50 Books That Transformed My Business and My Life – Part 1
This Article is written by JOEL GASCOIGNE CEO of Buffer.
As a teenager I had a period of many years where I stopped reading books completely. I even remember a time where I couldn’t imagine reading books at all. After I graduated and started to be interested in business and startups, I realized the immense power and knowledge contained within books, and I started reading more and more. Today, I can’t imagine even a couple of days passing by without some time spent reading.
As an introvert, I’m a reflective person. Sometimes that can be a challenge, since in a startup you really need to get shit done. At the same time, I see it as one of my strengths. I will sometimes go on a walk just to ponder what’s currently going on in the company and the things we could improve. Sometimes it’s my reflectiveness that I find helps us to untangle some of the most complex challenges we find ourseles confronted with.
I’ve found that due to this natural desire to reflect, I love to read books and think about what we could try to apply at Buffer. On top of this, at Buffer we give all new team members (and family members) a Kindle and have an unlimited Kindle books program (no limits and no questions asked).
Here are some of the books which have had the biggest impact on Buffer and me personally.
1. How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie
“In such technical lines as engineering, about 15 percent of one’s financial success is due to one’s technical knowledge and about 85 percent is due to skill in human engineering – to personality and the ability to lead people.” – Dale Carnegie
I first read How to Win Friends and Influence People perhaps a year before I started Buffer, around 5 years ago. It instantly had an impact for me, both on how I wanted to improve my character and how I wanted to run a company.
A lot of what Carnegie proposes doesn’t seem all that profound, and can even seem like common sense. Simple things like “don’t criticize, condemn or complain,” “smile,” “become genuinely interested in other people,” and “ask questions instead of giving direct orders.” What I’ve found is that it is incredibly difficult to put into practice. On top of that, this is not about a few tricks to get ahead, as Carnegie puts it, this is “a new way of life.”
For myself personally, I have become so convinced that the How to Win Friendsway of life is the one I want to live, that I now try to read this book every few months, both on Kindle and via audiobook, in order that I can completely engrain the principles and they can become who I am. I’m up to around 12 reads of it so far, and I don’t imagine ever stopping re-reading.
When I introduced my co-founder Leo to the book in the earliest few months of Buffer, he too was hooked and we had endless conversations and discussions around the stories and principles. He helped me grow as a person much more than I could alone, due to his excitement and interest of the How to Win Friendsway. The result of this has been that we have based a large number of the values within the Buffer culture directly on the principles Carnegie proposes.
2. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t by Jim Collins
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end— which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” – Jim Collins
Good to Great is one of the first transformative books I read as Buffer started to grow beyond a product, and into a company. This happened when we were around 7 people and I started to feel like we needed to think about “culture”, a concept that I previously had no real way to understand apart from conceptually.
As the team grew beyond 7, I noticed that team dynamics came much more into play, and we couldn’t assume that everyone knows everything anymore. In addition, I realized that the people we work with affect us immensely.
Good to Great helped me to understand how important culture is for building a great, lasting company that has an impact on the world. It started to become clear that we already had a culture, and it was evolving. The book helped me to understand thatculture can be crafted by choice rather than rather than simply observed:
“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.” – Jim Collins
Perhaps one of the most difficult yet crucial learnings for me from Good to Great was that there will be people whose values don’t align with the culture we create, and who will do better and thrive in a different company rather than staying on as part of Buffer. Asking these people to leave is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn how to do, and something that has made Buffer what it is today.
3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
“When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” – Paulo Coelho
Reading The Alchemist the first time was a very liberating experience for me. It helped me to dream big and keep following my gut, and not settle – which is what the story, about a shepherd boy named Santiago, is all about. It’s a simple and short book and has stook in my mind ever since I read it.
The Alchemist conveys a powerful idea: that the world will help you if you just choose to follow your dream, that often times our upbringing and environment lead us to believe dreams are impossible to realize, and that it won’t be a smooth journey and that is fine.
“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting” – Paulo Coelho
If you ever happen to find yourself becoming skeptical or feeling that you’re not enjoying what you do, I can recommend reading The Alchemist.
4. Joy At Work: A Revolutionary Approach to Fun on the Job by Dennis Bakke
“Leaders who want to increase joy and success in the workplace must learn to take most of their personal satisfaction from the achievements of the people they lead, not from the power they exercise.” – Dennis Bakke
Joy At Work provides great insight into the journey of Dennis Bakke and AES, the company he co-founded. Bakke and his partner Roger Sant started the company and strived to live to a core value of fun. It is a fascinating read in terms of their definition of fun (making important decisions and being given trust, not ping pong tables and snacks), and also in how difficult they found it to run the company unconventionally in order to be true to their values.
AES reached over 40,000 employees all across the world and they created a significantly different corporate structure than many organizations of today. At Buffer, AES and Bakke have been a big inspiration for us in staying true to our own values.
A large part of the process of staying true to the value of fun for Bakke was for him to be a sevant leader and to help individuals in the company make as many important decisions as possible. They devised the Decision Maker method of making decisions as a team, where the person closest to the problem (rather than a manger) makes key decisions. He also wrote a fable called The Decision Maker around this concept, which I have also included in this list.
5. The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Tony Schwartz & Jim Loehr
“Because energy capacity diminishes both with overuse and with underuse, we must balance energy expenditure with intermittent energy renewal.” – Tony Schwartz & Jim Loehr
The Power of Full Engagement was one of the first books that helped me to start to understand myself, and to work to embrace how I feel and be intuitive. The key concept in the book is that you should be either fully engaged in a task, or fully disengaged and finding renewal. For example, finding the natural dips within your day and thinking about rituals and changes you could make. Maybe you go for a 20-minute walk at 3pm when you naturally find yourself less productive.
The other thing this book revealed to me was the idea of having 4 key types of energy: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. We should work on each of these separately, and with each we can expand our capacity by stretching ourselves and then renewing. It uses the analogy of muscle growth to describe this a lot, and argues that the same approach can be used for our other types of energy.
For me, reading this book triggered many changes over time to my routine. I started exercising almost every day, and I tried a ritual of an evening walk to wind down before sleeping. All these experiments have helped me to feel happier and more productive, and many of them I have kept for several years now, with compounding benefits as a result.
6. The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works by Ricardo Semler
“For a company to excel, employees must be reassured that self-interest, not the company’s, is their foremost priority. We believe an employee who puts himself first will be motivated to perform.” – Ricardo Semler
Ricardo Semler took over his father’s business, Semco, in 1980 under the condition that he could change it completely. On his first day as CEO, he fired 60% of all top managers. Since then he has introduced a wide range of unconventional practices, such as having no official working hours, employees choosing their own salaries, and having no vision (instead wanting employees to find the way using their instinct).
For me, The Seven-Day Weekend opened my eyes and helped me to question every business practice that exists today. Semler aimed to operate as a ‘servant leader’ and made a conscious effort to make zero decisions himself.
7. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
“Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.” – Patrick Lencioni
A leadership fable about a failing Silicon Valley tech company who brings in a new CEO. Kathryn attempts to unite a highly dysfunctional team and through his narrative Lencioni explains the five key ways that teams struggle, and how to overcome the hurdles.
I read this book at a key point in time where we were just discovering that we needed to put our values into words and shape the culture of Buffer. The book helped to clarify that through culture, provided we lived it, we could solve problems of trust and enable much better teamwork within the company.
8. Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh
“Our philosophy has been to take most of the money we would have spent on paid advertising and invest it into customer service and the customer experience instead, letting our customers do the marketing for us through word of mouth.” – Tony Hsieh
Zappos has always been a huge inspiration for us at Buffer. I clearly remember watching a video interview Tony Hsieh had where he was asked what one thing he would do sooner if he could start Zappos again. He replied “put values in place on day 1.” We had already started Buffer, but we established our values shortly after that when we were 7 people.
On top of their focus on culture and values, Zappos has also provided us with inspiration for making half of our vision “to set the bar for great customer support.” We have always had a large happiness team compared to the ratios other companies have, and we find great joy in aiming to surprise and wow customers with how quickly and caringly we respond to Tweets and emails.
9. Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston
“Starting a startup is a process of trial and error. What guided the founders through this process was their empathy for the users. They never lost sight of making things that people would want.” – Jessica Livingston
I read Founders at Work in the earliest few months of Buffer, before I had managed to drop my freelance work which I was doing on the side to pay the bills before our revenues grew. It was inspirational and practical at the same time, and laid out very clearly the paths that many of the biggest tech successes took to reach their prominence.
10. Do More Faster: TechStars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup by Brad Feld & David Cohen
“Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something you’ve created until it’s out there. That means every moment you’re working on something without it being in the public arena, it’s actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world.” – Brad Feld & David Cohen
There is so much great content packed into this book across all aspects of a start: ideas, execution, culture, hiring, firing, fundraising, product, metrics, incorporation, work-life balance. It is a book I can highly recommend if you’re interested in or are getting started with a startup. Brad Feld and David Cohen are super smart and have a lot of experience, and it shows.
I especially loved the chapter titled “If you want money, ask for advice.” It’s something I’ve tried to apply ever since reading the book. I’ve found that genuinely seeking advice is often more productive and leads to more opportunities than asking for money or a partnership or a sale.