The Hard Thing About Hard Things - Book Review

If there's one feeling that you will be left with after reading Ben Horowitz's 'The Hard Thing About Hard Things' is that you'd be kicking yourself for not having read it earlier. In my opinion, it is the definitive guide to doing business whether you're an entrepreneur, a sales guy, a product manager or a team leader in any department. 

Image picked up from Google image search

Image picked up from Google image search

One of the primary motivations for me to pick up 'The Hard Thing about Hard Things' is the essay titled 'Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager'. This was first featured in the book and has been widely touted as a 101 reading for all aspiring product managers. And rightfully so. I had read that essay a couple of years ago and it outlines the qualities of good product managers and how most fall into the trap of certain bad habits. It's essentially a list of dos and don'ts. A good product manager makes a team a winning one, whereas a bad product manager creates negative value for the team. The essay can be read here.

But moving on to the book on the whole, it was an easy read. I suspect this would even be entertaining for a reader if s/he is not well versed with business jargon. Each chapter comprises of the choicest anecdotes from Ben's expansive career from Netscape to Loudcloud to Opsware to HP and finally a16z. All of these stories, if not relatable, will evoke a sense of empathy with Ben's narration. I love the honesty and the struggle behind each of the big decisions Ben, as an entrepreneur, had to make.

'The Hard Thing  About Hard Things' succeeds like no other business book because it embraces failures while instilling advice and leaving you with memorable takeaways. Sure, what you may face as a future entrepreneur may or may not mirror Ben's or Marc's (Andreessen) struggles but the learnings are timeless and many of them can be applied in different scenarios. For example, no matter what team you lead, your team members will have the base expectation of you not bullshitting them. Many team leads and CEOs fall prey to this. This is one of the basic principles that is hammered to the reader with many of the stories. Some of the other key lessons that Ben talks about is going against the grain of the executive management or board members. Important decisions often get swayed by group-think or risk-averseness. It's your job as a CEO/manager to champion the tough decisions especially when you have corroborating evidence of a positive hypothesis, whether data leads you that way or it's customer feedback or market research, what have you.

As you progress through the book, you will realize that Ben's narration pretty much covers the major events in the life cycle of a company. Some of those are:

  • Working in a startup and scaling it 
  • Product - Market fit
  • Fending off competition from incumbents
  • Excelling at sales
  • Knowing the true value of your company/product
  • People management as your company scales
  • Knowing when to go public with your company
  • Knowing when to get acquired

One criticism that this book faces is that most of the stories predate the current millennial-tech-ecosystem. Okay that's not really a thing (or is it?). But I hope you get my drift. The companies mentioned in examples by Ben aren't glamorous but they're hardcore businesses which survived the 2000 dot-com bubble, made hundreds of millions of dollars and one even being valued at $1.6 billion dollars in the mid 2000s. If those aren't great benchmarks, I don't know what are. Just because a Snapchat may have a completely different model, doesn't mean that their teams don't struggle with sales or people problems. A lot of the learning in this book stems from principles of doing business and handling situations.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is not an entrepreneur's playbook to success but it's a warning to that lot that...well...shit happens! And when you realize that you've been dealt a bad hand, Ben proves that there are still ways to maneuver through them and come out standing. It's a book to be re-read multiple times! 

I'm going to wrap this up by quoting some of my favorite lines from the book. There are many to choose from but these quotes were an instant home-run for me and they left me nodding profusely in agreement. 

"Note to self: It’s a good idea to ask, “What am I not doing?"

"Take care of the People, the Products and the Profits - In that order."

"If you're going to eat shit, don't nibble!"

"A healthy company culture encourages people to share bad news. A company that discusses its problems freely and openly can quickly solve them. A company that covers up its problems frustrates everyone involved."

"Having dogs at work and yoga aren't culture!"

 

Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers

It's book review time. Since its release, Traction has become a fairly popular book, often recommended to start-up founders, aspiring entrepreneurs and anyone who is keen on growing a business exponentially. After having spent a significant time in early-stage ventures, I decided to give this book a shot to see if it resonated strongly with me. 

Traction starts off by emphasizing greatly on a method they call the 'Bullseye Framework'. True to its name, it is a process which involves narrowing down on that ONE channel which will give you the most traction initially. This may seem very intuitive but you'll be surprised how many companies get that wrong. In summary, the 'Bullseye Framework' requires you to brainstorm on all possible traction channels, rank them on the basis of potential, run quick tests for hypothesis testing and then finally focus on that identified channel.  As you progress through the book, you'll realize how central this process is for companies (as shown in the examples) in identifying their first channel.

With that as the crux of the book, the authors go on by enlisting 19 different traction channels that have worked for companies across industries. There is a dedicated chapter to each of those 19 traction channels. Some of the obvious traction channels mentioned are SEM, SEO, Display ads and Public Relations. Some of the not-so-obvious traction channels listed in the book are Engineering as Marketing, Community building and Viral Marketing (yup!). Each of those chapters outline the how-to, benefits and impact of the said traction channel. What adds further value are real world examples. One such example is about Mint, a website which helps users with managing finances. On starting up, the company had a goal of signing up 100,000 users in 6 months. By following the Bullseye Framework, Mint realized they could target personal blogs as their first traction channel. This led to 20,000 users signing up even before the official launch of their full-fledged product. Crazy, right? Once the company realized they were exhausting blogs and weren't seeing a spike in growth, they resorted to Public Relations as a channel. This eventually led the company to signing up 1 million users during their first 6 months. 

What I love about this book is that it appeals to both the layman as well as the seasoned marketer. Unlike many "management" books, Traction does not faff about. There's no jargon, no worldly business advice, no bullshit. The book stresses upon a simple framework, emphasizes on hustling hard by rigorously testing traction channels and repeating the process in case of failure. The book also talks about the importance of dividing your time between traction and product development.

Traction is a short read but I can see myself getting back to it whenever I have to ponder upon any of the traction channels mentioned here. If it were up to me, I'd prescribe this book as essential reading for all business school students because this is as real as it gets.

You can buy the book here.