I just had a beer with Ben Horowitz. Actually we had a few. We sat in a dark bar, long into the night and swapped stories that only Startup CEO's can tell each other. The deepest, darkest, scariest moments when you're walking the tightrope between success and failure. The moments when you have two options - bad, and worse. The times when you are both excited about the prospects and honest about the challenges.
It was a great, honest, therapeutic beer. And the funny thing is -- I've never met Ben. But he did something remarkable, he wrote a book and told the truth. It was like sitting across from him over a beer.
He said some words that Entrepreneurs don't usually say out loud.
Fear? Never had had to face it.
Terror? No way.
And yet -- reading his book, you can't help but know he's telling the truth. Horowitz was the CEO of Loudcloud, Mark Andreessen's company that created the concept of the "cloud" and then -- with all the opportunity and risk that comes along with being first -- ran headlong into the internet crash of 2000.
The book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, is a take-no-prisoners tell all. But Horowitz isn't spilling the beans on any of his co-workers, or competitors, or customers. He's turning the harsh honest light on himself. And he's brutal -- because, come on folks lets face it, CEO's are human. We make mistakes. We miscalculate, misjudge, and sometimes we're just plain wrong. From Horowitz's perspective it's not about being perfect, it's about how you respond -- and it's about a word I'm not sure I've ever read in a business book before: courage.
The book begins in Berkeley -- and with him as an engineer at NetLabs, the shift to Netscape to work with Marc Andreesen, and the launch of Loudcloud as a rocket ship. And as Horowitz makes clear, no one is born a CEO or goes to CEO school. It's all on the job training. The Loudcloud IPO, the Opsware battle to survive, and the extraordinary meeting with Herb Allen all would be a nail-biter of a dramatic novel, if it wasn't all true.
As Horowitz told Techcrunch; "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."
But there was a book he hadn't read. Not the happy talk, rah rah business book. But an honest telling of all the things that go wrong; "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."
The power of the book is its honest, blow by blow telling of the battle to control his own psychology. He calls it "Fight Club Management." And -- as we know, the first rule is that we don't talk about it. Writes Horowitz; "the first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don't talk about the psychological meltdown. At risk of violating the sacred rule, I will attempt to describe the condition and prescribe some techniques that helped me. In the end, this is the most personal and important battle that any CEO will face."
He calls this battle "The Struggle" -- describing the daily battles between vision and reality, between the bright road ahead and the daily twists and turns of the startup life.
There's no doubt that Ben wrote this book so that you could have a beer with him. Hear his stories of disaster and near disaster, and share some of your own. There's a reason why being a startup CEO is hard. It's supposed to be. And if you're not cut out for all the twists and turns, ups and downs, better to know that now. Sure Horowitz survived, and his company today is doing well -- but the pain and passion that drives us is part of the magic of being a Startup CEO. You don't ever forget the hard parts, which secretly, is probably part of what makes us tick. Winning when it seems like the odds are stacked against you. It makes the winning worth the journey -- and setting your sights high.
I suspect depending on who you are, The Hard Thing About Hard Things is either inspirational or daunting. For me, Ben's honest and spirited portrayal of being a startup CEO simply made sense. You have to love the whole the ups, the downs, and in-betweens. If you're up for the journey -- then every part of it is worthwhile.
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