Tag Archives: Investing

eBoys: The True Story of the Six Tall Men Who Backed eBay, Webvan, and Other Billion Dollar Start-ups by Randall Stross


  1. A behind the curtain look at the early days of Benchmark, one of the premier venture capital firms 

Key Takeaways

  1. Benchmark / VC
    1. It is a wee bit eerie to see, in hindsight, how the Benchmark boys’ original notion of a partnership of equals turned out to have been echoed in impersonal performance statistics. Even the partners themselves would never have guessed in advance that four and a half years after Benchmark’s founding, of the five investments that were the firm’s all-time biggest hits to date, no two had been discovered and directed by the same partner: five hits, five partners.
    2. A group of three young venture capitalists in Menlo Park—Bruce Dunlevie, Bob Kagle, and Andy Rachleff—decided to step free of their old firms, and with software entrepreneur Kevin Harvey they set up Benchmark Capital.
    3. Entrepreneurs who sought venture funding usually did not need to invest any more personal money into the venture than they had already spent to bring it to life. But some venture capitalists did demand more. Arthur Rock, the senior dean of American venture capitalists and an early investor in Intel, always insisted whenever his venture firm put money into a start-up that the entrepreneur co-invest one third of his total net worth, whether it be large or small. If the entrepreneur was extremely wealthy, the venture firm had higher expectations about his co-investing. The venture guys didn’t want the high-net-worth entrepreneur to regard the start-up as a hobby. To prove commitment, he was asked to have skin in the game, and that was what Beirne asked of Borders,
    4. On the golf course the other day, he said, a friend had floated a theory that leaders, in business or anything else, are driven by demons. The best guys have them—implacable, subterranean demons that are the source of greatness.
    5. Daniel Webster: “There is always room at the top.”
    6. No company looks better than the one that professes it does not need your money.
    7. Kagle gently cautioned Beirne: “We all have our blind spots, right? Our greatest strength is our greatest weakness. And I think in this case, Dave, we’re all conscious of the fact that there’s a lot of marquee players around this thing. You’re all about marquee players. So we need to make sure that you’re not getting too colored by that relative to all the other stuff.” “Salesmen are more likely to be sold,” Rachleff added.
    8. What the partners were looking for were categories that were ripe for “disintermediation”—removing a middle layer in the distribution chain. In this case, that layer was the twelve thousand or so art galleries in the country
    9. “There sure are a lot of signs,” Rachleff repeated. He wasn’t concerned about Benchmark’s overall reputation being badly damaged. “The amazing thing about our business is, everyone forgets the losers—they remember the winners.”
    10. Rachleff pointed out that in a portfolio, the emotions that Beirne would experience would always be biased toward the end of the spectrum representing pain. “The amazing thing is it hurts more on the downside than the good feelings on the upside.”
    11. “That’s my experience—three orders of magnitude,” Dunlevie quickly agreed. “Yeah,” Rachleff said, and then redid the ratio of intensity of pleasure versus pain. “One-X versus fifty-X.”
    12. Bob Kagle could not take much pleasure in the event either, imagining, as he did, whispers that the eBay success was a fluke, akin to picking up a winning lottery ticket. He found himself working all the harder after eBay, to silence criticism that he had not actually heard but that he could imagine, beyond his hearing. One monkey don’t make no show, he’d say.
    13. When the Benchmark partners got together, most days, most of the time, their conversations were interrupted by jokes, laughter, word play, self-confessed foibles, and still more laughter. They positively reveled in one another’s company.
  2. Gurley
    1. The cultural fit had to be just right, too. It was this issue that the partners would spend the most time agonizing over. The five Benchmark partners felt keenly the closeness of a basketball team; in moments of private vanity they liked to think of themselves as the Chicago Bulls in the early nineties, but it wasn’t apt—this was a team that was knocking down wins but without a single dominating presence like Michael Jordan. So maintaining the chemistry that permitted all to feel that the others brought out their individual best was regarded as paramount, even if it meant Benchmark could not expand.
    2. Beirne added his own high praise, which was that the attention Gurley received as a sought-after speaker at industry gatherings had secured for Gurley “a lot of mindshare.”
    3. You think he’d be a good investor?” asked Bruce Dunlevie. “I do, but the reason I do is because he’s a rare combination of highly intellectually curious and humble. I think he really is open to questioning his own thought process and what’s really working, what’s not working.”
    4. Benchmark’s self-proclaimed “fundamentally better architecture” was based on a bedrock tenet: equal partners, without hierarchical separation, with equal votes and equal compensation. They had used it brilliantly from the beginning to differentiate themselves from the rest of the firms on Sand Hill Road.
    5. Bill doesn’t know what hiring people is all about. He wants to learn it all. He’s a total learn-it-all guy. He was asking me questions: ‘How do you spend your time? How do you recruit? What do you look for? What do you ask people? What do you do?’ ” “He’s pretty humble,” said Rachleff. Beirne agreed, and added, “He does a very good job at the shows. He doesn’t just stand in the back and not talk to anybody—he’s out talking to everybody.” “How old is he?” asked Kagle. “He’s thirty-two.” “He’s a mature thirty-two, too.”
    6. Harvey had also been impressed by his willingness to chase a wild boar down a steep cliff. “He is kind of an animal,” Harvey said with manifest respect. “I love that,” said Kagle.
    7. Kagle said to Harvey, “Okay, make him the offer.” Harvey turned to Gurley. “First, I want to know if you’ll take it.” This was the way Harvey preferred to seal a deal with an entrepreneur: to secure the agreement before bringing out the term sheet with all of the details. Here Harvey feared that if he brought out the terms of the partnership offer, Gurley’s analytical bent would lead him to say, “Okay, I’ll take this home and think about it.” Harvey wanted him to show trust that the partners had put together a generous package that accorded him fully equal status from day one. Gurley came through and, without asking to see the terms, accepted on the spot.
    8. Gurley cast cold water on the proposal to go public, however, by asking, “Is it built to win?” He explained, “GM is built to last, but it’s got so much bureaucracy, it’s not going anywhere.” Maybe “built to last” was not the right criterion to optimize on.
  3. eBay
    1. When eBay, a small Internet auction company based in San Jose, California, sought venture capital, it had to pass an informal test administered by the venture guys before they would consider making an investment: Was there a reasonably good likelihood that the investors could make ten times their money within three years? 
    2. It was late 1996, and eBay’s online auction business had been solidly profitable since it was launched; the company did not need a cent. But Pierre Omidyar, twenty-nine, the original founder, and his new partner, Jeff Skoll, thirty-one, were the rare entrepreneurs who knew they needed to hire a CEO and other seasoned executives with skills they lacked. It appeared to them that the only way they would be able to attract people with deeper management experience than they had was by obtaining the imprimatur of a well-regarded venture capital firm. Selling a minority share of their equity to venture capitalists was the intermediate step they had to take to get the good people they sought.
    3. Over the next two weeks, he met with Omidyar outside of Benchmark’s office and discovered that he was an anomalous kind of engineer, one who was consumed by the idea of community—every other sentence, he spoke about the eBay community, building the community, learning from the community, protecting the community. It was a passion similar to what, in Bob-speak, Kagle had for deals that brought out the humanity; that’s what Kagle liked most of all, the humanity. The more Omidyar talked about his community vision, the more Kagle, as he put it, was “lovin’ him—this guy is good people.” And Omidyar felt the same way about Kagle.
    4. EBay was an anomaly: a profitable company that was able to self-fund its growth and that turned to venture capital solely for contacts and counsel. No larger lesson can be drawn. When Benchmark wired the first millions to eBay’s bank account, the figurative check was tossed into the vault—and there it would sit, unneeded and undisturbed.
    5. By temperament, Skoll could not help but pour himself into the work in a scarily total fashion—once he started at eBay, he worked hundred-hour weeks for the next two and a half years. But he wasn’t driven by materialist hungers, and he thought of himself not as a businessperson but as a writer.
    6. EBay had an enormous advantage over the competition that it only then, under challenge, was coming to appreciate: a nicely balanced critical mass of sellers and buyers in each of hundreds of categories. This delicate balance had been achieved through the natural evolution of the eBay ecosystem, without the intervention of any guiding hand. If in any given category there were too many sellers compared with buyers, the sellers would have been discouraged and quick to jump to eBay’s rivals to try their luck there. If there were too many buyers, and in order to win an auction one had to offer up a ludicrously high price, this too would have led to mass defections. Fortunately for eBay, the number of sellers and buyers, while growing exponentially, had remained well apportioned. EBay’s users remained loyal for another reason: feedback ratings. Buyers, after a transaction, could send in a report about their experience with the seller, which future prospective buyers could consult; sellers had an identical opportunity to evaluate their experience with the buyer. Over time, both sellers and buyers accumulated a number of positive-feedback ratings at eBay, a neatly quantifiable reputation, that they were loath to abandon. The eBay “community” stayed put.
    7. “That’s the biggest risk in the whole thing,” Kagle said. “In fact I can argue with you guys very persuasively that keeping this low profile we’ve had in the company has been absolutely the healthiest thing to do. Absolutely the healthiest thing to do. We’ve already broken the systems a couple times, in spite of that. So we’ve been barely able to manage the traffic operationally so far.” Kagle said there had been a second benefit. “This organic growth has led to this very nice set of community values; people are honest, people treat each other fairly, there’s not a lot of scamming going on in it. And if you turn up the volume way high, the woodwork gets filled with a lot of weird guys, and the whole tone of the thing could change. So that’s a risk.”
    8. On the day after eBay’s IPO, when Pierre Omidyar, just back from New York, stood on Benchmark’s terrace, he observed that the world had imputed strategic savvy to the company that it did not really have. “Our system didn’t scale,” he said, “so we didn’t grow big enough to attract competition. Everybody thought we were flying below the radar screen on purpose.” He gave a little laugh.
    9. Up until early summer 1998, eBay’s primary competition was Jerry Kaplan’s Onsale Exchange, which had launched in October 1997 and had failed to attract a critical mass. When Bob Kagle introduced eBay to Benchmark’s limited partners at the annual meeting in early June, eBay had an 89 percent market share. Kagle said that the company anticipated major entrants, but “we think they don’t get it. We think they don’t understand all the stuff about the community and what’s really special and unique about this.” He also noted that in addition to first-mover advantage, economies of scale, and definitive selection in the various categories, eBay also enjoyed another advantage: Users faced high switching costs. “After you get this reputation built up online,” Kagle explained, “you’ve got all these people who have dealt with you, you’ve got seventy-five people who’ve said good things about you. That’s a pretty fundamental thing.”
    10. A good business will attract good competitors. This eBay’s executives knew in the abstract, but like the abstract concept of war, the theory necessarily bore a limited relationship to the thing itself.
    11. But knowing that the CEO was personally fielding calls from angry customers when they could not find someone to speak with in his department would provide all the incentive he needed, and she knew it.
  4. Priceline
    1. Our biggest competition, Walker explained, was cars and couches; Priceline’s system “collected demand” from people who would not otherwise be flying. And by promising to get back with an answer within one hour—why one hour? Glasses in an hour, photos in an hour; consumers already understand the unit—Walker was deliberately creating in the consumers’ mind the idea that Priceline was a virtual gladiator fighting on their behalf: “It’s going to take us an hour to knock on everybody’s door, punch him in the jaw, give him your offer, and get back to you with an answer, but be assured we’re out there working for you!” 
    2. Since we’re not actively shopping for capital, Walker summed up, this isn’t about the money per se. It’s really about two teams—your team, our team. We’ve got a multibillion-dollar asset here if played right. We’re not greedy; we’re not pigs. We’re players. Game theorists that we are, we understand the game trade. And we’re not afraid to make a trade for the right set of circumstances.
  5. Other
    1. The very reason that start-ups had an advantage over these incumbents—speed in execution—was the same reason that the old companies acted so slowly, even when the task was to organize a new entity that would be free to compete without organizational drag. “So they know they’re in a tough spot.” Still, the inertial drag in a big company was the most powerful factor in the equation.
    2. Edward Chancellor’s history of financial manias, Devil Take the Hindmost, urging them to read it. Chancellor’s account of England’s railway mania of 1845 had made an especially deep impression on Kagle, who saw all of the similarities between the railroad, then hailed as a revolutionary advance without historical parallel, and the Internet. In both cases the technological change was as fundamental as its champions claimed, but investors’ enthusiasm about imminent opportunities to reap fortunes moved beyond the reasonable. All businesses must earn a profit in order to be viable; Kagle refused to relinquish this simple truth.
    3. Kevin Harvey took the view that Red Hat could avoid a frontal challenge to Microsoft’s business model; he worked to reposition the company away from the business of selling packaged software in boxes (Harvey’s old business) and move it toward providing support services and a central website for the Linux community. The only way Microsoft could compete with Red Hat, he would say gleefully, “is by abandoning five billion dollars of annual revenue, which they can’t!”
    4. His firm, TVI, had funded Microsoft, Compaq, and other notable technology companies, but it was not these that McMurtry wished to talk about. Rather, he wanted to talk about the companies that did not succeed. He recalled that in the mid-1970s, having been in the business a number of years, he had become depressed because “out of ten start-ups, we would lose three or four—lose all our money. Maybe just get our money back in two deals. Then you’ve got two or three where you get one to five times your money. That leaves just one or two deals [out of ten] where you make more than five times your money.” The high payoffs for one or two never erased the pain of those that did not survive: “You feel so responsible for the disasters.”
    5. The claim was empty bluster, however. Mike Moritz, of Sequoia Capital, peeled back the truth with mordant detachment: “One of the dirty little secrets of the Valley is that all the jobs-creation we like to talk about is probably less than the Big Three automakers have laid off in the last decade. One of the best ways to have a nice Silicon Valley company is to keep your head count as low as possible for as long as possible.”

What I got out of it

  1. Really fun book that gives an inside look at VC investing – power law returns and their importance really stuck out to me, as did the culture at Benchmark and how they thought about their investments 

Latticework: The New Investing by Robert Hagstrom


  1. Latticework: success in investing based on a working knowledge of a variety of disciplines

Key Takeaways

  1. Latticework
    1. Latticework is itself a metaphor. And on the surface, quite a simple one at that. Everyone knows what latticework is, and most people have some degree of firsthand experience with it. There is probably not a do-it-yourselfer in America who hasn’t made good use of a four-by-eight sheet of latticework at some point. We  use it to decorate fences, to create shade over patios, and to support climbing plants. It is but a very small stretch to envision a metaphorical lattice as the support structure for organizing a set of mental concepts
  2. Physics – Equilibrium
    1. Physics is the science that investigates matter, energy, and the interaction between them – the study, in other words, of how our universe works. It encompasses all the forces that control motion, sound, light, heat, electricity, and magnetism, and their occurrence in all forms, from the smallest subatomic particles to entire solar systems. It is the intellectual foundation of many well-recognized principles such as gravitation and such mind-boggling concepts as quantum mechanics and relativity.
    2. Equilibrium is defined as a state of balance between opposing forces, powers, or influences. An equilibrium model typically identifies a system that is at rest; this is called “static equilibrium.”
    3. The concept of equilibrium is so deeply embedded in our theory of economics and the stock market, it is difficult to imagine any other idea of how these systems could possible work…One place where the question is being raised is the Santa Fe Institute, where scientists from several disciplines are studying complex adaptive systems – those systems with many interacting parts that are continually changing their behavior in response to changes in the environment…If a CAS is, by definition, continuously adapting, it is impossible for any such system, including the stock market, ever to reach a state of perfect equilibrium. What does that mean for the stock market? It throws the classic theories of economic equilibrium into serious question. The standard equilibrium theory is rational, mechanistic, and efficient. It assumes that identical individual investors share rational expectations about stock prices and then efficiently discount that information into the market. It further assumes there are no profitable strategies available that are not already priced into the market. The counterview from SFI suggests the opposite: a market that is not rational, is organic rather than mechanistic, and is imperfectly efficient. 
    4. The SFI pointed out 4 distinct features they observed about the economy: dispersed interaction, no global controller, continual adaptation, out of equilibrium dynamics. 
  3. Biology – Evolution
    1. What we are learning is that studying economic and financial systems is very similar to studying biological systems. The central concept for both is the notion of change, what biologists call evolution. The models we use to explain the evolution of financial strategies are mathematically similar to the equations biologists use to study populations of predator-prey systems, competing systems, or symbiotic systems. 
    2. Complex systems must be studied as a whole, not in individual parts, because the behavior of the system is greater than the sum of the parts. The old science was concerned with understanding the laws of being. The new science is concerned with the laws of becoming
  4. Social Sciences – Complexity, Complex Adaptive Systems, Self-Organized Criticality
    1. Although Johnson’s maze is a simple problem-solving computer simulation, it does demonstrate emergent behavior. It also leads us to better understand the essential characteristic a self-organizing system must contain in order to produce emergent behavior. That characteristic is diversity. The collective solution, Johnson explains, is robust if the individual contributions to the solution represent a broad diversity of experience in the problem at hand. Interestingly, Johnson discovered that the collective solution is actually degraded if the system is limited to only high-performing people. It appears that the diverse collective is better at adapting to unexpected changes in structure. 
      1. Folly to think you can eliminate every waste, every performer who doesn’t meet the highest bar, and excel and survive. Can shift the entire bell curve to the right, but you still need the full spectrum
      2. Notes: We have observed anecdotal evidence of emergent behavior, perhaps without realizing what we were seeing. The recent bestseller, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of american Submarine Espionage, presents a very compelling example of emergence. Early in the book, the authors relate the story of the 1966 crash of a B-52 bomber carrying four atomic bombs. Three of the four bombs were soon recovered, but a fourth remained missing, with the Soviets quickly closing in. A naval engineer named John Craven was given the task of locating the missing bomb. He constructed several different scenarios of what possibly could have happened to the fourth bomb and asked the members of the salvage team to wager a bet on where they thought the bomb could be. He then ran each possible location through a computer formula and – without ever going to sea! – was able to pinpoint the exact location of the bomb based on a collective solution
    2. It is when the agents in the system do not have similar concepts about the possible choices that the system is in danger of becoming unstable. And that is clearly the case in the stock market…The value of this way of looking at complex systems is that if we know why they become unstable, then we have a clear path to a solution, to finding ways to reduce overall instability. One implication, Richards says, is that we should be considering the belief structures underlying the various mental concepts, and not the specifics of the choices. Another is to acknowledge that if mutual knowledge fails, the problem may center on how knowledge is transferred in the system. 
  5. Psychology – Mr. Market, Complexity, Information
    1. Another aspect of behavioral finance is what some psychologists refer to as mental accounting – our tendency to think of money in different categories, putting our funds into separate “mental accounts,” depending on circumstances. Mental accounting is the reason we are far more willing to gamble with our year-end bonus than our monthly salary, especially if it is higher than anticipated. It is also one further reason why we stubbornly hold onto stocks that are doing badly; the loss doesn’t feel like a loss until we sell
  6. Philosophy – Pragmatism
    1. Strictly for organizational simplicity, we can separate the study of philosophy into 3 broad categories. First, critical thinking as it applies to the general nature of the world is called “metaphysics”…Metaphysics means “beyond physics.” When philosophers discuss metaphysical questions, they are describing ideas that exist independently from our own space and time. Examples include the concepts of God and the afterlife. These are not tangible events like tables and chairs but rather abstract ideas that metaphysical questions readily concede the existence of the world that surrounds us but disagree about the essential nature and meaning of the world. The second body of philosophical inquiry is the investigation of 3 related areas: aesthetics, ethics, and politics. Aesthetics is the theory of beauty. Philosophers who engage in aesthetic discussions are trying to ascertain what it is that people find beautiful, whether it be in the objects they observe or in the state of mind they achieve. This study of the beautiful should not be thought of as a superficial inquiry, because how we conceive beauty can affect our judgments of what is right and wrong, what is the correct political order, and how people should live. Ethics is the philosophical branch that studies the issues of right and wrong. It asks what is moral and what is immoral, what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate. Ethics makes inquiries into the activities people undertake, the judgments they make, the values they hold, and the character they aspire to achieve. Closely connected to the idea of ethics is the philosophy of politics. Whereas ethics investigates what is good or right at the individual level, politics investigates what is good or right at the societal level. Political philosophy is a debate over how societies should be organized, what laws should be passed, and what connections people should have to these societal organizations. Epistemology, the third body of inquiry, is the branch of philosophy that seeks to understand the limits and nature of knowledge. The term itself comes from two Greek words: episteme, meaning “knowledge,” and logos, which literally means “discourse” and more broadly refers to any kind of study or intellectual investigation. Epistemology, then, is the study of the theory of knowledge. To put it simply, when we make an epistemological inquiry, we are thinking about thinking. When philosophers think about knowledge, they are trying to discover what kinds of things are knowable, what constitutes knowledge (as opposed to beliefs), how it is acquired (innately or empirically, through experience), and how we can say that we know a thing.
    2. For pragmatism, anyone who seeks to determine the true definition of a belief should look not at the belief itself but at the actions that result from it. He called the proposition “pragmatism,” a term, he pointed out, with the same root as practice or practical, thus cementing his view that the meaning of an idea is the same as its practical results. “Our idea of anything, Peirce explained, “is our idea of its sensible effects.” In his classic 1878 paper, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Peirce continued: “The whole function of thought is to produce habits of action. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.” 
    3. A belief is true, James said, because holding it puts a person into more useful relations with the world…People should ask what practical effects come from holding one philosophical view over another
    4. If truth ad value are determined by their practical applications in the world, then it follows that truth will change as circumstances change and as new discoveries about the world are made. Our understanding of truth evolves. Darwin smiles.
    5. So we can say that pragmatism is a process that allows people to navigate an uncertain world without becoming stranded on the desert island of absolutes. Pragmatism has no prejudices, dogmas, or rigid canons. It will entertain any hypothesis and consider any evidence. If you need facts, take the facts. If you need religion, take religion. If you need to experiment, go experiment. “In short, pragmatism widens the field of search for God,” says James. “Her only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us.” 
    6. Pragmatism, in summary, is not a philosophy as much as it is a way of doing philosophy. It thrives on open minds, and gleefully invites experimentation. It rejects rigidity and dogma; it welcomes new ideas. It insists that all possibilities should be considered, without prejudice, for important new insights often come disguised as frivolous, even silly notions. it seeks new understanding by redefining old problems. 
    7. One of the secret to Bill Miller’s success is his desire to take a Rubik’s Cube approach to investing. He enthusiastically examines every issue from every possible angle, from every possible discipline, to get the best possible description – or redescription – of what is going on. Only then does he feel in a position to explain. To his investigation he brings insights from many fields…He continually studies physics, biology, and social science research, searching for ideas that will help him become a better investor…In an environment of rapid change, the flexible mind will always prevail over the rigid and absolute…Because you recognize patterns, you are less afraid of sudden changes. With a perpetually open mind that relishes new ideas and knows what to do with them, you are set firmly on the right path. 
  7. Literature – self-education of a Latticework through books, Adler’s Active Reading
    1. We must educate ourselves and the vehicle for doing so is a book supplemented with all other media both traditional and modern…So we are talking about learning to become discriminating readers: to analyze what you read, to evaluate its worth in the larger picture, and to either reject it or incorporate it into your own latticework of mental models…We can all acquire new insights through reading if we perfect the skill of reading thoughtfully. The benefits are profound: not only will you substantially add to your working knowledge of various fields, you will at the same time sharpen your skill at critical thinking.
    2. The central purpose of reading a book, Adler believes, is to gain understanding…This is not the same as reading for information. 
    3. Reading that makes you stop and think is the path to greater understanding – not solely because of what you are reading but also because of the process of reflection in which you are engaged. You are learning from your own thinking as well as from the author’s ideas. You are making new connections. Adler describes as the difference between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. It’s evident of in the satisfaction we feel when we figure out something on our own, instead of being told the answer. Receiving the answer might solve the immediate problem, but discovering the answer by your own investigation has a much more powerful effect on your overall understanding. 
    4. Adler proposes that all active readers need to keep 4 fundamental questions in mind: what is the book about as a whole, what is being said in detail, is the book true, in whole or in part, what of it? The heart of Adler’s process involves 4 levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. Each level is a necessary foundation for the next, and the entire process is cumulative. 
      1. Elementary reading is the most basic level, the one we achieve in elementary education
      2. In inspectional reading, the second level, the emphasis is on time and the goal is to determine, as quickly as possible, what the book is about. It has two levels: prereading and superficial reading. Prereading is a fast review to determine whether a book deserves a more careful reading. Look at the table of contents, index, how much can you learn about the main themes through this overview. Next, Adler recommends systematic skimming. Read a few paragraphs here and there, read the author’s conclusion. These two activities should take between 30-60 minutes and help you determine if it is worth your time to read the book
      3. Analytical reading is the most thorough and complete way to absorb a book. Through analytical reading you will answer what is the book about as a whole and in detail and provide you the most complete answer to if the book is true. It has  goals: develop a detailed sense of what the book contains, interpret the contents by examining the author’s own particular point of view on the subject; and to analyze the author’s success in presenting that point of view convincingly. Take notes, make an outline, write in your own words what you think the book is about, write the author’s main arguments
      4. The fourth and highest level is what Adler calls syntopical reading, or comparative reading. In this level of reading, we are interested in learning about a certain subject, and to do so we compare and contrast the works of several authors rather than focusing on just one work by one another. Adler considers this the most demanding and most complex level of reading. It involves two challenges: first, searching for possible books on the subject; and then deciding, after finding them, which books should be read
    5. The challenge for us as readers is to receive that knowledge and integrate it into our latticework of mental models. How well we are able to do so is a function of two very separate considerations: the author’s ability to explain, and our skills as careful, thoughtful readers. We have little control over the first, other than to discard one particular book in favor of another, but the second is completely within our control
    6. I believe in…mastering the best that other people have figured out, [rather than] sitting down and trying to dream it up yourself…You won’t find it that hard if you go at it Darwinlike, step by step with curious persistence. You’ll be amazed at how good you can get…It’s a huge mistake not to absorb elementary worldly wisdom…Your life will be enriched – not only financially but in a host of other ways – if you do. – Charlie Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack 
  8. Decision Making – Continuously add more building blocks to your knowledge base in order to build more robust mental models
    1. Failures to explain are caused by our failures to describe
    2. Our institutions of higher learning may separate knowledge into categories, but wisdom is what unites them.

What I got out of it

  1. A beautiful book on how to approach being a multidisciplinary thinker as it applies to investing. 

On Bill Gurley’s Above the Crowd

I spent this past month reading Bill Gurley’s fantastic posts on Above the Crowd.

Bill has been blogging since 1996 and it was fascinating to look back through time and see his thinking and thought process over these past 25 years, specifically as it applies to technology and consumer internet companies. The link at the bottom of the page is a compilation of all his posts and my favorite were: The Most Powerful Internet Metric of All, The Smartest Price War Ever, All Revenue is Not Created Equal, and The Thing I Love Most About Uber.

Margin of Safety: Risk-Averse Value Investing for the Thoughtful Investors by Seth Klarman


  1. “My goals in writing this book are twofold. In the first section, I identify many of the pitfalls that face investors. By highlighting where so many go wrong, I hope to help investors learn to avoid these losing strategies. For the remainder of the book, I recommend one particular path for investors to follow—a  value-investment philosophy. Value investing, the strategy of investing in securities trading at an  appreciable discount from underlying value, has a long history of delivering excellent investment  results with very limited downside risk.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Introduction
    1. Ideally this will be considered, not a book about investing, but a book about thinking about investing. Like most eighth-grade algebra students, some investors memorize a few formulas or rules and superficially appear competent but do not really understand what they are doing. To achieve long-term success over many financial market and economic cycles, observing a few rules is not enough. Too many things change too quickly in the investment world for that approach to succeed. It is necessary instead to understand the rationale behind the rules in order to appreciate why they work when they do and don’t when they don’t. I could simply assert that value investing works, but I hope to show you why it works and why most other approaches do not.
    2. The temptation of making a fast buck is great, and many investors find it difficult to fight the crowd.
    3. Regardless of the market environment, many investors seek a formula for success. The unfortunate reality is that investment success cannot be captured in a mathematical equation or a computer  program.
    4. Ultimately investors must choose sides. One side—the wrong choice—is a seemingly effortless path  that offers the comfort of consensus. This course involves succumbing to the forces that guide most  market participants, emotional responses dictated by greed and fear and a short-term orientation  emanating from the relative-performance derby. Investors following this road increasingly think of  stocks like sowbellies, as commodities to be bought and sold. This ultimately requires investors to  spend their time guessing what other market participants may do and then trying to do it first. The  problem is that the exciting possibility of high near-term returns from playing the  stocks-as-pieces-of-paper-that-you-trade game blinds investors to its foolishness. The correct choice for investors is obvious but requires a level of commitment most are unwilling to  make. This choice is known as fundamental analysis, whereby stocks are regarded as fractional  ownership of the underlying businesses that they represent. One form of fundamental analysis—and  the strategy that I recommend—is an investment approach known as value investing. There is nothing esoteric about value investing. It is simply the process of determining the value  underlying a security and then buying it at a considerable discount from that value. It is really that  simple. The greatest challenge is maintaining the requisite patience and discipline to buy only when  prices are attractive and to sell when they are not, avoiding the short-term performance frenzy that  engulfs most market participants. The focus of most investors differs from that of value investors. Most investors are primarily oriented  toward return, how much they can make, and pay little attention to risk, how much they can lose.
    5. The value discipline seems simple enough but is apparently a difficult one for most investors to grasp  or adhere to. As Buffett has often observed, value investing is not a concept that can be learned and  applied gradually over time. It is either absorbed and adopted at once, or it is never truly learned.
  2. Where Most Investors Stumble
    1. Mark Twain said that there are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t  afford it and when he can. Because this is so, understanding the difference between investment and  speculation is the first step in achieving investment success.
    2. Investors believe that over the long run security prices tend to reflect fundamental developments  involving the underlying businesses
    3. Investors in a stock thus expect to profit in at least one of three possible ways: from free cash flow  generated by the underlying business, which eventually will be reflected in a higher share price or  distributed as dividends; from an increase in the multiple that investors are willing to pay for the  underlying business as reflected in a higher share price; or by a narrowing of the gap between share  price and underlying business value.
    4. In reality, no one knows what the market will do; trying to predict it is a waste of time, and investing  based upon that prediction is a speculative undertaking.
    5. The distinction is not clear to most people. Both investments and speculations can be bought and sold.  Both typically fluctuate in price and can thus appear to generate investment returns. But there is one  critical difference: investments throw off cash flow for the benefit of the owners; speculations do not.  They return to the owners of speculations depends exclusively on the vagaries of the resale market.
    6. If you look to Mr. Market as a creator of investment opportunities (where price departs from underlying  value), you have the makings of a value investor. If you insist on looking to Mr. Market for investment  guidance, however, you are probably best advised to hire someone else to manage your money.
    7. Many unsuccessful investors regard the stock market as a way to make money without working rather  than as a way to invest capital in order to earn a decent return. Anyone would enjoy a quick and easy  profit, and the prospect of an effortless gain incites greed in investors. Greed leads many investors to  seek shortcuts to investment success. Rather than allowing returns to compound over time, they  attempt to turn quick profits by acting on hot tips. They do not stop to consider how the tipster could  possibly be in possession of valuable information that is not illegally obtained or why, if it is so  valuable, it is being made available to them. Greed also manifests itself as undue optimism or, more  subtly, as complacency in the face of bad news. Finally greed can cause investors to shift their focus away from the achievement of long-term  investment goals in favor of short-term speculation
    8. It is human nature to seek simple solutions to problems, however complex. Given the complexities of the investment process, it is perhaps natural for people to feel that only a  formula could lead to investment success. Just as many generals persist in fighting the last war, most investment formulas project the recent past  into the future. Some investment formulas involve technical analysis, in which past stock-price  movements are considered predictive of future prices. Other formulas incorporate investment  fundamentals such as price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios, price-to-book-value ratio, sales or profits growth  rates, dividend yields, and the prevailing level of interest rates. Despite the enormous effort that has  been put into devising such formulas, none has been proven to work.
  3. Nature of Wall Street Works Against Investors
    1. Wall Streeters get paid primarily for what they do, not how effectively they do it. Wall Street’s  traditional compensation is in the form of up-front fees and commissions. Brokerage com-missions are  collected on each trade, regardless of the outcome for the investor. Investment banking and  underwriting fees are also collected up front, long before the ultimate success or fail-ure of the  transaction is known. All investors are aware of the conflict of interest facing stockbrokers. While their customers might be  best off owning (minimal commission) U.S. Treasury bills or (commission-free) no-load mutual funds,  brokers are financially motivated to sell high-commission securities. Brokers also have an incentive to  do excessive short-term trading (known as churning) on behalf of discretionary customer accounts (in  which the broker has discretion to transact) and to encourage such activity in nondiscretionary  accounts. Many investors are also accustomed to conflicts of interest in Wall Street’s trading activities,  where the firm and customer are on opposite sides of what is often a zero-sum game.
    2. The point I am making is that investors should be aware of the motivations of the people they transact  business with; up-front fees clearly create a bias toward frequent, and not necessarily profitable,  transactions.
  4. The Institutional Performance Derby: The Client is the Loser
    1. Economist Paul Rosenstein-Rodan has pointed to the “tremble factor” in understanding human  motivation. “In the building practices of ancient Rome, when scaffolding was removed from a  completed Roman arch, the Roman engineer stood beneath. If the arch came crashing down, he was the  first to know. Thus his concern for the quality of the arch was intensely personal, and it is not  surprising that so many Roman arches have survived.”
    2. Remaining fully invested at all times certainly simplifies the investment task. The investor simply  chooses the best available investments. Relative attractiveness becomes the only investment yardstick;  no absolute standard is to be met. Unfortunately the important criterion of investment merit is obscured  or lost when substandard investments are acquired solely to remain fully invested. Such investments  will at best generate mediocre returns; at worst they entail both a high opportunity cost—foregoing the  next good opportunity to invest—and the risk of appreciable loss.
    3. Remaining fully invested at all times is consistent with a relative-performance orientation. If one’s goal  is to beat the market (particularly on a short-term basis) without falling significantly behind, it makes  sense to remain 100 percent invested. Funds that would otherwise be idle must be invested in the  market in order not to underperforms the market. Absolute-performance-oriented investors, by contrast, will buy only when investments meet absolute  standards of value. They will choose to be fully invested only when available opportunities are both  sufficient in number and compelling in attractiveness, preferring to remain less than fully invested  when both conditions are not met. In investing, there are times when the best thing to do is nothing at  all. Yet institutional money managers are unlikely to adopt this alternative unless most of their  competitors are similarly inclined.
    4. Investing without understanding the behavior of institutional investors is like driving in a foreign  land without a map. You may eventually get where you are going, but the trip will certainly take  longer, and you risk getting lost along the way.
    5. Avoiding losses is the most important prerequisite to investment success
  5. Defining Your Investment Goals
    1. Warren Buffett likes to say that the first rule of investing is “Don’t lose money,” and the second rule is,  “Never forget the first rule.” I too believe that avoiding loss should be the primary goal of every  investor. This does not mean that investors should never incur the risk of any loss at all. Rather “don’t  lose money” means that over several years an investment portfolio should not be exposed to  appreciable loss of principal.
    2. Greedy, short-term-oriented investors may lose sight of a sound mathematical reason for avoiding loss:  the effects of compounding even moderate returns over many years are com-pelling, if not downright  mind boggling. Table 1 shows the delightful effects of compounding even relatively small amounts.
    3. Investors must be willing to forego some near-term return, if necessary, as an insurance premium  against unexpected and unpredictable adversity.
    4. Rather than targeting a desired rate of return, even an eminently reasonable one, investors should  target risk
  1. Value Investing: The Importance of a Margin of Safety
    1. Value investing is the discipline of buying securities at a significant discount from their current  underlying values and holding them until more of their value is realized. The element of a bar-gain is  the key to the process. In the language of value investors, this is referred to as buying a dollar for fifty  cents. Value investing combines the conservative analysis of underlying value with the requisite  discipline and patience to buy only when a sufficient discount from that value is available. The number  of available bargains varies, and the gap between the price and value of any given security can be very  narrow or extremely wide. Sometimes a value investor will review in depth a great many potential  investments without finding a single one that is sufficiently attractive. Such persistence is necessary,  however, since value is often well hidden. The disciplined pursuit of bargains makes value investing very much a risk-averse approach. The  greatest challenge for value investors is maintaining the required discipline. Being a value investor usually means standing  apart from the crowd, challenging conventional wisdom, and opposing the prevailing investment  winds. It can be a very lonely undertaking. A value investor may experience poor, even horrendous,  performance compared with that of other investors or the market as a whole during prolonged periods  of market overvaluation. Yet over the long run the value approach works so successfully that few, if  any, advocates of the philosophy ever abandon it.
    2. Value investors continually compare potential new investments with their current holdings in order to  ensure that they own only the most undervalued opportunities available. Investors should never be  afraid to reexamine current holdings as new opportunities appear, even if that means realizing losses  on the sale of current holdings. In other words, no investment should be considered sacred when a  better one comes along.
    3. Because investing is as much an art as a science, investors need a margin of safety. A margin of safety  is achieved when securities are purchased at prices sufficiently below underlying value to allow for  human error, bad luck, or extreme volatility in a complex, unpredictable, and rapidly changing world.  According to Graham, “The margin of safety is always dependent on the price paid. For any security,  it will be large at one price, small at some higher price, nonexistent at some still higher price.” Buffett described the margin of safety concept in terms of tolerances: “When you build a bridge, you insist it can carry 30,000 pounds, but you only drive  10,000-pound trucks across it. And that same principle works in investing.”
    4. How can investors be certain of achieving a margin of safety? By always buying at a significant  discount to underlying business value and giving preference to tangible assets over intangibles. (This  does not mean that there are not excellent investment opportunities in businesses with valuable  intangible assets.) By replacing current holdings as better bargains come along. By selling when the  market price of any investment comes to reflect its underlying value and by holding cash, if necessary,  until other attractive investments become available. Investors should pay attention not only to whether but also to why current holdings are undervalued. It  is critical to know why you have made an investment and to sell when the reason for owning it no  longer applies. Look for investments with catalysts that may assist directly in the realization of  underlying value. Give preference to companies having good managements with a personal financial  stake in the business.
    5. A market downturn is the true test of an investment philosophy. Securities that have performed well in  a strong market are usually those for which investors have had the highest expectations.
    6. Investors should understand not only what value investing is but also why it is a successful  investment philosophy. At the very core of its success is the recurrent mispricing of securities in the marketplace. Value investing is, in effect, predicated on the proposition that the efficient-market  hypothesis is frequently wrong. If, on the one hand, securities can become undervalued or overvalued,  which I believe to be incontrovert-ibly true, value investors will thrive. If, on the other hand, all  securities at some future date become fairly and efficiently priced, value investors will have nothing to  do. It is important, then, to consider whether or not the financial markets are efficient.
    7. The efficient-market hypothesis takes three forms. The weak form maintains that past stock prices  provide no useful information on the future direction of stock prices. In other words, technical analysis  (analysis of past price fluctuations) cannot help investors. The semistrong form says that no published  information will help investors to select undervalued securities since the market has already  discounted all publicly available information into securities prices. The strong form maintains that  there is no information, public or private, that would benefit investors. The implication of both the  semi-strong and strong forms is that fundamental analysis is useless. Investors might just as well select  stocks at random.
    8. An entire book could be written on this subject alone, but one enlightening article cleverly rebuts the  efficient-market theory with living, breathing refutations. Buffett’s “The Superinvestors of  Graham-and-Doddsville” demonstrates how nine value-investment disciples of Benjamin Graham,  holding varied and independent portfolios, achieved phenomenal investment success over long  periods.
    9. In a sense, value investing is a large-scale arbitrage between security prices and underlying business  value. Arbitrage is a means of exploiting price differentials between markets.
  2. At the Root of a Value-Investment Philosophy
    1. There are three central elements to a value-investment philosophy. First, value investing is a bottom-up  strategy entailing the identification of specific undervalued investment opportunities. Second, value  investing is absolute-performance-, not relative-performance oriented. Finally, value investing is a  risk-averse approach; attention is paid as much to what can go wrong (risk) as to what can go right  (return).
    2. In investing it is never wrong to change your mind. It is only wrong to change your mind and do  nothing about it.
    3. The risk of an investment is described by both the probability and the potential amount of loss. The risk  of an investment— the probability of an adverse outcome—is partly inherent in its very nature. A  dollar spent on biotechnology research is a riskier investment than a dollar used to purchase utility  equipment. The former has both a greater probability of loss and a greater percentage of the investment  at stake.
    4. Unlike return, however, risk is no more quantifiable at the end of an investment than it was at its  beginning. Risk simply cannot be described by a single number. Intuitively we under-stand that risk  varies from investment to investment: a government bond is not as risky as the stock of a  high-technology company. But investments do not provide information about their risks the way food  packages provide nutritional data. Rather, risk is a perception in each investor’s mind that results from analysis of the probability and  amount of potential loss from an investment. If an exploratory oil well proves to be a dry hole, it is  called risky. If a bond defaults or a stock plunges in price, they are called risky. But if the well is a  gusher, the bond matures on schedule, and the stock rallies strongly, can we say they weren’t risky  when the investment was made? Not at all. The point is, in most cases no more is known about the risk  of an investment after it is concluded than was known when it was made. There are only a few things investors can do to counteract risk: diversify adequately, hedge when  appropriate, and invest with a margin of safety. It is precisely because we do not and cannot know all  the risks of an investment that we strive to invest at a discount. The bargain element helps to provide a  cushion for when things go wrong.
    5. The trick of successful investors is to sell when they want to, not when they have to. Investors who may  need to sell should not own marketable securities other than U.S. Treasury bills.
  3. The Art of Business Valuation
    1. In Security Analysis he and David Dodd discussed the concept of a range of value:
      1. The essential point is that security analysis does not seek to determine exactly what is the intrinsic  value of a given security. It needs only to establish that the value is adequate—e.g., to protect a bond or  to justify a stock purchase—or else that the value is considerably higher or considerably lower than the  market price. For such purposes an indefinite and approximate measure of the intrinsic value may be  sufficient.
    2. To be a value investor, you must buy at a discount from underlying value. Analyzing each potential  value investment opportunity therefore begins with an assessment of business value. While a great many methods of business valuation exist, there are only three that I find useful. The first  is an analysis of going-concern value, known as net present value (NPV) analy-sis. NPV is the  discounted value of all future cash flows that a business is expected to generate. A frequently used but  flawed shortcut method of valuing a going concern is known as private-market value. This is an  investor’s assessment of the price that a sophisticated businessperson would be willing to pay for a  business.
    3. How do value investors deal with the analytical necessity to predict the unpredictable? The only  answer is conservatism. Since all projections are subject to error, optimistic ones tend to place investors  on a precarious limb. Virtually everything must go right, or losses may be sustained. Conservative  forecasts can be more easily met or even exceeded. Investors are well advised to make only conservative  projections and then invest only at a substantial discount from the valuations derived therefrom.
    4. The other component of present-value analysis, choosing a discount rate, is rarely given sufficient  consideration by investors. A discount rate is, in effect, the rate of interest that would make an investor indifferent between present and future dollars. Investors with a strong preference for  present over future consumption or with a preference for the certainty of the present to the uncertainty  of the future would use a high rate for discounting their investments. Other investors may be more  willing to take a chance on forecasts holding true; they would apply a low discount rate, one that  makes future cash flows nearly as valuable as today’s. There is no single correct discount rate for a set of future cash flows and no precise way to choose one.  The appropriate discount rate for a particular investment depends not only on an investor’s preference  for present over future consumption but also on his or her own risk profile, on the perceived risk of the  investment under consideration, and on the returns available from alternative investments.
    5. A valuation method related to net present value is private-market value, which values businesses  based on the valuation multiples that sophisticated, prudent businesspeople have recently paid to  purchase similar businesses. Private-market value can provide investors with useful rules of thumb  based on the economics of past transactions to guide them in business valuation. This valuation  method is not without its shortcomings, however. Within a given business or industry all companies  are not the same, but private-market value fails to distinguish among them. Moreover, the multiples paid to  acquire businesses vary over time; valuations may have changed since the most recent similar  transaction. Finally, buyers of businesses do not necessarily pay reasonable, intelligent prices.
    6. The liquidation value of a business is a conservative assessment of its worth in which only tangible  assets are considered and intangibles, such as going-concern value, are not. Accordingly, when a stock  is selling at a discount to liquidation value per share, a near rock-bottom appraisal, it is frequently an  attractive investment.
    7. In The Alchemy of Finance George Soros stated, “Fundamental analysis seeks to establish how  underlying values are reflected in stock prices, whereas the theory of reflexivity shows how stock  prices can influence underlying values.”7 In other words, Soros’s theory of reflexivity makes the point  that its stock price can at times significantly influence the value of a business. Investors must not lose  sight of this possibility.
  4. Investment Research: The Challenge of Finding Attractive Investments
    1. Value investing by its very nature is contrarian. Out-of-favor securities may be undervalued; popular  securities almost never are. What the herd is buying is, by definition, in favor. Securities in favor have  already been bid up in price on the basis of optimistic expectations and are unlikely to represent good  value that has been overlooked.
    2. Obviously investors need to be alert to the motivations of managements at the companies in which they  invest.
  5. Portfolio Management and Trading
    1. The challenge of successfully managing an investment portfolio goes beyond making a series of good  individual investment decisions. Portfolio management requires paying attention to the portfolio as a  whole, taking into account diversification, possible hedging strategies, and the management of  portfolio cash flow. In effect, while individual investment decisions should take risk into account,  portfolio management is a further means of risk reduction for investors. Even relatively safe investments entail some probability, however small, of downside risk. The  deleterious effects of such improbable events can best be mitigated through prudent diver-sification.  The number of securities that should be owned to reduce portfolio risk to an acceptable level is not  great; as few as ten to fifteen different holdings usually suffice. Diversification for its own sake is not sensible. This is the index fund mentality: if you can’t beat the  market, be the market. Advocates of extreme diversification—which I think of as overdiversification—live in fear of company-specific risks; their view is that if no single position is  large, losses from unanticipated events cannot be great. My view is that an investor is better off  knowing a lot about a few investments than knowing only a little about each of a great many holdings.  One’s very best ideas are likely to generate higher returns for a given level of risk than one’s hundredth  or thousandth best idea.
    2. Diversification, after all, is not how many different things you own, but how different the things you do  own are in the risks they entail.
    3. Some investors buy and hold for the long term, stashing their securities in the proverbial vault for years. While such a strategy may have made sense at some time in the past, it seems misguided today.  This is because the financial markets are prolific creators of investment opportunities. Investors who  are out of touch with the markets will find it difficult to be in touch with buying and selling  opportunities regularly created by the markets. Today with so many market participants having little  or no fundamental knowledge of the businesses their investments represent, opportunities to buy and  sell seem to present themselves at a rapid pace. 
    4. Being in touch with the market does pose dangers, however. Investors can become obsessed, for  example, with every market uptick and downtick and eventually succumb to short-term-oriented  trading. There is a tendency to be swayed by recent market action, going with the herd rather than against it.  Investors unable to resist such impulses should probably not stay in close touch with the market; they would be  well advised to turn their investable assets over to a financial professional
    5. The single most crucial factor in trading is developing the appropriate reaction to price fluctuations.  Investors must learn to resist fear, the tendency to panic when prices are falling, and greed, the  tendency to become overly enthusiastic when prices are rising. One half of trading involves learning  how to buy. In my view, investors should usually refrain from purchasing a “full position” (the  maximum dollar commitment they intend to make) in a given security all at once. Those who fail to  heed this advice may be compelled to watch a subsequent price decline helplessly, with no buying  power in reserve. Buying a partial position leaves reserves that permit investors to “average down,”  lowering their average cost per share, if prices decline.
    6. All investments are for sale at the right price. Decisions to sell, like decisions to buy, must be based upon underlying business value. Exactly when  to sell—or buy— depends on the alternative opportunities that are available. Should you hold for  partial or complete value realization, for example? It would be foolish to hold out for an extra fraction of  a point of gain in a stock selling just below underlying value when the market offers many bargains. By  contrast, you would not want to sell a stock at a gain (and pay taxes on it) if it were still significantly  undervalued and if there were no better bargains available.
  6. Investment Alternatives for the Individual Investor
    1. Obviously a manager who has achieved dismal long-term results is not someone to hire to manage  your money. Nevertheless, you would not necessarily hire the best-performing manager for a recent  period either. Returns must always be examined in the context of risk. Consider asking whether the  manager was fully invested at all times or even more than 100 percent invested through the use of  borrowed money. (Leverage is neither necessary nor appropriate for most investors.)

What I got out of it

  1. A beautiful overview on value investing from one of the all-time greats

On Howard Marks’ Memos

I spent a couple of months reading Howard Marks’ memos and have attempted to make a distilled “teacher’s reference guide” which (hopefully) describes his investing philosophy in a clear, effective, and concise manner. His focus on simple and truly important ideas throughout these nearly 30 years of memos was amazing to read about and I hope this comes across!

*The vast majority of the content is from Howard’s memos and not my own words. I’ve simply distilled, compiled, and added a few notes and references.

7 Powers: The Foundations of Business Strategy by Hamilton Helmer


  1. Helmer sets out to create a simple, but not simplistic, strategy compass. His 7 powers include: scale economics, switching costs, cornered resource, counter positioning, branding, network effects, and process.

Key Takeaways

  1. Strategy: the study of the fundamental determinants of potential business value The objective here is both positive—to reveal the foundations of business value—and normative—to guide businesspeople in their own value-creation efforts. Following a line of reasoning common in Economics, Strategy can be usefully separated into two topics: Statics—i.e. “Being There”: what makes Intel’s microprocessor business so durably valuable? Dynamics—i.e. “Getting There”: what developments yielded this attractive state of affairs in the first place? These two form the core of the discipline of Strategy, and though interwoven, they lead to quite different, although highly complementary, lines of inquiry.
  2. Power: the set of conditions creating the potential for persistent differential returns. Power is the core concept of Strategy and of this book, too. It is the Holy Grail of business—notoriously difficult to reach, but well worth your attention and study. And so it is the task of this book to detail the specific conditions that result in Power
  3. The Mantra: a route to continuing Power in significant markets. I refer to this as The Mantra, since it provides an exhaustive characterization of the requirements of a strategy.
  4. The Value Axiom. Strategy has one and only one objective: maximizing potential fundamental business value.
    1. For the purposes of this book, “value” refers to absolute fundamental shareholder value—the ongoing enterprise value shareholders attribute to the strategically separate business of an individual firm. The best proxy for this is the net present value (NPV) of expected future free cash flow (FCF) of that activity.
  5. Dual Attributes. Power is as hard to achieve as it is important. As stated above, its defining feature ex post is persistent differential returns. Accordingly, we must associate it with both magnitude and duration.
    1. Benefit. The conditions created by Power must materially augment cash flow, and this is the magnitude aspect of our dual attributes. It can manifest as any combination of increased prices, reduced costs and/or lessened investment needs.
    2. Barrier. The Benefit must not only augment cash flow, but it must persist, too. There must be some aspect of the Power conditions which prevents existing and potential competitors, both direct and functional, from engaging in the sort of value-destroying arbitrage Intel experienced with its memory business. This is the duration aspect of Power
    3. Benefits are common, and they often bear little positive impact on company value, as they are generally subject to full arbitrage. The true potential for value lies in those rare instances in which you can prevent such arbitrage, and it is the Barrier which accomplishes this. Thus, the decisive attainment of Power often syncs up with the establishment of the Barrier.
  6. Complex Competition. Power, unlike strength, is an explicitly relative concept: it is about your strength in relation to that of a specific competitor. Good strategy involves assessing Power with respect to each competitor, which includes potential as well as existing competitors, and functional as well as direct competitors. Any such players could be the source of the arbitrage you are trying to circumvent, and any one arbitrageur is enough to drive down differential margins.
  7. The 7 Powers
    1. Scale Economies
      1. Scale Economies—the First of the 7 Powers The quality of declining unit costs with increased business size is referred to as Scale Economies.
        1. Benefit: Reduced Cost
        2. Barrier: Prohibitive Costs of Share Gains
    2. Network Economies
      1. Network Economies: the value of the service to each customer is enhanced as new customers join the “network.” In such a situation, having the most customers is everything,
      2. Industries exhibiting Network Economies often exhibit these attributes: Winner take all.
    3. Counter-Positioning
      1. Counter-Positioning: A newcomer adopts a new, superior business model which the incumbent does not mimic due to anticipated damage to their existing business.
      2. This chapter introduces Counter-Positioning, the next Power type. I developed this concept to depict a not well-understood competitive dynamic I often have observed both as a strategy advisor and an equity investor. I must confess it is my favorite form of Power, both because of my authorship and because it is so contrarian. As we will see, it is an avenue for defeating an incumbent who appears unassailable by conventional wisdom metrics of competitive strength.
      3. But nearly always, these featured the same outcome: the incumbent responds either not at all or too late. The incumbent’s failure to respond, more often than not, results from thoughtful calculation. They observe the upstart’s new model, and ask, “Am I better off staying the course, or adopting the new model?” Counter-Positioning applies to the subset of cases in which the expected damage to the existing business elicits a “no” answer from the incumbent. The Barrier, simply put, is collateral damage. In the Vanguard case, Fidelity looked at their highly attractive active management franchise and concluded that the new passive funds’ more modest returns would likely fail to offset the damage done by a migration from their flagship products.
      4.  What are the potential causes of such decrements? They could be numerous, but over several decades of client strategy work, I have noted two that seem common. The first involves two characteristics of challenges to incumbency:
        1. The challenger’s approach is novel and, at first, unproven. As a consequence, it is shrouded in uncertainty, especially to those looking in from the outside. The low signal-to-noise of the situation only heightens that uncertainty.
        2. The incumbent has a successful business model. This heritage is influential and deeply embedded, as suggested by Nelson and Winter’s notion of “routines,” and with it comes a certain view of how the world works. The CEO probably can’t help but view circumstances through this lens, at least in part. Together these two characteristics frequently lead incumbents to at first belittle the new approach, grossly underestimating its potential.
        3. As noted in the Introduction, Power must be considered relative to each competitor, actual and implicit. With Counter-Positioning, this is particularly important, because this type of Power only applies relative to the incumbent and says nothing regarding Power relative to other firms utilizing the new business model.
        4. Though this isn’t always the case, I have noticed a frequently repeated script for how an incumbent reacts to a CP challenge. I whimsically refer to it as the Five Stages of Counter-Positioning: Denial Ridicule Fear Anger Capitulation (frequently too late)
        5. Once market erosion becomes severe, a Counter-Positioned incumbent comes under tremendous pressure to do something; at the same time, they face great pressure to not upset the apple cart of the legacy business model. A frequent outcome of this duality? Let’s call it dabbling: the incumbent puts a toe in the water, somehow, but refuses to commit in a way that meaningfully answers the challenge. Counter-Positioning often underlies situations in which the following developments are jointly observed: For the challenger Rapid share gains Strong profitability (or at least the promise of it) For the incumbent Share loss Inability to counter the entrant’s moves Eventual management shake-up (s) Capitulation, often occurring too late
        6. Such reversals are rare in business, because contests typically take place over extended periods and with great thoughtfulness on all sides. Even a momentary lapse by an incumbent won’t present a sufficient opening. The only bet worthwhile for a challenger is one in which even if the incumbent plays its best game, it can be taken off the board. A competent Counter-Positioned challenger must take advantage of the strengths of the incumbent, as it is this strength which molds the Barrier, collateral damage.
    4. Switching Costs
      1. Switching Costs arise when a consumer values compatibility across multiple purchases from a specific firm over time. These can include repeat purchases of the same product or purchases of complementary goods.
      2. Benefit. A company that has embedded Switching Costs for its current customers can charge higher prices than competitors for equivalent products or services. This benefit only accrues to the Power holder in selling follow-on products to their current customers; they hold no Benefit with potential customers and there is no Benefit if there are no follow-on products.
      3. Barrier. To offer an equivalent product, competitors must compensate customers for Switching Costs. The firm that has previously roped in the customer, then, can set or adjust prices in a way that puts their potential rival at a cost disadvantage, rendering such a challenge distinctly unattractive. Thus, as with Scale Economies and Network Economies, the Barrier arises from the unattractive cost/benefit of share gains for the challenger.
      4. Switching Costs can be divided into three broad groups:
        1. Financial.
        2. Procedural.
        3. Relational.
        4. Switching Costs are a non-exclusive Power type: all players can enjoy their benefits.
    5. Branding
      1. Branding is an asset that communicates information and evokes positive emotions in the customer, leading to an increased willingness to pay for the product.
      2. Benefit. A business with Branding is able to charge a higher price for its offering due to one or both of these two reasons:
        1. Affective valence. The built-up associations with the brand elicit good feelings about the offering, distinct from the objective value of the good.
        2. Uncertainty reduction. A customer attains “peace of mind” knowing that the branded product will be as just as expected.
      3. Barrier. A strong brand can only be created over a lengthy period of reinforcing actions (hysteresis), which itself serves as the key Barrier.
      4. Brand Dilution. Firms require focus and diligence to guide Branding over time and ensure that the reputation created remains consistent in the valences it generates. Hence, the biggest pitfall lies in diminishing the brand by releasing products which deviate from, or damage, the brand image. Seeking higher “down market” volumes can reduce affective valence by damaging the aura of exclusivity, weakening positive associations with the product.
      5. Problem is, the qualities that make Branding a Power also make it hard to change; the considerable risk is dilution or brand destruction.
      6. Type of Good. Only certain types of goods have Branding potential as they must clear two conditions:
        1. Magnitude: the promise of eventually justifying a significant price premium. Business-to-business goods typically fail to exhibit meaningful affective valence price premia, since most purchasers are only concerned with objective deliverables. Consumer goods, in particular those associated with a sense of identity, tend to have the purchasing decision more driven by affective valence. Here’s the reason: in order to associate with an identity, there must be some way to signal the exclusion of alternative identities.
        2. For Branding Power derived from uncertainty reduction, the customer’s higher willingness to pay is driven by high perceived costs of uncertainty relative to the cost of the good. Such products tend to be those associated with bad tail events: safety, medicine, food, transport, etc. Branded medicine formulations, for example, are identical to those of generics, yet garner a significantly higher price. Duration: a long enough amount of time to achieve such magnitude. If the requisite duration is not present, the Benefit attained will fall prey to normal arbitraging behavior.
    6. Cornered Resource
      1. Cornered Resource definition: Preferential access at attractive terms to a coveted asset that can independently enhance value.
      2. Benefit. In the Pixar case, this resource produced an uncommonly appealing product—“superior deliverables”—driving demand with very attractive price/volume combinations in the form of huge box office returns. No doubt—this was material (a large m in the Fundamental Equation of Strategy). In other instances, however, the Cornered Resource can emerge in varied forms, offering uniquely different benefits. It might, for example, be preferential access to a valuable patent, such as that for a blockbuster drug; a required input, such as a cement producer’s ownership of a nearby limestone source, or a cost-saving production manufacturing approach, such as Bausch and Lomb’s spin casting technology for soft contact lenses.
      3. Barrier. The Barrier in Cornered Resource is unlike anything we have encountered before. You might wonder: “Why does Pixar retain the Brain Trust?” Any one of this group would be highly sought after by other animated film companies, and yet over this period, and no doubt into the future, they have stayed with Pixar. Even during the company’s rocky beginning, there was a loyalty that went beyond simple financial calculation.
      4. Our general term for this sort of barrier is “fiat”; it is not based on ongoing interaction but rather comes by decree, either general or personal.
      5. Another way to put this is that a Cornered Resource is a sufficient condition for potential for differential returns.
    7. Process Power
      1. I save it until last because it is rare. I will use the Toyota Motor Corporation as a case.
      2. Perhaps the best way to think of it is this: Process Power equals operational excellence, plus hysteresis. Having said that, such hysteresis occurs so rarely that I am in strong agreement with Professor Porter’s sentiments.
      3. Benefit. A company with Process Power is able to improve product attributes and/or lower costs as a result of process improvements embedded within the organization. For example, Toyota has maintained the quality increases and cost reductions of the TPS over a span of decades; these assets do not disappear as new workers are brought in and older workers retire.
      4. Barrier. The Barrier in Process Power is hysteresis: these process advances are difficult to replicate, and can only be achieved over a long time period of sustained evolutionary advance. This inherent speed limit in achieving the Benefit results from two factors:
        1. Complexity. Returning to our example: automobile production, combined with all the logistic chains which support it, entails enormous complexity. If process improvements touch many parts of these chains, as they did with Toyota, then achieving them quickly will prove challenging, if not impossible.
        2. Opacity. The development of TPS should tip us off to the long time constant inevitably faced by would-be imitators. The system was fashioned from the bottom up, over decades of trial and error. The fundamental tenets were never formally codified, and much of the organizational knowledge remained tacit, rather than explicit. It would not be an exaggeration to say that even Toyota did not have a full, top-down understanding of what they had created—it took fully fifteen years, for instance, before they were able to transfer TPS to their suppliers. GM’s experience with NUMMI also implies the tacit character of this knowledge: even when Toyota wanted to illuminate their work processes, they could not entirely do so.
  8. The Path to Power: “Me Too” Won’t Do
    1. Here’s the first important takeaway from our consideration of Dynamics: “getting there” (Dynamics) is completely different from “being there” (Statics). In other words, to assess which journeys are worth taking, you must first understand which destinations are desirable. Fortunately the 7 Powers does exactly that: it maps the only seven worthwhile destinations.
    2. The first cause of every Power type is invention, be it the invention of a product, process, business model or brand. The adage “‘Me too’ won’t do” guides the creation of Power.
    3. Planning rarely creates Power. It may meaningfully boost Power once you have established it, but if Power does not yet exist, you can’t rely on planning. Instead you must create something new that produces substantial economic gain in the value chain. Not surprisingly, we have worked our way back to Schumpeter.
    4. Power arrives only on the heels of invention. If you want your business to create value, then action and creativity must come foremost. But success requires more than Power alone; it needs scale. Recall the Fundamental Equation of Strategy: Value = [Market Size] * [Power]
    5. Invention has a powerful one-two value punch: it both opens the door for Power and also propels market size.
  9. Other
    1. By far the most important “value moment” for a business occurs when the bars of uncertainty are radically diminished with regards to the Fundamental Equation of Strategy, market size and Power. At that moment, the cash flow future makes a step-change in transparency.
    2. A primary driver of opacity is high flux: if a business is in a fast-changing environment, then the information facing investment pros tends to have much higher uncertainty bars regarding future free cash flow. But high flux also attends the sort of conditions which orbit the “value moment.” So if the 7 Powers can lead to alpha by identifying Power in these situations ex ante, it also promises to be useful in doing the same for those inventors on the ground trying to find a path to satisfy The Mantra.
    3. The 3 S’s. Power, the potential to realize persistent differential returns, is the key to value creation. Power is created if a business attribute is simultaneously:
      1. Superior—improves free cash flow
      2. Significant—the cash flow improvement must be material
      3. Sustainable—the improvement must be largely immune to competitive arbitrage

What I got out of it

  1. Helmer provides a simple, but not simplistic, strategy framework in which to analyze, build, invest in companies. SSCCBNP – scale economies, switching costs, cornered resource, counter positioning, branding, network effects, process. The book is well worth reading and re-reading. The real world examples he gives relating to his framework are helpful to better understand it all.

Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America by Lawrence Cunningham

  1. An organized compilation of Warren Buffett’s annual letters, broken down by concept. “By arranging these writings as thematic essays, this collection presents a synthesis of the overall business and investment philosophy intended for dissemination to a wide general audience.”
Key Takeaways
  1. Focus on the business with outstanding economic characteristics (favorable and durable moats) and management
  2. People are everything – partner with CEOs who will act well even if they could cheat, who act as if they’re the sole owner, as if it’s the only asset they hold, as if they can’t sell or merge for 100 years
  3. Performance should be the basis for executive pay decisions, as measured by profitability, after profits are reduced by a charge for the capital employed in the relevant business or earnings retained by. If stock options are used, it should be related to individual rather than corporate performance, and priced based on business value
  4. True risk is not volatility but permanent loss of capital
  5. Rather be approximately right than precisely wrong
  6. Put eggs in one basket and watch that basket
  7. Price is what you pay, value is what you get
  8. The 3 legs of the investing stool – Mr. Market, margin of safety, circle of competence
  9. Value investing is a redundancy – aim for focused or intelligent investing
  10. Deploying cash requires evaluating 4 commonsense questions based on information rather than rumor
    1. the probability of the event occurring
    2. The time the funds will be tied up
    3. The opportunity cost
    4. The downside if the event does not occur
  11. Guard against the institutional imperative – CEOs herd-like behavior, producing resistance to change, inertia, and blindness
  12. If you aren’t happy owning business when exchange is closed, you aren’t happy owning it when open
  13. Create the business and environment that attracts the people, management, shareholders that you want
  14. Useful financial statements must enable a user to answer 3 basic questions about a business
    1. Approximately how much a company is worth
    2. Its likely ability to meet its future obligations
    3. How good a job its managers are doing in operating the business
  15. Owner earnings –> cash flow = operating earnings + depreciation expense and other non-cash charges – required reinvestment in the business (average amount of capitalized expenditures for PPE that the business requires to fully maintain its long-term competitive position and its unit volume)
  16. Intrinsic value = the discounted value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life
  17. Don’t risk what you have and need for what you don’t have and don’t need
  18. Beware weak accounting (EBITDA), unintelligible foot notes, those who trumpet projections
  19. Directors must be independent, business savvy, shareholder oriented, have a genuine interest in the business
  20. Really only 2 jobs – capital allocation, attract and keep outside management
  21. Choose a cold sink (weaker competition) than best management
  22. Conventionality often overpowers rationality
  23. Risk – we continually search for large business with understandable, enduring and mouth-watering economics that are run by able and shareholder-oriented managements
    1. The certainty with which the long-term economic characteristics of the business can be evaluated
    2. The certainty with which management can be evaluated, both as to its ability to realize the full potential of the business and to wisely employ its cash flows
    3. The certainty with which management can be counted on to channel the reward from the business to the shareholders rather than to itself
    4. The purchase price of the business
    5. The levels of taxation and inflation that will be experienced and that will determine the degree by which an investor’s purchasing-power return is reduced from his gross return
  24. When dumb money acknowledges its limitations, it ceases to be dumb
  25. Need to do very few things right if you avoid big mistakes
  26. Changing styles often is a recipe for disaster
  27. Worry most about management losing focus
  28. If you won’t own a business for 10 years, don’t own it for 10 minutes – materially higher earnings in 5-10 years is what you’re looking for
  29. Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre
  30. Have not learned how to solve difficult business problems, but have learned to avoid them
  31. Never in a hurry – enjoy the process more than the proceeds
  32. “Expert error” – falling in love and acting on theory, not reality
  33. You don’t have to make it back the way you lost it
  34. In commodity-type businesses, it’s almost impossible to be a lot smarter than your dumbest competitor
  35. 4th Law of Motion – for investors as a whole, returns decrease as motion increases. a hyperactive market is the pickpocket of enterprise
  36. Attract proper inventors through clear, consistent communications of business philosophy
  37. It pays to be active, interested, and open-minded, never in a hurry
  38. Avoid small commitments – if something is not worth doing at all, it’s not worth doing well
  39. Deals often fail in practice but never in projections
  40. In a trade, what you give is as important as what you get
  41. The goal of each investor should be to create a portfolio (in effect, a “company”) that will deliver him other the highest possible look-through earnings a decade or so from now. An approach of this kind will force the investor to think about long-term business prospects rather than short-term market prospects, a perspective likely to improve results. It’s true, of course, that, in the long run, the scoreboard for investment decisions is market price. But prices will be determined by future earnings. In investing, just as in baseball, to put runs on the scoreboard one must watch the playing field, not the scoreboard
  42. The primary test of managerial economic performance is the achievement of a high ROE employed and not the achievement of consistent gains in earnings per share
  43. The difficulty lies not in the new ideas but in escaping the old ones.
  44. Ultimately, business experience, direct and vicarious, produced my present strong preference of businesses that possess large amounts of enduring Goodwill and that utilize a minimum of tangible assets.
  45. Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money
  46. Speculation most dangerous when it looks easiest
  47. Fear is the foe of the faddist but the friend of the fundamentalist
  48. Take into account exposure, not experience
  49. Noah Rule – predicting rain doesn’t count, building arks does
  50. Tolerance for huge losses is a major competitive advantage
  51. Berkshire’s next CEO – temperament is important, independent thinking, emotional stability, and a keen understanding of both human and institutional behavior is vital to long-term investing success.
What I got out of it
  1. An amazing collection of investing, finance, accounting, and management ideas

Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore

  1. Navigating in such the uncharted waters of the chasm requires beacons that can be seen above the waves, and that is what models in general, and the chasm models in particular, are for. Models are like constellations—they are not intended to change in themselves, but their value is in giving perspective on a highly changing world. The chasm model represents a pattern in market development that is based on the tendency of pragmatic people to adopt new technology when they see other people like them doing the same. This causes them to hang together as a group, and the group’s initial reaction, like teenagers at a junior high dance, is to hesitate and watch. This is the chasm effect. The tendency is very deep-rooted, and so the pattern is very persistent. As a result, marketers can predict its appearance and build strategies to cope with it, and it is the purpose of this book to help in that process. To be specific, the point of greatest peril in the development of a high-tech market lies in making the transition from an early market dominated by a few visionary customers to a mainstream market dominated by a large block of customers who are predominantly pragmatists in orientation. The gap between these two markets, heretofore ignored, is in fact so significant as to warrant being called a chasm, and crossing this chasm must be the primary focus of any long-term high-tech marketing plan. A successful crossing is how high-tech fortunes are made; failure in the attempt is how they are lost.
Key Takeaways
  1. Background & Fundamentals of Crossing the Chasm
    1. It is only natural to cling to the past when the past represents so much of what we have strived to achieve. This is the key to Crossing the Chasm. The chasm represents the gulf between two distinct marketplaces for technology products—the first, an early market dominated by early adopters and insiders who are quick to appreciate the nature and benefits of the new development, and the second a mainstream market representing “the rest of us,” people who want the benefits of new technology but who do not want to “experience” it in all its gory details. The transition between these two markets is anything but smooth. Indeed, what Geoff Moore has brought into focus is that, at the time when one has just achieved great initial success in launching a new technology product, creating what he calls early market wins, one must undertake an immense effort and radical transformation to make the transition into serving the mainstream market. This transition involves sloughing off familiar entrepreneurial marketing habits and taking up new ones that at first feel strangely counterintuitive.
    2. The basic forces don’t change, but the tactics have become more complicated. Moreover, we are seeing a new effect which was just barely visible in the prior decade, the piggybacking of one company’s offer on another to skip the chasm entirely and jump straight into hypergrowth. In the 1980s Lotus piggybacked on VisiCalc to accomplish this feat in the spreadsheet category. In the 1990s Microsoft has done the same thing to Netscape in browsers. The key insight here is that we should always be tracking the evolution of a technology rather than a given company’s product line—it’s the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, after all. Thus it is spreadsheets, not VisiCalc, Lotus, or Excel, that is the adoption category, just as it is browsers, not Navigator or Explorer. In the early days products and categories were synonymous because technologies were on their first cycles. But today we have multiple decades of invention to build on, and a new offer is no longer quite as new or unprecedented as it used to be.
    3. If we step back from this chasm problem, we can see it as an instance of the larger problem of how the marketplace can cope with change in general. For both the customer and the vendor, continually changing products and services challenge their institution’s ability to absorb and make use of the new elements. What can marketing do to buffer these shocks? Fundamentally, marketing must refocus away from selling product and toward creating relationships. Relationship buffers the shock of change. Marketing’s first deliverable is that partnership. This is what we mean when we talk about “owning a market.” Customers do not like to be “owned,” if that implies lack of choice or freedom. The open systems movement in high tech is a clear example of that. But they do like to be “owned” if what that means is a vendor taking ongoing responsibility for the success of their joint ventures. Ownership in this sense means abiding commitment and a strong sense of mutuality in the development of the marketplace. When customers encounter this kind of ownership, they tend to become fanatically loyal to their supplier, which in turn builds a stable economic base for profitability and growth.
    4. The fundamental requirement for the ongoing, interoperability needed to sustain high tech is accurate and honest exchange of information. Your partners need it, your distribution channel needs it and must support it, and your customers demand it.
    5. The fundamental basis of market relations is to build and manage relationships with all the members that make up a high-tech marketplace, not just the most visible ones. In particular, it means setting up formal and informal communications not only with customers, press, and analysts but also with hardware and software partners, distributors, dealers, VARs, systems and integrators, user groups, vertically oriented industry organizations, universities, standards bodies, and international partners. It means improving not only your external communications but also your internal exchange of information among the sales force, the product managers, strategic planners, customer service and support, engineering, manufacturing, and finance.
      1. Must see through every stakeholder’s eyes and create win-win relationships. This becomes even more complicated with public, high-tech companies given the number of constituents
    6. The problem, since these techniques are antithetical to each other, is that you need to decide which one – fad or trend – you are dealing with before you start. It would be much better if you could start with a fad, exploit it for all it was worth, and then turn it into a trend. That may seem like a miracle, but that is in essence what high-tech marketing is all about. Every truly innovative high-tech product starts out as a fad—something with no known market value or purpose but with “great properties” that generate a lot of enthusiasm within an “in crowd.” That’s the early market. Then comes a period during which the rest of the world watches to see if anything can be made of this; that is the chasm. If in fact something does come out of it—if a value proposition is discovered that can predictably be delivered to a targetable set of customers at a reasonable price-then a new mainstream market forms, typically with a rapidity that allows its initial leaders to become very, very successful. The key in all this is crossing the chasm—making that mainstream market emerge. This is a do-or-die proposition for high-tech enterprises; hence, it is logical that they be the crucible in which “chasm theory” is formed.
    7. The rule of thumb in crossing the chasm is simple: Pick on somebody your own size.
    8. These are the two “natural” marketing rhythms in high tech— developing the early market and developing the mainstream market. You develop an early market by demonstrating a strong technology advantage and converting it to product credibility, and you develop a mainstream market by demonstrating a market leadership advantage and converting it to company credibility. By contrast, the “chasm transition” represents an unnatural rhythm. Crossing the chasm requires moving from an environment of support among the visionaries back into one of skepticism among the pragmatists. It means moving from the familiar ground of product-oriented issues to the unfamiliar ground of market-oriented ones, and from the familiar audience of like-minded specialists to the unfamiliar audience of essentially uninterested generalists.
    9. Market Development Strategy Checklist. This list consists of a set of issues around which go-to-market plans are built, each of which incorporates a chasm-crossing factor, as follows:
      1. Target customer
      2. Compelling reason to buy
      3. Whole product
      4. Partners and allies
      5. Distribution
      6. Pricing
      7. Competition
      8. Positioning
      9. Next target customer
  2. Technology Adoption Life Cycle – The Cause for the Chasm
    1. To recap the logic of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, its underlying thesis is that technology is absorbed into any given community in stages corresponding to the psychological and social profiles of various segments within that community. This profile, is in turn, the very foundation of the High-Tech Marketing Model. That model says that the way to develop a high-tech market is to work the curve left to right, focusing first on the innovators, growing that market, then moving on to the early adopters, growing that market, and so on, to the early majority, late majority, and even to the laggards. In this effort, companies must use each “captured” group as a reference base for going on to market to the next group. Thus, the endorsement of innovators becomes an important tool for developing a credible pitch to the early adopters, that of the early adopters to the early majority, and so on. The idea is to keep this process moving smoothly, proceeding something like passing the baton in a relay race or imitating Tarzan swinging from vine to well-placed vine. It is important to maintain momentum in order to create a bandwagon effect that makes it natural for the next group to want to buy in. Too much of a delay and the effect would be something like hanging from a motionless vine—nowhere to go but down. As you can see, the components of the life cycle are unchanged, but between any two psychographic groups has been introduced a gap. This symbolizes the dissociation between the two groups—that is, the difficulty any group will have in accepting a new product if it is presented in the same way as it was to the group to its immediate left. Each of these gaps represents an opportunity for marketing to lose momentum, to miss the transition to the next segment, thereby never to gain the promised land of profit-margin leadership in the middle of the bell curve. The key to winning over this segment is to show that the new technology enables some strategic leap forward, something never before possible, which has an intrinsic value and appeal to the nontechnologist. This benefit is typically symbolized by a single, compelling application, the one thing that best captures the power and value of the new product. If the marketing effort is unable to find that compelling application, then market development stalls with the innovators, and the future of the product falls through the crack.
    2. It turns out our attitude toward technology adoption becomes significant—at least in a marketing sense—any time we are introduced to products that require us to change our current mode of behavior or to modify other products and services we rely on. In academic terms, such change-sensitive products are called discontinuous innovations. The contrasting term, continuous innovations, refers to the normal upgrading of products that does not require us to change behavior.
    3. Of course, talking this way about marketing merely throws the burden of definition onto market, which we will define, for the purposes of high tech, as:
      1. A set of actual or potential customers
      2. For a given set of products or services
      3. Who have a common set of needs or wants
      4. Who reference each other when making a buying decision.
    4. The goal should be to package each of the phases such that each phase
      1. Is accomplishable by mere mortals working in earth time
      2. Provides the vendor with a marketable product
      3. Provides the customer with a concrete return on investment that can be celebrated as a major step forward.                                                                                                                                                    
    1. Innovators
      1. Visionaries are not looking for an improvement; they are looking for a fundamental breakthrough.
      2. In sum, visionaries represent an opportunity early in a product’s life cycle to generate a burst of revenue and gain exceptional visibility.
    2. Early Adopters
      1. What the early adopter is buying is some kind of change agent. By being the first to implement this change in their industry, the early adopters expect to get a jump on the competition, whether from lower product costs, faster time to market, more complete customer service, or some other comparable business advantage. They expect a radical discontinuity between the old ways and the new, and they are prepared to champion this cause against entrenched resistance. Being the first, they also are prepared to bear with the inevitable bugs and glitches that accompany any innovation just coming to market.
    3. Early Majority (Pragmatists)
      1. The real news, however, is not the two cracks in the bell curve, the one between the innovators and the early adopters, the other between the early and late majority. No, the real news is the deep and dividing chasm that separates the early adopters from the early majority. This is by far the most formidable and unforgiving transition in the Technology Adoption Life Cycle, and it is all the more dangerous because it typically goes unrecognized. The reason the transition can go unnoticed is that with both groups the customer list and the size of the order can look the same.
      2. The early majority want to buy a productivity improvement for existing operations. They are looking to minimize the discontinuity with the old ways. They want evolution, not revolution. They want technology to enhance, not overthrow, the established ways of doing business. And above all, they do not want to debug somebody else’s product. By the time they adopt it, they want it to work properly and to integrate appropriately with their existing technology base. This contrast just scratches the surface relative to the differences and incompatibilities among early adopters and the early majority. Let me just make two key points for now: Because of these incompatibilities, early adopters do not make good references for the early majority. And because of the early majority’s concern not to disrupt their organizations, good references are critical to their buying decisions. So what we have here is a catch-22. The only suitable reference for an early majority customer, it turns out, is another member of the early majority, but no upstanding member of the early majority will buy without first having consulted with several suitable references.
      3. Of course, to market successfully to pragmatists, one does not have to be one—just understand their values and work to serve them. To look more closely into these values, if the goal of visionaries is to take a quantum leap forward, the goal of pragmatists is to make a percentage improvement—incremental, measurable, predictable progress. If they are installing a new product, they want to know how other people have fared with it. The word risk is a negative word in their vocabulary—it does not connote opportunity or excitement but rather the chance to waste money and time.
      4. If pragmatists are hard to win over, they are loyal once won, often enforcing a company standard that requires the purchase of your product, and only your product, for a given requirement. This focus on standardization is, well, pragmatic, in that it simplifies internal service demands. But the secondary effects of this standardization—increasing sales volumes and lowering the cost of sales—is dramatic. Hence the importance of pragmatists as a market segment.
      5. When pragmatists buy, they care about the company they are buying from, the quality of the product they are buying, the infrastructure of supporting products and system interfaces, and the reliability of the service they are going to get. In other words, they are planning on living with this decision personally for a long time to come.
      6. Pragmatists won’t buy from you until you are established, yet you can’t get established until they buy from you. Obviously, this works to the disadvantage of start-ups and, conversely, to the great advantage of companies with established track records. On the other hand, once a start-up has earned its spurs with the pragmatist buyers within a given vertical market, they tend to be very loyal to it, and even go out of their way to help it succeed. When this happens, the cost of sales goes way down, and the leverage on incremental R&D to support any given customer goes way up. That’s one of the reasons pragmatists make such a great market.
      7. Overall, to market to pragmatists, you must be patient. You need to be conversant with the issues that dominate their particular business. You need to show up at the industry-specific conferences and trade shows they attend. You need to be mentioned in articles that run in the magazines they read. You need to be installed in other companies in their industry. You need to have developed applications for your product that are specific to the industry. You need to have partnerships and alliances with the other vendors who serve their industry. You need to have earned a reputation for quality and service. In short, you need to make yourself over into the obvious supplier of choice. This is a long-term agenda, requiring careful pacing, recurrent investment, and a mature management team
      8. Conservatives like to buy preassembled packages, with everything bundled, at a heavily discounted price. The last thing they want to hear is that the software they just bought doesn’t support the printer they have installed. They want high-tech products to be like refrigerators—you open the door, the light comes on automatically, your food stays cold, and you don’t have to think about it. The products they understand best are those dedicated to a single function—word processors, calculators, copiers, and fax machines. The notion that a single computer could do all four of these functions does not excite them—instead, it is something they find vaguely nauseating. The conservative marketplace provides a great opportunity, in this regard, to take low-cost, trailing-edge technology components and repackage them into single-function systems for specific business needs. The quality of the package should be quite high because there is nothing in it that has not already been thoroughly debugged. The price should be quite low because all the R&D has long since been amortized, and every bit of the manufacturing learning curve has been taken advantage of. It is, in short, not just a pure marketing ploy but a true solution for a new class of customer. There are two keys to success here. The first is to have thoroughly thought through the “whole solution” to a particular target end user market’s needs, and to have provided for every element of that solution within the package. This is critical because there is no profit margin to support an afterpurchase support system. The other key is to have lined up a low-overhead distribution channel that can get this package to the target market effectively.
      9. Just as the visionaries drive the development of the early market, so do the pragmatists drive the development of the mainstream market. Winning their support is not only the point of entry but the key to long-term dominance. But having done so, you cannot take the market for granted. To maintain leadership in a mainstream market, you must at least keep pace with the competition. It is no longer necessary to be the technology leader, nor is it necessary to have the very best product. But the product must be good enough, and should a competitor make a major breakthrough, you have to make at least a catch-up response.
      10. The key to making a smooth transition from the pragmatist to the conservative market segments is to maintain a strong relationship with the former, always giving them an open door to go to the new paradigm, while still keeping the latter happy by adding value to the old infrastructure. It is a balancing act to say the least, but properly managed the earnings potential in loyal mature market segments is very high indeed.
      11. So the corollary lesson is, we must use our experience with the pragmatist customer segment to identify all the issues that require service and then design solutions to these problems directly into the product.
      12. In sum, the pragmatists are loath to buy until they can compare. Competition, therefore, becomes a fundamental condition for purchase. So, coming from the early market, where there are typically no perceived competing products, with the goal of penetrating the mainstream, you often have to go out and create your competition. Creating the competition is the single most important marketing decision made in the battle to enter the mainstream. It begins with locating your product within a buying category that already has some established credibility with the pragmatist buyers. That category should be populated with other reasonable buying choices, ideally ones with which the pragmatists are already familiar. Within this universe, your goal is to position your product as the indisputably correct buying choice.
      13. In sum, to the pragmatist buyer, the most powerful evidence of leadership and likelihood of competitive victory is market share. In the absence of definitive numbers here, pragmatists will look to the quality and number of partners and allies you have assembled in your camp, and their degree of demonstrable commitment to your cause.
    4. Late Majority
      1. Simply put, the early majority is willing and able to become technologically competent, where necessary; the late majority, much less so. When a product reaches this point in the market development, it must be made increasingly easier to adopt in order to continue being successful. If this does not occur, the transition to the late majority may well stall or never happen.
    5. Laggards
      1. Skeptics—the group that makes up the last one-sixth of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle—do not participate in the high-tech marketplace, except to block purchases. Thus, the primary function of high-tech marketing in relation to skeptics is to neutralize their influence. In a sense, this is a pity because skeptics can teach us a lot about what we are doing wrong
  3. The D-Day Strategy – Choose a Target Niche
    1. Entering the mainstream market is an act of aggression. The companies who have already established relationships with your target customer will resent your intrusion and do everything they can to shut you out. The customers themselves will be suspicious of you as a new and untried player in their marketplace. No one wants your presence. You are an invader. This is not a time to focus on being nice. As we have already said, the perils of the chasm make this a life-or-death situation for you. You must win entry to the mainstream, despite whatever resistance is posed. That’s it. That’s the strategy. Replicate D Day, and win entry to the mainstream. Cross the chasm by targeting a very specific niche market where you can dominate from the outset, force your competitors out of that market niche, and then use it as a base for broader operations. Concentrate an overwhelmingly superior force on a highly focused target. It worked in 1944 for the Allies, and it has worked since for any number of high-tech companies.
    2. The D-Day strategy prevents this mistake. It has the ability to galvanize an entire enterprise by focusing it on a highly specific goal that is (1) readily achievable and (2) capable of being directly leveraged into long-term success. Most companies fail to cross the chasm because, confronted with the immensity of opportunity represented by a mainstream market, they lose their focus, chasing every opportunity that presents itself, but finding themselves unable to deliver a salable proposition to any true pragmatist buyer. The D-Day strategy keeps everyone on point—if we don’t take Normandy, we don’t have to worry about how we’re going to take Paris. And by focusing our entire might on such a small territory, we greatly increase our odds of immediate success.
      1. This isn’t rocket science, but it does represent a kind of discipline. And it is here that high-tech management shows itself most lacking. Most high-tech leaders, when it comes down to making marketing choices, will continue to shy away from making niche commitments, regardless. Like marriage-averse bachelors, they may nod in all the right places and say all the right things, but they will not show up when the wedding bells chime.
      2. “Never attack a fortified hill.” Same with beachheads. If some other company got there before you, all the market dynamics that you are seeking to make work in your favor are already working in its favor. Don’t go there.
    3. One of the most important lessons about crossing the chasm is that the task ultimately requires achieving an unusual degree of company unity during the crossing period. This is a time when one should forgo the quest for eccentric marketing genius, in favor of achieving an informed consensus among mere mortals. It is a time not for dashing and expensive gestures but rather for careful plans and cautiously rationed resources—a time not to gamble all on some brilliant coup but rather to focus everyone on making as few mistakes as possible. One of the functions of this book, therefore-and perhaps its most important one-is to open up the logic of marketing decision making during this period so that everyone on the management team can participate in the marketing process. If prudence rather than brilliance is to be our guiding principle, then many heads are better than one. If marketing is going to be the driving force-and most organizations insist this is their goal—then its principles must be accessible to all the players, and not, as is sometimes the case, be reserved to an elect few who have managed to penetrate its mysteries.
    4. The consequences of being sales-driven during the chasm period are, to put it simply, fatal.
    5. Segment. Segment. Segment. One of the other benefits of this approach is that it leads directly to you “owning” a market. That is, you get installed by the pragmatists as the leader, and from then on, they conspire to help keep you there. This means that there are significant barriers to entry for any competitors, regardless of their size or the added features they have in their product. Mainstream customers will, to be sure, complain about your lack of features and insist you upgrade to meet the competition. But, in truth, mainstream customers like to be “owned”—it simplifies their buying decisions, improves the quality and lowers the cost of whole product ownership, and provides security that the vendor is here to stay. They demand attention, but they are on your side. As a result, an owned market can take on some of the characteristics of an annuity—a building block in good times, and a place of refuge in bad—with far more predictable revenues and far lower cost of sales than can otherwise be achieved.
    6. For all these reasons—for whole product leverage, for word-of-mouth effectiveness, and for perceived market leadership—it is critical that, when crossing the chasm, you focus exclusively on achieving a dominant position in one or two narrowly bounded market segments. If you do not commit fully to this goal, the odds are overwhelmingly against your ever arriving in the mainstream market.
    7. The key to moving beyond one’s initial target niche is to select strategic target market segments to begin with. That is, target a segment that, by virtue of its other connections, creates an entry point into a larger segment. For example, when the Macintosh crossed the chasm, the target niche was the graphics arts department in Fortune 500 companies. This was not a particularly large target market, but it was one that was responsible for a broken, mission-critical process—providing presentations for executives and marketing professionals.
    8. The niche wins—presuming the beachhead strategy is conducted correctly—by getting a fix for its specialized problem. And the vendor wins because it gets certified by at least one group of pragmatists that its offering is mainstream. So, because of the dynamics of technology adoption, and not because of any niche properties in the product itself, platforms must take a vertical market approach to crossing the chasm even though it seems unnatural.
    9. The answer is that when you are picking a chasm-crossing target it is not about the number of people involved, it is about the amount of pain they are causing. In the case of the pharmaeutical industry’s regulatory affairs function, the pain was excruciating.
    10. This is a standard pattern in crossing the chasm. It is normally the departmental function who leads (they have the problem), the executive function who prioritizes (the problem is causing enterprise-wide grief), and the technical function that follows (they have to make the new stuff work while still maintaining all the old stuff).
    11. The more serious the problem, the faster the target niche will pull you out of the chasm. Once out, your opportunities to expand into other niches are immensely increased because now, having one set of customers solidly behind you, you are much less risky to back as a new vendor.
  4. Next Target Segment
    1. The second key is to have lined up other market segments into which you can leverage your initial niche solution. This allows you to reinterpret the financial gain in crossing the chasm. It is not about the money you make from the first niche: It is the sum of that money plus the gains from all subsequent niches. It is a bowling alley estimate, not just a head pin estimate, that should drive the calculation of gain.
    2. First you divide up the universe of possible customers into market segments. Then you evaluate each segment for its attractiveness. After the targets get narrowed down to a very small number, the “finalists,” then you develop estimates of such factors as the market niches’ size, their accessibility to distribution, and the degree to which they are well defended by competitors.
    3. Now, the biggest mistake one can make in this state is to turn to numeric information as a source of refuge or reassurance. You need to understand that informed intuition, rather than analytical reason, is the most trustworthy decision-making tool to use. The key is to understand how intuition—specifically, informed intuition—actually works. Unlike numerical analysis, it does not rely on processing a statistically significant sample of data in order to achieve a given level of confidence. Rather, it involves conclusions based on isolating a few high-quality images—really, data fragments—that it takes to be archetypes of a broader and more complex reality. These images simply stand out from the swarm of mental material that rattles around in our heads. They are the ones that are memorable. So the first rule of working with an image is: If you can’t remember it, don’t try, because it’s not worth it. Or, to put this in the positive form: Only work with memorable images.
    4. Target-customer characterization is a formal process for making up these images, getting them out of individual heads and in front of a marketing decision-making group. The idea is to create as many characterizations as possible, one for each different type of customer and application for the product. (It turns out that, as these start to accumulate, they begin to resemble one another so that, somewhere between 20 and 50, you realize you are just repeating the same formulas with minor tweaks, and that in fact you have outlined 8 to 10 distinct alternatives.)
    5. It is extremely difficult to cross the chasm in consumer market. Almost all successful crossings happen in business markets, where the economic and technical resources can absorb the challenges of an immature product and service offering.
    6. The elements you need to capture are five:
      1. Scene or situation: Focus on the moment of frustration. What is going on? What is the user about to attempt?
      2. Desired outcome: What is the user trying to accomplish? Why is this important?
      3. Attempted approach: Without the new product, how does the user go about the task?
      4. Interfering factors: What goes wrong? How and why does it go wrong?
      5. Economic consequences: So what? What is the impact of the user failing to accomplish the task productively?
  5. Whole Product Package
    1. Systems integrators could just as easily be called whole product providers—that is their commitment to the customer.
    2. The whole product model provides a key insight into the chasm phenomenon. The single most important difference between early markets and mainstream markets is that the former are willing to take responsibility for piecing together the whole product (in return for getting a jump on their competition), whereas the latter are not.
    3. Tactical alliances have one and only one purpose: to accelerate the formation of whole product infrastructure within a specific target market segment. The basic commitment is to codevelop a whole product and market it jointly. This benefits the product manager by ensuring customer satisfaction. It benefits the partner by providing expanded distribution into a hitherto untapped source of sales opportunities.
    4. To sum up, whole product definition followed by a strong program of tactical alliances to speed the development of the whole product infrastructure is the essence of assembling an invasion force for crossing the chasm. The force itself is a function of actually delivering on the customer’s compelling reason to buy in its entirety. That force is still rare in the high-tech marketplace, so rare that, despite the overall high-risk nature of the chasm period, any company that executes a whole product strategy competently has a high probability of mainstream market success.
    5. Review the whole product from each participant’s point of view. Make sure each vendor wins, and that no vendor gets an unfair share of the pie. Inequities here, particularly when they favor you, will instantly defeat the whole product effort—companies are naturally suspicious of each other anyway, and given any encouragement, will interpret your entire scheme as a rip-off.
    6. The fundamental rule of engagement is that any force can defeat any other force—if it can define the battle. If we get to set the turf, if we get to set the competitive criteria for winning, why would we ever lose? The answer, depressingly enough, is because we don’t do it right. Sometimes it is because we misunderstand either our own strengths and weaknesses, or those of our competitors. More often, however, it is because we misinterpret what our target customers really want, or we are afraid to step up to the responsibility of making sure they get it.
  6. Distribution
    1. The number-one corporate objective, when crossing the chasm, is to secure a channel into the mainstream market with which the pragmatist customer will be comfortable.
    2. In other words, during the chasm period, the number-one concern of pricing is not to satisfy the customer or to satisfy the investors, but to motivate the channel.
    3. To sum up, when crossing the chasm, we are looking to attract customer-oriented distribution, and one of our primary lures will be distribution-oriented pricing.
    4. When functioning at its best, within the limits just laid out, direct sales is the optimal channel for high tech. It is also the best channel for crossing the chasm.
    5. All other things being equal, however, direct sales is the preferred alternative because it gives us maximum control over our own destiny.
    6. First and foremost, the retail system works optimally when its job is to fulfill demand rather than to create it.
  7. Positioning
    1. To sum up, your market alternative helps people identify your target customer (what you have in common) and your compelling reason to buy (where you differentiate). Similarly, your product alternative helps people appreciate your technology leverage (what you have in common) and your niche commitment (where you differentiate). Thus you create the two beacons that triangulate to teach the market your positioning.
    2. You can keep yourself from making most positioning gaffes if you will simply remember the following principles:
      1. Positioning, first and foremost, is a noun, not a verb. That is, it is best understood as an attribute associated with a company or a product, and not as the marketing contortions that people go through to set up that association.
      2. Positioning is the single largest influence on the buying decision. It serves as a kind of buyers’ shorthand, shaping not only their final choice but even the way they evaluate alternatives leading up to that choice. In other words, evaluations are often simply rationalizations of preestablished positioning.
      3. Positioning exists in people’s heads, not in your words. If you want to talk intelligently about positioning, you must frame a position in words that are likely to actually exist in other people’s heads, and not in words that come straight out of hot advertising copy.
      4. People are highly conservative about entertaining changes in positioning. This is just another way of saying that people do not like you messing with the stuff that is inside their heads. In general, the most effective positioning strategies are the ones that demand the least amount of change.
    3. Given all of the above, it is then possible to talk about positioning as a verb—a set of activities designed to bring about positioning as a noun. Here there is one fundamental key to success: When most people think of positioning in this way, they are thinking about how to make their products easier to sell. But the correct goal is to make them easier to buy. Think about it, most people resist selling but enjoy buying. By focusing on making a product easy to buy, you are focusing on what the customers really want. In turn, they will sense this and reward you with their purchases. Thus, easy to buy becomes easy to sell. The goal of positioning, therefore, is to create a space inside the target customer’s head called “best buy for this type of situation” and to attain sole, undisputed occupancy of that space. Only then, when the green light is on, and there is no remaining competing alternative, is a product easy to buy.
  8. Pricing
    1. Set pricing at the market leader price point, thereby reinforcing your claims to market leadership (or at least not undercutting them), and build a disproportionately high reward for the channel into the price margin, a reward that will be phased out as the product becomes truly established in the mainstream, and competition for the right to distribute it increases.
  9. Other
    1. So how can we guarantee passing the elevator pitch test? The key is to define your position based on the target segment you intend to dominate and the value proposition you intend to dominate it with. Within this context, you then set forth your competition and the unique differentiation that belongs to you and that you expect to drive the buying decision your way. Here is a proven formula for getting all this down into two short sentences. Try it out on your own company and one of its key products. Just fill in the blanks:
      1. For (target customers—beachhead segment only) who are dissatisfied with (the current market alternative), our product is a (new product category) that provides (key problem-solving capability). unlike (the product alternative), we have assembled (key whole product features for your specific application).
    2. So building relationships with business press editors, initially around a whole product story, is a key tactic in crossing the chasm.
    3. The purpose of the postchasm enterprise is to make money. This is a much more radical statement than it appears. To begin with, we need to recognize that this is not the purpose of the prechasm organization. In the case of building an early market, the fundamental return on investment is the conversion of an amalgam of technology, services, and ideas into a replicable, manufacturable product and the proving out that there is some customer demand for this product. Early market revenues are the first measure of this demand, but they are typically not—nor are they expected to be-a source of profit.
    4. How wide is the chasm? Or, to put this in investment terms, how long will it take before I can achieve a reasonably predictable ROI from an acceptably large mainstream market? The simple answer to this question is, as long as it takes to create and install a sustainable whole product. The chasm model asserts that no mainstream market can occur until the whole product is in place.
    5. The key is to initiate the transition by introducing two new roles during the crossing-the-chasm effort. The first of these might be called the target market segment manager, and the second, the whole product manager. Both are temporary, transitional positions, with each being a stepping stone to a more traditional role. Specifically, the former leads to being an industry marketing manager, and the latter to a product marketing manager. These are their “real titles,” the ones under which they are hired, the ones that are most appropriate for their business cards. But during the chasm transition they should be assigned unique, one-time-only responsibilities, and while they are in that mode, we will use their “interim” titles. The target market segment manager has one goal in his or her short job life—to transform a visionary customer relationship into a potential beachhead for entry into the mainstream vertical market that particular customer participates
What I got out of it
  1. Awesome playbook for building out a high-tech company and framework for how to invest in them (see The Gorilla Game for further notes on the investing portion). The innovators gladly take on new technology but it is the pragmatists or the early majority who need proof of concept, who need evidence that you will be around for a while and that other respected players are using your product or service before they buy in, and they are where the real profits lie. The chasm is formed between these innovators and pragmatists and your strategy, focus, and mindset has to shift when attempting to tap into the mainstream.

And Then They Fired Me by Jannie Mouton, Carie Maas

  1. My business philosophy is really quite simple: I believe in strategic planning, and then follow an entrepreneurial approach. I empower the right people completely, enable them to secure a percentage of the shareholding, and then believe in their ability to, with help and proper corporate control, establish good businesses. Perhaps this definition is not all that easy to digest, but as I explain it, it will be clear how simple the principle is. What it eventually boils down to is that my contribution almost shrinks to that of a possible idea or the creation of a culture of ideas. Other guys do all the hard work. The smaller one’s role as so-called chief executive or chairman, the better for any company and its growth.
Key Takeaways
  1. Early Days & SMK
    1. We had a sense of duty from an early age, because my father, Jan, made us work in his shop, even for a large part of the holidays. Initially I thought it unfair, having to work while everyone else could gallivant on their wide-rimmed bicycles, but later I realised how valuable it was, compared with the nonsense of the so-called gap year that pupils and students insist upon nowadays.
    2. We were young and had lots of plans. Added to that, or maybe because we were that young, we were very enthusiastic and hardly anything scared us. Now, in hindsight, I pale with fright because we had responsibilities, wives, children, cars and houses.
    3. I had grown too big for my boots. I remember phoning Kango Beachbuggies to ask in which colours they had the vehicle available, and then saying I would take one in each available colour – five altogether. Now I can only marvel at the memory. To be that self-confident, and with gearing to the point of bursting, was asking for trouble. Like all bubbles, this one also burst, on October 22, 1987, and a lot of us were cut down to size and got quite a kick in the teeth financially. Let me tell you, there was blood on the walls. It was the mother of all market carnages – the decline of about 30% was the most significant in a single day in living memory. I was almost done for. One day we were the kings of the development capital market, the next day humble servants. As in many other times in my life, I should have listened to Dana, because she used to say when I started pretending to be a sage and it was only “me, me, me”, then the end was in sight. Those were prophetic words. From him I learnt that one’s people and one’s clients are the most important assets. He was a humble leader, armed with vision, courage and cool-headedness.
    4. We had gigantic successes and made excellent profits. The listings of Rand Merchant Bank and Richemont were climaxes, and my children still remember my picture on the front page of Beeld with the listing of Naspers.
    5. Because we were partners and not shareholders, the profits had to be divided every year. In other partnerships the managing director would decide what the share of each partner would be, and the mistake we made was trying to do it democratically. Everyone had to give himself and every other partner a mark out of 100 for the value each had added, in his opinion. Nobody ever scored himself lower than any of the other 19. It was my unpleasant duty to convey the auditors’ calculation of the total to everyone. If the group then gave someone an average of 5% and he thought he really deserved 8% of the total of 100%, it raised suspicion. Instead of motivating someone, I had to call him in and tell him he wasn’t as good as he thought he was. Among the changes I wanted to make was to convert the partnership into a company.
    1. A negative person has never started or established anything positive. The people at PSG also know they shouldn’t come and tell me something doesn’t work – they have to come up with an alternative.
    2. After reading for a while, I decided to do a SWOT analysis on myself and, according to the acronym, started jotting down strong points, weak points, opportunities and threats. I realised my and Chris Otto’s frequent (and long) lunches at Late Night Al’s in Auckland Park were no long-term solution and at age 50 I was not ready for retirement yet. I had to persuade myself that I was doing something useful, that I was devising plans and ferreting out opportunities. I knew I had to fight against the threat of stagnation. The personal space in the office forced me to contemplate my future and that of my family. Thinking would be my new project, and it wasn’t at all the child’s play it appeared to be. I wanted to start a new business and I had to find the key for it. With dedication I started reading and focused on books in the investment world, from Warren Buffett and his philosophies to the management approaches of successful business people. What I read made me think, and to arrange my thoughts I summarised many of the books in Afrikaans. Not every book changes one’s life, in a manner of speaking, but there is always an idea or two that one can use. Apart from the work and academic advantages, this study made me reorient myself. Collecting specialised knowledge demands sacrifice, but it stimulated me and broadened my mind in my planning for the future. Now I realise there were quite a few points that prepared the ground for PAG, the precursor to PSG. I can summarise it as a sounding board, a self-analysis, a dream, a plan of action, a positive attitude, decision making and communication. And I can recommend it to someone who has got into a rut like the one threatening me back then. One has to work through a setback realistically. You need someone to help you if your enthusiasm exceeds your realism, but that person can’t be a yes-man. It needs to be someone with good judgement and enough respect for you to answer the difficult questions honestly.
    3. Honest introspection is not always pleasant, but without it one would struggle to work towards one’s better points and eliminating one’s weaker traits. Yet, clever as it might sound after the fact, my old diary is testimony of how I toiled and bothered and reworked my SWOT analysis until later I knew exactly what I wanted to and could do. The simple question is: What’s your personal mission statement, your goal, your dream? If you know the answer, it unleashes a power that draws you towards the destination. My plan that I wrote down in November 1995 and had typed was: I want to be free and not to work for others. I want to make a difference to the lives of others and have empathy with my fellow human beings. I want to write a book (there you have it). I want to tackle something with my children. I want to take on a new game farm after Nokonya. By doing great things I’m happy. I want to develop a new company successfully. Many things have changed over the years, but the framework is still valid. My plans of action had to direct my dreams: I want to be in control of a listed company. I want to focus on the financial services sector. I want to procure capital for a strong capital base. I want to manage in a decentralised and delegated way. I want to draw in good people. I want to move from Johannesburg to Stellenbosch. I want to have a small, creative head office with a relaxed vibe. I want to think more and do less. To know I had figured out what my dream and final destination were, made me positive. Aiming high requires as much strain as aiming low, as is expressed in this little rhyme by Jessie B Rittenhouse I’ve read so often: I worked for a menial hire, Only to learn, dismayed, That any wage I asked of Life, Life would have willingly paid. Without a decision, one is never wrong, therefore people hesitate to take decisions. Taking a responsible risk brings me freedom and joy. Even now a successful business decision like an SMK or PSG or Capitec that works gives me far more pleasure than the money I gain from it. And if something doesn’t work, close that business and move on. From all the business books I read then and still read, it’s apparent: the most important element of success is to speak out. By conveying one’s dreams and plans to friends, you place yourself under pressure to fulfil them. And that truth applies right through the investment world – your shareholders are interested in where you’re going, your successes and your failures. But even more important than speaking is to listen to them in turn.
    4. Success is not the key to happiness, happiness is the key to success
    5. What has remained with me though is that I never want to be in a position again where I don’t have control over a company. Even in subsidiary companies where we have a stake warranting it, I want to have a say at board level, at least.
  2. PSG
    1. PSG Group is an investment company that acquires strategic stakes in established businesses with strong management, good corporate governance, a history of earnings growth and positive cash-flows, and creates innovative ideas at existing businesses.
    2. Maybe I should start by clearing up a misconception some people have: PSG is not a financial services company; we are an investment company. That means PSG is not an operating company. We don’t manage a business like Plascon or Edgars. We invest in and also start other businesses like manufacturers or retailers or service companies. The group comprises of more or less three main parts. Under PSG there are the financial giants like PSG Konsult and Capitec, but under the tradename Zeder we have unified all our agricultural companies like Pioneer Foods. Some of the smaller private equity investments like Thembeka that don’t belong elsewhere reside under Paladin.
    3. Maybe that’s also one of the reasons why I’m such an avid buyer of PSG shares and have never sold a single share. Advisors of readers of financial pages would be horrified, but I often borrow money to get hold of more PSG shares.
    4. My business philosophy is really quite simple: I believe in strategic planning, and then follow an entrepreneurial approach. I empower the right people completely, enable them to secure a percentage of the shareholding, and then believe in their ability to, with help and proper corporate control, establish good businesses. Perhaps this definition is not all that easy to digest, but as I explain it, it will be clear how simple the principle is. What it eventually boils down to is that my contribution almost shrinks to that of a possible idea or the creation of a culture of ideas. Other guys do all the hard work. The smaller one’s role as so-called chief executive or chairman, the better for any company and its growth. For me, strategic planning is the alpha and the omega. In the book The Art of War the principles of the Oriental military strategist Sun Tzu are expounded: “Strategy is the great work of the organization.” According to the book, that determines survival or extinction in situations of life or death. It inspires people to share the same ideals and expectations. Because they’re in the struggle together, they don’t fear perils. The military strategist said that was why leaders who understood strategy could lead people and determine how stable the venture was. Regarding successful warfare, Sun Tzu strongly emphasised that an understanding of one’s own capabilities and limitations, one’s opponent and the circumstances in which the fight would take place, should be thoroughly contemplated and then integrated into a strategy that was applied in a disciplined way by a leader that inspired his subordinates with trust. I love his wisdom: If you have your strategy, you hit fast and hard, then you win. Colleague Chris Otto says I’m the only person he knows who would go to the seaside for four weeks and use ten of those days to draw up a business plan. That’s true, I can’t simply lounge around. I get bored and then I devise schemes. It was also after a holiday that I returned with my Keerom plan for Naspers, a controversial but quite exciting deal I’ll tell you more about in the next section. Chris has also quipped that I should not get time to think, but let him rather do the talking, because I don’t want to say this about myself: I always tell Jannie one day I’ll write on his tomb stone: “Here lies an unreasonable man.” He has a great ability to think and work out strategies. He always has a plan, and then he can’t imagine that something can’t happen. He challenges us and eventually everyone starts thinking like that – how one makes something happen. He’s not interested in technical details about why something can’t work. I think that’s why PSG often manages to do things others thought impossible. If then, according to Sun Tzu’s searching one’s own heart, one of my abilities is to think, or to want to think, one of my limitations surely remains not always working gently with the people helping with those thoughts and applying them – I still struggle with that even now.
    5. By this time our size makes us look at smaller investments more realistically: corporate management, attending meetings and managerial time are expensive. At Paladin and Zeder we have the framework that we invest in businesses that are easy to understand, and have a cash flow and good management. Our share of the profit after tax has to exceed R10 million. That means if we have a 25% stake in a company it has to make at least R40 million before we would look at it. However, many mice can turn into men and PSG never wants to neglect its entrepreneurial approach. That’s what brought us to where we are.
    6. Shareholders are the owners of a company and an owner should always be in control of his own assets. The board is appointed by the owners – and that’s why I like a company with a strong owner. In PSG’s case, 77% of the shares are in the hands of confidants – relatives, friends and directors. While many similar companies are susceptible to takeovers because a large number of their shares are with the big institutions, we are covered against that in this way
    7. At present my children and I own more than 30% of PSG’s shares and, along with the shareholders mentioned above, Thys du Toit (former KWV chairman) and Christo Wiese have huge stakes.
    8. Let me be honest: one can continue ad infinitum about PSG’s ingenuity, but the role luck sometimes plays can’t be ignored. PAG’s sale price was plain darn luck; don’t let anyone tell you a different story. Sheer luck. That’s how PSG started. We started small and slowly achieved success. Success gives one self-confidence and that’s quite contagious on the market. It makes it a little easier to run risks when one is stronger. If you have capital you can grow, and you can even afford to make mistakes.
    9. Whatever investment you do, you should know in what kind of underlying business you invest and understand that some companies won’t yield the kind of investments you hope for overnight. You can start something new, like a Capitec, develop it while you can take pride in a high price/earnings ratio (PE) of 25, or how much you’re willing to pay for the expected earnings in rand. On the other hand you can be extremely patient and make and keep an investment in agricultural companies with a PE of 4. You would buy at a good price, but then you should not be obsessed with a running clock. Few people understand both kinds of investments.
    10. I knew Keerom was a much cheaper way of securing a stake in Naspers. Some unlisted shares can be bought at a rebate. Therefore one could get a big chunk of Naspers through Keerom or Naspers Investments, as well as control with high voting rights. It’s a principle I’ve applied time and again since then.
    11. The trick is to try to buy where limitations are still in place and when the old board is still in charge. Then one buys cheaply – one might even buy only the buildings at 60% of the real value. That’s something we understand very well at PSG. Yet one needs patience, because at these businesses the change towards being more commercially-minded happens rather slowly. The management are not lying yuppies, but down-to-earth people, honest and upright, whose business has been in existence for years. The opportunity is in the fact that for many years co-operatives have been attuned to delivering a service, rather than seeking profits. The best is that one can take this kind of wisdom even a little further, which is what we are doing through our agricultural arm, Zeder.
    12. The biggest value is unlocked where management is poorest.
    13. With decisions one should not hesitate, and rather apply straight away whatever is agreed upon. A major lesson PSG has learnt often is to immediately admit if a purchase had been a pig in a poke.
    14. At Paladin we refer to the “refinement” of a portfolio over time, perhaps because we do business in the winelands. One should try selling the bad companies systematically and rather invest in the winners. You always want to keep your company streamlined.
    15. It took me several years to figure out what the most important objective of a company is. I struggled with “increasing shareholders’ wealth”, for many years the main goal of PSG. Gradually I started thinking it sounded too arrogant and cheeky, with an overbearing focus on the collection of wordly assets or wealth. It was if one only cares about one’s pocket, and I started developing a different philosophy. There are more people involved than shareholders, like staff and clients. One’s staff members are happy when they feel fulfilled, when they have freedom and a goal – in my opinion that’s the main motivation. I wouldn’t be happy if everyone else around me was unhappy. One’s clients need to believe in one too. A company is a success if the client, shareholder and employee are all happy. If you manage that, the company can grow and you’re doing something right. Growth in client numbers indicates profitability, and that’s why for growth in the share price one has to focus on clients. Moreover, over time people don’t really remember all that much about dividends, special dividends, unbundlings and other windfalls. What they do remember is by how much the share price has risen. It’s a simple criterion and it measures everything – risk, past performance, future prospects, management and the integrity of the figures – yes, everything.
    16. Pure pleasure is what PSG Konsult signifies to me. If you’ve ever seen a business that’s running like a well-oiled machine, that would be Konsult. The only reason I’m still on the board of directors is because every time I want to step down, chief executive Willem Theron persuades me otherwise. The management team is so strong that they don’t need even a little support. Konsult’s business plan is so simple that one can’t believe it hasn’t always existed.
    17. The mistake I then made is a classic one. Instead of appointing a single managing director for the bank, I put a committee of four at the helm of the new entity: Botha Schabort, André la Grange, Charles Turner and Hugh Oosthuizen, all of them strong personalities. I thought the four divisions could work together well and with time the best guy would emerge. How stupid that idea was I did not realise at the time. It was a breeding ground for conflict. Because the guys were fighting amongst one another, that was what they focused on, instead of their divisions.
    18. Many of our branch employees are later lured away by other banks with offers of bigger salaries, but it’s great to see how many of them want to return three or four months later – at their old salary. Capitec is an employer of high calibre, and then people enjoy working there too. Capitec is a dream come true. It’s a reality that shows how many opportunities there really are in South Africa, and what fantastic potential its people have. With access to capital, poverty can be eradicated over time.
    19. I reiterate: it’s a gigantic risk to put all your eggs in one basket, but woven grass or not, PSG as an investment company has many divisions. Apart from the properties and art I own, my own money is only in PSG, the furniture group Steinhoff, on whose board I serve, and the PSG Flexible Fund, the unit trust managed by my son Jan. Do I have the right to talk other people into it? I can honestly believe it’s good counsel, but I would neglect my fiduciary duty by only picking one share for someone.
    20. An irrefutable truth is that you have to have time on your side. A young person might not have money to invest, but he has to learn to save right from the start. It’s amazing how much money can grow if one saves. There’s a reason why it’s called the eighth wonder of the world.
    21. The cornerstones are transparency, honesty and sincerity. And every company does have an issue.
  3. Entrepreneurial mindset
    1. The soul of a company – the culture determines the performance
    2. The role of the entrepreneur is the collection and use of knowledge, his ability and readiness to see and use profitable opportunities and to use scarce resources effectively.
    3. The point is: entrepreneurs create value. They create jobs and they make money. But that’s not easy. A unique talent, coupled with hard toil, is what’s needed. Successful entrepreneurs are attuned to what they’re busy with. They have self-confidence and flair. Their need for success makes them restless and they don’t cower in the face of big risks. Such a person doesn’t lie awake because of spelling errors in minutes of a meeting, but quickly masters his field. This guy spots opportunities and can bring theory and practice together.
    4. PSG Capital chief executive, calls PSG a family of entrepreneurs: A family that gives one the security of being together, but doesn’t shy away from asking straight questions or hauling you over the coals. It’s a bunch of individuals who can and want to function independently. It’s a company that provides one with the great opportunity to convert this freedom and independent thoughts into palpable profits in which you can share.
    5. I have a list of what I regard as the characteristics of successful people, probably an obvious bunch of traits. People who are well read, have well-considered opinions, are honest, can communicate and stick it out, are self-confident and care for people and on top of that can think, are the best. Clear goals direct all these characteristics.
    6. So many people who come to present an opportunity uhm and ah so incoherently that I now ask beforehand whether someone would just like a cup of tea or sell or buy something so I can focus. My patience runs out with a wishy-washy presentation – does one really need more than ten minutes to explain how a business works and maybe ten minutes for a possible deal? And then there are those who just come to fish for advice. Those who don’t shy away from setbacks and are prepared to take hold of the future are the people you want at your side.
    7. The assistance to entrepreneurs or management firstly consists of striving to help someone focus on their goals. Directors have to see to it that a business plan is carried out.
    8. We can, however, help them with the negotiations and contracts and they have to stay alert, then opportunities will appear. One just has to be attuned to them constantly.
    9. It’s amazing what one can come across, and then one has to sit and think. One has to think outside the parameters. That way you will come up with an interesting business opportunity. The same alert attitude can also prevail in your daily dealings. One has to keep wondering all the time. When you have your hair cut . . . where does your hairdresser buy, and why? If you have a cup of coffee . . . what would happen if Famous Brands cut off one of its trademark entities like Mugg & Bean? If you’re driving around  . . . why is somebody erecting such a huge building in a new property development? Who owns the mall where you do your shopping when you furnish your holiday home?
    10. What have I learnt? Don’t generate business from technology, but let technology support and drive the business. I believed the clients of PSG Online had wanted to stay anonymous and preferred no human interaction. That was a big mistake. Online clients prefer a computerised service mechanism, but welcome personal contact from Online’s side.
    11. With e-insurance the trick is that the money you save in brokers’ fees because the client buys directly from you, you spend on advertising.
    12. At a dinner hosted by William H Gates, father of the same Microsoft founder Bill Gates, for a number of hand-picked business people, he asked those present to write down on a piece of paper a single word that they deemed of utmost importance in the business world. Coincidentally two of the guests chose the same word: the host’s son and one Warren Buffett. And the word? Focus. When I read that story I realised how important focus was for discipline and success. I always admire Whitey Basson, chief executive of the Shoprite Group, for the same thing. He is incredibly attuned to trends in the retail industry.
  4. Ultimate Empowerment
    1. After many lessons I only invest in companies I understand, whose management I know and whose character and culture I like. Three questions kept me busy for a long time: How does one make a company grow, when are people happy and what’s the key to making a success of a company? The answer is ultimate empowerment.
    2. The former American president Theodore Roosevelt’s encapsulation is the best, in my opinion: “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
    3. In PSG people are allowed to think and do themselves, and everyone knows that. A company grows when all of the employees perform to the best of their abilities. People perform well when they are happy and people are happy when their talents are recognised and when they are given the space to act and make decisions independently. To me, ultimately empowering someone therefore means delegating authority and responsibility. Empowerment in that sense means everybody is involved and knows how the company is performing. The decision-making process is shortened and the spirit and status are created that no one has terrific titles, but people get a lot of recognition. That creates a company with responsible managers who feel free and proud. People who are encouraged to think strategically themselves take their own future in hand. That freedom means not looking over people’s shoulders, but trusting them. On a more practical level it means that everyone can draft their own business plan, that every unit decides on its own remuneration packages and incentives, and that some services can be contracted out to an entity shared by a few companies in the group.
    4. The group makes significant investments in successful businesses and stands by its entrepreneurs without exception. Jannie’s policy of ultimate empowerment enables entrepreneurs to realise their vision. Ultimate empowerment also means there is no place to hide. It gives you just enough opportunity to engineer your own downfall if you don’t tread carefully. In PSG the prevailing culture entails low overheads, strict financial reporting, a high return on share-holders’ capital and the premise that the shareholder is always king.
    5. That, supposedly, begs the question when a board of directors does step in. A board has to have a relaxed leash on everyday matters and only get involved when overarching problems emanate in or outside the group. One has to concentrate on what’s important.
    6. Jannie builds around the jockey when he sees a business opportunity, provided of course that it’s a special opportunity in PSG’s field of play. Then the business model is almost the jockey’s prerogative, within bounds of course. Often the model is not the point. Jannie would pick the guy and respect his opinion and say: “You tackle it for us.”
    7. Willem Theron, chief executive, got rid of all the stress by devolving all decisions about remuneration to branch level. Each branch may keep 70% of its income and do with it as it likes, including paying bonuses to deserving people. In that way everyone is responsible for their own welfare concerning profits and all is fair in the garden again. Once the thorny issues and the remuneration differences have been sorted out, the satisfaction of the right person in the right job is huge. A testimonial to the calibre of people we draw is how many have remained loyal to the company over the years and how many have even been with us from the time of SMK and the very start in 1995. Another reason for great joy is the number of friends’ children and their spouses working for PSG
    8. Thus I naturally am my own boss, because I believe directors should have big share investments in the companies they represent. They are custodians of the shareholders’ assets and will definitely do a better job if they are big shareholders themselves.
    9. People laugh when I say this, but it’s true. I’ve overdone delegation to the extent that I do almost nothing. I don’t really work at the office. It’s a singular privilege. I want time to think. I want to philosophise and I want to come up with opportunities. There are people who like being involved everywhere, as if that would make them seem important. One should rather become unimportant. It consumes an endless amount of time if you as manager don’t trust people. Chris Otto will also tell you I’m the best delegator he’s ever met. He also knows that in fact I do nothing: Jannie doesn’t want to be on boards. He’s not a control freak, but he expects something to be done, and then it gets done. There’s something else to the art of empowerment. If you trust others to take good decisions, you also have to respect your employees and give credit where it’s due. Labour can never be rewarded with money alone.
  5. On Investing
    1. In a nutshell: start with about four or five good shares in the long term, diversify your investments across more shares for less risk and forget about short-term speculation. Five or six shares are optimal for diversification, as long as you invest in fairly diverse sectors. If you invest over a lifetime, you can afford to keep a cool head. And don’t put all your money in one share. Timing is also an issue to keep an eye on. Look at the profit potential and the net asset value. Long-term investments are like having a happy family – it requires love over a lifetime and not speculative moments. Just as one outburst wouldn’t alarm you, neither would a single share with the hiccups. Just as your good friends carry you through emotional crises, good investments carry you through economic storms.
    2. One gets to know the market over time. If everyone is optimistic and even people who don’t work with the stock exchange every day start chatting about it, it’s selling time, as sure as nails. By that time you have to have the cash in your hand, else you’re going to be very sorry. And if nobody is interested in the stock exchange anymore, it’s buying time. In the long term one has to sit back from the noise, but timing can’t be ignored completely.
    3. In every person’s life there are about four or five investment cycles. One needs to use them and be patient; then you’ll make a lot of money. These five principles are as plain as the nose on one’s face: Even if you’re a layman, you need to understand the company for personal investment, as I’ve written in part three about companies.
      1. If you can’t tell someone else what the company is doing, don’t invest there. I’ve never made money from mining shares, especially gold, because I don’t understand it. Yet one can understand that Sasol produces petrol from gas.
      2. Investigate the people in control of the company. Are they honest and hardworking or flashes in the pan? Through the years PSG has benefited a lot from learning as much as possible about the management before investing in a company.
      3. I’ve tried to explain above that you have to go against the current and buy at a low price-earnings ratio in a bear market, determine a realistic price to the net asset value and be on the lookout for a strong balance sheet and good cash flow. This strategy is as difficult as the opposite, to sell in a bull market, but the pain and insecurity when everybody else keeps swimming with the current will bear fruit.
      4. Do research. Read a lot and develop a feeling for investments. Listen, think and learn from your mistakes and successes. Good investment experts can always help you, but don’t underestimate your own role. The long term is imperative if your focus is on year-on-year growth in the share price.
      5. A share will only grow if the underlying profits of the company grow, which is the challenge of management.
    4. Only once you’ve mastered the management of a first franchise should you dare to borrow money for a second.
    5. Speculation and investment are two different matters. Speculation is short-term positions for which you don’t use your brain and investment is long-term. Speculation is the worst thing there is and you have to stay away from it as far as possible or you’ll get into trouble.
    6. Forget about investment clubs with friends. It only leads to indecision and bad blood. Don’t ever talk about the market as if it’s your pal – nobody ever understands the market. The pain of a loss is worse than the pleasure of a profit. Don’t ever take a loss lightly. If you get worried and sleep badly, you’re in trouble already. Forget about the trendy shares of the day. Don’t invest further in a losing situation. Liquidate your position.
    7. There are many clever investors who only look at listed shares. For those with a lot of perseverance and who want to trust my judgement there might be another option – to watch what PSG is doing and buy the same unlisted ones we buy. As I’ve said in part 3, a share register is public knowledge. With a little effort one can get hold of it. PSG is wide awake and constantly on the lookout for unlisted businesses we can acquire at a discount and where we can help add value. As buyers we want the price to remain low initially, and for that many investors don’t have the patience. But if you have it . . .
    8. Hierarchy paralyses . Colleague Chris Otto will tell you I’ll open a closed door in the office, for closed doors create a vibe we don’t want in PSG. It surprises newcomers that anyone can walk into my office without an appointment. The days of levels have long been numbered and titles are undesirable too.
    9. Drowning in the e-mail ocean of a bureaucracy – formality is stupidity. I detest senseless communication that wastes time and attention. As useful as e-mail can be, there are people who measure “indispensability” by how many e-mails there are in their inboxes when they return from two days out of the office. I simply get worried about my business if I get too many “in case” e-mails. I plainly call it cover your arse, for why do you send me e-mail so you can have the excuse of “I’ve told you about it” if something goes wrong? If something is important enough, someone has to phone me; else I don’t want to know about it. A problem is not solved because you’ve sent e-mail about it.
    10. Directions, rules and regulations stifle a company. We encourage an open, informal and creative environment where decisions can be made quickly. Yes, the more haste the less speed and because of that culture we sometimes make mistakes, but only someone who never takes a decision will go through life without mistakes.
  6. Other
    1. The Scottish-American entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the wealthiest American ever apart from John D Rockefeller, used to say one has to use a third of one’s life to get an education, a third for the creation of wealth and the last third for giving it away. Indeed that little yellow note found in his desk drawer after his death indicated that he had got rid of every last cent when he laid his head down.
    2. On a certain income level, giving money naturally gets relatively easy. Time is scarcer. Generosity can also entail giving time and therefore the transfer of wisdom or assistance.
    3. Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble – humility is admirable
    4. The American columnist and radio presenter Herman Cain rightfully said success was not the key to happiness, but happiness was the key to success – if you’re crazy about what you’re doing, you will achieve success.
    5. “If you can give your son or daughter only one gift, let it be enthusiasm,” said Bruce Baron, American member of congress and author of books on personal success. That same cornerstone I desire for my offspring, PSG. That we don’t break or brake, but build. It took me many years to realise that enthusiastic and positive people inspire me, but the “it won’t work” of negative grumblers make me see red
    6. Next to honesty and work ethics, caring for your company and colleagues and good manners are paramount. I’m passionate about the adages of CJ Langenhoven, one of the fathers of the Afrikaans language, like this one: “Treat your superiors with courtesy because it is your duty; your inferiors because it is your privilege.”
    7. Yet who would one choose: a Warren Buffett who has built up so much; or a Jack Welch who might have managed the largest company in the world, General Electric, but by means of cracking whips and a culture of fear about who would be fired next? PSG subsidiaries have been compelled to retrench people, but I hope I’m leading from the front rather than from behind.
    8. For me, creativity borders on enthusiasm, for the energy levels and success of a business are boosted when people challenge one another with innovative ideas. A sexy plan grabs people and motivates them to take calculated chances. It gives me no end of pleasure to establish something out of nothing.
    9. What has a director contributed by spotting a spelling error in the annual report? If you can generate two or three fresh ideas when the executive committee gets together, it’s a successful meeting, not when you’ve worked through an agenda item by item. I put in some effort to, an hour or two before a meeting like that, come up with a few things that could get the guys to think a little. The possibility of alternatives is what gets the grey matter going. If you think outside of the existing parameters, the result is a Curro; or the investment possibilities of alternative energy; or the financing possibilities of non-redeemable preference shares, where you never have to pay back the loan capital until the business ceases to exist, and which can never land you in hot water during a financial crisis. Curiosity is a winning characteristic. An interesting proposal and a fresh idea or new angle from which to look at an old problem is an approach that needs to be cultivated and encouraged. It has to become a mindset in a company. Creativity is much harder work than the useless buzz-words visions and missions.
    10. One of the major challenges and most exciting aspects of the business world remain identifying opportunities.
    11. Yet I’m convinced that businesses that are started in one’s own interest are more successful and that the impact of successful businesses trickles down into and benefits society as a whole.
    12. The business magazine Finweek published a story in its Piker column on July 30, 2009 about a local economics professor who gave everyone in his class a single average mark in order to illustrate socialism. Before the next test the clever students wondered why they should work hard and the underachievers also thought they didn’t have to do anything, so the second average mark was about 30% lower. And for the third test all of them got close to zero.
    13. The best thing about contributing to a country or a community is that it’s something you do because you want to, and not due to compulsion or for monetary remuneration. It’s great to plough back something of your knowledge and experience or ability because you are so privileged. You often get more out of it than what you put in.
    14. But being generous and wasting are light years apart. And like stinginess is a bad thing and ugly, frugality is a virtue. People who waste money will indeed lose everything, for if you waste something you don’t have respect for it.
    15. We tease him, calling him Radio JFM – and that’s not a station where listeners may phone in and say something of their own! My dad doesn’t believe in complaining and moping in self-pity at all. For him it doesn’t exist.
    16. Apart from PSG I hope what I leave behind for my children are above all a mindset of enthusiasm in everything they tackle, the tireless search for solutions, and the ethos to work hard in order to make a success of whatever they try to achieve.
    17. A negative person sees insurmountable hurdles and the proactive person looks for alternatives
    18. There is a very thin line between being assertive and aggressive, as I probably know better than anyone else. Yet I know even better that stumbling about is an unproductive waste of time. One has to take a decision and that’s it. If you’re wrong, you simply have to take the rap afterwards.
    19. The services of the best lawyer or accountant are for sale, but with a guy with general knowledge you can take anything on, because he can think further than his textbooks. On a board it’s also the guy with the integrated knowledge and well-considered opinion who makes a contribution. The rest only waste your time with superficial questions. Closely connected to that is the will to think. In The fall of the human intellect Swami Parthasarathy writes that people have lost the ability to think and reason. Knowledge is absorbed passively, but it doesn’t develop independent thoughts: “You need to wake up from this slumber. Start thinking, questioning, enquiring as to the cause of all this strife and struggle. Examine the truths of life. Do not accept anything without reason and logic.”
    20. A leader is someone with an interesting vision who knows the environment. He has the power of drawing people to follow him instead of pushing them, and therefore people have respect for him. Eventually leadership is about the ability to get the best from people and to combine their input effectively to reach a common goal.
  7. The PSG Stable
    1. PSG Group is an investment company that acquires strategic stakes in established businesses with strong management, good corporate governance, a history of earnings growth and positive cash-flows, and creates innovative ideas at existing businesses.
    2. Propell is a niche financing company specialising in financial products for the property industry, especially bridging finance, and also…
    3. Capitec Bank is a retail bank that provides accessible and affordable banking facilities to clients via the innovative use of technology, in a manner that is convenient and personalised. Its client base has historically been the… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    4. PSG Capital is PSG’s boutique corporate finance division, with teams based in Stellenbosch and Johannesburg. It provides a complete suite of corporate finance and advisory services to a broad spectrum of clients, both nationally and internationally. Its services include capital… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    5. PSG Fund Management’s business consists of local and offshore collective investments, asset management, hedge funds and prime broking. The funds include PSG Flexible Fund, PSG Alphen’s bouquet of funds, PSG Preferred Dividend Fund, PSG Money… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    6. PSG Futurewealth is an investment facilitator that offers investment solutions to the retail and institutional market. Apart from linked investment products it also offers guaranteed investment… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    7. PSG Konsult is an independent financial services company that offers a value-oriented approach to clients’ financial planning requirements. Services encompass investments, short-term insurance, life… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    8. Zeder Investments is an investment company that focuses on the agricultural, food, beverages, food-processing and related sectors. It offers investors exposure to the current inherent… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    9. Agricol is a seed company with an extended network of branches and agents all over South Africa. Their products include most well-known crops, alternative crops like forage seed and agronomy crops like cereals, canola and hybrid sunflower. It has a strong emphasis on research… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    10. BKB’s business entails the handling and marketing of agricultural products; wool, mohair and livestock, the provision of farming requisites and the rendering of related… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    11. Capespan is an international integrated logistical supplier of fruit. The company is the major role player in South Africa and sources fruit from 44 countries worldwide and distributes to 55 countries around the world. It is… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    12. Capevin is the ultimate investment holding company of Distell, Africa’s leading producer and marketer of fine wines, spirits, ciders and ready-to-drinks. Zeder owns 37% of Capevin Holdings, which… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    13. Kaap Agri came into being as a result of the merger between WPK and Boland Agri in 2005. The company’s footprint stretches through the Western and Northern Cape up into southern Namibia where it has recently acquired a number of trading branches. The focus of its retail branches (the Agrimark stores) has… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    14. Pioneer Foods is South Africa’s second largest food company and is structured into four divisions that manufacture household food and beverage products: Sasko, Bokomo Foods, Agri Business and The Ceres Beverage Company. Pioneer also has… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    15. KLK Landbou is a small but diversified agriculture-focused company headquartered in Upington. The company primarily serves the sheep farmers in the Kalahari and Northern Cape areas through 21 retail branches. The bulk of its profit comes from the distribution and retail sales of BP… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    16. MGK Business Investments operates through three divisions: Obaro, Prodsure en All-Gro. Obaro offers agricultural, gardening and pet products and services to the public from 17 commercial retail outlets. Its main clientele requires products and services mainly relating to irrigation agriculture. Its BEE programme has received widespread praise. NWK is a provider of agricultural services and inputs, primarily in the North West province. The company is involved in a wide spectrum of activities in the following fields: grain industry, agricultural management services, trade, financial services and industries. It owns 19% of the country’s grain storage capacity. OVK Operations is a diversified agricultural business. Its primary activities involve general trade, fuel distribution, the sales, servicing and repairs of agricultural machinery, motor dealerships, short-term insurance broking, grain handling, storage and marketing, livestock slaughtering and marketing of carcasses, and client financing. Its service area includes the Free State, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape. Suidwes Investments operates in the maize-producing area of North West, with its head office in Leeudoringstad. It is involved in all aspects of meeting the needs of grain and other farmers, from supplying inputs and requisites to grain handling, storage… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    17. Paladin Capital is an investment company with a private equity bias and PSG’s preferred investment vehicle in areas other than financial services and agriculture. Paladin Capital’s investment principles are based on the following: not industry-specific, encompassing listed and unlisted companies; strong sustainable… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    18. African Unity Insurance provides illness benefit management, a range of life insurance and funeral schemes for groups and individuals. Algoa Insurance merged with African Unity in 2009 and it has 29% BEE ownership. Curro Holdings is the parent company of all Curro private schools. Their role is to establish new private schools and to back each school with a solid management team experienced in the field of education. The schools offer parallel medium education in Afrikaans and English, have a Christian ethos, positive discipline and balanced academic, sport and cultural activities. Erbacon is a construction company predominantly in infrastructure (roads and bridges) and general construction (through Armstrong). It also has a tool hire division. Civicon operates on contract sites throughout Southern Africa. Its services include general civil engineering construction, industrial and process plants, mining infrastructure and support both surface and underground, and design and construction of turnkey industrial projects. GRW is a manufacturer of steel and aluminium tankers and specialised liquid containers. Apart from South Africa it also has clients in the UK and Middle East. It has a highly advanced robotic plant. Iquad Group is a specialised outsourcing company, focusing on treasury management, investment incentives and BEE verification services. Petmin is a minerals, mining and processing company that services the metallurgical and industrial sectors. It is listed on the JSE and the aim in London, and has two operations mining in silica and anthracite. Precrete specialises in the production and distribution of pre-mixed concrete for the construction, support and other related mining applications. Its wholly owned subsidiary, GFC Construction, focuses on guniting or shotcreting, which involves applying concrete pre-mixes to walls of mine shafts. Protea Foundry is a non-ferrous casting operation based in Gauteng, the largest in South Africa. Top Fix Holdings’ business comprises the following: the supply and leasing of scaffolding and scaffolding personnel to industrial plants and construction sectors; the supply of personnel to the chemical, petro-chemical, power generation, construction and coal mining industries; and supply of safety surveillance and access control equipment on chemical and petro-chemical plants. Thembeka Capital is a broad-based… Some highlights have been hidden or truncated due to export limits.
    19. Think & Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill. The single book that has changed my life and positively inspired me to start PSG. It’s not only about money and wealth, but rather about the philosophy of believing in oneself
What I got out of it
  1. Ultimate empowerment, alignment, people above everything, long-term, speak your mind, be authentic to yourself, speak out for what you believe in and make sure you have a voice/control, delegate fully and the best companies allow the head to be least involved on a day to day level, absolute enthusiasm / curiosity / looking for opportunities and scheming

I Love Capitalism: An American Story by Ken Langone

  1. This is Ken Langone’s love song to capitalism. Everyone can and should dream big – it works for anybody. “You want my whole philosophy in a nutshell? I want everybody to do well. The world is a lot more fun if we’re all rich instead of just some of us.”

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You can also find more of my articles in audio version at Listle

Key Takeaways

  1. Background
    1. A parents’ main job: unconditional love, live the values you want to teach, stress hard work and education
    2. Ken came from humble beginnings but was taught the value of hard work from a young age and is proof of the American dream
    3. Always ravenous about learning – libraries on Saturdays when others were partying
    4. Out of army in 1963 which later saw a huge market crash. Counterintuitive at the time but he saw this as his opportunity to get his feet in the door at Wall St.
    1. Loving what you do is one of the greatest joys in life. I learned early how essential it was to love the work I was doing. Sometimes I look back and wonder, how did all this happen? Then the answer comes. Shit, I know how it happened: I was at a place where I was having the time of my life! I still remember what Hudson Whitenight said to me 60 years ago: “If you really love your work as much as I think you’re going to, you’re going to be a big success. So, I’m saying to a kid, I learned that ex post facto; you should learn it in front!
  2. Negotiating and a Win-Win Mindset
  1. Early in his career, Langone approached his boss about changing incentives. “Mr. Brown, I want to do something, and I’d like you to agree to it. I want to allocate a certain percentage of those commissions to the R&D department for the analysts who helped bring in this business. Mr. Brown, these guys downstairs are great; I don’t think you understand the quality of talent you’ve got down there. They’re a lot better than alright. Maybe it’s how we use them that’s not all right. But I can tell you right now, I can take these guys anyplace and do a lot of business. Rather than giving them a bonus from my end, I have another idea. Let’s you and I pick a total dollar amount off the top of whatever I bring in from Standard-Jersey, or any other company going forward, for analyst bonuses. Now, you’re going to only have to pay 70% of it because I’m going to pay 30%. I’ll tell you which analysts are higher on the approval list at Standard-New Jersey, and you can decide how much you want to allocate to each analyst. It’s completely fair. He didn’t like that so I said, “I’m going to take a portion of Unit 15’s 30% and give it to them directly. It’ll cost you nothing.” Why would you do that? he asked. “Because, Mr. Brown, when I pick up the phone and call the research department, I want those guys to jump through the phone. I want these guys to keep doing as great a job as they’ve been doing, and I want them to be excited about it…
  2. Capitalism is brutal, but it’s rarely a zero-sum game. Both sides of any transaction should get something out of the deal. Valeant, the pharmaceutical company, had a whole roster of important medications, but when it got caught charging obscene prices for them, its stock went down 90%. The market spoke, and Valeant had to listen. I can’t think of one deal I’ve ever done where I couldn’t have gotten more out of it than I did. As I’ve made clear, I like making money. I’m not some Buddhist monk who wants to eat beans the rest of his life. But it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you look beyond sheer profit to getting buy in by other people. I’d rather own 10% of a billion-dollar company than 100% of a $100m company. The numbers are exactly the same but by owning a piece of the billion dollar company, I get the benefit of everybody else pulling with me, and that’s a huge benefit
  3. One of the most important lessons in my life is this; leave more on the table for the other guy than he thinks he should get. And one of the most important rules in capitalism is incentive. I didn’t get rich by accident. I’ve always been very conscious of terms and conditions and trading, and I bargain back and forth. But I never wanted to reach a point on a deal where the other guy feels he was had. I’d rather have him feel he got me than I got him. I can live with that. If the other guy does better than I do, there’s a good chance he’ll want to come back to me and make a number of deals. On the other hand, he has to be straight with me
  4. The human element
  1. Ignore the human element in any situation at your own peril
  2. Everybody talks about the bottom line, but as I’ve seen time and again, you ignore the human element of business at your peril. Most of the seven deadly sins can and do come into play, and chemistry between people – good chemistry or bad – always has an effect, sometimes a huge effect: in boardrooms, in executive offices, in sales meetings. I’ve had quite a few chemistry lessons over the years.
  3. The only problem was that Home Depot’s great strength was (and still is) its culture, and our culture isn’t about statistics. In our culture, you don’t measure the intangible value of a sales associate saying to a customer, “Can I help you?” or, “You don’t really need that. Come over here and look at this. It doesn’t cost as much, but you’ll be fine with it.” A customer was told to buy an 89 cent screw rather than replacing his whole sink for $200. A couple months later, the guy’s wife wants a new kitchen, and she wants to go to some foo-foo kitchen showroom place. The husband says, “Oh no, I want to go see my friends at the Home Depot.” They spent $100,000 on the job. There’s nothing like these people in our stores. They’re special. Now, how do you get special people? Well, you start by treating them special. You let them know they matter. You let them know you appreciate their opinion. You let them know if they think there’s a better way of doing things than the way they’re doing them, they have an obligation to tell us, and we have an obligation to listen. You also let them know that anybody can build a big store space and put all kinds of inventory in it; the glue that holds Home Depot together are these values. We don’t just say them. We believe them, and we practice them consistently
  4. Management teams that rack up great numbers but ignore the human equation will eventually have a problem on their hands. In business, good numbers can be like sunlight: blindingly bright.
  5. Arrogance is the enemy. For many years, Bernie Marcus and I never, ever went into a Home Depot store – never once – unless we were pushing carts in from the parking lot. I sued to pray I would see a piece of trash on the floor so I could pick it up. Why? Those are entry-level tasks for the kid who works in that store. When he sees the top guys doing them, he can say to himself, “If it’s not too small for them, it’s not too small for me.” The minute you take away all the artificial barriers between you and your people, you’re on your way to phenomenal success. But it takes a bit of humility. To this day, if I walk into a Home Depot and see a customer who looks lost and confused, I walk up to him and say, “I have something to do with this company; can I help you?” if he has a question that’s beyond me, I’ll go grab a kid and say, “can you help this customer?”
  6. We’ve never paid anyone minimum wage at Home Depot. We had a simple belief: minimum wage, minimum talent. We always wanted to have good kids who wanted careers and not feel they had to compromise their pay. We paid them two or three bucks an hour more than minimum. We reviewed them every six months. And from the beginning we were growing like a weed, so we created enormous upside mobility.
  7. If there’s anything I would take a bow for throughout this whole process, it would be this: never giving up, and thinking creatively, instead of just reactively, when the chips were down. It’s a style I recommend highly. You get to enjoy lemonade instead of the lemons God gives you, and chicken salad instead of the much less tasty alternative
  8. As I began my tenure at Home Depot, my first role was just to lift morale. It was a big lift. I decided to do some of the same things we did at Home Depot: hold town meetings, walk the halls, talk to the staff. Put my arm around people’s shoulders, tell them how much we appreciated them and what we were going to do for them – and deliver. In other words, don’t promise pie in the sky unless you’ve got the recipe to make it
  9. No grand plans
  1. You noticed I originally named my little-startup Invemed because I was so fascinated by the health-care field, and how here I was, in 1976, up to my ass in the home-improvement business. And happy to be there. Contradictory? Sure! Life is full of left turns, and I’ve taken quite a few of them, following my nose, which has very often pointed me in the right direction. The truth is I can’t help myself: I am a deal junkie. If the phone rings, I’m like the proverbial fire-house dog – off to the races. Who knows who might be calling? More often than not, it’s someone who has a very interesting business proposition. Doesn’t matter what kind of business it is.
  2. Life Lessons
  1. It wasn’t just wealth itself that put me in that position; a lot of it was sheer stubborn curiosity. Whenever I served on a corporate board, I was notorious for asking more questions than any other director on that board. I didn’t give a shit if my question showed how stupid I was. A lot of people are scared to ask questions because they don’t want people to know how dumb they are. I’ve never had that problem. A lot of people are also afraid of falling down and hurting themselves along the way. Capitalism works, but you’ve got to make the effort, and you’ve got to be able to take the lumps. You have to have the kind of stamina that, when you get knocked down, allows you to pick yourself up and brush yourself off and move on just as if you’d never been knocked down. When I almost went broke in 1970, when I fell almost overnight from the highest mountain to the lowest valley, when I’d go home every day at 4:00pm and weed the garden and cry, I managed to go on afterward
  2. Don’t be in awe of anyone – public and private personas differ greatly
  3. Nothing more important than the name I leave my kids
  4. The big picture depends on a lot of smaller pictures.
  5. Never count the money while the game is still going
  6. Too many people measure success the wrong way. Money should be at the bottom of the list, not the top. I woke up soon enough to realize that if the only way you can define my life is by the size of my bank account, then I’ve failed. Fifteen or twenty years ago, a guy asked me how much I was worth and I answered without thinking, “my net worth is what good I do with what I have.”
  7. What distinguishes the winners from the losers is the ability to turn adversity around: resilience and creativity.
  8. The beautiful thing is that as much as we give, it keeps coming back: we’ve made back all the money we’ve given away, and more. What Elaine and I can’t make more of for ourselves is time. We spend it, but we can’t get it back

  What I got out of it

  1. A really fun read with some great stories and lessons. Main ones: in any deal, always leave more on the table; think longer-term and build relationships; add more value than you take away; do the hard work and prepare; be candid, truthful, honest, yourself