The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The author gives us a wonderful lesson on the art and science of people management at startups. From hiring and onboarding to firing and building a culture, Ben Horowitz, the renowned Silicon Valley investor covers it all.

My interest in books, technology and startups and a Silicon Valley zip code listed on Facebook, resulted in my social media pages being inundated with book recommendations for entrepreneurs and startup ventures. Most of the lists contained books on innovation, general management and leadership gyaan, topics like emotional intelligence and human thinking and the odd title on technical areas like design and coding. The one book that consistently featured in every post was, Ben Horowitz’s ‘The Hard Thing about Hard Things.’ A number of strong and positive reviews made me pick this up with the hope that it offers serious tips to help individuals build a company from Ben’s own story of building and later, helping build thriving organizations.

Ben starts his introduction by outlining the real hard things in running a business as opposed to what is perceived to be hard. He subsequently makes a candid admission that there is no recipe or formula to deal with hard things and will only share his experiences from which others can learn. The precision with which he identified and defined the real-world problems is bound to strike a chord with every professional in a managerial role; I was hooked on!

Ben’s book can be classified into two parts – a short account of his life as an entrepreneur and a narration of stories from his experiences, with potential learnings. Ben’s own journey as an entrepreneur from founding Loudcloud to its transformation as Opsware and the final acquisition by HP is an intriguing read.

The way in which he dodged every challenge by either changing the product or making acquisitions or even, taking the IPO plunge stood out to me. The biggest lesson I picked up was on product management wherein he says the product must be defined by the company and not the customer. Innovation is a combination of knowledge, skill and courage and it is the founder who has that courage to help product managers prioritize the features to be included.

Ben starts the second part of the book with a series of lessons on people management at startups. Ironically, he begins by talking about how to implement layoffs and specifically on firing executives, which he thinks is the biggest test to be considered a great CEO. He delves deep into the nitty-gritties of people management, touching upon virtually every aspect in the employee management lifecycle including hiring, onboarding, goal-setting, performance measurement, feedback and compensation. Further, he also covers the challenge of dealing with environmental factors like culture and politics. I believe readers should pay close attention to the following topics that are of great importance in building a company.

“Horowitz delves deep into the nitty-gritties of people management, touching upon virtually every aspect in the employee management lifecycle including hiring, onboarding, goal-setting, performance measurement, feedback and compensation.”

Formal and calendarized training programs is something you would typically associate only with slightly larger organizations. But, Horowitz debunks this myth by underscoring the importance of implementing a comprehensive training program at startups as well. He shows the need to keep the training function in-house as opposed to outsourcing the same and uses interesting statistics to prove how time invested in training will directly result in increased productivity. Specifically, he calls out the need to train managers and that the CEO should personally prepare for and teach these classes.

As the company scales up, there is pressure to bring on board more experienced professionals to manage the surge. However, CEOs discover it is not easy to get this right – individuals who come with the ‘been there, done that’ tag may not quite fit in your organization and be able to accomplish similar things. Ben offers several pointers to help CEOs hire and retain experienced individuals, to take the organization through the growth phase without upsetting the current setup.

Towards the end of the book, in the much anticipated section on leadership, Ben summarizes the three most desired characteristics in startup CEOs. The ability to tell a story (or articulate a vision); the ability to get others to follow you and the ability to implement and get things done to achieve the vision; These three aspects differentiates those who built successful startups from rest of the pack. It comes with the disclaimer that these skills can’t be taught but only learnt from experience – the theme of the book.

What also makes this book different is its size and presentation. It is not 250-pages of complex verbiage to solve a business problem. It’s also not an 800-page diary account of his life. This is a collection of anecdotes and incidents from his life, interspersed with simple and step-by-step instructions that a startup CEO can infer and implement with ease. Of course, there are these rare moments you feel the same message is rehashed in a different context rather than giving new information.

More than half-way into the book, I paused to wonder if this was a Human Resources Management textbook rather than advice for startup CEOs. But, thinking in line with Ben’s gospels that as a startup CEO you take care of your people, products and profits (in that order) and taking care of the first item will take of the other two, the content and the depth of the material does make sense.

The book, I believe, will certainly resonate with entrepreneurial leaders and startup founders – who’re often solving one problem after the other, day in and day out. The book reiterates that these ‘hard problems’ are hard to solve, yet are critical to solve to scale your startup. And often, these hard problems can only be solved by making difficult choices.

If not for anything else, read this book for the anecdotes from someone who has had box seats to Silicon Valley’s rise.

The writer, Varun Prasad, works for a Big4 Consulting firm in India and recently spent time in Silicon Valley on a consulting gig.  

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