Four Memoirs by Businesspeople that are Worth Reading

Valuable lessons for all businesses.


Akis Apostolopoulos

2 years ago | 5 min read

I have always been wary of memoirs and autobiographies. Often books authored by famous people tend to be self-promotional as they are used to cement their legacy. The stories tend to be carefully selected to present the author in the best light, leaving out all the not-so-flattering moments.

However, I do occasionally come across some excellent memoirs, especially from businesspeople. In business, I am always interested to hear from people with skin in the game; People who built their businesses one step at a time from scratch. I appreciate a good story when the writer is transparent about revealing their mistakes and failures.

For us small-scale entrepreneurs, we often struggle to relate with the massive multinational corporations. However, when you realize that these companies also used to be very small and went through the same struggles, these books become far more relatable.

I have picked four memoirs by successful people in business that left a significant impact on me. I often turn to these books for inspiration and motivation.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

This book is a fascinating story of how Nike came to be. Back in the 1960s, Nike was a one-person show. Phil Knight was a middle-distance runner in high school and college. Runners are always looking for better and lighter shoes to give them a competitive edge. Upon visiting Japan, Phil Knight came across Tiger company, which made lightweight and flexible running shoes.

Phil Knight arranged to buy and import a batch of shoes to the United States. He would then load up the shoes in his car and, on weekends, would drive around visiting the local track meets.

He would then show up, open the boot of his car and present the goods to interested runners. His stock would sell out, and he’d then use the proceeds and profits to make a larger order next time. His shoes became so popular that runners started seeking him out and begging for the shoes.

As Phil Knight started expanding rapidly, he frequently faced cashflow problems. This is something many businesses can relate to. He describes how Nike came several times close to insolvency. He needed to order and pay for products months in advance without having collected the money yet from his ongoing stock.

My favorite part of this book is when Knight explains how the name Nike came to be. He was in Athens standing under the Acropolis when he looked up and saw the temple of Athena Nike. Athens happens to be the city I was born and currently live in, so this story left a profoundly personal impact on me.

Made in America by Sam Walton

Sam Walton was the founder of Walmart. Today, Walmart is a massive discount supermarket chain and one of the biggest companies in the world. People don't realize that Walmart is a relatively new supermarket chain founded in the early 1960s. Sam Walton tells the story of gradually building one discount store after the other in small rural towns throughout the United States.

What fascinates me about this book is how Sam Walton was always trying to reduce costs. His vision was to build a discount retailer, and he realized that he needed to keep costs down in every aspect of his business. He tells an interesting story when Walmart applied to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Walmart opened an office in New York to be able to welcome corporate investors.

The staff in New York went out and splurged on fancy furniture to wow the investors. When Sam Walton found out, he was furious. Spending on expensive furniture was setting a bad example. How could Walmart convince people that they were serious about becoming the best discounter if they had plush offices?

Another fascinating cost-cutting story in this book is why Sam Walton bought an airplane. He realized that by having his own plane, he could visit several rural towns on the same day by flying directly to small local airports rather than flying to hubs and driving out to each town separately.

Flying with his plane also enabled him to inspect towns from above (in the days before Google Earth) and immediately locate the best land plots for developing the next Walmart.

How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis

Yes, I know the title is cheesy. But Felix Dennis was no ordinary fellow. This book is hilarious, and at times outrageous. The title reflects the author taking a cheeky jab at the self-help and making money advice out there.

Dennis was a British publisher who made it big in the 80s and 90s through his computer magazine publications. A lot of the advice in his book is the stuff that you should avoid doing, like partying too much and having affairs with your employees (he himself made that mistake).

On a more personal level, Dennis admits that twice he came very close to death because of his lifestyle. Sadly, a few years after the book was released, Felix Dennis did pass away at the age of 67.

Perhaps the essential advice that Dennis gives is something that I needed to hear. Hire outstanding people more intelligent than you, delegate the work, and let them do their job. Dennis was a firm believer that employees need to be empowered by giving them freedom.

This book is not your typical picture-perfect memoir of your hard-working man that had a vision. It's more like a man living life in excess and debauchery and having the brains to find the right people to grow his businesses. If you are bored of the typical how-to-be successful books, I can assure you that this is a highly entertaining read!

Iacocca an Autobiography by Lee Iacocca

The last book on my list is by someone who did not build his own company. Instead, this book is about how Lee Iacocca rose through the ranks of Ford Motor Company to become CEO, and later on, the CEO of Chrysler.

I found the chapters on product development very interesting. Iacocca explains all the work that went into designing a new car, how a company would spend two years developing a new car and doing lots of market research but never knowing if it would be a success or a flop. I could relate with this, the number of times I have poured resources in developing new products that do not succeed.

Iacocca had a rocky relationship with the owner of Ford, Henry Ford the III. Ford tended to meddle in the entire product development of a new car and ask for silly last-minute changes that would jeopardize the whole project.

An exciting aspect of Iacocca's book was his view on the role of government in business. Most business people tend to be hostile to the ideas of governments meddling in their industries.

Iacocca makes a case for governments to provide more intervention and support for the labor market. I did not necessarily agree with everything he argues, but hearing a business person make these arguments is refreshing.

Closing Thoughts

The four men presented above led fantastic careers and built great companies. Each one of them taught me valuable lessons.

Phil Knight reminded me that all businesses face cash flow problems. Sam Walton explained the importance of sticking to your principles. Felix Dennis reminded me that we are all human and that you do not need to be a superhuman productive person and work 16 hours a day.

He also reminded me that I should find good people and delegate the work to them. On the flip-side, Lee Iacocca told us what happens when the owner does not let the people do their job. Great companies can suffer because leaders put their selfish needs above everything else.

Originally published here.


Created by

Akis Apostolopoulos







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