Leadership with Ben Horowitz

Photo credit: Elisabeth Fall

Ben Horowitz started Loudcloud with Marc Andreessen in 1999. He ran the company for eight years and chronicled his experience in his first book The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

In his time running Loudcloud, the dotcom bubble burst, but Loudcloud needed cash so badly that he took the company public in 2001. Loudcloud went through layoffs, downsizing, and a difficult strategic maneuver in which Loudcloud sold its cloud provider business for cash, then used the core competency it had developed to create new software for building and running cloud services. This new software was the core product of the company Opsware, which was sold to HP in 2007 for $1.6bn.

The Loudcloud story looks like a rational, straightforward execution in retrospect, but at many points in the timeline, Ben was unsure he was making the correct decision. As the subtitle of his first book states “there are no easy answers.” 

The Hard Thing About Hard Things tells the story of Loudcloud and Opsware in harrowing detail. Most founders of software companies will end up reading the book at some point when they are building their company, because there are so few books which capture the granular details of what it feels like to run a company.

A CEO is completely alone in their understanding of the company. Nobody else has nearly as much information as the CEO–not the board, not the market, and not the employees. When you are a CEO, there is simply nobody to turn to who can give you the actionable advice that you wish you could have access to. And because there is nobody else, it means that the CEO’s own psychological state is extremely important.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things provides a CEO with solace: while the CEO is alone within their company, they are not alone in the world. Every CEO has a set of issues which they have never faced before, and the CEO can learn to face those issues confidently and competently. 

Like any influential book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things presents the reader with useful answers, but also raises many questions. How can a normal person foster the mentality of a leader? How can a leader convince smart people to follow their direction? How can a seemingly crazy direction be framed as completely rational?

The second book by Ben Horowitz is called What You Do Is Who You Are. This book surveys a set of case studies in leadership, including a Haitian slave revolt, the Mongol empire, and a dominant prison gang. By studying violent environments, Ben frames leadership in the context of the highest stakes. 

These stories are about life and death. When a leader’s performance is measured in blood, it frames the true nature of leadership in the starkest resolution. Ben uses each distilled example as a base case which inducts into broader applications: the cultures of Netflix, Facebook, Uber, and McDonalds are explored alongside editorials about Hillary Clinton and hip hop culture.

Throughout all of these stories, the most important thread is continually reinforced: the leader creates the culture. The culture is the leader. What you do is who you are.

Ben joins the show to discuss his writing, and how he has applied these beliefs to Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm he co-founded and leads today.

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