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Silicon Valley success, radical roots

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Ben Horowitz's background makes him anything but a typical Silicon Valley success story — and his new book anything but a typical guide to business success.

“The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers” (Harper Business) contains plenty of insights about how to excel in business, but it's the book's autobiographical aspects that set it apart. Its author is the son of David Horowitz, who began life as a “red diaper baby” born to card-carrying communist parents and championed the far left during the 1960s and 1970s before renouncing radicalism and becoming a leading conservative intellectual.

In fact, the book's first chapter, titled “From Communist to Venture Capitalist,” touches on the backstory of Ben Horowitz's family, his upbringing in “the People's Republic of Berkeley,” his education and the early stages of his career. His achievements and his ability to overcome struggles are all the more striking because of where he came from.

He hit it big in 2007, when Hewlett-Packard acquired Opsware, which he'd co-founded as early “cloud”-computing company Loudcloud, for $1.6 billion. But that wouldn't have happened had he not embraced the enormous risk of taking the company public in 2001 when it had just six weeks' cash left — and when investors were wary of high-tech firms in the wake of the “dot-com” crash of 2000.

In 2009, he co-founded the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz with Netscape founder Marc Andreessen. Along the way, Horowitz began writing a blog that now boasts nearly 10 million readers and conveys both his business savvy and his love of rap music.

Both those elements are present in “The Hard Thing About Hard Things.” And among the hard business things he addresses are such challenges as having to demote or fire a loyal friend, whether to raid friends' companies for talent, dealing with people who are brilliant but bad employees, and whether and how to sell a company.

But for all his management and investing expertise, Horowitz remains an entrepreneur at heart. As a Wall Street Journal review noted, he relates a rule that's strictly enforced at Andreessen Horowitz: Show up late for a meeting with an entrepreneur and you'll be fined $10 for every minute you're overdue. Combine that with his venture-capital firm's preference for investing in companies whose CEOs are also their founders, and it's clear just how far he's come from his family's far-left roots.

POVERTY, ROOTLESSNESS & CATHOLICISM'S SHAME

“The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor” by William Easterly (Basic Books) — The persistence of poverty worldwide, despite a century's worth of efforts by “development” professionals and the expenditure of billions of dollars, can be explained as a failure caused by overreliance on technocracy, according to the author, a New York University economist. “Solutions” recommended by “experts” and carried out by autocrats might produce short-term, superficial improvements, but leave unaddressed grim political realities for the poor. What's lacking, he maintains, is respect for the liberty and individual rights of developing nations' people. Drawing on history and research, he presents examples of how bottom-up, free-market, democratic approaches have succeeded in such places as South Korea. In his view, no matter how much money institutions such as the World Bank pour into the Third World, the globe's poorest people won't see true, lasting gains in their day-to-day lives without political freedom.

“Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity, and Civic Life in Modern America” edited by Wilfred M. McClay and Ted V. McAllister (Encounter Books) — This anthology of essays addresses the erosion of sense of place at a time when high mobility, plus high-tech wonders such as GPS and smartphones, leave Americans ever more “wired” but ever less connected to strong local communities. This increasing rootlessness endangers what the publisher calls “the crucial basis for healthy and resilient individual identity, and for the cultivation of public virtues.” Contributors to this volume include poet Dana Gioia, former National Endowment for the Arts chairman, plus urbanist Witold Rybczynski, philosopher Roger Scruton, an architect, a transportation planner and historians. Steering clear of utopian visions, they explore realistic ways to foster sense of place and a richer way of life through constructive public policies that build on democratic innovations and can draw public support.

“The Dark Box: A Secret History of Confession” by John Cornwell (Basic Books) — For this prize-winning British historian, the Roman Catholic Church's clerical pedophilia scandal is both a personal and denominational issue: He writes in an author's note that as a teenager at a Catholic “monastic boarding school for boys,” he was “sexually propositioned” by a confessor, destroying his trust in priests and confession. He recounts confession-related abuses throughout history — the confessional box was instituted in the 16th century to curb sexual solicitation of female penitents, for example. He contends today's scandal is a consequence of Pope Pius X's 1910 decree that lowered the age of first confession from 14 to 7 and required confession, which had been an annual obligation since the 13th century, on a weekly or monthly basis. In the author's view, that gave priests a bigger role in the lives of young children — and an opening to exploit them sexually.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or awallace@tribweb.com).

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