Ben Horowitz’s Best Startup Advice

Ben Horowitz is undoubtedly one of the most well-respected and successful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. He’s known for being both straightforward and kind — an uncommon cocktail of no-bullshit and no-asshole. Wherever he goes, entrepreneurs flock to him like fly to flypaper, hoping for a few minutes to pitch their companies or talk about how his NYT bestselling book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, changed the way they think about startups.

Horowitz is the quintessential contrarian, often turning popular advice on its head. Most recently, he did this during his commencement speech at Columbia University, declaring, “Don’t follow your passion. What you take out of the much less important than what you put into the world. Follow your contribution instead. Find the thing you’re great at, put that into the world, contribute to others, help the world be better.”

While his advice is often unconventional, it makes so much sense that it’s hard not to listen. Even more compelling than perhaps his sheer intelligence and sharp judgment, there’s this feeling you get when you listen to Horowitz: he truly cares about the success of entrepreneurs. He’s been there. He empathizes. He knows personally about the hard things all entrepreneurs inevitably go through.

Recently, Horowitz joined the Product Hunt for a LIVE Chat— by the way, you can find the full schedule of upcoming LIVE Chats here:

In his answers to the community’s questions, his sincerity is almost palpable. Read on for some of the highlights of the conversation.

What advice would you give to founders that most investors or founders would think initially disagree with you on or think is crazy? - Sydney Liu

Nobody who ever built a great company wasn’t ridiculed along the way. If you are driven by social signals, you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur. That’s not say that you shouldn’t ever listen to input, but you have to decide for yourself.

Who are your mentors for work and life? - Andrew Chen

At this point in my life, I would probably refer to them as friends rather than mentors. Bill Campbell and Andy Grove are probably the two that I have learned the most from. Andy’s whole life is a great lesson in how I should live mine. The way Bill listens to people is so advanced that I learn something every time I’m with him. There are other people in other fields. Like Nas. Nas has the ability to see the world in such a radically different perspective. We can listen to the same song and he’ll hear 30 things that I didn’t.

What are the 20% of techniques, mindsets, skills, etc. new/first-time entrepreneurs have that result in 80% (or a large part) of their success? - Troy Shu

The big thing is to focus all of your energy on is product/market fit. Get to a product that people are adopting very quickly, or that you can reliably sell repeatedly. To some extent, everything else — culture, management, etc — is secondary. Don’t take your eyes off the prize.

You released The Hard Thing About Hard Things last year. If you released it today, what lesson would be added (or changed) in the book? - Erik Torenberg

I probably would have put in more war stories. I didn’t know if people would like those, but they definitely did. The biggest surprise about the book’s reception is that I wrote it for a very narrow audience, but everyone from teachers to pastors seems to like it. That’s been shocking.

Some people say there’s a new bubble, especially in the Valley. What are your thoughts on that? Are we headed down a path similar to the one back in 2001? - Juan Antonio Karmy

Having been a CEO in 2001, I don’t think that we’re anywhere near where we were then. Valuations have gotten high in certain tech sectors in the private markets only, but they have actually corrected themselves pretty quickly. For example, enterprise software started to get overvalued privately, but after several companies went public at lower valuations than their last private rounds, the private markets corrected as well. I don’t see a massive crash on the horizon like 2001. In 2001, Nasdaq lost 80% of its value. I’ll bet any bubble believer everything I have that Nasdaq won’t drop 80% in the next 5 years.

The current state of public markets has scared a lot of people, and there is talk of some unicorn and “decacorn” startups being affected. How do you think this downturn will affect early stage companies — or will it? - Mitali Pattnaik

I think that early stage investing, if done right, is pretty disconnected from the public markets. The average venture capital exit is over eight years, so the public markets will change a lot by then. Having said that, a lot of hobbyist investors will stop if the markets crash, and that will make it more difficult to raise money for sure. In addition, if you are a VC and you pay a bubble price, even at an early stage, that can be hard to recover from (for both you and the company) if the climate changes radically.

Which of the unicorn startups do you feel is best positioned to weather the [potential tech bubble] storm and why? - Nicholas Spinazze

Airbnb, because they are a great company with a great culture and a massive network effect. Brian Chesky is amazing.

What do you believe is the best way to get into VC as a young professional? — Ben Center

Start a company or join a startup and learn what the process of building a company feels like. It’s almost impossible to learn any other way.

At what stage should CEOs step away from “product owner,” and broaden their focus to the rest of the business? - Blake McDowall

I wrote a post on that called Why Founders Fail. I don’t think that you step away from the product, but as soon as you get in market, you have to start paying a lot of attention to the rest of the company.

Projecting financials is a difficult thing to do when the numbers are purely hypothetical. Can you offer any input on the best methodology to creating investment friendly financial projections? - Zack Fisch

If you’re an enterprise company, then the best way to do it is probably Salesforce math. In other words, add up the quota of the productive people that you have. If you are a consumer company, financials are usually a derivative of some other metric. I’d just be explicit about how you get there.

If you had to start your career all over again, where would you start today? - Michael Joyce

I think that I would be a bio hacker. Computational biology is the most exciting thing that I’ve ever seen. I’d love to work in that field.

Do you think entrepreneurs are born or made? - Jacob Catalano

To be an entrepreneur, you have to be willing to be completely vulnerable and think entirely for yourself. I imagine those can be learned, but I am not sure.

Are you Startup L. Jackson disguised as Ben Horowitz? :) - William B.

I am not, but I am a big fan of his. As you might of noticed, I tend to say what’s on my mind regardless of whether it’s good for me, so I don’t need a pseudonym.

Top three favorite books? Any books that inspired your own [book]? - Stella Tran

The book that most inspired my book was Andy Grove’s High Output Management. It’s hard for me to list my top three favorites. Some that I like in various categories: The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James, Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Taleb, and Tuff by Paul Beatty.

Outside of work and writing, how do you like to relax? Do you have any hobbies? - Emily Hodgins

My hobbies are hip hop, BBQ, and macroeconomics. @pmarca is better than me at macroeconomics, but I can destroy him in BBQ and hip hop.

Tupac or Biggie? - Josh Voydik

They are both great, but Biggie is a little closer to my personal taste.

Everyone who saw and loved Straight Outta Compton is now officially jealous of Ben Horowitz.

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You can find the full LIVE Chat schedule here:

Editor’s Note: This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.