10 books about Startups to take to a desert island

What’s your favourite holiday? I’m a beach lover, the more deserted the better, trudging slowly over wet sand, sit on the promenade, write a postcard. There’s nothing I’d rather do than live on a desert island someday, it wouldn’t take much to convince me to give it all up and live in a beach hut. Perfect beaches, perfect water, your own space, all the seclusion you could want.

When hearing desert island, you think of a tropical island, with sandy beaches and swaying palm trees. And what are palm trees known to be good for? Hanging up a hammock of course! That’s all I’d need, with music and books, a life of Robinson Crusoe would suit me.

This is what was in the mind late one evening in 1941, of broadcaster Roy Plomley, at home in his pyjamas, when an idea came to him. He sat down and wrote to the BBC. That letter reached the BBC’s Head of Popular Record Programmes, Leslie Perowne. The pitch was successful and a broadcasting institution was born.

Desert Island Discs is a biographical radio programme, broadcast on BBC Radio 4. It was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 29 January 1942. Each week a guest, called a ‘castaway’ during the program, is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item, that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. More than 3,000 episodes have been recorded.

Plomley’s first castaway was the Viennese entertainer, Vic Oliver. The first piece of music chosen by Vic Oliver, and therefore by any castaway, was Chopin’s Étude No.12 in C minor. The most popular piece of music requested is Beethoven’s Symphony number 9 in D minor, ‘Ode to Joy’.

Plomley continued to present the programme until his death in May 1985, and was replaced by Michael Parkinson. Parkinson presented the last of his 96 programmes on 13 March 1988, when Sue Lawley became the first female presenter. Over the following 18 years, she interviewed 750 people, leaving in August 2006 and replaced by Kirsty Young, the current presenter.

Plomley originally wanted the sounds of ‘surf breaking on a shore and the cries of sea birds’ to open and close each programme, but it was refused as it lack definition. Instead, By The Sleepy Lagoon, composed by Eric Coates was chosen for the first show and has remained the signature opening and closing theme of the programme since. The sound of herring gulls also accompanies the tune to put emphasis on the desert island. A listener pointed out that herring gulls live in the northern hemisphere – therefore it would not have been a tropical island as intended!

The instantly recognisable tune of By the Sleepy Lagoon sounded for the 3000th time in 2014, as Desert Island Discs reached a magnificent milestone, when Royal Navy test pilot Eric Winkle Brown was the landmark guest. The 96-year-old is the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated pilot, holding the record for the highest number of flight-deck landings, and was the first man to fly a jet on and off an aircraft carrier. He also interrogated leading Nazis, including Hermann Goering and plane designers Willy Messerschmitt and Ernst Heinkel. He was a spritely and entertaining guest.

So let’s say I was castaway on my desert island, and that I could swap the music, and take books instead. I think I’d take the books that I’ve enjoyed cover-to-cover, and those I’ve read in small portions but ordinarily have not had the patience or time to read cover-to-cover. Perhaps on a deserted island with little to do and few distractions, I’d enjoy going through them carefully line by line, hanging on every word. A good book has no ending, it opens your mind.

To me, the world of books is the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that we build ever lasts. Monuments fall, nations perish, civilisations grow old and die out, but the world of words and books are volumes that live on. I have been a voracious reader all of my life and the older I get, the more I love to open a book and let it take me where it wants me to go.

I have always seen reading as a spiritual activity that stirs my curiosity. When I read a book I conduct a private conversation with the author with scribbles in the margins by the passages that impress or challenge me. E. P. Whipple once wrote, books are lighthouses erected in the great sea of time, which I think is a great summary of how I feel.

So, which books to take? I’d focus on books on startups, entrepreneurship and innovation, on the basis I was going to be rescued from my isolation, so I’d use the time to plan a cracking new business idea. So in no particular order, my desert island bookshelf would have these great books:

The Innovators Dilemma: Clayton M. Christensen.Authored by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen, this is one of the most respected and useful books for entrepreneurs. His theory of ‘disruptive innovation’ has changed the way we think about innovation, showing how most companies miss out on new waves of innovation.

The Lean Startup: Eric Ries. Reis’ mantra is Vision-Steer-Accelerate, following a process of continuous innovation to create radically successful businesses. Most new businesses fail, but most of those failures are preventable. The Lean Startup is a new approach that is changing the way companies are built and new products are launched, it’s about learning what your customers really want, testing your vision continuously, adapting and adjusting before it’s too late.

The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Steve Blank. When the tech boom began in Silicon Valley in 1978, Steven Blank was on the scene. Although he retired in 1999, Blank had accumulated a wealth of knowledge that he shares in The Four Steps to the Epiphany. It’s a must-read for those launching tech startups, Blank clearly outlined how to organise sales and marketing, discover product flaws and test assumptions.

Thinking Fast & Slow: Daniel Kahneman. A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner in economics, Kahneman provided this bestselling explanation of how people think, describing the fast, intuitive and emotional ‘System 1’ and the slower, more deliberative and more logical ‘System 2’. By understanding these systems, you can learn to think things out more slowly, instead of acting on an impulse – a good discipline when excited about your startup.

The Startup of You: Reid Hoffman & Ben Casnocha. Co-written by LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, this book gives entrepreneurial hopefuls advice on how to thrive in the fast-paced and changing networked world. The most important lesson from Hoffman and Casnocha, however, is how to take control of yourself to make the most out of your life, career and business.

The Art of the Start: Guy Kawasaki. The one question to ask yourself before starting a venture is: Do I want to make meaning? The two questions that should underlie your business model: Who has your money in their pockets, and how are you going to get it into your pocket? Few books about startups are this clear.

Blue Ocean Strategy: Renée Mauborgne & W. Chan Kim. How to make your own market space and make the competition irrelevant? The authors argue that cutthroat competition results in nothing but a bloody red ocean of rivals fighting over a shrinking profit pool. The authors argue that lasting success comes not from battling competitors but from creating ‘blue oceans’ – untapped new market spaces ripe for growth. A landmark work that upends traditional thinking about strategy.

Business Model Generation: Alexander Osterwalder. This is the first book that allows you to answer What’s your business model? Intelligently and with precision. I’ll be cheeky here and add in Osterwalders follow-on book Value Proposition Design, describing how to get product/market fit right is another must have for your bookshelf.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Ben Horowitz. Building a business when there are no easy answers, this series of essays about what CEO face in the ‘Build phase’ – the transition from searching for a business model into a company. More than any book I’ve rad, this gives an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to lead and scale a startup.

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost: Steve Blank. Volume One of Steve Blank s collected blog posts, features war stories and lessons from 20 years in Silicon Valley startups, how to build a successful Customer Development model, and practical advice on creating a successful venture capital pitch. Includes thoughtful ideas on balancing family and career, it’s a personal look at the life and times of a Silicon Valley veteran.

With the expertise, insight and guidance offered in these books from these practitioners, can you learn the mastery and purpose of an entrepreneur? How do entrepreneurs learn? Does entrepreneurial learning impact subsequent entrepreneurial know-how?

The practice of entrepreneurial learning is integral to understanding entrepreneurial activity and startup development. This learning is socially embedded and provides the entrepreneur with human and social knowledge resources. With an understanding of the dynamics and nuances of entrepreneurial learning, is there scope to more fully figure out how to develop entrepreneurial competencies, and thus the chances of startup success?

Entrepreneurs learn through doing, in developing and sharing stories of their ventures, and through social interactions within their ambiguous and dynamic environment – which connects the ‘knowing’ to the ‘doing’ – to create the ideal setting for the delivery and assessment of practice based action learning in the realistic context of the entrepreneurial world.

A central part of entrepreneurial learning is about constructing the ambiguous, uncertain and individualised reality of the entrepreneur. In addressing this challenge, I’ve been reflecting that the proper place to study elephants is the jungle, not the zoo as an appropriate starting point.

We know story-telling is an important practice in making sense of the startup adventure, and in sharing it with others. It is difficult to decouple learning process and content from context, where the context mirrors the equivocal, multi-faceted and multi-directional nature of the challenges encountered by the startup environment.

Furthermore, the evidence from each of the ten books in my list suggests a preference for a continuous entrepreneurial learning processes, consisting of multiple practice learning tasks, rooted in related social learning mechanisms, including peer and reflective learning. These seem to resonate with entrepreneurial learning in real life – let’s remember that not all learning experiences of the entrepreneur are positive, and dealing with failures or problems are an important source of learning.

For many entrepreneurs in the creative sector, a challenge in learning about entrepreneurship can be their difficult relationship with their own entrepreneurial identity. The creative industries are structured such that artists often need to become entrepreneurs to support their creative practice, but some struggle with the tag. There are parallels here with specialist in many technical fields, who may identify more strongly with their specialism than entrepreneurship.

In a series of startup workshops I delivered with a group of artists seeking to set up businesses such as galleries, workshops and their own outlets (online, at events and permanent venues), this reluctance to see themselves as entrepreneurs was evident, particularly in the early days. I noted a pragmatic and a tactical entrepreneurship – pragmatic because they set up businesses to create opportunities to show their work, and tactical as they moved in and out of different formats to best sustain their practice.

None had a burning desire to becoming business owners, but instead saw this as a way of supporting their artistic activity. Of course, in doing that, they had opportunities to learn a great deal from experience about setting up new ventures, but to do so they needed to reflect on their entrepreneurial actions and for that to happen, they needed to see themselves as entrepreneurs.

My biggest takeaways were about the stop-start nature of entrepreneurial learning regarding experimentation and reflection. The reflective process and the learning this supported was enhanced as some of the artists began to develop their entrepreneurial flair and confidence around proposition development, negotiation skills, and customer development, on their way to create a self-sustaining enterprise built around their passion, purpose and skills.

I think I’d enjoy my time on the desert island, reading and thinking about entrepreneurial learning, and taking the lessons from each of the books, although maybe I should also take a book about ‘How to build a boat…’