This is the bookshelf I wish I had when I started my founder journey. I’ve compiled this list over many years. You will find both classics and new releases here – all of which I have read and applied to building, running, and eventually selling FeedbackPanda.
Books on The Shelf with a 📝symbol have a detailed review available further down. Just click the book’s name to get there.
The first two books on the shelf are my own. They will help you along your entrepreneurial journey.
📗 Zero to Sold: Learn how to build a bootstrapped SaaS business from start to finish. This book will guide you through your whole journey.
📕 The Embedded Entrepreneur: Find great validated business ideas and build a personal brand by building an audience-first business.
You might also enjoy my Twitter course 🐦 Find your Following. You will learn how to use Twitter professionally to build an authentic and powerful audience without resorting to “growth hacks.”
The Bootstrapper’s Bookshelf is split into two parts:
- The Shelf, a compact list of all the books I recommend to read
- The Books, where I give details, review, and express my personal thoughts about each book
This article contains affiliate links. That means that if you use these links to buy a book, you’re supporting me and this blog. You can read more about this in the Affiliate Disclosure section of the Legal page.
📚 The Shelf
Building a Business
This section contains books that will help you understand how to best structure and run a bootstrapped business.
📝 Company of One by Paul Jarvis — A great guide for solopreneurs who want to build sustainable businesses, taught by someone who has been there. There is a lot of bootstrapping advice in here, and it’s very actionable.
📝 The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber (Full Review) — Avoid the Entrepreneurial Myth: it takes more than just a lot of technical skill to build a business. This book goes into great detail on how to establish the foundations for success. For FeedbackPanda, we followed this book to the letter, and it allowed us to exit a great business.
📝 Built to Sell by John Warrillow (Full Review) — This book was pivotal to building a sellable business. John lays out the strategies and tactics of building a great business like a franchise: automation and documentation. It’s an extremely well-written non-fiction book with a narrative. Refreshing, instructive, and highly pragmatic.
📝 The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss (Full Review) — When I read this book, it was already a few years old, so a few of the tools and websites mentioned in the book are outdated. But you don’t read this book for the links, you read it for its incredible motivational power: this book will inspire you to keep working when things get tricky.
📝 The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau — This is a book for those who need a guide to getting things done quickly and cheaply. There are a lot of great case studies and examples here as well.
The Minimalist Entrepreneur by Sahil Lavingia — We don’t all need to build the next unicorn. Sahil shares his approach to building businesses, and you’ll find a lot of good advice for bootstrappers in there.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz — While this isn’t about bootstrapping, the lessons learned from struggling through many VC-backed ventures are highly inspirational and worth familiarizing yourself with.
The Million Dollar, One-Person Business by Elaine Pofeldt — Great stories, great examples, and it even contains a pragmatic play-by-play plan for going out there on your own. A good mix of all kinds of businesses, not just bootstrapped ones.
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries — If you’re looking for core principles that will strengthen your business —whatever you end up building— this is the foundational book to read. Bootstrappers have limited resources, and a lean approach makes it work.
Start Small, Stay Small by Rob Walling — This might be one of the most influential Indie Hacker books out there: Rob explains the stair-stepping approach to a sustainable-but-not-overwhelming business and is aimed at software engineers who want to start a business. It’s a classic at this point, and it should be recommended reading for every solo founder out there.
Start With Why by Simon Sinek — I very much believe that we can only build an authentic brand around a meaningful business if you understand why you’re trying to help the people you’re serving. Sinek lays out a path to finding your why and making it the backdrop of everything you do.
Zero To One by Peter Thiel — This book isn’t for bootstrappers and that’s exactly why a bootstrapped founder should read it. Learning about dominating markets, taking moonshots, and being ruthlessly competitive will show you one very prevalent side of doing business — and then you can choose what path you’ll end up taking.
Monetizing Your Business (and Keeping the Money)
This section contains books that will show you ways to turn your project into a sustainable business that generates revenue. It also contains books that are concerned with making sure your financials are in order and you’re making a profit.
📝 The Membership Economy by Robbie Kellman Baxter — A great introduction to a business world that starts to move more and more towards community, belonging, and authentic connection.
The Automatic Customer by John Warrillow — This book is great if you want to understand what kinds of subscription businesses exist and how they work. From the membership website to the SaaS insurance model, John shows how exciting —and revenue-stable— a subscription business can be.
subscribed by Tien Tzuo — If you need to convince someone (or yourself) to create a subscription business, this book will help you out.
Profit First by Mike Michalowicz — A great book that will teach you several important financial basics for yourself and your business. Pay yourself first, have structured accounts, and set up financial systems in your favor.
The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel — Wealth isn’t just a bank account balance, but most people associate it with cold hard cash. Housel explains the complicated and counter-intuitive systems that money has brought into the world, how we can best navigate them, and what they mean for our lives and businesses.
Building a Product
This section contains books that will show you how to envision, design, and build a great product.
📝 Hooked by Nir Eyal (Full Review) — The Hook model sits at the heart of many successful SaaS businesses: people see a trigger, they take an action, find a variable reward, and ultimately invest in a response that creates a new trigger. Extremely valuable mental model to build network effects and benign habit-forming features into your product.
Deploy Empathy by Michele Hansen — Instead of talking to your customers, you should listen to them from a place of service and compassion. Michele knows her way around customer interviews and shares her actionable steps to get something useful out of chatting with your prospects.
Subscription Marketing by Anne Janzer — You can’t prevent churn, but you can fight it. This book will teach you out value nurturing and how to do it right for your subscription business.
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman — This is a book about design in general. Knowing the foundational concepts will help you communicate to your designers what you want and need. And if you design your app yourself, you’ll benefit from knowing what to avoid.
📝 Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited by Steve Krug — Your product should help, not confuse. Following the guidelines laid out in this book will allow you to spot these business-breaking problems before your customers get to see them.
This section contains books that will allow you to focus on your business while staying sane.
The One Thing by Gary Keller — Focus. That’s what this book will teach you. It’s a bit long-winded, but it stays true to the message: it focuses on just one thing.
Atomic Habits by James Clear — If you’re struggling to turn your ambitions into actual habits, read this book (that is also the most-sold book on Amazon, so you’re likely not alone.) It will make it much easier to build a life, a business, and a way to bridge both of them without losing your mind.
Keeping Your Shit Together by Sherry Walling — This book is incredibly important for founders who struggle with mental health — or who want to avoid getting into those dark places. It really helped me when I was in the middle of my burnout during my time with FeedbackPanda. It’s a great and actionable read.
It doesn’t have to be crazy at work by Jason Fried — Building a calm business is a choice, and it’s a good one. If you want to abandon the traditional approach of running around like a headless chicken and frantically “hustle your way out,” read this and build a sustainable and calmness-driven culture.
Deep Work by Cal Newport — Read this if you want to focus more on high-quality work and be less distracted.
Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury and Getting Past No by William Ury — If you struggle with negotiation and convincing people, read these classics. It’ll help you feel more confident and thereby reduce overall stress levels when it comes to talking to your customers.
Taking Care of Your Customers
This section contains books that will show you how to help, retain, and delight your customers.
Farm, Don’t Hunt by Guy Nirpaz — A primer on value nurturing worth absorbing into every single of your processes.
Customer Success by Nick Mehta — A bit VC-centric but still insightful book about not just doing customer service but empowering them at scale through Customer Success methods.
Meeting Your Customers
This section contains books that will help you tell the world about your product. It includes marketing and product positioning books.
Obviously Awesome by April Dunford — The best book on positioning you can find. Hands-down.
This is Marketing by Seth Godin — When Seth Godin writes a book about the thing he’s been doing for decades, you should read it. Every single thought in this book makes sense and will materially impact your own marketing efforts. It’s a think book, a revelatory book.
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin — You’ll want to find your niche if you’re building a bootstrapped business. This book will explain what a good tribal niche looks like, what your role will be, and how you can leverage tribes for your product, marketing, and business-building efforts.
Taking Care of Yourself
This section contains books that will help you be a better person. They may not have anything to do with the business. But every functional business needs a functional founder. And these books will help with that.
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday — A thoughtful story, insights, or parable from Stoicism for every day of the year. Reading this daily is a meditation in itself.
Principles by Ray Dalio — Insightful reflections of a billionaire investor. If you want to see someone who has had a great career talk about what matters, read this one.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield — Got writer’s block? Maybe even coder’s block? Marketer’s blog? Well, here is a book that can help you release the tension and focus on making incremental steps towards success.
Selling Your Business
Getting Acquired by Andrew Gazdecki — A great journey forged into actionable steps you can take to build and ultimately sell your SaaS business. Andrew has been there, done that, and he’s a great teacher.
The Art of Selling Your Business by John Warrillow — Yes, it’s John again! Not only has he written a great book on building sellable businesses, but he has also written a groundbreaking book for those who want to actually sell them. John has interviewed and consulted hundreds of founders who sold their businesses. This book is required reading before you talk to your acquirer.
The Other Side: VC and Hypergrowth
What? A section about venture capital and all the things we don’t want to see in our sustainable bootstrapped businesses? Yes! While you don’t need to apply strategies and concepts laid out in these books to your own business, it is still worthwhile to know how the VC world and the companies within it work. And who knows, maybe you will need to raise some capital later. It’s never a bad idea to understand something.
Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey A Moore — Read this if you want to understand the difference between early adopters and mainstream customers.
High Growth Handbook by Elad Gil — A book that lets successful unicorn founders speak about their experiences and learnings of operating at scale.
Secrets of Sand Hill Road: Venture Capital and How to Get It by Scott Kupor — This book explores the dynamics of the VC world, how you can get your foot in the door, and what good (and bad) come switch it.
Off the Beaten Path
Not all books that are useful for founders are necessarily aimed at founders. This section will contain books that may have been written for completely different reasons, but I have found them to be invaluable for my entrepreneurial journey. They might work for you, they might not. But they are good books nonetheless.
The Culture Map by Erin Meyer — If you build a globally distributed team —eventually— you’ll be exposed to people from many different cultures, and you might be surprised by the little challenges that come with that. This book will prepare you.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell — Critical mass, surfing the trend wave, whatever you may call it, certain things reach an inflection point where things start changing. Read this book if you want to notice and leverage these points better.
📖 The Books
“Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business”
Finally a book that does away with the myth of “growth at all cost”.
If you ever wondered why on earth everyone is chasing hyper-growth instead of building a sustainable business, this book is for you. Paul shows how to become better instead of getting bigger.
The book comes with dozens of examples of how the Company of One mindset is applied in lots of businesses, like Buffer, Basecamp, and Automattic.
It boils down to three things: Start Small, Define Growth, and Keep Learning. A sustainable company grows out of consciously choosing to focus on resilience, autonomy, speed, and simplicity.
Important Takeaways for Bootstrappers
- Blind growth is dangerous. Businesses can be set up for long-term stability instead.
- Founder personality is an amplifier, not a barrier. You want to stand out. Be your quirky self.
- Customer Service is a retention & acquisition investment, not a cost. Referrals happen when good Customer Service happens.
I love a book that focuses on building a sustainable way of creating a business. While the rest of the world is out there, chasing Venture Capital, here is an author showing how a bootstrapper should go about it. I wish this book had been around when I started my business. A lot of the lessons I learned myself are eloquently expressed in this book.
“Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It”
Gerber has the great talent of explaining fundamental business concepts through approachable stories.
At the same time, every page is filled with actionable business advice: how to structure your company, how to structure your goals, how to deal with management, people, marketing, and systems.
The most important concept is The Turnkey Revolution: structuring the business as if it was a franchise. That involves creating intentional processes and documenting them in an Operations Manual.
Important Takeaways for Bootstrappers
- Write an Operations Manual from Day One: the manual is useful for hiring, exiting, or just being faster at repetitive tasks.
- Be intentional about how you want the company to look a few years down the line: Create a fictitious Org Chart, assign all the roles you think you will need in the company. That will show you where to hire first.
- Technical bootstrappers fall prey to the E-Myth (which describes the illusion that it is enough to know a skill to create a successful business). Instead, you need to be a Technician, a Manager and an Entrepreneur at the same time. Compensate for what you lack.
This book was instrumental to our success with FeedbackPanda. Danielle and I created an Org Chart that had 47 positions on it, and we split it between us. Having this kind of clarity about responsibilities from the beginning while also knowing exactly what tasks would need to be done was very helpful.
We also kept an Operations Manual from day one. Every action that we would repeatedly take would be noted and described in the manual. When we finally sold the company, we could just hand over that document – and we were done.
“Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You”
Warrillow explains how you can structure your business to prepare it for a successful acquisition.
He suggests to focus on specializing to become better than anyone else. To do that, you should work with experts and give them responsibility.
The book is written as a narrative, detailing the journey of an agency owner, trying to sell their business. This format makes the book very relatable, as most founders will have run into quite similar situations during their own journeys.
Important Takeaways for Bootstrappers
- Build a business that can run without you. Own, don’t do. Be replaceable. You lead the company while others keep it going. This requires automation, documentation, and well-designed processes.
- Don’t rely on a few big clients. Being dependant is a risk, and incoming revenue is inconsistent. Many customers means more stable revenue and less impact should one of them cancel.
- Standardized products are attractive to buyers: if you go bespoke, you might go broke. Build a product that can scale and doesn’t need your involvement. Companies like that sell very well.
I read this book before we started FeedbackPanda. Thank heaven! It made abundantly clear that a company that does not need the founders to be involved in every single decision and operation is a company that can provide immense value, either through earnings or when it is sold.
We made sure to focus on solving one extremely painful problem really well. We specialized into a very narrow niche. We automated and documented so much that the company could essentially operate without our involvement, and that made the transition phase of our acquisition a breeze.
Building to sell really paid off.
“Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future”
Creating micro-businesses has given people freedom for a long time. All you need is a product that people will pay for. The greatest struggle is making the leap.
Guillebeau explains how a business can help people achieve their passions, their deepest needs. Understanding your customers and benefit-focussed marketing that focusses on the emotional state your customers want to be in will allow you to build a great business.
If it doesn’t make money, it’s a hobby. The book gives insight into pricing, launch preparation, traffic and conversion tactics — on a budget. It suggests to keep the planning simple, so you can focus on the execution.
Important Takeaways for Bootstrappers
- Get going. You can optimize along the way. Analysis paralysis is real, and it will keep you from making any progress. Your business plan should be a one-pager. Improvise and iterate.
- Passion is not enough. You will need to combine your skills, your passion, and the needs of others equally to create a sustainable business.
- Make the business as big as you want. All sizes are acceptable. Hire if you need to. You don’t need anyone’s permission to build the business you desire.
The book contains a large number of success stories and distills them into actionable learnings. I am particularly fond of the insights into benefit-focusses marketing instead of focussing your your features. As a developer myself, I focus on the “what” more than the “why”, but customers want to buy their improved future self. This book will show you how to communicate that.
The $100 Startup is a case for a small, sustainable business in a space you are knowledgeable and passionate about. Aspiring bootstrappers should read this before starting their businesses.
“Find Your Super Users, Master the Forever Transaction, and Build Recurring Revenue”
The future is Access over Ownership. Business models move from being customer-based to membership-based. Responsibilities and costs of ownership vanish, convenient alternatives start to pop up in every industry.
Baxter explains how customers are no longer client, but members. She shows how you can leverage these long-term relationships in the form of subscriptions, communities, loyalty programs and other concepts.
It’s not just SaaS companies that can use the membership method. Almost all industries can find a way to create recurring revenue. The book outlines and describes in detail methods to keep acquisition, retention, marketing, and community-building focussed on building strong membership base.
Important Takeaways for Bootstrappers
- Retention is crucial. The goal of a membership is a long-term relationship. It’s easier to stay in business with a customer than to replace them with a new customer.
- Participation keeps the party going. Focus on onboarding and motivating your new customers to be an active part of the community. Network effects will amplify and do the marketing for you.
- Focus on the user instead of the product. Start small, focus on keeping a niche audience happy. Even Facebook started as a service for Harvard undergrads. It has to work for the few before it can work for the many.
Reading The Membership Economy opened my eyes to the dynamics of communities. I started understanding that our customers were not distinct, isolated people. They were part of a thriving community outside of our product, and we could use that impetus to turn our customer base into a community as well. We prioritized collaboration features and started introducing customers to each other through the blog. That resulted in a gigantic increase in word-of-mouth marketing which happened without our intervention.
This book contains great advice on how to structure and talk about subscriptions to your customers. Whether you come from a traditional transaction-based industry or from a SaaS background, the examples and case studies will inspire you to perfect your own subscription offering. It sure helped us grow FeedbackPanda as a subscription-based community-focussed product from day one.
“How to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you”
Don’t talk to your mom about your ideas. She loves you, and she will tell you it’s great. Don’t talk to your friends either. Get feedback from the people who matter for the business.
The Mom Test is pretty straightforward: ask the right questions. Stop talking and start listening. Fitzpatrick shows how you can find out the most from your potential customers.
How do you conduct a good interview? What are the key signs that people are interested? How to detect excuses and deflections? The Mom Test answers all of those questions.
Important Takeaways for Bootstrappers
- Look for commitment, not compliments. This is true for customer interviews as it is for anything else. Money on the table is the only meaningful metric. Only if people want to act on their words do you know that the conversation was fruitful.
- Focus on a small group of target customers. Be specific in who you talk to. Aiming too big will dilute your data and make it hard to infer any meaningful results.
- Don’t ask about your product. Ask about what people do to solve their problems right now. You want to learn things, not sell your product. There is always room for improvement, and you’re looking for the small things that make a difference.
We had a number of customer interviews during running FeedbackPanda. Having read The Mom Test allowed me to always ask the right questions and just listening to the customer. Often, that would lead to revelations about how they were using the product that we had never expected or intended. The value of this information was insane: it allowed us to significantly improve our onboarding and self-help materials and our trail-to-subscriber numbers skyrocketed.
It is important to understand why we talk to our customers. The knowledge gained from the book helped me not only in customer discovery sessions: even during customer service conversations was I able to extract information and a different perspective from our customers (or prospects).
“How to Build Habit-Forming Products”
Designing habit-forming products is the best sales boost you can hope for: once established, habits are notoriously hard to change.
Habits emerge because I brain wants to save time. Do something useful frequently and it will turn into a habit. So why are habit-forming products generating so much revenue and why are they so hard to compete with?
Enter the Hook cycle. Building a product that lets your customers go through Trigger → Action → Reward → Investment repeatedly will create an extremely sticky, self-reinforcing product experience. The book explains the cycle in detail, with practical advice for each phase.
Eyal makes sure to point out the ethical implications of this as well: only when you build a product that improves your user’s lives (and that you yourself would use), should the Hook cycle be applied.
Important Takeaways for Bootstrappers
- External Triggers turn into Internal Triggers over time. If your product provides value constantly, you can reduce the frequency of reaching out to your customers over time. They will build their own usage habits. Never fully stop communicating through. Continue showing people what value they derive from the product every once in a while.
- A good actionable product needs to motivate the user and enable them to use it. Make sure to make your product is simple enough to allow people to turn using it into a habit. Focus on the feature that gets them to the anticipated reward.
- Things are more valuable to us if we have invested something into them. Allow your customers to invest time, information, or money into the product. Use that as a trigger for a new round of the cycle. That will imbue a network effect into your product, and those usually lead to products that sell themselves.
If I had to name one book that was central to the success of FeedbackPanda, it would be this one. After reading Hooked, I understood what our product needed to be truly successful. We shifted our focus from the single customer experience to the potential of collaboration and peer review possibilities. That turned into the core feature that drove our growth from the very day we released it.
Nir Eyal has written a book that finally explains how to build a product that reinforces positive behavior and turns product usage into a habit: a win-win for the customer and the business.
“A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability”
Human prefer to play and figure things out. No one reads the manual. How do you build a usable product then?
Krug answers this by showing how the human mind works when it comes to navigating websites. He explains the concept of “satisficing”, page scanning, the desire for consistence.
The book is full of useful examples and design ideas. It also shows how to efficiently test a website design on a budget.
Important Takeaways for Bootstrappers
- Consistency is king. Using a design framework like UI component libraries with a focus on a clean and usable interface will save you from making a lot of mistakes.
- People make decisions quickly. Make sure your important content and functionality can be found within the first few glances at your product. That will significantly increase product usage adoption.
- Don’t invent for invention’s sake. Conventions exist for a reason. For most products, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. People come with you with a pre-defined set of expectations. You can use that to your advantage.
This book helped me, particularly in the beginning. Learning about how to best structure a website and which components are expected in which locations gave me a good guideline on how to arrange the specific parts of the application. We expected our audience to have a few non-tech-savvy members, so it needed to work for everyone.
I knew that I understood our product perfectly, having built it myself. But customers have no idea. Making the product work for them so they would never feel overwhelmed or tricked became the core approach to building FeedbackPanda. And it worked very well: customers were so happy with the product, they created their own tutorial videos for other customers, without us even asking. That’s what a good UX can do.
The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
“Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich”
There is a recipe for attaining a lifestyle of total control over your own time. Tim Ferriss explains how flexibility and mobility are the foundational elements of the New Rich and how to get there.
It starts with being efficient instead of being effective. Your time is finite, so you want to avoid the tedious work of the 40-hour office life. By controlling your environment and avoiding distractions, you can focus on what will make you prosper: automating and liberating your business.
Find a muse for your lifestyle business efforts. Look for a niche, learn all you can, and become an expert that can then make a profit from that niche.
You want to end up with a business that runs on auto-pilot, creating value for you while you enjoy your life – now.
Important Takeaways for Bootstrappers
- Build a business that functions on auto-pilot. Partner with other companies, hire, delegate. Make sure you are not playing an active, necessary role in the business. That way, you won’t have to do the work, and the business can do the work for you.
- Don’t postpone a great life. You don’t have to work for a lifetime to enjoy yourself. The right moment is now. Build a business that respects and enables that. Don’t burn yourself out on the way to relaxation.
- Define your own rules. Few people dare to think big. You will encounter much more resistance and competition when you . do what other people think is “realistic”. Reach for the stars, as most people won;t even try.
The 4-Hour Workweek was my gateway book into bootstrapping and internet entrepreneurship. The promise sounds too good to be true: having to work only a few hours a week, having everything else taken care of.
Now I am sitting here, having sold FeedbackPanda, and I am only working a few hours a week, on things that I care about, from wherever I want to.
This book is no empty promise. It gives a clear and realistic framework for setting goals, prioritizing the steps, and doing the work. It is thanks to the 4-Hour-Workweek that I started believing that I could do it… and then did it.
This is a work-in-progress project. I will add books and in-depth reviews over time. If you think this list is missing something or there are errors, please contact me.