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The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers Hardcover – March 4, 2014
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*Starred Review* It’s fairly evident that this is a collection of blogs, loosely strung together, united in their varied perspectives on start-ups, CEO-dom, and business in general. Though Horowitz is a cofounder of Andreessen Horowitz and his credentials reside mainly in Silicon Valley, he’s imparted some valuable insight on hard lessons learned that apply to any manager, whether in the executive suite or not. As with most experiential books, it is all about him—but it’s written in such an engaging and universally acceptable manner that no one could object. Leave aside his background, for the moment. Who would realize, for instance, that executives worry about things like initiating layoffs, hiring the right people, training, and minimizing politics, among others? It’s a refreshingly honest take, and his colorful (and, yes, profanity-laced) language breaks down any other misperceptions about the role and the person. Plus, his imagination is compelling, such as the comparisons between peacetime and wartime CEOs: Peacetime CEO always has a contingency plan. Wartime CEO knows that sometimes you gotta roll a hard six. After all, the success equation is easy: the hard thing is getting it done. --Barbara Jacobs
“More than any other business book released this year, “Hard Things” gives an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to lead and scale a startup.” (--Business Insider's Best Business Books of 2014)
“This is easily one of the essential books every business leader should read if they’re looking for proven and honest management advice.” (--Entrepreneur's 25 Amazing Business Books from 2014)
“The most valuable book on startup management hands down” (PandoDaily)
“There is more than enough substance in Mr. Horowitz’s impressive tome to turn it into a leadership classic.” (The Economist)
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Top Customer Reviews
“Almost all management books focus on how to do things correctly, so you don’t screw up, these lessons provide insight into what you must do after you have screwed up.”
If you’re planning to start a company, whether it’s a high-tech company or the kinds of companies that I started and ran, read this book. If you’re going to be someone in charge of anything in any kind of a company, read this book.
If all you want are the big ideas, or Horowitz’ philosophy, you can get them from his blog and articles. You don’t need to buy this book. But if you want a handy advisor for that 3 AM moment when you’re thinking about firing someone you like, buy the book. Keep it handy. I’ve had those moments and I wish I’d had it.
The Hard Thing About Hard Things has a whole lot of information packed inside it. You can read it from cover to cover and get a lot of value. Or, you can think of it as a series of conversations with bosses and mentors. Horowitz had a lot of those. And his mentors included people like Andy Grove and Jim Barksdale.
The wisdom that he shares and credits to them, reminds me of the wisdom that I received from bosses and mentors and which I later shared with protégés. It’s real, it’s practical, and it will help. I think that the discussion of things like firing and laying people off are more than worth the price of the book by themselves. And they’re only a small part of what’s in The Hard Thing About Hard Things.
Here are a few quotes from the book to give you an idea of what you’re in for. You don’t have to be a CEO to use what’s here, even though Horowitz aims the book at CEOs. Substitute “leader” for “CEO” in most quotes and use the wisdom.
Quotes from The Hard Thing About Hard Things
“That’s the hard thing about hard things— there is no formula for dealing with them.”
“People always ask me, ‘What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?’ Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO.”
“Don’t take it personally. The predicament that you are in is probably all your fault. You hired the people. You made the decisions. But you knew the job was dangerous when you took it. Everybody makes mistakes. Every CEO makes thousands of mistakes. Evaluating yourself and giving yourself an F doesn’t help.”
“One of the most important management lessons for a founder/ CEO is totally unintuitive. My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.”
“Management purely by numbers is sort of like painting by numbers— it’s strictly for amateurs.”
“The first rule of organizational design is that all organizational designs are bad.”
“Embrace the struggle.”
There are plenty more in The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers.
That’s because it’s funny, to-the-point, and way more well-informed by real-world experience than most books that give advice ever are.
Like the secret to being a successful CEO: “Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves.”
And, “Managers must lay off their own people. They cannot pass the task to HR or to a more sadistic peer.”
And, “The job of a big company executive is very different from the job of a small company executive…big company executives tend to be interrupt-driven. In contrast, when you are a startup, nothing happens unless you make it happen.”
But it’s not just catchy phrases and aphorisms that make the book something pretty much anybody who wants to build a company should read, it’s the experience that created them: Horowitz provides in brutal (and, for aspiring entrepreneurs, invaluable) detail the excruciating real-life experiences behind the advice, from his years as a Silicon Valley engineer and then as the CEO of a start-up with more near-death experiences than Keith Richards before its successful sale to HP.
Like how to fire people. What to say at the “all-hands” when you just had your first layoffs. What to tell an employee who asks if the company is being sold when it is being sold, but not yet. Why every company needs a “story,” and what makes a great company story (hint: see the letter Jeff Bezos wrote to Amazon shareholders in 1997.) When not to listen to your board. Even, literally, what questions a CEO should ask a prospect being considered for the key, all-important job in any start-up: head of sales.
I'm not a fan of “how-to” books, particularly those concerned with managing people, because they tend to be heavy on theory and light on reality, but the chapter emphatically titled “WHY YOU SHOULD TRAIN YOUR PEOPLE" proved the value of the author's experience because it explains the trap in which an engineer I know happens to find himself.
He is a software engineer for a start-up that was acquired by a large, fast-growing Silicon Valley company whose name rhymes with “Shalesforce.com.”
He is smart, highly motivated, eager to learn, and yet he is miserable at his job for precisely the reason Horowitz spells out as follows in “WHY YOU SHOULD TRAIN YOUR PEOPLE”:
“Often founders start companies with visions of elegant, beautiful product architectures that will solve so many of the nasty issues that they were forced to deal with in their previous jobs. Then, as their company becomes successful, they find that their beautiful product architecture has turned into a Frankenstein. How does this happen? As success drives the need to hire new engineers at a rapid rate, companies neglect to train the new engineers properly. As the engineers are assigned tasks, they figure out how to complete them as best they can. Often this means replicating existing facilities in the architecture, which leads to inconsistencies in the user experience, performance problems, and a general mess. And you thought training was expensive.”
That line is the exact truth. Just ask the engineer at Shalesforce.com. His managers—if they exist—ought to read this book.
In fact, anybody who wants to start a company, or work for a company, or build a company, or invest in a company, ought to read this book, because that’s not the only hard-learned truth in here.
Some others include:
“In high-tech companies, fraud generally starts in sales due to managers attempting to perfect the ultimate local optimization [i.e. optimize their own incentive pay].”
“The Law of Crappy People states: For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title.”
“The world is full of bankrupt companies with world-class cultures. Culture does not make a company…. Perks are good, but they are not culture.”
“Nobody comes out of the womb knowing how to manage a thousand people. Everybody learns at some point.”
“The first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.”
And maybe the best of all, because it encapsulates so much of what the book is about: “Tip to aspiring entrepreneurs: If you don’t like choosing between horrible and cataclysmic, don’t become CEO.”
This book, on the other hand, is a choice between good and great, so read it.
Author “Secrets in Plain Sight: Business and Investing Secrets of Warren Buffett”
(eBooks on Investing, 2013) $4.99 Kindle Version at Amazon.com
This book is not for the faint hearted for sure, and not everybody will be able to relate to it. Most of the things didn't make sense to me because I haven't been in those kind of situations in my life that Ben (and perhaps every CEO) has been through. Although Ben has repeatedly emphasized that there are no readymade answers to difficult problems that one faces in her professional career, he has pretty much laid out the blueprint for dealing with the typical challenges.
I am sure it will strike a chord with everyone who is an aspiring CEO or somebody who is already going through the grind. I think the book will stay in my bookshelf until life throws me in to "CEO situation" and then I will surely come back to pick the nuggets of wisdom lying all around in this book.