Startup School

5 books every budding entrepreneur needs to read

Before you even start thinking about starting your own company, read these books. Photo by Utamaru Kido/Getty Images

You thought you were done with homework, but, if you're an entrepreneur looking to start a company, that's not the case. The startup world is a lot of fun, but also a lot of work and preparation.

So, what kind of homework should you do? Unfortunately, watching Shark Tank and HBO's Silicon Valley can only take you so far. You need to know about pre-money valuations, convertible notes, liquidation preferences, control provisions, and so much more. Fortunately, there are plenty of books to get you up to speed. Yes, books — do you remember those? Turns out plain old books can be very useful if you're looking to get involved with the even the highest tech parts of the startup world. So here are five books to get you started.

The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator, Silicon Valley's Most Exclusive School for Startups

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As a startup founder, you'll need to know what Y Combinator is, how it works, what the people are like, and how great founders and mentors conduct themselves. This book offers a behind the scenes look at the most elite startup incubator/accelerator. Why is it the most elite? Because it keeps producing unicorns (companies valued at over $1 billion) — think AirBnb, Dropbox, Twitch, Stripe. With this book, you'll really get a sense of the day to day conversations and challenges that startups face. It is also just a really entertaining book and a great starting point.

Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist

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After reading Launch Pad, it is time to get down to business. Venture Deals is a fairly in-depth breakdown of the relationship between investors and startup founders. It runs through typical VC titles, processes, and incentives. Perhaps most importantly, it goes into the economic and control provisions of the term sheet. You'll want a pen and paper to take plenty of notes when going through this one. Do not expect this book to always be fun, but do expect to learn a lot. If you can make it through this one and really absorb what is being said then you might actually be serious about the startup world, so good job.

Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs

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Whether you'll be a founder, investor, reporter, or just want to be a successful person, you need to set lofty goals, write them down, share them, and stick to them. OKR stands for objectives and key result. This book is less about startups and more about pushing yourself to achieve more. OKRs force you to break down your goals in metrics that can be tracked. For example, I knew I wanted to meet with hundreds of startups per year for my investment job. But how many exactly? How do I set a goal for that? Simple — just say you need to meet with at least two startups per day for a least one hour. That means at least 10 startups per week (five working days), or over 40 per month. Set lofty goals, so that you fail to achieve 30 percent of them.

Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business

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Time to step inside the shoes of the CEO — must be nice to be in charge, right? I'm sure it is nice in some ways, but it is also an unbelievable amount of work. This book goes through every last detail — in detail. You may feel overwhelmed at times, but you might also feel ready to manage a company. There is much more to managing a company than can be found in a single book, but this is a great breakdown of the day-to-day activities. It has tips on how to be organized, prioritize time, grow your key employees, and interact with the board of directors. Sure, you'll still need to build a great product that customers want, and you'll still need to have great interpersonal and communication skills, but at least this book describes the details of how to operate.

​Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future​

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The final book in this short list will drive you to think big — and think differently. Think about building a dominating monopoly. Yes, monopolies are a good thing when you're the one making the business. I hope that concept is not too upsetting, but you should be ruthless when you are out there competing. That means giving your customers something amazing that your competition can't even compete with. If you think about it, the big tech companies pretty much dominate at least one market. Google has search and maps. Facebook, since owning Instagram, has social media. Amazon has logistics. If you're going to start a startup you should aim to be 10 times better than any competition in one key way. You want to clearly differentiate your product from your competition. Zero to One teaches you how to think that way, and so much more.

So, there you have it. I think these five books will give you a good starting point. There are a dozen or more other books you should also read about innovating, investing, and managing, but you must start somewhere. This list gives you a little bit of everything to get you started.

Now, you just have to actually start.

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Mark Friday is an associate leading venture capital investments at Houston-based Cathexis Holdings LP.

Most venture capital rejection is because of one or more of these three reasons. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

One of the most common questions that pops up in startup circles is, "Why did they turn me down?" There are myriad reasons why a venture capitalist might turn down pitches and decline funding. Here, I'll present the three most common.

They don't understand your business

Einstein once said, "If you cannot explain it to a six-year old, you don't understand it yourself."

If you spend an entire presentation showing well-researched facts and figures, talking about how groundbreaking your idea is, and presenting detailed charts and graphs, but your audience still has no idea what you do, you're in trouble.

Moreover, avoid overusing jargon and esoteric terms in your pitch. Speak simply.

If you cannot explain in simple terms what your startup does and why it's marketable, potential investors have no reason to believe you will know what you're doing with their money. To sum up, they'll think you don't understand your own business.

They don't think you've done the legwork

Some venture capitalists invest in early stage startups, so it's totally normal for them to sit through pitches where a product has not even been built yet. Consequently, the problem comes when it becomes evident the startup founder has failed to do any legwork. As a result, investors are likely to feel insecure about giving their money to someone who couldn't even do simple research.

Sure, the product hasn't been built, but that is not an excuse to sit back on cruise control. In other words, don't take your foot off the gas. Move forward constantly and don't stop learning more about your industry.

What have you done for customer development? Customer discovery? How many potential customers have you talked to? How much would they pay for your product or service? Have you studied the competitive dynamics of the market for which you will enter? Who is your competition and what are their strengths and weaknesses? You get the picture.

Certainly, one big misstep among startup founders is that they tend to believe work should not be done until they attain funding. Wrong. During your struggle to attain money, you should be busy learning everything about your industry, market, and customers. That way, once you finally get that meeting with an investor, they will feel much more confident that you will use their money intelligently.

They don't see that you have a strategy

It's an unfortunate commonality that a startup founder will put together a great pitch, get deep into it in front of a venture capitalist, and then unravel the entire presentation by exposing themselves as not having a plan of attack for the market. To clarify, it is a huge waste of your time to undo all your hard work by showing you don't have a strategy. Remember, investors are looking for reasons to pass on you.

When asked about their strategy for reaching the market, a common refrain is, "we will provide this awesome service (or make this awesome product) and the customers will roll right in." Or even "we will partner with this corporate giant who will sell our product because it's that amazing."

Above all, you must show your potential investor that you have the wherewithal to create, polish, and scale a reliable process that reaches your customer base.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.