The SaaS industry is changing fast. As a startup founder, you need to keep a close eye on the latest trends, methodologies, and strategies to remain competitive.
However, some fundamental ideas always remain applicable and relevant across industries. These principles are the foundation that you will build on to make better decisions for your business.
To get you started, we’ve listed ten books that contain evergreen advice by industry trailblazers and influencers that every SaaS startup founder should read.
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The Hard Thing About Hard Things—Ben Horowitz
The Lean Startup—Eric Ries
Lean Analytics—Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz
Crossing the Chasm—Geoffrey Moore
The Innovator’s Dilemma—Clayton Christensen
From Impossible to Inevitable—Aaron Ross and Jason Lemkin
Four Steps to the Epiphany—Steve Blank
Zero to One—Peter Thiel
Behind the Cloud—Marc Benioff
The Science of Selling—David Hoffeld
Hailed as “the most valuable book on startup management hands down” by PandoDaily, The Hard Thing About Hard Things regularly tops lists of essential reading material for startup founders.
In his book, Horowitz recounts his experience as CEO of Opsware, formerly Loudcloud, a software company that HP acquired in 2007 for $1.6 billion.
Today, Horrowitz and Andreesen run a venture capital firm with companies such as Airbnb, GitHub, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter on their investment portfolios.
Published in 2014, the collection of Horowitz’s blog posts titled The Hard Thing About Hard Things continues to capture new fans.
Readers appreciate that the author doesn’t glamourize the hustle culture of Silicon Valley.
Instead, he ventures into what Sarah Lacey describes as “the unique psychological torture of building a company.”
“Every management guide presumes that all great companies follow a formula. But successful startups don’t imitate; they build innovations that can’t be copied. Ben Horowitz knows no recipe guarantees success. He has written the first true guide for protecting a startup from self-sabotage.” – Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and founder and partner at Founders Fund (Amazon back cover)
However, as some readers point out, the book and its advice are relatively niche, being primarily relevant to “CEOs of venture capital or public tech companies in the Silicon Valley in California.”
Nonetheless, it’s an invaluable cautionary tale about all the difficulties that lie ahead of your path as a CEO and how to persevere through them.
“The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.” (Goodreads)
The philosophy behind the book can be summarized like this:
“Take care of the people, the products, and the profits—in that order.” (Goodreads)
In addition to this classic, Ben Horowitz published another book in 2019, What You Do Is Who You Are, which explores how great company cultures are shaped and maintained, drawing inspiration from history and modern institutional practices.
Make sure to add it to your reading list, too.
Following his own startup failures, Eric Ries learned just how much traditional management practices are at odds with the dynamic and uncertain startup environment.
So, driven by an insatiable hunger to discover why so many good startup ideas fail, Ries discovered the benefits of the lean methodology for reducing waste and driving efficiency in every aspect of the business.
“A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” (Goodreads)
Ries started sharing his insights on his blog, Startup Lessons Learned, fine-tuning his theories and testing them in practice.
He eventually developed a system that became a global movement adopted by companies such as Dropbox, Zappos, and General Electric.
The book was even praised by Marc Andreessen, who stated that “Eric has created a science where previously there was only art.”
That scientific aspect Andreessen refers to is a framework known as the Build-Measure-Learn. It’s a feedback loop startups can recreate to waste no resources in the early stages of their development when risks run high.
Source: TheLean Startup
The Lean Startup encourages innovators to treat ideas as experiments that need to be continuously tested and iterated in smaller increments, instead of developing extensive business plans that get trumped by management as unsustainable.
“This is one of the most important lessons of the scientific method: if you cannot fail, you cannot learn.” (Goodreads)
Judging by reader and peer reviews, the book’s strength lies in the fact that the methods Ries lays out are highly applicable.
The Lean Startup is, therefore, a quintessential read for startup founders who want to avoid the arduous path of developing a product for months only to find out there’s no interest in it.
It’s only logical to include Lean Analytics on this list right after Lean Startups, as one of the best books for SaaS startups.
After all, Eric Ries, the creator of the lean startup movement, wrote the preface to Lean Analytics, praising it for taking the lean principles “to a whole new level.”
Furthermore, Lean Analytics is what Dan Martell, CEO and founder of Clarity, calls “the missing piece of Lean Startup.”
Indeed, Croll and Yoskovitz provide metrics and data benchmarks for growing your startup the lean way. Here’s how the authors describe why the two books go hand in hand:
Both Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz are experienced entrepreneurs. In 2010, they co-founded Year One Labs, an early-stage accelerator and the first accelerator following a lean startup program.
Much of the insights from Lean Analytics stem from that time and experience.
Lean Analytics dispels the bubble of delusion most entrepreneurs live in.
Although they don’t negate the importance of instincts in innovation, the authors advocate for intuition to be supported by data and metrics to ensure long-term sustainability and growth.
“Many companies claim they’re data-driven. Unfortunately, while they embrace the data part of that mantra, few focus on the second word: driven. If you have a piece of data on which you cannot act, it’s a vanity metric.” (Goodreads)
One of the highlights of the book is The One Metric That Matters concept (OMTM), which advocates focusing on the one metric that teams expect to have the most impact on growth in the following 2-6 months.
Lean Analytics breaks down KPIs and metrics for specific startup types (e-commerce, SaaS, mobile apps, media site, user-generated content, and marketplace) and shares examples of finding and setting the OMTM.
With its 448 pages, Lean Analytics leans on the longer side.
However, as one reader pointed out, it covers a lot of ground, serves as a refresher on lean methodologies, and delves deep into specific metrics.
That makes the time spent on reading this book a time well-invested.
Although this book first appeared in 1991, and its initial concepts were developed in 1989, Crossing the Chasm has stood the test of time.
The 3rd edition still delights new generations of tech entrepreneurs.
To this day, many founders and marketers swear by Moore’s book, calling it “the bible for bringing cutting-edge products to progressively larger markets.”
The term Moore’s chasm refers to the adoption of new ideas and the gap between early adopters and the early majority.
While early adopters are visionaries, willing to pay more to be the first to have access to groundbreaking technologies, the early majority is somewhat more risk-averse.
Because of this, you can’t apply the same marketing principles to try to reach both these two groups. However, many people try to do so, and for that reason, many innovative ideas fail to become mainstream on the market. Moore, therefore, examines marketing strategies to ‘cross the chasm’, which benefits more groups than just the businesses selling a tech product:
The book’s evergreen principles for bringing a high-tech product to market encompass many fundamental concepts that SaaS startups can still apply today.
The newest editions of the book are updated with timely examples of both success and failure in companies attempting to reach mainstream audiences after winning over early adopters.
Still, readers note that it’s interesting to look back at the companies which Moore mentions.
Some of these companies are either long past startup status, while others have gradually gone out of business.
Moore has written several more books, but Crossing the Chasm remains fundamental reading for tech startups, marketers, and innovators interested in the dynamics of introducing disruptive and innovative technologies.
Imagine doing everything right in terms of managing your company, and still falling behind as a leader in your industry.
According to Christensen, this is almost inevitable for most businesses that introduce disruptive technologies.
The same strategies that brought you to the top will cause your demise. But how is that even possible?
Managers played the game the way it was supposed to be played. The very decision-making and resource-allocation processes that are key to the success of established companies are the very processes that reject disruptive technologies: listening carefully to customers; tracking competitors’ actions carefully; and investing resources to design and build higher-performance, higher-quality products that will yield greater profit. These are the reasons why great firms stumbled or failed when confronted with disruptive technological change.” (Goodreads)
In other words, although great products are developed by listening to customers’ needs, there comes a time when, paradoxically, iterations surpass the actual needs of your customers.
And once your company hits that plateau, the product becomes too complicated for existing users, yet too advanced for new customers.
Now, you might wonder why we’ve included The Innovator’s Dilemma on a list of books for startups when it describes the reasons why the top players fail.
That’s because, over the course of 336 pages, The Innovator’s Dilemma captures the essence of why small players often overtake the giants.
Christensen argues that large companies are not interested in emerging technologies until they see clear profitability in investing in such tech.
However, as a startup with a smaller market reach and smaller revenue sources, you have an advantage over well-established companies that rely on high-paying clients.
You can create a whole new market for your disruptive tech product.
And by the time big companies catch on, it’s too late for them to leave a meaningful mark.
You’re already leaps and bounds ahead.
“First, disruptive products are simpler and cheaper; they generally promise lower margins, not greater profits. Second, disruptive technologies typically are first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets. And third, leading firms’ most profitable customers generally don’t want, and indeed initially can’t use, products based on disruptive technologies.”
As one reviewer points out, this is why Tesla has managed to overtake Ford in the electric car market. Ford couldn’t justify the profitability of electric cars for their clientele.
However, Tesla saw the opportunity on the market and seized it.
The Innovator’s Dilemma offers important insights both for those blazing the trail in the industry as well as those yet to tap into it.
If you’re running a B2B SaaS startup, you can’t afford to miss The Innovator’s Dilemma.
If you’ve ever wondered about the hypergrowth secret sauce behind Hubspot, Salesforce, and EchoSign (aka Adobe Document Services), then From Impossible to Inevitable is the book for you.
This book is particularly aimed at scaling SaaS startups, and many readers attest that it’s a very hands-on guide.
In fact, a common thread to the book’s Goodreads reviews is how many notes and highlights readers have made to refer to later.
SaaS founders describe it as timely, actionable, and extremely helpful for setting up sales processes in the early stages of the business.
Just check out this review by a SaaS business founder:
Both authors are considered top advisors and sought-after investors in the SaaS environment.
Every piece of advice Ross and Lemkin provide has been tried and tested first-hand with much success.
Therefore, their book is less theoretical than most others, and provides real examples and instructions from real people who have truly been there and done that.
The 7 key lessons pictured above have been expanded with new chapters in the second, 2019 edition, and updated with new case studies on Twilio, Sagemount, and Zuora growth.
From Impossible to Inevitable is an extended companion to Predictable Revenue by Ross, who runs a consultancy company with the same name.
Make sure to add that book to your reading list as well:
Many readers return to Impossible to Inevitable often, simply because it’s such a practical guide on boosting your SaaS startup’s recurring revenue.
It provides clear instructions and a framework for getting on a fast growth trajectory.
Therefore, this is one of the first books you’ll want to read when starting a SaaS business.
Four Steps to the Epiphany is considered one of the most important and influential books for SaaS startups and tech entrepreneurs in general.
Steve Blank was one of the first entrepreneurs talking about how startups can’t be established and managed as smaller versions of large companies.
His insights have therefore been credited with putting the lean startup revolution in motion.
Readers often say that this book is best read alongside The Lean Startup, and it’s easy to see why.
Four Steps to the Epiphany focuses on the Customer Development process.
It highlights the importance of rapid iterations, customer input, and testing products and plans frequently to avoid costly mistakes afterward.
In short, the author urges founders to ask all the right questions before they even start executing a plan and developing a product for the market.
Four Steps to the Epiphany provides concrete examples of what, how, and when to take certain actions when building your startup’s sales, marketing, and business processes.
“In a startup, the first product is not designed to satisfy a mainstream customer. No startup can afford the engineering effort or the time to build a product with every feature a mainstream customer needs in its first release.” (Goodreads)
It’s a classic textbook for all new businesses and mandatory reading in business classes.
In fact, before retiring, Blank taught his methodology at Stanford, Berkeley, Columbia, and NY, so it needs to be on every startup founder’s reading list too.
Zero to One might be the shortest and most controversial book on this list, but the latter is one of the main reasons it merits a spot.
Peter Thiel is best known for starting, running, and investing in ventures such as PayPal, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yelp.
In 2012, Thiel was teaching a business class at Stanford.
One of his students, Blake Masters, took extensive notes that would become so popular outside the campus that Thiel decided to work with him on refining the notes and publish them as Zero to One.
In this short book of about 120 pages, Thiel takes a more philosophical approach to how innovations and progress happen, not just in Silicon Valley but also in other industries globally.
“Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.” (Goodreads)
Zero to One is less geared towards the nitty-gritty of daily startup operations.
Thiel himself makes it clear in the foreword that the book “is not a manual or a record of knowledge but an exercise in thinking”—more precisely, contrarian thinking—which is a necessary trait of all great innovators.
Although it’s not as practical as other books on this list, Zero to One provides interesting insights into how innovations and breakthroughs happen.
For SaaS startup founders, the most important aspect of the book is the question: is it possible at all to come up with something new, and what contributes to this type of innovation?
We’ve already mentioned Salesforce in the context of The Impossible to Inevitable from Ross and Lemkin’s perspective.
But how about some insider info from the Salesforce founder, chairman, and CEO Marc Benioff himself?
Behind the Cloud takes the reader back to when SaaS was still in its infancy.
Development stories serve as great reminders to fresh startup founders that many giants of today started in a garage, and Behind the Cloud brings many of them to light.
The book draws on the fact that nearly everyone can start a company—however, sustaining it ethically, pushing through the crash of the dot-com bubble, and becoming a multi-billion business requires some visionary thinking.
The book also provides some insights into the marketing and sales strategies Salesforce used to achieve rapid growth, and how the 1-1-1 philanthropy model contributed to the brand’s image.
“The most effective selling is done not by a sales team but by people you don’t even know who are talking about your products without your being aware of it.”
Behind the Cloud is a great read for those who want to learn about what the greatest companies do right and what they do wrong. For startup founders, such personal recounts are invaluable.
Before you can excel at selling, you need to know everything you can about buying.
That is the main idea behind The Science of Selling.
This book combines social psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics to explain what exactly drives buying decisions.
David Hoffeld, sales training leader and founder of Hoffeld Group, noted that half of sales reps fail to meet their quotas.
Digging deeper into scholarly papers and then testing the theories in his own sales processes, Hoffeld noticed that focusing on the psychology of buying is the key to better sales methodologies.
The result of Hoffeld’s nearly ten-year-long research is The Science of Selling.
In the book, Hoffeld opposes the idea of improving sales by simply looking at anecdotal evidence and individual stories of successful salespeople.
Instead, he offers five strategies that can be repeated and recreated to suit salespeople in various industries.
The Science of Selling has ushered in a new era of sales that is more rooted in data and science.
This was long overdue in the modern digital age, as the buyers’ decision processes started to become increasingly influenced by the information they could find online.
Such an approach (sales backed by scientific data instead of stabbing in the dark) is perfectly suited for modern data-driven SaaS startups.
This book needs to be on your reading list if you want to create a sales process fully aligned with how your users want to buy.
The ten books we listed here represent some of the greatest advice and wisdom from people who have shaped the SaaS industry into what it is today.
Some of these books are hands-on guides, while others will give you more historical and theoretical overviews.
However, what they have in common is that they continue to inspire tech entrepreneurs throughout generations.
Read these books, and see why industry leaders keep recommending them to everyone who starts a new business venture.