The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers
Author: Ben Horowitz.
Reviewer: Sharon Ribas, MBA
"Äs a startup CEO, I slept like a baby. I woke up every 2 hours and cried.” Ben Horowitz.
In his blog, which he’s turned into a book, Horowitz shares his life lessons as a CEO, which can be helpful to anyone who is an entrepreneur or thinking about becoming one.
He sprinkles throughout the book reminders of his ordinariness, his penchant for worry, and his tendency to focus on the wrong things on his way to billionaire status. The result is that he comes across as an Everyman-kind-of-CEO who shares everyone’s frailties and mistakes.
He brings readers along on his bumps-and-bruises journey to CEO success. And because he shows both sides—as a student climbing the learning curve and as a teacher who has mastered the subject—he brings credibility to the page.
Horowitz begins with background about himself and then launches into the lessons, giving examples and scenarios in each chapter and then wrapping up with a final thought.
In the chapter "I Will Survive", he discusses raising capital and explains why the most important rule in raising money privately is to “find a market of one.” He then describes the euphoria and terror involved in the ongoing need to raise funds.
In "This Time with Feeling", he swiftly takes readers along on his roller coaster ride from being a founder to going public to selling his company and what he did after that.
But the essence of the book begins with chapter 4, which is titled "When Things Fall Apart." Here, he answers the question most asked of him, “What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?” Answer: There is no secret. A successful CEO knows how to focus and “make the best move when there are no best moves.”
"It’s when you most want to hide out that you can actually achieve your best," he says.
He also describes “the struggle,” those ongoing nightmare scenarios that all CEOs experience, whether they fail or succeed. Yet, it’s only through endurance, Horowitz says, that greatness can emerge.
On the other hand, CEOs can be too positive. They must deliver bad news in the right way, and he gives scenarios and suggestions on why and how to do that. Because there’s nothing positive about demoting a loyal friend, which CEOs might have to do, there’s also no substitute for honesty, clarity, and effectiveness when swinging the ax.
Horowitz then addresses lies that can proliferate in a company, mostly because CEOs tend to lie to themselves first. Perhaps the pithiest advice he gives is that when things fall apart understand that, despite your sleepless nights and excuses, in the end, “nobody cares.” Just do your job and run your company.
In another chapter, Horowitz lists the CEO’s priorities: Take Care of the People, the Products, and the Profits—In That Order. Having a good company is an end in itself. Things always go wrong and keeping the good employees when it does is easier when the CEO has put them first from the beginning.
Horowitz believes that even startups should train their people and he devotes pages explaining how and why and the critical role the CEO plays.
It can be risky but tempting to hire people from your friend’s company, and Horowitz delves into it in his typical no-nonsense way. He also explains the difficulty and opportunities CEOs encounter when they try to bring in big-gun executives to run a small company.
This brings Horowitz to the uncomfortable fact that CEOs who hire executives can be at a disadvantage, given that they might not have ever done so before. His list of practical tips can help CEOs handle this.
As CEOs become more immersed in the daily tasks of managing employees, Horowitz addresses at length several obstacles and perils CEOs must deal with and how to handle them
Another chapter focuses on situations that can arise as a company grows and expands—internal politics, employee agendas and ambitions, the promotions process, the pros and cons of giving titles, what to do when smart employees turn “bad,” the hiring of “senior” people.
Horowitz then brings the CEO to the important one-on-one conversation with employees—the why and how of it, how to create a company culture (as he defines “culture”), if the CEO should expand the company, and how.
Chapter Seven might be best read first because it gives an overview of what CEOs often experience, such as leading when they haven’t a clue where they are going, techniques on how to deal with their own feelings (which Horowitz identifies as the CEO’s “most personal and important battle”), and how to separate fear from courage and do so with character and intelligence.
Horowitz addresses additional situations, including how to plan for and handle succession issues, and the difference between wartime and peacetime CEOs and how to be a little bit of both. He describes the ideal CEO profile in terms of three radically different and famous CEOs. If these giants loom unnaturally large on the landscape, he reassures readers that all who master the art of being an exceptional CEO are, in fact, mastering the unnatural.
Horowitz ends by declaring the entrepreneur’s first rule, which is that there are no rules and he gives an example of that from his own experience. Dealing with the accountability versus creativity paradox can be tricky, but Horowitz guides the reader through it, along with crazy creative management techniques that have worked for him, how to stay great by hiring and keeping a first-class team, and what to consider in deciding whether or not to sell the company.
• Hardcover: 304 pages
• Publisher: HarperBusiness (March 4, 2014)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 0062273205
• ISBN-13: 978-0062273208
About the Author:
Ben Horowitz, investor, blogger, and author, is the co-founder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. Other companies he also founded include LoudCloud and Opsware, which he sold for $1.6 billion.
His blog is read by 10 million people, and he has been featured in major publications, including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Bloomberg Businessweek, and others.
Horowitz graduated from Columbia University in 1988 with a degree in Computer Science and from UCLA in 1990 with an MS in Computer Science.
He was born in London, England and raised in Berkeley, California. He lives with his wife and three children in the San Francisco area. He volunteers for organizations including Stanford, Columbia University, American Jewish World Service and others. He has pledged to give half of his lifetime income from venture capital to charity.
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