Building a Business is Hard; Realistic Expectations Can Help

Building a Business is Hard; Realistic Expectations Can HelpAs a business leader, you have a compelling vision for your company and want to inspire others to buy-in and follow you. But feeling obligated to put a positive spin on the struggle to succeed may not be the best way to prepare for the challenge, or to motivate others to join the fight.

In his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, venture capitalist, co-founder of Opsware and best-selling author Ben Horowitz, argues that realism and honesty can help entrepreneurs and business leaders dig in for battle and engage others in problem solving when things invariably get tough.

Getting real

Horowitz is clear that he is not a fan of some of the most popular management and entrepreneurship books. Where most talk about how to set audacious and motivating goals, Horowitz says they are often silent on what to do when you fall well short of goals. Starting a company and even developing a product or service is often the easy part, he says. “But then you get into market and nobody wants it and it gets real hard real fast,” he said in an interview with Stanford University.

Ditto for becoming a leader. Horowitz refers to being a “wartime” CEO trying to succeed in often combative, highly competitive environments where decisions have to be made in rapid fire and under a lot of uncertainty. “It’s not natural, but as a CEO and as a manager, you have to evaluate people’s performance, you have to correct them, you have to make sure they are on task — and you have to learn how to do that in a way that everybody doesn’t hate you all the time,” he says.

He admits to high anxiety and sleepless nights. “I would literally be up at 3 o’clock in the morning and think, why didn’t any of the management books I have read help at all?” he shared in an interview with TechCrunch.

Where to turn

Despite the challenges, Horowitz has been radically successful; Opsware was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2007 and his venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz manages more than $4 billion in assets. Here are some key lessons from his School of Hard Knocks:

  • Build people skills. Most entrepreneurs don’t lack technical know-how but can be weak on human interaction, Horowitz says. “People skills tend to be highly underestimated in terms of the ability to run a company,” he says. “And what I mean by people skills is the ability to understand other people’s motivations . . . how they are going to think about something and where they are coming from and how to relate to that in a way that gets you to the right conclusions about how to build an organization or build a company or make a deal . . .”
  • Remember lessons from being an employee. Think about the frustrations you have encountered working in larger organizations as an employee, such as slow and bureaucratic decision making, and root those issues out of your own business when you’re calling the shots.
  • Tell it like it is and don’t sugarcoat things. If you act more positive than the situation warrants, people will not believe you and will learn not to trust you. If you’re facing a major challenge, share that information honestly with the people who need to know it – employees, investors etc. “My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive,” Horowitz shares.
  • Expect to struggle and don’t quit. “Every great entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg went through the Struggle and struggle they did, so you are not alone,” Horowitz writes in his book. If you can just survive through tomorrow, it may bring an answer you can’t see today. What helps, he advises, is getting all hands on deck to share the burden and remembering that to be great requires meeting great challenges.
  • Stop looking for a silver bullet to magically fix a competitive disadvantage and focus instead on grinding out progress day after day that might enable you to beat the competition. He calls that using “lead bullets.” Recalling a time when Opsware was struggling to regain market position, he says metaphorically, “We had to go through the front door and deal with the big, ugly guy blocking it. Lead bullets.”
  • Hire people for specific strengths they have today. Howowitz argues that too often we select employees based on avoiding weaknesses rather than picking those who best capture the strengths we need right now. “The more experience you have,” he writes, “the more you realize that there is something seriously wrong with every employee in your company (including you). Nobody is perfect.”

If it were easy to found and grow a new business, Horowitz would have titled his book something like, From Entrepreneur to Easy Street. He called it The Hard Thing About Hard Things to counter what he sees as an over-reliance on positive thinking at the expense of developing realistic expectations and approaches that can help you weather the journey. Perhaps the most important lesson he offers is in his final advice: “Embrace the struggle.”