Book Review: The Thing Ben Forgot

Dear Ben:

I just read your book, “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers”. I was going to write a review on my blog, but somehow it turned into a personal letter to you. So here goes.

First let me say: congratulations on writing a book! I’ve thought of doing that myself, but have not progressed to actually putting pen on paper (or, should I say, bits on display). I know it isn’t easy.

Let me start with the good stuff …

I think your message is very important, and every entrepreneur should read your book. I’ve been through many hard times myself in helping build Apple, Palm, Handspring and now Numenta. I totally relate to the notion of the “struggle”, and you describe it well. There are thousands of business books out there, so why isn’t it obvious what to do? Surely somebody smarter than me would have figured it out, so what’s the formula? You do a great job of explaining that there is no formula, particularly when you are inventing a product category. Our world is a constant whirl of experimentation, reaction, and adjustment. If you want to be a CEO, you’d better understand that up front.

I love some aspects of your book. One of my favorite parts is when you distinguish between culture and amenities inside corporations. I had this exact conversation with one of my engineers recently! I am very annoyed at the escalating amenities in our little valley, where the competition for talent is so intense that it’s hard to imagine what frills companies will offer next. Amenities are just a form of compensation. Culture, on the other hand, is much more profound and important. It’s how you treat people, what you value, and how you balance the many constituencies that touch your business.

I also love your discussion on how to select corporate executives. This is one of the hardest jobs for a CEO, yet the one with highest impact. You are your team. I especially agree with you that you should hire for today, not for some potential larger future company.

And I agree wholeheartedly with your focus on resilience and courage. I’ve had to do some very difficult tasks at my companies, such as having to negotiate out of a very expensive property lease that we signed just when the internet bubble burst. I also had an IPO road show nearly derailed because a competitor decided to mount an unsubstantiated patent lawsuit that made my lawyers jittery. I learned through this process that the great CEOs can be identified by how they behave in bad times. It’s easy to be a great CEO when everything is going well, but it’s pretty damn tough in the bad times.

Speaking of “damn tough”, here is one area where we disagree. I don’t think it is necessary for profanity to be part of the business culture. You often quote our mutual mentor, Bill Campbell. Well, let me tell you my own story about Bill.

One day, at Claris, I saw an HR manager get up on her chair, and yell out across the cubes, “Hey everybody, get the f— to work!” I found it appalling; she was setting a terrible standard for employee communications. But I knew exactly where it originated: Bill, our dynamic and inspiring CEO, was the biggest offender when it came to swearing.

I marched into his office and told him what I had just heard. I said it was time for him to stop promoting a culture that not only tolerated swearing, but had let it become a standard part of company communications. Bill listened to me, thought for a while, and then said “You’re right!” And he stopped swearing that very day. Okay, he didn’t stop behind closed doors, and our executive staff meetings continued to be punctuated with his very colorful language. But he agreed that a culture of public profanity was not good.

Bad language is not the only way to communicate intensity, and personally I can live without it. Encouraging swearing throughout the company creates a culture of lack of respect, not a culture of urgency, and can be very alienating to those employees who find it offensive.

But most importantly, Ben, there is a critical piece missing from your book, and that’s why I’m writing you this letter. You forgot to say that there are good reasons to go through this struggle. You don’t talk about the rewards of getting it right, of building a great culture, of hiring the right person, and of ultimately having a successful company.

For me, the struggle – which I still engage in — has been worth it for two reasons. (A third, the obvious financial upside, is not my principal driver but sure can be exhilarating!)

First, building businesses makes the world better, and being a CEO multiplies your impact enormously. If you do pull off a successful company, you add value to your customers, create jobs, bring benefit to your suppliers and your community, give financial return to your investors, and simply put, leave a positive mark, or – as Steve Jobs said – put a dent in the universe. Getting a company through these struggles is an act of triumph, the triumph of impact.

Second, some of my deepest friendships and relationships were formed by going through the struggle together. I just attended an Apple reunion of employees from the first ten years. We had gone through enormous trauma together, creating a bond that has remained strong many years later. My Palm, Handspring and now Numenta experiences created more relationships, more bonds with incredibly creative, talented and dedicated people. As CEO, you quickly learn that building a business is a “team sport”, and part of the great pleasure is not just winning — although that’s pretty fine — but playing on the field with a superior team.

I know you’ve experienced both these benefits as well, Ben. Perhaps you took these payoffs for granted, and so neglected to mention them in the book. But for all those entrepreneurs who I hope read your book, I want them to know this: yes, it’s a struggle, but it is worth it.

Donna