Ben Horowitz on shocking rules and dramatic object lessons

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of venture firm Andreessen Horowitz, has a new book out titled “What You Do Is Who You Are,” which takes a look at how to create culture at a company.

We sat down with Horowitz last month to discuss some of the lessons he aims to impart and why he felt compelled to write about culture now — including whether it has to do with the growing tech backlash against once-small companies that have taken over the world, and whose cultures are magnified exponentially as a result.

We published parts of our chat here, where we talked about Uber and WeWork specifically. The rest, which dives more into practical advice for founders, follows. Our conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Extra Crunch: One of the problems we’re dealing with right now, that’s driving this big tech backlash in ways, has a lot to do with just how empowered founders are. And that seemingly goes back to them having more say than other shareholders via dual-class shares. How much power should these founders have?

Ben Horowitz: I think it’s pretty important for tech companies to have some sort of long-term view of the business. Now, fast forward and Eric Ries has this new idea of a Long Term Stock Exchange, which basically says, okay, founders won’t have to have dual-class shares, but the shareholders and the founders will be in it together. So the shareholders have to vest their shares to get voting rights and if you hold the stock for years, and you can get some power, but you don’t get it right off the bat.

I think that that’s probably the optimal model. But I would say that, at least in my view, dual-class is still better than activist investors going after tech companies, because you can’t get to the next product. It’ll just make the company very short-term.

Also, and maybe I’m talking like an old CEO, but I think one of the things that gets lost in the kind of conversation between founders and shareholders is employees. It’s very bad for employees when activist investors get control of the company and drive it toward short-term returns because often, everybody ultimately loses their job in those scenarios.

What about phasing out those dual-class shares over time, though, maybe over five, or seven, or 10 years, which is a decent amount of time for founders to transition their startups to publicly-traded companies?

I think that that would make sense if the people who got power were long-term investors. I just think that if you have short-term investors, making decisions about [a] technology company, the easier way to expand profits is to stop doing R&D because it’s not going to show up in the next two years. But long-term, that’ll spell doom. And I think that’s kind of the way these proxy battles have gone. It’s been like, ‘Okay, stop spending, stop investing.’

I don’t think the kind of cultural issues that companies have run into have much to do with voting power. I think it just has more to do some combination of lack of skill and how fast the companies are growing.

Going back to the book, why weave in the cultural figures that you have — Toussaint Louverture, Genghis Khan and Shaka Senghor [a contemporary who served time for murder and today is a criminal justice reform advocate]. There are so many people you could have included, and you focused on these three individuals.

It’s a weird origin story, but Prince years ago put out an album called 3121, and he opened this club in Vegas called the 3121, and he would perform there, like, every weekend. And the show would start at 10 and he would show up at midnight or 1 a.m., but during that time in between, he would show these old films with these really interesting dancers in these elaborate clothes. And you’d just be watching these old guys, and then Prince would start to splice in [his own movies, including] “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Purple Rain,” and you’d go, ‘well those are the dance moves from those guys [in the older films] and that’s a quote from those guys,’ and you realize: that was what he was trying to express. And I thought, you know, I finally really understand him. And I thought, you know, [these three] have really influenced my views on culture [for a variety of reasons] and it would be a good way to tell this story.

It’s fascinating how it comes together. Were you ever a teacher?

When I was in graduate school, I was a computer science kind of TA, so I taught the freshmen computer science, programming languages, and whatnot.

My grandfather was a teacher — he was fired actually during the McCarthy era for being a communist teacher; he was teaching junior high.

He was a communist. So at least McCarthy got that part right. But it makes me very nervous, people wanting to remove people from their positions these days because of their points of view. My grandfather supported Stalin, and, like, Stalin was really bad. But I don’t think he should have been fired for being a teacher. I just don’t think it’s very good for society. Everybody’s got to be able to have a bad point of view. When you go, ‘You have a bad point of view and that’s illegal, to think that, and now we’re going to take away your job from you, make you not a legitimate person . . .’

We just saw that in the sports world, which was pretty crazy. Speaking of which, in the book you talk about the need to create shocking rules as part of establishing a company culture. As part of that section, you reference former New York Giants coach Tom Coughlan, who started meetings five minutes early and fined players $1,000 for every minute they were late. Doesn’t Andreessen Horowitz do something like that, penalize people for being late?

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