A Q&A With Ben Horowitz On His New Book, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things”

horowitz-disruptSF2012Ben Horowitz’s new book on entrepreneurship and company building, The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building A Business When There Are No Easy Answers, is officially out, and it’s the polar opposite of many of the management books CEOs and founders are advised to read (you can read our review of the book here). We also sat down with Horowitz to talk about his inspiration, his honesty, what surprised him about writing the book and more.

Leena: One of the things that I found was super interesting about the book was how honest you were. Have you always been this honest and forthcoming or did it come out in the book?

Ben Horowitz: I would like to use that Drake quote, “I always tell the truth so I’m good in every hood spot.”

So one, it was something I learned a little bit as being CEO. I never forget it, because I used to try and be a positive leader. I believe all that Jack Welch stuff. It’s all about positivity, and your attitude determines your altitude and all that, and people had to feel good about it. But in reality companies are what they are and nobody has ever worked anywhere where everything is perfect. And so pretending that things are perfect isn’t actually very effective.

And then it’s not effective in that people don’t believe you and then it’s also not effective in that you can’t get people to solve problems that you won’t admit you have. And as CEO there are so many problems that you personally can solve, so getting the company to work on them is very important.

Pretending that things are perfect isn’t actually very effective.

And it was my brother-in-law who pointed that out to me. He was working at AT&T. He is a pole climber, and I was asking him about an executive who I had met, and he was like, oh yeah, Chuck comes by every once in a while and blows a little sunshine up my ass.

How could you not get that? How could you not understand that?

So that caused me to change my approach and I found honesty to be much more effective. But still, I don’t know that I could have written this book when I was CEO. I think that would have been hard, just because the company comes first and people always assume you have a very specific agenda when you are CEO, even if you don’t.

Leena: Why was now the right time for the book?

Ben Horowitz: It was this weird combination of stuff. So I had thought about writing kind of a series of blog posts, which I was going to call CEO Tales, which is a lot of what’s in the book. But then at the same time, a publisher from HarperCollins was on me. She tracked me down on Facebook and asked me if I could write this book please, please, please?

Leena: Had she read your blog posts?

Ben Horowitz: She had read the blog posts and she was into them.

And then, I had been working with AJWS [American Jewish World Service] on this — like this women’s rights thing was really starting to overwhelm me psychologically, just what was going on, because I didn’t fully understand, like, how pervasive it was. So I felt that it would be nice if I could do something to draw attention, and I was like, okay, could I start a movement? And you need a platform to start a movement or to get momentum.

So all those things made me go, okay, maybe I should just write this as a book and then maybe people will like it and then I can get money for AJWS.

Leena: In the book, you talk a lot about writing and how sometimes that’s a good exercise for CEOs or founders to do to clarify their thoughts or to express some of their feelings. When did you start writing, and is that something that you have been doing for a long time?

Ben Horowitz: I actually got into trouble, it was my first job, when I was working at Silicon Graphics, I used to do a lot of these long entertaining pieces, some which were not appropriate in companies, and probably the stuff that people would write who work for places like TechCrunch. They were like, wow, that’s not appropriate. But it was who I was. I couldn’t help myself.

And then when I became a manager, the first thing that I wrote that stayed around was this “Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager” piece. And it was really a way to communicate to people who just didn’t know how to do the job and I felt like I was trying to teach them one by one, one at a time and so forth. And there was no context, and no framework, and they would come in, although they had product management experience, but they wouldn’t have understood it the way I understood it.

You have to keep looking for a move. Even if you are dead and buried and they have shoveled dirt on you, you have got to keep looking.

So I felt like there is real power in the written word in that, one, people can go back and read it again if they didn’t get it. You can refer to it. And then if you make it a story, if you give it life, as not just like a bunch of facts, if you give it some personality, then it affects people because it makes them feel a certain kind of way. It makes them get a certain emotion when they read it. And then they can come back to that emotion and say, okay, that’s what I need to feel when I am doing this. So from a leadership standpoint I always felt like — which is how I ended up putting the rap quotes in — you are really trying to get somebody to feel a certain way and then they can do a certain thing in the way you intended it, but they have got to have the right feeling about it to do that.

It’s a little bit of an abstract concept but you kind of deal with — like there are things that you can learn about how to deal with people, but in the heat of the moment you are not going to do it unless you really understand what is the emotional motivation that’s driving them and what should be driving you and what kind of company do you want at the end. As opposed to, like, how can you avoid this conflict or maneuver them into doing what you want them to do or something like that, which has bad consequences.

Leena: Was there one segment or chapter in the book that was harder to write than others? Was there one that just kept you up at night?

Ben Horowitz: Some of them were harder. So the easy ones were the ones that were overwhelmingly emotional in retrospect. One of the easiest ones for me to write was the one about the Loudcloud IPO. All those things were so vivid, like it’s just getting back to me like in Technicolor.

The trickier parts to me were some of the stuff in the beginning because I was writing about my friends and family and I didn’t want to be corny or inauthentic, and I didn’t want them to be offended because they are not in print; they don’t live in that world. So if I wrote something that they didn’t like about themselves, that would be horrible, so that was tricky.

You don’t want the reader to go, okay, this is just like a bunch of mush mush; and then you don’t want them to go like, how can you say that about me?

Leena: One of the chapters was titled “Take care of the people, products and profits in that order,” and that’s not the traditional Wall Street way of thought, but it is more of a Silicon Valley way of thought. Do you feel like you could potentially be able to convince an entire industry like Wall Street or more to change their methodology of thinking?

Ben Horowitz: I think it’s a time horizon issue. And actually Chris Dixon had some funny tweets about this where he said, the time horizon of a tech company is like 10 or 20 years. Wall Street’s horizon is one quarter. So if your time horizon is short, it’s very hard to think about it that way, because who cares about the people, when the next quarter I will get new people, right? If you are living quarter to quarter, it’s pretty tricky.

I do think that the people on Wall Street or in banking will have to take a long view of the world to distinguish themselves. I mean, Allen & Company, we base a lot of what we do here on them and they definitely are all about taking a very long view, and I think it brings them to a view of people that’s different, and they do kind of start with people in the same way.

So I think if you are thinking long-term, you are going to maximize long-term profits if you have better order. I hope it influences people that way.

Leena: You also write about taking the hard path as a CEO and deriving courage, and a lot of what you do requires courage versus fear. Where do you get your courage from and where would you advise people to get their courage from?

Horowitz: It’s scary. I still get scared. I mean, to me the quote I think about is what I heard from Cus D’Amato from Mike Tyson. He said the difference between a hero and a coward is not what they feel. Because for me, I feel the scariness, the fear, but to know that feeling doesn’t mean that you are a coward, and you can still be a hero, it’s just what you do that matters that has had a huge influence on me.

That quote had really had a big influence on me, and so I always come back to that and think who do you want to be, a hero or a coward? Do you want to have the courage to do this or not?

And it didn’t make me feel any better at the time, but I at least processed it, and I think a lot of people don’t process it. They get that feeling and then it creates the behavior, and to separate the feeling from what you do is — but it’s a real discipline, but like Mike Tyson, I think he could do it. I think that’s an amazing thing.

Leena: If you were to go back and give yourself some advice now on those tough days, what would you have told yourself?

Ben Horowitz: Well, the thing that would have made me feel a lot better if I would have known how it was going to turn out–

Leena: That you were facing an acquisition of well over a billion dollars?

Horowitz: Well, it was so certain in Silicon Valley that we were not going to make it. I could tell by the way my board was looking at me. And then I can never forget I had this funny meeting with [Sequoia Partner] Doug Leone years later and he was like, how is that even possible that you guys survived that? And it looked impossible when we were in it.

I had so much worry in those days and that was a big motivation to write the book. I would literally be up at 3 o’clock in the morning and think, why didn’t any of the management books I have read help at all?

And the thing that I at least knew was you have to keep looking for a move. Even if you are dead and buried and they have shoveled dirt on you, you have got to keep looking. But I never expected to find it, I just knew that was all I could do. It would have made it a lot easier if I had a kind of a bigger belief that I was actually going to find the answer; I didn’t. It was so hard. I had so much worry in those days and that was a big motivation to write the book. I would literally be up at 3 o’clock in the morning and think, why didn’t any of the management books I have read help at all? There was zero help in the entire body of literature, and it was just amazing.

Leena: Did you do this to help founders?

Ben Horowitz: I would have never wanted to write another management book. There are so many of them and everybody says the same thing about them, and they are all the same — they give the exact same advice. It’s like a diet book. They all say eat less calories, exercise more, and every single book has the same conclusion. So I didn’t want to write another one of those.

But having been on the other side, I really felt like there was a missing book, which was what happens when everything goes wrong, and you have set it all up right. You have set smart objectives or whatever the hell you have done, and the market moved, the world moved, and you are just sitting there holding the bag. What do you do? And it’s not even what do you do it’s how do you even think about it and how do you process it? What should you be doing with yourself?

And there were a few kinds of things out there. Andy Grove has this great passage in “Only the Paranoid Survive” where he has got to sell the memory business off, which was like 80 percent of their revenue or whatever, or 80 percent of the employees, and he tells a story about the scene in a movie where a guy goes outside and like smokes a cigarette and is just like sitting there going, fuck. And it was a very good visual.

That was a really good explanation of the real issue. If you go left, it’s bad; and if you go right, it’s bad. Left for him was lay off 80 percent of your employees and right was fail as a company, but you have got to go left. You have to go outside, smoke a cigarette, have a talk with yourself and go left. And it was only a page in his book and there just needed to be more content like that.

Leena: How often do you share these stories and lessons from your personal experience with the entrepreneurs and founders you have worked with?

Ben Horowitz: Well, it’s tricky because I always am a little bit sensitive to, “when I was a boy we walked 12 miles in the snow.” So I’ve tried to only share them when like there was time to tell the whole story with all the trauma so it could make them feel better, not worse about themselves.

You have set smart objectives or whatever the hell you have done, and the market moved, the world moved, and you are just sitting there holding the bag. What do you do?

Like, you didn’t screw up your company nearly as bad as I screwed up my company; just let me tell you how I did it. So there have been occasions — a lot of times if a company has a layoff or hits a really bad point or something, where I will go and I will talk to the employees and I will say, look, let me tell you about a really bad point, this is what happened with my company, and then this is how we got it together and turned it around.

And it only works if there is time for me to tell the long version, which is why the book is good, because you assume people are going to read it.

Leena: You talk a lot about the CEOs you respect: Bill Campbell, you talk about Marc Andreessen, many, many others. Is there anyone in this current generation of entrepreneurs and founders who you see as being able to be a really good CEO and founder?

Ben Horowitz: Yeah, there are some really good young CEOs out there. And there are some good getting-older CEOs who are, as well– I think what Larry Page has done at Google has been phenomenal. He has really, really been good on these issues. And Mark Zuckerberg has been very good at Facebook, of course.

And there is a lot of kind of way-earlier-on CEOs who are developing, where they are going to be really good; I think Ben Silbermann at Pinterest falls into this category– he is very hard on himself, but he is really good.

Leena: It sounds like you are pretty hard on yourself, too.

Ben Horowitz: You beat yourself up. Well, because you do — and if you are a husband, you don’t know how to be a CEO, like you just don’t know how to do it, there is no way you can walk into that job and know how to do it. And so as a result you screw up an incredible number of things.

And when you screw them up, the people who work for you pay the price, and it’s a disturbing kind of thing. It freaks you out. And then you can bury your head in the sand and say, oh, well, this is just how companies go. But that’s not actually a good answer because you do need to still fix them, or you are going to completely melt down and that’s not a good answer, either. So you have to be on the brink of melting down I guess.

Leena: What was the most surprising thing that you learned after writing the book?

Ben Horowitz: The most surprising thing to me about the book has been that kind of people who are not CEOs and not even in business have really liked it.