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Ask HN: What's the best first business book for a programmer?
65 points by techiferous on Nov 18, 2009 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments
I'm a programmer and I don't know much about business but I'd like to start my own venture. What are some good resources (books, websites, etc.) for learning the basics of business?

Thank you. I have that one already and it's top-notch.

The E-Myth (the E stands for Entrepreneur): http://www.amazon.com/E-Myth-Revisited-Small-Businesses-Abou...

Derek Sivers has a good collection of his notes (and many other biz-centric books) here: http://sivers.org/book/EMythRevisited

His opening line nails it: "Everything needs to be a system. Think of your business as a franchise prototype. You should be able to hand the "how-to" manual to just anyone, to do it as good as you."

> The E-Myth (the E stands for Entrepreneur): http://www.amazon.com/E-Myth-Revisited-Small-Businesses-Abou....

A thousand times yes. I make everyone I'm going to work with read it before working with them. It really gets to the heart of what businesses do right and wrong, and how to build an organization correctly based on systems instead of based on personality. Very important.

Absolutely yes. Really makes a huge difference to think about things in the Entrepreneur/Technician/Manager frame, and things make a lot more sense.

I really think you might be best to start off with something like 'Small business kit for dummies' - not because I think you're a dummy, but because you say you don't know much about business. Instead of books about motivation, leadership, negotiation and so on, you probably need something more down to earth - what your legal options and obligations are, basic accounting and economics, contracts and ownership of intellectual property, and so forth.

Not to say the other things aren't valuable or important, but it's often the seemingly obvious stuff that can end up causing you expensive headaches. The Small business Administration (www.sba.gov) is not that focused towards startups (because on a national scale, a 'small business' is anything with < 500 employees) but they do have all sorts of handy information on their website, and it's all free.

I would go for 4 steps to the epiphany, it gives you practical steps to follow to avoid that process of sitting down as a programmer and deciding magically what everyone wants. (then being dissapointed when you spend x time coding it and finding out they dont)

Three of my favorites are How Much Should I Charge Don't remember the author, but she reinforces the point that most small businesses are undercharging for their product/service and shows how to solve the problem.

The E-Myth Revisited kinda starts where the above one ends in that it points out the tragic flaw in many entrepreneurs: they want to practice their "craft" to the detriment of the actual business.

Growing A Business my copy of this disappeared over 10 years ago, but I still consider it one of the most important business books I've ever read.

And pick up one of the many editions of The Portable MBA at a used bookstore. Good, basic foundations in Finance, Accounting, Marketing and HR.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In ISBN-10: 0140157352 ISBN-13: 978-0140157352

And when you are ready for something more in depth but also research-based, go with The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator: http://www.amazon.com/Mind-Heart-Negotiator-Leigh-Thompson/d...

Getting to Yes and Mind and Heart were the two required texts for a class I had on negotiation. Both are excellent books.

Jeff Bezos once said his favorite business book is Built to Last (http://www.amazon.com/Built-Last-Successful-Visionary-Compan...). You can still hear him use language from that book in recent interviews.

Nobody mentioned 'How to Get Rich' by Felix Dennis yet? It is an absolute must!

I'd recommend "Crossing the Chasm" by Geoffrey A. Moore. It almost perfectly describes the lifecycle and challenges faced by the two software-product-based startups that I've worked for.

+1 The examples are a bit dated but this book still nails it!

If you are a philosophy person like me, this one is for you:

Classic Drucker: Wisdom from Peter Drucker from the Pages of Harvard Business Review.

It shows you what and how a pioneer in the field of business thinks of business itself. Learn from his thinking and learning pattern. They are just like common sense for business (like DStruc and Algo in programming).

I haven't read all of it yet, but so far Peter Drucker's "Innovation and Entrepreneurship" is an excellent read.

It talks about how to think differently, to turn situations to your advantage -- beneficially refactoring your views.

It's not really a starter kit, but I don't think I'd want to operate a business without having read it.


This is the best business book I've ever read. Buffett is methodical, implacable, and brilliant -- but too smart to overthink anything.

The nice thing about Buffett is that being a little more like him will make you a little more money (unlike emulating, e.g., Gates -- if you want to be like Gates, you have to be completely ruthless and smart; 90% won't do.)

What kind of business are you interested in?

If internet/tech... read TechCrunch and Mashable. Watch "This Week in Startups" by Jason Calacanis.

Watch some picthes from TC50. (Click the logos to see their pitch): http://www.techcrunch50.com/2009/

Business Week and Money magazines are decent, but less tech related.

That said, you'll still learn the most by experience. That is, trying things, making mistakes, and learning from them. There is a learning curve involved, but if you have the determination you'll be fine.

Good Luck

I second this. In addition, +1 for Eric Sink.

Also check out "The Knack" by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham.

In the end, though, no book can prepare you for starting up,

I'm going to go ahead and recommend "4 Hour work week" by Tim Ferris, BUT - you have to take that book with a big grain of salt. Some of the stuff he's talking about is fluff, and he's gotten some fair criticism over it - but he has some invaluable, very practical advice on automation of certain areas of a business, passive income streams, etc. Personally, I found it very helpful in moving from "full time job, but want to start my own business" stage to geting there and doing it full time.

Great question.

Firstly, the more I've gotten involved in business over the years, the more I've come to realise that for any kind of sale requiring human contact, personal relationships are absolutely paramount.

This is fairly straightforward, but it bears repeating. People will buy from people who they like. In a situation where a customer can choose between Vendor A and Vendor B who have similar products and prices, they will choose the likable Vendor A who is friendly and who they enjoy getting a call from. This is 100 times more powerful than Vendor B who has 3 additional features that are really great, but who has made no attempt to establish any kind of relationship with the customer.

As such, the first book I would recommend would be the classic "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.

Once you've got a handle on that, "Ready, Fire, Aim" by Michael Masterson talks about the value of moving quickly, selling quickly, and figuring out the finer details as you're moving along. This was invaluable for me, since I used to want to have everything pretty much perfect before moving. This was negative because it took a long time to get anything to market, and also because theory rarely survives direct contact with reality - the adjustment period in the first stage of operations is critical to the overall success of the project. This book also has plenty of enjoyable personal stories and business anecdotes that make it very readable.

I second "Made to Stick" as a great study on what makes things popular, and how they become popular.

It's really hard to narrow down more book recommendations actually - I've read hundreds of books over the years on a variety of topics. What I found I needed to do, was continuously seek out good books and learn about topics as they arose.

Generally when it comes to book learning and business, I would recommend this : figure out your basic plan, and get started.

Once you encounter your first problem, seek help (ideally from both a mentor and some books).

For instance, you've built a product, now you want to sell it. You hop on Google Ads and put down $400. You've got a solid click through rate, and 2 weeks later, zero sales.

Time to learn about marketing. Seek out some good marketing books (Your Marketing Sucks is very good), buy them, read them, and ask your mentor about them.

Now you're making some sales, and a Sales guy approaches you. He bought your product, and he likes it. He's interested to become your salesperson. Next you need to find some good books on negotiation (Getting To Yes). Of course, you're also going to need to get some advice from a lawyer or a mentor to ensure that the deal you do is fair and economically sustainable.

Different books will provide all sorts of different benefits and insights depending on the stage of your business and your level of experience. Book selection should be a continual process.

Hope this is helpful and best of luck. Please feel free to contact me if you need anything else.

Thank you for taking the time to write this up. It was very helpful!

My introduction to the way that businesses work was an "Engineering Economics" course. It is about how accounting works, i.e. "financial accounting" vs. "management accounting", the time value of money, what the numbers on a quarterly report mean, &c. If you find a course syllabus online you can see what topics are covered, and a find textbook.

Also when I was seeking this type of knowledge, I read chapters 2,3,4 of http://pmbook.ce.cmu.edu/ , which I found by looking at a MIT opencourseware course on project management. The textbook is about construction but the important aspects transfer to anything.

I think the most important thing is to learn the nuts and bolts. When you get comfortable with all that, then you can start to think at a higher level.

Guy Kawasaki's books are pretty ace for learning the 'silicon valley' style of business, big picture, etc. I think the first real book I picked up was something more down to earth though like the Beermat Entrepreneur (UK-specific) that outlined the whole process quite well from what to incorporate as to accounting and sales.

One more book for the list .....

The Business of Software: What Every Manager, Programmer, and Entrepreneur Must Know to Thrive and Survive in Good Times and Bad

Author: Michael A. Cusumano

ISBN-10: 074321580X ISBN-13: 978-0743215800


Anything by Eric Sink

Founders at Work

Growing a Business by Paul Hawken

"Bootstrap" by Kenneth L. Hess and "The Knack" by Norm Brodsky and Bo Burlingham.

Secrets of Consulting - Gerald Weinberg and 48 Rules of Power - Robert Greene

Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham ;)

Pick up a copy of the tried and true, "How To Win Friends & Influence People". The rest of the fad business books come and go, but this one is a great start to learn how to interact with people when you're trying to sell them on "something".

Here is the most important thing about the book. The basic motivation for all people is to feel important, you can influence people by making them feel important.

But also hint at your ability to withdraw that confidence in someone if they don't live up to your expectations. Talk up someone's abilities while showing your high hopes in them are conditional on their actions.

I would add "Influence" by Cialdini under this category .

for sales- frank bettger- How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling

I mention it as a comment of this- as frank regularly quotes this book

Most of the books I read are usually business profiles/bios of founders/companies.

1) iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business

2) The Google Story

3) The Perfect Store: Inside eBay

4) Paypal Wars

5) Barbarians at the Gate (not tech-related but one of the best business books of all time)

You might also like "The Qualcomm Equation" by Dave Mock. It is the story of a few engineers in San Diego who got together and used CDMA to transform the industry.

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