The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz, HarperBusiness, 304 pages, $29.99, Hardcover, March 2014, ISBN 9780062273208
Imagine you were going to bake something. You had never baked it before but from what you heard of the dish, it sounded delicious. You couldn’t wait to get started. The problem? There was no recipe available.
This is often the case in business. It can be difficult enough to know all the ingredients you need to make the business successful, but the truly difficult thing is how to deal with having all those things—a strong team, employee retention, realistic sales goals, long-term strategy, etc—once you’re thrust into a business climate that you can’t set as you do your oven.
Ben Horowitz has been there. He’s been there in ways most of us (hopefully) will never have to. And so he’s written a book called, The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. In it, he tells tales from his time at Netscape and its transformation, the subsequent companies he co-founded and led, and in each, there’s a level of stress even in the words on the page that will leave readers in a sweat. Here’s a sample from his early days as CEO of Loudcloud:
The road show was brutal. The stock market crashed daily, and technology stocks were to blame. Investors looked like they’d come out of torture chambers when we arrived. One mutual fund manager looked right at Marc [Andreessen] and me and asked, “Why are you here? Do you have any idea what’s going on in the world?” I thought there was no way we’d be able to raise the money. We were going to go bankrupt for sure. I did not sleep for more than two hours during that entire three-week trip.
The first quarter of the book is filled with these kinds of stories, reading almost like some kind of horrifying adventure novel; the act of laying off hundreds of employees, insane public offering debacles, and more. The good news is that the rest of the book reveals the lessons he learned from these experiences, not just about “how to start a company” or “how to be better at something” but really how anyone can actually deal with what’s involved in either of those scenarios. From management, hiring executives, and firing people to programming culture, scaling a company successfully, and understanding fear and courage, this is the kind of book all leaders should read and understand.
Running a company is crazy, hard work—a constantly shifting game that consumes people to the point of making decisions difficult, if not impossible. For those looking to start a business, this is essential reading. For those running a business, it contains critical reminders and insight. For everyone else that is interested in how business works, it’s one of the better books you’ll ever read. It’s a few hundred invaluable pages with info that, very likely, no one else ever told you.
The ultimate takeaway is in Horowitz’s keen observation about the most successful CEOs being resilient, in spite of how difficult the job can be. And maybe, there’s a lesson for all of us in this statement:
The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say, “I didn’t quit.”