The Hard Thing About Hard Things: building a business when there are no easy answers

I was recently speaking with a friend who formed a business. His background is perfect for what he is doing, his ideas are solid, his product addresses a pain point in most modern enterprises. And he has the stamina and work ethic of a champion. But still there is no certainty in his future. Even hard working, rightly focused CEOs like this one need every advantage they can get. My recommendation to him was to tap into the lessons of Ben Horowitz. Lessons from Ben can be very helpful to anyone creating things, especially entrepreneurs. Ben’s lessons help leaders prepare for the unexpected/hard problems.

Ben mentors a wide swath of entrepreneurs and by writing: The Hard Things About Hard Things has built a new scalability into his ability to teach.

One thing I was especially happy about regarding his book is the relevance of many lessons beyond the startup environment.

I recommend this book to any enterprise CTO. CTOs will find this to be helpful context that can help in your own innovation inside the enterprise. It will also help you in evaluating the health and enterprise relevance of potential vendors. You will enjoy the technology history in the book, and since you will know every technology firm mentioned in the book you will get a kick out of the behind the scenes stories. You will probably learn new things about life in a technology company and this may give you a new understanding for a vendor’s life.

If you work in a large systems integrator you will also benefit from a new empathy for your potential vendor partners (and just about every integrator I know could use more of that type of empathy). You will also find lessons that help you as you try to make your elephant dance.

If you work in government agencies you will find parts of this book helpful to leading and managing people. Government leaders today are faced with many challenges and pressures and most good leaders are working hard to optimize in some very trying times. Not all your hard things can be addressed by the lessons in this book, but some sure can be.

If you are in the military I think you will especially like this book. There are so many lessons directly relevant to success on the battlefield.

In fact, Ben’s opening paragraph reminds me of one of the first lessons I learned from now retired Marine Lt General Paul K. Van Riper. Ben calls out the fact that with every management or self-help book he read he found himself saying “but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.” Ben explains that the hard thing isn’t setting the big goal and having a vision. And the hard thing isn’t hiring great people or setting up an org chart. No, the hard thing is always something there is no check-list for. These are exactly like lessons many of us learned from General Van Riper and other successful leaders (for a dose of General Van Riper see the video embedded below and at this link).

I think the reason there are so many similarities between what I learned from General Van Riper and what Ben teaches are both are dealing with realities in a world where reality can be very brutal. Both are mentoring in high stakes domains.

Some of the things I really liked about Ben’s book include:

  • Love comes through in the book. I have to say I almost stopped reading when he started in about his first day at nursery school. But I’m glad I kept reading. That was really a story about love and patience and is a good scene setter for what comes next.
  • Like the teachings of great military leaders, the book is founded in reality. Realism comes through in every chapter.
  • In another reminder of military teaching, Ben talks about fear. Being scared does not mean you are a coward. What you do when you are scared is what matters. Great, early lesson.
  • The book is centered on integrity and underscores the importance of being true.
  • The importance of training, education, process are hit on several places in the book.
  • Ben puts people before products and even profits. You will need to read more to grasp the full nuance here, the fact is that without profits people must go. But still, people are what builds in long term success.
  • Ben cites a lesson from Colin Powell when it comes to hiring (see, there are close connections between success in the military and success in startups) when he says he learned the hard way that you must hire for strength rather than lack of weakness. This is credited with his hiring Mark Cranney into the most important position in Opsware, VP of Sales.
  • A favorite line in the book was about Mark Cranney: “The first thing I noticed was that he went to a school that I’d never heard of, Southern Utah University. I asked him what kind of school it was. He replied, ‘It was the MIT of southern Utah.’ ”  Pretty funny.
  • Ben tells us Mark’s seriousness and well thought out approaches made him sound like General Patton. Then he knew he had his guy in Mark.
  • Another favorite line was “Mark Cranney walks up to the podium, looks at the crowd of fresh new recruits, and says, ‘I don’t give a fuck how well trained you are. If you don’t bring me five hundred thousand dollars a quarter, I’m putting a bullet in your head.’ ”  Mark is clearly a great leader. He cares about people, training, education, feedback, process, but is focused on results.
  • Ben underscores a great lesson he attributes to Andy Grove, emphasizing that you need to hire people with the right kind of ambition: an ambition for the success of the company. There are military and government analogies here too. In the government or military the right kind of ambition is in service of the mission.
  • Ben offers and Appendix of “Questions For Head Of Enterprise Sales Force”. This is a great reference for any CEO of any size company or any sales leader seeking to improve their game. Ben mentioned Mark Cranney and his contributions to organizational success several times in this book so by the time I saw the Appendix I saw this is a list of question that can be used to find your own Mark Cranney. This makes this a tremendous resource.

So, my view: No matter what domain you are working in, startups, enterprises, government, the military, I believe you can learn by reading Ben’s book. Find it here:  The Hard Things About Hard Things

And for fun, after reading the book, watch the video below of General Van Riper. I swear you will find a dozen lessons that are exact analogies to the lessons from Ben.

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