The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz – Here are my six lessons and takeaways

Hard Thing about Hard ThingsThere’s no recipe for motivating teams when your business has turned to crap. That’s the hard thing about hard things—there is no formula for dealing with them.
Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing About Hard Things


It is a hard time for us all.  And there are some especially hard things to deal with, some difficult decisions to make, during this hard time.

At the June First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis of The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz.  This is the second book I have presented by Mr. Horowitz, though this one is the first book he wrote. In Dec., 2019, I presented his later book, What you Do is Who You Are.

These are both very good books.Ben-Horowitz-w-cover

Ben Horowitz is one half of the Andreessen Horowitz Venture Capital Fund.  He worked in the early days of Netscape with Marc Andreessen, built and developed the first actual Cloud Company – and, in selling it, became a billionaire —  and is now an author, and a venture capital fund leader.

In my synopses, I always ask What is the point?  Here is my answer for this book:  Being a leader, at the executive level, or at the top CEO level, is demanding, but “easy,” when things are going very well.  But leadership during difficult times is indeed much more difficult.  The hard thing about the hard things is that there are no easy answers.

And I ask, why is this book worth our time? Here are my three reasons for this book:
#1 – This book is a short history of some key elements of the birth, and rise, and fall, of parts of Silicon Valley.  It is interesting history.
#2 – This book is a great tutorial on how to take a company from brand new, to large, to sold.
#3 — Most of all, this book is a book to help you understand that there is in fact a big difference between the hard things in business and the easy things in business.

I always include key excerpts from the book;  the “best of” Randy’s highlighted passages.  Here are just a few of the ones I included in my synopsis handout – ok, more than the usual number that I include in these blog posts.  There were so, so many good highlighted passages:

• The simple existence of an alternate, plausible scenario is often all that’s needed to keep hope alive among a worried workforce.  
• 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. 
• No matter who you are, you need two kinds of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens, and you need someone who will be excited for you. Not a fake excitement veiling envy, but a real excitement. You need someone who will actually be more excited for you than he would be if it had happened to him. The second kind of friend is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong—when your life is on the line and you only have one phone call. Who is it going to be? Bill Campbell is both of those friends.   
• Michael Ovitz. Michael was on Loudcloud’s board, but more important, he had formerly been known by many observers as the Most Powerful Man in Hollywood. “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.” 
• An early lesson I learned in my career was that whenever a large organization attempts to do anything, it always comes down to a single person who can delay the entire project.  
• 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. 
• Every great entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg went through the Struggle and struggle they did, so you are not alone. But that does not mean that you will make it. You may not make it. 
• As a corollary, beware of management maxims that stop information from flowing freely in your company. …For example, consider the old management standard: “Don’t bring me a problem without bringing me a solution.” What if the employee cannot solve an important problem?   
• At this level, almost every company screens for the proper skill set, motivation, and track record. Yes, the reason that you have to fire your head of marketing is not because he sucks; it’s because you suck. 
• If you don’t have world-class strengths where you need them, you won’t be a world-class company. 
• When a company multiplies in size, the management jobs become brand-new jobs. As a result, everybody needs to requalify for the new job. 
• When things go wrong in your company, nobody cares. The media don’t care, your investors don’t care, your board doesn’t care, your employees don’t care, and even your mama doesn’t care. Nobody cares.  …Spend zero time on what you could have done, and devote all of your time on what you might do. Because in the end, nobody cares; just run your company.
• My old boss Jim Barksdale was fond of saying, “We take care of the people, the products, and the profits—in that order.” “Taking care of the people” is the most difficult of the three by far.
• Good product managers decompose problems. Bad product managers combine all problems into one. 
• Nothing makes things clear like a few choice curse words. “That is not the priority” is radically weaker than “That is not the fucking priority.” …We certainly could not tolerate profanity used to intimidate or sexually harass employees, so I needed to make the distinction clear. …As I see it, we have two choices: (a) we can ban profanity or (b) we can accept profanity. Anything in between is very unlikely to work. … However, this does not mean that you can use profanity to intimidate, sexually harass people, or do other bad things.
• Hire people with the right kind of ambition. …The surest way to turn your company into the political equivalent of the U.S. Senate is to hire people with the wrong kind of ambition.
• While I’ve seen executives improve their performance and skill sets, I’ve never seen one lose the support of the organization and then regain it.
• The Law of Crappy People: For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title. …The rationale behind the law is that the other employees in the company with lower titles will naturally benchmark themselves against the crappiest person at the next level.
• In top dojos, in order to achieve the next level (for example, being promoted from a brown belt to a black belt), you must defeat an opponent in combat at that level.
• Perhaps the CEO’s most important operational responsibility is designing and implementing the communication architecture for her company.
• The primary thing that any technology startup must do is build a product that’s at least ten times better at doing something than the current prevailing way of doing that thing.
• Great CEOs face the pain.
• Every time you make the hard, correct decision you become a bit more courageous and every time you make the easy, wrong decision you become a bit more cowardly. If you are CEO, these choices will lead to a courageous or cowardly company.
• More senior executives will recognize the shit sandwich immediately and it will have an instant negative effect. To become elite at giving feedback, you must elevate yourself beyond a basic technique like the shit sandwich. 
• I like to ask this question: “How easy is it for any given individual contributor to get her job done?”
• Of course, even with all the advice and hindsight in the world, hard things will continue to be hard things.

Here are a few of the points I included in my synopsis handout, from the book:

Here are a few of the points I included in my synopsis handout, from the book:

  • Let’s start here:
  • it is the hard things that will get you. The easy things are…easy.The hard things are…truly difficult. – So, how do you prepare to handle the hard things?  Maybe you don’t; other than to acknowledge the difficulty, and give it your all.
  • Somehow, the top leaders have to see the future. No…they have to see the future to create; they create that future that they see.
  • The CEO – is the only one who can see all the pieces. The only one!
  • Maybe the biggest insight in the book: Peacetime CEOs vs. Wartime CEOs (Horowitz: By my calculation, I was a peacetime CEO for three days and wartime CEO for eight years).:
  • This was wartime. The company would live or die by the quality of my decisions, and there was no way to hedge or soften the responsibility. The only choices were survival or total destruction. 
  • There are lots of good peacetime CEOs and lots of good wartime CEOs, but almost no CEOs that can function in both peacetime and in wartime. You’re a peacetime/wartime CEO.”
  • Wartime CEO thinks the competition is sneaking into her house and trying to kidnap her children.
  • Peacetime CEO sets big, hairy, audacious goals. Wartime CEO is too busy fighting the enemy to read management books written by consultants who have never managed a fruit stand.
  • The world looks one way in peacetime but very different when you must fight for your life every day. In times of peace, one has time to care about things like appropriateness, long-term cultural consequences, and people’s feelings. In times of war, killing the enemy and getting the troops safely home is all that counts. I was at war and I needed a wartime general. I needed Mark Cranney. 
  • There are no silver bullets – you have to use the lead bullets – 
  • you have to do the hard work of becoming good enough to be better than the competition — We had to build a better product. There was no other way out. 
  • Ben, those silver bullets that you and Mike are looking for are fine and good, but our Web server is five times slower. There is no silver bullet that’s going to fix that.”
  • Train your people!
  • People at McDonald’s get trained for their positions, but people with far more complicated jobs don’t. It makes no sense. …A lot of companies think their employees are so smart that they require no training. That’s silly.
  • The manager should do the training…
  • When you fired the person, how did you know with certainty that the employee both understood the expectations of the job and was still missing them? The best answer is that the manager clearly set expectations when she trained the employee for the job.

And here are my six lessons and takeaways;
#1 – Get very good at identifying the specifics of your challenge:  what are you trying to build/provide; who is your competition; can you be better than your competition?
#2 – Are you ahead of the pack?  Are you staying ahead of the pack?
#3 – Have you found good advisors, who will speak the truth to you?  Do you have the humility to listen to them; and the courage to reject their counsel If you know you are right and they are wrong?
#4 – Can you identify the genuinely hard things about your job?
#5 – Can you be honest, and human, at the same time?
#6 – Do you read books written by people that have wisdom worth learning and emulating?

Who should read this book?  Obviously, any leader facing hard and difficult circumstances.  And, maybe the rest of us, leader or not, to help us understand both hard times and hard decisions, and the struggles that our leaders go through during such hard times.

This is quite a good book!


My synopses are available for purchase on the buy synopses tab at the top of this page. Each synopsis comes with my comprehensive, multi-page handout, and the audio recording of my presentation. The synopses delivered in June will be available soon. Click here for our newest additions.

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