The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is written by Ben Horowitz. This book is hard for me to summarize. The lessons learned from the book are invaluable, but by not reading the stories themselves, you would only comprehend its gist with a large discount. In fact, most of the advice offered in the book might be covered by Ben’s blogs. As he said at the beginning, this book is his attempt to tell the back stories from where those insights were derived.

In the first a few chapters, Ben shared with us his years of experience with SG, an unsuitable startup, Lotus, Netscape, Loudcloud and Opsware, and finally moved on to found the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz with his long-term business partner Marc Andreessen. I found his explanation on why he has worked well with Marc over many years very fascinating: “Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship. With Marc and me, even after eighteen years, he upsets me almost every day by finding something wrong in my thinking, and I do the same for him. It works.

Ben’s honesty and courage of sharing all these behind-the-scene stories is very admirable. A few interesting stories about his early years as a young boy and student shine the lights on how some of his worldview was developed, particularly how not to judge by appearance and to separate facts from perception.

Based on the lessons distilled from his time at Loudcloud and Opsware, Ben offers advice on the many challenges that a startup CEO might face. For example: how to survive the struggle, communicate with the team, hire and train people, and build the company culture,  use different approaches for wartime from those for the peacetime. He also covers how to become elite at giving feedback, suggestions on handling the accountability and creativity paradox, how to evaluate CEOs, deciding whether to sell or not sell your company and so on. I’d recommend all managers or aspiring ones to read the sections about employee training and retention, what features a good vs poor organisation has, what the characteristics of being a good product manager are vs those of being a bad one.

I particularly like the discussion about making yourself a CEO. Do not despair, if you as a CEO feel incompetent doing some of your work and fear that you do not have the talent to handle being a CEO. Take Ben’s advice: “This is the process. This is how you get made.”  “Being CEO requires lots of unnatural motion. From an evolutionary standpoint, it is natural to do things that make people like you. It enhances your chance for survival. Yet to be a good CEO, in order to be liked in the long run, you must do many things that will upset people in the short run. Unnatural things.

Here are a number of practices and lessons covered by Ben in the book that stood out for me. As in all previous posts, the words in italic are quoted from the book.

When it came to the realisation that LoudCloud had to reset its earning guidance to the investors, facing the tough choice of either minimizing the initial damage by taking down the number as little possible (as their immediate quarter number is met, but the whole year forecast is way off) or minimizing the risk of another reset, Dave Conte advised to Ben: “No matter what we say, we’re going to get killed. As soon as we reset guidance, we’ll have no credibility with investors, so we might as well take all the pain now, because nobody will believe any positivity in the forecast anyway. If you are going to eat shit, don’t nibble.

Some things are much easier to see in others than in yourself.

Needs always trump wants in mergers and acquisitions.

Michael Ovitz advised to Ben and his team when they were working on selling part of Loudcloud to potential bidders (IBM and EDS):

Gentlemen, I’ve done many deals in my lifetime and through that process, I’ve developed a methodology, a way of doing things, a philosophy if you will. Within that philosophy, I have certain beliefs. I believe in artificial deadlines. I believe in playing one against the other. I believe in doing everything and anything short of illegal or immoral to get the damned deal done.

What a clear message! Another piece from Michael from the book: Going past the deadline is a better move than not having one.

After the deal of selling part of Loudcloud to EDS was signed, Bill Campbell advised Ben to stay at Loudcloud instead of going to New York to announce the deal: You need to stay home and make sure everybody knows where they stand. You can’t wait a day. In fact, you can’t wait a minute. They need to know whether they are working for you, EDS, or looking for a fucking job. Retrospectively from Ben, “that small piece of advice from Bill proved to be the foundation we needed to rebuild the company. If we hadn’t treated the people who were leaving fairly, the people who stayed would never have trusted me again.”

I move onward, the only direction. Can’t be scared to fail in search of perfection.

One great characteristic of Ben’s stuck me while reading the book: the extreme simplicity of his communication style. The book provided many examples of his messages to the employees, advisors etc. One example:

“You have now heard everything that I know and think about the opportunity in front of us. Wall Street does not believe Opsware is a good idea, but I do. I can understand if you don’t. Since this is a brand-new company and a brand-new challenge, I am issuing everyone new stock grants today. All that I ask is that if you have decided to quit that you quit today. I won’t walk you out of the door – I’ll help you find a job. But, we need to know where we stand. We need to know who is with us and who we can count on. We cannot afford to slowly bleed out. You owe it to your teammates to be honest. Let us know where you stand.”

As painful as it might be, I knew that we had to get into the broader market in order to understand it well enough to build the right product. Paradoxically, the only way to do that was to ship and try to sell the wrong product. We would fall on our faces, but we would learn fast and do what was needed to survive.

Throughout the book, the importance of a great team is crystally clear. There are numerous examples in the book showing that how many brilliant minds were part of Ben’s journeys. For example, Anthony Wright was described by Ben in the book as: self-made, super-determined, and unwilling to fail. Anthony had an uncanny ability to quickly gain deep insight into people’s character and motivations. I was particularly drawn to how Anthony handled Frank regarding Frank’s plan of dropping Opsware software completely and immediately. “Frank, I will do exactly as you say, I’ve heard you loud and clear. This is a terrible moment for you and for us. Allow me to use your phone, and I will call Ben Horowitz and give him your instructions. But before I do, can I ask you one thing? If my company made the commitment to fix these issues, how much time would you give us to do that?” That rhetoric and the subsequent answer probably saved Opsware from a lot trouble.

Whenever a large organization attempts to do anything, it always comes down to a single person who can delay the entire project.

It is a good idea to ask: what am I not doing?

Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same.

Sadly, there is no secret (to being a successful CEO), but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It is the moments when you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO.

The struggle is where greatness comes from.

CEOs should tell it like it is. My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.

When hiring executives, one should follow Colin Powell’s instructions and hire for strength rather than lack of weakness.

We take care of the people, the products, and the profits – in that order.

Being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat.

When you think there are things you can count on in business, you quickly find that the sky is purple. When this happens, it usually does no good to keep arguing that the sky is blue. You just have to get on and deal with the fact that it’s going to look like Barney for a while.

There are two kinds of cultures in this world: cultures where what you do matters and cultures where all that matters is who you are. You can be the former or you can suck.

As a venture capitalist, I have had the freedom to say what I want and what I really think without worrying what everybody else thinks. As a CEO, there is no such luxury. As CEO, I had to worry about what everybody else thought. In particular, I could not show weakness in public. It would not have been fair to the employees, the executives, or the public company shareholders. Unrelenting confidence was necessary.

Embrace the struggle….Embrace your weirdness, your background, your instinct.

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