The Hard Thing About Hard Things

To help prepare for this course, I read The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Horowitz uses this book to offer guidance and advice to other CEOs or aspiring CEOs in start-up companies. Horowitz spent the first few chapters of the book outlining his career path in the technology industry, before delving in to his reflection and advice.

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SUMMARY

Horowitz began his career at a start-up called NetLabs, which he openly states as a “horrible decision”. NetLabs was not the proper fit for Horowitz, both because the company was run by individuals he felt did not fully understand the industry, as well as it being a challenging time in his personal life. Horowitz’ daughter had been diagnosed with autism at the time, so his employment at a start-up company with grueling hours and constant work to be done was not a proper fit. He then moved on to an organization called Lotus, before later entering Netscape. Netscape was a company set out to improve internet browsing security and access, so that the internet could begin to better weave itself into society. While still at the company, Netscape was sold to AOL, where Horowitz witnessed how their software could not handle the immense traffic it now received through AOL. As a result, Loudcloud was born, with the mission of developing software that would scale over time to the increase of internet traffic. Loudlcoud was a hot start-up attracting loads of talent, however a year into the business, the dotcom bubble burst. People lost faith in the internet and the technology sphere, and Horowtiz’s company had become unfundable.

However, being the man that he was, Horowtiz refused to give-up entirely, and instead opted for a new direction. Horowitz saw the value in the software they had developed, which automated the functions that ran the cloud, and decided to sell this software solo. This separation lead to the start-up named Opsware, which over time was a huge success, but still never an easy responsibility. After realizing that the team had given it their all, and that all involved were ready to move on, Opsware was sold for $1.65 billion. While selling Opsware was not necessarily what Horowitz wanted to do, he realized that he could no longer drag his team through more chaos, if it was only him who wanted to continue on.

INSIGHTS

Horowtiz had learned immense leadership and business skills throughout his experiences at Netscape, Loudcloud, and Opsware, which he chooses to spend the majority of his time discussing in The Hard Thing About Hard Things. While Horowtiz offers countless insights and pieces of advice on how to run a successful company, I will discuss some key takeaways from the book.

I loved how Horowtiz discussed the importance of creating a company and environment people wanted to work at, and prioritizing the employees. A trust needs to be established between the executives, i.e. the leaders of the company, and the lower level employees, i.e. the followers. Without trust, no one can successfully lead people, and in order to establish that trust, a leader must be honest with their followers. At a time when lay offs needed to take place when fragments of Loudlcoud were transitioning to Opsware, Horowtiz stated, “”If we hadn’t treated the people who were leaving fairly, the people who stayed would never have trusted me again” (37). Leadership is not simply a one-way street, but rather requires a level of trust between both parties, which can be established through honesty and clarity.

Clarity was a subject Horowitz emphasized throughout his entire book, which is intertwined with communication. A company that cannot efficiently and effectively communicate will never last long, or achieve greatness. An environment where open communication is not only welcomed, but encouraged, will lead to a successful company, where employees can feel safe offering feedback and critiques of others. If an employee has a concern about their manager or another employee, this problem needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, so that emotions do not fester and limit productivity. Horowtiz understands that not everyone in a company will be friends, however with open communication and clarity, the right employees will be the ones able to align with the company’s mission and work together.

POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT

One point within the book that I did not necessarily agree with was Horowtiz’s discussion on the “right kind” of ambition, and how to see if a potential employee has this trait. Horowitz defines the right kind of ambition as placing the companies goals above your own. Horowitz then went on to state that someone who does not posses this right kind of ambition will be someone who uses me or I instead of we or team in an interview. While I understand the point he is making, I do not agree with this method of judging interviewees. In my experiences, I have come to see the importance of advocating for yourself, for if you don’t demonstrate confidence and belief in yourself, who else will? While I would agree that someone who excessively talks about themselves may not have this desired “right kind” of ambition, I do not feel that someone who uses I rather than we in sharing their accomplishments should be labeled as having the “wrong kind” of ambition.

RECOMMENDATION

Overall I enjoyed this book and the wealth of knowledge Horowitz had to share from his experiences in the start-up world. This book was definitely targeted at people who are in the thick of a start-up, or about to be, as it offered logistical pieces of advice such as how to lay someone off, how to train people, and how to demote a friend. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is running a start-up, interested in doing so, or anyone interested in learning more about the tech industry!

FAVORITE QUOTES

“There are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially knowledge gained from personal experience” (4)

“Some things are much easier to see in others than in yourself” (31)

“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” (59)

7 thoughts on “The Hard Thing About Hard Things

  1. Great summary. A leader of a company needs to make tons of decision. Different leaders with different perspectives will solve the problem with different solutions. However, all solutions share the same feature, which bonds the whole team tighter.

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  2. Hey Mary! This is an awesome summary. I also really enjoyed the point he made to lay people off the right way and treat them with respect. He really demonstrated the point by staying back from a big announcement in NYC to personally tell the employees who would have to leave. Additionally, I definitely agree with your point about judging an interviewee on the right kind of ambition so early on. I think a person’s ambitions are very hard to discern in an initial interview. Overall, I really enjoyed the book and I’m glad you did, too! See you in class tomorrow.

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  3. This seems like a very interesting read, and definitely contains advice for leaders of all kinds. As he has experienced numerous different environments both as a leader and a team member, there is much to be learned from him. I especially liked how he treated his team and recognized that the right decision was to sell his company because it was beneficial for the whole team, not just his own interests.

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  4. Great post! I think you can learn a lot through studying companies that don’t necessarily take off as anticipated. Therefore, I would be interested to learn more about companies such as Netscape and understand what prevented them from being able to become a tech giant like Google or Facebook. Also, I agree with your opinion on Horowitz’s definition of the “right kind” of ambition. As you mentioned, I think it’s important for people to be in an environment where they feel comfortable advocating for themselves.

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  5. Great summary! I love the quotes and I want to keep them in mind during our class discussions. Horowitz’s insights into trust and honesty are crucial to leading a team or company as well. Regarding your disagreement with Horowitz, there has been lots of discussion on the topic of that ambition — whether startup employees in particular should prioritize the company over themselves. Not sure where I fall yet, but interesting nonetheless!

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  6. Great summary! I’m very intrigued by your point of disagreement. I agree that the company’s goals shouldn’t come first all of the time because if you hire people whose personal goals align with the company’s vision, then you can achieve an environment where everyone is striving to better themselves and the company all at the same time.

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