Required Reading for Early Business Hires
60+ resources to help your startup find traction
These days I do most of my writing at The Jungle Gym. It’s a monthly newsletter full of ideas and resources to help you think clearer and work smarter. To learn more, check out this intro post.
As an early business hire you’re the right hand of the founder when it comes to acquiring customers. To be effective at your job you need more than tactics. You need to understand the strategy behind distribution.
At Tradecraft, we designed this reading list to get students up to speed on important sales and marketing frameworks. We believe it’s only useful to start learning tactics like content marketing or SEO after you firmly understand the foundational relationship between startups and their customers.
Here’s an outline of the reading list:
- What Startups Want
- Why Customers Buy
- Crafting an Effective Message
- The Sales and Marketing Machine
- Metrics that Matter
- Getting Early Traction
- Next Steps: Learning the Tactics
These posts sample from some of the best minds in startup strategy including Steve Blank, Ash Maurya, David Skok and many more. Because the majority of these posts were written to advise founders, we’ve tried to contextualize them for the early business hire role.
Before you start reading, a few caveats about whom this list is useful for:
- If you hope to join a B2C startup (one that sells to consumers vs. businesses) the last three sections will be less relevant for you. You’ll want to dive into growth marketing.
- If you’re looking to join a later stage company in a junior role, it will be a while before you’ll get to employ this type of strategic thinking.
With that said, we hope you enjoy the list.
Part 1. What Startups Want
Startups need to build a product that their customers want. As an early business hire, your role is to bring people to your initial product so your team can learn what they need to do to improve the product.
The following frameworks will help you better understand your company’s goals. Use them to help your founder make strategic decisions and win customers.
(~1 hour 44 minutes)
Startups Explained & Business Models by steve blank (~9 minutes)
A sound business model has lots of moving parts. To do your job you’ll need to understand how each component relates to the others. Using the Business Model Canvas you’ll be able to visualize a business on one page and spot the riskiest assumptions.
The Universal Goal by Ash Maurya (~16 minutes)
The Customer Factory model explains how early stage companies measure progress. The video demonstrates the differences between direct models, multi-sided models and marketplaces.
The Customer Factory Blueprint by Ash Maurya (~17 minutes)
Most people at an early stage startup are building the factory. Your role is to help bring people into the factory and turn them into happy paying customers.
Startups=Growth & Before You Grow by Paul Graham and Sam Altman (~25 minutes)
The difference between a startup and a small business is that startups are built for growth. Without a product that meets the needs of the market, growth can be a waste of money. The first order of business is to find product market fit– then you’re ready to grow.
Market Size by steve blank (~6 minutes)
A great market has lots of customers with intense urgency and large budgets. How large your company grows will depend on the size and quality of its market. If a startup isn’t going after a good market, it may not be worth joining in the first place.
When It Comes to Market Leadership, Be the Gorilla by Andy Rachleff (~5 minutes)
Any market worth winning will bring competitors. For any startup in a competitive market, speed of execution is essential. This post explains the benefits of market leadership and why it’s a worthwhile goal.
All Revenue is Not Created Equal: The Keys to the 10x Revenue Club by Bill Gurley (~20 minutes)
Investors will also play a part in determining the fate of your startup. While it may not be your job to fundraise, securing financing will be essential to the long-term viability of the startup. This article explains which factors lead to large valuations.
There’s a lot more to understand about the higher-level goals of a startup. These posts will give you better insights into what’s on your founder’s mind. You’ll understand what makes for a great business and what keeps your customers up at night. If you plan to start a company of your own someday, you should definitely read these posts:
- Competition is for Losers by Peter Thiel (~50 minutes)
- Aggregation Theory by Ben Thompson (~6 minutes)
- The Great Unbundling by Ben Thompson (~13 minutes)
- Finance Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3 by Michael Dearing (~11 minutes)
- The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clay Christensen (~6 hours) — or check out this summary of the concept
- Business Model Generation — by Alex Osterwalder (~1 hour)
Part 2. Why Customers Buy
Now that we understand the goals of a startup, let’s get to know the people who will be buying our products. Since our customers will determine if our business is successful, it’s worth studying how and why they buy products.
(~7 hours 33 minutes)
When Coffee and Kale Compete by Alan Klement (~7 hours)
Customers don’t care about buying products. They care about making progress in their lives. They buy products to assist them in making progress. You can use the Jobs-to-Be-Done framework to gain insight into why people choose to buy or not buy products. Note: this is a long read but it’s a very useful framework. If you don’t have time for the book take a look at this article and this one which will give you the basics.
Are You a Nice-to-have? by Aaron Ross (~2 minutes)
Business customers have different priorities than consumers. While both have a job, a business buyer will need to justify a decision to others, based on return on investment (ROI). This post shares how to influence a business buyer them by “selling money.”
The Value Proposition Canvas by Alex Osterwalder(~9 minutes)
Customers hire products both to cure pains and to experience gains. The Value Proposition canvas maps a customer’s jobs, pains and gains to the features of a product. (Here’s a nice explainer video)
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs by Saul Mcleod (~10 minutes)
Human needs have stayed consistent even after thousands of years of evolution. Maslow’s Hierarchy shows common goals that motivate people and how people rank them.
Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet by Buster Benson (~12 minutes)
Despite what economists used to believe, humans are not rational creatures. Cognitive biases warp our thinking and push us towards irrational decisions. This framework distills 175 biases into a simplified framework.
To create happy customers you must understand their goals and struggles in life. Learning consumer psychology will help you become an effective and empathic communicator.
- Overserved and Underserved Customers by Alex Danco (~11 minutes)
- How People Think about Buying New Products by Dave Rothschild (~17 minutes)
- Pain and Gain by steve blank (~6 minutes)
- Meet the New Enterprise Customer, He’s a Lot Like the Old Enterprise Customer by Ben Horowitz (~8 minutes)
- Startups Always Have a Chasm to Cross by Andy Rachleff (~6 minutes)
- The Real Reason “Stupid Startups” Raise So Much Money by Nir Eyal (~4 minutes)
- Pricing Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3 by Michael Dearing (~8 minutes)
- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (~ 10 hours)
Part 3. Crafting an Influential Message
We know what our company cares about. We know what our customers care about. Now let’s see how to craft a persuasive value proposition that draws the right customers to our product
(~7 hours 49 minutes)
Focus & Market Segmentation by David Skok (~2 minutes)
If you create a generalized message aimed at everyone, you won’t resonate with anyone. To craft an influential message you’ll need to focus on a specific customer segment.
Strategic Communication: How to Develop Strategic Messaging and Positioning by Myk Pono (~37 minutes)
You know who you want to influence. Next you’ll need to figure out what matters to them and how your product addresses their needs. This post synthesizes some of the best advice on how to turn these learnings into a powerful message.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini (~7 hours)
To master messaging it helps to know psychological triggers that influence customers. This book is a great place to dive into consumer psychology. Note: you can also check out a summary here.
Don’t Make It about You by James Greig (~10 minutes)
Customers don’t care about your company or your product. They care about making progress in their lives. If your messaging doesn’t reflect what they care about they won’t listen. This lesson holds true whether you’re communicating in person or in writing.
You can have a great product and distribution strategy, but without a message that resonates, you won’t be able to create happy customers.
- Start with Why by Simon Sinek (~18 minutes)
- What I Learned Positioning 40 Companies by Andy Raskin (~5 minutes)
- The Greatest Sales Deck I’ve Ever Seen by Andy Raskin (~8 minutes)
- Storytelling & Presenting Part 1 & Part 2 by Michael Dearing (~5 minutes)
- Positioning Your Startup is Vital — Here’s How to Nail It by First Round (~18 minutes)
Part 4. The Sales and Marketing Machine
With the goals of our customers and company aligned, we can start distributing our product. These frameworks will give you a holistic process for turning unaware consumers into happy customers.
(~1 hour 1 minute)
5 Ways to Build a $100 Million Business by Christoph Janz (~6 minutes)
To build a large business, your company will eventually need customers to pay you. These can be lots of individuals who each pay a little or a small number of large enterprises who pay a lot. This post lays out 5 strategies for generating revenue. Note: As an early business hire you’ll likely be “hunting bigger game,” in the form of paying business customers.
Building the Machine by David Skok (~8 minutes)
Once you know your buyers, you’ll want to understand their buying process. Use this framework to design interventions for reduce friction in the buying process and convert customers. At some point, you’ll have whole departments of specialists (SDRs, AEs, etc.) to help you. At the beginning though, the responsibility will fall to you and your founders.
How to Track Customer Acquisitions by Myk Pono (~27 minutes)
Turning unaware prospects into a paying customer is a complicated process. This framework helps make sense of it by mapping the customer’s journey to the sales funnel.
Managing Customer Success to Reduce Churn by David Skok (~20 minutes)
Your work isn’t done after you’ve closed the deal. If you can’t keep your customers happy and paying you’ll have wasted your efforts. In the early stages you’ll likely be responsible for managing accounts as well. This post explains why it’s essential to get this function right.
As your company grows you’ll need to scale up your responsibilities. To do this you need to be able to see the big picture. Read on if you hope take partake in strategy discussions and grow into a manager.
- Go-to-Market Best Practices for Startups by Mark Cranney (~20 minutes)
- Funnels for Startups: A Primer by Alex Iskold (~11 minutes)
- Three SaaS Sales Models by Joel York (~20 minutes)
- Matching Marketing Tactics to the Sales Funnel by Tom Tunguz(~3 minutes)
Part 5. Metrics that Matter
Metrics tell you whether your business is healthy or in trouble. Before you start acquiring customers, you’ll want to know which metrics to track. This reading list highlights some important ones that you’ll encounter on the job.
(1 hour 44 minutes)
16 Startup Metics & 16 More Startup Metrics by Andreessen Horowitz (~37 minutes)
Metrics track what matters to a startup. To speak the language of business you’ll need to be able to know what they mean. These posts define and differentiate between some common metrics. This is a good list to study and memorize.
What is the Right Burn Rate at a Startup Company? by Mark Suster (~10 minutes)
One major reason startups fail is running out of cash. Since your company’s burn rate will be on your founder’s mind, it’s worth understanding. This post presents a framework for how to think about burn rate in the context of a company’s objectives.
Startup Killer: the Cost of Customer Acquisition by David Skok (~13 minutes)
A quick way to run out of cash is by spending too much to acquire customers. How much a startup can spend on distribution depends on what the company expects to make back in revenue. This post covers the importance of balancing customer acquisition costs with monetization.
How Sales Complexity Impacts your Startup’s Viability by David Skok (~22 minutes)
The more complex your sales process is the higher your cost of customer acquisition will be. Complexity is okay if for high LTV customers, but problematic if you don’t end up making as much as you expected. This post covers the causes of sales complexity and its impact on a company’s bottom line.
Unlocking the Path to Negative Churn by David Skok (~9 minutes)
You can spend a lot of time and effort winning deals but still lose the market if you can’t keep your customers. This post shares why Churn is so critical to manage in a SaaS business.
How to Use a Single Metric to Run Your Startup by Ben Yoskovitz (~13 minutes)
While it’s possible to track a lot of metrics that doesn’t mean it’s helpful to your business. Here you’ll learn what makes a metric worth tracking and how to focus a startup on a single key indicator.
The faster you can get comfortable discussing metrics the more value you’ll provide to customers and colleagues. It’s worth noting that most of these posts are about SaaS startups. That’s because this is one of types of businesses where Early Business Hires can be most useful. If you find yourself growing a marketplace, many of these metrics will still be helpful.
- Marketing Math Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3 by Michael Dearing (~8 minutes)
- Building a SaaS Startup by David Skok (~54 minutes) — you can find the slides here
- Understanding SaaS: Why the Pundits Have It Wrong by Scott Kupor & Preethi Kasireddy (~15 minutes)
- Your Startup’s 10 Most Important Metrics by Tom Tunguz (~3 minutes)
- A Surprisingly Powerful Growth Mechanism for SaaS Startups by Tom Tunguz (~3 minutes)
- 10 Marketplace KPIs that Matter by Andrei Brasoveanu (~11 minutes)
- Data Can Bury What Made You Great by Dave Rothschild (~9 minutes)
Part 6. Getting Early Traction
You’ve got your customers buying process mapped out and you know which metrics to track. Now it’s time to start hustling. This post shares some strategies for winning initial customers.
Do Things That Don’t Scale by Paul Graham (~19 minutes)
Getting your first customers is hard. To convince people to take a chance on an unproven product you’ll need to do things that may not scale. The same goes true for keeping those customers happy. Don’t be afraid to get scrappy and take some risks.
Traction vs. Growth by Brian Balfour (~7 minutes)
Before your company finds product market fit, trying to grow too quickly can be a dangerous waste of money. Your job is to bring in enough customers to meet investor expectations and keep the business afloat. This post covers how goals, metrics, and growth channels change as the company matures.
How To Increase Sales Revenue With Seeds, Nets, And Spears by Aaron Ross (~4 minutes)
This post covers the three types of leads that you’ll want in your sales pipeline. Each of them comes in via different sources and requires its own process to generate and service.
The 19 Channels You Can Use to Get Traction by Gabriel Weinberg (~9 minutes)
Leads can come through many different acquisition channels. This post shares 19 channels to help give you a sense of the options. Some involve paying for performance while others are unpaid. The ones that work for you will have to do with your the product you’re selling and the customer you’re selling to. Highly recommend picking up a copy of the book.
5 Steps to Choose Your Customer Acquisition Channel by Brian Balfour (~11 minutes)
Finding a channel that works for your business requires deliberate testing. This post walks through a framework for deciding which channels to start testing.
Growing Startups When the Product Sucks by Ali Mese (~6 minutes)
Without a product that meets the needs of your customers, any efforts to grow will be a waste of time and money. Your goal in the early stages is to find product market fit. If the product isn’t right that makes getting traction a lot harder.
If you can’t generate a significant volume of leads, everything else becomes a lot harder. The more you know the better of a chance you’ll have reaching customers.
- How to Get Your First 10 Customers by Dan Shipper (~12 minutes)
- The Lifecycle of Lead Generation Channels by Clement Vouillon (~7 minutes)
- The Shape of Traction Part 1. and Part 2 by Rob Go and David Beisel (~10 minutes)
- The Sales Learning Curve by Mark Leslie and Charles A. Holloway
- The Templeton Compression and the Sales Ready Product by Mark Leslie and Jim Goetz
Part 7. Next Steps– Learning the Tactics
You’ve got some context. Now it’s time for the dirty work.
In order to help your company achieve meaningful traction you’ll need an arsenal of tactics including:
- Content Marketing & SEO
- Paid Advertising
- Landing Page Creation
- Lead Nurturing
- Qualifying and Closing
- Onboarding and Customer Success
- Customer Development
While these skills will take considerable effort to master (each could have its own post), if you’ve gotten this far you’re probably ready for the challenge.
At Tradecraft we’ve helped a few hundred people transition into fast-growing startups like Facebook, Medium, Uber, Gusto, Udemy, Doordash, Earnest etc. If you’re looking for help building these skills or you’re ready to pursue a career path as an early business hire drop us a line.
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- If you’ve got suggestions for other great articles, please post links in the comments below.
- If you’re interested in learning more about becoming an early business hire, feel free to drop me a line.