I recently created a spreadsheet of my favorites at the request of some of my employees. Two titles, in particular, struck me as being crucial reads for any entrepreneur looking to up their game.
1. The E-Myth: Why Most Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber
The E-Myth taught me that a small business owner's first and foremost responsibility is to--drum roll, please--run their business. Like many others before me, I had naively assumed my job would primarily consist of engaging in a craft.
In my case, that craft was fixing and repairing electric signs. But it might as well have been baking cakes or painting cars. There would come a day when the task of actually working with the signs themselves would fall to people I hired, while I labored behind the scenes to keep the whole operation running.
I still remember the moment when I realized my job description had been narrowed to sitting at a desk managing other guys with tools, instead of using those tools myself. It seemed crazy to me, as I had grown up on a farm and never had a sedentary job in my life.
The E Myth went on to teach me that I couldn't do that job without creating an adequate business model. A business model answers important questions like "Who's going to design our website? Who's going to bring customers through the door? Who's going to ensure we fulfill our promises about our product? Who's going to see that we get paid for that product? If someone doesn't pay us, who's solving that problem?"
If you're a sole proprietor, the ultimate answer to every question of this sort is simple: you. Some of these tasks can be handled by software designed for that purpose, but others will have to be taken care of by human beings you employ. Whatever your solution, it's crucial to understand that a business is both a system and a process, and far more complicated than just making and selling something.
2. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
If The E Myth taught me how to run my business, Influence taught me how to interact with all the people inside and around my business that would help me succeed.
Cialdini argues the art of selling boils down to exerting influence over others. At the end of the day, I was trying to convince a customer that they desperately needed what I was providing.
To do that, I'd also have to convince my employees of certain things. If we were running behind, I'd have to persuade them to work late. If we were having a lean year, I'd have to convince them to put the idea of raises on hold until the money was flowing again.
Each chapter of Cialdini's book elucidates a different psychological rule regarding influence that he first developed a theory about and then tested on others. His theory of commitment, for example, states that when we represent ourselves to others as being X, we'll go to extreme lengths to maintain X--even if X isn't true.
By way of illustration, Cialdini tells the story of a pretty young lady knocking on his door one day to announce she's in the neighborhood conducting a survey about people's tastes in fine wine. Cialdini, wanting to impress her with his sophistication, agrees to participate.
The young lady starts with a series of questions: Does he prefer red or white wine? How often does he drink? On average, does he buy expensive bottles, cheap bottles, or somewhere in between?
Cialdini, remember, is trying to look like a hotshot. He therefore exaggerates how often he buys wine and the price he pays for it. At the end of the survey, the young lady does some quick calculations and says, "Why, this is unbelievable! I happen to be selling a booklet of coupons that will save you hundreds of dollars, all for the low price of 50 bucks!"
Instantly, Cialdini sees his mistake. He's a professional psychologist for crying out loud, yet he's backed himself into a corner in which he seemingly has no logical reason not to purchase the coupons, given the way he represented himself during the exchange.
He ended up buying the coupons, and in doing so taught me about a powerful sales technique, while simultaneously warning me about the pitfalls of thinking with your ego instead of your brain.
These are lessons that most entrepreneurs would do well to absorb, and an hour or two of concentrated reading is one of the best ways I can think of to absorb them.