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The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz.
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Ben Horowitz isn’t impressed with most business books. Most of what they discuss—setting audacious goals, constructing a winning strategy, building a cheerful culture—isn’t the hard part of building a company. The hard part is firing your friends when they no longer fit your company’s goals, it’s staring at impending bankruptcy and throwing your hail mary to save the company.

Most business books try to give a recipe for success, but “the hard thing about hard things” is that there is no recipe for those hard situations. This book is a collection of advice and first-hand experiences to help company operators deal with the hard times.

Ben Horowitz began his career at the dawn of the Internet, working at browser and server company Netscape before it sold to America Online. He then co-founded Loudcloud, a cloud computing company, at the height of the bubble in 1999. As the bubble crashed, the company faced an endless series of existential crises, from running out of money to having their largest customers go bankrupt to facing tough competition. Ultimately, he pulled the business around (which had rebranded as Opsware) and sold to HP for $1.6 billion in 2007.

This grueling experiences led him to do two things:

  1. Co-found the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which aimed to serve founders like no other VC firm before it.
  2. Write this book to share the major lessons he’d learned in the trenches.

The book covers a wide span of topics, including handling the psychology of a failing company, building a good place to work, scaling a company, and being a good CEO.

The Struggle

Most people start their companies with boundless enthusiasm. The sky is open, the possibilities are endless, and success is inevitable.

Then reality hits. Your plans have not lived up to their promise. You don’t have the traction you hoped for. Things seem to be unraveling. Your key first hires start leaving. Your customers start churning. It seems to point to inevitable failure.

This is the Struggle. The Struggle is when the impending failure of your company swallows every thought and sensation in your waking life. The Struggle is when you question why your idiot self ever started a company. The Struggle is sleepless lonely nights when you feel you’ve failed everyone who was dumb enough to believe in you.

Every entrepreneur has gone through the Struggle, from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk. Greatness is born from the Struggle. The Struggle is a make or break moment. If you are weak and you succumb to the Struggle, you will fail. If you are strong and you can get through the Struggle, you have a fighting chance.

Here are suggestions on how to cope with the Struggle and find a way out of it:

  • Realize failing is normal. If CEOs were graded on a test, the mean score would be 22 out of 100. Many CEOs indeed don’t know what they’re doing; even among those who do, things simply go wrong. If you don’t know the mean score is 22, then you feel bad because you think you’re the only one underperforming.
  • Don’t quit. The only certain way you’ll fail is if you give up. When you see no good moves, you have to keep looking for a move. Push through the pain.
  • Don’t be in denial. Some CEOs delude themselves into thinking the situation is fine. They give excuses for losing customers, failing to hit targets, and churning through staff. Instead, you need to take the problems seriously, but stay emotionally detached from them so you don’t paralyze yourself.
  • Talk to other people who have been through similar difficult situations. They often can’t give you advice about your company (since you know so much more than they do), but they can give psychological support.
  • Talk to your team about the company’s problems. Don’t think you need to shelter your team from the problems because they can’t handle the bad news. In reality, no one will take the problems harder than you—other people can easily join another company, but you founded this company and will go down with the ship. If you share news with your company, they’ll help you find the solution. It’s a waste to hire all these smart people and not have them thinking about your company’s most critical problems.

Building a Good Place to Work

Take care of the people, and the products and profits will follow. If you reverse the priorities, you’ll end up with a miserable workplace and possibly sabotage your success.

You can best take care of your people by making your company a good place to work, which has the following attributes:

  • People are clear on what their jobs are and how success is measured.
  • People believe their work makes a difference to the success of the company and, by extension, to their personal success.
  • They have as few barriers to getting work done as possible. A good work environment avoids office politics, infighting, and overly bureaucratic processes, which all get in the way of doing good work.
  • People enjoy working with the people around them. They don’t always have to like each other personally, but they respect that everyone is pulling their weight.

A poor place to work inverts all of these. People aren’t clear what their jobs are; they don’t know if their work means anything; their work gets stymied by dumb obstacles; and people despise whom they work with.

Hiring Good People

Every company wants to hire the best people they can find. Ben’s general advice:

  • Hire for strength, not for lack of weakness. Hiring for lack of weakness is common in hiring by committee, where people reject people they have problems with, leading to a vanilla candidate who is not hated by anyone but is also not particularly strong at their core function. You need to hire someone who is world-class at what they need to do, regardless of tolerable faults.
  • Hire for the right kind of ambition. The wrong kind of ambition emphasizes a person’s personal success regardless of the...

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The Hard Thing About Hard Things Summary The Hard Thing About Hard Things Guide Chapters 1-3: Ben’s Business History

Ben Horowitz isn’t impressed with most business books. Most of what they discuss—setting audacious goals, constructing a winning strategy, building a cheerful culture—isn’t the hard part of building a company. The hard part is firing your friends when they no longer fit your company’s goals, it’s staring at impending bankruptcy and throwing your hail mary to save the company.

Most business books try to give a recipe for success, but “the hard thing about hard things” is that there is no recipe for those hard situations. (Shortform note: Paraphrasing Leo Tolstoy, “All happy companies are alike; each unhappy company is unhappy in its own way.”) This book is a collection of advice and first-hand experiences to help company operators deal with the hard times.

We’ll start with Ben Horowitz’s background, from his childhood to his wild ride through the dotcom crash. This will form the context for the advice that will constitute the rest of the book.

Early Life to College

Ben Horowitz grew up in Berkeley, California, the son of Jewish members of the Communist party. Berkeley was a diverse enclave for left-thinking people, hippies, and a mix of social classes.

In high...

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The Hard Thing About Hard Things Summary The Hard Thing About Hard Things Guide Chapter 4: How to Handle the Bad Times

Most startup books talk about business strategy in the good times—how to form a competitive advantage, how to set big hairy audacious goals. Horowitz is more interested in sharing advice on how to deal with the bad times.

The Struggle

(Shortform note: This section incorporates part of Chapter 7 on being a good CEO.)

Most people start their companies with boundless enthusiasm. The sky is open, the possibilities are endless, and success is inevitable.

Then reality hits. Your plans have not lived up to their promise. You don’t have the traction you hoped for. Things seem to be unraveling. Your key first hires start leaving. Your customers start churning. It seems to point to inevitable failure.

This is the Struggle. The Struggle is when the impending failure of your company swallows every thought and sensation in your waking life. The Struggle is when you question why your idiot self ever started a company. The Struggle is sleepless lonely nights when you feel you’ve failed everyone who was dumb enough to believe in you.

Every entrepreneur has gone through the Struggle, from Steve Jobs to Elon Musk. Greatness is born from the Struggle.

The Struggle is a make or break...

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Shortform Exercise: Confront the Struggle

Think about the last time you were in the Struggle to deal with future times.


What was the last time you felt like you were in the Struggle? What was happening? What did it feel like?

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The Hard Thing About Hard Things Summary The Hard Thing About Hard Things Guide Chapter 5: How to Hire and Train

The last chapter had advice on what to do when things go wrong. From here, Ben switches to positive advice on how to do things right. This chapter and the next will focus on people management, what Ben considers the most important part of running a business.

Take Care of the People

Take care of the people, and the products and profits will follow. If you reverse the priorities, you’ll end up with a miserable workplace and possibly sabotage your success.

You can best take care of your people by making your company a good place to work. In Horowitz’s terms, in a good place to work:

  • People are clear on what their jobs are and how success is measured.
  • People believe their work makes a difference to the success of the company and, by extension, to their personal success.
  • They have as few barriers to getting work done as possible. A good work environment avoids office politics, infighting, and overly bureaucratic processes, which all get in the way of doing good work.
  • People enjoy working with the people around them. They don’t always have to like each other personally, but they respect that everyone is pulling their weight.

A poor place to work inverts...

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The Hard Thing About Hard Things Summary The Hard Thing About Hard Things Guide Chapter 6-1: How to Manage People

Once you hire the right people and train them, you’ll need systems in place to keep them productive and happy. You should also prepare to change your management practices as your company grows—what used to work with just 5 people working around a table will fail when you have 50 people.

This chapter covers an array of topics, from company culture to measuring performance to reducing office politics.

Culture

Culture consists of key values that define what your company does and how it does it. Examples of key values include frugality, customer obsession, and beauty of design. Good key values meaningfully distinguish you from your competitors.

A strong culture is practically useful—it helps you filter for hires who will fit, and it shapes the behavior of people at the company.

Beyond just articulating vague cultural values, implement a simple, scalable behavior that reinforces the key value. Here are examples:

  • Frugality: At Amazon, Jeff Bezos knew that competing in the cutthroat online retail industry would require the lowest pricing, which required the company to save as much money on overhead as it could. He built the company’s first desks by...

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Shortform Exercise: Check Your Management Practices

Think about how you manage your team and compare it to the book’s best practices.


What metrics do you use to measure the performance of your team?

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The Hard Thing About Hard Things Summary The Hard Thing About Hard Things Guide Chapter 6-2: How to Scale with Processes

When you’re at 5 people, you don’t need processes. Everyone communicates with each other by talking across a table, and decisions are made quickly. There is no politics because everyone can hear each other.

When your company grows, these problems become exponentially more difficult. You will need to build processes to keep people communicating, making good decisions, and sharing knowledge.

How do you know it’s the right time to build in processes? When adding on a new employee feels harder than adding more work to your existing employees; and when this feeling is preventing you from growing the team quickly enough to reach the company’s goals.

How to Build a Process, Generally

Here are the main principles of designing a good process:

  • Define your ultimate goal. In product development, the ultimate goal may be customer satisfaction, not number of features. In hiring, the ultimate goal is the number of productive employees you gain, not the number of interviews you run.
  • Define the steps that lead to the ultimate goal. In hiring, the steps involve sourcing candidates, filtering candidates, interviewing, giving job offers, onboarding and training...

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The Hard Thing About Hard Things Summary The Hard Thing About Hard Things Guide Chapters 7-8: How to Be a Good CEO

To review advice from Chapter 4, being a CEO is unnatural. Humans didn’t evolve in a way that makes running a thousand-person company a natural thing to do. This also means people aren’t born CEOs out of the womb. It is a learned skill; even worse, it’s a skill that you can only learn by actually doing it.

So when things go wrong, don’t beat yourself up too much. Remember the earlier advice about how to get through the Struggle—don’t give up, talk to people, clarify your problems, and be decisive while emotionally attached.

But make no mistake, you do have the responsibility, and no one but you has the responsibility. Every problem in your company is truly your fault—you set the direction of the company, you hired the people to work on that direction, and you created the environment that the people work in. If you miss a growth target or lose a key customer or have a toxic work culture, it is your fault.

It is a lonely job. No employee, board member, or friend knows anywhere near what you know about your business, so you will have to make difficult decisions by yourself.

**But if you didn’t want this job, you shouldn’t have signed up for it. So learn how to do it...

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Shortform Exercise: Think Like a CEO

Review your tendencies and responsibilities as a CEO.


A CEO has a few major responsibilities: articulate the vision, make high-quality decisions rapidly, hire a team, get the team to work on the vision, and achieve results. Which do you feel you are weakest at?

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The Hard Thing About Hard Things Summary The Hard Thing About Hard Things Guide Chapter 9: Ben Starts a Venture Capital Firm

After selling Opsware in 2007, Ben spent a year working at HP thinking about what to do next. He’d now gone through a company’s entire life cycle, from founding to going public to selling, and he felt it was time to retire from operating a business. But he’d learned so much, and not using this knowledge seemed like a waste.

Then he had an idea—to help other entrepreneurs through the same struggles he faced. Why didn’t every founder know the mean score was 22? Why did every founder seemingly have to struggle alone to hire, fire, promote, and scale?

Venture capitalists, the investors of companies, were theoretically supposed to help founders through their struggles. But in reality, they often saw founders simply as inexperienced beginners to be replaced by professional management as soon as possible. Ben faced this personally when raising money for Loudcloud—an investor asked when they’d be bringing in a “real CEO,” “someone who knows what they’re doing.” He was initially crestfallen to hear this, but he learned the ropes and became a competent CEO. Now, coming out of Opsware, he wanted to help other entrepreneurs get better too.

The way he thought he could best achieve this...

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Chapters 1-3: Ben’s Business History
  • Chapter 4: How to Handle the Bad Times
  • Exercise: Confront the Struggle
  • Chapter 5: How to Hire and Train
  • Chapter 6-1: How to Manage People
  • Exercise: Check Your Management Practices
  • Chapter 6-2: How to Scale with Processes
  • Chapters 7-8: How to Be a Good CEO
  • Exercise: Think Like a CEO
  • Chapter 9: Ben Starts a Venture Capital Firm