12 Most Intriguing Business Biographies of Our Time
I’m somewhat of an amateur history buff. The stories of how people overcome adversity in trying times and how the world was shaped through those challenges never ceases to astonish me.
When we think about history, though, we often think about political history, military history, or cultural history. Rarely does business history come to our minds. And yet, for centuries industry has shaped our way of life. The products and the manner in which they our integrated into our everyday routines in many ways make civilization what it is. Continually, humanity is being shaped by the industries in which it is involved.
So, to give credit where credit is due, here are some of the most insightful and provocative stories from the archives of business history. These are the people and companies that shape our world today.
1. Steve Jobs by Walter Issacson
The story of Steve Jobs is the story of Apple. The integration of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad into our everyday lives, the revolution of the mobile application market, and the odd transformation of the geeks into the cool kids are all a product of Steve’s aggressive ambition to change the world. Issacson’s biography is the most extensive and engaging piece to date.
2. In the Plex by Steven Levy
Telling the story of Google, with a focus on founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Steven Levy unravels the mystery of search. No, I don’t mean that he reveals the secret behind Google’s algorithm (that would get you to read the book, wouldn’t it?). What Levy reveals is much more profound, though — the meaning of search for humanity and why Google has become so successful by making it as simple as possible.
3. The Snowball by Alice Schroeder
At the time of this writing, Warren Buffett is the third richest person in the world. His net worth exceeds the nominal GDP of over 100 countries. How can his story not have had a significant impact on humanity. Buffett is known as one of the most savvy investors to have ever lived. Schroder’s account of his life is stunning. It reads more like a novel than a textbook.
4. The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind
Okay, so not every business profile is centered around human progress and achievement. Sometimes, industry has had a profoundly negative influence on society. This list wouldn’t be complete without the dramatic account of Enron. The name has become synonymous bad business practices — with shady recordkeeping and artificial valuation. Want a crash course on business ethics? Read this book.
5. Nuts by Kevin and Jackie Frieberg
The every business biography is merely a history book — many are used as case studies to provide inspiration to other business practitioners. This story of Southwest Airlines is partly biographical and partly inspirational. On the one hand, it is the story about a company that revolutionized travel and made flying a feasible alternative for everyday people. On the other hand, it’s an impassioned plea for greater emphasis on customer service in business going into the 21st century.
6. Small Giants by Bo Burlingham
This book is an ode to the little guy. Yeah, we all know about Apple and Google. But, have we heard the stories of Anchor Brewing, CitiStorage, or Hammerhead Productions? These privately-held companies, according to the author, have had just much of an impact on society as any of the publicly-traded companies that get so much recognition. More than anything, I like the principle behind this book. Small businesses often shape their communities in more profound ways than the remote behemoths ever could.
7. Wheels for the World by Douglas Brinkley
The story of Henry Ford. Well, no, the story of the automobile… which is captured in Henry Ford. In this account of Henry Ford’s life and legacy, Brinkley reveals how Ford’s insatiable work ethic and ambitious drive to create something meaningful transformed our way of life. Ask yourself this, “How much of what we use in our everyday lives would still exist today if it weren’t for the automobile?”
8. The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker
Speaking of automobiles, this story of Toyota and its lean manufacturing principles exemplifies the drive in business toward greater efficiency and, consequently, lower cost. More of a call-to-action for today’s managers than a historical account of Toyota, this book explains how the Toyota model can be applied to all businesses, making products that we all consume every day less costly and more affordable.
9. The Starbucks Experience by Joseph Michelli
Starbucks is well-known for having revolutionized a commodity by creating meaning around it. Throughout this insightful manifesto on basic principles in customer service, Michelli (author on books about Zappos, the Ritz-Carlton, etc.) weaves anecdotes of Starbucks’ history and how it has transformed our social culture.
10. One Click by Richard Brandt
Amazon.com is the big box retailer of the new economy. This newly released biography tells the story of the how Jeff Bezos and his company revolutionized the way we all shop. In an increasingly busy and more frenzied word, Amazon.com has made life simpler (and may too simple) by allowing us to make purchases with the click of a mouse.
11. Good to Great by Jim Collins
Jim Collins is now probably the most widely-recognized business biographer of our time. Good to Great is his masterpiece, chronicling 28 companies and those among them which achieved greatness. Among his case studies are Circuit City, Bank of America, Hasbro, Kroger, and Chrysler. Which companies went from good to great? You’ll have to read it to find out…
12. Titan by Ron Chernow
Rockefeller is the father of modern oil. For better or for worse, oil has fueled our modern economy. It has directly made #5, #7, and #8 on this list possible and, indirectly, provided the foundational energy infrastructure for just about everything else. This particular biography is the most detailed and exhaustive work on an industrialist I’ve ever seen. Leave yourself some time for this one!
Read the books on this list and you will be one well-studied business historian. More importantly, you’ll have a framework for understanding why the world is the way it is today.
Are there any essential books that I’m missing? What’s your favorite business biography?
Featured image courtesy of trawin via Creative Commons.