Hard Things

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers. A young, first-time entrepreneur CEO recently reminded me of this gem. There isn’t a better operating manual for the rough-and-tumble of starting up a company, clawing a way to survival, and (if you’re lucky) thriving. The reminder is timely, as Ben Horowitz has a second book coming out this month.

The hard thing is…

“The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. . . . The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within an organization you’ve just designed. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.”

Management books, Horowitz observes, tend to be written by management consultants who study successful companies at times of peace — when companies enjoy a big competitive advantage and solid growth — and other than books written by Andy Grove (Intel), there are none for managing in wartime — when a company is fighting for its very existence. And, these books tend to prescribe “recipes for challenges that have no recipes. . . . That’s the hard thing about hard things — there is no formula for dealing with them.”

A successful CEO, Horowitz co-founded and ran a cloud services-turned-enterprise software company that was sold to HP in 2007 for $1.7 billion after a harrowing journey. (He estimates he spent about three days as a peacetime CEO and eight years as a wartime CEO). Before that, he worked at Netscape with Marc Andreeseen who he teamed up in 2009 to found Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley VC force backing the likes of Airbnb, LYFT, and Pinterest. Inspired by hip-hop and rap music and artists, and coming from communist grandparents and David Horowitz, his Marxist-turned-conservative think tank father, you could say his perspective is unique.

The book is a compilation of years of popular blogs dispensing management advice and experience, along with an intense re-telling of Horowitz’ CEO days. It delivers so many head-nodders, readers can get a sore neck. While it’s written for entrepreneur CEOs, the lessons have meaning for all of us. It’s in my top five, and I’m reminded why each time I recommend it.

Take care of the people, the products, and the profits — in that order

“‘Taking care of the people’ is the most difficult of the three by far and if you don’t do it, the other two won’t matter.” Horowitz breaks down hiring, firing, titles, promotions, training, scaling, organizational design, and building culture into their basic elements. He goes underneath the surface of biz-speak to provide common-sense, actionable, war-tested advice for leaders. Beginners can follow along step-by-step while experienced leaders can gain fresh perspectives. He debunks maxim after maxim: “don’t bring me a problem without bringing me a solution.” If an employee can’t solve a problem, do you really want to keep them from airing it?

When things fall apart, and leading when you don’t know where you’re going

The realities of running a wartime enterprise mean you’re building the plane as you’re flying it, and odds are things will fall apart along the way. Horowitz provides general advice on being a CEO: telling it like it is when things go south, how to lay off people with respect, and importantly, he shines a light on the emotional toll “the Struggle” takes on leaders (from Karl Marx’ “life is struggle”). He offers “some stuff that may or may not help.”I think his “stuff” helps.

Up next: What You Do is Who You Are

The challenge of building good cultures in companies, as evidenced in recent high-profile messes, along with his view that popular advice is wrong-headed, compelled Horowitz to write What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture, coming out this month. “To Horowitz, culture is how a company makes decisions. It is the set of assumptions employees use to resolve everyday problems: should I stay at the Red Roof Inn, or the Four Seasons? Should we discuss the color of this product for five minutes or thirty hours? If culture is not purposeful, it will be an accident or a mistake.” Drawing from not-your-usual historical models and his own experience, Horowitz provides advice for how to methodically set culture by answering the fundamental questions: “Who are we? How do people talk about us when we’re not around? How do we treat our customers? Are we there for people in a pinch? Can we be trusted?”

Sunday Morning Reflection

“Taking care of the people” and answering the fundamental questions above apply to companies, and to us. Good questions to ask ourselves!

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