Maker Resources

Top books to read for indie makers and entrepreneurs

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We’ve got a lineup of fantastic books for makers, we’ve got a tonne of other recommendations including both fiction and non-fiction, TV and film. Plus, book clubs, the importance of reading, and how to make the most of what you learn!

The books themselves are sorted into five categories. The choices have come from Twitter recommendations, reading lists from others, and my own reading. If you have a favourite book or one you think all makers should read then tweet it to Maker Mag or myself and I will check it out!

So let’s delve into the past, the future, building products and making things, running a business, and personal development.

Looking into the past

The most recommended book from the suggestions on Twitter is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s not hard to see why. All makers – all people – should read this book to see how humanity got to where it is today. Harari takes what seem like foundational premises of our civilisation and puts them up for renegotiation.

Taking a quick break from revolutionising online payments, Stripe has opened up a publishing arm and its offerings are ones that all makers should be having a look at. The Dream Machine is a biography of JCR Licklider, a visionary who helped sow the seeds of the Intergalactic Network and move computing from an academic, mathematical pursuit, to every day application.

A biography of a scientist born in 1759 might not seem like an obvious read for makers. Hear me out. Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature is about Alexander von Humboldt, who the subtitle calls the lost hero of science. Humboldt travelled the world mapping, writing, exploring, climbing, recording, discussing, and classifying, when there was still so much unknown. It’s a story of an individual committed, meticulous, and disciplined that we can all be inspired by.

Debt: The First 5000 Years is more than an economics book. It’s so important for makers – and citizens in general – to understand our financial systems and institutions and debt is a factor that has the whole world in its grip. By the anthropologist David Graeber, it’s an eye-opening exploration of how so much we believe about money is wrong.

Hidden Figures is a star-packed film about the Black women working at NASA during the early days of the Space Race of the 1960s. Featuring life-saving maths in space, rocket engineering, and an early IBM mainframe, it has something to inspire every kind of maker as well as showing us this deliberately overlooked part of our history. It’s based on the book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly.

The criminally underrated Halt and Catch Fire is pure maker-spirit following the emerging computer industries in the 80s and 90s from hardware to games, classic hacking to venture capital. If you aren’t inspired like a shot of adrenaline I’ll eat my motherboard.

While they were about their future, they are our past and books such as Brave New World, 1984, Jules Verne’s, and the pulpy retro-future of 50s scifi, are all instructive. Pick one up to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, of how we used to think the future would be.

Back to the future

A follow-up to Sapiens is Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus. Sapiens was about how we got here, and Homo Deus is about where we are going. “A brief history of tomorrow” the subtitle reads and it’s just as revelatory as its predecessor. The challenges and opportunities of the 21st century and beyond are laid out. As an accomplished historian Harari is the perfect person to provide his thoughts on what will be in the history books of the future.

The well-known futurist Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media and general internet fame. What’s the Future? surveys technology and innovation without forgetting that people are at the very heart of all those developments.

Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise tackles predictions: “why so many predictions fail – but some don’t.” He’s a career super-predictor, from sports to politics and went out to interview people from many more fields about the methods and pitfalls of prediction. Learn how to make better decisions with better predictions, how to cut through the hype, and evaluate ideas more carefully.

Star Trek has created many self-fulfilling prophecies by bringing about inventions it featured as fiction as well as inspiring people to work in engineering, astrophysics and so on. There are books about the economics of the Federation, about the real inventions it has inspired, about most things.

But you can just watch and let the earnestness of The Next Generation and the scrappiness of Deep Space Nine inspire you. The feature film First Contact is a good choice for a more immediately relatable vision of the future and the bridging gap between how we get from where we are now to this bright, shiny future. And of course the Star Trek legacy continues with Discovery currently on Netflix.

The record-breaking Black Panther film has been making history and both the film and the comics provide some wonderful futuristic fuel for makers. Check out newer runs from amazing authors such as Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates. For further recommendations try 8 of the best Afrofuturism books to introduce you to the genre and What the heck is Afrofuturism?

Seveneves was a Twitter recommendation and now having read it I’d defy anyone to finish the book and not immediately start tinkering with robots, writing up some code, or studying astrophysics. By Neal Stephenson, it’s about the end of the world that’s just the beginning of human ingenuity.

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is not only enormous fun to read but has a very hacker mentality. Underneath the shenanigans in space lie deeper questions about life, the universe, and everything.

On TV have a look at Black Mirror or The Expanse for maker-fuel.

Building products and making things

The brothers behind IDEO, Tom and David Kelley, wrote the fantastic Creative Confidence. It’s one of my most-turned to books for inspiration, great quotes, and that all-important creative confidence. Learn how world-class companies think differently, the principles behind IDEO and Stanford success, solving real world problems, design thinking, testing, prototyping, and more.

Another pair of brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, launched their publishing career with the phenomenally successful Made To Stick. With dozens of case studies, historical examples, and fun anecdotes, Made To Stick shows you how to give your idea that elusive stickiness.

Ahead of this trend was Malcolm Gladwell’s seminal The Tipping Point. It quickly became a classic with ideas such as the 10,000 hour rule and what makes an idea go viral. Describing ideas swelling to become epidemics as they pass from person to person and the all-important “tipping point” this is essential for anyone making something they hope will take off one day.

There are plenty of similar books that will be incredibly helpful for product-people, starting with the follow-up Switch by Chip Heath. Nudge by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein is a slightly more academic look where the examples are more government policies and big business decisions. Author of classics like Influence and Pre-Suasion, Richard H Thaler, has a shorter more actionable book, Yes! billed as “60 secrets from the science of persuasion.” And Nir Eyal’s Hooked is specifically about how to build habit-forming products.

Get a taste of Ingrid Fetell-Lee’s Joyful with her TED Talk, Where joy hides and how to find it. She is a designer searching for the positivity and joy in life through design. Learn how people respond to joy and how to provide that in your products through just very small design decisions.

Pieter Levels needs little introduction to those in the maker community. His book, Make, is a bootstrappers handbook taking you from idea to building, launching, growing, monetizing, and more. There’s insight into how he built products like NomadList, mistakes made, lessons learned, and homework assignments to complete.

Running a business

Essential reading for anyone facing a challenge is The Dip by marketing legend Seth Godin. That could be starting a business, building a product, or mastering a skill. It’s an extended pep-talk for undertaking any project and focuses on the trough of despair everyone must go through. Unusually for business books Godin devotes a lot of time to talking about when you should quit, and that a lot of projects do in fact deserve quitting on.

Paul Jarvis’ first book, Company Of One, defies the growth-at-all-costs model. “Staying small is the next big thing” he posits and advocates small, sustainable, profitable solo ventures where you stay in control and focus on doing the work you love. This is a mindset for a lot of makers, who value the flexibility and autonomy of working alone. It’s minimalism for business and a model that will surely become more and more common. Paul is also the first guest on the upcoming Maker Mag podcast!

The Basecamp founders Jason Friedman and David Heinemeier Hansson also like keeping things small and simple. Their books ReWork, Remote, and It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work, champion sane, sustainable, profitable business organisation. Basecamp tops out at about 50 team members and doesn’t have investors, yet is wildly popular and an industry leader.

Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Work Week had a huge impact when it was published in 2011 and continues to do so today. It’s the origin of the “muse business”, started the 4-Hour brand, and fuelled so many digital nomad dreams.

There are lots of excellent books on how to build something with more impact. Blake Mycoskie’s Start Something That Matters chronicles the beginning of Toms. Thankyou co-founder Daniel Flynn wrote Chapter One, an account of their ambitions to end poverty. The Pencils of Promise story is recounted by founder Adam Braun in The Promise of a Pencil. Scott Harrison reveals the lifestyle that led him to a complete turnaround of his life and the foundation of charity: water in Thirst.

Personal development

Mindset is about “changing the way you think to fulfil your potential”, written by Stanford University psychologist Dr Carol Dweck. This is the “growth mindset” you may have heard about – how essential it is, the advantages it will give you, and how to develop it. For makers having a pioneering, adventurous growth mindset is essential so this is a must-read.

Angela Duckworth’s Grit looks at the most important factor in determining someone’s success and achievements. Full of fascinating case studies she persuades us of why grit is so essential and how to develop it. It’s the ability to put your head down and keep working away, mastering the resolve and dedication needed for long term success.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, as you can tell by the title, is an entirely different kind of self-help book. It’s a liberating read about freeing yourself from the pressures of forced positivity and challenging the status quo. Author Mark Manson is grounded and inspiring at the same time with some very real talk to share.

Michael Pollan, generally known as a food writer, journeys into a different kind of edible with How to Change Your Mind, about psychedelics and the untapped potential of the human brain. Biohacking and the like are concepts increasingly entering the mainstream and it’s good to see a respected and well thought-out voice contributing to the debate.

Flow as a book and a concept comes up regularly when talking about productivity but it’s also about finding happiness and fulfilment in different places and getting more of it into your life. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book is a lot more approachable than you might expect from such a noted scholar and it’s well worth reading the original for a much bigger picture than the quotes suggest.

Cal Newport’s latest book, Deep Work, caused a big splash advocating many of the suggestions from Csikszentmihalyi. Carving out space and time to work on projects – side projects especially – is a challenge for lots of makers. Newport not only extols the benefits of deep work but gives actionable ways to create that space for yourself.

Start With Why by Simon Sinek can apply to big businesses, but also to makers, individuals, and companies of one. Sinek’s massively successful TED Talk on How great leaders inspire action has over 42 million views.

For makers this is about honing in on why you do what you do, as a force to drive you, to attract others to your cause, and to stand out from the crowd. It’s a purpose that the recommendations in the business social impact section have figured out, so you might want to read some of them when you are done with Start With Why, or move onto Sinek’s other books elaborating on the premise.

Habits are big business and James Clear’s big new release Atomic Habits has been making waves. I’d also recommend The Happiness Project where Gretchen Rubin spent a year focussing on improving an area of her life each month. Her biggest takeaway was tracking and journaling, and you can read Why indie makers should keep a daily journal here on Maker Mag. So if you want to build new, better habits you need to check these out.

Big thank yous to Anne-Laure Le Cunff, Abadesi, Daniel Meade for the social impact recommendations, Olivier, Nika Grigoreva, Tamas Torok, Fernando Hidalgo, Al, Berkan, and all the replies from Twitter.

More recommendations

When you are exploring potential new reads try to be adventurous in your choices. There’s a lot to be gained from reading widely across all genres and categories. Reading fiction with non-fiction gives you a nice change of pace and re-contextualises ideas. Telling a story can be just as effective in getting ideas across as a textbook. Sometimes even more so.

Finding links between apparently disparate topics is not only a joy but a great skill. Becoming a multi-expert is a marketable skill and one very much in demand. So try reading outside your niche and working out how these new thoughts apply to your own issues. Many great discoveries and careers have been launched by combining topics like this.

Follow your interests down the rabbit hole. Many books have – if not full references and a bibliography – notes and a reading list. Have a look for what else the author has written, or see if you can find recommendations from them for more.

That said: if you are not enjoying yourself, stop. There’s no need to be precious about always finishing books. If you are not receiving a good return on your investment then just move on to the next one.

Now you’ve got all these recommendations, what are you going to do with them?

Read with others! Book clubs take on all shapes, sizes and formats. There are web-based book clubs, meetups, and all sorts. Try The Startup Book Club and check out Maker Mag’s interview with founder John B. Bartlet.

It’s also incredibly easy to start your own. You don’t even all need to read the same book. People can read their own choices, the challenge is to read it in a certain time span, usually a month, and report back. Or you can co-ordinate your reading and have a discussion. Talking about what you’ve learned is one of the best ways to synthesise and hold onto that knowledge.

Take notes as you read and – crucially – review them later. Highlight key passages and add your own reflections. Interacting with the text like this is a great way to make it stick – a lesson learned from Made To Stick.

Here are some reflection points and questions you can ask yourself as you read:

  • Where can I apply this to my life?
  • Where have I seen this happen in my experience?
  • What links and connections does it spark?
  • Where have I seen / read about something like this before?
  • What’s my first, gut reaction to this information? What’s my reaction after digesting it, or reading more?
  • What does this inspire me to find out more about?

A common theme is to create links in your mind and connect information from different sources together. You are building your own neural networks and bank of ideas and inspiration to draw on in the future.

The next key point is to act. Applying this knowledge and information to your own life should be the reason you are gaining it in the first place. It’s not for banking, it’s for spending. Be on the lookout for opportunities to practice what you have learned and put it into action.

If you are reading a lot but not taking action you might be falling victim to analysis paralysis or information overload. If that’s the case, take a step back, focus on your key takeaways and start applying them instead of looking for more.

Practical tips for managing a reading habit

Don’t be daunted by the time commitment of tackling a book. Amazon gives you an estimated reading time and many books fall around the 6-8 hour mark. It’s not a race, but that gives you an idea of how quickly you can get through a book. With half an hour of reading each day it’s about two weeks.

Reading a physical book or on a non-backlit device like a Kindle is a great way to get in some non-screen time to wind down before bed. Rather than hitting Twitter or the like during your public transport commute try a book instead. And if you are driving, or just prefer the spoken word to reading, the majority of books now have audiobook versions. Often the audiobook comes reduced when you buy the ebook so you can switch seamlessly between the two.

Don’t forget your local library. Libraries are amazing services and fantastic resources. You can read for free, chat with helpful and passionate library staff, and order books that your local branch doesn’t have.

It’s good to keep track of what you’ve read – and what you want to read. Trello and similar task management apps can make great reading lists. You can keep the link, your notes, cover picture, and everything all together and move it from list to list as you find, buy, and read the book. Goodreads functions as your catalogued bookshelf where you can list and sort to-reads and finished books. Whatever you use, being systematic about it will help you keep on top of your reading ambitions and everything you learn.

I hope you’ve found books to spark your imagination and inspiration from this selection. Anyone with other recommendations can tweet Maker Mag or myself. I’ll check them out and who knows, there might be a follow-up post or even a book club in the making.

Reading widely and diversely offers you the perspective of legends and long-dead pioneers, glimpses into other worlds, forges new connections, and sheds light on opportunity. We can forge something new from this knowledge and be inspired to make.

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