The Ugly Thing about The Hard Thing about Hard Things

(this post originally appeared on Medium)

(discuss on Hacker News)

Who the f%*k is Joel Clark Jr.?

When I was five years old, we moved to Bonita Avenue, a collection of hippies, crazy people, lower class people working hard to move up, and upper class people taking enough drugs to move down.
One day, one of my older brother Jonathan’s friends, Roger, was over at our house. He pointed to an African American kid down the block who was riding in a red wagon and dared me:
“Go down the street, tell him to give you his wagon, and if he says anything, spit in his face and call him a
nigger.”

I was terrified of Roger.
I began walking down the block toward the other kid. The distance was thirty yards, but it felt like thirty miles. When I finally got there, I could barely move. I did not know what to say, so I just opened my mouth and started talking:
“Can I ride in your wagon?” is what came out.
Joel Clark Jr. said: “Sure”.
When I turned to see what Roger would do, he was gone. Apparently, his light side had taken over and he’d moved on to something else.
Joel and I went on to play all day that day, and we’ve been best friends ever since. Eighteen years later, he would be
the best man at my wedding.

(from the book, slightly edited and shortened)

The Ugly Thing

Who is Ben Horowitz?
And what is his book about?
And what’s ugly about it?

The book is called “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”, which I will refer to as THTAHT.

I will tell you what’s the “Ugly thing” in a minute, but let me make it clear: the book is excellent, easily one of the best reads you can hope for. However, if you read it carefully, you will be very unhappy afterwards.
Let’s go in order.

Ben Horowitz

If you are reading this blog post, I assume that you have at least a vague idea of who Ben Horowitz is.
He’s a happily married man with three wonderful kids, but most of us are interested in him because he was a technical guy that worked at Netscape and went through its spectacular IPO and acquisition, and then with Marc Andreessen founded several other ventures. Most notably, he was the CEO of LoudCloud/Opsware for several years, and he’s now the co-founder of the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, also called A16Z.

Ben Horowitz can speak very clearly.

Most people that know Ben personally all agree that he’s very direct. When I had the opportunity to watch him present on stage at Startup School 2012, I loved his talk, and I noticed that he wasn’t going around things. Straight to the point.
Most people would also agree that he’s been a legendary CEO, and a great VC in the latest few years.

And you know what? If you want to really know more, Google him. There’s no need for me to add more details here.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

On March 4th, Ben published his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things (buy it on Amazon.com, read about it on TechCrunch), or THTAHT.
First of all, 100% of the earnings of the book will be donated to charity, and that’s a nice thing.

The book wants to tell you what the reality of building a company is.

As you can guess from the title, Ben thinks that building a company is incredibly hard, but he also believes that the most important things, the HARD things, are never shared in management books or elsewhere.

Even if Ben doesn’t, I’d prefer to divide THTAHT in three parts.

The first part of the book recalls many moments of Ben’s life, either as a kid growing up and getting to know the world, or as a young technical employee at Netscape, and later as a CEO.
The great thing about this first part is its authenticity: I couldn’t stop reading, so much was the connection that he was able to create with me as a reader.

The second part is full of specific advice to deal with situations you can encounter in your life as a CEO, and in most cases Ben drags from his past experiences.
There are some recurring names, such as Bill Campbell, who Ben never ceases to refer to as an example to follow.
“If you do nothing else, be like Bill Campbell and build a good company.”
What I consider the starting point of this second part is Chapter 4, “The struggle”, which refers to the voyage a CEO should go through in order to succeed, and the costant feeling of struggling that never goes away.
This part is a bit boring sometimes, especially if you are not interested in becoming a CEO yourself, but at least all the stories and examples are great lessons.
“People at McDonald’s get trained, but people with complex jobs don’t. It makes no sense.”
The rest is as hard as it can get: firing people, firing co-founders, considering going bankrupt, dealing with profanity, fear and courage, peacetime CEOs and wartime CEOs, smart but bad employees, and so on.
In his view, the most difficult skill that a CEO should have is to manage your own psychology.

The short third part is specific to Andreessen Horowitz, his VC firm.
Too short for my thirst to know more about it, but great nonetheless.
In essence, Ben and his partner Marc Andreessen, after taking a look at the VC landscape, and realizing that out of 800 VCs, only 6 brought acceptable returns for their investors, decide to fund a new one, based on the following principles:
1) Technical founders are the best CEOs to run the company;
2) A16Z should help them become successful CEOs (skill set, network).
3) Every General Partner should be an effective mentor for the startups they invest in;
4) They offer a large network, comprising large companies, executives and engineers to hire, press analysts, investors and acquirers.

The rest, as they say, is history.
I had the privilege to meet with Frank Chen, and more recently with Chris Dixon —  both General Partners. I can safely say that A16Z is among the best VC firms that has ever existed, and I’ve never seen such quality, in every detail. Strange to think that 5 years ago it didn’t exist yet.

What can I say? If you want to be an entrepreneur, if you deal with CEOs and similar people all the time, and want to learn what they go through: BUY the book. As said, easily one of your best investment of money and time.

The Ugly Thing

What’s this Ugly Thing, then?
Let me tell you.
Forget about what you read every day on TechCrunch.
Forget about the Lean Methodology.
Forget about these pictures of 20-something startuppers who sold their company and made a fortune.
The real life is much, much harder.

I knew it before, but after reading this book I’m SCARED at the idea of starting my own company again.

(I’ve been many things, among which a “serial entrepreneur”, even if I didn’t call myself that, back then — I was simply a young guy who worked extremely hard, and was almost in perennial debt)

This is the Ugly thing. Despite startups and entrepreneurship are sexy, fact is they aren’t. Ben’s book is a cold shower, but brings us much closer to reality.
I wish that many, many people will read this book.
Not everybody is born to be an entrepreneur, or can become one. Better to understand what it takes BEFORE you embark in the journey, rather than being forced to do terrible things when the ship has sailed already.
You might think that this is a sad end, but it’s not. If you take Ben’s story to heart, you can decide what you want to do with your life with much more awareness.
How much is that worth?

One more thing

There’s also one more thing that I really loved about the book. Let me paste Ben’s words.

One very hot day my father came over for a visit. We could not afford air-conditioning, and all three children were crying as my father an I say there sweating in the 105-degree heat.
My father turned to me and said, “Son, do you know what’s cheap?”
Since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, I replied, “No, what?”
“Flowers. Flowers are really cheap. But do you know what’s expensive?” he asked.
Again, I replied, “No, what?”
He said, “Divorce”.
Something about that joke, which was not really a joke, made me realize that I had run out of time. Up until that point, I had not really made any serious choices. I felt like I had unlimited bandwidth and could do everything in life that I wanted to do simultaneously.
But this joke made it suddenly clear that by continuing on the course I was on, I might lose my family.
By doing everything, I would fail at the most important thing.

I’ve started realizing this same thing only recently, and I like to think that realizing it has saved my life. Thanks, Ben, for reminding me of this. It is too important not to think about it every day.

And that’s all, folks.
If you liked this post, I suggest you buy THTAHT on Amazon.com.

(discuss on Hacker News)

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