Below I’ve listed some of the most powerful books on the subject of entrepreneurialism. While nothing can substitute for the experience of actually struggling to create, run and grow one’s own business, I genuinely believe that these books have helped me immensely as an entrepreneur. You will note that not all of these books are just on entrepreneurship, per se, but nevertheless they have been most helpful to me in building successful businesses.

Growing a Business by Paul Hawken. I read this book in the late 1980s, after graduating from college. Even today, I crack open this book when I want to brush up on things I’ve either forgotten or not had the discipline to fully implement. What I like most about his book, is that he takes a very different tack on growing a business. Paul likens the development of a business to the development of an organism, making the basic tenets of running a business (customer service, revenue growth, etc.) easy to grasp. For example, while he’s not necessarily averse to hyper-growth, he notes that if a business grows too quickly, like a plant, it becomes difficult for it to sustain itself. This concept has stuck with me over the years.

Another lesson from Paul stands out in particular: He’s not a big proponent of businesses borrowing money. Today in the popular press (and even in some political circles), there’s an assumption that to grow a business, you need to get access to capital. Paul was the first author I read who roughly indicates that the problem with growing a business isn’t the lack of access to capital, but having and borrowing capital before your business is ready to grow and before you’ve fully developed your business model. The profundity of that never really struck me until later on in my career, and to this day, I happen to think he’s dead on.

Over the years, there’s so much I borrowed from the book in running Sageworks that it has become hard to discern between his book and my core philosophy of business. He reduces something complicated (in this case, the essence of a running a business) to its very basic principles, without simplifying to the point of meaninglessness — this is the sign of a fantastic writer. Now obviously he’s a very well-known and successful entrepreneur himself, but that’s not why I like the book. I like the book because it hit me at exactly the right time. To this day, it’s the single most important book I’ve read specifically on building a business

How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This is not necessarily an entrepreneurial book, but it teaches basic philosophies of working with and dealing with people. Unless you have such a disruptive and innovative technology that it will succeed regardless of your effectiveness as a leader, most successful businesses are built by people who are excellent at cultivating relationships. Carnegie very carefully, with case studies, stresses the importance of having an orientation outside of one’s own self in all aspects of communication. Carnegie highlights how, in working with people, it doesn’t matter at all what you want; you must instead think about how the other person benefits. It seems so trivial, but very few people in business actually follow these principles. Like Hawken, he provides you very basic principles, but illustrates them with a plethora of examples. After more than 70 years in print, Carnegie’s principles are still just as relevant and influential today as the day the book was published.

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. Written in 1937 by Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Richis a reduction of The Law of Success, written by the same author. The author interviewed hundreds of successful people, attempting to highlight a common pattern of behavior and attributes amongst successful people. Some of the later chapters, in my opinion, get a little bit “out there” for me, but the first four to five chapters are really incredible, conveying the idea that thoughts are not intangible, but incredibly powerful things. He was the first to really bring that concept home to me.

I’ve personally dedicated a large part of my life to business, and I’ve developed a sort of general philosophy about business (and life). At this point, it’s very difficult to draw the distinction between these books and my personal experiences. The truth is that we’re all a compilation of what we think and what we learn.

That said, I believe that someone could read these three books carefully, and discard the other 200 to 300 books on entrepreneurship that I’ve read, and still come away with 90 percent of the “book knowledge” I’ve gained over the years on entrepreneurship and business success. It’s incredibly easy to get off course in life and business (to not think of customers, to treat your employees poorly, to get away from the core tenets and mission of your business) and it has been incredibly helpful for me personally to identify a few books and thinkers that I feel comfortable returning to over the years. Hopefully Hill, Carnegie, Hawken and others will help you stay on course, as they’ve helped me.

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek.  Simon Sinek is primarily concerned with leadership and what it takes to be a great one. Utilizing numerous examples in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Sinek shares that the greatest leaders had one thing in common: They started their passion’s pursuit by asking why. Sinek argues that great leaders find their why first and share that why to inspire and lead others.

If you’re caught up in the how of your task or the purely physical outcome of your entrepreneurial pursuits, you may quickly find yourself burned out. Sinek’s book will help you home in and discover your true why for doing what you do. And hopefully, that fire will help fuel your ever-evolving journey to get there.

First Things First by Stephen R. Covey (Free Press, reprinted edition January 1996).  As entrepreneurs, we already know our most valuable asset is time, but not every entrepreneur knows how to properly use that time.  At first glance, First Things First may seem like just another productivity book but, as you’ll learn, true productivity is not about getting more things done in less time but rather doing things that matter with the time you have. While many people will recognize Covey for his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this writing focuses on what I consider to be the most important habit: putting “first things first.” Anyone who implements even a fraction of what is outlined in this book should begin to see a dramatic shift in his or her life.

Built To Sell by John Warrillow (Portfolio Trade, reprint edition December 2012).  You may have heard the advice “Have an exit strategy” when starting a business. But not many entrepreneurs have considered what it takes to actually sell a business. In Built To Sell, John Warrillow presents a compelling case for entrepreneurs to approach their business from the perspective of selling it one day.

While this may seem counterintuitive for the passionate entrepreneur who loves his or her work and wouldn’t want to stop doing it, the real genius of this approach is that it can help readers create more value in their business. Namely, developing a business that is built on systems rather than a legacy business for which the founder has his or her hand in every day-to-day affair. That’s just not scalable.  Not only is this book a must-read, but it’s also written like a story, which means you should have no problem following along — unlike other business books which can read more like text books.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki.  What many focused on were only the real estate aspects of Robert Kiyosaki’s book series, but you don’t have to be a property investor to acquire a plethora of knowledge from this Kiyosaki classic Rich Dad, Poor Dad. What Kiyosaki was really trying to impart in this book was a wealthy way of thinking. A way of thinking that looked at true assets and liabilities and the mindset of the wealthy in assessing their finances. He shares examples from his own highly educated but poor father and those of a close friend’s father who was not educated but incredibly wealthy. In doing so, he emphasizes that it’s our thinking and not our educational pedigree that grooms us for our ultimate success in life.  Every entrepreneur needs to adopt a wealthy mindset. If you aren’t’ thinking about assets and the bottom line, you are never going to join the ranks of Kiyosaki’s “rich dad” mentor. 

Choose Yourself by James Altucher (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, June 2013).  Author James Altucher will most likely have you shaking your head in disbelief when you hear his story.  I believe there are two pivotal moments for every entrepreneur. The first is when they choose to become an entrepreneur, and the second is when they take 100 percent responsibility for their success or failure. Choose Yourself! is about that second part — taking responsibility.

It’s not enough to simply want success or to believe in the possibility of success. Instead, every entrepreneur must face the reality that nobody else is responsible for you. Altucher speaks from experience as someone whose story takes so many twists and turns that you may find yourself loving him and becoming frustrated with him at the same time. But ultimately you’ll probably arrive at the same conclusion he did — that we must choose ourselves if we wish to succeed. This book can be is a wake-up call for entrepreneurs who have not taken the reigns of their life and business.