The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

Parker Klein ✌️
Published in
11 min readJan 24, 2022


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There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations

Being scared doesn’t mean you’re gutless. What you do matters and will determine whether you will be a hero or a coward

Do not 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

“Leadership is the ability to get someone to follow you even if only out of curiosity” — Colin Powell

The simple existence of an alternative, plausible scenario is often all that’s needed to keep hope alive among a worried workforce

Whenever a large organization attempts to do anything, it always comes down to a single person who can delay the entire project

Figuring out the right product is the innovators job, not the customers 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. Sometimes only the founder has the courage to ignore the data

Sloppiness is not tolerated

Sometimes the things you’re not doing are the things you should actually be focused on

It’s good to ask “what am I not doing?”

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 chance are nine in ten or one in a thousand; you task is the same

The best skill is 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

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

The struggle is where greatness comes from

Don’t put it all on your shoulders. 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

There is always a move

Play long enough and you might get lucky

Don’t take it personally. Everybody makes mistakes. Evaluating yourself and giving yourself an F doesn’t help

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

Without trust, communication breaks

In any human interaction, the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust

If I trust you completely, then I require no explanation or communication of your actions whatsoever, because I know whatever you are doing is in my best interests

If I don’t trust you at all, then no amount of talking, explaining, or reasoning will have any effect on me, because I do not trust that you are telling me the truth

Telling things as they are is a critical part of building this trust

The more brains working on the hard problems the better

It’s a total waste to have lots of big brains but not let them work on your biggest problems

A brain cannot solve a problem it doesn’t know about

A healthy company culture encourages people to share bad news. A company that discusses its problems geeky and openly can quickly solve them

Managers must lay off their own people

The good of the individual must be sacrificed for the good of the whole

Flowers are cheap, divorce is expensive

By doing everything, you may fail at the most important thing

Don’t always think about yourself first. When you are part of a family or part of a group, thinking only of yourself can get you into trouble. Stop being a boy and become a man. Put first things first. Consider people you care about most before considering yourself

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?

“If you’re going to eat shit, don’t nibble” — Dave Conte

Some things are much easier to see in others than in yourself

What would I do if we went bankrupt? Is there a way to do that without going bankrupt?

If you don’t treat the people who leave fairly, the people who stay will never trust you

Only people who have been through awful, horrible, devastating circumstances can give advice

Humans, particularly those who build things, only listen to leading indicators of good news

There comes a time in every company’s life where it must fight for its life. If you find yourself running when you should be fighting, you need to ask yourself, “If our company isn’t good enough to win, then do we need to exist at all?”

Nobody cares. When things go wrong in your company, nobody cares

All the mental energy you use to elaborate your misery would be far better used trying to find the one seemingly impossible way out of your current mess. Spend zero time on what you could have done, and devote all of your time on what you might do. Because in the end, nobody cares; just run your company

Take care of the people, the products, and the profits-in that order

Taking care of the people means that your company is a good place to work

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. In a poor organization, 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

Being a good company doesn’t matter when things go well, but it can be the difference between life and death when things go wrong. Things always go wrong. Being a good company is an end in itself

Training is one of the highest-leverage activities a manager can perform

If you don’t train your people, you establish no basis for performance management

People quit because they hate their manager; generally appalled by the lack of guidance, career development, and feedback they receive, or they aren’t learning anything: the company wasn’t investing resources in helping employees develop new skills

The best place to start training is on the knowledge and skill they need to do their job; functional training

Being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat

Good product managers know the market, the product, the product line, and the competition extremely well and operate from a strong basis of knowledge and confidence. They take full responsibility and measure themselves in terms of the success of the product. They know the context going in and they take responsibility for devising and executing a winning plan. They are not part of the product team; they manage the product team. They crisply define the target, the “what”, and manage the delivery of the “what”. They communicate crisply to engineering in writing as well as verbally. They don’t give direction informally. They gather information informally. They create collateral, FAQs, presentations, and white papers that can be leveraged by salespeople, marketing people, and executives. They anticipate serious product flaws and build real solutions. They focus the team on revenue and customers. They define good products that can be executed with a strong effort. They think in terms of delivering superior value to the marketplace during product planning and achieving market share and revenue goals during the go-to-market phase. They decompose problems. They think about the story they want written by the press. They ask the press questions. They assume members of the press and the analyst community are really smart. They err on the side of clarity. They define their job and their success. They send their status reports in on time every week, because they are disciplined

Initiate contact and interaction with your peers and other key people in the organization. Write a report on what you learn from each person

Every executive must understand the product, the technology, the customers, and the market

Nothing will accelerate your company’s development like hiring someone who has experience building a very similar company at larger scale

“If you don’t know what you want, the chances that you’ll get it are extremely low” — Tony Robbins

Interview people that are good at what they do to learn from them what they believe is important and made them good

Giving a team a task that it cannot possibly perform is crippling to the team

Many young companies overemphasize retention metrics and do not spend enough time going deep enough on the actual user experience

Once you determine the result you want, you need to test the description of the result against the employee behaviors that the description will likely create

People rarely improve weakness they are unaware of

Every really good, really experienced CEO tends to opt for the hard answer to organizational issues

The proper reason to hire a senior person is to acquire knowledge and experience in a specific area

For engineering managers the comprehensive knowledge of the code base and engineering team is usually more important and difficult to acquire than knowledge of how to run a scalable engineering organizations

Knowing how your target customers think and operate, knowing their cultural tendencies, understanding how to recruit and measure the right people in the right regions of the world to maximize your sales — these turn out to be far more valuable than knowing your own company’s product and culture

The key to a good one-on-one meeting is the understanding that it is the employee’s meeting rather than the manager’s meeting

The manager should do 10 percent of the talking and 90 percent of the listening

The primary thing that any technology startup must do is build a product that’s at least ten times better at doing something than the current prevailing way of doing that thing

You must also take the market before someone else does

If you fail to do both of these things, your culture won’t matter one bit. Culture does not make a company

Why bother with culture at all?

  1. It matters to the extent that it can help you achieve the above goals
  2. As your company grows, culture can help you preserve your key values, make your company a better place to work, and help it perform better in the future
  3. Perhaps most important, after you and your people go through the inhuman amount of work that it will take to build a successful company, it will be an epic tradgedy if your company culture is such that you don’t even want to work there

When an organization grows in size, things that were previously easy become difficult. Communication, common knowledge, and decision making become big challenges as you grow

The first rule of organizational design is that all organizational designs are bad

Basic steps to organizational design

  1. Figure out what needs to be communicated
  2. Figure out what needs to be decided
  3. Prioritize the most important communication and decision paths
  4. Decide who’s going to run each group
  5. Identify the paths that you did not optimize
  6. Build a plan for mitigating the issues identified in step five

The purpose of process is communication

The people who are already doing the work in an ad hoc manner should design a process

When developing a process, focus on the output first, then figure out how you’ll know if you are getting what you want at each step, then engineer accountability into the system

Be mindful of your company’s true growth rate as you add architectural components. It’s good to anticipate growth, but it’s bad to overanticipate growth

Managing at scale is a learned skill rather than a natural ability

The act of judging people in advance will retard their development

Hiring scalable execs too early is a bad mistake

Invest in courage and determination

Focus on what you need to get right and stop worrying about all the things that you do wrong or might do wrong

Generally, someone doesn’t become a CEO unless she has a high sense of purpose and cares deeply about the work she does

The only thing that prepares you to run a company is running a company

Everything is hard when you don’t actually know what you are doing

Even if you know what you are doing, things go wrong

If the CEO can separate the importance of the issues from how she feels about them, she will avoid demonizing her employees or herself

The key to getting to the right outcome was to keep from getting married to either the positive or the dark narrative

Techniques to calm your nerves: make some friends, get it out of your head and onto paper, focus on the road, not the wall

Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid

Great CEOs face the pain. Don’t quit

“I tell my kids, what is the difference between a hero and a coward? What is the difference between being yellow and being brave? No difference. Only what you do. They both feel the same. They both fear dying and getting hurt. The man who is yellow refuses to face up to what he’s got to face. The hero is more disciplined and he fights those feelings off and does what he has to do. But they both feel the same, the hero and the coward. People who watch you judge you on what you do, not how you feel.” — Cus D’Amato

In life, everyone faces choices between doing what’s popular, easy, and wrong versus doing what’s lonely, difficult, and right. Every time you make the hard, correct decision you become a bit more courageous and every time you make the easy, wrong decision you become a bit more cowardly

Knowledge of technology, prior decisions, culture, personnel, and more tends to be far more difficult to acquire than the skills required to manage a larger organization

Smart people do not want to work for people who do not have their interests in mind and in heart

Truly great leaders create an environment where the employees feel that the CEO cares more about the employees than she cares about herself

Great leaders have the ability to articulate the vision, the right kind of ambition, and the ability to achieve the vision

The enemy of competence is sometimes confidence. A CEO should never be so confident that she stops improving her skills

In peacetime, leaders must maximize and broaden the current opportunity. The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission

Keys to giving effective feedback: be authentic, come from the right place, don’t get personal, don’t clown people in front of their peers, feedback is not one-size-fits-all, be direct, but not mean

As CEO, you should have an opinion on absolutely everything

Say what you think. Express yourself

Life is struggle, so embrace the struggle

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Parker Klein ✌️

Former @Google @Qualcomm @PizzaNova. Building the best place to write, remember & share *things*: Twos (