on May 24, 2014
Ben is a smart guy. Ben has a lot of good things to say about what it means to be a CEO. Ben has worked in the whirlwind that is/was Silicon Valley on products you probably never heard of at the height of the silliness. Ben grew a lot as a leader and made a ton of money doing that. Unfortunately Ben is a mediocre author, and his editor needs to find another line of work.
This book is like countless "how to be a leader" books on the market, and says a lot of the same things. Only this time you get it from the perspective of a guy flailing to build a silicon valley startup to a point where he can unload it on some unsuspecting buyer and walk away with enough money to retire at 35, on the backs of the poor schlubs who wrote the code that got him there in the faint hope they'd get rich too. That's an interesting perspective, and one that says a lot about silicon valley, the venture capital culture, and the business world in general.
The problems with this book are many, however. First, most of the advice is retread, stuff you can find in a lot of other books on leadership. More importantly, however is the seemingly random organization. It doesn't adhere to a chronological flow, or a logical structured flow -- either would have been a fine choice. It seems to be mostly stream-of-consciousness -- like someone just transcribed their notes from their beside table notepad. It never seems to go from point A to point B. And it rehashes the same stories over and over. I get it, you managed to dump part of your losing business on EDS, a miracle coup, and then build up what was left into something you managed to stick HP with. It's hard to decide which is more painful, the repeating of these stories time and again, or the smug attitude about how he miraculously sold these major corporations a bill of goods for millions.
But even that aside, there are two affectations in this book that make it a painful read. Each chapter/section begins with some random quote from a rap/hip-hop music lyric. Most of those have literally nothing to do with the following material and feel just painfully tone deaf. It's only compounded by the fact that it's a british white guy quoting Kanye West .. ?? And the constant referral to the CEO as a "she" is just painful. It's so blatant, I found I spent most of the book wondering whether it was all "he" to begin with and the editor just did a "search and replace" or if the author was trying to be so PC that he strained to make every example a "she". Either way, it's just painful -- almost like he's talking down to potential women CEOs, and it eventually becomes insulting.
Finally, there's the title, which simply has nothing to do with the contents of the book. Yes, there's lots of good and valuable advice about being a leader and a CEO. But the presentation is so flawed as to make it not worth the effort. My advice to readers is to search out any number of other books on leadership and leave this one to fester on the shelves.
I knew this hybrid memoir and advice manual was different on page 20, when Horowitz writes: "We finished the third quarter of 2000 with $37 million in bookings--not the $100 million that we had forecast." These numbers are so huge, they sound fictional. His massive inter-business contracts and repeated fiscal brinksmanship resemble Jack Ryan adventures. I wondered how they'd reach neighborhood entrepreneurs seeking $30,000 for rent and payroll.
Then I realized: this business book sounds different because it is different. Some books aim for middle managers, people with limited authority but little power, and others offer moral framework without strategic guidance. Horowitz writes for CEOs, division heads, and other top-rank executives who make powerful decisions in essential isolation. Horowitz' intended audience has probably read innumerable books about how business should work; he illustrates how business really works.
That's good and bad. CEOs, venture capital entrepreneurs, and other soaring-eagle outliers are probably an underserved market. Middle managers generally have in-house mentors and have so many books written for them, they could get bulk-buying discounts at Books-A-Million. CEOs frequently have to re-invent the wheel, because only a handful ever exist at Horowitz's level. Horowitz steps into the mentor role, dispensing hard-won advice when every decision costs millions of dollars.
But CEOs at Horowitz's level remain rare for good reason. When he describes selling his corporation to a competitor, but retaining intellectual property rights, which he leases out for $30 million annually, he clearly operates a business model that only functions among the One Percent. Could you sell anything you made, but still own it, and license it back to your buyer? Unless you're a software cartel, everybody knows your answer.
Horowitz goes, with shocking haste, from saying something reasonable and necessary, to something so frankly stupid, I wonder if he's listening to himself. For instance, he discusses the CEO's importance in creating business culture. Managers should train their own workers at all levels, he says, including CEOs, because hands-on involvement optimizes productivity and employee retention. Essentially, Horowitz wants leaders to lead, not delegate glamorless basics onto subordinates. Huzzah!
Then he concedes business models so lopsided, even this English teacher turned forklift driver wondered how he could be so tone-deaf. Horowitz entered the tech startup business after the 2000 NASDAQ collapse Roto-Rootered the tech stock sector. He clearly thinks this makes him a bold maverick. Maybe. But his company, Loudcloud, made only one product, which only international mega-corporations and governments could afford. That's a weak foundation for an IPO.
Horowitz repeatedly discusses needing enterprise capital at Defense Department levels, then admits concentrating hundred-million-dollar ventures on only one customer. When that customer takes a $30 million bath, Horowitz must scramble for replacement finance. And I repeatedly pull my beard, screaming: "Diversify, dangit! You have one product, one customer, and one revenue stream; you're a deathtrap waiting to happen!"
Seriously. If naifs like me are catcalling your business model, you're in deep sewage.
Perhaps you've noticed my praise for Horowitz's book is vague, sweeping, and global. My condemnation runs very specific and detailed. There's a reason for that. Horowitz propounds principles I find downright admirable; but when the rubber meets the road, he doesn't honor his own precepts. His doctrines are bold, jargon-free, and exciting. His actions give me the willies. I don't know how to reconcile the gap.
I tried my best to like this book. Horowitz hides little moments of surprising candor and self-awareness like Easter eggs, and I briefly suspect he understands something other business writers miss. Then he apparently fails to notice the gaps between his precepts and his actions, or says something that makes me want a shower. Sadly, I think the rich are just different.
As someone who spent 20+ years in Silicon Valley, including both the dotcom boom and bust eras, I felt Ben's pain when I read this book. When the valley was flying high, it was really high. Spending was ridiculous. There was nothing "Lean" going on in start-ups. Money flowed like tap water...and went down the drain in much the same way. And then the bubble burst. Chaos and calamity was rampant.
Ben Horowitz not only weathered the storm, but he went public instead of going bankrupt. He turned a low of $0.37 a share into a $1.6B sale to HP. His stories of what he and the team went through, the excruciating decisions he had to make, and how he ended up winning (buying a company in order to keep a $20M deal with EDS)...an exceptional story.
So, the question is, how does his experience apply to those of us who are struggling with our own tech start-ups? While some of the advice was a bit preachy, what I like about Ben's advice is the brilliance of thought behind it. For instance, the Freaky Friday strategy. His Sales Engineering and Customer Service teams were at war. His flash of brilliance came from watching a movie on TV. He decided to permanently swap the responsibilities of the leads of the two organizations. What resulted was a fast understanding of the OTHER guy's issues...and a quick path to a mutually designed, collaborative solution. Brilliant.
Other pieces of advice flow to the heart of leadership. He has defined the job of the CEO and distilled it down to the essence of the job--for instance, making decisions in absence of all the data, having the courage to stand behind and in front of your decision, and being able to sell others on your decisions. Yes, there's much more to it than he flippantly states; but in essence, his success and his ballsy moves in the face of failure...I'll bite. However, is the advice really USEFUL? Can a leader in a company (or someone who aspires to be a leader in a business) really learn from lessons and advice in this book?
In this book, Ben put his thought processes on paper. Some were successful at teaching, including the process of screening and hiring a critical role--the VP of Sales. That concrete example was the most relevant--and potentially most critical--to those who are trying to glean lessons from this book. But for me, I just enjoyed the ability to delve into to the mind of a Valley vet who built something from nothing. His decision to sell LoudCloud and move to productizing Opsware was a lesson in understanding when it's time to pivot and how to get it done.
The one thing that just didn't ring true was Ben's use of the pronoun 'she' in describing a CEO's role and challenges. There was a recent article in Business Week that hit the nail on the head. In writing about a company and about experiences in the trenches where there were few--if any--women in top roles, it was a bit disingenuous to use 'she' when describing the leadership roles and practices. It just didn't ring true to me, and as a woman who has worked in male-dominated industries (including Telecom), I found that single slant to be a really weak attempt to be politically correct. I'd rather that Horowitz be real...it worked in the rest of the writing of his book.
All in all, I give THe Hard Thing About Hard Things a thumbs up. Enjoyable read, some flashes of brilliance, and some great stories. As a veteran of a start-up with a successful exit, I know how excruciating it can be. Making it out the other end in one piece (and in triumph), now that's a STORY.
on April 8, 2014
Why Buy It?
Its cool to have this item on your shelf. He's a famous guy in the startup world, the book is neat and collects all his major posts (Ben's Blog).
Why Not Buy It?
IMHO, there is absolutely nothing new in terms of content relative to his blog. So there is absolutely NO reason for you to pay 10 bucks (kindle edition) to re-read his best stuff; afterall, he himself chose to publish it all for free.
The biographical part, where he could have definitely added a bunch of new stuff/perspectives to people who admire him, is very short and tells very little about the stories of the companies where Ben has worked: few events are narrated in detail.
If you are interested in what is useful about Ben`s insights on management, read the posts below - they were basically reproduced to the letter on the book - in 10 minutes:
Programming Your Culture
One on One
Demoting A Loyal Friend
A Good Place to Work
The Freaky Friday Management Technique
Preparing To Fire an Executive
When Employees Misinterpret Managers
Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO
Titles and Promotions
Apart from that, I found the tone a bit off, as in "people sometimes regard me as a management guru" or something. Pointless and not worth it.
PS: My grading, of two stars, reviews the BOOK, the merit of him publishing a book on top of his public, free blog. I would rate his ideas 4-star, and his hip-hop lyric-quoting 5-star.
on November 21, 2014
Ben Horowitz is the founder of Andreessen Horowitz and Opsware, a company he flipped to HP. In his book, he goes over lessons he learned as CEO and a bit about his life story.
The fact that Opsware went from a valuation to $35MM to $1.6 billion is astonishing. For the most part, Horowitz had a terrible tenure at Opsware until the sale. He gives details about how to run a company, but it seems like something he was never good at. Most of his time at CEO was spent not sleeping, struggling, and losing large customers. You get the sense that Horowitz has a strong desire for struggle. Most of his days were spent sending emails with profanity to everyone, and freaking out non stop. I never got the image of him as a leader.
Nevertheless, will these lessons help you? Well if you're running a large, publicly traded firm, the answer is maybe. If you are in the tech field, maybe. If you are in any other small business or industry, the answer is no. The lessons only seem to apply to companies that are raising millions of dollars, or are venture-backed. This is common in Silicon Valley, but the majority or start ups aren't. Most companies are selling normal things to normal people--- not trying to 'put a dent in the universe' as people in the valley love to say.
Horowitz gets most of his ideas late at night watching movies, or listening to rap songs. Every chapter starts with a quote from a rap song. I think the lyrics have steeped into his unconscious somehow. I think it's incredible he turned around his company and started a prestigious venture capital firm. I just don't understand how he got there.
on March 9, 2014
Horowitz writes for startup CEOs who raise $20 or $40 million from top VCs. His own history, recounted in the book, shows just how irrelevant his own experience is to 99.9% of entrepreneurs.
This is a book for CEOs of VC-controlled startups. Its lessons are unlikely to apply to real businesses owned by--funded by--real entrepreneurs.
What makes sense for High Finance Entrepreneurship is usually suicidal for 99% of real businesses. VCs make their money by funding and promoting aggressively, and they don't care about losses. That's a luxury Main Street entrepreneurs cannot afford.
Finally, I would urge readers to be cautious of any advice given by a VC. It's typically self-serving and cannot be trusted.
I highly recommend spending time reading Michael Church's essays on VCs and VC-backed startups.
We're in Bubble 2.0. Guys like Horowitz become celebs so long as the bubble lasts.
In five years I cannot imagine this flimsy book being bought by anyone.
My background: I've been a VC and led two VC-backed software companies. Multiple exits, high IRRs.
on May 23, 2014
Ben starts the book with insight into his own upbringing and it's engaging. But by the second or third chapter he's out of gas and resorts to rehashing every management book he's read -- including Andy Grove's -- into a mish-mash of generalizations that really don't help someone build a business.
Also, if you read Ben's blog or other info he comes across as egotistical. Maybe it's the way he writes but I find it overbearing and not helpful to really build my own business.
Further, if you've ever dealt with Andreessen Horowitz the venture capital firm it's just like many others: big hats and a few cattle. In other words, pretentious and self-important to the point of nausea.
Historically speaking, Loudcloud was a great idea that Ben gave up on too early. Yes, they sold Opsware to HP after some near-death experiences, but that doesn't mean it was the larger opportunity.
Had Loudcloud delivered on the vision it could have been along the size of Salesforce.com ... which is $30 billion market value today.
on January 29, 2015
Absolutely nothing special, or even particularly useful, about this book. It is highly relevant to . . . the author. There are so many thousands of how-to books, leadership/teamwork books, investment books out there, most of which offer at least some analysis. This is just another "diary-of-my success" book.
on May 16, 2015
- “There is no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations.”
- “… the most important rule of raising money privately: Look for a market of one.”
- “… whenever a large organization attempts to do anything, it always comes down to a single person who can delay the entire project.”
- “In my weekly staff meeting, I inserted an agenda item titled ‘What are we not doing?’”
- “Early in my career as an engineer, I’d learned that all decision were objective until the first line of code was written. After that, all decision were emotional.”
- “CEOs should tell it like it is.”
- “A healthy company culture encourages people to share bad news.”
- Hire for strengths rather than for lack of weakness.
- “There is no such thing as a great CEO, a great head of marketing, or a great head of sales. There is only a great head of sales for your company for the next twelve to twenty-four months.”
- “Take care of the people, the products, and the profits – in that order… Taking care of the people means that your company is a good place to work… In good organizations, people can focus on their work and have confidence that if they get their work done, good things will happen for both the company and them personally.”
- “Most managers seem to feel that training employees is a job that should be left to others. I, on the other hand, strongly believe that the manager should do it himself.”
- “Take your best people and encourage them to share their most developed skills.”
- Good product managers know (a) the market, (b) the product, (c) the competition, (d) the target outcome, (e) how to communicate verbally and in writing to engineering, (f) how to give information formally and get information informally, (g) customers, (h) revenue, (i) send weekly status reports, (j) respect the press and ask them great questions.
- “Look for candidates who come in with more new initiatives than you think are possible.”
- “A high quality human resources organization cannot make you a well-managed company with a great culture, but it can tell you when you and your managers are not getting the job done.”
- “Political behavior almost always starts with the CEO. Apolitical CEOs frequently – and accidentally – encourage intense political behavior.”
- “The right kind of ambition is ambition for the company’s success with the executive’s own success only coming as a by-product of the company’s victory.”
- “Build strict processes for potentially political issues… including: performance evaluation and compensation, organization design and territory, promotions.”
“While I’ve seen executives improve their performance and skill sets, I’ve never seen one lose the support of the organization and then regain it.”
- “The proper reason to hire a senior person is to acquire knowledge and experience in a specific area.”
- “Absent a well-designed communication architecture, information and ideas will stagnate, and your company will degenerate into a bad place to work.”
- “Perks are good, but they are not culture.”
- “The first rule of organization design is that all organizational designs are bad.” “You want to optimize the organization for the people… not the managers.”
- “… assume that people have good intentions unless they prove otherwise.”
- “the most important lesson in entrepreneurship: Embrace the struggle.”
I've seen other critiques of this book that the audience is narrow, more for CEOs of large companies (referred to, in a few reviews, as the 1 percent). Having been a department-head executive for a $10 billion business unit, I can say that technically, in terms of numbers, that level was the top one percent, but certainly not the 1 percent in the salary context of reviews. So, I'm not sure I'd disagree with some view of the "1 percent," but this book isn't for CEOs (only).
But, I'd compare this to a book by Jack Welch or Harvey Mackey. This book is an interesting spin by Ben Horowitz, but I don't think it provides practical advice. It's interesting to see how he handled different situations, and why he did it, but this is more of a memoire than anything--an old timer telling his yarns, basically.
There's a place for books like this. It's not an especially memorable place, but a fine place for an airplane read.