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6 must-read books for startup leaders navigating the pandemic

From shoring up your company’s work-from-home culture to learning how to pitch and hire remotely, these books are essentials, writes an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist.

6 must-read books for startup leaders navigating the pandemic
[Source photo: Leah Kelley/Pexels]
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One of the best things that leaders of a young company can do, with the pandemic and shutdowns continuing to disrupt everything, is . . . read books. Why? Because when crucial interactions are distorted by being forced online, you need more than tips for looking good in a videoconference. When uncertain times threaten a firm’s survival, you need more than emergency moves. It’s time to focus on fundamentals.

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At our venture capital firm over the past few months, we’ve sent surveys to our founders asking where they’re facing challenges and could use help. Then we reached out through our networks for suggestions of books in areas of need.

The most requested area for help was around culture during work-from-home. It’s clear that a strong, healthy culture—one that truly taps what each person can offer—will carry you through the storm. Grasping some basic principles of human interaction can enable you to sell, hire, negotiate, and collaborate better whether you are on Zoom or together in an office. And fundamentals that will work in situations such as these are best laid out clearly and concisely in books written by world-class experts.

Out of a list of about 30—and after a good bit of reading—I now have six books, one for each major issue, which I’m recommending to all our startups.

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These books are practical, hands-on tools that any operating business leader can use to grow their business in the current environment, focusing on six fundamentals: culture, objectives and key results (OKRs), management, sales, hiring, and negotiations.

Culture: Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock

Culture still eats strategy for lunch. It is the behavioral force field that shapes everything a company does. In today’s environment, where teams aren’t socializing and connecting the same way, this force field is weakened. Work Rules! is just the book to read for expanding your arsenal of tools and processes to reinforce culture. Written by the former head of people operations at Google, it’s an inside tour of that company’s renowned culture. Although you can’t (and probably shouldn’t) replicate every practice Google uses, the thinking behind them is transferable.

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For example, Google invests great effort and precision in personal development while sewing it into the fabric of company culture. This creates a culture teeming with grassroots energy, far more so than if you were to impose arbitrary standards and get rid of the people who don’t measure up. You may find the seeds of dozens of useful ideas in Work Rules! After all, if there were just one secret to culture, nobody would need a book—a slogan would do the trick.

OKRs: Measure What Matters, by John Doerr

OKRs (objectives and key results) are the goal-setting and progress-measuring tools that many companies try to use but few know how to use well. When I polled the founder/CEOs in our portfolio on what they’d most like to learn about, OKRs ranked highly. And while John Doerr is best known for his track record as an investor at Kleiner Perkins, he is also a sensei in the art of OKRs. Doerr learned about OKRs from their inventor, Andy Grove, at Intel in the 1970s. Later he introduced them to Google alongside Kleiner’s investment, where a new twist was added: Make every objective a real stretch. If you only get 70% of the way to the goal, you’ll still have accomplished plenty.

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And speaking of the man who invented OKRs . . .

Management: High Output Management, by Andy Grove

People are not machines, and they can’t be treated like robots in an assembly line. And yet Grove, the legendary engineer turned CEO, built Intel into a Silicon Valley powerhouse with a management approach rooted in industrial mass production methods. He did it by applying mechanistic, production-oriented thinking to the overall planning and guidance of the company’s operations—which in fact ought to run like a well-oiled machine—while dealing with the company’s people from a viewpoint that recognizes how individuals and teams need to work. There is probably no single book that deserves to be called the bible of managing tech companies. But if pressed to name one, I know a lot of folks in the Valley who would choose High Output Management.

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Sales: Pitch Anything, by Oren Klaff

Pitch Anything is focused on the precious minutes you’re granted for selling a deal of any kind to a prospective client, investor, or even a team member. It explains concepts such as telling simple stories to intrigue your prospect’s primitive “crocodile” part of the brain. This becomes very important over a video call, when you’re fighting for attention against people’s tendencies to drift off and surf the web.

Oren Klaff also teaches the concept of “framing” to control the sales encounter. His framing techniques include power and “prizing,” where you adopt a mindset and tactics that frame you as the alpha—you have valuable goods to offer. There’s a nice cheat-sheet summary of Pitch Anything on the web.

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Hiring: Topgrading, by Bradford Smart

Topgrading has been a traditional favorite of recruiters and HR, and in today’s pandemic, hiring becomes trickier when candidates can’t be brought on-site for up-close inspection and in-person interviews. This book was first written when the majority of interviews were conducted over landline phones, making video calls a step up. Topgrading has guidelines for asking great interview questions that draw out revealing truths, not pro-forma evasions. These behavioral-based questions translate very well for us VCs during our due diligence in today’s environment, where years of practice of reading body language and physical cues are lost over a Zoom call. One question I’ve used that can really jolt a deeper conversation: “What is the biggest misperception others have of you?

Topgrading also gives you an array of techniques for identifying and growing “A” players. It’s not just about hiring, but understanding where individuals in your organization need to be in one year and how to measure that growth.

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Negotiations: Never Split the Difference, by Chris Voss

Right off the bat, this book’s title tells you a lot. Author Chris Voss worked for the FBI in hostage situations—the kind where an armed suspect is inside a building, holding innocent people as bargaining chips, and his job was to talk the bad guy out of there without losing any lives. Voss typically had to do this by phone, unable to see who he was negotiating with. Chances are that what worked for him while flying blind, under incredibly high-stakes pressure, will work well in your next video call.

Many of his negotiating methods may look counterintuitive. For example, don’t come on like a hard bargainer; listen and empathize. Use tactics of mirroring the other person (repeating their last few words) and labeling (describe their emotions back to them). Instead of trying to “get to yes,” get your adversary saying “no.” (Done properly, this actually works.) And never, never split the difference.

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Reading, of course, isn’t the same as doing. But it can inform and inspire what we do and how we do it. So I would urge you to find out how these books might help you come through our lockdown times while building yourself, and your team, into fundamentally stronger players for the years ahead.


Vinnie Lauria is a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned investor. He is a managing partner at Golden Gate Ventures, a Singapore-based VC fund.