Clean up your shit

I’ve just started reading „The Hard Thing About Hard Things“, a book about personal experiences building startups by Ben Horowitz, well-known to entrepreneurs and venture capitalists as a partner of Marc Andressen at a16z. It’s the best business-related book I’ve read for a long time.

Although on a different level, I have experienced pretty much the same as Ben has: the ups and – even more often and more distinct – the downs of running startups. Ben has co-founded Loudcloud, sold its hardware unit to EDS, went on with the software unit named Opsware and sold that to HP a few years later. What sound as a success story – which it definitely is, looking at the final sale – is more a roller-coaster thing garnished with near bankruptcies, massive layoffs, and more. Most of the time, Ben and his colleagues must have felt rotten – even the day before the IPO is described as one of the darkest days (because of the circumstances of the financial crisis, a very bad valuation, etc.).

I don’t know Ben personally, but what I know of him is that he comes across as youngish, positive and active guy – always smiling and offering advice to fellow entrepreneurs. And this is the most compelling aspect of his book: he has seen it all (besides going bankrupt) and he takes it easy. Apparently he always accepted situations and circumstances as they were, and then tried to give his personal best to survive even the darkest business moments.

Being an entrepreneur, at some time there will be this situation you always wanted to prevent. Either you miss revenues significantly and won’t get your next round of financing closed, or your product relaunch leads into disaster: most of your existing customers react furiously, delete your app and cry foul on social media channels. Being the guy in charge, you are the one to go through that fire, first. Ben offers good advice here:

„If you’re going to eat shit, don’t nibble.“

Means: if you have to experience a very bad situation, don’t try to prevent the smaller, additional negative outcomes, but tackle them all – directly. If the situation is bad, very bad – you don’t have to act as if some of its aspects were still ok, but take full responsibility, act transparently, and show the world that you fucked it up. And then, start changing the situation.Regard it as something that can help you to start afresh. Shit is shit but it can be put away. Just look at the modern dog owner, happily tidying up his pet’s excrements, getting applause from bystanders for being socially responsible.

A few years ago, being the CEO of YiGG, a news aggregation site, I oversaw a relaunch that was ultimately important, should become the company’s basis for significantly higher revenues and should be the narrative basis for our future exit story.

It flopped.

After weeks full of hard work, we launched at 3am, when everybody besides us was asleep. I went to bed and advises my wit not to wake me before 10am. She woke me up at 8 – our Director of Communications was on the line: „Michael, it’s terrible – they hate the new design.“ I wanted to time-travel, but unfortunately I had to go back to work and eat shit.

My key takeaway form being an entrepreneur is that there is nothing (business-related) that might kill you. If you are an entrepreneur by heart, you will have the perseverance to use obstacles against themselves. And – trust me – there’s nothing better than having successfully cleaned up your own shit. So – go and read Ben’s book, and then act accordingly.

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