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Book review – The Hard Thing About Hard Things


In this book, Ben Horowitz takes us through the creation, the struggle and the sale of his innovative cloud business Loudcloud, and the transformation of his business to Opsware following the sale of its major assets.

Ben’s company went from being worth nothing to being worth hundreds of millions of dollars, to being worth virtually nothing, only to come back and eventually sell the business to HP for $1.6 billion.

As a startup founder who went through difficult times, I sympathise with Ben’s story and find listening to Ben absolutely fascinating. Ben truly went through some tough times, made some crazy calls and eventually prevailed.

Interesting thoughts

  • You should invest in training your employees, and you should train them yourself. It is easy to use the excuse of being too busy to do the training yourself. However, Ben argues that the time spent will be rewarded many times over as this helps build culture and sets expectations. The average employee, he argues, will spend 20,000 hours of work each year for your company. There is no investment that will make a bigger impact to productivity.

  • Don’t hire executives based on how you think the company will be like in 1 year. Hire someone for the stage that your company is at now. Hopefully they will grow to where your company will eventually be in one year. If you hire an executive with experience of bigger organisation, they will be used to managing a lot of incoming communications. In a startup, if you don’t go out proactively, there are no inbound communication.

  • A great CEO will be able to manage both peace and war times. She will adapt her strategy and even her use of profanity accordingly. When your very existence is at risk, there is no place for feel-good politics, everyone needs to rally behind the goal of saving the company and doing what it takes.

An amazing idea

Ben describes a time when two senior executives that had to work together daily had a very tensed relationship. This was having an adverse effect on the business. To resolve the situation, he informed them that they would be switching role starting tomorrow – permanently. After a week in the job they realised what the problems were and designed processes to address the issue. From then on, they worked together extremely well.

Memorable quotes

  • Michael: “Well, boys, if you are going to have a dog race, then you are going to need a rabbit. And Oracle will be one hell of a rabbit.”

  • I called an all engineering meeting and gave the following speech: “I have some bad news. We are getting our asses kicked by BladeLogic and it’s a product problem. If this continues, I am going to have to sell the company for cheap. There is no way for us to survive if we don’t have the winning product. So, I am going to need every one of you to do something. I need you to go home tonight and have a serious conversation with your wife, husband, significant other, or whoever cares most about you and tell them, ‘Ben needs me for the next six months.’ I need you to come in early and stay late. I will buy you dinner, and I will stay here with you. Make no mistake, we have one bullet left in the gun and we must hit the target.”

  • As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage. Sometimes only the founder has the courage to ignore the data

  • Take care of the people, the product, and the profits – in that order

  • There are no great executives. There are only executives that are great for a particular company at a particular time.

  • Don’t punk out and don’t quit. Don’t focus on the 1000 things that can go wrong. Focus on the road ahead, not the wall. Great CEOs face the pain, the cold sweats and sleepless nights.

  • Great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent on their answers when asked about what made them great. They say “I did not quit”.

Conclusion

This book is a marvel and I believe that interiorising these stories will definitely make me stronger next time I am faced with problems.

If you are going through some tough times with your business, this book is truly inspiring and will give you some serious fighting spirit!

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