Anyone who has ever considered starting a business, then taken that first logical step of going to the bookstore (online or in real life) to find a guide to getting started can relate to the overwhelm this creates. Bookstore “business” sections are packed with advice on every possible business topic, all screaming for attention with clever titles, beautiful covers, and pages of testimonials from avowed experts and quasi-celebrity consultants. Even the ever-recognizable black and yellow cover of Starting a Business for Dummies is drowned in this sea of clambering to the one business book you need.
To overcome the overwhelm, we thought we would take an in-depth look at four books that hit key critical start-up business topics to see how their advice compared:
The Books We Reviewed
As with most Dummies-branded books, Starting a Business for Dummies goes easy on the reader. It keeps the language simple, but avoids talking down to you. It also avoids acronyms, technical language, and industry jargon unless these terms are critical to understanding the topic. In those cases, it makes the effort to explain the terms and why you need to know them, even providing mnemonic tricks for remembering the terms. For those with weary eyes, the book printed in larger fonts than most business books.
Starting a Business for Dummies is actually a single-binding compilation of eight business-related Dummies books titles:
As an all-in-one manual, Starting a Business for Dummies provides a solid overview of each subject, digging slightly under the surface, but never going too deep. This creates a broad-stroke overview, but not any real depth of knowledge. Reading this book, particularly the more technical sections, such as finance/accounting and business planning, will help newcomers navigate discussions of the topic. Many topics are covered in a step-by-step how-to format.
To compliment the easy-reading, Starting a Business for Dummies contains numerous easy-to-follow charts and diagrams to illustrate key points and simplify more complicated concepts. Most of these hit their mark. It also contains many cartoons that appeal to those who appreciate eye-rolling puns and cornball humor, but that is not enough to rob the book of a rating star.
Overall, Starting a Business for Dummies is like studying a map before traveling somewhere new. You gain a concept of the landscape and the paths you need to take. You might be able find your way around; even fake having actually been there. It eliminates a lot of guesswork and the wrong turns you might otherwise take along the way.
This is exactly what Dummies books aim for: a solid overview that points you to the topics you need to study in more depth. It also serves as an excellent reference point and checklist for the budding entrepreneur, particularly as they work on establishing a business and their first year of operation.
The most impressive thing about this book is just how broad its content is. It manages to cover all the major topics in an MBA syllabus. Instead of Starting a Business for Dummies, they should consider calling it Entrepreneurial MBA for Dummies.
Contagious: Why Things Catch On is well-written and easy to follow. It is also fairly short. Though written by an academic, the book is accessible to the typical business book reader. The author conveys illustrates his points through entertaining stories and anecdotes rather than dense explanations or hard-to-follow jargon. His writing style is comparable to that of The Tipping Point author Malcom Gladwell.
In contrast to Starting a Business For Dummies, Contagious: Why Things Catch On is a fairly short book focused on a single topic: how to get people to talk about your product or idea, especially online. The author is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business. Through business anecdotes about well-known products, he offers six basic principles for why information spreads via “social transmission”, then outlines techniques for harnessing these techniques to convey your own messages.
Though it contains a few graphics to illustrate points, the book is nearly devoid of illustration. The relatively short text is meant to be read.
For the reader looking to start a business, Contagious: Why Things Catch On provides several lessons in why an ideas and products capture the public’s attention. The books relative shortness and entertaining nature make it a quick read. This encourages readers to learn from its wisdom with minimal time investment.
Unlike the easy-reading nature of Starting a Business for Dummies or Contagious: Why Things Catch On, The Four Steps to the Epiphany is a much denser, almost academic book discussing abstract concepts. This is not an easy read, but one that you will want to spend time with, highlight and take notes, digest, and occasionally refer back to.
The Four Steps to the Epiphany is nominally about product development. The author approaches this by differentiating the role of a start-up business from that of an existing corporation. Corporations exist to perpetuate an existing business model; startups create business models that do not yet exist. He advocates that the key question an entrepreneur should ask is not “What is the product?”, but “Where are the customers?”. The book provides examples, illustrations, and tools that can help facilitate this quest, but the book is more about helping an entrepreneur think different than about instructions for coming up with a new product.
The book uses numerous graphics to illustrate abstract concepts. Most of these graphics look like they were originally quick white-board illustrations made during a discussion, then refined by a skilled cartoonist. However, the illustrations have a curiously dynamic effect, as though you were in a classroom with the author writing them as he spoke.
Though not for everyone, this book will most benefit the entrepreneur seeking an almost philosophical approach to creating new products and business ideas. The author is highly regarded in rapid product-development circles, especially the technology-heavy San Francisco and Boston areas. Additionally, the book serves as a text for courses on startup businesses the author teaches at Stanford, Berkeley, and Columbia universities.
The Four Steps to the Epiphany is credited with launching the “Lean Startup” movement that advocates rapid product iteration driven by customer feedback and testing as opposed to careful planning before execution. The book provides insight into structuring teams to take risks and engage in highly-productive creativity; the kind that results in product breakthroughs.
- Crown Business
- Eric Ries
- Publisher: Currency
- Edition no. 1 (09/13/2011)
- Hardcover: 336 pages
The Lean Startup finds a unique place in our list by attempting to present the concepts introduced in The Four Steps to the Epiphany in far more accessible language. Not quite as easy a read as Starting a Business for Dummies, but one that you can digest without rewiring your brain. It is almost like someone published the really good notes they took while reading Epiphany.
The author articulates both the mindset and the intellectual tools used by successful tech entrepreneurs to come up with new product ideas, then rapidly prototype and test those prototypes as products. He focuses on how this allows a “lean” company to test a product idea with minimal resources, employing the company’s own customers to refine that idea into a mature product.
The author’s proposed “lean” company structure saves time and money by focusing your entire team on a single project, then collectively evaluating what made an effort work and what obstacles need to be cleared to make it even better. Those elements are then implemented in the next iteration, rapidly improving the results each time.
Though the book is primarily text-focused, it does contain a few illustrations to clarify key points.
This book will benefit readers by better helping them understand how to structure a company to produce rapid product developments with minimal resources, but maximum iterative results. Even if the reader does not seek to replicate this structure in his/her own company, it provides insight into the type of team dynamics that make many Silicon Valley tech companies very nimble and successful even with completely unproven product ideas.
Our review covers a lot of ground, from the quick-overview to the philospohical. Starting a Small Business for Dummies,, is the clear winner for an entrepreneur seeking a bigger-picture guide to the multiple facets of establishing a company. However, considering that the books here are relatively affordable, it might be smart to buy all four. With Starting a Small Business for Dummies serving as an overview and the others as deeper topic dives, it could be the start of your successful business library.