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13 Books That Inspired Me During My Company’s IPO

Which bestsellers resonated with me while going through the IPO process? You might be surprised to find they weren’t all business-focused.

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BY Frederic Kerrest - 07 Feb 2018

13 Books That Inspired Me During My Company's IPO

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I've been known to wax poetic about the importance of prioritizing your hobbies. I'm convinced that focusing on your passions outside of the office will make you more successful in the office. Co-workers and peers are always asking how I do it. The answer is simple: when something's important enough, you make the time.

Last year, my co-founder Todd McKinnon and I took our company public and it wasn't easy to leave the office everyday in time to make it home for dinner with my family. Sometimes, it took more effort than I'd like to admit to get on the ice for a late-night hockey game. But I always made time, just like I made the effort to read.

Of the many good books I read in 2017 (and the one that turned out to be terrible -- sorry John McEnroe), these 13 resonated with me most as we were going through the IPO process. They gave me the opportunity reflect on what it took to reach that milestone, what we should avoid, and what was going in the world outside the walls of our offices.

On innovation, investing and building businesses:

  1. Zero to One: Notes on Start-Ups, or How to Build the Future, by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters (2012): Whether or not you agree with Thiel's politics, if you're interested in building a successful business, you should read his guide to innovation. The skill Thiel notes every leader must master? Learning to think for yourself. And his advice on building a big business resonates with what we've tried to do at Okta: "become a monopolist in a small market with lots of adjacencies." I reference that frequently when helping entrepreneurs think through market strategy.

  2. Angel: How to Invest in Technology Startups -- Timeless Advice from an Angel Investor Who Turned $100,000 into $100,000,000, by Jason Calacanis (2017): Calacanis is another controversial figure, and even though style isn't for everyone, I couldn't agree more with his thesis that investing is all about people, and figuring out what they want and need. The key to success in business is knowing how the people you work with -- investors, partners, customers, coworkers, etc. -- think, and what they care about.

On wealth and greed:

  1. Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street, by Sheelah Kolhatkar (2017): Real-life finance dramas have been hitting it big in both cinema and literature over the past few years -- The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short and HBO's Wizard of Lies, to name a few -- and the story of Steve Cohen and SAC Capital's fall from grace is just as entertaining and illuminating. The investigative reporting and level of detail also made this one a page turner.

  2. One Nation Under Gold: How One Precious Metal Has Dominated the American Imagination for Four Centuries, by James Ledbetter (2017): Who would have thought gold would be such a divisive subject? In Ledbetter's book, he shares the history of this precious metal and how it's divided America and some of its brightest minds. If nothing else, gave me more ammo to debate my dad's gold buying strategies (but, alas, I still always fall short).

  3. American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road, by Nick Bilton (2017): The story of Ross Ulbricht, the founder of the Silk Road, and the team that tracked him reads like fiction with its twist and turns. For anyone who wants to know more about the genesis and downfall of the Dark Web's famous marketplace (and the man behind it), I highly recommend Bilton's book. Plus, it takes place largely in Okta's hometown of San Francisco!

On our planet:

  1. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, by Paul Hawken (2017): This year, I was drawn to books and articles about climate change and potential solutions, and Drawdown was a must-read for those interested in the subject. I devoured this credible and well-researched collection of articles, written by researchers, professionals and scientists with concrete plans for addressing this global dilemma.

  2. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein (2015): Klein takes a different (more extreme) angle on climate change in her book, explaining how global warming challenges us to abandon our "free market" ideology, restructure the global economy and rebuild our political systems.

  3. The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet, by Henry Fountain (2017): Fountain's book is focused on the biggest earthquake in North America's recorded history: a magnitude 9.2 quake that devastated the state of Alaska in 1964. Not only did it leave a mark on the people of Alaska, but on the planet (and the book will probably come a little close to home if you're in the Bay Area and accustomed to feeling quakes every once in a while).

For fun:

  1. Ice Capades: A Memoir of Fast Living and Tough Hockey, by Sean Avery (2017): Anyone who knows me knows I'm a massive hockey fan, which is why I couldn't wait to dig into Sean Avery's autobiography. It did not disappoint. Avery's book offers a unique, unfiltered look into the NHL today, through the eyes of one of its most controversial players. The first hockey book I ever read that wasn't drier than the Mojave Desert.

  2. Garcia: An American Life, by Blair Jackson (2000): Jackson covered the Grateful Dead for 25 years, and in his biography of the band's front runner and musical genius, he covers it all: from his unmatched talent as a songwriter to his fatal battle with addiction. Jackson is a good writer, and attended something like 300 shows over 30 years -- his first hand knowledge comes through loud and clear.

  3. Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World, by Robert D. Kaplan (2017): For anyone interested in American geography and the history of the United States' westward expansion, Kaplan's book is a must read.

  4. I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad, by Souad Mekhennet (2017): Although I wouldn't necessarily call Mekhennet's memoir "fun," it provided a glimpse into the inner circles of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS that I never had access to previously.

  5. Paradise Lost, by John Milton: Okay, this one wasn't for fun either. But I did enjoy revisiting Milton's classic. If you have trouble sleeping and prefer natural methods, buy a used copy and put it by your bedside!

As I prepare 2018's book list, what were your favorite books last year? Share your recommendations in the comments.

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