Book Review – The hard thing about hard things by Ben Horowitz


Yesterday night, I finally managed to read Ben Horowitz’s book . If you have not read this book – you should do so http://www.amazon.com/Hard-Thing-About-Things-Building-ebook/dp/B00DQ845EA/ref=sr_1_1 . It is brilliant. Barring a few places where I don’t share Mr Horowitz’s  views – I was nodding my head throughout , often with a smile or a sigh.

It is a jargon free book – which in itself is quite an accomplishment for a business book. This is a book for senior level management practitioners – although I am sure some MBA students will find it interesting too.

I have never been a CEO in my life – but I have worked closely with quite a few at my present and past employers and also at my clients. I did not quite realize what a lonely job it really is till I read the book. While the success of a CEO is defined by the team, the CEO has to make the hard decisions as an individual for the most part. If everyone starting out to be a CEO truly appreciated the loneliness of the job, I wonder how many will have CEO ambitions to begin with.

The key theme of the book is that there is no real recipe to success as a CEO, at least in a tech startup scene. Honest to god, if the book went into some “6 steps to be a great CEO” type explanation, I would have stopped reading it that instant. Horowitz comes across as credible to me instantly by saying there is no such recipe.

About 20% of Horowitz’s advice is original – I especially liked the good/bad product manager memo and differences between the working of a peacetime CEO and a wartime CEO. The rest is conventional wisdom that you can get elsewhere too. I usually tune out when I read oft repeated stuff – but this time I did not. And it is for a very simple reason – the book is written without the “6 steps” format. It has more of a “stream of consciousness” approach with many real life stories. It felt more natural. It might also be because my own blogging style is largely unstructured .

The book is definitely attractive for execs in a tech startup – CEOs probably will find the most value, but also general managers and people looking to move into the startup scene at a senior level. I am not sure if this book will offer as much value to non-tech company leaders, or those without heavy VC type financing. Not every CEO has the sheer will power or connections it takes to get a $29M company to an exit of $1.65B. So the specific applicability of the book to the larger entrepreneur ecosystem is a bit of an unknown to me.

Now to the four things where I think the book could have done a bit better

1. Right from the start, I noticed that Ben used “she” to describe the leaders . I immediately perked up thinking that here is finally a leader who has seen the value in having woman leaders developed in his company. However, I was quite disillusioned by the end of the book. He hardly has an example of an actual woman leader in the book . None of the people he called out as mentors are women. None of the people he called as his stellar executives are women (except one exception I think – Margit Wennmachers) . Even the fictitious names in examples he used were not women. It just looked as an explicit effort to come across as politically correct – which is awkward given the nature of the book which is anything but PC.

2. Ben points out correctly that there are challenges in getting a large company executive to function well in a startup. However he generalizes it to an extent where it comes across almost as if all big company execs fit a certain mould. I fully agree with the challenges he brings up – it is true that there are many big company execs who will fit the picture Ben paints . There are also plenty of big company execs who do well in startups. I would have also been interested in Ben’s views on founders who sell out to large companies but then don’t find success being part of the large company set up.

3. While I like the part of taking the hard decisions on hiring and firing employees and executives in an objective way , I was surprised that the cascading effect on their teams was not called out. Top sales teams are built on extreme loyalty – reps follow great sales managers across companies. If you hire a great sales VP, you also get a bunch of good reps in the bargain. If you fire a VP of sales, then you should also expect an attrition of reps. Same thing with engineers – developers like to work with smart developers. So if you lose your star developer – especially one that is looked up on by ecosystem as a super hero – it affects your ability to hire great ones.

4. Both the IPO and the sale to HP seem to have been done with the help of a genius VP of business development, John O’Farrell . However the book does not give any insight into finding a great VP for BD, or building a world class BD team.

I am hoping that in his next book, Mr Horowitz will go into some detail on all these topics and many others that did not fit into this book.

All said – it was an enjoyable read and I do recommend the book highly. In fact I am thinking of ordering a few copies as Xmas gifts to a few friends.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review – The hard thing about hard things by Ben Horowitz

  1. Vijai, thanks for this article. On your recommendation I read Ben Horowitz and found that it is packed with solid experience and advice. Did you get a chance to read “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel?

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