Welcome to the 2021 edition of my annual Best Business Books of the Year post. Once again, I’ve compiled a list of my top reads from the past year, many of which made a tangible impact in how I approach business and this thing called life.
Outside the business realm, it was another strange year on the information front. My morning routine usually includes a cup of coffee and a review of the daily headlines and news stories. Over the last few years, this has become an increasingly depressing way to start the day.
Following a review of the news, I take solace in my business reading routine (see below).
The one thing you can say about most business books is that they’re geared toward growth, positive thinking, and productive change. A refreshing departure from the headlines.
I’ll go through my list in just a minute, but first, a little background on why reading is so important in the business world.
The best in business read and read often
This is the third annual post, and it’s a tradition I plan on keeping not just out of a love for reading. There is a business advantage to it as well.
Whenever I’ve made a quantum leap forward in my career, books (and reading in general) have been the propellant. And I’m not alone:
- Warren Buffett reads 500 pages a day
- Mark Cuban reads 3 hours a day
- Bill Gates reads 50 books a year
Check out their reading habits and those of other successful people.
Sounds great, but who has time to read? Well, if those titans of industry can do it, we can all do it. Here’s my simple strategy to not only read but also really make it stick.
Every day, 15 minutes a day, then write it down
I began this habit in 2019: Every day, for fifteen minutes a day, I read from a business book and write down one profound insight (yes, by hand).
I use this beautiful little journaling book my wife gave me for Christmas a few years back. It’s called One Line a Day: A Five-Year Memory Book, and its premise is simple: Just write down one profound line a day.
Looking for an insight to add to the journal makes me read closely, and writing it down helps me really absorb the golden nuggets. I’m going to share a few of these gems below.
The list: Business Books I read in 2021
This year I read twelve business books with my fifteen minutes a morning routine. Here is my list. Scroll down to see my reactions to them:
2. The Road Less Stupid: Advice from the Chairman of the Board – Keith Cunningham
4. The Win Without Pitching Manifesto – Blair Enns
5. Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen – Donald Miller
6. New Sales. Simplified. – Mike Weinberg
7. Every Book Is A Startup – Todd Sattersten
8. Uncopyable: How to Create an Unfair Advantage Over Your Competition – Steve Miller
10. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know – Adam Grant
11. ABM is B2B.: Why B2B Marketing and Sales is Broken and How to Fix it – Sangram Vajre and Eric Spett
I feel a sense of gratitude to these authors. “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” said Isaac Newton. My thanks to the giants on this list.
Think Like Google: Use SEO & Empathy to Rank, Convert, and Profit no Matter How Much They Change the Rules – Tom Gerencer
“I hope you really, really believe me when I tell you keywords are just a way to get to know your reader’s plight.” – Tom Gerencer
There simply hasn’t been a book that impacted our marketing results all year like Tom Gerencer’s book on SEO. Instead of focusing on trying to crack Google’s algorithm, Gerencer provides a simple strategy to help your content rank: Learn the search intent of a keyword.
The idea “write for people, not for machines” is thrown around by SEO pundits, but Gerencer shows you that it’s about more than writing. It’s about analyzing search results for keywords and deducing what the true search intent of your customers really is.
Added bonus: The book is future proof, because Google’s goal is to serve the customer. Read this, and you’ll do the same.
The Road Less Stupid – Keith Cunningham
“Ordinary things, consistently done, produce extraordinary results.” – Keith J. Cunningham
No one, but no one, had a better title than Keith Cunningham. And even though everyone talks about the value of being wrong and learning from your miscues, Cunningham’s point is that it makes even more sense to avoid stupid mistakes.
How does that happen? It starts with taking time to think about problems you’re facing. Literally. Cunningham sets aside thinking time every day to ponder issues and come at problems from multiple perspectives.
This might be one of the most reassuring reads of the year for me. Cunningham urges you to avoid impulsive decisions and the bright, shiny objects. “Speed kills. True wealth is built slowly.” That’s but one of many lines that will help you keep your eyes on the prize.
It also ties in with the “ordinary things” quote above, a truism we’ve seen time and time again in content marketing.
“Learning how to learn is the ultimate superpower, the one that makes every other skill and ability possible.” – Jim Kwik
Some of the reads on this list are the result of me keeping a carefully curated list based on recommendations from friends and colleagues. The others are just coincidences, such as Limitless.
My daughter’s boyfriend was reading it, and I picked it up to see what the intriguing title was all about. After reading the first few chapters, I realized that this wasn’t just a methodology to help you improve your ability to learn; it’s a warning to educators worldwide.
The digital age is drowning us in information, much of it bad. The overuse of digital technology is breaking down our cognitive abilities. We need to teach people how to learn, including using critical thinking as part of the process.
Kwik also includes some practical memorization tips and tricks, one of which includes reciting a random list of words and being able to recite them in order. I was amazed at how well it worked.
The Win Without Pitching Manifesto – Blair Enns
“The strength of our strategic processes, rooted in our deep experience and systematic thinking, is what ensures our high likelihood of a high-quality outcome.” – Blair Enns
This is one of those books that seems to come up a lot with my colleagues, especially when it comes to landing clients.
But while it may be considered a how-to book for building your agency and adding more clients, I found quotes like the one above to be a nice confidence boost, and a reminder of how much time and effort we put into our businesses.
I tell my team that our clients look to us as guides. While we should listen to their input and perspectives, we can’t abandon the systems we’ve taken years to build and improve.
That deep experience matters folks. Enns makes sure you don’t forget it. He also reminds you that you’ll be rewarded accordingly because of it.
“People don’t buy the best products; they buy the products they can understand the fastest.” – Donald Miller
One of the best books I’ve read on branding in a long, long time for two reasons.
- Miller’s branding approach forces you to think about the customer and not yourself.
- His quote, “Clarity produces results.”
If your messaging is cluttered, complicated, and downright confusing, expect your customer to leave the store or your website. If you focus on the customer, and then work hard to create a message with the utmost clarity, expect the cash register to go cha-ching.
One exciting byproduct of Miller’s approach is that in establishing a storybrand for our customers, content ideas materialize left and right. When you think in terms of story, there are many chapters required. That can help you keep the content mill churning.
New Sales. Simplified. The Essential Handbook for Prospecting and New Business Development – Mike Weinberg
“Salespeople consistently fail because they can’t tell their story effectively.” – Mike Weinberg
I’ve read countless books on marketing, and while my education in this discipline is far from over, I needed to learn more about a critical topic for my company: sales.
Our Digital Twin marketing approach is based on using content to create a digital twin of our clients’ sales teams. This helps sales-based organizations succeed in an age where 80% of the sales transaction will occur online by the year 2025. (Gartner)
Weinberg helped Winbound immensely with his Sales Story model. We’ve interwoven it into our marketing planning process and use it as a basis for writing home pages for our clients’ websites. And I’m sure more applications from the book await us.
Books on sales also get us marketers out of our insulated world and down into the trenches. Understand sales, and watch your marketing results improve.
Every Book Is A Startup – Todd Sattersten
“For creators beginning a new project, the most important question is: Have I found a customer with a problem worth solving?” – Todd Sattersten
I took on a fascinating side project this year: Ghostwriting a book for my friend, Rock LaManna. We’ve produced a combination memoir/business book that will be published in 2022. I’m excited to see it in print.
During the writing process, Rock did tons of research on the business end of writing a book, and discovered this gem by Todd Sattersten, who leads a publishing company.
Suffice it to say that Sattersten really gets the business side of books. Lots of authors grit their teeth when it comes to marketing their work. But Sattersten’s book shows you that this is really nothing more than an exercise in getting to know your reader better and delivering what they truly want. And it starts before you write the book.
The goal of any writer is to connect with the reader. We love it when our writing is loved. Solve a problem for someone, and they’ll love you and your book.
“Different can be uncopyable, and it can be defensible.” – Steve Miller
I’m not sure what I enjoyed more: Reading Steve Miller’s book or getting to know this crazy cat.
I mentioned “deep experience” above, and no one’s experience runs deeper than this marketing maverick. Colorful (as in his ever-present orange attire) and bequeathed with nickname “The Marketing Gunslinger” and “Kelly’s Dad” (take your pick), Steve has become both a mentor and a friend.
Ok, so what about the damn book? Well, you can talk all you want about becoming better than the competition, but Miller’s advice is as much a roadmap as it is a warning signal. Here is the context for the quote above:
“You must separate yourself from the competition not by being better but also by being different. Better is important, but it is almost always copyable — more sooner than later.”
Better is good, but uncopyable is best. And the Marketing Gunslinger ain’t shootin’ blanks on that one.
“Building any meaningful relationship requires time and multiple interactions.” – James Carbary
One of the biggest trends of the last few years is the rise of the podcast. What once seemed to be a quaint little hobby for audio nerds has blossomed into a full-fledged marketing tactic, one that’s delivering in big ways for some.
However, for all the successes podcasts are having, there are also many that are on the struggle bus, primarily because they lack strategy or purpose. That’s why so many start suddenly, but stop just as abruptly.
I loved Carbary’s strategic approach, especially his insistence that you shape your podcast around the people you want to reach. What I liked most about it is that you’ll not only meet new people, but you’ll learn volumes about your customer in the process.
“Doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data.” – Adam Grant
I’ve never been one to shy away from hyperbole, but I don’t think my following statement is an exaggeration: This book should be required reading for every human being, especially those living in the United States.
Why? Because Think Again is all about approaching life like a scientist. It’s not against having beliefs, but it does encourage questioning them. If your beliefs are correct, they will withstand any challenge. But if you find them proven false, it won’t destroy your identity: It will make you a better person.
Apply it to marketing. Apply it to life. But for the love of God, apply it, people. Please.
ABM is B2B. Why B2B Marketing and Sales is Broken and How to Fix it – Sangram Vajre and Eric Spett
“It becomes the one simple check against which all your efforts can be scrutinized: Is what I’m doing helping me to more effectively target, engage, activate, or measure across the customer life cycle?” – Sangram Vajre, Eric Spett
Funny, I was searching my notes from this book on account based marketing (ABM), looking for a brilliant, eye-catching quote. But what I found instead were simple, straightforward concepts that may seem obvious to marketers but are largely overlooked.
I know this because I live this. Vajre and Spett argue that ABM should bring sales and marketing together and that their goals should be unified. But that’s often not the case.
Marketing is typically counted on to drive demand and demand alone, but there’s actually more to it than that. And there’s more to sales than closing the deals. That’s exactly why two-way communication between these groups is crucial, as is a team-based approach that focuses less on siloed metrics and more on shared outcomes.
This book might not give you the exact blueprint for ABM, but it does give you the big picture. So if you’re not familiar with how it works, read it. Now.
“As a marketer, whenever I talk to salespeople, I always start with one simple truth: My number is your number.” – Bassem Hamdy
It’s a credit to Sangram Vajre and Eric Spett that their book left me wanting to learn even more about ABM. I was looking for more boots-on-the-ground tactics, and Bassem Handy’s book called out to me as I scrolled through a vast list of ABM tomes.
The quote above is the opening salvo in the book, and it reinforces the nature of ABM — the alignment of sales and marketing. In rolling out the Digital Twin concept, in which we use content to create a Digital Twin of our clients’ sales teams, the integration of these two departments is essential.
It all starts with marketing sharing the same number that sales is focused on. Closed deals, increased revenue — whatever the sales team is evaluated on at the end of the day. Find that number and work your way backward from there in the most efficient way possible.
The value of this list
Why do I bother writing this blog post? In part, it’s to share some exceptional knowledge I’ve learned over the past year. Maybe it’s also to justify those daily notes in my little journal.
But really, it ties back to a story a friend of mine once told me about his dad.
My friend’s dad was hospitalized as a young boy. He was bedridden for months. At the time, I’m assuming there were no TVs in the hospital rooms. All he could do was read.
He read, and read, and read. He also kept a list of all the books he had read. And he didn’t stop once he left the hospital. He continued the habit throughout his life, and as a minister and a man of letters, he was a voracious reader.
I can imagine him, in his senior years, fondly looking back on that long list and all the memories it held.
I wish I had chronicled all the books I’ve read over the years as a reminder of lessons learned.
Thank you, writers, for guiding us and sharing your insights. The world is a better place for it.