Notes & Quotes: The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

The following are my favorite quotes from Ben Horowitz's The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers.
  1. There are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially knowledge gained from personal experience.
  2. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell says that leadership is the ability to get someone to follow you even if only out of curiosity.
  3. Some things are much easier to see in others than in yourself.
  4. Innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage.
  5. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same.
  6. In any human interaction, the required amount of communication is inversely proportional to the level of trust.
  7. The good of the individual must be sacrificed for the good of the whole.
  8. All 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.
  9. You must recognize that anything you measure automatically creates a set of employee behaviors. 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. Otherwise, the side-effect behaviors may be worse than the situation you were trying to fix.
  10. Sometimes an organization doesn't need a solution; it just needs clarity.
  11. At a macro level, a company will be the most successful if the senior managers optimize for the company's success (think of this as a global optimization) as opposed to their own personal success (local optimization).
  12. People who use the "me" prism find it natural and obvious to speak in terms of "building out my resume" while people use the "team" prism find such phrases to be somewhat uncomfortable and awkward, because they clearly indicate an individual goal that is separate from the team goal.
  13. The Law of Crappy People states: For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with this title.
  14. [Marc] Andreessen argues that people ask for many things from a company: salary, bonus, stock options, span of control, and titles. Of those, title is by far the cheapest, so it makes sense to give the highest titles possible. The hierarchy should have Presidents, Chiefs, and Senior Executive Vice Presidents. If it makes people feel better, let them feel better. Titles cost nothing.
  15. A company is a team effort and, no matter how high an employee’s potential, you cannot get value from him unless he does his work in a manner in which he can be relied upon.
  16. The proper reason to hire a senior person is to acquire knowledge and experience in a specific area.
  17. Some questions that I’ve found to be very effective in one-on-ones:   If we could improve in any way, how would we do it?   What’s the number-one problem with our organization? Why?   What’s not fun about working here?   Who is really kicking ass in the company? Whom do you admire?   If you were me, what changes would you make?   What don’t you like about the product?   What’s the biggest opportunity that we’re missing out on?   What are we not doing that we should be doing?   Are you happy working here?
  18. 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. Two or three times better will not be good enough to get people to switch to the new thing fast enough or in large enough volume to matter. The second thing that any technology startup must do is to take the market. If it’s possible to do something ten times better, it’s also possible that you won’t be the only company to figure that out. Therefore, you must take the market before somebody else does.
  19. Design a way of working that will: Distinguish you from competitors. Ensure that critical operating values persist such as delighting customers or making beautiful products. Help you identify employees who fit with your mission.
  20. All desks at for all time would be built by buying cheap doors from Home Depot and nailing legs to them. These door desks are not great ergonomically, nor do they fit with’s $150 billion–plus market capitalization, but when a shocked new employee asks why she must work on a makeshift desk constructed out of random Home Depot parts, the answer comes back with withering consistency: “We look for every opportunity to save money so that we can deliver the best products for the lowest cost.”
  21. Perks are good, but they are not culture.
  22. Basic steps to organizational design:
    1. Figure out what needs to be communicated. Start by listing the most important knowledge and who needs to have it. For example, knowledge of the product architecture must be understood by engineering, QA, product management, marketing, and sales.
    2. Figure out what needs to be decided. Consider the types of decisions that must get made on a frequent basis: feature selection, architectural decisions, how to resolve support issues. How can you design the organization to put the maximum number of decisions under the domain of a designated manager?
    3. Prioritize the most important communication and decision paths. Is it more important for product managers to understand the product architecture or the market? Is it more important for engineers to understand the customer or the architecture? Keep in mind that these priorities will be based on today’s situation. If the situation changes, then you can reorganize.
    4. Decide who’s going to run each group. Notice that this is the fourth step, not the first. You want to optimize the organization for the people—for the people doing the work—not for the managers. Most large mistakes in organizational design come from putting the individual ambitions of the people at the top of the organization ahead of the communication paths for the people at the bottom of the organization. Making this step four will upset your managers, but they will get over it.
    5.  Identify the paths that you did not optimize. As important as picking the communication paths that you will optimize is identifying the ones that you will not. Just because you deprioritized them doesn’t mean they are unimportant. If you ignore them entirely, they will surely come back to bite you.
    6. Build a plan for mitigating the issues identified in step five. Once you’ve identified the likely issues, you will know the processes you will need to build to patch the impending cross-organizational challenges.
  23. Evaluating people against the future needs of the company based on a theoretical view of how they will perform is counterproductive.
  24. The most important thing that I learned as an entrepreneur was to focus on what I needed to get right and stop worrying about all the things that I did wrong or might do wrong.
  25. The key to getting to the right outcome was to keep from getting married to either the positive or the dark narrative.
  26. Tip to aspiring entrepreneurs: If you don’t like choosing between horrible and cataclysmic, don’t become CEO.
  27. Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.
  28. In life, everybody faces choices between doing what’s popular, easy, and wrong versus doing what’s lonely, difficult, and right.
  29. 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.
  30. So what makes people want to follow a leader? We look for three key traits: The ability to articulate the vision. The right kind of ambition. The ability to achieve the vision.
  31. Truly great leaders create an environment where the employees feel that the CEO cares more about the employees than she cares about herself.
  32. Your goal should be for your feedback to open up rather than close down discussion.
  33. The CEO doesn’t have to be the creator of the vision. Nor does she have to be the creator of the story. But she must be the keeper of the vision and the story. As such, the CEO ensures that the company story is clear and compelling.
  34. I am telling this story today because just when you think there are things you can count on in business, you quickly find that the sky is purple. When this happens, it usually does no good to keep arguing that the sky is blue. You just have to get on and deal with the fact that it’s going to look like Barney for a while.
  35. The difference between being mediocre and magical is often the difference between letting people take creative risk and holding them too tightly accountable. Accountability is important, but it’s not the only thing that’s important.
  36. If I had a tattoo for every time I heard a CEO claim that she’d just hired “the best VP in the industry,” I’d be Lil Wayne.
  37. There are two kinds of cultures in this world: cultures where what you do matters and cultures where all that matters is who you are. You can be the former or you can suck.
  38. So, the judgment that you have to make is (a) is this market really much bigger (more than an order of magnitude) than has been exploited to date? and (b) are we going to be number one? If the answer to either (a) or (b) is no, then you should consider selling. If the answers to both are yes, then selling would mean selling yourself and your employees short.
If you enjoyed the quotes, read the book for yourself!