Starting a small business is a big decision and researching best practices can sometimes yield unhelpful results. We spoke with Nate DeMars about the best books to read before starting a small business. DeMars is an Entrepreneurship Lecturer at The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business and Founder & CEO of Pursuit, a modern suit store with old-fashioned service. His recommended reading list covers subjects such as expectations, culture, business systems and more — many of which he has incorporated into the running of his own successful small business.
1. The Lean Startup (Eric Ries)
“The Lean Startup” guides business owners through the initial conception of a business — often where the most money is lost. It postulates that starting a business requires you to quickly and efficiently test the hypothesis that your service or product will sell.
“Pursuit started as a pop-up concept,” DeMars said. “My hypothesis was that people would buy a suit from a simple store with great customer service. And because the reaction to the pop-up was so good, the experiment continued. Now it’s been 10 years of experiments.”
To do this, the book recommends that business owners determine their “minimal viable product.” It’s the most inexpensive way you can put your product out and still be successful. DeMars experienced that firsthand when starting Pursuit with just a short lease on a space and only 37 total suits. The idea is very similar to the continuous improvement concept that many larger businesses follow; however, small businesses and entrepreneurs don’t necessarily have the luxury of time that corporations have.
Author Eric Ries emphasizes the speed with which businesses must pivot. Owners should test their concepts quickly and make adjustments based on the results. By treating everything as an experiment and being flexible enough to roll with the punches, you can hone in on a product or service that will sell.
“Entrepreneurship is really a feedback loop,” DeMars said. “Build, measure, learn, repeat.”
2. Small Giants (Bo Burlingham)
Next up on the list of best books for small business owners is “Small Giants.” In this book, author Bo Burlingham demolishes the conventional idea of success. When you think of a startup, you probably imagine the goal is to become a “unicorn” – grow rapidly, make massive revenues and ultimately go public or get acquired. But there’s a reason those businesses are nicknamed after a mythical creature. The reality is that most successful entrepreneurs and small business owners measure their success on a different scale.
Instead of using massive growth and revenue as the proof point for your success, ask yourself at which size your business is best. Being great doesn’t have to be about size; it can be about providing a product or service you are proud of to the right customer base that values and appreciates it.
“That idea was liberating for me,” DeMars said. “Maybe I don’t need to be a giant national brand. I want quality over quantity. Maybe for Pursuit, I just want to be the best regional store.”
DeMars believes that more people would attempt to be entrepreneurs if they didn’t think that success was contingent on becoming a global corporation or the next Mark Zuckerberg. “Small Giants” reinforces that your success metrics should be based on what’s best for your business, not what has worked for others.
3. Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business (Gino Wickman)
One of the most sought-after reads for small business owners is Gino Wickman’s “Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business.” While the content of the book is aimed at current business owners, DeMars recommends it as a book for first time entrepreneurs as well for the foresight it can provide.
Wickman describes the point that many businesses reach when the owner is not enough. It’s when your business has started to flourish, and no matter how hard you work, you simply need more human capital and streamlined processes. From hiring and delegating to systems processes and data analysis, Wickman lays out how to work through the growing pains for increased success — and lower stress.
“It’s kind of a universal truth of small businesses that at some point you will get overwhelmed and won’t be able to do it yourself anymore,” DeMars said. “This book helps you structure your business and establish an operating system.”
4. Atomic Habits (James Clear)
Last but not least on our list of small business books is “Atomic Habits.” This is the outlier in DeMars’ list because it isn’t explicitly about being a small business owner. Rather, it’s about finding success as a person. It covers self-improvement strategies and how to incorporate them into your life in a lasting way. DeMars described the feelings of isolation that many entrepreneurs feel and the need to invest in yourself as well as your business to combat them. Being the best and healthiest version of yourself will, in turn, result in a better business.
“People accidentally create cultures; it’s not always intentional,” DeMars said. “Your personal work ethic or approach to your business becomes the culture.”
DeMars learned that lesson the hard way when he saw his employees becoming burned out and found that his expectations had affected their lives at home. He describes the experience as “sobering.” While he had made the choice to make his businesses his life, he had not intended to project that mentality onto his employees. The COVID-19 pandemic was a turning point that gave him the opportunity to shut down and come back with different priorities for his employees — and a more sustainable working environment.
DeMars recommends joining local business owner or peer groups or putting together an advisory board for your business that you can turn to for advice, to bounce around ideas and simply to feel supported. And as “Atomic Habits” recommends, changing small, everyday things in your life can help you achieve greater peace and success.