In my experience as a communications coach for some of the world's largest brands, I can tell you that successful leaders read more books than the average person. In fact, they not only read more books, they adopt the strategies they learn.
The story of Trader Joe's is a good example of how the power of books can shape your ideas or new business. Trader Joe's founder, Joe Coulombe, wrote his memoir, Becoming Trader Joe, but never saw it published. He died last year at the age of 89.
The books Coulombe credits for Trader Joe's success represent a variety of genres. Here are a few that might spark your imagination.
The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman
Coulombe called Barbara W. Tuchman's book about World War I, "The best book on management--and, especially, mismanagement--I've ever read."
The book taught Coulombe that if entrepreneurs wait for conditions to be perfect, they'll never launch a company or pursue an idea. "If you adopt a reasonable strategy, as opposed to waiting for an optimum strategy, and stick with it, you will probably succeed," he says.
I've watched too many would-be entrepreneurs set aside their dreams of starting a company because conditions weren't right. For example, on its face the Covid-19 pandemic would seem to be a bad time to start a company. But millions of Americans didn't see it that way, and started a company anyway. The New York Times calls it, "a boom in U.S. entrepreneurship."
While you're waiting for perfect conditions, someone else is acting.
In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters
This is the book that explains why Trader Joe's stores are much smaller than traditional supermarkets.
Tom Peters encouraged entrepreneurs to keep teams small, which allows them to be more flexible, adaptable, and resilient. Trader Joe's smaller stores enable teams to adapt to the needs of local communities, communicate more efficiently with each other and with customers, and make faster decisions.
"Small groups can tackle projects or problems quickly and not get bogged down in bureaucracy," according to Peters.
In Search of Excellence is considered one of the best business books of all time. Despite the fact that it was published in 1982, its principles remain timeless.
Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe.
Coulombe credits this 1970 book for sparking his interest in natural, healthy foods. That's why granola was the first store-brand product available at Trader Joe's.
Read contemporary books and publications that offer insights on changing patterns. For example, in addition to books, Coulombe read Scientific American magazine. In one issue, he learned about America's changing demographics: More people than ever were earning a college education. It inspired him to build a store for the "over-educated and underpaid."
Staying on top of trends and changing demographics is a fundamental step to building a company that stands out.
Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy.
Coulombe devotes an entire chapter of his book to The Fearless Flyer, the store's quirky circular that millions of customers love to read.
David Ogilvy's book was published in 1963. Coulombe launched The Fearless Flyer six years later using design elements he learned from the book. "The numbered paragraphs, the boxes drawn around the articles, are all Ogilvy's ideas. I still think his books are the best on advertising that I've ever read."
Ogilvy's book is still considered a must-read among those interested in advertising or marketing. And since marketing is everyone's job, the advice Ogilvy offers remains relevant.
Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener
Although this 1954 book was about automation and the coming information age, one phrase inspired Coulombe to think differently: "The human use of human beings."
It forced Coulombe to consider the unique roles that humans perform in a store, like customer service and product knowledge. It convinced Coulombe to make sure Trader Joe's always paid above-average wages to attract the best and friendliest people. "This is the most important single business decision I ever made: To pay people well."
Take another look at the list of books that inspired Trader Joe's. Not one is about retailing or the grocery business. Disrupting the status quo means applying ideas from outside your field. If you read more books from diverse categories, you might find ideas that will spark your next adventure.