The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

“It is a rare qualification to be able to conceive and suffer the truth to pass through us living and intact.” – Henry David Thoreau

“Welcome to the music business. You’re f***ed.” – Martin Atkins

There are already more worthwhile books out there than you can possibly read in ten lifetimes and even many of the good ones can be improved by condensing them down at least 90%.

Add YouTube to the mix (it’s not all dancing cats) and there is a practical infinity of great advice out there.

But Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing about Hard Things makes the cut…

…Especially if you’re an entrepreneur, a CEO, an aspiring CEO (or any “C” level executive for that matter), or if you work for an organization that has a CEO or if you’re involved in any enterprise whatsoever from a lemonade stand on up.

Making things happen by leading a group effort and keeping things on track in spite of the “slings and arrows” is hard and there are far too few books (or news outlets for that matter) that talk about the gritty realities of business beyond “dream big” and “hire great people” platitudes. This one does.

Horowitz’s book is based on his experience in tech start ups – Netscape, Loudcloud, and now as a funder of tech start ups at Andreessen Horowitz – but the stories he tells and the lessons he’s drawn from his experience are universal. Beowulf universal.

Though it’s geared to tech start ups, there’s nothing tech-unfriendly about any of the narrative. If you are now or ever have tried to move a group of people towards a goal, you’ll find yourself engrossed pretty quickly.

The book is frank about the loneliness of leadership: what happens when you attempt something really hard with no clear idea of what you’re getting yourself into, with no road map, few guides, and stakes high enough to cause you to wake up the middle of the night in a cold sweat from sheer terror.

Welcome to the glamorous world of the executive suite in a high profile tech start up.

Champagne, limousines, universal acclaim, right?

No. More like a demolition derby – with the CEO functioning as the bumper on the car. High tech start up CEO is not a job for for the weak or weak at heart.

So if you think running a successful high tech start up is just a matter of donning a hoodie and writing some code, this book is an essential- and useful – wake up call.

The guidance Horowitz provides is superb, everything from how to hire great people, fire right when you have to, and create and maintain a productive place to work; what to do when the the floor collapses beneath your feet (it happens a lot in business); and how to calm down when you’re stretched beyond your limits. Practical stuff, some of which you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else.

Parts of the book I particularly liked:

* The succinct way Horowitz tells the story of Marc Andreessen (now his business partner) and the role his company Netscape played in creating the world we live in today. You’re simply not a literate adult if you don’t know this stuff. pp. 10-11

* The genius of behind-the-scenes folks who make things happen but don’t often make it to the front pages (Bill Campbell, Mark Cranney, the late Mike Homer)

* The difference between lead and silver bullets in business building and why you need lots of the former and not so many of the latter pp. 89-88

* Raider’s owner Al Davis sage and simple advice for people facing impossible situations p. 91

* A gem of destiny-changing management advice Horowitz got from Andy Grove’s book High Output Management p. 105

* What you must do after you hire a top exec p. 123

* The kind of debts that every company is likely to incur even if they never borrow any money p. 134

* Why there is no such thing as a “great executive” p. 194

* The two things CEOs must pay attention to at all times pp. 239-240

* The three key traits of leadership (two of which can be learned) pp.219-223

* For years I’ve been telling students that business development is self development. Horowitz goes deeper into this idea than I ever dreamed of and it’s must reading pp. 201-203

* How a vendor’s arrogance cut $100 million off the value of Horowitz’s company in one day (it could have been $1 billion) and what you can learn from how he salvaged this ‘impossible’ situation pp. 243-247

* A funny four letter acronym that will help you survive mentally when it looks like all is lost pp. 206

* The difference between peacetime and wartime CEOs pp. 224-228

* Training and support are cheaper than unnecessary failure and stunted growth: the uniquely common sensical approach Andreessen Horowitz takes with the companies it funds pp. 265-273

One way I judge a book is by how many useful aphorisms I can pull from it. This book ran at about one useful bit per page. That’s way-above-average.

If you’re trying to accomplish anything in life, you need to read it and keep it handy. Think of it as a “how to get things done in the world as it is” manual.

One major flaw with the book: No index.

I could understand this if The Hard Thing About Hard Things were a celebrity gossip tell-all, but this is a textbook on how to deal with a few dozen of the predictable challenges that all businesses face yet few insiders ever talk about.

Note to Harper Collins: Here’s how I’d fix it. Make an index and post it to the Internet. You’ll sell some extra books when people realize the scope of topics covered and the people who’ve already bought it (your most important salesmen for it) will appreciate it.

In 1994, Ken organized and sponsored the first conference that focused on the subject of the commercial potential of the Web.

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

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