The Best Memoirs for Small Business Owners

Sometimes, perspective is the best teacher. And these entrepreneurs-turned-authors have plenty of it.


Good memoirs are packed with lessons, warnings and anecdotes for small business owners to treasure. (Photo: Ko Backpacko/Shutterstock)


by Jaime Bender


Behind every Fortune 500 CEO, shapeshifting entrepreneur and rags-to-riches phenom, there’s a story of a down-on-his-luck, struggling nobody just trying to get someone to pay attention.


Fortunately for you, those nobodies became somebodies, and they have quite the story to tell. Each of these bestselling memoirs are chock full of lessons, warnings and anecdotes to treasure. And if they’re all not on your bookshelf already, they should be.


‘Shoe Dog’ by Phil Knight


Book cover of 'Shoe Dog.”

A recent business school graduate named Phil Knight borrowed $50 from his father in 1963 to launch what would become one of the most iconic, game-changing and profitable shoe brands in the world. Selling the shoes from the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant, Knight grossed $8,000 that first year, 1963. Today, Nike’s annual sales top $30 billion.


But it didn’t come easy. In “Shoe Dog,” Knight recalls the foundational relationships that formed the heart and soul of Nike, with Bill Bowerman, his former track coach, and with his first employees. In this candid and riveting memoir, Knight shares the inside story of the company’s early days as an intrepid startup and recounts how the “swoosh” transcended from logo to symbol of grace and greatness.


‘Losing My Virginity’ by Richard Branson



Cover of 'Losing My Virginity'

There’s no one quite like Richard Branson. While simultaneously running dozens of companies over 25 years, he’s done the following:

  • crash-landed his hot-air balloon in the Algerian desert;
  • signed the Sex Pistols, Janet Jackson, the Rolling Stones, Boy George and Phil Collins to his record label;
  • successfully sued British Airways, the pillar of the British business establishment;
  • swam 2 miles to safety during a violent storm off the coast of Mexico;
  • and staged a rescue flight into Baghdad.


Indeed, Branson has earned a reputation for being fearless, forthright and determined in business, in life and in his many adventures. In his memoir, Branson lays out the rules he’s written that have made him a legend in the business world: creating a group of companies with a global presence, but no central headquarters, no management hierarchy and minimal bureaucracy. Family, friends, fun and adventure are equally important as his businesses.


“He’s unique and different than most business leaders. He’s not the Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk type who have exceptional talent in a given skill or area like programming or physics,” Seth Miller, Co-founder/CEO of Rapchat, said of Branson. “Rather, he’s a ‘go-with-the-flow’ type guy who always believed in building things and communities that were rich with culture.”



‘Blood, Bones, and Butter’ by Gabrielle Hamilton


Cover of 'Blood, Bones and Butter'.”


Restaurateur Gabrielle Hamilton, before opening her acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, led an unconventional life peppered with lessons. She learned, after her parents’ divorce, that feeding people is one small way of exerting control over chaos. She learned that she can take care of people in a way her family did not, or could not. This plays out in the opening of Prune; the menu is strategic, but the overall goal is to forge an emotional connection with her guests.


“It’s a story of hungers specific and vague, conquered and unappeasable, and what it lacks in urgency (and even, on occasion, forthrightness) it makes up for in the shimmer of Hamilton’s best writing,” The New York Times wrote in its 2011 review. “She is blunt as well about how tedious she finds discussions of gender in the workplace, how insufferable she considers the self-satisfied milieu at the farmers’ market and how surreal, ludicrous and, yes, exhilarating she deems the celebrity-chef treatment.”


‘Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time’ by Howard Schultz


Cover of 'Pour Your Heart Into It".”


The story of Starbucks is one for the ages: a humble Seattle storefront balloons into the largest and most successful coffee chain on the planet. But it didn’t come without setbacks, and that’s what Starbucks founder Howard Schultz lays bare: being soundly rejected, for example, after Schultz, as a young marketing manager, suggested going beyond brewing and selling the coffee to actually serving it. It took striking out on his own to finally see his vision through; and then, tearing through the detractors who said coffee was not, and never going to be, a growth industry.


Related: How and Where to Sell Your Coffee Outside Your Coffee Shop


Now, looking back, Schultz reminds us that the Starbucks phenomenon was not simply about growth and success in a business sense. Above all, he wanted to create a company that nurtured its staff and treated them with respect. Although the customer was important, even more important for the long-term health of the business was to make sure the baristas and other staff were happy and loyal.


As he’s fond of saying: “If you treat your employees as interchangeable cogs in a wheel, they will view you with the same affection.”