Over the break I had the opportunity to read The Hard Thing About Hard Things by venture capitalist and entrepreneur Ben Horowitz. Drawing from his many experiences as the CEO of Loudcloud and Opsware, Horowitz describes the brutal reality of running a company. The Hard Thing About Hard Things provides readers with an outline of how to buckle down and fight through tough times when there seems to be no way out. Since every difficult situation is different for each company, he can only go through his own anecdotes, point out the principle of each decision and describe why it was the right thing to do. This, in essence, is the hard thing about hard things – there’s no formula for dealing with them (sorry, spoiler).
Before Horowitz starts the book, he states why he wrote this book: there are too many feel-good business guides describing how to run a company when times are going well, and a lack of books guiding entrepreneurs through tough times. To fill this void, he describes the times when he was one or two poor decisions away from losing it all. Transitioning from Loudcloud to Opsware to avoid bankruptcy, raising the stock price from below $0.50 to over $7, and firing a close executive are all situations Ben had to navigate through. In each situation he learned a skill or lesson that made him stronger and more successful.
Horowitz created Opsware, a software company that specializes in server and network device management, using the software from its original and failing company Loudcloud. During one of his meetings, he and his staff discovered that they were not automating the network. After a series of tough decisions, Opsware eventually bought Rendition Networks, allowing them to automate the network and gain a significant share of the market. Automating the network was not an action item that was on their radar until Horowitz asked his staff what they could be doing better. In this initial story, Ben points out one of his first tips to maneuvering through rough waters: an effective leader always asks, “what am I not doing?”.
He continues to use similar stories to motivate entrepreneurs. One of the biggest obstacles that business leaders encounter is what he defines as the Struggle. The Struggle arises in every company through various complications. These include issues with the product that are difficult to fix, a complete lack of capital, and employees losing confidence in you as a CEO. The Struggle has no definite answer and causes failure for those who cannot handle the pressure. But those strong enough to beat the Struggle will emerge greater than ever. Since there is no clear-cut technique to beating it, he provides advice such as “don’t put it all on your shoulders” and “don’t take it personally”. Try to allow others to help and just keep pushing. All of his tips embody a general theme of making the best of what you’ve got, even if that’s little to nothing. I felt that this aspect of the book was one of the most impactful. It’s something that every company has experienced, from Google to Facebook to Airbnb. Each one had to overcome their Struggle using their own unique formula. It’ll be exciting to see how each of these companies dealt with their major struggle(s) when we meet with them in March.
This message is most accurately represented by the parts that comprise the book. Some of the chapters include:
- “I Will Survive”
- Take Care of the People, The Products and the Profits – In That Order
- How to Lead Even When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going
- First Rule of Entrepreneurship: There Are No Rules
Within each chapter, there are sub-chapters that deal with specific issues that a CEO may encounter. Excluding the chronological timeline of his extensive career, there is no organization to his material. The chapter and sub-chapter dynamic is the best way to summarize this book since it is essentially a bunch of tips to be successful. For example, the topic of peacetime and wartime CEOs is broken down in the chapter titled How to Lead Even When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going. Choosing which CEO to be exemplifies the theme of making the best of your situation. In some circumstances you must master the ways of the peacetime CEO by expanding the market, minimizing conflict, setting audacious goals and having a contingency plan. Other times you have no choice but to be completely intolerant and violate protocol to achieve victory.
Another one of Horowitz’s keys is that one must act quickly and fiercely when there is only one way out. Scenarios such as these are referred to as lead bullets. Lead bullets are what CEOs use when there is no alternative. There’s one thing that needs to be done and it must be accomplished. Otherwise the result is catastrophic failure. Sometimes silver bullets, the lead bullet’s metaphoric opposite, can be used as clever alternatives to solving a problem. Only when decisions have several options can these be used; in life or death conditions, they are useless.
I would absolutely recommend this book to anybody interested in improving themselves as a leader. It focuses on what it’s like to survive in the tech industry, but the tools he provides are applicable in many every day instances. Some of the tips, such as the steps for firing an executive, are less directly helpful. Still, Horowitz is a legend in the field. He is an incredibly successful entrepreneur who has built several incredible businesses. His advice is battle tested and proven to work. No matter what you do, you’ll use his tips to better command your business and those around you.
You’ll learn a lot about leading during difficult times from an entertaining author. One fun fact about this book is that Horowitz starts each chapter with lyrics from a rap song. He quotes Kanye and Nas because he feels that they express what it means to struggle and succeed. It’s a fun way to start each chapter and makes the book that much better.