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Hard Startup Wisdom from VC Ben Horowitz

Hard Startup Wisdom from VC Ben Horowitz

JD_Hard Startup Wisdom from VC Ben Horowitz

Building a startup is hard. I know this because Ben Horowitz told me so, and I’m generally inclined to take his word for it. Of course, you don’t need someone else to tell you that. You live it every day.  What you do need is someone to guide you through the rough patches—someone to give you the hard truths about all the hard problems.

For that, you could fire up the bootstrapped time-machine you can’t seem to nurse out of alpha, turn the clock back to a rainy April evening and see Horowitz give his talk live at the Alley in NYC hosted by the Phat Startup. Not a bad option—though time travel being the wibbily-wobbly mess that it is, you run the risk of landing in 1965 and doing something unwholesome like almost becoming your own father. Awkward business that. Alternatively, you could continue to scroll down and see what Ben Horowitz had to say for yourself. (recommended).

Citing the reasoning for writing his new book, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers,” Horowitz explained, “I felt like nobody was telling the truth about any of it.” In an industry that rattles off euphemisms such as “entrepreneur” when it means “visionary but broke,” or “bootstrapped” when it just means “broke;” one sympathizes. There is a lot of idealism and sugar-coating that aggrandizes the entrepreneurial lifesty;e; and while such a reality might be eventually come true, for those who work at it, it will not be without its challenges, difficulties and hard truths.

Of course, Ben Horowitz isn’t one to sugar coat. He has lived the hard decisions and he’s not afraid to tell you all about them. Want to be an entrepreneur? Put down the coffee. Ben Horowitz is about to give you a wisdom slap to the teeth.

Pucker up.

Decisions, Decisions  . . .

“Cowards can’t lead.”

As a founder trying to get your startup off the ground, every waking hour will feel like a barrage of decisions that need to be made. Things need to be done and questioned answered. The only way they’ll get done, is if you—the CEO—have the guts to make call after call. You have to be the decider. You have to be bold. “You can’t defer a decision” says Horowitz, “You have to realize you’re in that position for a reason.” It’s like a being a quarterback, he says: it’s on you to make the decisions. Those who can’t, often end up on their backs.

“When you’re the founder/CEO, you’re all alone.”

You might have advisors, cofounders, a know-it-all friend, whatever—as CEO it starts and ends with you. You make the calls when it comes down to it, and that means you’re going to have to disappoint someone. “You can’t care about people liking you if you’re CEO,” says Horowitz. “Every decision is not going to be liked by every person.” That’s okay. It isn’t their company, it’s yours. Again, “Cowards can’t lead.” You can be scared, you can question yourself, you can be unsure—but you have to make the decision. “You’re the CEO . . .” says Horowitz, “no one else can make the mistake.”

Friends and Family

“Tell them to get their own f—ing job”

There was a Rockefeller quote Horowitz used here about business and friendships, but is it really more succinct then the above? No. Bottom line, you don’t want freeloaders in your startup. You are a nice person, and you have feelings, and you want to take care of those who stick with you, sure—but all that’s going to do is muddy the water when it comes back down to making the tough calls. Your employees are your employees, and unless you have friends with talent to give you distinct tactical advantages, steer clear away. “A company is not a family. Maybe we’re a team, but you don’t fire family, and you’re going to have to fire your team.” Don’t make things harder on yourself than it will already be.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that you need to lock yourself in a glass case of emotion. “You need someone who believes in you, and understands you, and believes in what you’re doing,” said Horowitz. Since becoming an entrepreneur is basically a 24/7 life decision, you need people in your life who can understand and support that choice. For Horowitz, it’s his wife. “I got lucky,” he says. “The number one thing that was important for me . . . to do one thing, just one thing a week, for my spouse.”

Has there ever truly lived a wiser person?

Evaluating Talent

“What’s true in Silicon Valley is true everywhere . . . People Profile.”

It’s not a secret. The unfortunate fact of the tech world is that there is a lack of women and minorities. By a small margin, that’s beginning to improve, but the rate of change is snail-paced. People are set in their ways. “The problem is, unless you go out and very actively understand the skills of all the different groups, you’re going to stereotype.” Horowitz cites an example of a female founder who only hired women, and when asked why replied that it was because only the women seemed equipped to handle the job. That seems doubtful, but is a good example how ulterior convictions penetrate what should be objective decision making.

“I believe in the individual . . . not age, skin, color. These are weird proxies that can be totally misleading.”

As an entrepreneur/founder/CEO or even an investor, it should go without saying, but you need to keep an open mind. You make the tough decisions, and those decisions are all yours, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put those decisions in check. Actively step back and evaluate why you make the judgments you do. This is something we all know and don’t need to be told, but until it becomes common practice—it bears repeating.

When asked about profiling at the VC level, Horowitz laughed. “Within investing, you have to understand . . . greed trumps all racism.” Money is still the great barrier breaker—which is good. “If you’re starting a company . . . you’re on the grand stage. You have to learn how to be convincing.” This is still a game of money, after all. Prove that you can make it, and the doors will open themselves.

Parting Words

“If you can’t raise money . . . reevaluate your idea.”

Sometimes the hardest decision you’ll have to make is realizing that you need to make wholesale changes, and maybe even have to make a complete full shift. Don’t think of this as losing, but rather, learning. No matter how much you have invested, sometimes “bootstrapped” really does just mean “broke.” “30% of zero is still zero,” says Horowitz. “If you need the money, you’ve got to get the money.” If you can’t do that, if you’re tanking, it’s time to take a look in the mirror. The hardest truth about entrepreneurship is that failure is always the reality. That is something you’ll need to face eventually, try not to let it discourage you.

“Most of my success isn’t from being smart, it’s from not running, not hiding. If you’re not in the game, you can’t win.”

And you can’t play the game if you can’t make the tough decisions. There is no going back. Not unless you finally get that time-machine up and running after-all.

In the meantime, try heeding the wise. (recommended)

About the author: Justin Danford

Justin Danford is a graduate from St. Josephs College where he both studied and fell in love with the English language. Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, he is a writer at heart and a champion of the power of words to change the world. When he is not immersing himself in technology, music, and literature; you can find him writing at ESEAnews.com.

  • Lisa Lane

    What a roller coaster ride that was for me – from “damn straight” to “are you friggin kidding me right now!?” – I’m still nauseous!

    • http://www.thephatstartup.com/ The Phat Startup

      Thanks for reading, I have never ever seen Ben open up the way he did with us. Definitely a dope moment #bossup

  • Rajkanwar Batra

    Great Article Justin. Totally agree with you. However, I found it really interesting how easy it is to spot other’s mistakes rather than your own.

    The difficult bit is being able to see your own mistakes and make changes in time rather than keep doing the wrong things for fear of failure.

    • http://www.thephatstartup.com/ The Phat Startup

      Thanks for the comment, Ben was full of gems that night.

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