Startup Reads: 11 Books Every Early-Stage Entrepreneur Should Read

I haven’t always been a big reader, but I’ve got more into it over the past few years of working with startups. In a past article, Five Pillars of Success: Curated Content for Early-Stage Entrepreneurs, I mentioned that last year I read 12 books. This year, instead of aiming for double (24), I set myself a stretch goal, and I’m aiming for 48. Will I make it? I’m going strong so far. 

With all this reading, I’ve come across some great books. I know lists are supposed to be top 10, but I loved all 11 of these too much to cut one off the list. 

Here my 11 top reads for early-stage entrepreneurs:

11. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action, by Simon Sinek

Why are you building this company? Why should people listen? Why are others successful, and you aren’t? This book may make you rethink why you’re building what your startup—but it will also surely help you tell your story better… or get you to work on something more aligned with your why. 

10. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries

A book for aspiring entrepreneurs and early stage founders, Ries breaks it down into simple steps: how to systematically approach building your business, get it validated, make it profitable, and set up the basics for it to grow.

9. Do More Faster: Techstars Lessons to Accelerate Your Startup, by David Cohen & Brad Feld

Written by our Techstars co-founders, this book is an easy read of  bite-sized advice from across the brilliant worldwide network itself. Perfect for those who are new to the startup world to and want to figure out how to set up your company, get customers, hire—and many other must-knows for any early stage entrepreneur. 

8. Delivering Happiness: The Path to Passion, Profits, and Purpose, by Tony Hsieh

If you’re building a company and want to learn about how to make a good customer-centric business, with the best company culture, this book will show you how. It’s about more than just business, though, it’s also about life.

7. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg

Every company should make this book mandatory reading. It opened my eyes to gender inequality. While putting some responsibility on men to support women more, it also details how women can take the lead themselves to take part, aim higher, and take more risks. 

6. Sprint: How To Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, by Jake Knapp

Know what the biggest startup killer is? Lack of market: when you build something no one wants. This is the book that the Google team wrote and practiced, and it will show you how to test (and possibly invalidate) ideas in five days. My team at Evolve used it before we sold our company to Hubspot, so I can tell you that it really works.

5. Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers, and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets, by Al Ramadam, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lockhead, and Kevin Maney

This book explains how launching a startup is more than about creating and launching products. It discusses why you should consider launching a product category, and how and why to condition the market so they demand your solution. 

4. Hacking Growth: How Today’s Fastest-Growing Companies Drive Breakout Success, by Sean Ellis & Morgan Brown

In my opinion, the number one growth marketing book of all time. I’ve read it yearly since 2010, and recommended it to every founder I meet. Need customers? Is your current customer acquisition strategy not working? Not sure how to run marketing experiments? Read this!

3. Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It, by Chris Voss

Written by an ex-FBI hostage negotiator, this is the book that every one of my book club members said I have to include here. It’s the way to get better at negotiations and influence—and get what you want. Note: it’s not just useful for sales people, it’s helpful for all types of negotiations, or even discussions with partners, friends, or family.

2. Mastering the VC Game: A Venture Capital Insider Reveals How to Get from Start-up to IPO on Your Terms, by Jeffrey Bussgang

This is one you won’t find on other lists. It’s a perspective from the other side: an entrepreneur turned VC. So keep this a secret. Knowing how they think will help you plan your moves. It’s a little more technical and financial than the others here, but it’s worth the read when you’re a little later on and want that opposite perspective.

And my #1 recommendation is….

1. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, by Ashlee Vance

If you’re looking for inspiration about changing the world, look no further. In my eyes, Elon is by far the greatest innovator of our time. I mean, he brought together a brilliant team, and learnt how to build a rocket from scratch, for a lot less money too. I also really appreciate that Elon didn’t get “final revisions,” so the book has a certain raw, unbiased lens.

So now what? Go read the books. You don’t have to read one a week like me or even one a month, but if there’s one thing I learnt from all of these books, you have to set goals so you can stay motivated and keep it consistent.

Lastly, don’t forget to reread your books. In case you didn’t know, the most successful people in the world all say that you shouldn’t just read a book once and put it away. The best part is reading it again when older, smarter, at a different stage, or after you’ve gone through different experiences that the book touched on — unlocking more value from the book for you.

What are some of your favorite book recommendations? Tweet me @iamsabakarim

11 Brilliant Best Practices at Startup Weekend Education NYC

As a first-time facilitator for the 4th installment of Startup Weekend Education New York City (@SWNYCEDU, #NYCEDU), I was both literally and figuratively taken to school.

Led by the incomparable Deborah Chang, the well-synced and ragtag organizational team of David Fu, Benjamin Newton, Laura Patterson, and Ingrid Spielman (with community leader Andrew Young as advisor) delivered a sold-out, knock-out event on May 27th.

Let the games begin. (You can't read that without hearing the Bane voice.)
Let the games begin. (You can’t read that without hearing the Bane voice.)

In between real-talk mentoring and the occasional selfie, I took many mental notes about some best practices I saw at SWNYCEDU that I think should be replicated across all SWEDU events, if not Startup Weekend itself.

For your consideration:

1. Hold the event at a school, but in an open area

It’s a common understand that a SWEDU event (or Startup Weekend in general) should take place in a school – plenty of whiteboards, space, breakout rooms, and common areas. If teams are all in classrooms, however, they won’t interact with each other as much, which inhibits the core purpose of building community.

Wide open spaces. (Dixie Chicks serious.)
Wide open spaces. (Dixie Chicks serious.)

SWNYCEDU put most of the teams out in a common area, giving each station a huge whiteboards, sufficient tables, and open spaces to roam and float to other teams. The result: a willingness to share and collaborate that supersedes the spirit of competition.

2. Give out lanyards with ALL of the FAQ information you’ll need

“What’s the wifi password, again?”
“What’s the Twitter hashtag for this event?”
“How do I know you’re actually supposed to be here?”

I'm so excited to be wearing a lanyard that I'm practically crooning.
I’m so excited to be wearing a lanyard that I’m practically crooning.

Not a problem when it’s hanging around your neck at all times. Key information is great to have, and it’s also a reusable, standardized way to maintain formality and security at the event.

3. Use a text-messaging app to send out alerts

More compelling than email or social media, texting gets people’s attention faster and adds another method of outreach to a crowd of focused, stressed-out participants.

Alternatively, we could have Ben do this to all 100+ participants. Fun to watch, but not efficient.
Alternatively, we could have Ben do this to all 100+ participants. Fun to watch, but not efficient.

4. Provide advance information and office hours signups for mentors

Figuring out how to coordinate members seemed like an impossible art to me, but this group worked it out well by creating a station for teams to review and request mentors.

Mentors are perhaps the most valuable resource at any Startup Weekend event. Choose, but choose wisely.
Mentors are perhaps the most valuable resource at any Startup Weekend event.

Coaches were asked to come at specific times, and teams sign up to meet with them on a first-come, first-serve basis. This eased confusion greatly for everyone.

5. Provide 3 phases of mentoring: brainstorm, focus, and presentation

Traditionally in other Startup Weekends, mentors pop in an event at various, even unpredictable times, and sometimes their advice does not mesh well with the team’s general progress. Some are already validated and advanced, and some are still searching for that “thing.”

Ben and I brainstorm with one of the participants.
Ben and I brainstorm with one of the participants.

SWNYCEDU takes these variations into account and brings in mentors during Saturday morning and afternoon strictly for brainstorm and validation.

Deborah and a volunteer listen and provide feedback.

In the evening, they bring in mentors (usually Startup Weekend veterans) who aim to provide focus after a long day of retaining multiple opinions and ideas.

Team Wizart practices their pitch.
Team Wizart practices their pitch.

By Sunday, SWNYCEDU brings in coaches who specialize specifically in pitch practice and communication, not business content or validation. This overall strategy gives teams a bit more structure and clarity as they evolve their ideas into bona fide companies.

6. Use Google Slides to present pitches seamlessly…

Simply put, there are far too many different ways to present at a Startup Weekend. Teams tend to present off their own laptops and switch back and forth between operating systems and format. In my opinion, this is a clunky and volatile process.

I've got a fever, and the only prescription... is Google Slides.
I’ve got a fever, and the only prescription… is Google Slides.

SWNYCEDU had one computer for the entire presentation setup, so they used a single format (Google Slides) and uploaded everything into the cloud. A huge amount time was saved overall between transitions.

7. … make teams do web demos (and tech check in advance)…

Tech Check is a rough job, yet vital to the success of your event. Make sure you run it right.
Tech Check is a rough job, yet vital to the success of your event. Make sure you run it right.

Doing live demos are traditionally considered a big risk at Startup Weekend – technical failures are perhaps forgiven but not forgotten. With only one computer for all 13 presentations, all demos also had to be sent up to the cloud and tested by 3pm.

8. … and put links to both decks and demos in a single Google Doc

A little embarrassing backstory: Startup Weekenders should always consider Murphy’s Law – whatever can happen will happen. This happened to me when I foolishly opened up every single presentation and demo into a single web browser and, to no one with a basic understanding of IT, crashed the system.

How I was feeling during that stressful 20-minute tech reboot.
How I was feeling during that stressful 20-minute tech reboot.

Organizer David Fu stepped up in a huge way to reboot the system and put all of the links to the slides, demos, and videos in a chronologically organized Google Doc. Once everything was back in order, the process went smoothly. Despite the 20-minute technical delay, we finished the event on time.

9. Serve dinner while the judges deliberate

As a past organizer and volunteer, I’ve never known what to do with the judges deliberation period. Dinner usually is served after presentations are submitted, and in the past I’ve seen ways to pass the time such as Community Asks or some light video or entertainment.

Finally, a moment to relax in a 54-hour maelstrom.
Finally, a moment to relax in a 54-hour maelstrom.

Serving dinner gets people to talk across teams, offer congratulations, and take their minds off the anxious decision that awaits them. Good food placates all.

10. Make animated GIFs of yourselves whenever possible

Taking on a new initiative that gets communities also doing Startup Weekends simultaneously, we made some fun little animated images for our friends in D.C., who held a Maker-themed event of their own. I think this speaks for itself.

Nothing but love for #SWDCMaker. Photo generated by Laura Patterson with GIFMe!

If only we made more… Andrew Young, I’m looking right at you.

Finally, and most importantly of all:

11. Have a team that puts vision, guests, and team above ego

I can’t say enough wonderful things about Team SWNYCEDU. There was not an iota of attitude among any of them. When things went right, they showered each other with support and praise. When things went wrong, they responded to the problems with solutions rather than stand around and point fingers.

What a terrific team and Startup Weekend community!
What a terrific team and Startup Weekend community!

On top of that, they were an absolute pleasure to work with. I laughed at Laura and Ingrid’s wry jokes, felt secure by Ben and Deborah’s unflinching professionalism, and may have found some long-lost cousins in Fu and Young. You couldn’t buy a better team than this one – they’ll do it all for free.

In short, I learned a lot at Startup Weekend Education New York City. I hope you’ve learned a lot by reading this, too. Can’t wait to come back next year… perhaps as a participant? =)

Lee Ngo was the facilitator of Startup Weekend Education New York and is a Regional Manager at UP Global, the parent organization of Startup Weekend. To learn more about UP Global and its efforts to spread the spirit of entrepreneurship throughout the world, you can email him at

To reach out or get involved with the Startup Weekend New York City community, reach out to or specifically to contact the SWNYCEDU organizers.

Photos from this event courtesy of Frank Fukuchi and the organizers and volunteers of Startup Weekend New York City. All rights reserved. 

More about Education Entrepreneurs

Education Entrepreneurs is the largest initiative in the world focused on helping people use entrepreneurship to improve education. Its suite of offerings include Startup Weekend Education, Startup Digest Education, Workshops, online resources, and a global network of Community Leaders. Spanning six continents, Education Entrepreneurs has created an unprecedented opportunity for anyone, anywhere to shape the future of education.