Tag: Ben Horowitz

Ben Horowitz: The Struggle

“Life is a struggle.” — Karl Marx

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers, Ben Horowitz describes the struggle.

Every entrepreneur starts her company with a clear vision for success. You will create an amazing environment and hire the smartest people to join you. Together you will build a beautiful product that delights customers and makes the world just a little bit better. It’s going to be absolutely awesome.

Then, after working night and day to make your vision reality, you wake up to find that things did not go as planned. Your company did not unfold like the Jack Dorsey keynote that you listened to when you started. Your product has issues that will be very hard to fix. The market isn’t quite where it was supposed to be. Your employees are losing confidence and some of them have quit. Some of the ones that quit were quite smart and have the remaining ones wondering if staying makes sense. You are running low on cash and your venture capitalist tells you that it will be difficult to raise money given the impending European catastrophe. You lose a competitive battle. You lose a loyal customer. You lose a great employee. The walls start closing in. Where did you go wrong? Why didn’t your company perform as envisioned? Are you good enough to do this? As your dreams turn into nightmares, you find yourself in The Struggle.

It's at this point that you start to question things. This is when things get dark. Depression sets in. Options look narrow. You just want to hit snooze over and over again and hide under the covers. The Struggle, however, is also where greatness is born.

The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place.

The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer.

The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right.

The Struggle is when food loses its taste.

The Struggle is when you don’t believe you should be CEO of your company. The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced. The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you. The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred.

The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is The Struggle.

The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop. The Struggle is unhappiness.

The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse.

The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. The Struggle has no mercy.

The Struggle is the land of broken promises and crushed dreams. The Struggle is a cold sweat. The Struggle is where your guts boil so much that you feel like you are going to spit blood.

The Struggle is not failure, but it causes failure. Especially if you are weak. Always if you are weak.

Most people are not strong enough.

Every great entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg went through The Struggle and struggle they did, so you are not alone. But that does not mean that you will make it. You may not make it. That is why it is The Struggle.

The Struggle is where greatness comes from.

The Struggle is where we turn adversity into opportunity.

Ben offers some things that may help you through the struggle.

There is no answer to The Struggle, but here are some things that helped me:

1. Don’t put it all on your shoulders

It is easy to think that the things that bother you will upset your people more. That’s not true. The opposite is true. Nobody takes the losses harder than the person most responsible. Nobody feels it more than you. You won’t be able to share every burden, but share every burden that you can. Get the maximum number of brains on the problems even if the problems represent existential threats. When I ran Opsware and we were losing too many competitive deals, I called an all-hands and told the whole company that we were getting our asses kicked, and if we didn’t stop the bleeding, we were going to die. Nobody blinked. The team rallied, built a winning product and saved my sorry ass.

2. This is not checkers; this is mutherfuckin’ chess

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? How about taking your company public with $2M in trailing revenue and 340 employees, with a plan to do $75M in revenue the next year? I made that move. I made it in 2001, widely regarded as the worst time ever for a technology company to go public. I made it with six weeks of cash left. There is always a move.

3. Focus on the road

When they teach you how to drive a racecar, they tell you to focus on the road when you go around a turn. They tell you that because if you focus on the wall, then you will drive straight into the wall. If you focus on how you might fail, then you will fail. Even if you only have one bullet left in the gun and you have to hit the target, focus on the target. You might not hit it, but you definitely won’t hit if you focus on other things.

4. Play long enough and you might get lucky

In the technology game, tomorrow looks nothing like today. If you survive long enough to see tomorrow, it may bring you the answer that seems so impossible today.

5. Don’t take it personally

The predicament that you are in is probably all your fault. You hired the people. You made the decisions. But you knew the job was dangerous when you took it. Everybody makes mistakes. Every CEO makes thousands of mistakes. Evaluating yourself and giving yourself an “F” doesn’t help.

6. Remember that this is what separates the women from the girls

If you want to be great, this is the challenge. If you don’t want to be great, then you never should have started a company.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers offers a piercing look into the hard choices that leaders must make.

The Peter Principle and the Law of Crappy People


If you've ever worked in an organization, you've no doubt come across someone in senior management and asked yourself how they ever got promoted.

The Peter Principle, coined by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, contends that, in a hierarchy, people are sooner or later promoted to positions which they are no longer skilled to handle. This is their “level of incompetence.” This is where they stay.

James March offers some compelling insight into why this happens.

In his book High Output Management, Andy Grove points out that this is largely unavoidable because there is no way to know a priori at what point the person will be incapable of handling further promotions.

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers Ben Horowitz discusses the Law of Crappy People.

The Law of Crappy People states: For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title. The rationale behind the law is that the other employees in the company with lower titles will naturally benchmark themselves against the crappiest person at the next level. For example, if Jasper is the worst vice president in the company, then all of the directors will benchmark themselves against Jasper and demand promotions as soon as they reach his low level of competency.

Horowitz suggests the best way to overcome this is with a properly constructed and disciplined hiring process.

Ideally, the promotion process should yield a result similar to the very best karate dojos. In top dojos, in order to achieve the next level (for example, being promoted from a brown belt to a black belt), you must defeat an opponent in combat at that level. This guarantees that a new black belt is never a worse fighter than the worst current black belt.

Frustratingly, there is no exact analogue to a fistfight in business, so how can we preserve quality without actual combat?

To begin, start with an extremely crisp definition not only of the responsibilities at each level but also of the skill required to perform the duties. When describing the skills, avoid the generic characterizations such as “must be competent at managing a P&L” or “must have excellent management skills.” In fact, the best leveling tools get extremely specific and even name names: “should be a superstar recruiter— as good as Jenny Rogers.”

Next, define a formal process for all promotions. One key requirement of the process should be that promotions will be leveled across groups. If you let a manager or a single chain of command determine promotions unilaterally, then it’s possible that, for example, HR will have five vice presidents and Engineering only one. One way to level across groups is to hold a regular promotions council that reviews every significant promotion in the company. When a manager wishes to promote an employee, she will submit that employee for review with an explanation of why she believes her employee satisfies the skill criteria required for the level. The committee should then compare the employee with both the level’s skill description and the skills of the other employees at that level to determine whether to approve the promotion. In addition to ensuring fairness and level quality, this process will serve to educate your entire management team on the skills and accomplishments of the employees being submitted for promotion.

Most management teams I've worked with spend too little time on promotions, which encourages politics. Employees see gaps in the process and focus on exploiting them. Another big mistake is hiring by consensus, which leads to hiring for a lack of weakness rather than a strength. This kills organizations.

The Difference Between Good And Bad Organizations

I'll elaborate on this below but here are the contrasts between good organizations and bad ones. Which one do you work for?

  1. In good organizations people can focus on the work and not office politics. They trust that if they do their job well, treat people well, and perform, they will get ahead. They don't spend a lot of time fighting organizational boundaries or routine tasks. They are empowered and entrusted and are accountable for outcomes.
  2. In bad organizations people focus on politics and struggle to do routine tasks effectively and efficiently. The internal processes are so broken that this becomes a vortex into which seemingly all energy is sucked. Almost all projects are “successful” because there is no clear definition beforehand of what success looks like.


This excerpt is from one of the best business leadership books I've ever read: The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

At Opsware I used to teach a management expectations course because I deeply believed in training. I made it clear that I expected every manager to meet with her people on a regular basis.

Then one day, while I happily went about my job, it came to my attention that one of my managers hadn’t had a one-on-one meeting with any of his employees in more than six months. While I knew to “expect what I inspect,” I did not expect this. No one-on-one in more than six months? How was it possible for me to invest so much time thinking about management, preparing materials, and personally training my managers and then get no one-on-ones for six months? Wow, so much for CEO authority. If that’s how the managers listen to me, then why do I even bother coming to work?

I thought that leading by example would be the sure way to get the company to do what I wanted. Lord knows the company picked up all of my bad habits, so why didn’t they pick up my good habits? Had I lost the team? I recalled a conversation I’d had with my father many years ago regarding Tommy Heinsohn, the Boston Celtics basketball coach at the time. Heinsohn had been one of the most successful coaches in the world, including being named coach of the year and winning two NBA championships.

However, he had gone downhill fast and now had the worst record in the league. I asked my father what happened. He said, “The players stopped paying attention to his temper tantrums. Heinsohn used to yell at the team and they’d respond. Now they just ignore him.” Was the team now ignoring me? Had I yelled at them one time too many?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while I had told the team “what” to do, I had not been clear about “why” I wanted them to do it. Clearly, my authority alone was not enough to get them to do what I wanted. Given the large number of things that we were trying to accomplish, managers couldn’t get to everything and came up with their own priorities. Apparently, this manager didn’t think that meeting with his people was all that important and I hadn’t explained to him why it was so important.

So why did I force every manager through management training? Why did I demand that managers have one-on-ones with employees? After much deliberation with myself, I settled on an articulation of the core reason and I called up the offending manager’s boss— I’ll call him Steve— and told him that I needed to see him right away.

When Steve came into my office I asked him a question: “Steve, do you know why I came to work today?”

Steve: “What do you mean, Ben?”

Me: “Why did I bother waking up? Why did I bother coming in? If it was about the money, couldn’t I sell the company tomorrow and have more money than I ever wanted? I don’t want to be famous, in fact just the opposite.”

Steve: “I guess.”

Me: “Well, then why did I come to work?”

Steve: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Well, let me explain. I came to work because it’s personally very important to me that Opsware be a good company. It’s important to me that the people who spend twelve to sixteen hours a day here, which is most of their waking life, have a good life. It’s why I come to work.”

Steve: “Okay.”

Me: “Do you know the difference between a good place to work and a bad place to work?”

Steve: “Umm, I think so.”

Me: “What is the difference?”

Steve: “Umm, well . . .”

Me: “Let me break it down for you. In good organizations, people can focus on their work and have confidence that if they get their work done, good things will happen for both the company and them personally. It is a true pleasure to work in an organization such as this. Every person can wake up knowing that the work they do will be efficient, effective, and make a difference for the organization and themselves. These things make their jobs both motivating and fulfilling.

In a poor organization, on the other hand, people spend much of their time fighting organizational boundaries, infighting, and broken processes. They are not even clear on what their jobs are, so there is no way to know if they are getting the job done or not. In the miracle case that they work ridiculous hours and get the job done, they have no idea what it means for the company or their careers. To make it all much worse and rub salt in the wound, when they finally work up the courage to tell management how fucked-up their situation is, management denies there is a problem, then defends the status quo, then ignores the problem.”

Steve: “Okay.”

Me: “Are you aware that your manager Tim has not met with any of his employees in the past six months?”

Steve: “No.”

Me: “Now that you are aware, do you realize that there is no possible way for him to even be informed as to whether or not his organization is good or bad?”

Steve: “Yes.”

Me: “In summary, you and Tim are preventing me from achieving my one and only goal. You have become a barrier blocking me from achieving my most important goal. As a result, if Tim doesn’t meet with each one of his employees in the next twenty-four hours, I will have no choice but to fire him and to fire you. Are we clear?”

Steve: “Crystal.”

If you liked that you'll love the book — The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. You'll also love this insight from Charlie Munger on bureaucracies.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Ben Horowitz: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The problem with most business books is they present a formula for problems that ultimately have no formula. You're reading something with no practical value and you're not really learning anything. There is no formula for dealing with complexity that's always changing. “There’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble,” writes Ben Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The book is one of the best business books I've read in a long time.

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.

Most management books focus on how to avoid screwing up – or at least covering your ass if you do. Ben provides insight into what to do after you screw up.

Just because there is no formula doesn't mean things are hopeless. Advice and experience can help guide us. But that's the difference between Ben's book and most: he shows you what it's really like to make hard decisions, without offering you a three step formula. Horowitz walks you through his considerations, deliberations, thoughts, mistakes, regrets, difficulties. Through that journey, we learn. “Circumstances may differ, but the deeper patterns and the lessons keep resonating.”

Fear. Here is an interesting point on fear that's representative and telling.

It taught me that being scared didn’t mean I was gutless. What I did mattered and would determine whether I would be a hero or a coward. I have often thought back on that day, realizing that if I’d done what Roger had told me to do, I would have never met my best friend. That experience also taught me not to judge things by their surfaces. Until you make the effort to get to know someone or something, you don’t know anything. 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.

Seeing the world through different lenses.

Looking at the world through such different prisms helped me separate facts from perception. This ability would serve me incredibly well later when I became an entrepreneur and CEO. In particularly dire circumstances when the “facts” seemed to dictate a certain outcome, I learned to look for alternative narratives and explanations coming from radically different perspectives to inform my outlook. The simple existence of an alternate, plausible scenario is often all that’s needed to keep hope alive among a worried workforce.

We can't do everything.

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 his 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. It was the first time that I forced myself to look at the world through priorities that were not purely my own. I thought that I could pursue my career, all my interests, and build my family. More important, I always thought about myself first. When you are part of a family or part of a group, that kind of thinking can get you into trouble, and I was in deep trouble. In my mind, I was confident that I was a good person and not selfish, but my actions said otherwise.

The best thing about startups.

Marc (Andreessen): “Do you know the best thing about startups?”
Ben: “What?”
Marc: “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.”

The type of friends you need in your life.

No matter who you are, you need two kinds of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens, and you need someone who will be excited for you. Not a fake excitement veiling envy, but a real excitement. You need someone who will actually be more excited for you than he would be if it had happened to him. The second kind of friend is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong—when your life is on the line and you only have one phone call. Who is it going to be?

Doing the hard things, not the fun things. Ben had a lot of mentors, Bill Campbell was one of them. Being present and letting people know where they stand is incredibly important. Four star General Stan McChrystal couldn't have been the leader he was without being out there with the troops sleeping in the same conditions with the same risk. Here is an incredibly important lesson on leadership that most people miss.

After seven weeks, we came to an agreement with EDS. They would buy Loudcloud for $ 63.5 million in cash and assume its associated liabilities and cash burn. We would retain the intellectual property, Opsware, and become a software company . EDS would then license our software to run both Loudcloud and the larger EDS for $ 20 million per year. I thought it was a great deal for both EDS and us. It was certainly far better than bankruptcy. I felt 150 pounds lighter. I could take a deep breath for the first time in eighteen months. Still, it wouldn’t be easy. Selling Loudcloud meant selling about 150 employees to EDS and laying off another 140.

I called Bill Campbell to tell him the good news: The deal was signed and we would be announcing it in New York on Monday. He replied, “Too bad you can’t go to New York and be part of the announcement; you’ll have to send Marc.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You need to stay home and make sure everybody knows where they stand. You can’t wait a day. In fact, you can’t wait a minute. They need to know whether they are working for you, EDS, or looking for a fucking job.” Damn. He was right. I sent Marc to New York and prepared to let people know where they stood. That small piece of advice from Bill proved to be the foundation we needed to rebuild the company. If we hadn’t treated the people who were leaving fairly, the people who stayed would never have trusted me again. Only a CEO who had been through some awful, horrible, devastating circumstances would know to give that advice at that time.

Figuring out what the customer wants is the innovator's job. And innovation requires a combination of skills.

It turns out that is exactly what product strategy is all about—figuring out the right product is the innovator’s job, not the customer’s job. The customer only knows what she thinks she wants based on her experience with the current product. The innovator can take into account everything that’s possible, but often must go against what she knows to be true. As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage.

I've talked about the important role that coding will play in the future. Horowitz offers a simple lessons for programmers and managers alike: “all decisions were objective until the first line of code was written. After that, all decisions were emotional.”

Tell it like it is. When you start losing the truth is the first thing to go and everyone sees it.

One of the most important management lessons for a founder/ CEO is totally unintuitive. My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.

As a young CEO, I felt the pressure— the pressure of employees depending on me, the pressure of not really knowing what I was doing, the pressure of being responsible for tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money. As a consequence of this pressure, I took losses extremely hard. If we failed to win a customer or slipped a date or shipped a product that wasn’t quite right, it weighed heavily on me. I thought that I would make the problem worse by transferring that burden to my employees. Instead, I thought I should project a positive, sunny demeanor and rally the unburdened troops to victory. I was completely wrong.

I realized my error during a conversation with my brother in-law, Cartheu. At the time, Cartheu worked for AT& T as a telephone lineman (he is one of those guys who climb the poles). I had just met a senior executive at AT& T, whom I’ll call Fred, and I was excited to find out if Cartheu knew him. Cartheu said, “Yeah, I know Fred. He comes by about once a quarter to blow a little sunshine up my ass.” At that moment, I knew that I’d been screwing up my company by being too positive.

Why should you it like it is? A few reasons: it builds trust; smart people will see through the lies anyways; it fosters a positive culture and ensures everyone is working from the same page with the same information. The pressure to be positive as a leader is incredible. People are looking to you and you want to inspire them. But the best way to do that is to be real with them. For example, if you're trying to foster a culture where failure is ok, but you don't get up there and talk about one of your massive personal failures, the culture won't even have a chance to change.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is the best business book I’ve read in a long time. Perhaps one of the best ever.

(Image source)

The Ability To Focus And Make The Best Move When There Are No Good Moves

"The indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world."
“The indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world.”

Decisions, where outcomes (and therefore probabilities) are unknown, are often the hardest. The default method problem solving often falls short.

Sometimes you have to play the odds and sometimes you have to play the calculus.

There are several different frameworks one could use to get a handle on the indeterminate vs. determinate question. The math version is calculus vs. statistics. In a determinate world, calculus dominates. You can calculate specific things precisely and deterministically. When you send a rocket to the moon, you have to calculate precisely where it is at all times. It’s not like some iterative startup where you launch the rocket and figure things out step by step. Do you make it to the moon? To Jupiter? Do you just get lost in space? There were lots of companies in the ’90s that had launch parties but no landing parties.

But the indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world. Bell curves and random walks define what the future is going to look like. The standard pedagogical argument is that high schools should get rid of calculus and replace it with statistics, which is really important and actually useful. There has been a powerful shift toward the idea that statistical ways of thinking are going to drive the future.

With calculus, you can calculate things far into the future. You can even calculate planetary locations years or decades from now. But there are no specifics in probability and statistics—only distributions. In these domains, all you can know about the future is that you can’t know it. You cannot dominate the future; antitheories dominate instead. The Larry Summers line about the economy was something like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but anyone who says he knows what will happen doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Today, all prophets are false prophets. That can only be true if people take a statistical view of the future.

— Peter Thiel

And this quote from The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz:

I learned one important lesson: Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same. … I don't believe in statistics. I believe in calculus.

People always ask me, “What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?” Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO. In the rest of this chapter, I offer some lessons on how to make it through the struggle without quitting or throwing up too much.

… I follow the first principle of the Bushido—the way of the warrior: keep death in mind at all times. If a warrior keeps death in mind at all times and lives as though each day might be his last, he will conduct himself properly in all his actions. Similarly, if a CEO keeps the following lessons in mind, she will maintain the proper focus when hiring, training , and building her culture.

It's interesting to me that the skill that stands out to Horowitz is one that we can use to teach how to think and one Tyler Cowen feels is in short supply. Cowen says:

The more information that’s out there, the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.

Ben Horowitz: 5 Reads

Ben Horowitz is the co-founder of Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture firm that invested in Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Foursquare. Of course, they've backed a lot of failures too. But suffice to say that few people think about competition as much as Horowitz so I was interested in seeing his reading list.

He recommends the following reads for managers, entrepreneurs, and investors.

1. The Innovator's Dilemma – Clayton Christensen
Interestingly this is the only business book that Steve Jobs liked. In his biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson wrote that it “deeply influenced” Jobs. Fittingly the book shows why and how most companies miss out on new waves of innovation — they do exactly what they are taught to do in business school.

2. The Black Jacobins – C.L.R. James
This is a powerful history of the Haitian Revolution of 1794-1803, which became the model for Third World liberation movements. A barely literate slave, Toussaint L'Ouverture, led the people of San Domingo against successive invasions by French, Spanish, and English forces. Oh yea, and in the process, he helped form the first independent nation in the Caribbean.

3. Only the Paranoid Survive – Andy Grove
I read this book as part of my MBA program. It's full of common sense, which, while I didn't know it at the time, isn't so common.

4. Focus – Al Ries
This is an interesting pick. Marketing “expert” Al Ries believes that focus is the answer to continued growth and prosperity. You know, the common sense approach that Apple and almost no one else seems to follow these days: focus on core products and avoid the siren song of everything else. Of course, this isn't the only way to success and lots of companies that focus fail while lots of companies that diversify succeed. Notwithstanding that, focus is the key to mindfulness.

5. My Years at GM – Alfred Sloan
This is a book that everyone talks about but few people have read. Bill Gates, who did read it, called it the best business book ever written. Peter Drucker said the same thing. A great story about how to lead, organize, and communicate things at a large organization.