The best business books that aren’t business books

Mai Fenton
Chief Marketing Officer
18 May 2021
4 minute read

Running a small business is demanding, but if you find reading relaxing, there are many books out there that can help shape your thinking or give you some ideas to win more customers or develop or promote your products or services to grow your business.

I don’t like reading straight business books, rather I find books blending psychology and research with storytelling to be the most enjoyable to read as they inspire ideas and creativity. So here are my top 6 recommended reads, full of illustrative stories to inform, inspire and spark some fresh thinking - whether you’re self employed, a micro-business owner or an entrepreneur growing a tech startup.

In no particular order:

The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I read this book because I wanted to kick a bad habit, and found it to be extremely relevant in business too.

The Power of Habit examines how habits happen, and how you can change them or create new ones. Whether it’s about making a change in your life (e.g. eat less or exercise more), or create a societal movement, the book offers useful insights, and a method to control those actions we take or thoughts we have repeatedly almost unconsciously through the Habit Loop mechanism.

The book blends theory and practical suggestions really well, demonstrating how the psychology and principles behind habit creation can be applied to develop products, services and features whose usage can grow by making it habitual.

This leads me nicely onto the next book:


Hooked by Nir Eyal

Hooked looks at habits from a product design perspective, i.e. how to build products that encourage usage and ultimately habit formation. Habit-forming products become indispensable to users, therefore for the right product/service, understanding the mechanics behind habit creation can be useful and spark ideas about how you can increase user engagement.

The key to this are hooks. Hooks are experiences that can modify user behavior and encourage formation of new habits. In his book, Nir Eyal shares his four-step methodology - which he calls the Hook Model - employed by many businesses nowadays to develop products that keep customers coming back - driving repeat visits or usage.

Next on my list is a book about understanding the science of popularity:


Hit Makers by Derek Thompson

Hit Makers investigates what makes things popular - definitely a must-read if you’re looking for inspiration to market your products or services.

Why do some great, innovative ideas never catch on, while others do? How do trends and fads happen?

Derek Thompson identifies the key factors in human psychology which, combined with market forces and cultural trends lead to popularity. The book is full of great stories to illustrate the relationship of the human mind and the market with popularity - and is informative and entertaining at the same time. Thoroughly enjoyable.

My fourth book suggestion is probably one of my favourites of all time:


Influence by Robert B. Cialdini

Considered ‘the godfather of influence’, Dr. Robert Cialdini compiles over three decades of rigorous, evidence-based research into this fascinating book about the psychology of persuasion.

Despite it being 300 pages of very small print, I read the book in a matter of days, as I would an enthralling fiction novel, thanks to the author’s ability to turn psychology concepts into captivating narratives and storytelling.

You’ll learn about the six universal principles that constitute ‘weapons of influence’ - peppered with illustrative stories - and how you can use them to change behaviours or influence actions.

My next recommendation looks at changing people’s mind too, but from a different angle:

The Catalyst

The Catalyst by Jonah Berger

The Catalyst looks at ways to catalyse change by starting with the basic question: Why hasn’t change happened yet? Why hasn’t the person changed already? What’s blocking them?

The book opens with the story of how a hostage negotiator on a SWAT operation gets a criminal to surrender himself with their hands up (tip: it’s not just about what we’re trying to change, it’s about who’s mind we are trying to change). That intro got me hooked.

The whole premise of the book is that driving change is not about trying to convince by presenting more arguments and evidence, but about removing barriers to change. This leads into an interesting read about the five core principles that remove roadblocks to overcome inertia and inaction… useful if you are trying to get people to adopt your product or get them to switch to your services.

If you enjoy The Catalyst, I also recommend Contagious, Jonah Berger’s first book about social influence and virality, on the similar theme of popularity as Hit Makers.

For the final book on my list, I’ve picked one on the topic of business culture and leadership, that I found somewhat refreshing in its format and style:

What you do is who you are

What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz

I was intrigued to read this much-hyped book, authored by one of the co-founder of successful venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, because it’s as much about workplace culture as it is about leadership.

In his book, Ben Horowitz draws lessons from history’s greatest leaders, from modern organisations and from communities, on how to create and maintain the right culture for your business. My personal favourite is the story of Shaka Senghor, a prison gang leader, and the lessons learned from his experience in prison driving positive cultural change amongst one of the toughest communities you could imagine.

The book reads a little like a novel, and the narrative is interesting and intriguing, keeping you engaged while gathering practical advice on how to run a business and lead employees to thrive.

So, that’s all for my list of business books that aren’t actually business books! Whether you’re looking for some wisdom to boost your personal development, or a gift for someone else, I guarantee you these are anything but business textbooks - they’re inspirational, informative and, most importantly, enjoyable. Happy reading!

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