A year and a half ago, my CEO sold his company for $30 million after a decade of hard work. I’ve already shared many insights and lessons I learned from him here on medium. His office door was almost always open, and you could pop in to ask him anything. He also made it clear that we could use his office for meetings while he was away, instead of leaving unused space. Every time I took the opportunity to use his private office for work, one thing always struck me: the amount of books he kept in his office.
You see, books are invaluable in pretty much any aspect of learning in life. Whether you’re trying to build a business, work on your relationships with your family, learn a new language, a new skill… Books can teach you, show you the way, give you structure. Whether fiction or non-fiction, books inspire, give you ideas, develop your critical thinking skills, make you rethink the way you see the world.
My CEO has always been a non-fiction kind of guy, and he’s also a member of a book club he goes to every Friday. In this article, I want to go over 5 of the books I came across in his office that I read too and had a big impact on my life/business. I haven’t sold my company for $30 million as my CEO did, but I’ve built a steady business over the past 2 years and a half, through blogging and more recently video making.
For each book, I recall events and lessons I learned from my CEO and how they relate to the book, and I also explain how I applied the lessons in the book to my own business and life.
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1. The One Thing — Gary Keller
Gary Keller worked in real estate and was looking for a way to bring more customers to his business. So he sat down with his team and they brainstormed ideas for one big “thing” they could do to get more customers. Eventually, they decided to go with writing a bestselling book about work and productivity. The more eyeballs they could get on the book, the more potential customers they would attract to their company.
For months, Gary Keller focused on one thing and only one: writing the best book he could write on productivity, work, efficiency… Everything he had learned while building his own business. When the book came out, it became a major success, and Keller’s business thrived.
The whole book is about one simple concept, summarized in one question by the author:
“What’s the one thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
When I started building my blog and my business next to my 9–5 job over 2 years ago, I identified my one thing quite quickly: writing. That was the main driver of my business, so it had to be great. Without the act of writing, there was no content, no views, no traffic, no business.
When my CEO started his business, the one thing he was focused on was getting funding. Even in the last years before he sold, he always spent a ton of time on the phone with investors, either to get more money or to explain to them what he was doing with their money. My CEO’s number one concern was to drive the business forward with money, and the rest of the super important factors were handled by separate teams:
- Tech and design for a great product
- Amazing customer success team for customer support
- Great marketing team for promotion
- High-performing sales team to drive revenue
As much as my CEO learned to focus on his one thing and let go of the rest, things were not always that way. When I started at my job, he was involved in literally each and every one of the teams I just mentioned. He would start his day in the tech room, have lunch with the marketing team, and spend the afternoon with sales. At night he would be in his office on the phone.
Eventually, he had to learn from his mistakes. Investors sat him down and told him he couldn’t be involved in everything around the company. If he felt like he needed to, things had to change internally. For the next 4 years, he learned to let go, to mind his own business (pun intended), and to focus on his one thing. A few years after that he sold for $30 million.
The bigger your project/company/idea gets, the more important it will be to delegate things because the more you will have to remain laser-focused on your one thing. It took me 10 years of starting something new and dropping it a few months later before realizing this. It’s so easy to find excuses for not making progress because there’s so much to handle. But once you identify the number one most important factor to drive your project forward and get others to help you with the rest, you’ll set yourself up for success.
2. Eat That Frog — Brian Tracy
The essence of the book can be summarized in one quote from the author:
“Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long. Your “frog” is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.”
The “Frog” and the “One Thing” concept are almost the same: they’re both about identifying and focusing on the most important. The main difference is that in Eat That Frog, the author recommends tackling the most important first thing in the morning.
10 months ago I shared a screenshot of my CEO’s calendar in an article I wrote. This is what it looked like:
Notice anything about the 8 am to 8:45 am slot? It’s booked for the same thing almost every day (except Friday). Every morning, my CEO would get the management check-in out of the way as soon as he stepped into the office, for 2 reasons:
- Checking in with all managers is a highly cognitive and demanding task, and my CEO is a morning person, at his peak in the early hours of the day.
- Especially in a young startup where everyone is always busy, the management check-in was very likely to never happen if it wasn’t taken care of in the morning. There was no way you could get all managers in the same room after 10 am.
I already mentioned that my one thing when I started my blog was writing. Because I’m also a morning person and I was too tired to write after coming back from a long day at the office, I made sure to wake up at 6 am and start writing by 6:30 am every day for a year. This enabled me to publish 3 articles a week for 52 weeks in a row, to get the blog going and build an audience base. Over 2 years later I’m still at it and nowhere near stopping.
3. Deep Work — Cal Newport
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task (like a morning management meeting). It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Back 10 or 20 years ago, the simple ability to focus wouldn’t have been such an advantage in an already very competitive world. But after smartphones, emails and social media entered our world, the ability to focus became a rare, extremely valuable skill.
Most people have lost the ability to focus deeply on anything. They’re always interrupted by a screen lighting up, a notification buzz, an email coming in, an Instagram feed… A lot of people don’t even realize that they get interrupted, it’s like attention-seeking devices are now part of their normal workflow.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport mentions Bill Gates and his “Think Weeks”:
“Microsoft CEO Bill Gates famously conducted “Think Weeks” twice a year, during which he would isolate himself (often in a lakeside cottage) to do nothing but read and think big thoughts.”
You can see the lakeside cottage Newport is referring to in the Netflix documentary Inside Bill’s Brain. I love that concept so much and always wished I had a little lakeside cabin to retreat to and do nothing but work. The funny thing is that my CEO actually bought a quiet lakehouse right after he sold his company, but now he doesn’t need to work anymore.
One of the main challenges of building a company is this: the bigger it gets, the less you can focus on it. In the previous section of this article, I mentioned that investors sat down with my CEO and told him he needed to go back to basics, stop getting involved with every aspect of the company. The fact that my CEO was able to commit to that and get work done was a huge part of the reason the company didn’t sink. His ability to deep work saved us just in time, and the new frameworks he put in place also enabled us to survive through the corona crisis (more on this later).
Make no mistake: most people can’t focus anymore, and the ability to deep work will become a huge competitive advantage in the next century. While everyone is glued to their screen, Bluetooth-synced to their watch, playing Candy Crush on their tablet, those who learn to work deeply will most likely become successful.
4. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — Stephen R. Covey
It took me a long time to start reading this book because it always seemed like another one of those gimmick self-improvement bibles I would find shallow at best, empty at worst. But the more I researched about self-improvement, the more I kept stumbling upon this book. It was everywhere, so I decided to give it a go.
2 years later, I still remember one of the most important lessons I learned from Stephen Covey: have a personal mission statement.
“A 7 Habits mission statement is a document you create that identifies the big picture; the life you want to lead, the character traits you want to embody, the impact you want to have on those around you.” — shortform.com
Although I’ve had a lot of lunches with my CEO and we’ve talked about anything from Vipassana meditation to his Sunday morning forest runs, I’ve never seen his mission statement. That being said, I would bet his family is an important part of it. In the calendar screenshot I shared above, you can see he always made sure to include family events (in green) in his public business calendar so that we could all see those time slots. We all knew we couldn’t book him for anything during those hours. Although he never managed to spend as much time as he wanted to with his family, it was always more important for him to be on time for his kid’s birthday than to show up 5 minutes early for a conference call.
My CEO also attached a lot of importance to his company’s mission statement. As a company, your mission statement should answer 3 questions:
- What does your company do?
- How does it do it?
- Why does your company do it?
As a graphic designer at the time, I was tasked with coming up with a series of posters around our mission statement. My CEO made sure to have at least one poster hung up in each of our office rooms.
5. Measure What Matters — John Doerr
This book is all about the OKR strategy, which was developed in 1968 by Andrew Grove, the co-founder and CEO of Intel at the time. He introduced it to Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google’s founders) when he joined the board of early investors at the then young Silicon Valley company. To this day, the OKR strategy is still used by Google.
OKR stands for Objective Key Results
- Objective: it explains where you want to go, what the desired end result is. Once an objective is reached, another objective will replace the current one. Objectives in the OKR strategy are not technical, not measured, and usually don’t contain numbers. They should be as easy to understand as possible.
- Key Result: unlike the Objective, the Key Result should be as precise, technical, and measured as possible. It is used as an indicator of whether or not the Objective is being worked on. Key results should be time-bound, often quarterly or yearly.
Many times in the past, our company almost sank. Sales targets were missed, management wasn’t on point, bad decisions were made. Then one Monday, our CEO announced we were going to implement the OKR strategy to completely revamp the way we were doing things.
This was around a year before the pandemic happened, and I am 100% certain we would have never sold for millions without this change, let alone made it through the pandemic. Of all the books mentioned in this article, this is the one that had the most impact on the company, and not just on management but all levels. Teams became more organized and transparent. Realistic goals were set and reached. Investors were happier. To implement the OKR strategy across the whole organization, we used the online tool Gtmhub, and this is what it looks like:
Within 2 years of having implemented the OKR strategy, my CEO’s company went from nearly bankrupt to being acquired for $30 million and still expanding.
There you have it, I hope you found this booklist interesting and inspiring. As a conclusion to this article, here is a recap list of the 5 books along with the most important lessons I learned from each one of them.
- The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — Stephen R. Covey
Have a mission statement; a document you create that identifies the big picture — the life you want to lead, the character traits you want to embody, the impact you want to have on those around you.
- Deep Work — Cal Newport
Realize that the ability to focus has become a rare skill, and learn how to master that skill. In our hyper-connected and distracted world, those who learn to deep work will be the most likely to succeed.
- The One Thing — Gary Keller
Ask yourself: “What’s the one thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” Once you’ve identified that thing, dedicate your full focus and energy to it.
- Eat That Frog — Brian Tracy
Identify your biggest, most important task of the day (ideally the day before) and tackle it first thing in the morning. The rest of your day will feel so much lighter.
- Measure What Matters — John Doerr
Split each long-term overarching goal (your key results) into big slices on a timeline. Then split those slices into small digestible tasks (your objectives) you can start working on every day. Key results are time-bound, often quarterly or yearly. Objectives are not technical, not measured, and don’t contain numbers.
Thanks a lot for reading, and enjoy the journey.