The Best Business Biographies I’ve Read
Although they are pretty rare, there’s something I love about a well-written business biography. I buy into the view that books can make the best mentors, so it’s incredible to me that you can just stroll down to your library and start absorbing the life experiences of some of the world’s most successful people.
Here’s a list of the best biographies I’ve read so far. Several of these are related to the Silicon Valley ecosystem since that’s where my career is, although lately I’ve been more interested in early 20th century tycoons, so maybe those will make more of an appearance here in the future.
If you are interested in reading all of these, I’ve sorted this list in an order that makes the most sense to work your way through, although it’s not the order I originally read them.
One regret I have about this list is that it’s incredibly white and male. I’m working on that.
The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt came of age right as America entered the Industrial Age and much of the US economic environment started to resemble what we see today. He had a wild life full of controversies, huge gambles, and even a small coup attempt or two in South America. This was a hefty book but never felt slow paced. I think I’d be much better at business if I asked myself “What would Cornelius do?” more often. Hint: The answer is probably to destroy your competitor at any cost.
The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
Warren Buffett is maybe the closest present-day America has to a full-blown tycoon, and this is the most intimate biography of Buffett’s life to date. A good mix of life story and investment philosophy, Alice Schroeder had access to Buffett and the people around him to get a fuller picture of Buffett than I’ve read elsewhere.
Sam Walton: Made In America
Prior to reading this book, most of my knowledge about Sam Walton came from less than flattering coverage as Wal-Mart began crushing small-town businesses across America. His autobiography does a good job recounting Wal-Mart’s beginnings as a general store in Bentonville, and sharing some of the principles Walton followed as he grew the company. The biggest negative for the book is that because it was published in 1993 before Wal-Mart really started coming under any scrutiny for its business practices, some of Walton’s commentary about mid-90s Wal-Mart looks like heavily spun PR in retrospect.
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The spiritual heir to Walton, Bezos actually mentions reading “Made in America” in the early Amazon days to learn more about the retailing industry. After reading both books, it really feels like Amazon is taking the philosophies of Wal-Mart (along with Sears before them) and dialing them up to 11. I need to write more about this in the future but several passages in this book about how Amazon works inspired me to start RelayPad.
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
Bell Labs invented so much of the technology that defined the second half of the 20th century. If you loved the workplace dynamics of Mad Men but wish it was about engineers instead of advertisers, this book is for you. I feel that this period of American innovation is under-documented right now, and I hope more people involved in mid-20th-century business and engineering have their stories documented before everyone from that period is gone. This book also leads nicely into the next book on this list.
The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company
Intel can trace its roots back to Bell Labs, and the rest of Silicon Valley can trace their roots to Intel. Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore worked for William Shockley at Shockley Semiconductor, which he started after inventing the transistor and leaving Bell Labs to set up shop in Mountain View. Those two went on to start Fairchild Semiconductor, and then Intel. Almost everything about the way Silicon Valley works today came from this period, and this is the best book I’ve read about how we got here.
Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony
Let’s take a quick detour out of Silicon Valley and check out what’s going on in Japan during the same period as “The Idea Factory” and “The Intel Trinity.” Sony is such a ubiquitous brand that I struggle a bit to think about a world where it didn’t yet exist, and someone had to invent it. Akio Morita led an incredibly exciting life, shaped by being born into a sake brewing family and entering adulthood during World War II, then starting a career in post-war Japan. Morita uses a large portion of his autobiography to identify differences between Japanese and American business practices, culture and politics. Most of his views have aged quite well (especially compared to some of the other people on this list) and are as relevant today as they were when this was published in 1988.
Steve Jobs & The Next Big Thing
Throughout his life, Steve Jobs listed Akio Morita and Sony as significant influences, so this is an excellent next book to pick up after “Made in Japan.” Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs was ok but skipped over the most interesting part of Jobs’s life. When Jobs was kicked out of Apple in 1985, he was widely seen as a horrible manager. In 1997 he returned, saved the company and unleashed a stream of innovation that shaped the last 20 years. What happened in between those two events that changed him? Randall Stross tries to answer that here. One intriguing aspect of this book is that it was published shortly before Apple acquired NeXT, so you get a glimpse of how things might have gone in an alternate timeline where Apple and Jobs don’t bail each other out.
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Written by Mark Allen, a product manager and designer and currently based in Toronto. Say hello on Twitter.