Book Notes: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

There are a lot of books out there about operating a startup and I think you can learn a ton from most of them. Each book serves a different purpose and each author has a different story to tell. The books that I tend to gravitate toward are the ones where the author has the most interesting story and does their best to give gritty, interesting, and realistic details about their journey.

Enter: The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz.

There aren’t many Silicon Valley sovereigns who have a more interesting story than Horowitz. In the Hard Things, he walks you through his upbringing and how he got into the wonderful world of technology startups and venture capital. Horowitz also has an interesting turn of phrase, specifically addressing why he talks the way he talks and swears so much (and why you should / shouldn’t curse at the office). There are a lot of interesting people in VC, but there aren’t a ton who can capture an imagination the way that BH does. It sounds simple and stupid, but it’s fun to learn from somebody so entertaining.

One particularly interesting detail from Horowitz’s book is the story about how he came from a communist-affiliated family and turned into such a hardcore capitalist. There is also the story about how he was determined to play football in an anti-football town like Berkeley, California. Horowitz is the type of person who clearly wants to do something and doesn’t care if that objective flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Like many entrepreneurs I have met, they are inherently positioned to question authority and ask “why” when confronted with universally accepted norms. (If you are looking for further evidence of this phenomenon, I invite you to meet my mother, Betsy Schmidt.)

But Horowitz isn’t just one of those guys who is convinced he is right about everything and wants to you know about it. He does a wonderful job in this book telling you about some of his bone-headed mistakes, slip-ups, and wrong turns. I firmly believe that life is all about the mistakes you make and what you learn from them. As the title would suggest, Horowitz has a similar belief and wants the reader to know that success is a very difficult process. It’s not glamorous and sexy, but instead a grind and can be painful.

There are a handful of other lessons / anecdotes / weird things that I want to highlight about the book.

  1. Take Care of the People, the Products & The Profits, in that order - Ben makes a big point of explaining that Companies succeed when their people succeed. Everything is a result of the hard work and determination of a startup’s employees. CEO’s and startup leaders need to focus on fostering an environment that encourages employees to take leadership and ownership in what they do. Leaders need to fight against political infighting and caustic structures that pit employees against each other. Leaders also need to train their employees because good training is how companies can build for long term success. Good training leads to better retention, improved work productivity, improved work product, and can help lead to better management. When a manager trains their subordinate, then they will both be on a similar page about expectations and find it easier to communicate.

  2. Pay close attention to the metrics you set - as an amateur economist, I always try and remind myself that incentives pretty much drive everything. The trick as a VC is trying to really understand those incentives. Horowitz makes a great point that one of the key incentives in any organization is driving towards metrics. It makes a lot of sense - when you set various metrics that a team will be judge on, they are going to act in the interest of achieving those metrics. So don’t be surprised when folks starting acting differently in response to a new metric.

  3. Eventually, people need to know who is who - make sure that you set clear boundaries in your business. Companies are a serious of decisions and having a clear organizational structure helps make better decisions. This doesn’t stop at internal decision making either - external partners will be able to better understand your employees’ roles and how to work with them if they better understand their titles. Even if you have a fairly flat organization, make sure your employees have good titles that explain what they do, even to the untrained eye.

  4. Techniques to calm you nerves - Being a CEO is very hard. Even working with startups can be very hard. It’s important that you find ways to calm your nerves and relax. If you are wired 24/7, you will eventually burn out, and that’s not good for anybody. I firmly believe that you need to take care of yourself if you want to take care of anybody else. Horowitz three suggestions are: make some friends, write down your thoughts, and focus on the road not the wall. I believe in all three, but I am (obviously) a big fan of writing things down. If something seems stressful or you can’t figure out some riddle or solve some problem, write it down. When you let things float around in your head and don’t organize your thoughts, that’s when you can get yourself in big time trouble.

I definitely recommend you read it for yourself, assuming you are comfortable with the crass language and are willing to keep an open mind. I wouldn’t take the entire book as gospel, but I do think it will help generate some deep thought.

Peter G Schmidt