The Hard Thing About Hard Things is a book written by Ben Horowitz documenting the some of the hard things that he faces when starting his business. While this book focuses on business and – more specifically – entrepreneurship, Horowitz begins by talking about his own life. He speaks about his youth and the formative experiences during these years of his life. He then shifts his focus to his journey as CEO of LoudCloud (which would later become Opsware). Throughout these chapters, Horowitz tells the trials and tribulations of his startup and how his role as CEO gives him the authority to expand – in the later chapters – on the lessons that he learns.
Growing up in Berkeley, California, Horowitz recalls his upraising in a communist household, the experiences of his youth, and some of the lessons he gets from his early years. Noting his shy demeanor as a child, Horowitz discusses a number of uncomfortable, yet intimate experiences that lay the foundation for the book’s underlying theme: “there are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially knowledge gained from personal experience. Following conventional wisdom and relying on shortcuts can be worse that knowing nothing at all.” While this quote follows the trying circumstances in which Horowitz meets his best friend, it extends to the rest of the book in that many of lessons that Horowitz describes cannot be fully understood unless they are not also experienced.
While Horowitz definitely learns some important lessons in his early life, the majority of the book is dedicated to the difficulties that he faces following the collapse of the dot com bubble. At the time, Horowitz is the CEO of a cloud computing company called LoudCloud that he helped co-founded with Marc Andreessen, an influential figure in the emergence of the internet. Despite having raised sixty-six million dollars in equity and debt financing before the crash, LoudCloud is soon strapped for cash. Over the following years, Horowitz explains that the hard parts about starting a company aren’t the surface level problems of hiring people, laying people off, and “setting big, hairy, audacious goals.” What’s hard is “waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare” as Horowitz doubtlessly does in the years following the crash.
Horowitz expands on the lessons that he gains from these trying years in the later chapters of the book. One of the main ideas that he focuses on is the role of the CEO. First, he declares that the CEO must be the first to act and should “tell it like it is” when a crisis occurs. Horowitz stresses the importance of this idea by taking a stab at the positive CEO archetype. Horowitz believes that always-sunny CEO doesn’t create real trust with his employees but rather creates a false sense of hope. Rather, a CEO must know when to be a Wartime and a Peacetime CEO. While Horowitz never gives a complete definition for either, I think that he best summarizes the two when he says, “a Peacetime CEO knows that proper protocol leads to winning. A Wartime CEO violate protocol in order to win.” Like with most things, Horowitz argues that there are not strict or true rules to running a company. While he seems to believe that different strategies should be employed based on the state of the company, Horowitz concludes that there is – as he says in the introduction – “no recipes for a challenge that has no recipes”.
Since Horowitz truly believes that “hard things about hard things is there is no formula for dealing with them,” the last chapter of Horowitz’s book is reserved for his golden rule. Taking from the movie, Fight Club, Horowitz states that the first rule of entrepreneurship is there is no rules. Rather, there is only experience and the strategy that people learn from this experience. For this reason, Horowitz concludes his book by using this lesson to explain why he starts a venture capital firm that focuses on helping founders run their company. While Horowitz admits that he can’t prevent the hard things from still being hard, he believes he can provide mentorship that will support founders going through these hard things.
While the Horowitz’s individual pieces of advice were very interesting and enlightening, I believe that the overarching themes of this book are most helpful for myself and for most people my age. Growing up in a distorted, social media fueled age of unlimited potential – especially in the technological world – I think young people often forget the adversity that comes with pursuing your dreams. Moreover, in the world of higher education, we are often blinded by the idea that we can achieve our dreams through our intellectual knowledge. The reality is that all of us have a lot of stumbling to do before we will have the experiential knowledge to complement our intellectual knowledge. While a somewhat dark conclusion, I think that this is an important insight to have going into this class because it will help keep things in perspective. Although we’ll come out of this class with a greater understanding of the companies that we’ll be meeting with and studying, we must appreciate that our understanding is only from the outside and to be out in the world working for one of these companies is another thing completely.
I would recommend this book for people who, like myself, are interested in entrepreneurship and are maybe even aspiring entrepreneurs. I think that this demographic has the most to learn from this book because it acts as both a warning and valuable insight. It warns of the turmoil and anguish that you’ll face as entrepreneur and, in this sense, may save some people from a path that is not right for them. Nevertheless, this book also has the potential to motivate the people who are up for the challenge. These people will learn that to truly learn means to live the struggle, or as Horowitz says, “to embrace it.”