SAN FRANCISCO — Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz is hailed as a Silicon Valley sage today, but he wanted to be a hip-hop hero when he was in college.
That explains why Horowitz’s new business-building book dispenses management tips with the blunt force of a swaggering rapper rhyming about the harsh reality of life in a poor neighborhood.
Horowitz wants it known that starting a company isn’t for the fainthearted. He accentuates the point with a book title that could also work as a hip-hop album: “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.”
The book distills lessons Horowitz has learned during his 19 years as a manager and then executive at Web-browser pioneer Netscape Communications, AOL, cloud-computing trailblazer LoudCloud and at the venture-capital firm he runs with longtime friend Marc Andreessen.
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“Writing about it was a lot easier than living through it all,” says Horowitz, 47.
As Netscape’s co-founder and an Internet evangelist for the past 20 years, Andreessen has long been regarded among technology’s brightest minds. Horowitz, though, has been quietly building a reputation among high-tech entrepreneurs as the go-to guy for no-nonsense advice.
The book seems likely to burnish Horowitz’s credentials as a management guru. Fortune magazine recently described Horowitz as Silicon Valley’s “stealth power” in a cover story, and his book has received endorsements from high-tech celebrities such as Google CEO Larry Page and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
The book might not be as impressive to readers who are sensitive about profanity and the use of racial epithets.
To punctuate his points, Horowitz quotes the hip-hop lyrics of rappers such as Kanye West, Jay-Z and Nas almost as frequently as he cites the insights of high-tech luminaries like Andreessen, former Intel CEO Andy Grove, former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale and CEO coach Bill Campbell.
His hip-hop references include repeated uses of the N-word, and Horowitz drops “f-bombs” throughout the book.
He believes the coarse language helps convey his message.
“The confrontations and the conversations that I write about in the book are hard,” Horowitz said. “The lyrics I use express the emotional intensity that goes with the logic in the book.”
Sections of the book that cover Horowitz’s eight-year stint as LoudCloud’s CEO depict traumatic times. Horowitz recalls the high hopes for LoudCloud after he and Andreessen started the company in 1999, only to see things quickly unravel after demand for Internet services collapsed amid the dot-com bust in 2000 and the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
LoudCloud flirted with bankruptcy as its losses mounted. Horowitz saved the company by dismantling it. He went through several mass layoffs before selling the bulk of LoudCloud to Electronic Data Systems for $63.5 million in 2002 and then remaking the company into a business-software maker called Opsware.
The transformation didn’t pay off immediately, causing Opsware’s stock to fall as low as 35 cents, raising the specter of failure yet again.
Horowitz endured a lot of heartburn and restless nights, but Opsware eventually bounced back. The big payoff came in 2007 when Hewlett-Packard bought Opsware for $1.6 billion. Horowitz’s stake in Opsware was worth about $85 million when that deal was made.
Although he doesn’t discuss specifics about his wealth, Horowitz has presumably gotten even richer since he and Andreessen started their venture-capital firm nearly five years ago. Andreessen Horowitz manages a $2.7 billion portfolio that includes investments in Facebook and Twitter made before the companies went public, as well as stakes in rapidly growing startups such as room-rental service Airbnb, online-storage service Box and location-sharing service Foursquare.
Horowitz wasn’t raised to be a wealthy capitalist. His grandfather belonged to the communist party and his father was the editor of the New Left magazine “Ramparts” in Berkeley, Calif., where Horowitz grew up.
When he moved to New York to attend Columbia University in the mid-1980s, he became so enamored with the then-new genre of hip-hop music that he formed a group called Blind and Def with two buddies. The group recorded four songs on a tape. Horowitz adopted “Tic-Toc” as his hip-hop identity in the group, but the dream of a big record contract never materialized.
Nevertheless, Horowitz remains in tune with hip-hop culture. Rap lyrics are a staple on his widely read blog. He also blasts the music while hosting parties at his Silicon Valley home, where he grills the succulent delicacies that he says caused his African-American friends to dub him “the Jackie Robinson of barbecue.” He still swears like a rapper, too, as he did while running Opsware, despite complaints of some employees who didn’t appreciate his crude language.
“It is very important to be yourself when you are in a leadership position because if you are not, at some point, everybody is going to figure out you aren’t authentic,” Horowitz said. “If you try too much to be what people want you to be, you are not going to succeed anyway. You have to have the courage to be you.”