the item

The Four Steps to the Epiphany
The Four Steps to the Epiphany

the questions

  1. How to run a killer startup
  2. How to tell people about your business
  3. How to beat the competition

more about the

the consensus

Although a bit dense at times and poorly typeset, the book is the best book available on the structure of how to create and grow your startup. Highly recommended

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the review

Some jokester once said "If they'd only listened to me" should be the subtitle for most every book coming out of Washington.

His point was: there are only so many kinds of books in the world. And whether you're a lover of politics, sports, history, technology, or startups, the books you read are all going to fall into a small number of predefined categories.

I was thinking about those categories when I read "The Four Steps to the Epiphany" by Steven Gary Blank. Was this going to be a "You can do it too!" book, high on emotional content and narrative and short on details? Or is it going to be a "My Theory of Everything" book, where the author tells us in detail how the entire universe works? Or will it be that old standby of tech books, the encyclopedia -- you know, where the book runs on past 1500 pages and just keeps going and going?

Turns out it was a small part "You can do it too!" but mostly a "My Theory of Everything" book, with a bit of encyclopedia thrown in for good measure.

I have to admit I have a real love-hate relationship with "The Four Steps to the Epiphany". It sat on my bookshelf for two years waiting for me to read it. Truth be told, I made a couple of half-hearted but couldn't make it past the first chapter or two. It's a truly great book, but it sucked. I just couldn't grok it. I kept reading posts on Hacker News about how good the book was, but I resisted picking it back up. It just sat there on the shelf, staring at me accusingly. Finally, in a strange post that I still don't understand, yummyfajitas just posted the title of the book and all the great reviews it had on Amazon. Why the heck did he do that? Beats me, but frack, a hint is a hint. I'd better get busy, dig in, and finally finish it.

And man, what great reviews it got. If you look over on Amazon, it got 73 reviews -- 70 of which were 4 stars or better. Folks loved it. It's "The Bible", "A must read for every startup," "This book is like a gun" says one guy. "The most important business book I've ever read," says another.


Enough already! I'll read the damn book!

So why do I hate reading it so much?

First, I don't want to sound picky, but this is the worst job I have ever seen of editing and typesetting a book in my entire life. There were numerous misspellings -- things any spell-checker would have caught. Chapter 4 started and went to a conclusion, all the while the caption at the bottom of the page said we were still on chapter 3. The "chapter 4" caption only appeared once, at the bottom of a blank page. Chapters and sections had a topic, but no narrative (and little voice). It was a painful thing to experience.

Blank crosses the line from instructive text to descriptive text many, many, many times. Instructive text tells you how to build watches. Descriptive text explains for you the 40 thousand types of watches and how they differ from each other. The book is full of tables. Table after table. I got lost in the tables after a while. They just all sort of blended together. I think I had dreams about tables.

But in fairness, this book has a wide purview. It attempts to cover the entire universe of startups, from initial idea to ongoing concern. That's a pretty big thing to do, and what happens is that the author has to do a lot of data dumps in order to cover all of the bases. One of the critical things I learned was market identification: how to do it and what it means. There are four types of markets, and depending on which one you are in, you need to do different things.

But geesh, my startup is only in one type of market, and Blank goes on and on in each chapter about my market -- but also the other three. That means there is four times as much information in the book as I need in my particular case. Like a good solider I trudged on through all the other markets, all the time wondering if I would ever use this information some day and wondering if I should be spending time worrying about what to be doing in my second year of a startup if I'm not even out of the gate yet.

And that's my critical beef with the book: it tries to do too much. This is really 7 or 8 short books condensed down into one dense book with lots of opinions, data, and instructions. If anything, this book convinced me that the extended essay is the best way to help people learn startups: it forces the author to focus on one audience, one topic, and one critical message. In this book we get a little of everything. It was almost like trying to read the phone book to learn how to operate a telephone.

Now that I've trashed Blank, let me sing his praises. This is truly a one-of-a-kind book and it is invaluable for anybody seriously considering a startup. I'm not an expert in startups -- hell, the reason I'm reading these books is that I have a lot to learn -- but I can tell from reading this that Steven has been around the block a few times. He got the war stories, and the scars, to earn my respect, and from what he's relating I can tell that he's seen many success and failures. He's somebody I need to listen to.

And he does cover the bases. Heck, you've basically got a bulleted list of stuff to do for your entire startup. Who could ask for more? If I had to re-title the book, it would be "Steven's boring book for startups that you'd be an idiot not to read"

Not exactly catchy, but you get the drift.

One of the things I love most about these theory of everything books is that you can tell what kinds of influence the author has had by watching the types of analogies and metaphors he uses. Blank pulls in one of my favorites, OODA, early on in the book. Then he introduces me to the New Lanchester Strategy, which alone was worth the cost of the book (as he adroitly points out). We go over the fact that an infinite amount of marketing money isn't going to make a dent if you're in a new market (also easily worth the cost of the book), and he wisely separates each small step that's required in the beginning, reminding us to take this one bit at a time. At a couple of points in the process, he points out that you're meeting the customer, but you're not selling anything yet! Listen first, theorize, verify, align -- many steps are required before sales mode. Very non-intuitive if you haven't been there, but terrifically great advice. The book was full of little insights like that.

One of the more interesting things I picked up on is the great amount of similarity between agile and startups. As a coach, I've seen dozens, maybe hundreds of teams both succeed and fail. And one of the weirdest lessons I took away was that the pattern was: there are no patterns. Or put differently: the number one mistake I see is people using things they learned on the last project inappropriately on the current project. Every project is unique, and you have to come in with an open mind and be willing to change and adapt to make it work.

It looks to me like much of startup work is the same. Folks come in with ideas that worked on previous startups, or ideas that work everywhere else -- but don't work in that particular situation. Big company types come in with big plans for marketing and branding, only to find that they have a hammer when they really need a toothbrush. Teams run off and build huge feature lists for problems that may never exist. People easily jump to conclusions and make assumptions that hurt them severely later on. To me, this was the critical insight that was alone worth the price of the book.

I see this book as a resource, much like a programming book. Scan it thoroughly when you get it, try to absorb what you can but don't sweat it if you miss some of the details, then pull out the pieces you need and work them as you reach the appropriate stage. Taken bit-by-bit like this, I think -- and I know this sounds like hyperbole -- it's the best book on the mechanics of startups that I've ever read. Along those lines, as a companion book, I highly recommend Mahan Khalsa's book "Let's get real (or let's not play)" which is much lighter and easier to digest, but also helps you get the attitude to go about those difficult early days of meeting customers and trying to figure out what you're doing. In fact I'd say it was almost required reading (or listening) after going through Blank's book. Blank has the details, but Khalsa has the attitude. In my book, both are equally important.

In the end, I'm glad I read "The Four Steps to the Epiphany", but it was a long haul. If Blank would've gotten a good editor it could have been much easier. Who knows how many people, just like me, will never read it, simply because of it's structural problems? Knowing what kind of book you have, knowing what kind of startup you have, knowing what kind of market you have, all critical factors for success. And ironically enough, that's just the type of thing that Four Steps is good at helping other people understand.

Daniel is a life-long hacker and founder of HN-Books. He blogs at and his email is


the buzz

Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along
Nothing to see here, please move along

The essential book for anyone bringing a product to market, writing a business plan, marketing plan or sales plan. Step-by-step strategy of how to successfully organize sales, marketing and business development for a new product or company. The book offers insight into what makes some startups successful and leaves others selling off their furniture. Packed with concrete examples, the book will leave you with new skills to organize sales, marketing and your business for success.


the video

Blank reviews one of the key insights that drove him to write the book (many more free videos are available of Blank speaking on this topic at the Stanford website)

What is this?

A while back I wrote an article on my blog listing all the books that hackers recommended to each other from the site HackerNews. The purpose was to provide a place to list book recommendations so that people didn't have to type in the same list over and over again. (HN gets several requests for book recommendations a week. I also get at least a couple each month). It was very well received, and many posters and commenters either asked that I make a site or sent me an email asking me to do so.

How is this any different from the list on the blog?

This list has more books. This list is sortable both by what question you have and your skill level. In addition, once you sort the list, you can save the link with your sort and send it to somebody else. So, for instance, when somebody wants a book for noobs learning to program, you can make a link for that and then reuse it

How did you collect these books?

Initially the list came from Googling "best book" and taking the books from the first few pages returned. Later, I added all the books that were mentioned "You left that out!" when Jacques posted the link. While adding those books, I came across a Stack Overflow link where programmers were asked to list their favorite tech books, so I included those too.

If I ask you to put a book on here, will you?

It depends.

These books were all gathered by finding places where hackers hang out and are suggesting books to other hackers and other hackers agree with them by voting up their suggestion. If I can find an example of this for your book, I'm happy to include it.

How are the books ranked?

I did the best I could with ranking. I am sure there are many things you do not agree with. It would be possible to add voting and personal ranking -- that would make the system much better. Heck, you could rank the books yourself and use it as a customized book list to show to people who want your advice. I'd like to do that, but if I've learned anything is to not let your featureset get ahead of the users. This first version will test the waters to see what kind of interest the community might have.