When I started my company Tiger Mountain Innovations in 2002, I devoted a great deal of time and energy to understanding my craft and product development for Squak Mountain Stone. It was an appropriate use of my mental energy because I, at that time, was inventing a product and a process that didn't exist until then.
But after the primary research and development was done, I now had the task of learning my business - how to set up a shop, manage employees and sell my product. It was during this time that I devoured books on business and business culture. I also subscribed to the Harvard Business Review so that I could get a 10 cent Harvard education by reading whatever they recommended!
And of all of the books I read, the following were the ones that rose to the top and were ones I recommend to other entrepreneurs time and time again because although they were published at different times by different authors, when used in combination with each other, the world as I had known it has been changed forever.
All of them have been re-printed or re-published with new, more timely information but in essence, still maintain the magic of the original. And for those of you who don't read "books" anymore, they are available on Audio or Kindle versions.
My first recommendation here did not come from Harvard Business Review but was actually a recommendation from another business owner. Back in 2004, I cautiously reached out to a competitor who I had noticed seemed to always be getting written up in magazines and online articles. He was a competitor in the sense that we both made eco-friendly countertop products but I felt that he might be willing to give me some advice since our products were actually quite different and attracted different styles of customers. I called him up one morning because I just wanted to know how it was he was always in magazines and hoped he would share his secret. And with much gratitude he did when he said right away "Go buy and read 'Guerrilla Marketing.'"
In 2004, Guerrilla Marketing was already almost 20 years old. It has been regarded as the "small business marketing Bible" all these years for a reason. Jay Conrad Levison found a way to drill down easy, inexpensive tactics and strategies for getting the word out for your business that didn't require an entire marketing team to execute nor did it require you have a tremendous amount of business experience. As a small business owner, it had many approaches that fit me and my operating budget perfectly. Not all of the tactics then (or now) fit my company perfectly but they certainly still have merit if you are trying to spread the word about your products and/or services.
The book has an easy to follow outline with 200 "Weapons" to have in your "arsenal" for marketing your business and has been updated for today's business environment which has many more powerful weapons at its disposal, such as social media, but still works whether your business is brick & mortar or online.
But the core take away is from the author himself: "Guerrilla marketers do not rely on the brute force of an outsized marketing budget. Instead, they rely on the brute force of a vivid imagination."
Blue Ocean Strategy
I can't say enough about this book. Originally published in 2004 and expanded in 2015, this book is still one of the most lauded pieces of business literature ever written. Blue Ocean Strategy not only changed my approach to business and how to position my companies, products and services completely but it did it for many other people as well.
Where Guerrilla Marketing is about how to get noticed in the bloody red sea of products, Blue Ocean Strategy built on this by teaching me how to make my competition irrelevant by figuring out how to put my company in it's very own clear, empty ocean, free from the time and dollar wasting marketing tactics of convincing your customers why you are better than the next guy . One of my favorite business heroes is Henry Ford and he's credited with saying "The competitor to be feared is one that never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time." This book demonstrates why this is the case.
Blue Ocean Strategy will show you how to evaluate your product or service and the market you want to position yourself in. It will further show you how to reach beyond what your customers are looking for towards opportunities for you to take your business out of the red ocean and into your own market space through an exercise called "value innovation." (Another favorite Henry Ford quote that he never actually said but is fitting is “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”) It will give you tips and tools for integrating this information not just into marketing collateral but throughout your company so that your able to make it culture-wide.
Why is a book this old still relevant in a world focused on inbound marketing strategies and providing helpful content to potential clients? Because EVERYONE is applying the same tactics (hence creating a red ocean of content) and there is a danger that your content can lack originality and not be as effective as you need it to be. Understanding and adopting a "blue ocean" viewpoint is just as important today as it was in 2004.
Published in 2006, this book fit in nicely in the trifecta of developing my company's identity and culture as well as galvanizing the brand. Primal Branding's ground-breaking concept was that a brand wasn't just an iconic image or logo tag-line - that it was in fact a belief system of an almost religious nature. If you wanted to not only gain customers but keep them and have them be apostles for your business, you have to have a Primal Code.
Even though this book does not rank as high in book sales today as the two prior recommendations, I think the delivery of the message resonated with me so deeply because the approach and language itself made sense. I found that what the author, Patrick Hanlon, was communicating I could validate through observations in the real world. Additionally, he lays out so simply and brilliantly how to develop the Primal Code in a step-by-step process that I could process and digest each section before moving on to the next and that by the time I was done with the book, I had been able to re-write parts of my branding approach as well as formalize others.
Primal Branding also taught me that being yourself is okay. In fact, to do anything else is disingenuous and would be sniffed out by your would-be customers. I have carried this principal with me in everything I still do and don't know how to carry on in business in any other way. Primal Branding, in many ways is a liberating approach to building and developing your company. It asks you "Who are you and what do you stand for?" - making it easy to live and breath your company identity because it is essentially an extension of yourself.
If you are serious about serious marketing & business development, then I can't stress enough the value in educating yourself by other means than quick tutorials and "hacks." Those have a place, I agree, but every once in awhile, it's necessary for a business owner to dig a little deeper and become a little wiser and a good old-fashioned book can be the way.