Arthur Samberg

Arthur Samberg joined Barry Ritholtz (@Ritholtz) on Bloomberg’s Masters in Business podcast. As always, these notes are only a sample of the actual interview. Here’s our table of contents.

  • Passion as a competitive advantage.
  • How to be smarter.
  • Synergy and success.
  • Big fish in a little pond.
  • Advice on running a business.

Find your competitive advantage.

Competitive advantage is bounced around like a beach ball at some last-days-of-summer cookout. Fun to bat around, but hard to grasp. Samberg though gives one of the best perspectives for personal competitive advantage I’ve heard.

When Ritholtz asks how he transferred from being a rocket scientist to being a financial analysis, Samberg said, “you gotta follow your passion, your competitive advantage. I could solve the equations but I didn’t know what was going on.” That’s brilliant.

Follow your passion is usually bad advice. Cal Newport took his book title from the Steve Martin interview where he told Charlie Rose:

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’…but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”

People don’t usually have passion for practice. But doing the work is exactly what you need to do. It’s why Gary Vaynerchuk said that to succeed greatly it needs to be something you’re passionate about. You need to leverage the enjoyment in the late nights, early mornings, and weekends of work. You can’t dabble.

Samberg says that this passion is your competitive advantage. “You are what you are.”

It’s part of the value of knowing yourself. It’s how Gretchen Rubin started her book on habits. You can’t build good habits, Rubin rationed, if you don’t know what habits are good for you. “Knowing our tendency,” Rubin writes, “can help us frame habits in a compelling way.”

We can look at passion as a tool. If it’s something that spurs you on to work harder, then leverage that.

How to be smart, be around smart people.

Early in his career, Samberg migrated back to New York City. Not because it was great, but because his wife needed a job and he knew she could get one there. Samberg got a job at Columbia and started to carpool with Leon Cooperman.

“I learned more in the carpool than I did in school,” Samberg tells Ritholtz. We’ve seen this before. Seth Godin said school teach a lot of the wrong things. “There’s only two things we should be teaching in school, Godin says, “how to lead and how to solve interesting problems.”

I don’t know how right Godin is, but I know that you don’t have to learn in school. Read something interesting. Nearly every post here includes book links. Plus, reading will help you with something critical to Samberg’s success, synergy.

Synergy and success.

“My success in life is taking a decent expertise in technology and combining that with finance and trying to apply those two things to help companies aggregate capital and grow and create jobs.” – Arthur Samberg

Samberg is not the smartest engineer in the world. He is not a brilliant financier. But, when you put those two things together (like mayonnaise on a turkey sandwich) you get something much more than the sum of the parts.

Scott Adams wrote that this is exactly what has made him successful. From How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big:

“I’m a perfect example of the power of leveraging multiple mediocre skills. I’m a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw well. At social gatherings I’m usually not the funniest person in the room. My writing skills are good, not great. But what I have that most artists and cartoonists do not have is years of corporate business experience plus an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.”

Dave McClure was on a similar path to Samberg. Instead of starting a hedge fund, he started a startup incubator. McClure said, “I had both the engineering and marketing side, and there weren’t that many people doing investing that had both disciplines.”

When we combine skills in a Venn diagram we shrink the pool of competitors. If you want to be a big fish, you probably need to swim in a little pond.

Big fish in a little pond.

Samberg tells Ritholtz that creating anything is easier when it’s smaller. “Change becomes more difficult,” Samberg says, “as a trend goes on and you become larger in size.”

Samberg’s perspective is an investing one. It’s easier for a hedge fund to allocate $10M dollars and earn 18% on that money than $500M. It’s the same reason Naval Ravikant said that Freakonomics isn’t as good as it once was. Tim Ferriss notes that many things in life follow the Sigmoid Curve. Rapid learning, growth, earnings, then things slow down.

Making a thousand dollars is easier than making a million. Writing one best-seller is easier than writing two.

If you want to succeed, be a big fish in a little pond. Michael Mauboussin explained how the numbers tell the story. The more people there are, the more skill there is and the more luck comes into play. It’s why Lewis Howes plays handball and why Peter Thiel tells people not to open the 23rd pizza place in town.

This is good business advice, but there is something else Samberg wants people to know.

Advice on running a business.

“It’s a challenge because there’s a lot of smart people out there. But figuring out who’s going to be easy to live with is very difficult.” – Arthur Samberg

It’s easier than ever – though not simple – to find the right people. In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky noted that businesses traditionally stop growing in size because the drag of maintenance ate away at profits. Samberg says much the same thing, “anything that is successful creates an infrastructure around that activity.” And infrastructures have to be maintained.

Imagine you have a road people love to drive on. You charge them each time and they happily pay. Taking a cue (people spend with their feet) you build more road. And then more. Eventually though you had to stop because the old road needed maintenance. The more road, the more maintenance. That same drag is present in organizations.

People muddy the waters more than infrastructure. Asphalt is an inert substance with formulas for tracking how long it might last. People are not the same. When Phil Libin talked with Tim Ferriss, he noticed this at Evernote. There were people scaling issues. Three people were fine, ten was okay, one hundred and things broke down. To fix those things they had to add support to the business (Shirky’s drag, Samberg’s infrastructure).

In Shirky’s book he proposes that as technology progresses, we get better options with less drag. First phones, then fax, then email, now Slack. Each of these simplified communication. This also lets people form their own connections that in the past would have been too expensive. Imagine if I had to mail this blog out via the postal service each week. Yikes.

Samberg’s point is that if you have good people, you’ll have less drag. “I had a hot streak of hiring when I got started,” he tells Ritholtz. When Adam Davidson was on a Hollywood set he saw this. It wasn’t always the most skilled people that were hired. Sometimes it was someone less skilled, but nicer to work with.

Being nice matters.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

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