I am reading “The Hard Thing About Hard Things” by Silicon Valley legend Ben Horowitz. I picked it up because I knew I would learn something, but also because I just liked the title. Horowitz is good at the pithy tautological truism (“The only thing that prepares you to run a company is running a company.” )
Also, it must be said, I rather enjoy hard things (ultramarathons; climbing Shasta; hiking the AT; making French pastry).
Launching a business is most definitely one of life’s hard things. It is not enough to have a good product. In fact, a good product is what we social scientist researchers call “a necessary but not sufficient condition”. You can have the greatest product in the world, but you have to bring all kinds of other competencies to the table in order to get it noticed, bought, liked, and bought again. If these things don’t happen, you don’t have a business, no matter how wonderful your product is.
I hear people talk about entrepreneurs being their own bosses and I say that’s all well and good but you *also* have to be your own employee, and then you have to decide if you’re going to be a good one, or a great one.
You also have to be your own accountant, marketer, saleswoman, IT support staff, shipping and receiving…. and of course, your own labor. Until you can afford to hire someone to clean the bathroom…someone has to clean the bathroom. And you better be much much better than average at all of it, or you won’t have a business.
I called the garbage collection company because they didn’t come out two weeks out of four last month, and our garbage situation reached crisis levels. I called them and we worked it out, but when the monthly bill came, I noted that it reflected four pickups when one – and nearly two – were missed. When I called them, the service rep said, Oh we don’t take anything off the bill if we miss. You just gotta let us know.
So you get paid as if you’re doing the job, and rely on us to tell you when you’re not? I asked, and the customer service rep agreed, yes, this is the way it’s done.
You always hear people talk about passion in business but the real thing that succeeds is perseverance. Last week it was trouble with the credit card account, which for some reason doesn’t show up on my online account activity. Also the dishwasher, which has been life changing (hours spent on cleaning can now be spent on sales, plus my fingernails no longer peel off like decals) but has come accompanied by the most amazing flurry of invoices with strange codes and impossible-to-decipher commercial dishwasher insider lingo (4 THX SPL for X800 Mod SP 60 OZ, for example, means “case of soap’).
This week it’s the blast chiller door which is not closing properly and though the box remains an icy 25, cold air seeps out in little vapor trails shaped like dollar signs. The vents in the ceiling aren’t venting because the painters painted over the ceiling screens, so we had to crawl up to the roof and fix that because summer is here and by 11a every morning the place feels like the devil’s own furnace, especially when you are scalding milk to 180 degrees plus for the batter, or once we get the big rotating convection ovens fired up.
There are other things, too – things with the accounting software and the air compressor, and my first attempt at an income statement and a business plan. I tackle and retackle these tasks, feeling as if the ground is constantly slipping away underneath me. (Everything is hard when you don’t actually know what you are doing, Horowitz writes understatedly).
On the other hand we have three new customers carrying our canelés so clearly freeing up time from washing dishes to sell more delicious is working.
People raise their eyebrows when I tell them the plan for Cafe Canelé. Friends tease me. “Baking, eh?” said one. “Seven years of post-graduate education, shot down the drain!” I tell him, baking is what I do…it is not what I *am*, but he just snorts. You probably don’t even remember how to do a conjoint tradeoff analysis, he sneers. I tell him I employ the principles of price elasticity modeling all the time, but he just stares pointedly at my apron, which has chocolate stains on it.
In other news the investor platform Circle Up tells us we are not a good fit at this time, but we are welcome to appeal the decision. I do, though I know it’s probably futile and will likely only earn me another opaquely worded rejection, which it does. I keep reading how investors are all jumping on the Lean In bandwagon, but so far have yet to see any of that love result in actual women’s businesses actually getting funded.
“These guys are at home coding with no social life,” one VC was quoted as saying when explaining why hoodie-wearing twenty-somethings were the safest investment bet. “You know what you’re getting with these guys.”
I can’t blame them for wanting only to invest in Zuckabees….most of us do what’s easy and safe and then build all kinds of complex ex post facto edifices to prop up the logical inevitability of our choices. When in fact, people more often than not hire, invest and trust on their gut, their hunches, and their first impressions all the time. I have been the beneficiary of such, myself, hoodie or not – it’s how I got my coveted job at the most famous beer brand in the world, not because of my Ph.D. from a Big Ten school, not because of my SAS coding capability, and not because of my 3.96 GPA, but because I went to school on an athletic scholarship. The hiring managers at this famous beer company had a soft spot for jocks, and just like that I was in.
I tell my employees about the Circle Up rejection and have to fight only a little to keep the shine out of my eyes and the shake out of my voice. You can’t take no personally, I say. Especially not the impersonal form letter these guys tossed off, I think but don’t say.
The Starbucks guy pitched more than 200 times before he got a yes, one of my employees reminds me chirpily, and I briefly consider pelting her with canelés but decide that is ultimately too much like a reward.
Besides, she’s right – an entrepreneur has no choice but to look at the word no as just another stepping stone to yes. And anyway, it may not matter…with more and more customers coming on line, it looks like the bootstraps might, just might, get long enough and strong enough to hoist us up the ladder to positive revenue flow, no outside investment help needed.
Then the battle really starts, as King Arthur found once Camelot was built. In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Horowitz seems to agree, saying “by far the most difficult skill I learned as a CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology…it’s like the fight club of management: the first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.”
I laugh when I read this because talking about the meltdown isn’t necessary….all my employees have to do is wait for Cryday Friday, as I’ve come to call it. The end of another Sisyphean week sometimes (well, often) finds me emotionally threadbare. I used to castigate myself fiercely for crying “like a girl” but I’ve found it’s surprisingly commonplace. The two London School of Economics grads who pay me rent to incubate their business (they are launching a raw almond milk company) laugh merrily when they tell me about crying parked on the side of the highway on their way to JFK after an investor meeting in which the investor failed to even show up.
Building a multi-faceted human organization to compete and win in a dynamic, highly competitive market turns out to be really hard, says Horowitz, and though this seems incredibly elementary-my-Dear-Watson obvious it cheers me immensely to read it.
I am further cheered when I find it is not too late to register for the Vermont 50 ultra marathon race in the fall. I ran it once before, in pouring, icy, driving rain. At one point in the race, officials told me, you need to make up 8 minutes between here and the next aid station, or we’ll have to take you off the course, we’re closing it because of weather.
I hadj just completed mile 30 when I received this ultimatum – drenched and shivering, I’d already run one whole marathon and here they were telling me (and smiling laconically while they did it) that I had to run *another* marathon, even faster, with wet shoes and socks to boot.
Eight minutes is a lot of time to make up in a five mile stretch, and this particular part of the course was mostly uphill and so muddy my shoes kept getting sucked off. I figured I probably would end up getting taken off the course, but a funny thing happened as I hammered up the trail, warm tears mixing with the cold rain streaking my face: I found I *could* go faster, a little. And then, a little faster still. Until I made up not just eight but a full ten minutes; the bike escort with the walkie talkie that they’d sent to monitor my probable demise kept pounding his handlebars in excitement and hollering at me “Now THAT is what an ulramarathoner LOOKS like!”
It was the strongest performance I’d ever turned in at a race, and it came just after the absolute worst performance.
I didn’t know I had that in me, I told one of the officials milling around after the race, and he smiled. It’s amazing what can happen when you just keep going, and don’t quit, isn’t it? he commented, and I agreed. Keeping on going is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for being a successful runner. According to Horowitz, it’s the quality that separates great CEOs from the meh ones, as well.
“Whenever I meet a successful CEO,” he writes, “I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say: “I didn’t quit.”
Keep going, friends.