Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Insignia Founders Reading List 2020: Book Recommendations by Founders for Founders9 min read

“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers” – Harry Truman

One of the notable aspects of great leaders and innovators is that, more than most people, they consistently learn and absorb new information on various areas of knowledge over time — and books continue to be the foremost source of this learning. 

In the Netflix documentary on Bill Gates, they featured his one-week retreats — “Think Week” — where he brings with him a bunch of books, stays in a secluded area for a week, and pours himself into learning, thinking, and problem-solving. Another bookworm innovator, Elon Musk, famously said in an interview that he learned about rockets from reading books. 

Even in the age of Youtube, Netflix, and TikTok, recognizing the value of books in learning, sharing impactful ideas, and developing leaders was also a key motivation for our managing partner Yinglan Tan and in-house content strategist Paulo Joquino to come up with a book on what it takes to build great and enduring companies in Southeast Asia: Navigating ASEANnovation

And in our podcast show On Call with Insignia Ventures, we also asked our guests what books on startups, entrepreneurship, and leadership they would recommend to fellow founders. As the year comes to an end, we thought it would be timely to share a list of their recommendations, as well as some of their thoughts on these books (if they shared any).  

We divided their recommendations into four categories: 

  • Leadership
  • Education and Edtech
  • Building startups
  • Scaling startups

On Leadership

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story – 1965 to 2000 by Lee Kuan Yew

Recommended by Anthony Chow, CEO and co-founder of igloocompany

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

Recommended by Nathaniel Yim, co-founder and head of marketing of Janio Asia

Who Moved My Cheese by Spencer Johnson

Recommended by Manisha Seewal, Group CMO of Carro, CEO of Jualo

“…what I loved about that book is — and it’s still so relevant is — keeping up with change and adapting…There’s no better time than right now to really be an adaptable person…[for example] the way we lead teams has changed…from face to face, to now everything is done on webinars or on video calls….And if you can’t adapt, someone’s going to move our cheese…you’ll not see it coming…” 

Lean In: Women, Work, and the WIll to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Recommended by Manisha Seewal, Group CMO of Carro, CEO of Jualo

“I read [this book] during my one month of break before I joined Carro. [It’s a] very empowering book. I encourage all women to read it, [and] guys as well, if you’re interested. But there was one line in that book that spoke to me before I took the opportunity. And it said, “…if someone offers you a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask where, you just jump.” And that’s exactly how I felt when this opportunity [to join Carro] came. I did not ask, you know, where is this company heading [or] what’s happening? I just jumped in and I could tell it was a rocket ship that I wanted to be on.”

On Starting Up and Finding PMF

Art of the Start 2.0: The Time-Tested, Battle-Hardened Guide for Anyone Starting Anything by Guy Kawasaki

Recommended by Dayu Dara Permata, CEO and co-founder of Pinhome

“I think it’s a crash course in building and scaling a tech startup. Really highly recommend anyone passionate about started building to read it.” 

Four Steps to Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win by Steve Blank

Recommended by Ahmed Aljunied, CTO and co-founder of Pinhome

“There’s a guide for framing the product development process, emphasizing the customer. This is particularly good for engineers that are always stuck with the keyboards. You know, don’t leave the room to meet the customers.” 

Zero to One: Notes on Startups or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters

Recommended by Andrea Baronchelli (Aspire CEO and co-founder), Steven Wongsoredjo (Super CEO and co-founder), and Phil Opamuratawongse (Shipper CEO and co-founder)

“So this is a bit of maybe a cliche, but I liked a lot “Zero to One.” And I think  it gives a lot of good perspective on a way to think [and] to see things differently.” — Andrea Baronchelli

“When we were small [and] we raised seed funding — and Insignia is one of our early backers — I used to read Zero to One by Peter Thiel. This book is a great book…[because] it gives you some sense that building a product is not like you’re building technology and then you try to find the distribution channel. You need to always go backwards. Meaning you need to understand the users. You need to be able to understand the pain of the users and then you go backwards to build the technology. Therefore you can create a product-market fit. If you do the other way around, it’s harder for you to find product-market fit.” — Steven Wongsoredjo

On Scaling Beyond PMF

BlitzScaling: The Lightning Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies by Reid Hoffman

Recommended by Manisha Seewal, Group CMO of Carro, CEO of Jualo

“So [I] actually read it twice, just to get a hang of the speed at which companies scale, and to see how we can bring that speed into Carro…don’t be afraid to try and certain things. I realize that it’s normal to feel that you are being thrown off an aircraft and you have to build a parachute along the way, because that’s how [I felt] when I first joined, because there was so much happening.” 

The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries 

Recommended by Steven Wongsoredjo (Super CEO and co-founder) and Linh Pham (LOGIVAN CEO and co-founder)

“Once you reach product-market fit, I think…The Lean Startup is good by Eric Ries…[because] you need to be flexible and nimble as a founder to be able to identify and sniff [out] some of the evolutions that have been happening in the market, and take some precautionary steps or some business strategy that can guide your ship through to a better level. Because business is changing every day, it’s very fast, right? So as a startup, you have to pivot every day. Pivoting is not bad, you have to do it. You have to hear your customers’ pain and feedback here and there, and you need to always evolve your product. As a CEO you have to be idealistic, that’s good, but you have to be nimble and have to be flexible in order to get there.” — Steven Wongsoredjo 

“So my favorite book has always been The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. and this lean startup methodology has been the guiding light for my entrepreneurial career and entrepreneurial journey. There will never be a right time to start a business. There will always be obstacles to building the first prototype, to getting your first customer, to getting your first check in the bank. And so the most important thing about this is to start small and to start nimble as you build your MVP, as you build your first product, as you get your first customers, and then reiterate along the way. We built the first MVP, built the first website and secured the domain after one day. And this has always been our mantra. We start testing something, we do it fast, then we move on.” — Linh Pham 

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz

Recommended by Hendra Kwik (CEO and co-founder of Payfazz), Steven Wongsoredjo (Super CEO and co-founder), and Phil Opamuratawongse (Shipper CEO and co-founder)

“…that’s more on, when you’re growing right, one of the great obstacles —  because this is where we are now, after the Series A, we have a 100 people now and then going to 200, 300 — has always been a growing pain. When you grow, there’s pain. Prior to this, you don’t have a VP, now you have a VP, you have more C-level, you have more people. More people in the group is a challenge in the beginning for you — how do you coach them to basically make them perform at their best? This book is telling you that often the company has some problems and often puts you in a team crisis and it’s always happening every single day, it can be big, it can be small. But there are three steps you can take.

First is damage control. So in any problem that a CEO faces or a company faces, the first thing to do is damage control. You have to bite your tongue and then make sure that the damage that hits your ship is as small as possible, because anyway you’re going to get hit. Second is basically stabilize the ship, so you start to map how to stabilize the ship at least make it stable. The third is actually taking control. Take back control to let the ship go back to the direction where you want it to be.”

On Education and Edtech

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

Recommended by Syarif Rouyan Fikri, CEO and co-founder of Pahamify

“I think one of the most important books that influenced my mind when I built an edtech company is “The Smartest Kids in the World” by Amanda Ripley. It gives you a sense how education is a part of culture, and it’s not easy to change culture. So you have to have a growth view and what works in a country might not work in another country, so it’s important to get down to first principles.”

Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe

Recommended by Syarif Rouyan Fikri, CEO and co-founder of Pahamify

“…[it gives] a sense of how the future might roll out for the education world…can give you a micro and macro perspective to help you with building an edtech.” 

Listen to the full episodes on Spotify and other podcasting platforms

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