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.

5 (more) ridiculous things I learned were being taught in business school this week

Note before reading: I have withdrawn from the program that offered the examples I provide below. Time is the most important asset and I couldn't waste any more of it in a program that provided more "WTF" content for my blog than it did my education. After a great deal of consideration I elected to enroll in a highly ranked Executive MBA program at a different school.   

Well, business school strikes again. 

About a month and a half ago I wrote a short summary of what I was learning in a business school that’s reported to be one of the top 50 in the United States. You can read the full post here. If you don’t feel like getting caught up, let me summarize it with this actual factoid offered up in our MBA reading: 

“The internet is really best for sharing information, not for selling things.”

Yes, that’s what students are learning at (at least) one business school. The information being taught is not just outdated, it's inaccurate. And just in case you thought it was a fluke chapter or section, here is an update on what we learned this week. 

5) Technology that allows advertisers to address users by name has been adopted in Israel and will soon be available in the U.S. 

Gasp. We will be able to identify individuals and use their name in digital advertising soon? When I was researching diamonds for my wife’s engagement ring, I had to clear my browser’s cache and browse in a private browser because Facebook and Amazon knew what I was shopping for elsewhere and would show me nothing but jewelry ads, which could've been a massive surprise spoiler. Calling me by my first name in an ad doesn’t impress me. 

4) Instant messenger is the “new kid on the block,” but growing up fast. In fact, Yahoo! Messenger has released IMVironments, which allows users to customize their messenger application with brands such as Polaroid. 

So, where to start? IM is clearly not the new kid on the block. Slack is. Yahoo! hasn’t released a stable version of their messenger service in over 3 years. And Polaroid is hardly a company people are looking to brand their personal messenger services with. Unless you’re a Donald Trump supporter, who in the hell wants to get that strongly behind a brand that filed for multiple bankruptcies in the 2000’s? 

3) DVRs are only in 5% of American homes, but growing fast. 

Flash forward 10+ years. 66% of households with incomes above $75,000 and 30% of households with incomes below $30,000 have a DVR. 25% of households that don’t currently have a DVR in the household, used to. 

The book was trying to speak to the challenges advertisers face as the habits of TV viewers change. That point would be better made by informing students that 76% U.S. households have DVR, Netflix, or use on-demand viewing. What the book was presenting as forward looking has already been recognized, and passed. Advertisers face a slew of newer challenges with streaming, on-demand, and mobile viewing, none of which are referenced in the particular course on consumer behavior. 

2) Although online advertising declined in 2 of the past 3 years, it is on the rise. And mobile marketing is in its infancy, now representing a $3 billion market. 

Yes, online and mobile advertising is on the rise. That much is correct. But the trend is overwhelmingly upwards and incredibly consistent. Evidence of this is the fact that mobile marketing alone now represents a market of more than $19 billion, not the $3 billion stated in the reading, which is probably just a small rounding error. Online advertising as a whole represents well over $40 billion in revenue, more than broadcast or cable television advertising. 

Most notable, however, is what is missing. Reading references search advertising and SMS advertising (which most consumers can attest to, was never really a thing), but fails to mention anywhere in the online advertising conversation the small contenders like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. 

And, as usual, I’ve saved the best for last. 

1) Blogs, or weblogs, are being invaded by corporate America. Examples of this include GreenCine, an online DVD rental company, and Nerve.com, an online magazine and dating service. 

Well, let’s just assume I don’t need to explain that corporate America has completed its invasion of “blog land,” as was reported to be underway in the reading. 

I may, however, need to explain who GreenCine is, since they are defunct. GreenCine was a DVD rental company similar to Netflix. GreenCine, however, carried a wide range of independent, rare, and anime, as well as porn on its sister site, BlueCine. 

Did someone say porn? Yes. And speaking of which, there’s Nerve.com, which is an online magazine. Kind of. Given that it was my first visit to the site suggested by my MBA reading, I was a little startled to see the site’s “Cum Shots” section. Yes, you read that correctly. 

In this section you’ll find doozies such as: 

And…

I’m not on a crusade against porn. I do, however, find it fascinating that a decade ago, the authors couldn’t find two better examples of companies that were using blogs. And it's equally fascinating that this is still the content at least one graduate level professor elects to keep year after year (after year, after year, after year). 

The curriculum would be funny, if only it weren’t. The cost and return on investment of an MBA aside, as a student with very limited time due to actually conducting business, completing courses like this is beyond frustrating. It is a waste of time. It’s an exercise in going through motions, valuing activity over productivity, and putting style (the degree) over substance (the knowledge). I couldn’t think of lessons any worse to be teaching future business leaders.