I’ve been an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction books for many years. I’ve also been a bootstrapping entrepreneur for several years. Because of this, I absolutely love reading business books. The thrill of learning something new and expanding my mind is exhilarating.
In this article, I want to discuss the five business books that I consider to be the best business books of all time. I’m talking the absolute best business books to read. Books that will make you want to own and operate a business. Books that will make you realize you’re not a failure because your business isn’t exploding. Books that cut through the crap and let you know that building, operating, and growing a business is freaking hard.
These books aren’t for people that want to get rich quick, build a unicorn startup in a few years, or hear one more nauseating story about a blogger in his shorts on the beach making 6 figures within 6 months.
These are the absolute best business books to read if you want to truly improve your understanding of business. If you want to understand different business models, this list is for you. If you feel that persistent action, not one-day events, build successful businesses than this list is for you. If you want to understand how to market your business better and faster by cutting out the 80% waste, this list is for you. If you’re interested in learning how to grow by creating customer traction using the bullseye method, or how to manage the emotional stress that can sink you and your business, then this is the list for you.
You get the point. If you’re serious about becoming a better business executive, owner, entrepreneur, or founder then you will love these books. Without further ado and in no particular order, let’s explore the top business books of all time.
The Art of Profitability
Learn 23 different profit patterns, or business designs to generate profits with a business
by Adrian Slywotzky
The Art of Profitability by Adrian Slywotzky
Adrian Slywotzky is possibly my favorite non-fiction author. I own almost all his business books, with this one being may favorite. I literally stumbled into this book several years ago. I was IT Manager at a manufacturer that purchased the assets of a bankrupted competitor outside Pittsburgh, PA. The final weekend when I helped crews clean out the remaining assets we wanted, I was in the old owner / CEO’s office and stumbled onto a few of his books he never took home. This was one of them – it still has his name inside the front cover. I took it back to the hotel and immediately started reading it.
What a find.
Understanding Profit Patterns
Profit, or the money available to put in your pocket at the end of the day, is a big deal for business owners, entrepreneurs, and founders. That’s why we have businesses – to make money. The Art of Profitability by Adrian Slywotzky is a business novel that explains in story form 23 different profit patterns. These are essentially 23 different business designs, or ways to generate profit from your business.
As mentioned above, the profit patterns are given in the form of a story. Steve Gardner is a middle manager working for a large conglomerate that has lost its way. The company’s senior management makes many poor decisions and profits continue to shrink. Steve is very concerned about the future of the business and would like to help. He has a presentation coming up and wants to propose a meaningful way to generate growth and profit.
He enrolls the help of a consultant known as a profit guru named David Zhao. He meets with him throughout the book in what I call “profit training sessions” in which he guides Steve as he struggles to learn the different profit patterns, including how he can apply them to his troubled company.
A fantastic book and absolute must-have business book if you want to understand the various ways you can design a business to generate profits. The book being a business novel lends itself well to rereading too. I have read this book numerous times, always enjoying the story of digging into a company’s underbelly to understand how it generates cash.
The Millionare Fastlane
Build a business system that can scale without you in it
by MJ DeMarco
The Millionaire Fastlane by MJ DeMarco
I have an actual library at my house (maybe holds, just guessing 1,500 books and I have maybe 300 in it). A few years ago, for my birthday my wife bought me 10 business books. I loved the gift. After reviewing them for a few days, I placed them in a bookcase that holds books I haven’t yet read. Over the course of several weeks, I read through the 10 books. One of the last books I grabbed from the shelf was The Millionaire Fastlane by MJ DeMarco.
This is because I owned several rental properties before selling them after 15 years. I’ve also worked on several online startups over the same 15 years. I’ve failed many times and had a few wins. Let’s just say, I know money doesn’t come cheap. You must work your butt off to get it.
Because of this, I wasn’’t real interested in reading another “get rich quick”” book from a guru touting their own junk while providing no value to those wanting to know how to build a real business and make money.
Boy what a surprise I got.
MJ DeMarco is brilliant. Simply brilliant.
Live in the Fast Lane, Not the Sidewalk or Slow Lane
The Millionaire Fastlane explains how there are three paths we can take – the sidewalk, the slow lane, or the fast lane. It further explains how society works hard to keep people in the first two tracts and out of the Fastlane. “Your business will never work”, “We can put you in this brand new car for only $400/month for 7 years”, “Go pay $100K and get your MBA”, never mind you’ll still need to have a job for 40 years and be subservient to your employer and worse yet your boss.
You get the point – we’re educated from an early age to take the sidewalk or slow lane. We’ve even been duped into believing the Fastlane isn’t achievable for “normal” people. This book explains that that’s all BS. You can take the fastlane, you can get rich fast, and you can change your life – it just takes hard work and persistence.
Let’s look at each of the paths.
People on the sidewalk blow through their money. They have no savings, consider lottery tickets and casinos their best shot of becoming rich, and buy $30K cars on their $15/hr. salary. They have lots of expensive toys and consider them a representation of their wealth. Sidewalkers aren’t interested in learning anything past their childhood schooling, they think credit is a magical tool that allows them to buy things now, and their entire wealth consists of their job and the paycheck they’ll get next week.
Harsh, but true words. We all know people like those described above. Who knows, you might be one of them. People on the sidewalk have no chance of ever becoming wealthy. Even if they get extra money, they’ll spend or lose it very, very fast.
The Slow Lane
Slowlaners are people many would consider normal, successful people. They trade their time for money; thus, their job generates their income. Their wealth equals their income plus their investments. They invest their discretionary money in their 401K or savings account. They think debt is the root of all evil and avoid it at all costs.
They think money is more valuable than time. They’re sold the dream that hard work and time make you wealthy. Go to college, get a master’s degree, get a good job, work hard for someone else for many years, invest your money, and let compound interest build your retirement.
What they’re not told is that the college degree will cost you $200K and take 20 years to pay off. That the financial markets or economy might crash exactly when you are wanting to retire. Or that compound interest can indeed make you wealthy – by the time you’re 70.
We all know a lot of slowlaners, and quite frankly most are very respectful people. The problem isn’t that someone chooses to drive in the slow lane. The problem is when people who wish to be wealthy are duped by society into believing the slow lane will make them wealthy – before they’re 60 or 70 years old. If you want to build wealth before old age, doing it in the slow lane is very difficult.
The Fast Lane
Finally, we get to the fastlane. People in the fastlane understand that money is abundant while time is finite. If they want more money, they trade valuable products or services for it. Because time is limited and extremely valuable, fastlaners create systems, or businesses that can generate products or services that are valuable to other people. After the initial building, these systems continue to generate money and don’t require their time.
Fastlaners never stop learning, but often learn on their own. Instead of going $100K in debt for an advanced college education, they educate themselves and use their debt as a tool to accelerate the building of their business. They believe in pursuing their dreams and not settling. They understand it’s their responsibility to control their wealth. Their income is the cash, or profits generated from their business plus the asset value of the business (the multiplier) when they sell.
If you are a small business owner, founder, or entrepreneur, or all three BUY THIS BOOK. Building a business that provides real value to other people will make you wealthy, but you need to get it right. You want to build a business that can scale very large without requiring your time.
Not all businesses fit this mold, and this book does a nice job of explaining that. For example, if you buy a Subway location, you’re never going to generate $5mm a year in revenue from that Subway location. You would have to buy more locations. But, if you build an online ecommerce business that sells home and garden products, that business absolutely can go from $5 to $5mm in revenue.
Bottom line, build a business that is highly automated, generates cash, and is in a large market.
Find your channel that drives explosive customer growth.
by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares
Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares
How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth Traction is a book about finding the correct distribution channels to acquire customers, or traction as the book calls it. There are countless channels, or methods to find customers, and choosing the correct one for your business is critical to its success. Many business owners, entrepreneurs, and founders use the wrong channels, test to many channels at once, or simply don’t understand what a channel is. This book tackles the problem by listing the most common customer channels and explaining how to evaluate them using a framework they call the bullseye method. The process results in finding the one channel that allow you to experience explosive customer growth, or traction.
TIP: We have two in-depth articles relating to customer traction and channels. The articles are based off knowledge we learned from reading this book.
- 19 Customer Traction Channels for Growing Your Startup
- What is the best way for my startup to get traction?
The Bullseye Framework
The bullseye framework is a process used to find the core distribution channel for gaining customers. Examples of channels include SEO, offline advertising, business development, content marketing, etc. The book covers roughly 20 channels. Within each of those channels are varying ways to acquire customers. For example, if pursuing the offline advertising channel, you can use newspaper ads, billboards, TV commercials, or any number of other methods.
Let’s take a quick look at how the bullseye framework works.
The Outer Ring
The outer ring holds all the channels you think might work, or acquire customers, for your business. For example, maybe you think the offline advertising, business development, publicity, email marketing, social media, content marketing, and search engine optimization (SEO) channels have potential. You would place these in the outer ring. You then run quick, inexpensive tests with each channel to get a better feel for their potential as traction drivers.
The Middle Ring
From the outer ring, you whittle down the possible channels to a few you want to test further. Ideally, these are the channels that showed the most promise from your preliminary analysis and testing. Next, run slightly more in-depth tests on these channels. This could mean spending more money to test the channels, but not necessarily. If you are pursuing content marketing for example, you might create 20 articles for your blog instead of the 5 you created in your preliminary testing.
The Inner Ring (Bullseye)
The inner ring represents your core channel. This is the channel that progressed through the outer and middle rings by showing real promise in terms of acquiring customers at the volume needed and at a cost that makes sense.
Once you find your core channel, you want to focus extremely hard on it. Don’t spread your resources then by pursuing multiple channels. Use all your time, energy, and money to invest in your core channel. Once that channel is saturated or your growth slows, repeat the bullseye process to find your next channel. As your company grows, you will often need to pursue different channels to continue growth.
I would say if you are struggling to get customers or grow your business, then this book is for you. But quite frankly, even if your business is booming, this is a must read. The book explains may channels in modest depth as well as the process of working through them. This is a subject as businesspeople we can never learn enough of – how to get more customers.
The 1-Page Marketing Plan
Cut out all the waste of a traditional marketing plan.
by Allan Dib
The 1-Page Marketing Plan by Allan Dib
With the Traction book teaching you how to find customers, this book teachs you how to get customers. The 1-Page Marketing Plan by Allan Dib is all about eliminating waste by developing a plan to focus your marketing efforts. It explains how using a simple 1-page marketing plan is paramount to using the more thorough, traditional marketing plans that large businesses use.
The 1-page plan is called a canvas and has 9 boxes with 3 boxes in section. The sections are Prospects, Leads, and Customers. Let’s take a brief look at each section.
Prospects are people who don’t know your business exists. This section of your marketing plan is executed before the sales process begins. In this part, you use the three boxes to determine:
- Who my target market is?
- What is my message to my target market?
- What channel will I use to reach them?
Answering the above questions gives you a subplan of how to set your marketing plan in motion. You must create prospects, or people that know you exist, before you can develop them into leads.
Leads are people that have shown interest in your product or service. To turn a prospect into a lead, you need to find a way to capture their information. This is so you can contact them, nurture them, and begin the sales process. Below are the three questions / boxes on your canvas that cover this section.
- How do I capture leads?
- What system do I use to nurture leads?
- What is my sales conversion process?
If you execute your sales process and the Lead purchases your product or service, they become a customer. The marketing process doesn’t end when you’ve made a sale. Nurturing customers so they become loyal, repeat-purchasing fans of the business is very important.
As mentioned above, customers are people that purchased your product or service. The final three boxes of the 1-page marketing plan cover customers, specifically how to convert them from one-time purchasers to repeating-buying, raving fans of the business.
- How do I deliver a world-class experience?
- How do I increase customer lifetime value?
- How do I orchestrate and stimulate referrals?
It’s been proven that finding and selling to new customers is much more expensive than selling to existing customers. That’s why this part of the marketing plan is every bit as important as the first two sections. Once you get a customer, don’t take them for granted.
Like all these books I’ve rated as my best business books of all time, The 1-Page Marketing Plan is very heavy on substance. This book is not big and for good reason – every single page is packed with practical, actionable advice on how to build and execute a market plan that gets customers.
I cannot recommend it enough. Kevin Sims, Menyu Cofounder also loves the book and wrote a very nice in-depth article on it which can be read by clicking the article’s title below. Enjoy.
Good to Great
Why some companies make the, while others don’t.
by Jim Collins
Good to Great by Jim Collins
Good to Great by Kim Collins explains why some companies make the leap from good to great, while others don’t. This was the first book I read that made me aware of my major flaw when starting businesses – my energy was always diffused. I was not focused. I would be working on three startups at a time (The Millionaire Fastlane above was the second book that made me aware of this fatal flaw).
Focus is the key subject of this book. Great leaders turn good companies into great companies by exercising intense focus using extreme discipline. The book does a fantastic job explaining this principle by using what it calls the flywheel.
The flywheel is a repeatable set of processes that gain momentum as they’re executed. As you become focused and start to execute your plan through intense discipline, your results start to validate your plan and the flywheel starts to spin faster. As your results keep further validating your plan, the flywheel starts to spin at intense levels, propelling your business from good to great.
The flywheel is built on three concepts. Let’s briefly touch on each.
The first concept is disciplined people. In order to be great, you need leadership that knows exactly what they want. This means they are focused and will not waver at the first roadblock that stands in their way. With the leadership sure of themselves, they begin sending their message through the ranks.
At this point, the entire business knows the goals and priorities. People will recognize if someone sends mixed signals or is insincere, so leadership must continue to be extremely focused and disciplined in reaching their goals, so their people stay as much.
The Hedge Hog Concept is used to remain focused and apply disciplined thought. It’s known as such from a story about a hedgehog and fox. The fox sees the world as very complex and knows many things. The hedge hog sees the world as very simple and only knows one thing – how to protect itself against the fox. Each day the fox hatches a plan to kill the hedgehog, and each day he fails. The hedgehog wonders when the fox will ever learn and quit wasting its time.
A nice fable to illustrate a great point in business – your business will never be great, and quite likely will fail altogether, if you are not intensely focused on your single mission. As mentioned above, I’ve learned this the hard way, but it seems obvious once pointed out. Starting, building, or running a business is crazy hard. How can we possibly succeed by having our thoughts and actions scattered across many conflicting goals and purposes? The answer is, we can’t.
Focused leadership and thought are great, but worthless without disciplined action. Many, many businesses fail because they don’t understand that action is what makes the flywheel go around. Once you get a leader that understands the importance of focus and the understands what they are focusing on, they and their people must execute – repeatedly.
Think about it – nothing every happens if people don’t act. This is true in business and personal life. If we don’t eat less and exercise, we won’t lose weight – even if we put a great plan together. If we put a fantastic, focused business strategy together to grow sales by 50% but don’t execute any of the daily, it won’t happen. Once your strategy is in place, put an action plan together and repeat its execution every day to ensure your starting your flywheel moving faster and faster.
If You Don’t Own These Books, You Need to Now
It was difficult for me to pick my top business books of all time from so many great business books written over decades, even centuries. But at this point, I truly believe the above books are the absolute best business books of all time. Whether you are a business owner, executive, entrepreneur, startup founder, or simply someone that appreciates business, you must read these books.
If you don’t own them already, you need to. Buy them, read them, reread them, and keep them. I did and they are the best investment I ever made – I truly love this collection and was more than happy to trade my money for them.