Business biographies are one of my favorite non-fiction genres. What’s a business biography? It’s the story of the life of a business. If you’ve ever listened to an episode of How I Built This on NPR you’re familiar with the idea. (And if you haven’t yet listened to that show go download an episode because it’s fantastic.)
When I read a business biography I think about so many things. I think about leadership and vision and how important it is to hone in on a mission and let that guide you as you make hard decisions. I think about failure and humility and how to be persistent when things get hard. And I think about the fallacy of the overnight success.
I realize that my own business is much smaller than those featured in these books. Nevertheless I find lessons in these stories that to me seem universal and I think would be inspiring to anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit.
Here are my recent favorite business biographies (all Amazon links are affiliate links):
Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built by Duncan Clark
Before reading this book I truly didn’t understand the scope of Alibaba. It’s an incredible company and through this book my eyes were opened to the way ecommerce works in China. I loved reading about Jack Ma and the serendipitous relationships that contributed to his success.
My husband is a huge fan of craft beer which means I’ve become a craft beer connoisseur as well. Jim Koch founded Sam Adams, a company that essentially jump started the craft beer revolution. Hearing his hits and misses along the way was very inspiring to me. Bonus: Listen to Jim on the How I Built This podcast.
Ray Kroc was such a character. Difficult and brilliant and super quirky, his life and business are evidence of what clear vision, dogged persistence, and incredibly high standards can lead to. Once he passed away his third wife, Joan, felt free to become her own, incredibly philanthropic person. If you’ve ever listened to NPR you’ve heard the host thank her for her donation – the largest in NPR history. Bonus: Listen to Lisa Napoli talk about this book on the Frank Buckley Interviews podcast.
The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusion and the Dark Side of Cute by Zac Bissonnette
Trends come and go and Beanie Babies are a perfect case study of a craze that rocketed out of control, then crashed hard. Ty Warner was such an odd person and his eccentricities make this story even more fascinating.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance
While this is technically a biography of a person, I also count it as a business biography because Elon Musk is such a serious visionary. From his beginnings at PayPal to the development of Tesla and SpaceX, you’ll see how the strength of his ideas (and his refusal to listen to the naysayers) is truly changing the world. Bonus: Listen to Elon Musk on the Recode Replay podcast and Ashlee Vance on the Recode Decode podcast.
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons
Dan Lyons left Newsweek to take a job at HubSpot here in Boston and wrote this book about the experience. While I find his tone rather dismissive (and his ideas about women rather dismissive as well), I enjoyed this glimpse inside the content team at a startup. They take professional blogging to a whole new level. Bonus: Listen to Dan Lyons on the Recode Media podcast.
This book taught me that customer service should be at the very top of my business priorities. For Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, there’s no bigger priority. Also, when literally everyone told him that nobody would ever buy shoes online, he persisted and, of course, proved them all wrong. (The number of Zappos boxes stacked up in my basement is a bit embarrassing.)
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone
Okay, I haven’t actually read this one yet. I wasn’t sure if I should get it because the Amazon reviews are very mixed (oh the irony!), but I was convinced to get it after listening to my very favorite journalist of all time, Kara Swisher, interview Brad Stone. She likes the book, despite it’s flaws, and I’m fascinated by Amazon so I’m going for it.
So those of my recommendations of business biographies, with some podcast interview thrown in to supplement things. Do you like this genre of books as much as I do? Have any titles to recommend?