Ben Horowitz Calls Them Out

For those that read this blog regularly, you know that I am a fan of Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. While I don’t know him personally, his insights are routinely excellent. His experiences are a part of what makes his advice good advice. Ben has been very public about many of his experiences over the years, including a very bad experience he had with the public accounting firm Ernst & Young. Is being so public about that experience the right thing for Ben to do?

In his book, The Hard Thing About the Hard Things, Ben recounts the tale of a terrible experience he had with his auditor, E&Y, when he was CEO of Opsware. By tell of it, E&Y blew it, on a number of levels, and Ben was right to be more than irate about his experience with them. E&Y was, at the time, wrestling with a particular revenue recognition issue and the problem occurred when they decided against their previous practice with Opsware – and did so on the eve of the company’s IPO no less. The E&Y decision essentially forced Opsware to amend language in nearly all of its customer contracts and do so in only 48 hours – a Herculean task by any measure. What I found most interesting about this, however, was that he called them out so publicly in his book (and probably did so a thousand times in other forums).

There are some real risks to being so public about a business dispute or mishap and at least a couple of good reasons why not doing so might not be the best answer. 

What does Ben stand to gain from being public about his gripe? The satisfaction of demonstrating that he (as an accomplished CEO) is not going to accept a crumby professional service? That he has the influence to affect commercial retribution?  That he has a duty to warn entrepreneurs about the quality of E&Y’s service? Or the reliability (or lack thereof) of service providers generally? Or reinforce with entrepreneurs the important notion that things -- even seemingly straightforward things -- can sometimes go horribly wrong? And the related notion that you can’t be too paranoid when you are the CEO of a company? Perhaps it is all of these things.

Save for the lesson, that he was blindsided by what he thought was an entirely perfunctory exercise, the rest is all about personal emotions, and those emotions must be quickly brought to heel. If not, Ben risks saddling himself with an unforced burden – emotional baggage that could cloud future judgments. It may feel difficult, but the hard truth is that a good leader must train him or herself to move on quickly from the emotion of experiences. Ben might argue that there is no emotion involved – that the facts speak for themselves – and that they are on his side. Fair enough.

The lesson on the other hand, in itself, is very germane. So why is it a bad thing to use the example of a bad experience to make a good point? By itself, it isn’t. Another hard truth, however, is that stuff like this happens routinely in the life of an entrepreneur. Sometimes these experiences are inconsequential. Sometimes they are huge. Most of the time they are somewhere in between. But even if Ben has this “wonderful” example of a terrible experience, he has to move on from returning to it – even as an example – and when he is imparting advice to entrepreneurs, finally get some new material.

Comics need new jokes to keep their audience laughing. Musicians need new songs. Artists, new subjects. And teachers need fresh examples. Else the whole message will quickly become stale – and the messenger risks being increasingly viewed as tired or cranky – or both. Sure, one can still harken back to a classic every now and again, but new material is really pretty valuable when seeking to impart wisdom to others.

It might be that Ben feels his experience with E&Y is too “classic” to be sidelined – especially for a book that seeks to be a culmination of what he has learned from his experiences. If so, fine. He’s said it. Now it’s time to move forward. Even I can’t listen to the Rolling Stones every day. 

If it is about his emotional response – or even if some perceive it to be so – well, that risk almost speaks for itself. Is it really worth the risk of someone tuning you out?

Making a gripe public has the potential to say a lot more about the person making it than the object of the gripe – and that is a risk worth thinking about.