Book Review: The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Ben Horowitz tells it like it is: starting and running a tech company is hard. Really hard. But not for the reasons you would think.

Founding and running a tech company is generally viewed as the thing anyone should aspire too. The fame, the riches and everything that goes with it is the dream of our generation. Silicon Valley is just as attractive as a career in Hollywood or being a rock star. With poster boys such as Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, young men and women grow up believing that all you need is a great idea and the guts to start it.

But that dream fades when your bright idea and optimistic vision have to face the hard truths of running the company you’ve just founded. Ben Horowitz has a reputation of being a no-bullshit kind of guy and you can actually feel his straightforward words telling you that your dream will be squashed by reality.

Unlike the glamorous and relaxed articles you’re reading about the likes of Facebook, Google or PayPal, Ben’s book is a clear indication of what you can expect when running a company and what to do about it.

It’s definitely not a perfect guide to running a company but it is a great start to understanding what to expect. Being a CEO is a tough place to be in. It’s a lonely place. It’s full of doubt and decisions that may or may not be right.

Telling it like it is

One of the greatest idea I’ve found in the book is telling it like it is. Yes, telling it like it is when things fall apart. Because they constantly do and someone has to constantly put them together.

Sometimes CEO’s start trusting their PR too much. They start living the persona they need to project to customers, investors and the media. Of course, no one can just go and tell the world that they don’t have enough data to make a decision. Or tell investors that the company may or may not exist in the next 6 months or the product development is stalling. Or tell customers that the product they’ve just purchased may be out of the market in the next year.

No. The CEO’s job is to project confidence and show the world that everything works just smooth. Right? But what do you do when things are the opposite of smooth? What should the CEO do when they fall apart and everything starts running amok. How can you tell the engineers that the customers hate the new features and they just have to rewrite everything so it can be spotless. How can you tell the marketing team that the last campaign they’ve pulled is bringing in no results.

Ben’s answer is simple:
“[…] give the problem to the people who could not only fix it, but who would also be personally excited and motivated to do so”

 

There are three big reasons to do so:

  1. number one is trust: when people get all data, good or bad, they will respond with trust. When dealing only positive thoughts the bad things are kept to only few people. Eventually they will leak.
  2. number two is problem solving: the CEO is not necessarily the smartest person in the company. Nor does he or she need to be. It just needs to relay the correct problems to the correct people and make sure they solve them.
  3. number three is culture: a culture where bad news are swept under the rug is a flawed and inefficient. People spotting the problems don’t have to be the ones who solve them.

 

Take care of the People, the Products, and the Profits – in that order.

Throughout the book Ben Horowitz deals with hiring, managing and retaining employees best fit for the company. And he stresses the “fit” part. People that cannot work in a team should not be part of the team. Egos and politics can destroy companies if not properly managed.

The people themselves have to build products that the market needs and wants and there’s plenty of advice on this topic also. Concise, clear and to the point advice.

Ben shows that innovative products and successful companies are built by CEO’s that lead without knowing where the path would lead to. They lead their teams and they try and try. Sometimes they get the right answers. Sometimes they don’t. That’s because there is no formula for building the equivalent of Facebook or Google or Apple. If it were – more people would be doing it right.

The hard things are things all responsible entrepreneurs and CEO’s have faced. It’s the worrying, the lack of direction or know how, the lack of guidance and the loneliness. It’s keeping your emotions in check and being stronger because of it. It’s finding answers without showing weakness. It’s the struggle you have to embrace so you can continue when things get rough.

In the end I would highly recommend this book to anyone starting or running a tech-related business. My only regret is not having read it five years earlier but then again – it was not written then.

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