A review: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

"Embrace the struggle... Embrace your weirdness. Your background. Your instincts. If the keys are not in there, they do not exist."  

- Ben Horowitz, entrepreneur, investor, and author of The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Those are some of the closing words in Ben’s best seller, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. As I read them and closed the book, I thought, why in the fuck don’t we replace the terrible business school curriculum that currently exists (like this) with books like The Hard Things?   

While I’m not the first to express it, I fully embrace the notion that Ben's book should be required reading for business builders of all types, including students that aspire to build businesses or lead people.  

Ben tells his story, from joining Netscape through the founding of Andreessen Horowitz, as a battle tested executive, founder, CEO, and investor. And he does so in a way that you don't want to put the book down. The war stories are riveting and experienced entrepreneurs will be able to relate to many of them in some way or another. Other stories, however, are at a scale most people are unlikely to experience and read more like a fiction book. There aren't many CEOs that have faced being delisted from the NASDAQ if they didn't triple their stock price in a few short months. Even fewer have succeeded in doing so. It may make me a business nerd, but reading about this and other experiences of his was captivating.   

Entertainment value aside, this book is packed with more advice and experience to learn from than any I’ve recently read. And I read a lot. Here are just some of my favorite highlights:

Ben’s financial controller at Loudcloud once remarked, “If you’re going to eat shit, don’t nibble,” when giving Ben advice on breaking bad news to shareholders and employees. 
"Conventional wisdom has nothing to do with truth. Markets weren't efficient at finding the truth. They were just very efficient at converging on a conclusion. Often the wrong conclusion."
"A great reason for failing won't preserve one dollar for investors, save one employee's, job or get you one new customer."
"All the mental energy you use to elaborate your misery would be far better used trying to find the one seemingly impossible way out of your current mess."
"Take care of people, product, and profits. In that order." 
"Being too busy to train is the equivalent of being too hungry to eat."
"Managing by the numbers is like painting by numbers, it's strictly for amateurs."
"By managing the organization as though it were a black box, some divisions at HP optimized the present at the expense of their downstream competitiveness. The company rewarded managers for achieving short term objectives in a manner that was bad for the company. It would have been better to take into account the white box. The white box goes beyond the numbers and gets into how an organization produced those numbers. It penalizes managers that sacrifice the future for the short term. And it rewards those who invest in the future, even if that investment cannot be easily measured."
"The difference between managing executives and managing more junior employees can be thought of as the difference between being in a fight with someone with no training and being in a ring with a professional boxer."
"There's no such thing as a great executive. There is only a great executive for a specific company for a specific point in time."
"If CEOs were graded on a curve, the mean on the test would be 22 out of 100." 
"Peacetime and Wartime require dramatically different styles... Mastering both wartime and peacetime skill sets means understanding the many rules of management and knowing when to follow them and when to violate them." 
"In well run organizations people can focus on their work, as opposed to politics and bureaucratic procedures, and have confidence that if they get their work done, good things will happen both for the company, and for them personally. By contrast, in a poorly run organization people spend much of their time fighting organizational boundaries and broken processes." 

Ben does a fine job of framing the real challenges founders and CEOs face on day-to-day basis as well as offering a framework for how to approach some of those challenges. That said, he acknowledges that the only way to really learn to be CEO is to be a CEO.  

What’s more, the book had a great personal impact on me. As I finished, I felt more inspired than I have in quite some time to get back to my roots of creation and founding; to embrace the struggle so to speak. More on that journey as it evolves. 

I obviously can’t guarantee The Hard Thing About Hard Things will have as dramatic an impact on you, but take it from someone that reads a lot of business books, if you currently manage people, run a business, or aspire to do either: Read this. Please. Your employees and shareholders will thank you. 

P.S. 

Narrators of audio books don’t make a lasting impression on me unless they suck. Kevin Kenerly’s narration of this book changed that. He helped make a great book even easier to listen to.