Book Review — The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

In April 2019, I finished Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers”.

I’ve had this book for a while but decided it was time for it when I saw many business veterans say it’s one book to read if you want to build a startup. After reading, I think I agree.

Unbeknownst to me, the moment I put up the title as the book I’m reading next, at least five other people decided they would read alongside. It was encouraging to have someone chat me up to discuss certain sections of the book. One of them even said this is the first business book he’s read. Good!

Perhaps the most important lesson in the book is that building a startup is all about killing fires. It just never stops. Startups are always undergoing life-threatening moments.

Consider the following conversation:

Marc: “Do you know the best thing about startups?”

Ben: “What?”

Marc: “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both… Ben, things are always darkest before they go completely black.”

These stories make me a little agitated with the way our government treats businesses like a scourge. Even startups with the best business environment find it increasingly difficult to do business, how much more when those in authority make themselves a tumbling block.

We must do better for our businesses because even when businesses fail due to legitimate competition, the consumer still wins. A good example highlighted in the book was the Microsoft vs Netscape rivalry. Netscape lost the battle but as a result of the healthy battle, the world can continue enjoy the technology they created for the internet such as JavaScript and cookies. The internet would be a worse place without these products.

What do you think of a company who demands that its employees work day and night for 6 months straight? Callous? Slave driver? Well, years later when asked about that period, the people remarked that it was the best period of their lives at the company. How is this possible? The CEO’s leadership. He was in the dugout with them, grinding and toiling. Day and night. The company was about to go bankrupt, and working hard was all they had left. And themselves, they gave.

In the book, Ben Horowitz challenged not a few conventional management wisdom. For instance, you often hear leaders say, “Don’t bring me a problem without bringing me a solution.” But what if the employee cannot solve an important problem? For example, what if an engineer identifies a serious flaw in the way the product is being marketed? Do you really want him to bury that information? Management truisms like these may be good for employees to aspire to in the abstract, but they can also be the enemy of free-flowing information — which may be critical for the health of the company.

He had plenty to say to aspiring and current CEOs. For one, you cannot be taught to be a great CEO. You have to do the work of a CEO. Make mistakes. Get up. Make mistakes. Get up. Wash and rinse as many times as possible. Therefore, when experienced people make decisions, they make it based on what they’ve done in the past. It’s easy for them because they’ve done it before.

The advices he dished out were so practical that when the fascinating Aishetu Dozie wondered on Twitter about wisdom on hiring execs from large corporations into small start ups, I didn’t hesitate before asking her to look into Chapter 5 of Ben’s book. Interestingly, Ben liked the post. 😉

After his great entrepreurial journey — selling his business for $1.6bn — he did something I consider quite remarkable — something I have always felt is the right way to give back — he started a venture capital fund, together with his long term friend, the very smart Marc Andreessen. They setup the fund to fund/coach technical founders to become great founders. At the moment, the fund is doing pretty great.

That was a major takeaway for me. Those who are successful have a duty to produce others like them.

I believe this book is such an excellent management book that I have decided it would be my physical gift to anyone serious about building a technology startup.

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