Startup founders: books let your mind travel without moving your feet

Sunday was a day of sorting my bookshelves out (again!) and then a BBQ. Yes, the traditional cavalcade of woefully overdone sausages and dangerously underdone chicken legs. The glorious chaos of inexpert barbecue chefery, a reluctant heat only rescued by squirting a deluge of lighter fluid unadvisedly across a rack of uncooperative briquettes to create a fire and heat that for an instant, threatens to scorch my eyebrows.

As the coals began to flame and a few exploratory sausages were sent to a fiery grave, I started to compile my list of must reads for startup founders from my collection clean up in the morning. With the grill hitting that minuscule window of just the right temperature, I had another IPA and slapped on the lamb chops, marinated overnight in red wine, and went back to my list.

After some favourable Trip Advisoresque reviews from the gathered throng, with the ashes cooling I optimistically turned a couple of baked potatoes wrapped in silver foil which nobody wants, and no one will eat. The art of the BBQ is going low and slow, but I haven’t really mastered it yet, I still cook too fast. But I enjoy the relaxed nature of eating outdoors, and if your face, hands and shirt don’t get messy while eating BBQ, then you’re doing it all wrong.

But back to curating my must-read list for startup founders. There are things that stick with you from school, and for me, one of those was being read to by a teacher who was passionate about books. Mr Van Sutchland, a giant Dutchman with a ginger beard, was that teacher. A master craftsman in the art of storytelling, my most indelible memory from primary school is him reading The Hobbit to the class. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. Bilbo Baggins and Tolkien were just the start.

Thanks to my mum and dad, I could read by the age of four, making books important. Even when I wandered through the bookless wilderness of my late-teens, where playing rugby, live music and collecting records were the dominant hobbies, even after the love of them had been decimated by stark A-level texts (retrospective: it turns out with hindsight they were actually really good), at university the library was my second home, and not just because it was warmer than my student flat.

I loved the tranquillity and ambiance of the university library, an island of hope in a vast sea of ignorance. My three years made me appreciate that books are the perfect companion, sometimes a cure for loneliness, they can always be our very closest friends. Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships. Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you are not. In some books you meet one remarkable person. Some books are medicine, some are puzzles, some are journeys, but at the end of each you are not the same person you were at the beginning.

When Amazon developed their early recommendation engine, they realised I was a book collector, and I bought so many. I piled the books around me, building what my wife called ‘a library for life’ because there were that many unread. Then for a few years I was a Kindle kid, taking an entire library on a journey was convenient beyond comprehension, but I missed the tactile experience of holding a book, texture of paper, and scribbling notes in the margin was not the same with digital note taking. I returned a few years ago to paper books, and jettisoned Amazon, instead I now live in the independent bookshop network, and fortunately in north Wales, most towns have one, a beacon of comfort, excitement curated by a passionate founder and owner.

Independent bookshops have had their fair share of ongoing challenges, from competing for the attention of book readers from streaming digital entertainment to the competition from the chain bookstores that offer cheaper prices, to the assault from online retailers, e-book devices and audio books. But the fightback is on. Indie bookshops, together with artisan bakeries, local coffee shops and micro-breweries are success stories in the best tradition of David v Goliath and are thriving. For me, local bookshops are anchors for our high streets and communities. They are as much a cabinet of curiosities as a place of business.

The indie bookshops are run by indefatigable entrepreneurs who responded to the challenges of lockdown, moving to web, phone and e-mail orders during months of closure and dispatching books to loyal customers, many of them personally delivered on foot and bike. Click-and-collect added new sales channels, events moved online, including book clubs and author events on Zoom.

Bookshops provide a sense of community and serendipity that cannot be replicated online. Shoppers in who come in for John Grisham’s latest novel might go out with Seashaken Houses: A lighthouse history from Eddystone to Fastnet by Tom Nancollas (a great book, by the way). The indie bookshops have curated an offering that overcomes the faceless behemoth of Amazon; they win the hearts, minds and wallets of book lovers. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel.

Indie bookshops got a head start in learning to compete with Amazon, which challenged booksellers before taking on the rest of the high street. But the indie bookshops now have a tech partner. is an online bookshop with a mission to financially support them. They aim to redirect readers from Amazon to its own online shop, where customers can either buy books directly or through virtual storefronts set up by individual bookshops. provides a more personalised alternative to Amazon and gives stores a generous cut of each sale – 30% – and shares 10% of profits equally among member stores. It’s the ‘Rebel Alliance’ to Amazon’s ‘Empire’. As more and more people buy their books online, is an easy, convenient way to get books and support indie bookshops at the same time. Fighting back against Amazon, Karl Marx’s adage – all that is solid is melting into air – has never seemed more apposite.  

When Elon Musk was asked how he learned to build rockets, he gave a simple and striking answer: I read books, and his success casts no doubt on the validity of his response. Whilst I don’t claim that by reading you’re going to build rockets, it does help us grow by vicarious learning, standing on the shoulders of giants. There some mind-boggling books that have inspired me over the years, so here are my top ten recommended books for founders this summer, the majority published in the last two years, all relevant whatever stage you’re at in your startup journey.

1. Trajectory: Startup: Ideation to Product/Market Fit by Dave Parker. This book helps to remove the mystery from the startup process. It offers a path from ideation to launch and revenue, with easy-to-follow tasks and timeframes in a practical guide. With five startups (two failed) and eight exits, Parker’s experience is practical and actionable.

2. Twelve and a Half: Leveraging the Emotional Ingredients Necessary for Business Success by Gary Vaynerchuk. Leaders have long relied on ‘hard skills’ to make decisions and ignored the importance of emotional intelligence. In this practical book, Gary explores the twelve human ingredients that have led to his success, and provides exercises to help you develop these traits yourself. He also shares what the ‘half’ is – the emotional ingredient of leadership he’s weakest at and makes the most effort to improve.

3. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. Grant argues that too many of us favour the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. We entertain opinions that make us feel good, rather than ideas that make us think hard. He suggests it’s time to challenge our thought processes and offers insightful strategies for improving critical thinking skills to foster a growth mindset.

4. Thinking the Future by Clem Sunter & Mitch Ilbury. This book is not about adaptability, but rather, about thriving in a dynamic world and business landscape. It leverages Aristotle to Pierre Wack, the first planner for Royal Dutch Shell. It shows how our mental models of the future (or lack thereof) impact our decision making today. I liked this book as it talks about how we make decisions and the impact of them.

5. The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. This is my personal favourite book of all time. It’s an allegorical tale of a shepherd’s long and successful single-handed effort to reforest a desolate valley in the foothills of the Alps in Provence in the first half of the C20th. A beautiful, inspiring story, it captures the essence of having a personal vision and then making it happen – a stirring, emotional read to resonate with all founders’ aspirational journeys. 

6. The Crux: How Leaders Become Strategists by Richard Rumelt. Rumelt is an influential thinker on strategy as Professor Emeritus at UCLA. What passes for strategy in too many businesses is a toxic mix of wishful thinking and a jumble of incoherency. Rumelt’s concept is that leaders become effective strategists when they focus on challenges rather than goals, pinpointing the crux of their pivotal challenge. He defines the essence of the strategist’s skill with vivid storytelling. 

7. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Everyone should read this masterpiece which tells the mystical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure. His quest leads him to riches far different and far more satisfying than he ever imagined. Santiago’s journey teaches us about the wisdom of listening to our hearts, recognising opportunity and learning to read the omens along life’s path, to follow our dreams. Fantastic reflections for startup founders.

8. Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull. Catmull was co-founder (with Steve Jobs & John Lasseter) of Pixar Animation Studios, and crafted this book about creativity in business, a manual for anyone striving for originality. Toy Story changed animation forever, the essential ingredient was the unique team environment and culture Catmull and colleagues built at Pixar, based on philosophies that protect the creative process and defy convention.

9. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. This was the book I was reading on a beach in Corfu as a student when I met my now wife on holiday in 1984. She was also a Thomas Hardy fan, so sharing a love of Hardy, feta and ouzo made it a perfect holiday, and subsequent marriage. We called our first dog Tess. Hardy’s writing on rural idylls with sympathetic portrayals of the hardships of working-class people resonates with me. You need an escape this summer, reading, this and Giono’s will paint many mental pictures.

10. From The Factory Floor by I had to add this to my list! Made in Manchester, we want this book to be a catalyst for startup founder’s ambitions. Peppered with anecdotes from the authors’ personal experiences, From The Factory Floor introduces the core essentials to get your startup off the ground. The proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo, so take this book as catalyst to get out there and make a start on your own thing.

The best business books are not always about business. The value of reading isn’t to learn, rather to spark your own thoughts. Reading should be a valuable source of inspiration and practical wisdom for founders, gaining insights and motivation from the experiences of others, ultimately developing new skills and habits. 

Set aside time to read regularly. Find a quiet place to read. Take notes. Talk to others about what you’re reading. Sometimes you simply need to turn your phone off, get a cup of tea, and get lost in a good book. Mr Van Sutchland – long-retired and now a beekeeper in Cheshire – ignited the spark, and created the osmotic relationship between reading and life for me. I’m forever grateful.

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