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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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“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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It is probably even more narrow: CEOs of venture capital or public TECH companies IN THE SILICON VALLEY IN CALIFORNIA. The advice is very specific to Silicon Valley culture and a specific job in that culture. I’ve worked in Silicon Valley for 20+ years as an engineer and founded my own tech startup 2 years ago, yet this book still does not apply to me because I do not have the exact job described in this book.
That being said, the book made a lot sense, seemed to cover new ground (especially CEO psychology and emotions) and was a quick read. It’s a must-read for the 500 CEOs or so that it’s intended for. My one doubt is that “Is It Okay To Hire From Your Friend’s Company?” is probably illegal in California.
I got this book on the recommendation from Jumpcut Viral Academy and they should not have recommended it nor do I recommend that others read it. It’s simply not applicable nor useful to non-CEOs. But it’s easy to be star-struck by the author and inappropriately recommend this book as something that it is not. It’s an “already CEO” guide, not about self motivation, not about how to get promoted to CEO, not how to help your CEO, not how to be a VP, not how to network, not how to get funding, not how to start a business and on and on.
“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.
Horowitz gives advice to entrepreneurs. And it is not business school-like advice indeed. “People often ask me how we’ve managed to work efficiently across three companies over eighteen years. Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship. With Marc and me, even after eighteen years, he upsets me almost every day by finding something wrong with my thinking, and I do the same for hi. It works.”
I began my review by quoting the first page. I will quote here with his final page: “Hard things are hard because there are no easy answers or recipes. They are hard because your emotions are at odds with your logic. They are hard because you don’t know the answer and you cannot ask for help without showing weakness. When I first became a CEO, I genuinely thought that I was the only one struggling. Whenever I spoke to other CEOs, they all seemed like they had everything under control. Their businesses were always going “fantastic” and their experience was inevitably “amazing”. But as I watched my peers’ fantastic, amazing businesses go bankrupt and sell for cheap, I realized I was probably not the only one struggling.” […] “Embrace your weirdness, your background, your instinct. If the keys are not there, they do not exist.”
The book is not an easy read. So you may not enjoy the book if you do not need to apply it now. Still it is a great book.
Top international reviews
1 - Almost all the advice provided here is for C-Suite, or perhaps exclusively CEO. Corporate boardroom, shareholders, directors bonuses, right person for the right job... I found it fascinating to read about things like the personality qualities the author looks for or assumes in a CEO fit, but I feel for a lot of people this information will simply not be applicable to their day to day. Certainly there wasn't much I could draw into my day to day.
2- The books referred to throughout by the author, by the likes of Andy Grove and Peter Thiel, are in my opinion far more useful - more game-changing insights
Maybe it's just because I'm not a C-suite director or a business founder that I can't appreciate the value of the advice... certainly I appreciate the honesty of the author and their willingness to call out what they see as corporate BS, but I found myself putting it down at 50%, 70%, 80%, picking up later, forging on, and still not feeling I was getting much from the read.
So perhaps it has some redeeming features, but I'm quite happy not knowing what they are.
The book seems to be a self-congratulatory lap of honour in which the author demonstrates that he is the most non-racist, inclusivistic, non-judgmental person who has ever lived. He bludgeons us through the taxonomies of his various sets of friends, almost all of whom have some claim or other to minorityship which he just *has* to mention, whilst systematically pick-axing his prose to death with the Cultural Marxist "she" when what he means is "he" (or – if you must – "they"). It's just irritating.
I have never met this man. But I have met enough people like him to know that I don't want to hear any more of what he has to say about himself.
I'm happy for him that he manages to fire his friends *and* sleep well at night. I'm happy for him that he loves himself so much he just had to write an entire book about what a fabulous fellow he is. The problem is that I simply don't feel that anyone who is as eager as he is to cram his credentials of conventionality down my throat by endorsing every single point of what happens to be Politically Correct this week can genuinely have any balls.
Ergo, he isn't a leader.
Ergo, this isn't what it claims to be: a book about leadership.
1. I recently met an ex-colleague, whose founded and runs a business now valued over a couple of billion dollars. He like the author said that we just kept on going through tough times. As Winston Churchill also said, when in hell keep going. And as the author says, if you play long enough, you may get lucky.
2. Focus on exploiting your strengths more than in ensuring that there are no weaknesses
3. Sometimes the things that you are not doing should be the things that you should be doing.
4. Looking at worlds from different prisms, helps separate facts from perception or shall we say fiction.
5. In war time, just play to survive, kill and win i.e., know what needs to be done and focus on getting it done. Alignment of all with the strategy and tactics is very important.
6. If you are a thinker, get people who can get things done. My father used to say that most executive often knew how to get things done, however if they also knew what to do, then they would be more effective.
7. In business if you need to find an answer, you got to find it irrespective of odds of finding it.
8. Importance of training your people and integrating them. As i was old over a quarter of a century ago in an interview, you need to train your staff from day one.
There are of course other lessons too, like when should you sell your company, how should organisation culture be deigned, how should a founder deal with simple things like title or avoid the organisation becoming political, etc. I am sure, depending on where you are and what your challenges are, you will have a different take.
A good book to read for entreprenuers, for people charting their own courses. I give it my highest recommendation.
Written by the well known Ben Horowitz (VC of FB, Airbnb, Pinterest, Twitter), this is Ben's narration as a HARDCORE entrepreneur.
What I LOVE about the book:
- There is no black or white in the world of startup entrepreneurship. It's always a shade of grey.
- The roller coaster ride of an entrepreneur & how SIMILAR it feels to all our journeys. This book is a GREAT leveller 🙂
- Profanity is a mindset. Ben narrates how he handles it (also mentioning its purpose)
- Co-Founder relationship management!
- The constant dread of shutting down / going bankrupt and how the single pointed agenda of SURVIVING pulled Ben and his Company through until stardom.
- When to use statistics and when to use calculus 🙂
- The incredible story of Go. (second time I read this)
- The CHALLENGES of 'getting big Co execs into small Cos"!
- NEVER 'overcompensating' employees
"There were plenty of companies in the '90s that had launch parties but not landing parties" 🙂
"Play long enough ... so that you might get lucky"
MUST READ (once a year)
The first half of the book mainly covers Horowitz's back story and it takes a while for anything of real value to be mentioned. By the halfway mark though the book offers plenty of bookmark-worthy snippets of advice which should be relevant to anyone who is looking to develop a career in leadership.
It's very likely I will be referring to this book again in the future.
Q: How many Vietnam (or your era’s conflict of attrition) vets does it take to change a lightbulb ?
A: YOU DON'T KNOW! YOU WEREN'T THERE, MAN!! YOU'LL NEVER KNOW!!!
The engaging back story provides rich context and the apparently honest analysis has helped me better understand some of the bizarre leadership behaviours I have observed, and my own mistakes.
”there’s no recipe for motivating teams when your business has turned to crap.”
This book should help you empathise with and support a leader, or better manage your own issues. Whilst the focus is on start-up to scale-up, much of it is relevant to corporate environments.
Hi Sam - I have been meaning to tell you but we have not 'bumped' into each other recently. Thank you for your book recommendation of 'The Hard Thing about the Hard Things'.
Ben Horowitz managed to navigate and articulate what can be a very complicated world so well and a lot of what he said resonated with me.
One of many highlights was:
"In the technology business, you rarely know everything up front. The difference between being mediocre and magical is often the difference between letting people take creative risk and holding them too tightly accountable. Accountability is important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important."
So, thank you!
For content, I personally 100% love the first part about his entrepreneurial history and the challenges he has experienced as CEO of his various companies.
Then the second part, although full of common sense and very interesting, less touch me because it is addressed to the managers or CEO of large companies. Being a small business director, these chapters were less interesting.
But for a manager or CEO of a startup or larger company, this book will be useful to every page.
This personal account, describing a succession of challenges, failures, the lessons learned, and the application of those lessons to drive eventual wild success is both engaging and substantive.
A very odd business book - a can’t-put-it-down page-turner.