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Christopher Marks

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

6 min read

I finished reading 'The Hard Thing About Hard Things' by Ben Horowitz today. It's a really fun book, full of start-up war stories and a narrative of "you can achieve what's best for the people you care about [in this case, the company's employees] if you can persevere through hard decisions and embrace uncertainty." I particularly liked his emphasis on finding people with the right motivation to work with, and striving to start a company that people are excited to work for beyond their own material gain. Here are my favorite excerpts:

"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."

"Coach Mendoza began his opening speech, 'Some of you guys will come out here and you just won't be serious. You'll get here and start shooting the shit, talking shit, bullshittin', not doing shit, and just want to look good in your football shit. If you do that, then you know what? Turn your shit in.' He went on to celobrate on what was unacceptable: 'Come late to practice? Turn your shit in. Don't want to hit? Turn your shit in. Walk on the grass? Turn your shit in. Call me Chico? Turn your shit in.'"

"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? Bill Campbell is both of those friends."

"If you are going to eat shit, don't nibble."

"'Gentlemen, I've done many deals in my lifetime and through that process, I've developed a methodology, a way of doing things, a philosophy if you will. Within that philosophy, I have certain beliefs. I believe in artificial deadlines. I believe in plying one against the other. I believe in doing everything and anything short of illegal or immoral to get the damned deal done.' Michael had a way of making things extremely clear."

"An early lesson I learned in my career was that whenever a large organisation attempts to do anything, it always comes down to a single person who can delay the entire project."

"After all that we had been through, how could I ask the team to charge up yet another impossible mountain? How could I muster the strength to do it myself? I felt like I had no more stories, no more speches, and no more "rah-rah" in me. I decided to level with the team and see what happened. I called an all engineering meeting and gave the following speech:

'I have some bad news. We are getting our asses kicked by BladeLogic and it's a product problem. If this continues, I am going to have to sell the company for cheap. There is no way for us to survive if we don't have the winning product. So, I am going to need every one of you to do something. I need you to go home tonight and have a serious conversation with your wife, husband, significant other, or whoever cares most about you and tell them, 'Ben needs me for the next six months.' I need you to come in early and stay late. I will buy you dinner, and I will stay here with you. Make no mistake, we have one bullet left in the gun, and we must hit the target.'

At the time, I felt horrible asking the team to make yet another big sacrifice. Amazingly, I found out while writing this book that I probably should have felt good about it. Here's what Ted Crossman, one of my best engineers, said about that time and the launch of the aptly named Darwin Project many years later:

'Of all the times I think of at Loudcloud and Opsware, the Darwin Project was the most fun and the most hard. I worked seven days a week 8 am-10 pm for six months straight. It was full on. Once a week I had a date night with my wife where I gave her my undivided attention from 6pm until midnight. And the next day, even if it was Saturday, I'd be back in the office at 8am and stay through dinner. I would come home between 10-11pm. Every night. And it wasn't just me. It was everybody in the office. The technical things asked of us were great. We had to brainstorm how to do things and translate those things into an actual product. It was hard, but fun. I don't remember losing anyone during that time. It was like, 'Hey, we gotta get this done, or we will not be here, we'll have to get another job.' It was a tight-knit group of people. A lot of the really junior people really stepped up. It was a great growing experience for them to be thrown into the middle of the ocean and told, 'Okay, swim.' Six months later we suddenly started winning proofs of concepts we hadn't before. Ben did a great job, he'd give us feedback, and pat people on the back when we were done.'

Eight years later, when I read what Ted had written, I cried. I cried because I didn't know. I thought I did, but I really didn't. I thought that I was asking too much of everybody. I thought that after barely surviving Loudcloud, nobody was ready for another do-or-die mission. I wish I knew then what I know now."

"If I'd learned anything it was that conventional wisdom had nothing to do with the truth and the efficient market hypothesis was deceptive. How else could one explain Opsware trading at half of the cash we had in the bank when we had a $20 million a year contract and fifty of the smartest engineers in the world? No, markets weren't 'efficient' at finding the truth; they were just very efficient at converging on a conclusion--often the wrong conclusion."

"'We have a very high churn rate, but as soon as we turn on email marketing to our user base, people will come back.' Yes, of course. The reason that people leave our service and don't come back is that we have not been sending them enough spam. That makes total sense to me, too."

(TBC more quotes tomorrow)