Coming up fast - A reading list for those who want to succeed - Most 'how to get ahead in business' books aren't worth the paper they are printed on. But some, says Belgo boss Luke Johnson, are worth their weight in gold. He selects the six you need.
Anyone who has started a business will know that advice on how to run it usually comes pouring in from every source. Books, newspaper articles and even friendly bank managers all offer a contribution: the difficulty is working out which bits of advice are worth following and which should be consigned to the dustbin.
I have started and bought a number of businesses since the age of 18, some of which have succeeded, some of which have not. I have also bought (and even read) quite a few business books over the years - many have been awful but some have been a great help in my career. Yet I still find it difficult to recommend just six to read if you plan to start a new venture.
The point about business is that it is down-to-earth: the process of selling things and making a profit. It is not art. Literature, on the other hand, is rather more intangible, intellectual stuff. So the books I have chosen are practical works, designed to offer common-sense advice along with a measure of inspiration.
To that end, you should never feel you need to study a business book as you might read a novel, from beginning to end, just following the narrative.
Rather, you should treat business books as reference sources, dipping into them when you need specific information or a little encouragement.
There are huge numbers of business books published, but most are unreadable and written by nonentities. That does not apply to my magic half-dozen.
The first choice is a sort of cheat, in that it is an anthology of essays and articles by legendary figures in commerce and industry. It is called The Book of Business Wisdom and it is edited by Peter Krass. It includes incisive and revealing pieces by pioneers such as Andrew Carnegie, the steel baron, and Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor and entrepreneur, as well as Sam Walton's rules for success and Thomas J Watson, who built IBM, on selling with sincerity. There is David Ogilvy on leadership, Andrew Grove on time management and Benjamin Franklin on the 'way to wealth'.
Here, for example, is Franklin on laziness and industry: 'sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright.
Dost thou love life? then do not squander time, for that's the stuff life is made of.'
Or Sam Walton 250 years later recommending his 10 rules for building a business but also pointing out: 'They are some rules that worked for me. But I always prided myself on breaking everybody else's rules, and I always favored the mavericks who challenged my rules ... in the end I listened to them a lot more closely than I did the pack who always agreed with everything I said.'
All in all, The Book of Business Wisdom is a classic collection of brilliant business minds putting their tips on paper, and a must for all who have bold dreams of becoming successful and making money.
Most of the contributors started with nothing and built substantial commercial empires - their experiences are tremendous examples to us all.
The second choice is The Magic of Thinking Big by David J Schwartz. It is my favourite self-help book, full of sensible steps to achieving success in business and life. Successful people study people, says Schwartz. 'Go deep into your study of people, and you'll discover unsuccessful people suffer a mind-deadening thought disease. We call this disease excusitis ... the fellow who has gone nowhere and has no plans for getting anywhere always has a bookful of reasons to explain why they haven't, why they don't, why they can't, and why they aren't.'
The cynical British have traditionally been sceptical and rather superior about this sort of title, but creating a new business is all about believing the impossible and proving the doubters wrong. That is why books like this have such appeal to entrepreneurs. The underlying message is that self-confidence is the key to victory. But The Magic of Thinking Big has more than one piece of advice - every chapter includes useful items to think about and learn. It is inevitably relentlessly American in style, but then they do these types of books best. Follow the approach towards people suggested by this book and your business is guaranteed to be big.
The third choice is Jim Slater's autobiography Return to Go. The paperback edition I have was published by Futura in 1978. I fear the book may now be out of print, but no doubt one of the internet services could obtain a copy. In the late '60s and early '70s, Slater was a business phenomenon, who then suffered a terrible reverse when his master company, Slater Walker, got into difficulties in 1975. This book is a compulsive account of that wild ride. Although a lot of the subject matter is stock market related, there is plenty of actual business detail. It covers his early career at Leyland and then his meteoric climb, all in his lucid and detailed style.
There are those, such as Charles Raw, author of an alternative version of events called Slater Walker, who disagree with Slater's depiction, but his memoirs still make excellent reading. In recent years, Slater has enjoyed quite a comeback as a stock market guru and author of investment books, and his wit, energy and originality are all on display in Return to Go. It is especially recommended for those who have suffered a setback. Slater shows how even legends can come unstuck in the unpredictable world of capitalism, and the importance of not believing your own hype.
My fourth choice is another business autobiography. The Funny Money Game was written by Andrew Tobias in 1971 when he was only 24. It tells the extraordinary tale of National Student Marketing Corporation, a bubble share from the go-go era of Wall Street in the late 1960s. Tobias gives a truly hilarious, first-hand account of what it is like to be part of a small enterprise that got propelled into the stratosphere during a very optimistic time.
He became vice president of what was a $100 million conglomerate and watched the shares climb from $16 to $146 and then tumble all the way down to $3.50. Tobias has since gone on to become a well-known financial commentator and his talent was clearly visible in this early book of his.
The Funny Money Game is another cautionary tale for those at risk of getting carried away with their own genius.
My fifth choice is the best book I have ever read about making venture capital investments. It is called, predictably enough, Venture Capital Investing and is by David Gladstone, who was president and chief investment officer of Allied Capital Corporation, a huge US venture capital firm.
The purpose of this book from the entrepreneur's perspective is that it describes what financial backers look for in new projects and how to raise funding. The compelling thing about Venture Capital Investing is that it is written by a veteran practitioner who really knows what he is talking about.
The book is not technical and is full of revealing examples that show why businesses go wrong and what investors must avoid. Anyone with a start-up idea should subject their plans to the sort of scrutiny outlined in this book and see just how convincing their scheme really is. For example, Gladstone says that one of the six key characteristics any proposition should have is that 'the deal must make lots of money'. Will your idea make lots of money?
My final choice is one of the most enjoyable business books I have ever read: it is called How to Lose $100,000,000 and Other Valuable Advice, and was written by Royal Little in 1979. Little was a business legend who built up a massive US conglomerate called Textron, which still exists as a major industrial group.
The book is in the form of a diary of his commercial career, and consists of a series of mistakes he made from the 1920s until he retired in the 1970s. Each short chapter ends with a lesson learned from the particular blunder described. Textron changed from a textile concern to a defence contractor. Little describes each twist in its convoluted history. In fact, Little created an enduring business and was one of the first venture capitalists. His modest story is refreshing, amusing and educational.
None of the above are obvious 'start-up' textbook. You can find any number of those on your nearest bookshop shelf. Rather, I have tried to suggest relevant books that you will actually read and remember. Good luck with your endeavours and your reading.