I am late to reading Ben Horowitz’s well-received book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The book was originally published in March, 2014, but I’m glad I made time to read it and highly recommend it to others.
“Hard Things” is a fast read and is useful for anyone interested in learning about how management, and more specifically, how Silicon Valley companies work.
Horowitz’s idea is to write a management book that covers everything that most management books would never cover: the messy, hard stuff.
The book is a series of real-life stories — some had previously made their way into Horowitz’s blog — from the author’s time as CEO of Loudcloud. The company later morphed into Opsware before it was sold to Hewlett-Packard in 1997 for $1.6 billion.
Opsware is a useful setting for stories about the grimy inner workings of a software company for two reasons. First, most people have never heard of Opsware nor used the product. Second, Opsware was not the instant rocket ship style company that usually merits someone deciding the journey was worthy of writing a book.
Opsware was in trouble multiple times and in multiple ways from start to finish — a true, and often harrowing, roller coaster. In that sense, its much more like a day-to-day software or Web company than what many people usually imagine about working at a place like Google or Facebook. Startups are usually hard and most die.
Horowitz is an engaging story-teller (check his hilarious take on his Berkeley High School football coach) and he imparts many practical business lessons throughout: how to fire someone, how to have a meaningful one on one meeting with a direct report, and how to hire an executive to work for you as your company grows are just some examples of useful advice explained in the form of real-world stories.
But my favorite, and in my mind the most useful part of the book, is actually infused throughout — it’s the drop-dead honest and simple way Horowitz has of communicating. You get a sense for this when you read his take on specific stories and he quotes himself. But you also see it in-between the stories in terms of how basic thoughts are conveyed. Simple.
Use. As little. Words. As possible. Say exactly what you mean.
Take this example from the story about Horowitz trying to hire a VP of Sales into his struggling company. He has someone he thinks is fantastic in mind, but this person is apparently a little odd. So board members plus Chairman and co-founder Mark Andreessen are taking issue. The potential hire doesn’t look right. He went to a small school, and he has an off way about him. Horowitz listens and then makes a short, clear case:
“I agree with every single one of those issues. However, Mark Cranney is a sales savant. He has mastered sales to a level that far exceeds anybody that I have ever known. If he didn’t have the things wrong with him that you enumerated, he wouldn’t be willing to join a company that just traded at thirty-five cents per share; he’d be the CEO of IBM.”
Boom. Simple. This candidate has some issues, but he is exactly what we need right now and oh by the way — lets get real, we are not exactly playing from a position of strength. Imagine instead how that statement gets mangled buy someone who is either not clear about exactly what he (or she) thinks or not willing to just state it:
“Hmmmmm. You have some good points, there. Really. You do. This guy has some positive points, but we’re all agreed we need the best possible hire. I guess I need to take another look at this situation with that in mind and report back to the board in 30 days.”
That statement there is a recipe for delay and then losing the candidate to top it off.
THAT, in the end, is the most valuable message of The Hard Thing About Hard Things. There are some useful, tactical lessons there to be sure. But really, it’s about communicating with little wasted language or B.S. This is not about being belligerent — just, well, straight. Take the time to know what you think and then say EXACTLY that.
Doing so saves time and builds trust, both of which most startups are short on and desperately need.