your means. This discipline combats the phenomenon of no matter how large our personal income grows, our expenses and lifestyle always grow along with it.”

“(7L) The Seven Levels of Communication: Go From Relationships to Referrals” by Michael J. Maher. “It is the basic story of a fictional real estate salesman, Rick Masters, though it is based on Michael’s past experiences and as an extremely successful real estate salesperson and business owner,” said Steve Turner of Solomon Turner PR. “Masters discovers there is more to life than just working hard and trying to make a living. He discovers the art of connecting with people. He learns how to help people achieve their goals, and in turn they help him achieve his dreams. It is as much about giving as it is building a business. The book demonstrates that if you set up a referral strategy with the right intentions to really help others, you can create a business that is not only successful but also fulfilling.”

4 hr work week“The 4 Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich” by Tim Ferriss. “This book is a how-to guide on maximizing your output while minimizing your hours. It’s a great way for small business owners to pick up tips and tricks to help make them more productive and less stressed at work,” said Sam McIntire, founder of Deskbright, an online learning platform for business skills.

“Iacocca: An Autobiography” by Lee Iacocca. “More so than anything else, Lee Iacocca’s autobiography emphasizes the importance of perseverance through challenging times. Business analysis combined with introspective passages provide a great look into the way a successful up-and-coming executive rose through the ranks to lead a key auto manufacturer. How he responded to industry changes and financial struggles as well as his hunt for creative thinking are emphasized and highlighted through real-world examples everyone can relate to. The lessons are timeless even though the book is 30 years old,” said Nick Brennan, founder and CEO of Watch Social Media.

“The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life” by Twyla Tharp. “Although technically it’s not a business book, I have found it to be extremely helpful in behaving like a professional when it comes to my artwork. [It] shows how creating a daily routine can actually make you more creative,” said Ana V. Ramirez of Ana Ramirez Photography.

“Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson. “Steve Jobs was a fascinating person whose powerful personality and extraordinary life make for a very compelling story. He revolutionized many different technological and entertainment industries by successfully blending technology and the liberal arts. After reading this book it was easy to understand why Jobs is such a historical figure,” said Zondra Wilson, president and CEO of Blu Skin Care.

“6 Months To 6 Figures” by Peter Voogd. “The title is cheesy and I almost passed on it because of that. But Peter brings a lot of concepts together in one book that allows a business owner to not only be more productive but also execute on a plan that actually accomplishes the goals you set,” said Andrew Longcore, founder of The Business Law Group.

“Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing” by Harry Beckwith. “The book specifically teaches service businesses how to excel.
 The hard truth is that marketing and succeeding in a service-based business is vastly different than for a product-based company.

 Agencies, consulting firms, lawyers, dentists, fitness expert…all can benefit from his easy to read tips,” said Edward Yang, founder and managing partner of Firecracker PR.

“Rich Dad Poor Dad: What The Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!” by Robert T. Kiyosaki. “The most important lesson I learned from this book is division of labor,” said Andrew Reeves, founder and CEO of Luxe Translation Services. “When I first started my business, I was doing everything myself. I thought if I spent money hiring someone else to do it, my business would lose money and not grow. However, the book enlightened me by explaining why that’s the wrong way to think. I stopped wasting my time with tedious tasks that drained me and started focusing on growing my business. The minute I changed my mentality is the minute my business started to grow exponentially.”

“The Greatest Salesman in the World” by Og Mandino. “The scrolls in the book really make me want to succeed,” said Alan Katz, presiding officiant 
of Great Officiants. “My favorite concepts in the book are: 1) I will greet the day with love in my heart and 2) I will persist until I succeed.”

“Getting Everything You Can Out Of All You’ve Got” by Jay Abraham. “You’ll find business and marketing principles broken down into fundamental pieces latticed alongside with applicable real world case studies,” said Han Chang, co-founder of InvestmentZen. “The most important lesson I learned from the book is that there are tons more ways to promote your business than expected; it really helped me think outside the box and identify opportunities that were just sitting under my nose.”

girlboss“#GIRLBOSS” by Sophia Amoruso. Of the book the Washington Post called “Lean In for misfits,” Angie Stocklin, co-founder and COO of Sunglass Warehouse, said, “Sophia not only chronicles her impressive and inspirational journey, she also weaves in solid advice for young professionals.”

“The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary Keller. “In a world where multitasking and scope diversity is heralded, it comes with drawbacks. This book flips that concept on its ear and shows you the power of focusing on just one thing. It teaches the importance of ignoring all the things you could do and work on the thing that you should do,” said Camille Jamerson, CEO of boutique management consulting firm CDJ & Associates.

“Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You” by John Warrillow. Business coach Ben Brooks said he learned four things from this book: “1) The importance of building a business that has book value/could be sold 2) The need to make your business less dependent on you 3) How to reduce complexity and create more repetition, thus more profitable offerings 4) Always be working to make sure you’re not a prisoner in your own business.”

“Managing By The Numbers: A Commonsense Guide To Understanding And Using Your Company’s Financials” by Chuck Kremer and Ron Rizzuto. “It’s not that I don’t or didn’t understand accounting, but this book helps you dig deeper and makes it so much easier to understand everything,” said Ben Walker, founder and CEO of Transcription Outsourcing, LLC.

“Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business” by Gino Wickman. “This was a game-changing book for me and opened my eyes to the fundamentals needed to execute and grow a business” said Jeff Ellman, co-founder and president of relocation management software firm UrbanBound.

“At Left Brain Turn Right” by Jack Canfield. “[This book] is a fantastic exploration of how our brain works for success. The left side of the book was written for the left brained person and the right side of the book was for the right brained person. He tells the story of a person becoming a millionaire in two different ways, something that any brain can latch onto for success,” said Nedalee Thomas, CEO of ChansonWater.com.

“Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. “I have found that ‘Made to Stick’ really helped me with my idea formation and making process,” said Dana Marlowe, principal partner of Accessibility Partners, LLC. “[It] helped me break down ideas to their core, or simplicity, as they call it. It is a realistic book that offers sound advice — anyone can benefit from it. They have great anecdotes that are more applicable than some of the ones from the more preachy business books.”

“The One Minute Manager” by Kenneth Blanchard, PhD, and Spencer Johnson, MD. “It helped me be more efficient as a manager, and it’s a very direct, to the point book,” said Georgette Blau, president and founder of On Location Tours.

“The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton M. Christensen. “This is a great read to help stay ahead of the game. It doesn’t let you get too comfortable with your business practices,” said Amanda Henke, founder of Annie B’s Caramels.

“Mastering the Rockefeller Habits: What You Must Do to Increase the Value of Your Growing Firm” by Verne Harnish. “It taught me lessons in management that are apparently glaringly obvious, yet, 90 percent of us don’t do them,” said Grainne Kelly of inflatable car booster seat company Bubble Bum. This book was updated in 2014 and retitled “Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It…and Why the Rest Don’t.”

“The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. “I love this book less for the tactics and stratagem, and more for the relentless effort, deep study, and almost scientific regard that’s required to gain ground in your key markets and beat your competition once and for all,” said J. Colin Petersen, president and CEO of IT outsourcing firm J- I.T. Outsource.

“Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” by Jeff Sutherland and J.J. Sutherland. “[This book] teaches techniques for managing projects efficiently while staying on time and on budget. I love this book because it’s given me practical ways to help my team. For instance, I schedule quick periodic meetings with key players throughout a project. These built-in meetings prevent micromanaging because I always know how far along the project is, and they give me the opportunity to ask how I can help,” said Vladimir Gendelman, founder and CEO of Company Folders.

“Choice Theory” by William Glasser, MD. “It taught me a lot about how to incentivize my employees (or anyone I work with in a professional setting) so they are engaged and interested in improving product/performance/efficiency via choice and not force. It meshes well with my belief in giving ownership to everyone involved in the process and helped me define business goals for interpersonal relationships,” said Jenny Dorsey, managing partner at Jenny Dorsey Consulting and chef and co-founder at I Forgot It’s Wednesday.

blue ocean strategy“Blue Ocean Strategy” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne. “Lesson learned is how to look at our business as different from the competition and make the competition irrelevant. It’s a great way to celebrate the things we do best and really appreciate and recognize our uniqueness,” said Tamara Stenn, owner of KUSIKUY, a fair trade social enterprise in the sustainable clothing industry.

“Million Dollar Maverick” by Alan Weiss. “ It provides the permission, perspective, and tools that allow business owners to carve out their own path instead of being confined to existing roads – less traveled or not. It’s a pure shot of self-esteem and I walked away thinking that I’m not as crazy as people who have jobs for a living want to make me out to be,” said Bill Sanders, principal and senior consultant of digital project and management consultancy
Roebling Strauss, Inc.

“The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism” by Olivia Fox Cabane. “Although the title makes it sound like a superficial “how to be liked” book, the contents delve deep into mastering your personal psychology for maximum confidence and effectiveness in your behavior. It gave me insights into how I interact with my clients, and why, and tools for improving those interactions in ways that help me to generate more leads, and close more deals,” said Christopher Hawkins, owner and managing consultant at web development firm Cogeian Systems.

“The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey. “There was one particular chapter that stuck with me: “Sharpen Your Saw,” said Travis Bennett, managing director of website building firm Studio Digita. “In retrospect, this was probably why I chose this book in the first place, as I felt like my business wasn’t moving forward, and I wasn’t staying on the cutting edge with the latest tech or insights. My biggest takeaway from the book was the importance of “continual learning,” because an entrepreneur who remains static is doomed to fail. Covey also recommends spending an hour each day learning something new (i.e. “Sharpening Your Saw”), a practice I’ve only just started to follow.”

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