Don't Do It Yourself
Best Books for Agencies, Startups, and Entrepreneurs

An Agency Partner’s Best Books for Startups and Entrepreneurs [Updated for 2021]

As a partner at a digital marketing agency, I find myself constantly digging into new reads to better myself, my organization, and my clients' businesses.

I've kept a running list over the last few years of my favorite reads. These are the books that have helped expedite my own personal and professional development. While I've read some of these books to simply get ideas on how to grow my own business, I've found many of the teachings applicable to other industries, as well as general life.

Surprisingly, finding and reading these books has taken me a lot of time. Partly because I'm a slow reader. But also because I really want to soak as much in as possible.

These books aren't compiled from another generic “best books for startups” article. The vast majority of the books I'll share below, came as personal recommendations to me, an entrepreneur and startup survivor. Some books are written by friends. Others are massive best sellers. Some have nothing to do with starting up a business. But all of them have a purpose and can be influential when absorbed and applied by entrepreneurs and people in the startup world.

When someone says to me, “Hey, you should read this…” I really take it to heart. I hope whoever reads this does the same. I plan on adding to this list later, so bookmark this post and come back in a couple of months for more recommendations.

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My Best Books for Startups and Entrepreneurs

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don't

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don't is a management book by Jim C. Collins that describes how companies transition from being good companies to great companies, and how most companies fail to make the transition. The book was a bestseller, selling four million copies and going far beyond the traditional audience of business books.[1] The book was published on October 16, 2001.

Why I recommend it: This book is a staple in my life. It was one of the first business books that I was given when I first entered the workplace. Out of respect, I opened it with an eye roll. Before I knew what hit me, I couldn't put the book down. Ever since, I've been chasing that dragon. To this day, I still think about the “flywheel.” I ask myself, “Does this fit into our hedgehog concept?” When hiring, I think: “First who, then what.” There's an infinite amount of gold nuggets in this book.

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The Glass is Half Full and Frozen

This novel is a business guide designed to educate and inspire. The story demonstrates philosophies Edward DuCoin used to create several companies. The Glass is Half Full and Frozen outlines that a positive mental attitude is good, but a sustainable business model and great leadership is needed to achieve full potential. Follow the characters as they learn from mistakes and work together as a team to revitalize a struggling company.

Why I recommend it: I recommend this book because it isn't your typical business book. It tells a cohesive story that keeps you engaged. Most business books are a loose collection of examples and data. This doesn't have that textbook type architecture of a business book. It is a novel that effectively teaches core business ideas and leaves you turning the pages for more. You won't need to guzzle down a pot of coffee just to keep your eyes open.

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Agency Mania: Harnessing the Madness of Client/Agency Relationships For High-Impact Results

Agency Mania is an indispensable guide in which, Bruno Gralpois reveals the anatomy of a strong partnership with an advertising, media, digital, PR or marketing communications agency that drives results and delivers real value to the client's business. Mr. Gralpois shines a bright light on the insanity of clients and agencies failing to effectively nurture their relationships or clients failing to manage their agencies as vital allies and valuable corporate assets.

Why I recommend it: Billions of dollars in company budgets are invested every year into marketing efforts that strive to deliver engaging consumer experiences and deliver measurable business results. Yet, so many of these relationships fail to deliver results. On the surface, you would think this book is just for agencies. That couldn't be further from the truth. This book is literally for any business that works with third-parties. It completely transformed my thought process on how agencies should be viewed–not as a vendor, but as a strategic business partner.

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The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

If you want less on your plate and more for your life and career, then this book is for you. The ONE Thing will bring your life and your work into focus. Authors Gary Keller and Jay Papasan teach you the tricks to cut through the clutter, achieve better results in less time, dial down stress, and master what matters to you. Unabridged version includes:

Why I recommend it: In today's day and age, it's really easy to feel overwhelmed. As I was growing my agency, I felt like I was constantly getting pulled in a thousand different directions. Client calls. Billing. Putting out fires. Business development. Sales. When I found this book browsing Barnes and Noble, I think I let out a sigh of relief. This book is a game-changer. It completely debunks common misconceptions surrounding productivity and gives you a practical mantra to narrow your focus and get more done.

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In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies

Considered to be one of the “Greatest Business Books of All Time”, In Search of Excellence has long been a must-have for the boardroom, business school, and bedside table. Based on a study of forty-three of America's best-run companies from a diverse array of business sectors, In Search of Excellence describes eight basic principles of management — action-stimulating, people-oriented, profit-maximizing practices — that made these organizations successful.

Why I recommend it: This book is basically Good to Great twenty years ahead of its time. It's like finding buried treasure, then hopping in a time machine to go find out who put it there (any why). I bought this book for 25 cents at a thrift shop. It was beaten and tattered, but still survived the test of time, much like the companies that are discussed in depth. Fair warning: this book is definitely dense and it took me awhile to get through it. At times it felt like I was reading a long-winded thesis statement, but I'm glad I persevered through it because I felt like a Harvard scholar at completion.

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The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World

A series of shifts are happening in our economy: Millennials are trading in conventional career paths to launch tech start-ups, start small businesses that are rooted in local communities, or freelance their expertise. Aaron Hurst, argues in his latest book that while these developments seem unrelated at first, taken together they reveal a powerful pattern that points to purpose as the new driver of the American economy.

Why I recommend it: It is estimated that the percentage of US workers participating in the gig economy will increase to 43% in 2020. And more than 90% of US workers would consider freelancing or independent contracting work. A huge part of that surge is due to people giving up (or losing) their day jobs to pursue work that can provide something more meaningful and fulfilling. I recommend this book because it can help a multitude of people. This could be the inspiration that you need to startup your freelancing business. It could also be the guide that entrepreneurs need to empathize more with your employees and build work environments that promote wellness.

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Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly


Released in 2000, this book is both Anthony Bourdain's professional memoir and a behind-the-scenes look at restaurant kitchens. The book is known for its treatment of the professional culinary industry, which he describes as an intense, unpleasant, and sometimes hazardous workplace staffed by who he describes as misfits. Bourdain believes that the workplace is not for hobbyists and that anyone entering the industry without a masochistic, irrational dedication to cooking will be deterred.

Why I recommend it: I said that this wasn't going to be just another generic “best books for startups” article. This is probably the book that will come as the biggest surprise. Because if you're not a chef, or an an aspiring entrepreneur looking to build a restaurant empire, you might not think this book is for you. That's where you're wrong. I was blown away by this book. The raw authenticity of Bourdain's voice and story-telling is absolutely captivating. If that's not a lesson in Branding and Marketing 101, then I don't know what is.

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Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World

On May 17, 2014, Admiral William H. McRaven addressed the graduating class of the University of Texas at Austin on their Commencement day. His speech went viral with over 10 million views. Building on the core tenets laid out in his speech, McRaven recounts tales from his own life and from those of people he encountered during his military service who dealt with hardship and made tough decisions with determination, compassion, honor, and courage.

Why I recommend it: Well for one, you'll never not want to make your bed again. It sounds silly, and yes, it fits right into all of the old cliches, like: “If you can't do the little things right, then you can't do the big things right.” I actually recommend listening to the audiobook read by McRaven here. His voice is strong, optimistic, and commanding. The book is actually pretty short (less than 150 pages). Some people can probably listen to the entire recording in a day's commute. It's just the right amount of military rah rah balanced to put things into perspective.

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On the Road

Inspired by Jack Kerouac's adventures with Neal Cassady, On the Road tells the story of two friends whose cross-country road trips are a quest for meaning and true experience. Written with a mixture of sad-eyed naiveté and wild ambition and imbued with Kerouac's love of America, his compassion for humanity, and his sense of language as jazz, On the Road is the quintessential American vision of freedom and hope, a book that changed American literature and changed anyone who has ever picked it up.

Why I recommend it: This is another out of the box recommendation. There is nothing in this book that screams “Corporate America.” If anything, it's the complete opposite. The only real business that takes place in this book is straight up hedonism. In fact, Keroac is probably rolling in his grave as I try to connect his Beatnik Bible to something that can inspire and motivate startups and entrepreneurs. But, the fact of the matter is the book reveals the importance of wonder, taking risks, and putting your last dime into something that you believe in. All of which are maddening and exhilarating–the epitome of what it's like to be an entrepreneur.

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Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World

Rand Fishkin, the founder and former CEO of Moz, reveals how traditional Silicon Valley “wisdom” leads far too many startups astray, with the transparency and humor that his hundreds of thousands of blog readers have come to love.

Why I recommend it: As an SEO geek, I have a lot of respect and admiration for Moz. So, naturally reading a book by their founder was a no-brainer for me. I'll be honest — I didn't quite expect to dig into Silicon Valley and what life was like in the venture capital world. I was actually expecting more of a tale about SEO and software to build organic search rankings. I guess I didn't read the front and back cover too closely. Whoops. Either way, I'm glad I picked this book up because it made me realize that there's a business case for raising funds, and there's a business case for not raising funds. It's important to weigh the pros and cons of both.

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