Book Review: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

July 30, 2014

Business books? No thanks. Too many follow the “success in five easy steps” model, filling a few large type pages with bromides. Others are “written” by someone with a big business name—think Jack Welch, Al “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, and Donald Trump—whose contributions to the book may be large or small. These books often focus on “let me tell you how great I was when” stories, which are usually trite and not especially informative. (Noteworthy, different, and definitely worth reading is Good to Great, along with its successors.)

I ran across The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz—the subtitle is Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers—recently. Mr. Horowitz is a partner in Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm whose other partner is Marc Andreessen, one of the Netscape founders. He writes an excellent business/management primer!

Mr. Horowitz is the real deal, but he blows through all that fast. By page 16 (of 302 normal type size pages) he’s up to having started a post-Netscape company called Loudcloud. By page 55 Loudcloud has become Opsware, come within weeks of having no cash, gone public at the worst possible time in 2001 (after the tech stock crash), and grown into a company HP bought for $1,600,000,000 in 2007. Mr. Horowitz tells the story quickly and well, before moving on, in the next 250 or so pages, to share his secrets.

One part of the Loudcloud/Opsware story stuck with me, and it’s worth recounting here. The company had a difficult customer—its largest customer, of course—which was unhappy. The contact gave Opsware 60 days to make him happy. Mr. Horowitz shares what happened, including a quick purchase of a public company for $10M in cash and stock because the contact liked that company’s product and competitors offered the product as an add-on. Cool, in the form of an aggressive, out-of-the-box solution. Then, Mr. Horowitz recounts how the acquired company’s CFO was not well, and was quickly diagnosed with a brain tumor. “Cut him loose,” says the American business model. (Would Ayn Rand keep him around? The Donald?) Mr. Horowitz, with a company hanging by a thread, kept the man on the payroll and paid the COBRA coverage expenses at a cost of $200,000!

The rest of the book provides plenty of very direct management lessons. Anecdotes appear, but Mr. Horowitz has some very clear opinions about management, and he doesn’t hide them among long-winded war stories. Here are a few that resonated with me:

  1. “Don’t put it all on your shoulders.” I call this, to myself only, “Mark Rubin’s Disease.” (Oops!) Many people—read moi—have a tendency to shoulder burdens belonging to others. We all create problems from time to time, but sometimes it’s our job to solve problems created by other people, and most problems have many parents. The bottom line here? Share!
  1. “Being a good company doesn’t matter when things go well, but it can be the difference between life and death when things go wrong. Things always go wrong. Being a good company is an end in itself.” In the long, long run, we’re all dead, but there’s a wide gap between good times and the long run. Having good systems will see you through the bad times, and in the long run it will likely provide short-term benefits, too.
  1. “Don’t bring me a problem without a solution.” Can’t you just hear that from Donald Trump or some other caricature of a CEO?  Mr. Horowitz’ answer:  “What if the employee cannot solve an important problem?” Duh!
  1. “Management Debt,” which is the problem companies have when they have ignored good systems for a long time. They pay the price, and it’s truly a “pay a little now, pay more later” situation.
  1. “Positivity.” Mr. Horowitz calls it the “positivity delusion” and he’s totally correct. Your people know what is really going on in your company, and if you think they don’t, why in the world would you want them working for you. And, even if they may not’s  know everything, why not share the burden and, as Mr. Horowitz writes, “give the problem to the people who could not only fix it, but who would also be personally excited and motivated to do so. Isn’t that why you hired them?

(Note the link between the five examples. It’s all about working together. Unfortunately, we live in a world of cardboard characters, where the CEO dramatically saves the day, barks out orders, etc. I call bullsh*t)

Obviously, I enjoyed this book. I have no stake in its success, but I think it’s a book worth having on your shelf. And, if you think buying the book means you’re simply making a rich tech entrepreneur wealthier, all proceeds from book sales are contributed to the American Jewish World Service to help women in developing countries gain civil rights.




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