I’ve always been on the fence about Ben Horowitz, but I haven’t had a lot to go on — I’ve followed his blog a bit and the rap lyric fetish still feels gimmicky. Mostly my impressions of him come from reading around the Instagram/Pckplz dustup a few years ago, which left me feeling like at a minimum some ethical lines got crossed. And I felt strongly enough to sympathy-crowd-invest in Dalton Caldwell’s followup gig *and* cheer for Instagram getting acquired at a monster valuation by the Zucker-borg.
But a couple days ago I got my fifth recommendation to read The Hard Thing About Hard Things and when I found myself casting about for a podcast to get me through a roadtrip today I saw the Stanford ETL session with Mr. Horowitz (embedded above) and thought I’d give the dude another shot.
It was awesome! And I actually laughed out loud a few times, especially when he got the part that set up the rationale for his book, from minute 15 for about 3 minutes (I’ve transcribed most of that section here) —
When I was a CEO… I’d be up at 3am going, “why are none of the management books that I’m reading helping me? They are no help at all!” — and I read literally every management book.. and I realized that management books are generally written for.. here’s how to not screw up your company. But if you start a company, that lasts like a week. And then you’ve screwed it up, and then, where’s the book for that? And that’s what was missing.
And so I would think about it.. And I would be like — all the VCs and everybody tells me: “Ben, you know what the key to a great company is? Hire A-players!” and I’d be sitting there like, “Oh great, ’cause I was going to hire a bunch of f*cking idiots and now you’ve unlocked the secret for me. Thank you..”
The hard thing is not to hire the best people, the hard thing is when your company is going like this [up and down hand motions] and the best people don’t want to work for you and then who do you hire, and how does that work? And do you hire the person who’s OK across the board or do you hire the person that’s got something horribly wrong with them, but something super great about them, and how do you think about that, and what do you do with that horribly wrong stuff once you get them.. that’s a hard thing.
I read those Jim Collins books, which I hate.. [audience laughter] Some of you like them, I know.. it doesn’t mean you’re not smart if you like them, because a lot of smart people like them. But the thing that he does is he makes you feel good about yourself but when you get into it you realize that cause and effect is swung around on all these things.. but he’s like, “What great companies have is a big hairy audacious goal!” and I’m like, I think that’s great but that’s not hard. It’s pretty easy to write a big hairy.. “We’re going to go to the moon! We’re going to build the biggest company in the world! We’re going to have software on every desktop! It’s all going to be ours, that’s our goal!”
OK, so now you’ve missed your goal. And not only did you miss your goal, but you built up your whole company to achieve your goal and you’ve got a cost structure that’s designed to hit your goal, and you missed your goal and you’re running out of cash and the company’s burning to the ground. And everybody who works for you thinks you’re a moron because you missed your goal.
That’s hard. That’s a hard thing. What do you do there? Um, that’s not in Jim’s book, he doesn’t even talk about that. Nobody ever misses their goal who’s a great company, so.. like, why would you miss your goal? You must not be great. So it’s like.. ok, f*ck Jim..
So, anyway, that’s where the title The Hard Thing About Hard Things comes from.
So yeah, I bought the book.