There are plenty of books that cover the theme of "how to start a startup" but few that cover the challenges that pop up afterward. The Hard Thing About Hard Things from Ben Horowitz definitely falls into the latter category. Horowitz recaps his experience as CEO of several fast-growing tech companies and provides actionable advice for common problems in hiring, managing, and dealing with all sorts of conflict.

From Communist to Venture Capitalist

  • There are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially knowledge gained from personal experience.
  • Following conventional wisdom and relying on shortcuts can be worse than knowing nothing at all.
You have achieved excellence as a leader when people will follow you anywhere, if only out of curiosity.

"I Will Survive"

  • Look for a market of one when raising money. You only need one investor to say yes.
  • You need two kinds of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens. The second kind is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong.
  • When things get bad, you are often the only one that can fix it. Don't lean too heavily on advice from people who don't understand all the pieces.
  • Have principles and outline them as clearly as you can.
I knew we were in deep, deep trouble. Nobody besides me could get us out of the trouble, and I was through listening to advice about what we should do from people who did not understand all the pieces.

This Time with Feeling

  • Sometimes, the only way to build the right product is to ship the wrong product first.
  • In large organizations, projects always come down to a single person who can delay the whole thing.
  • When you have to move fast, schedule daily meetings and remove roadblocks. If anyone is stuck, it can't last more than 24 hours.
  • Go on the offensive. Ask yourself weekly, "What are we not doing?"
  • Markets aren't efficient at finding the truth; they are just efficient at converging on conclusions.
As painful as it might be, I knew that we had to get into the broader market in order to understand it well enough to build the right product. Paradoxically, the only way to do that was to ship and try to sell the wrong product.

When Things Fall Apart

  • Probability and statistics are the dominant modalities for making sense of the world.
  • Startup CEOs should not play the odds. You must believe there is an answer and you can't pay attention to your odds of finding it.
  • Foster the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves.
  • Follow the first principle of the Bushido: Keep death in mind at all times.
  • Technology businesses are complex. There is always another move.
  • There are rarely silver bullets, only lead bullets.
Technology businesses tend to be extremely complex. The underlying technology moves, the competition moves, the market moves, the people move. As a result, like playing three-dimensional chess on Star Trek, there is always a move. You think you have no moves? There is always a move.

Take Care of the People, the Product, and the Profits

  • Being a good company doesn't matter when things go well, but it can be the difference between life and death when things go wrong. And they always go wrong.
  • Training is one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform. It should be mandatory, and it should be done by the manager themselves.
  • Managers should clearly set expectations when they train employees.
  • The best way to know what you want when hiring is to act in the role. Don't resist acting in functional roles to acquire the appropriate knowledge.
  • For important hiring decisions, the ultimate decision should be made solo. Consensus decisions skew toward lack of weakness instead of strengths.
Despite many people being involved in the process, the ultimate decision should be made solo. Only the CEO has comprehensive knowledge of the criteria, the rationale for the criteria, all of the feedback from interviewers and references, and the relative importance of the various stakeholders. Consensus decisions about executives almost always sway the process away from strength and toward lack of weakness. It’s a lonely job, but somebody has to do it.

Concerning the Going Concern

  • Nothing makes things clear like a few choice curse words.
  • For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title.
  • Interview people who you see doing a great job in their field. Find out what their standard is and add it to your own.
  • The people who are already doing the work should design the process.
  • There is no such thing as a great executive. There is only a great executive for a specific company at a specific point in time.
We wanted the firm to respect the fact that in the bacon-and-egg breakfast of a startup, we were with the chicken and the entrepreneur was the pig: We were involved, but she was committed.

How to Lead Even When You Don't Know Where You're Going

  • CEOs must learn to manage their own psychology first and foremost.
  • There will be episodes that make it seem like the world is crashing down. These feel much worse than they are.
  • There are always a thousand things that can go wrong at any point. Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.
  • Crowds will influence your thinking and make a 70-30 decision seem like a 51-49 decision. Be mindful and courageous in these situations.
  • Leaders should articulate the vision, have the right kind of ambition, and have the ability to achieve the vision.
  • Effective management techniques differ in peacetime vs. wartime scenarios. Peacetime CEOs aim to expand the market. Wartime CEOs aim to win the market.
  • Your goal should be for feedback to open up rather than close down discussion.
  • Have an opinion on absolutely everything. Every forecast, product plan, presentation, and comment.
  • In good companies, the story and strategy are the same.
  • The CEO doesn't have to be the creator of the vision or the story, but they do have to be the keeper of them.
  • Great CEOs build exceptional strategies for gathering the required information continuously. They embed their quest for intelligence into all of their daily actions.
Running a company is like that. There are always a thousand things that can go wrong and sink the ship. If you focus too much on them, you will drive yourself nuts and likely crash your company. Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.

The First Rule of Entrepreneurship β€” There Are No Rules

  • Despite all this advice, there are no set rules in entrepreneurship.
  • You must hold others accountable for effort, promises, and results all while encouraging creative risks. Find the right balance.
  • When faced with the decision to sell your company, there is no easy answer.
  • Build a culture where what you do matters, not who you are.
In the technology business, you rarely know everything up front. The difference between being mediocre and magical is often the difference between letting people take creative risk and holding them too tightly accountable.

The End of the Beginning

  • Look for mentors that have been where you are before.
  • Have unrelenting confidence in the face of adversity.
  • Embracing the unusual parts of your background are key to making it through. These are the things that give you unique perspectives and approaches.
I believe that within that quote lies the most important lesson in entrepreneurship: Embrace the struggle.

Parting Thoughts

There are a lot of smart people out there that think we are heading into a tough time for businesses. Much of the advice in The Hard Thing About Hard Things focuses on what to do when things go wrong. If these smart people are right, then a lot will be going wrong in the next 6-12 months. I wouldn't be surprised if more leaders turn to this book for guidance.

If you enjoyed this and are looking for more, High Growth Handbook from Elad Gil is another excellent related read that you should check out. If you want to browse more book summaries, head over to the blog and look for posts with the Reading tag.