Best Business Books You Should Read in 2021
Successful businesses don’t come out of nowhere. Success leaves clues, and smart entrepreneurs follow those clues. Magnates, b-school professors, and thought leaders are not shy, and they don’t horde the secrets of their success. Nearly every one of them has left a trail of breadcrumbs in the forms of books and memoirs, which chronicle their success or the successes of others, often in granular, step-by-step detail that can be turned into a to-do list.
Even successful or up-and-coming entrepreneurs can benefit from the great business books left behind by seasoned experts and titans of industry. Fortune 500 CEOs often read a book or more per month to keep their game sharp. From classics of the genre to cutting-edge exposes of the machinations of today’s most successful startups, here are the best business books you should read in 2021.
1- Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh
Size isn’t everything to bestselling entrepreneur authors Hoffman and Yeh. Yes, it’s important, but how fast a company is able to grow is what sets apart the true success stories of Silicon Valley. Hoffman and Yeh trace this phenomenon to a strategy of “blitzscaling,” which companies like Apple, Airbnb, and Google used to move from the garage to the heights of corporate dominance, in what seems like overnight success.
Blitzscaling (the book) digs into numerous case studies of fast-growing startups, in search of the component particles that add up to a blitzscale—the strange, counterintuitive process of sacrificing efficiency in favor of speed, in order to accelerate to the phase of maximal value creation. Slow and steady does not win the race in Blitzscaling. This business book rewrites all the rules for a digital startup generation.
2- Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
Tim Ferriss is the undisputed master of the modern application of the Pareto principle—the idea that you get the most results from a small number of inputs. His books The Four Hour Workweek and The Four Hour Body have applied this principle to stoically stripping away the inefficient inputs, until you are achieving maximal results with minimal effort.
In Tools of Titans, however, Ferriss steps back and lets the kind of high achievers he interviews in his popular podcast take center stage. He cold-called a series of “titans”—standout achievers in the fields of business, politics, athletics, the arts, etc.— and asked them a battery of probing questions about their routines and philosophies.
He obtained responses from a dizzying “who’s who” list—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Thiel, Jamie Foxx, Shaun White. Ferriss gets them on the record asking them questions about their morning routines, their workout routines, and the books they give the most as gifts (a question Ferriss found to be more revealing than “What are your favorite books?”)
These short questionnaire responses from household names make the perfect business book to dip into and out of for a quick hit of billion-dollar inspiration, and maybe a “tool” or two you can apply to your own business life.
3- Measure What Matters by John Doerr
“Measure everything. You can’t improve what you can’t measure?” It’s practically an article of faith in entrepreneurship. John Doerr sees it differently. Having invested $12.5 million in Google in 1999, he’s definitely someone you want to listen to.
With a beast as complicated as Google, you can’t measure everything, or else the data you end up with will be overwhelming, bringing with it too much noise to be actionable. Measure What Matters is about just that—learning to measure what actually matters, so you can implement an effective strategy.
Doerr introduces the concept of Objective and Key Results (OKR), which evolved into the concept of “key performance indicators” (KPI). The book describes how to identify the OKRs that relate to your business so you can shut out the noise and, well, measure what actually matters, so you can make changes that actually produce results.
4- Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari
When you read Harari, you know that you’ll be getting the long view. Forget a narrow or limited focus on the Internet Age or even the Industrial Age—Harari’s search for root causes takes him all the way back to prehistory.
The follow-up to the bestselling Sapiens, which plumbed the deepest recesses of humanity’s past, Homo Deus is subtitled “A Brief History of Tomorrow.” What business titan wouldn’t like to know what tomorrow holds? Or better yet, tomorrow’s stock prices? But Harari trades in “big think.” “Homo Deus” roughly translates from Latin to “human-god,” and that’s how Harari sees today’s human being—a creature that crawled out of the savannah and learned to master climate, defeat disease, and exit the food chain. We’re now more likely to die from overeating than we are of starvation. Tell that to a squirrel and then try to convince it that you have a hard life.
The overarching question—what’s next for the human-god? What is the next stage of evolution? Any aspiring god among humans needs a shot of the Harari omniscience as we march into a brave new world of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and internet connectivity in everything we touch.
5- Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
Do you have a bullshit job? Or, worse yet, do you pay people at your company to do bullshit jobs? Expanded from Graeber’s viral blog “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” this book-length exploration calls out the Emperor with the new clothes—he has nothing on. Countless jobs, in fields like HR, law, research, and communications, do not contribute substantially to the productivity or profitability of a company.
It’s not good for the companies, who get a bad return on the payroll ROI. It’s not good for the employee, who knows deep down that they’re a character in The Office and not the corporate player they dreamed of being. In an age of digital efficiency and self-actualization, something has to give. Graeber’s book is a funny, poignant exploration of the very idea of work, and how to bring both managerial and employee career goals back to a place of maximal value.
6- How I Lost 170 Million Dollars by Noah Kagan
How’s that for the title of a how-to book? Perhaps if there’s a lesson to be learned on how not to lose $170 million, the read is time well spent. Right?
But Noah Kagan isn’t just any $170 million loser. He’s #30 at Facebook—that is, the thirtieth hire in a company that used to number employees like they were members of Slipknot. The lower your number, the closer you were to Zuckerberg, and the more stock you had—in other words, the bigger the potential cashout.
But Kagan wound up fired ignominiously, losing out on a big portion of his Facebook legacy. But not losing out on everything. His riveting tell-all about the early days of Facebook—the parties, the misfires, the high hopes and big egos—is an eye-opening look at what it takes to be a Silicon Valley champion—in other words, the alternate take on The Social Network that you didn’t even realize you needed.
7- Lost and Founder by Rand Fishkin
So you want to be a titan of tech, an overnight success and a 30-year-old billionaire? Just invent the next big thing … drop out of school … something, something, something … profit! Right?
Rand Fishkin knows something about profit. His company, Moz SEO, is a $45 million company. But by pulling back the curtain on his 15-year stumble to prominence since dropping out of school to pursue his dream—the evictions, the pesky creditors, the disappointed grandparents—Fishkin brings the startup world down to earth. The overnight successes are one-in-a-million, just like in every industry.
For most tech startup founders, the road is hard, like, even harder than on the show Silicon Valley! But there’s hope. Fishkin is rich, wouldn’t rather be doing anything else, and has a message for anyone who thinks they screwed up their tech startup dreams because they hit a rough patch: “Welcome to the club.” Think of it as a tech startup “worst-case scenario,” one that still ends in millions of dollars.
8- The Start-Up of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha
More than a business book, Hoffman and Casnocha have made a handbook for the employee in this age of economic change. Job security is a thing of the past, wages are stagnant, and AI and automation are on the path to make many jobs obsolete. Forget the risks of entrepreneurship—the risks of stagnating in a career, once a guarantor of stability, are actually much higher.
As one of the founders of LinkedIn, Casnocha knows what he’s talking about. He’s seen business networking evolve in the digital age. Hoffman and Casnocha encourage everyone, from entrepreneurs to freelancers to 9-to-5ers, to treat their career like a startup—to innovate, to stand out, to be self-reliant.
9- Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy
Ogilvy might as well have stepped fully formed from an episode of Mad Men. Well, as an Englishman he would have been Jared Harris’ character, but with Ogilvy on Advertising, advertising icon David Ogilvy literally writes the book on advertising. There’s some vamping on how to get a job in advertising that doesn’t directly apply anymore, but he also imparts pearls of wisdom, developed in the 1960s by trial and error during the golden age of advertising.
The book has a refreshing specificity. Ogilvy doesn’t leave the reader to reinvent the wheel. Instead, he reveals secret after secret learned during his career, including tips on how to write irresistible ad copy, eighteen “miracles of research,” and tips on advertising for charities.
11- Traction by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares
In Traction, Weinberg and Mares state what should be obvious, but sometimes needs to be said out loud—most startups fail not because they don’t have a product, not even because they don’t have a good product. They fail because that product fails to catch on, to stick, to gain traction with its target audience.
Too many startups pour time and energy into the product, in a kind of solipsistic dead-end, without dedicating the necessary resources to planning how to get the public at large to buy the product. They assume the value is self-evident—after all, it’s self-evident to the founders and managers in the boardroom, singing the praises of the product to each other and mentally cashing acquisition checks.
Readers of Traction will never forget to consider customer buy-in during the strategy phase. Using examples ranging from Wikipedia to Reddit, Kayak to Evernote, Weinberg and Mares map out the framework for making a product that catches on, touching upon such key strategies as PR, viral marketing, AI marketing, SEO and SEM, email marketing, business development, affiliate programs, trade shows, and much more.
12- Pre-suasion by Robert B. Cialdini
In the world of “suasions,” doesn’t pre-suasion sound better than persuasion? In this book, the author of Influence approaches consumer decision-making from a different angle, asking the question “Why do some people seem to be able to persuade others to do anything?”
His concept of “pre-suasion” is the idea that persuasive people don’t just convince their audience of the rightness of their point of view—that isn’t even mostly what they do. Instead, they reframe the listener’s mindset to a mindset that is primed and ready to say “Yes.” They’re like magicians, less concerned with changing someone’s mind than creating an act of misdirection that leads to the yes.
Pre-suasion breaks down examples and reconstitutes them into actionable techniques to apply pre-suasion to internet marketing, sales calls, and more.
13- Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
There’s fragile, and then there’s durable. But according to statistician, former options-trader, and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb, there’s a third category—the antifragile of the title. Instead of breaking under pressure, it toughens under pressure. It seems paradoxical, but it holds true of everything from bones to riots to rumors.
The antifragile, according to Taleb, benefits from uncertainty and chaos and is not subject to prediction errors or disasters. In recommending that we build the future on principles of the antifragile, rather than just the durable, Taleb’s philosophy is a paradigm shift for entrepreneurs to think about a future of business systems that get stronger and stronger, immune to the buffeting of time.
14- Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras
Written for entrepreneurs who want longevity and not a flash-in-the-pan flameout, Stanford researchers Collins and Porras dig into the meat of hundreds of the world’s most durable brands—companies that have stood the test of time and will probably outlive all of us.
They’re looking for similarities—that trail of breadcrumbs that explains the companies’ longevity in the face of the eventual failure of their competitors. What do they do differently from the competition? What do they do that is the same as other companies that achieve longevity, even companies in different industries? The answers Collins and Porras unearth may surprise you.
15- The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman
As the founder of PersonalMBA.com, Josh Kaufman is an evangelist for the obsolescence of business school. In his opinion, even Harvard and Wharton are coasting on reputation, charging an arm and a leg (much of it absorbed as student debt) while teaching outdated principles in a fast-changing business landscape.
It’s a controversial opinion, but Kaufman’s book is a terrific primer in what Kaufman is all about—a lower-priced, more practical and up-to-date kind of self-education to prepare yourself for the entrepreneurial landscape as we find it today. This includes an understanding of sales and marketing, efficiency and productivity, systems and negotiation.
Kaufman delves into principles like “The Iron Law of Markets,” “The Twelve Forms of Value,” “Four Methods to Increase Revenue,” and “The Pricing Uncertainty Principle,” all in a book that costs far less than MBA tuition.
16- The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz
If you have been dying—dying—to read a business book that punctuates its lessons with rap lyrics, Silicon Valley powerhouse and hip-hop fan Ben Horowitz has you covered. Taking the cue from his favorite rappers to “tell it like it is,” Horowitz has no rosey pictures of champagne and 24/7 celebrations in his report from the startup front lines. Building and sustaining a successful business is hard, and it takes hard work.
Horowitz lays it all out in excruciating detail, sharing insights gained from the many hurdles his businesses and the businesses he has funded have had to clear. Funny and practical, it’s a breath of fresh air when stacked up against the histrionics that regularly emanate from Silicon Valley and the startup world.
Buy The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers on Amazon Here.
17- Deep Work by Cal Newport
Georgetown professor Cal Newport has many insights on what constitutes deep work, and the advantages thereof. First and foremost, however, it takes deep work to read Deep Work. It’s a dense read, and Newport seems to have made no effort to make the read fun or easy. It’s a great challenge for an ambitious business person to set for him- or herself, like going to the gym to expand your mind instead of your muscles.
To Newport, “deep work” and the focus it takes to perform it, is the only path to mastery of your craft and sustained fulfillment. It’s not enough to eschew distraction; instead, Newport argues for the virtues of embracing its opposite—deep focus.
In addition to commentary on the state of distracted culture and examples of wonders worked under the influence of deep focus, Newport presents actionable advice to achieve deep focus and perform deep work, grouped under four key philosophical pillars: 1. Work Deeply, 2. Embrace Boredom, 3. Quit Social Media, and 4. Drain the Shallows. Want to know more? Get the book and get to work.
18- How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Despite the notion that the tech boom has positioned the socially awkward at the top of the food chain, people skills still matter, and they matter very much. Yes, that applies to tech startups too. If you plan to bring a product to public attention, the public had better not hate the very sight and sound of you.
This makes Carnegie’s classic more relevant than ever. Carnegie offers old wisdom that’s newly applicable on how to turn any situation to your advantage through the force of your personality. The book is broken down into advice to handle people (don’t criticize, condemn, or complain; express honest appreciation); six ways to make people like you; twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking; and advice for being a leader.
A must-read for aspiring salespeople, Carnegie has timeless advice that applies to everyone in business. If you haven’t read it yet, let 2021 be your year.
19- Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
If you dream of building an iconic brand, it helps to follow in the footsteps of people who have built iconic brands in their own right. Few people can claim to have built a brand as iconic as Nike, respected the world over and with that “swoosh” icon that is instantly recognizable. But that’s what Phil Knight did. And he has written a book to tell you how he did it.
It started with a dream to import Japanese shoes; he started by selling shoes out of the back of his truck. The path from the back of that truck to a $30 billion valuation was most definitely not a smooth one. If you think your business has it tough, the slings and arrows Knight had to weather in his trudge to the top of the shoe food chain will make you blanche. It’s an inspirational story of triumph in the face of adversity that every entrepreneur can aspire to.
20- Zero to One by Peter Thiel
Acclaimed Silicon Valley entrepreneur and angel investor Peter Thiel is less interested in who will win a dogfight for market dominance. Companies that try to make the “best thing” and win the most market share are trying to take the world “from 1 to n,” in other words, building on the work of someone who’d already brought the world “from 0 to 1”—someone who brought something truly new into being, something that changed the whole conversation.
Whether working in or out of tech, Thiel offers a call to action for entrepreneurs to shoot for the “new,” giving examples and practical thought experiments to get you there. In fact, Thiel comes off as a little pessimistic about tech. He sees tech as stagnant, with lots of competition but few brand-new ideas. Thiel wouldn’t be surprised if the next “0 to 1” industry disruptor comes from outside of the tech bubble.
21- Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
Israeli-American psychology professor Dan Ariely pushes back against the notion that humans behave rationally. Maybe this seems like stating the obvious, but it certainly becomes obvious when we look at how we buy cars, choose medications, fall in love, and in many other ways.
Ariely’s great insight, however, is that humans behave irrationally in set, predictable ways. By divorcing your perspective of consumer behavior from the rational, you may think you’re staring down the barrel of chaos. But you’re not. Ariely provides insight into peoples’ “predictable irrationality,” allowing you to form predictive models and consumer outreach plans based on science and data, even when that data points to irrational behavior.
22- 10x Marketing Formula by Garrett Moon
In 10x Marketing Formula, Moon pokes holes in the dream of a “set-it-and-forget-it” content marketing funnel that delivers money on demand without effort. Moon’s experience points to the idea that how much you get out of your content marketing campaign is directly and even exponentially proportional to how much you put into it—and that you feed your content machine the right food.
What experience taught Moon this lesson? The experience of CoSchedule to more than 250,000 email subscribers and over 1.3 million page views per month. He knows of what he speaks, and he lays out the strategy that made it happen—all the shortcuts to take, the pitfalls to avoid, and when and how to most effectively put your nose to the content grindstone with 10x effort.
23- Master Content Marketing by Pamela Wilson
Master Content Marketing touts itself as being for “lazy content marketers.” Or should we say, efficient content marketers, who want to get the most output for their content input. Today’s customers want to be drawn in with content as a lure, rather than “hooked” by commercials. Unfortunately, in a content-saturated marketing environment, the noise you have to cut through is deafening.
Wilson’s step-by-step guide will help B2B and B2C businesses build brand trust and awareness, even if their founders aren’t writers. A veteran of more than 30 years in marketing, Wilson, lays out a “puzzle-piece” approach to content marketing, rich with effective shortcuts, opportunities to templatize, and touching upon the “seven essential elements of a successful piece of content.”
24- Outrageous Advertising That's Outrageously Successful by Bill Glazer
Outrageous Advertising That’s Outrageously Successful is built on the story of how Glazer’s retail clothing store flooded and damaged a fortune’s worth of merchandise. How he used advertising to monetize that soaked merchandise will take your breath away.
Glazer’s book is filled with tips on how to twist your advertising into the realm of the outrageous—and generate outrageous profit as a result. If you’re stuck in the land of lackluster advertising results, Glazer’s gonzo perspective might be just the shot in the arm your business needs.
25- Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss
Who would you rather learn negotiation techniques from a business school professor or a former FBI hostage negotiator? Chris Voss is the latter. His title is telling. Salespeople and negotiators are taught that it is acceptable to “split the difference” to meet your counter-negotiator halfway. Would that be acceptable if the life of a hostage were on the line? What “split difference” wouldn’t be disastrous in that circumstance?
From negotiating salaries to negotiating financing, funding, or investments, Voss points out that life is a series of negotiations. That’s certainly true in the world of business. Every entrepreneur will benefit from the high-stakes negotiation skills that Voss used to save lives.
26- No B.S. Direct Marketing by Dan S. Kennedy
It’s what business owners want the most—no B.S. Just honest-Abe results. Kennedy takes a refreshing, “back-to-basics” approach to direct marketing, the time-honored practice of going to your customers to get leads and get the sale.
It’s an up-to-date look at an old practice with time-honored principles that can be applied to a digital landscape. His pearls of wisdom include cutting-edge direct mail techniques that are working right now for businesses in all industries, including online businesses, retail, restaurants, B2B, and more. All the marketing and none of the B.S.