Book Review – The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

The Hard Thing About Hard Things Book Review

It’s not easy to start a business, and it’s no easier to run it once things get going. If you want an easy job, you don’t become an entrepreneur or founder, you look for something with less responsibility. Many business books romanticize the act of running a business and being a CEO, making it sound like it’s simple and almost a fun project, but in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz takes the opposite tack.

The struggle

“Life is struggle,” Horowitz says, quoting Karl Marx. (Horowitz’s parents were card-carrying communists, so it’s no surprise that Marx shows up in this book.) Rather than focusing on the positive aspects of the experience, he highlights the difficulties of managing a company; and there are plenty of things that can go wrong.

Horowitz begins by telling the story of his own business experience. He started his career at Silicon Graphics, then joined Netscape in 1995, and served as Vice President of AOL’s eCommerce Division after the company bought out Netscape. Horowitz then founded LoudCloud, an early cloud computing platform for businesses; then, after Hewlett-Packard bought out that company, he worked as Vice President and General Manager of HP Software. In 2009, he launched the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, together with Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape, and has been there since.

People often have amazing ideas and make optimistic projections for how successful their business will be, and for some businesses, things work out. Lots of things can happen to a business, and some of them that are existential threats that need to be surmounted. There’s no guidebook that tells you how to get through the rough patches, how to deal with the hard choices and decisions that must be made in times of turmoil.

There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making a series of hit songs; there’s no recipe for playing NFL quarterback; there’s no recipe for running for president; and there’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.

Unlike many business books that focus on positive thinking, and that outline the rosy future for startups that will “disrupt” the market, this book tries to prepare you for the types of things that can go wrong. Horowitz has seen a lot of these in his career, but has made it out alive; even better, he learned from his mistakes so they wouldn’t happen again. He explains that he learned how to run companies by making mistakes.

“As CEO, there will be many times when you feel like quitting,” Horowitz says. He points out how much he took personally the bad news and difficulties of his companies. Being a CEO did not insulate him from the day-to-day activities of his companies, but rather made him more aware of them. He explains how important it is that a CEO not expect to solve all the problems him or herself, but instead needs to assemble a team capable of working together to overcome the struggle.

He quotes his former boss Jim Barksdale, of Netscape, who said, “We take care of the people, the products, and the profits—in that order,” and highlights the importance of focusing on the employees in a business. A lot of the book is about working with people: how to hire them, how to train them so they understand a company’s mindset, whether to poach them from friends’ companies, and how to ensure that managers manage correctly. He stresses how hard it can be to have to fire employees, whether they be friends or not. And he talks about the importance of establishing and maintaining an appropriate business culture as part of ensuring that people work together smoothly.

Peacetime CEO vs. wartime CEO

One key section of the book discusses the difference between a peacetime CEO and a wartime CEO. A peacetime CEO acts when business is good, when a company is established, and when all the key indicators are green. But a wartime CEO is needed when things go bad: by Horowitz’s calculation, he “was a peacetime CEO for three days and wartime CEO for eight years.”

My greatest management discovery […] was that peacetime and wartime require radically different management styles. Interestingly, most management books describe peacetime CEO techniques and very few describe wartime.

Why Read The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Many books of this type seem as though they are written for a few hundred CEOs of tech companies, and not for everybody else. After all, when a CEO of a tech company talks about his successes and travails, it’s hard to scale that experience down to a small business. Yet books like The Hard Thing About Hard Things can be aspirational: many people who found startups want to become the big CEOs of their generation, but most just want to be successful.

It’s hard to know how much content in The Hard Thing About Hard Things applies to all the rest of the founders and entrepreneurs in the world; but, reading about Horowitz’s experiences, warts and all, may perhaps help people running smaller businesses better understand how to manage their companies efficiently.


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