Entrepreneurs' Memoirs: A Gold Mine of Information for Self-Employed Wannabes

12/20/2011 05:20 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2012
  • Frank Farwell Founder, Fmr. President, WinterSilks, a 3-time INC. 500 company

This holiday season give your college- or graduate-school-age children a few entrepreneurial memoirs. They provide a low-cost, entertaining mentorship for the self-employed-in-the-making.

Huh? Give books to a young person in this techno-age holiday season? Are you kidding? Young people don't read books anymore, do they?

Not so fast. Entrepreneurial memoirs, whether they are displayed as printed books or on electronic tablets, are a treasure chest of information and entertainment. They fit the bill perfectly for all work-for-yourself wannabes on your holiday list, for which they can serve as on-call advisors. At around $15 per softcover book, you can buy a mountain of knowledge for under $75-$100. You'll be providing immensely valuable information and a virtual mentor for your wannabe entrepreneur. That's why these books are more than just books, and perhaps the best business education value on the planet, and why they make great gifts this holiday season.

Check out 20 Biographies Every Serious Entrepreneur Should Read, from Of the 20 recommended titles, you can learn about the formative years of Bill Gates and Microsoft in Hard Drive; of Henry Ford and the auto giant that bears his name, in the biography, The People's Tycoon; and about Wal-Mart's founder Sam Walton, in Made in America.

The list also provides great behind-the-scenes books by entrepreneurs and companies you've never heard of, but whose stories are full of timeless, rich lessons: Raising Eyebrows, by Dal LaMagna, and Launch Fever, by Tim Taylor, are at the top of the list, followed by timeless character stories such as Mark Twain's Ignorance, Confidence, and Filthy Rich Friends, and Ben Franklin: America's Original Entrepreneur, a modern translation of Franklin's autobiography that serves as an inspiration to today's innovators.

And of course there is a tale from the outspoken and brashly successful mega-entrepreneur, Richard Branson, in his invaluable and entertaining book, Business Stripped Bare. From motivation to how to (and how not to), these titles, taken as a whole offer a lifetime of lessons for today's entrepreneurs in the making.

Google 20 Biographies Every Serious Entrepreneur Should Read and go to Amazon and dial up a few titles that strike your fancy. You'll see another few dozen books from the entrepreneurial genre pop up in the "You-might-also-be-interested-in" window. Many are outright fun reading, some are gems, and nearly all of them openly discuss what was learned from various failures. If you're a business student on holiday, browsing a few of these entrepreneurial memoirs may teach you more real-life lessons than a semester of expensive classes. Besides learning how to work for yourself, you can reacquaint yourself with the pleasure of reading, which can develop minds in ways an I-Pad cannot.

You could argue that case histories in business school courses serve the role of educating by reading. But, let's be honest: Those Harvard Business School and other B-school case histories we hear so much about and sometimes read are...well, usually quite boring. Well-structured and carefully prepared, yes. But lifelike and fun to learn by? I don't think so. Many of them could put the worst ADD kid in the class to sleep in 20 minutes flat.

Instead, take a look at the more captivating, real-life sagas of entrepreneurs battling in the trenches, building profitable businesses, overcoming countless mishaps and bad luck--and selling out for a bundle down the road (and starting another company, or giving to charity with some of the proceeds).

This genre of book brings to life the journey and lessons real-life business start-ups encounter. Some of them read like a novel yet teach like an experienced B-school professor. I'd wager they are the best way for your university or college aged child to learn the landscape of business, regardless of what his or her major and career objectives may be.

You can peer inside the amazing minds and lives of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or ride the exciting roller coaster of a start-up company and entrepreneur no one's ever have heard of. Either way, these biographies and memoirs invite readers into the culture of entrepreneurship, make learning fun, and prepare young people for the business face of our world. Your kids may end up in non-business professions, but they'll be cashing a paycheck from someone's business most of their lives. They'll thank you some day for introducing them to a category of reading that shows the inner working of the capitalist system we are all part of and reliant upon.

While you're at it, throw in a few non-business titles that teach the landscape of business better than any classroom or DVD. My favorites are James Michener's Hawaii, and Gay Telese's Unto the Sons. Neither of these is touted as business books, but in them you'll learn the bedrock of family life and apprenticeship that leads to great business dynasties and enduring, specialized skill businesses years later.

Another recently published book along these lines is Mathew Parker's The Sugar Barons, which tells the boom and bust history of the Caribbean islands and how the production of sugar catapulted England to world dominance of the oceans and world trade.

The list of entrepreneurial memoirs is long and rich, and their lessons timeless and invaluable. So this holiday season, do your techno-crazy business family and friends a favor: Buy them a book. An old-fashioned, no-bells-and-whistles, have-to-engage-the-brain book. Better yet, buy them a good entrepreneurial memoir. They'll learn how businesses are birthed and built, and how families, communities and economies are enriched in the process.

They'll also learn how, in today's complex web of capitalism, they can best fit in.

Frank Farwell is founder and past president of the WinterSilks catalog. His book, "Chicken Lips, Wheeler-Dealer, and the Beady-Eyed M.B.A.: An Entrepreneur's Wild Adventures on the New Silk Road," details his experiences as a start-up entrepreneur, and was nominated for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Best Business Book of the Year Award. Its Appendix lists the attributes of an ideal product; the book is available from Amazon, or