Three start-up books you should read

By: Matt Bird

Date: 17 August 2011

Books written by other entrepreneurs about their own experiences are some of the many sources of advice and inspiration for people considering starting their own business. Go into most bookstores and the business section is enormous. So how do you pick out books that are worth looking at?

Understandably, you're attracted to familiar authors or company names, possibly those already operating in your sector. But that is a mistake. Better to look for books that will take you out of your workaday life – titles that will inspire you to achieve greater things.

I work for a printer ink online shop, so instinctively my preferred reading centres on the internet and customer service (there aren't really that many books about printer ink!).

My first couple of recommendations came from my boss and date back to 2002 when he started his business. That was just after the dot-com bubble burst and there was much moaning, groaning and blood on the carpet.

1. Boo Hoo: A Dot Com Story by Ernst Malmsten, Erik Portanger and Charles Drazin.

I cried as I read it: what I would have given to have had the opportunity to 'cash burn' and spend some $135m in less than a year. Why did sensible people rush to throw cash at them? Malmsten writes: “After the pampered luxury of a Lear jet 35, Concorde was a bit cramped.” Madness and this story, plus many others, screwed up the perception of the internet for those of us who followed them.

The lesson I learned from this book was the importance of customer service and of having actual stock that I could deliver to my customers promptly.

2. Another book of about the same era was Amazon.Com: Get Big Fast - Inside the Revolutionary Business Model That Changed the World by Robert Spector.

This was the first unofficial history of Amazon and is probably quite dated by now because of the massive growth of the business. But what I found fascinating was the core philosophy of Jeff Bezos and the team he created around him. At the time (2002-2003) Amazon had been trading for about five years and hadn't made a profit. This wasn't a path that my boss, John Sollars, wanted to go down, but Bezos was firmly committed to growth at all costs (and maybe the world domination he now enjoys). John was committed to making a profit month-on-month, even if it amounted to only a few pounds. He did not want to lose money because he had no external backing and the salutary lesson from was at the back of his mind – maybe Bezos got it right and John got it wrong.

The two previous books played a big part in formulating how was run and reinforced the underlying principle of giving immaculate customer service. The final choice is a more recent book, but still about customer satisfaction.

3. Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos).

Zappos was the number one online shoe retailer in the USA. In fact, it was so good that Amazon bought the chain. Allegedly Jeff Bezos (of Amazon) told Tony Hsieh to carry on running the business as he always had done, because he was doing it just right. The company culture is all about customer satisfaction, and indeed part of that culture is to ensure that everyone in the company, from the boss down, spends time on the customer service desk every 18 months to keep them in touch with what their customers want. Wouldn't it be wonderful if every organisation in the UK had that attitude? Call our the Stinkyink helpline and our boss is as likely to pick the phone up as anyone else.

So that's my essential reading list. What are your recommended business 'must-reads'?

Matt Bird of printer cartridge supplier, StinkyInk

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