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8 Best Business Startup Books from McKinsey Alumni

11 min read
 /  2216
Published: Jul 1, 2021
Julia Korsun
/ Content Lead

There is no real growth without mentorship. Let alone the lack of experience at the start of one’s business or when all you have is the spark for what is once to become a successful startup. But mentorship doesn’t always come in the shape of a single person paving your way out there, mentally and educationally. Instead, it is a matter of guidance and decision-making, and McKinsey Alumni are those whose judgement aspiring startuppers can trust.
The learning experience is challenging, and even a person with a degree in business is never 100% doubt-proof. And everything is fine with doubts, especially if one only gains their first experience. But, learning from others is a mistake-free sandbox. That is what case studies and recommendations are for, and the literature you consume is one of the sources for decision-making principles, inspiration, and factual knowledge. And there is no better source of recommendations and inspirations than people who have already made it out there, built a career in the world’s leading consulting company, and established their businesses from scratch. So, the best business startup books, according to their judgement, are useful.

Road to Success

There is a thing or two one can learn from McKinsey alumni since, as of 2019, these people had founded 3,5 of the world’s unicorns. And there is no matching path to success they mention, as every one of them picked something of their own from literature, practice, and people they were surrounded with while growing as a businessman. Hence, trusting their judgement, we asked them for startup book recommendations.
Overall, they tend to be more successful not only for their McKinsey background per se but for the adjustability and willingness to learn from everything they interact with (which is also carefully chosen based on the previous experience). Remarkably, the best startup books in their opinion have another thing in common, and it is the diversity of fields a future businessman can learn from and the range of competencies a successful person must have: from emotional intelligence to analytical skills.
Sure, it is hard to pinpoint a single best book to read for a business startup. Nonetheless, if you are willing to learn, no work will be read in vain. Communication techniques, prioritization, and mindfulness are as much crucial for an entrepreneur as their hard skills and the team. The point is to bring to the table all the knowledge you have and apply it at the right time to push the project ahead. So, here are the must-reads from people who prove that they work.

The Best Means for the Great Success

These are the best startup books to read, and the order is definitely not important. Just check this out and start improving in the fields you feel interested in.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel, Blake Masters

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In the world, where everything seems to be already invented, the path may seem like a railway. However, there are many points where you can take the wheel and change the direction of your startup’s future. And this book teaches both how to distinguish the breaking points and how to take the wheel when the time comes.
We list this one first because it will help you see the opportunities where it seems that nothing new will ever occur. Of course, it’s not a silver bullet, but you will learn to see beyond the impossible and improve in investing, entrepreneurship, or even career development.
The book is dynamic and fun to read. Thiel manages to deliver complex and mostly abstract ideas in digestible and engaging ways. It is packed with real-life examples, reflections, and even Bible quotes. And this is the direct answer to a question “what field does an entrepreneur have to excel in?” They need to accumulate diverse knowledge and combine it based on the particular situation. So enjoy the book and shape your own takeaways from it.

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

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This is yet another entry among the best books for startup entrepreneurs that had two mentions among the McKinsey alumni we asked for suggestions. With the title as promising as it is, this book will prepare you for the challenges you can face to create a startup and give you the perspective on navigating the uncertainty.
The biggest takeaway you will get from The Lean Startup is the ability and the courage to deal with the chaos that will get in your way. Learning about all the possible threats may be overwhelming, but after all, the book gives a consolation that no situation is a dead end.
Another reason to read this book is the universality of the companies that can apply the principles it presents. From capital efficient to those focused on human creativity, business owners will find insights that will improve their understanding of the place their business is at and how to move forward.
As a bonus, the book is well-written, witty, unambiguous, and honest, making reading it fun. Eric Ries did a great job making it relatable and available for diverse audiences in terms of the field and the narrative itself.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

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For the fans of biographies and success stories, this one is among the top startup books. The story of Nike as a company is a legend inspiring generations of future businesses and just aspiring professionals from related fields. And there’s no wonder why it does!
It is an honest and heartwarming at times memoir, which walks you through doubt, motivation, setbacks, uncertainty, and hope for the best. As a result, you see that the true yearning is always bigger than fear and that there is always a place for those who dream out there in the market playground. It is the view from the insight of what decisions were made and what each of them cost, which eventually made the entire world follow the company’s values that started by selling shoes.
The “Shoe Dog” is a go-to book if you want to learn something new for your professional development, as well as if you want to read something good just for fun. It is a candid conversation about all the ups and downs on the way to near market hegemony, delivered in a humane, sympathetic, insightful, and well-humored way.

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Reed Hastings, Erin Meyer

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The story of Netflix is one of market disruption and redefinition of what this market actually needs. Nowadays, Netflix has become a part of our everyday life and an integral part of our leisure. It is a generic name not only for streaming platforms but laid-back activities as a whole. Moreover, it is a service that embraces the dark side of human nature and successfully monetizes it, which is a great thing to learn for startupers.
Hastings and Erin Meyer’s book was shortlisted for the 2020 Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year, which means the opinion about it among business leaders is unanimous. Although it is not exactly a startup handbook or a business plan, it is an inspiring work changing times, people, and creative approaches to business.
But what exactly is the takeaway here? Disrupt the system to succeed. Sounds promising, but in fact, it teaches sensitivity to culture and the ability to interact with the way you can offer a product it needs. It will show you how important it is to understand what the Zeitgeist demands and see the opportunities where everything seems to have been done. Netflix’s story takes a special place among the best books for tech startup entrepreneurs for the importance of understanding the context we live in, which it delivers so lightheartedly.

The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup by Noam Wasserman

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If you are done with inspiring stories and are down for some applicable food for thought, “The Founder’s Dilemmas” by Noam Wasserman is there to deliver insights and instruments for avoidings setbacks in your business. What puts it to the forefront of best books for startup founders’ reading list.
This is a theorized count of decisions you will have to make from day one of your project and what to consider to make the right one. The book is based on long-term research and rich with real-life examples along with their analysis. The “Dilemma” definitely belongs in the pool of best books for small business startups and has the potential of becoming your reference point while at the crossroads.
But is there a clear takeaway? This one is better read than spoken about. Still, for an easy answer – any business or startup, just like our life, is an everyday series of choices, from the smallest ones to fateful. Every entrepreneur’s job is to see the value of every option, evaluate the stakes, and make a rational decision that will push the company to new levels of success. Because the clearer you see the stakes, the better you are at decision making.

Rework by Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson

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This one goes for perfectionists first. We are all taught that success is solid if your business plan is detailed and elaborate enough. However, there is another perspective on this matter, which proves that a big plan can harm your growth.
No, it’s not necessary to play it by ear all the time. It is just a warning that the plan can change, and the heavier it is, the more complicated it is to adjust to the environment. It is a way to choose between time and plan, which once can be paramount for the future of your startup. But this book is even more than creative and courageous business planning. This work will provide insights about the place of your business in your overall life, making the priorities along the way and healthy relationships with the business of your life. It will improve your relationship with work when you finish it and entertain you while you read it. “Rework” is there to give you the three-dimensional picture of how even the smallest decisions impact your future path and how to be true to yourself in everything you do.
After all, what is making business but another way of self-expression we all need?

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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For those who want some interdisciplinary or even universal insights, here is the “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It is a work of a prominent and best-selling philosopher of our time that reflects on the forces that move our life and the role of our will among it all. Plus, a philosophical work that fits in the list of the best books to read for startup business fuels curiosity, to say the least.
For most of us, uncertainty is torture. It multiplies when the stakes are higher than usual or when you can lose everything at once. Yet, it is an integral part of our life, so everyone had better learn how to deal with it. And this is what the “Antifragile” is for: navigating the uncertainty and turning it into your benefit.
Although the field this book is applicable in is vast, it is a pure theory that you can use planning your weekend, deciding to invest, or building your own business when the time seems wrong. Although it can be confused with a digestible self-help book, this one does not give any answers, but the attitude you can develop towards the things that may be frightening or disturbing. So, this one is to seeing opportunities even in pitfalls.

Bonus: An online resource

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Books are the classic source of knowledge, but it is impossible to ignore the place of the Internet in today’s education. If you want fresh news, profound insights, success stories, business advice, or you are simply in the mood for interactive learning, is a resource you won’t waste your time on. So, if you are looking for the best tech startup books, do not limit yourself to paperback only.
It is a choose-your-own-adventure type of learning device you can use at your own pace with the comfortable consistency. Our personal favorite here is the Playbook – a step-by-step guideline for building a successful startup in clear and concise articles you can use in practice.
Reading is a journey, and it is up to you where to start and what to start with. This startup books must-read list is undoubtedly to expand, but the items here are tested and approved by star McKinsey alumni, who demonstrate how to use the written wisdom for the best.


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