Terry O’Reilly

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

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Good marketing isn’t good email marketing or omnichannel marketing or PPC management. Those are just actions. Good marketing, as people like David Trott, remind us, focus on the customer.

With 30+ years of experience, that’s what Terry O’Reilly provides in his Under the Influence podcast and in his book, This I Know. In a line, good organizations understand their customers and communicate how they are different. This creates pricing power and everything works better in the right culture. Simple but not easy. Let’s see how.

What job is your customer hiring for?

We all hire for things that we don’t want to, can’t, or won’t do. Even employers hire their boss. At Going Deep 2.0 I ab libbed the introduction and reminded attendees that we don’t all have to be entrepreneurs. We’ve glorified this kind of business, but employees don’t have to take their work home with them in the same way. Employees hire their boss to manage payroll, develop strategy, and be on call.

People hire for jobs to be done all the time. In the book, O’Reilly gives the example of Coffee Crisp.

Coffee Crisp looked at the market and saw that people already ‘hired’ for the ‘job’ of treat. But in talking to customers, Coffee Crisp realized that ‘snack’ was a different job than ‘treat’. People treat-yo-self once a year. People snack daily.

Think of it as a grid that’s 7 spaces high by 24 spaces across. Those 168 boxes are all places for a job. It’s why even small English pubs compete with Netflix.

O’Reilly writes, “The first rule is: Know your audience. You have to have a deep understanding of who you are talking to in order to be relevant.”

This is why many products start with a founder scratching their own itch. Peter Rahal created a paleo protein bar, Ben Horowitz created a venture capital fund, Julie and Elizabeth created a fitness studio.

For outsiders, the beginning is really important. “Before a new business pitch, smart agencies list everything they know about a company or a product before they begin to do research. It’s the only time they can think like the general public.”

Rob Fitzpatrick calls this The Mom Test, a book Jerry Neuman has his students read. What Fitzpatrick wants founders to do is to ask questions so objective that even their mom could answer without bias. Do you like my app/thing/product? is the wrong question because people, especially moms, are too nice. Instead, What makes you buy/do X/Y/Z?

That’s a better question because it leads to the why, and the why to the job.

O’Reilly writes, “You also have to be Switzerland when doing research You have to be utterly neutral.”

And for on-going businesses, “Because pain-points are often hard for proprietors to spot, you need to check in with your customers frequently.” Once an organization figures out what job customers are hiring for they can see what niches are available.

Be different.

O’Reilly kinda calls this Strategy but the word matters less than the meaning; what do customers remember. Which of these: O O O X O O O, stand out?

The invisible is harder to articulate than the visible.

Duke Economist Dan Ariely articulated this idea nicely in a podcast with Ted Seides. Ariely said, “The whole category of saving is invisible. Think about what you know about what your neighbors are saving. Nothing. What do you know about their spending?” To which Ted Said, “Something more.”

The same goes for product, service, and strategy.

O’Reilly writes, “The thing that bugs you most about them (your competitors) is probably their greatest strength.”

Or turn a weakness into a strength. Dave Trott gives this as an example.

Cellnet was 1/4 the size of Vodafone at the time. That seems like a disadvantage until you sell size as crowds and small as space.

Unique ideas work, but the “the better the work, the harder the sell.” Why? “The difficult thing about counterintuitive solutions is that they are often difficult to swallow and hard to present, and are usually shunned by almost everyone initially.”

Career risk influences decisions. Tom Goodwin articulated why, “For companies to really establish themselves around the potential of these new technologies they need to make significant changes, they need to rewire the foundations of their companies and most people at a certain level of seniority, with a mortgage on their house and worries about what school their kids are gonna go to next and how much that’s gonna cost, are not really prepared to undertake the risk and to do something that’s gonna take a long time to pay off.”

People don’t get fired for buying IBM – or making any other decision they could deem was logical in hindsight.

The opposite of ‘buying IBM’ is something weird, off-beat, and fragile. Sam Altman said that Y-Combinator doesn’t have co-working spaces for this very reason. Too many people can smother a quirky idea before it evolves then blooms.

When Steve Martin started out he worked at Disneyland, then for the Smother’s Brothers and then he tried to be a standup comedian. Martin had some performing chops from his time in California and he learned how to write while working in TV. But this phase of his life was the hardest. Luckily for him, he was alone.

“The lonely road with nobody watching was the place to dig up my boldest – or dumbest – ideas and put them on stage.” If Martin headed straight to New York City or Chicago he would have been smothered, his act was fragile. But he kept working.

The secret for Steve Martin wasn’t to be great, that was random. What mattered was to be consistently good. “What was hard was to be consistently good, night after night, no matter the abominable circumstances.”

That’s true for ideas too.  O’Reilly writes, “An idea is a fragile thing. When it only exists as a notion – a flicker of potential – the slightest breeze from across the table can extinguish it. Presenting a new idea requires poise, persuasion and gust protection.”

That gust protection comes from a top-down leadership that supports this kind of decision making. Ken Kocienda praised Steve Jobs’ style of acting like an editor. Jobs issued assignments and declared his feedback. Good leaders hire well and then get out of the way. At Netflix, wrote, Patty McCord it meant hiring adults and treating people that way. David Ogilvy suggested “gentlemen with brains.”

If you can talk to your customers and find a way to be different the next step is going back to the customers and telling them about it.

Communicate well.

Highlighted nicely by Marc Andreessen and Brian Koppelman is the idea of selling your idea. Andreessen said the day of building a better mousetrap and the world beating a path to your door is over. They won’t, “The world is busy.” Koppelman agreed, “It’s the responsibility of the artist to do things that gets the work in front of people.”

If you can’t communicate well, that’s okay. If you’re aware of it it’s good. That means hiring well. Rich Barton said that founders need to marry a marketer. Josh Wolfe said much the same. Jeff Jordan of a16z told a class of students at UCLA, “As an entrepreneur salesmanship is huge.”

But that doesn’t mean selling. The used-car salesman has a bad vibe because the used-car salesman skips everything we just mentioned. They fail to understand needs.

O’Reilly wrote, “In business, persuading people to buy your ideas is a fundamental necessity.” Good ideas are not enough. The Pauls said that analysts aren’t paid to analyze. They’re paid to analyze and sell and idea to their boss.

To communicate well, O’Reilly suggests a consistent theme to what you do. Keep it simple. Show, don’t tell. “If people feel, they believe.”

Good communication is about embodying an idea not a specific. Viewers often can’t recall the details of a specific advertisement but they can recall how it made them feel. And those feelz are a company’s brand.

These steps are crucial because they lead to the mother of all metrics.

Pricing Power.

In an a16z hallway conversation; Li Jin, D’Arcy Coolican, and Frank Chen, Chen calls pricing power the mother of all metrics.

As Warren Buffett put it, it’s the ability to raise prices.

Marketing, like Rapunzel, can turn straw into gold. Instead of a spinning wheel, all it takes is a good feeling.

“Apple makes us care because it disrupts entire industries to give us more user power. Nike makes us care because it encourages us to make an important decision…I’m willing to pay more for an Apple computer. All things being equal, I prefer Nike running shoes…There is nothing intellectual about any of those decisions. It’s pure emotion. Each of those companies and people provoke a feeling in me.”

What does it take to delight a customer? The wanted but unexpected.

A friend recently went to Disney World with her two children. When she got there she realized she’d bought the wrong annual pass – his first – for her son. Crap. Hoping for some “Disney Magic” she headed to guest services.

Technically she was wrong. In a world of numbers and rules, she should have paid $100 for her son to enter the park that day. But, as sometimes happens, with faith, trust, and pixie dust her wish was granted.

Patty McCord at Netflix thinks that these kinds of actions should be rewarded and communicated to all the stuff. Customer service, McCord wrote, should know about the LTV and CAC of each customer. My friend’s story will spread, reducing Disney’s CAC and increasing Disney’s LTV much more than $100.

O’Reilly agrees, “Customer service equals profit. When customer satisfaction soars, so do revenues.”

When Danny Meyer started his first restaurant in New York City he had more problems than patrons. But he had one great solution, ‘the medicine cabinet.’ If guests waited too long, got the wrong food, or were generally disappointed Meyer and his staff could offer them a drink. It wasn’t any drink, it was a dessert wine. These were popular in Europe but mostly unknown in the states.

So not only did they get a free glass of wine but something special that wasn’t on the menu. O’Reilly likes Meyers work too, noting that while Grammercy Tavern was ranked tenth for food and unranked for decor it was ranked third overall in Manhattan.

That’s kinda magical.

Rory Sutherland makes this point too, only in the opposite direction. It doesn’t matter how good the food is, if you sit by a bathroom that stinks it won’t be a good meal.

How much are you willing to pay for something nice? Something new? Something from a brand you love? That’s pricing power.

But that only lasts in the right environment.

Culture.

This is the operating systems for an organization. It’s the attitude. Ben Horowitz said it’s what people do when you don’t tell them what to do. O’Reilly writes, “The Ritz-Carlton is a successful company because it knows exceeding customer expectations can’t just be a marketing campaign. It has to be an operating platform.”

He adds, “Nothing — repeat, nothing — is more important than your company culture.”

Culture should be a competitive advantage. The things one organization is willing, capable, or committed to doing that others can’t. Michael Porter tells the story about going to IKEA with his daughter. Porter hated the process but she loved it. His point was that organizations can’t be great at doing all things for all people.

In 2019 Disney will release a streaming service and while it will look like Netflix its development should not be. The Disney culture is different from the Netflix culture. Netflix has a spirit to move fast and test things, hiring adults they trust. Disney’s is more static, sometimes literally, as theme parks and merchandise circles their IP.

Who should we hire for this business and how do we let them do their best work?

Paul Lavoie named his agency Taxi, writes O’Reilly for “Lavoie’s belief that the number of people needed to service an account should be able to fit into a cab.” Jeff Bezos said the ideal number for a project is fed by two pizzas. Michael Mauboussin said the sweet spot for investing committees is 4-6. Agencies, Amazons, and investors then should fiind the sweet spot for work built around their advantage.

 

Simple, but not easy. Thanks for reading.

Business Stories

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Patrick O’Shaughnessy put out the book signal and we’ve collected the data

We’ve done this before for China Books and Sutherland’s Suggestions.

This “methodology” includes manual inputs from Amazon for the number of reviews, total sales rank, and used book price. I selected the last item thinking that if a book was great, people would keep it, making fewer copies for sale and a higher price. For as good as Good to Great is, it can’t be that good if there are 1,300 used copies for sale starting at $0.19 plus shipping.

These are affiliate links.

General data.

There were 82 books in this set. I had to throw out a few things I couldn’t find or didn’t understand. You could buy used copies of all of them for $549.23, which seems like a bargain. When people talk about college being a waste of money this is what they’re referencing. The worst of college is well below the value of these books – and many other life experiences. However, the best parts of college are still great. Where does it switch?

The average age of a suggested book was 13 years, the median age was 11, the modal age was 1. Less recency tendency than I expected.

The best-selling book (Bad Blood) was ranked #48 of all books on Amazon, the median (Barbarians at the Gate) was #154,990, and the lowest (Accidental Empires) was 10,477,615.

The Best of the Best.

Ranking all the books on the three metrics above and then totaling those scores led to these with the lowest composite score. Bad Blood, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Shoe Dog, Creativity Inc., and The Goal. I thought the first four were fantastic.

Collector’s editions.

These are the books with the highest cost of a used hardcover. The Power Broker, Masters of Doom, Against the Gods, Business Adventures, and Accidental Empires. Though they’re also older, with an average age of twenty-two years. Older means fewer and rarer and that probably explains the bulk of the higher price. Still, these books still come up frequently on Twitter.

Social suggestions.

These were the ones suggested most frequently in Patrick’s Twitter thread. Barbarians at the Gates, When Genius FailedThe Fish that Ate the Whale, Liar’s Poker, and Cable Cowboys. If my memory is correct, I think Rich Cohen credited Ryan Holiday’s email list for pushing The Fish into such esteem.

Most obscure (today).

Books with the lowest sales rank or fewest reviews include; Billionaire, The Life of Sir James Goldsmith, A Hippie’s Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder, Fortune’s Fool, and Fooling Some of the People All of the Time.

Oldies but Goodies.

With an average age of thirty-seven years, this set of not-yet-mentioned books are some classics you may have missed. The Soul of a New Machine, Made in Japan, Predator’s Ball, House of Morgan, and Onassis.

My Favorites.

These are the ones I read, really liked, and reference regularly. Setting the Table, The Outsiders, Made in America, Let My People Go Surfing, and In-N-Out.

 

Happy reading. Source data.

Patty McCord

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Patty McCord wrote, Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, a book about her time at Netflix. The book reminded me of my time as a graduate student and the ways higher education is not like Netflix. McCord notes that it’s not the perks that get people to do good work, but interesting problems without too much friction. Grad school had perks (Look, a rec center!), kinda interesting problems and plenty of frictions.

Your intrinsic advantage. One competitive advantage of being an internet company is being an internet company. As Andrew Ng said, a mall with a website is not Amazon. Netflix’s problem was with the DVD queue. It vacuumed valuable resources. Should they keep the queue?

McCord et al. headed to the data center and looked at customer surveys. People wanted it, they said they liked seeing the list of movies coming to them. Okay, ask customers what they want and keep what they want, right?

What if there was a better way? What if a company could measure action, not attitude. Internet companies can. “But A/ B tests showed that it made no material difference in customer retention or the number of movies or shows watched or any of the other hard-data measures of customer satisfaction.”

The customer’s stated preference was X.
The customer’s revealed preference was Y.

This happened at eBay too, said Jeff Jordan. In an attempt to “add layers to the cake” they experimented with the Buy it Now button. The old-schoolers hated it but not nearly as much as everyone else loved it.

When stated and revealed preferences don’t align then having the latter is much more important. This was one of the reasons Kai-Fu Lee said China may surge ahead in AI research. “People’s spending patterns are so much more valuable than their clicking patterns.”

But data are not a silver bullet. Ted Sarandos told McCord, “There is lots of intuition that is acted on, and I look for people for the team who are smart enough to read the data and intuitive enough to know how to ignore it.” Sarandos wants people who know data is backward looking and act like it’s part of history, not an ordained future.

Internet companies get to act their age and move fast and test things.

Culture. If valuable homes are about future location, future location, future location then valuable organizations are about culture, culture, culture. McCord was one of the people who contributed to Netflix’s Culture Deck. She summarized culture to Barry Ritholtz:

Culture is the operating system for an organization.

Like:

Good arguments. “Our Netflix executive team was fierce. We were combative in that beautiful, intellectual way where you argue to tease out someone’s viewpoint, because although you don’t agree, you think the other person is really smart so you want to understand why they think what they think.”

Marc Andreessen said this attitude is why his partnership with Ben Horowitz has gone so well. Brian Koppelman said the same thing about his partnership with David Levien.

But tawk is cheap and actions speak louder than words (as above). At RXBar Sam McBride had his evaluation in front of everyone. At Netflix, executives had to argue in front of others too. And sometimes Reed Hastings inverted their positions.

“He arranged a debate between the two (head of marketing, head of content), onstage, in chairs facing each other, in front of the rest of the executive team. And the really brilliant twist was that each one argued the other’s side. To prep for that, they really had to get into the other person’s skin.”

Good organizations search for the truth and don’t care who gets credit for finding it. Bad organizations search for credit and don’t care if they find the truth.

How do we make money? “But if I could pick one course to teach everybody in the company, whether they’re in management or not, it would be on the fundamentals of how the business works and serving customers.”

For example, what’s the Customer Aquisition Cost and what’s the Lifetime Value? McCord suggests sharing the CAC with customer service representatives so they understand, “each person who becomes a customer on another customer’s recommendation saves the company that amount of money.”

McCord’s attitude has evolved over time. There was one time she spent $100,000 on a Cinco de Mayo party which was, “enormously costly, time-consuming, and unproductive.”

Instead, communicate clearly about the business fundamentals with adults. If you do that, “the less important policies, approvals, and incentives are.” As David Ogilvy said, hire gentlemen with brains.

An example was when an engineer asked about the windowing process; where movies are exclusive to theaters, then hotels, then rentals, then cable. McCord didn’t know why this occurred. But she found out and conveyed why to her staff. That led Netflix to release all their episodes at once.

Windowing is one part of the movie business we looked at in our Pixar podcast:

 

Thanks for reading.

Andreessen and Koppelman

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Brian Koppelman spoke with Marc Andreessen and Marc Andreessen spoke with Brian Koppelman in a pair of episodes. They covered a fair bit of Koppelman’s career, which we’ll skip here and instead point readers to -> Koppelman’s Career Capital.

Visiting Silicon Valley, Koppelman said that the highest compliment is to be called a system’s thinker. Yep, agreed Andreessen. “If you’re not a systems thinker you say, ‘I’m going to build a really great product.’ But the systems thinking mode is that a great product is just the first step.”

Every product gets released into a certain system which is why we note that timing and conditions matter so much. Sometimes we get lucky, like Danny Meyer wrote, “I would also have the good fortune of entering the restaurant industry during its fertile period of revolutionary change.”

Sometimes we recognize the system and act responsively. In the world of venture-backed startups and television shows, that means mastering the sizzle and the steak. “It’s the responsibility of the artist to do things that get the work in front of people,” said Andreessen.

The sizzle is important because founders need to sell investors on their idea, sell employees on the company, and sell customers on the product. Ideally, one person can do this, but if they can’t they need to hire for their weaknesses. Rich Barton said to “marry a marketer…because you’re going to need to be super clever about how to get your product in front of people.”

And that’s harder than ever. The world will not beat a path to your door, said Andreessen, “People are busy. There are 7 billion people on planet earth and their time is fully allocated. The work has to speak for itself and somebody has to pick up the flag and carry it into the world.”

But the work has to be good. “None of this is an excuse for the work not being good.” Andreessen praises Steve Martin’s book, Born Standing Up. It was Martin’s advice, be so good they can’t ignore you that Cal Newport used as a title and both those ideas are part of the post on Koppelman’s Career Capital. Adam Carolla has touched on this too:

Koppelman gave leadership and communication advice from running the television show Billions. Careers are like trees, adding rings each year, and Koppelman learned from John Dahl – on Rounders – to give people limits. That means hiring well and getting out of people’s way. Ken Kocienda said Steve Jobs did this, acting as an editor.

Then, when it’s time to give feedback you communicate well. “It’s important to make people feel heard when they are giving notes about the show, make them know you are actually listening. But then it’s important that we only take the notes that will make the show better.”

At Zillow, for example, they have a color-coded system for communication.

Former CEO Spencer Rascoff said, “Red means be brief, be bright, and be gone. That’s how I want to be communicated with.”

Visual cues help communication, especially in sports. Mike Zarren of the Boston Celtics said, “The communication of the information is as important, if not more important, than the actual quantitative work that you do.” The Pauls noted that not getting investment ideas into a portfolio is the same as not having any good ideas.

Finally, Koppelman and Andreessen geeked out about partnerships. Koppelman has worked with David Levien and Andreessen with Ben Horowitz.

“The key is to regard the other person as incredibly smart and regard their motive as a way to make it work better.” – Koppelman

“It has to be more important than the other one gets to make the decision than for you to prove yourself right.” – Andreessen

In our post on restaurants, we saw partnering well is crucial. As Charlie Munger reflected, “Two talented people working well together, of course, that works.”

 

Thanks for reading.

Ken Kocienda

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Ken Kocienda contributed to Apple’s Safari web browser and the iPhone keyboard as an Apple engineer. He’s also the author of Creative Selection. Our notes will be from his 2019 conversion with a16z’s Frank Chen.

Safari

Until 2003, Mac computers used Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. It’s helpful to remember that Microsoft was to the 90’s technology economy that Amazon is today, only bigger. Brian McCullough wrote in How the Internet Happened, “The research was a surprising reminder to me how much everything in the 90s was in relation to what Microsoft might do.” Tim Wu compared the Seattle company to Kronos. Microsoft was also a character in The Startup, like a Smaug in Seattle.

So, Steve Jobs wanted a browser.

Kocienda was hired in 2001, the same year as the initial iPod release. What did it feel like to work for Jobs?

“Steve was very clear to us at a very early stage in the process that he wanted the best experiences out to customers. That was it.”

“Steve thought we were going to need a compelling argument, and for it to be compelling it had to be simple.”

What’s simple? Ease.

Renee Mauborgne created a buyer utility map and encourages business to “uncover the hidden pain points” and ask, “Across this buyer experience cycle, ‘What’s the biggest block to simplicity for our users?'”

If Apple had a web browser it would immediately have the default advantage, but it also had to be good, and that meant fast. Fast was Jobs’ focus, “Most of the time he would just tell us, ‘I want a great browser and it’s got to be fast.'”

Apple, said Kocienda, was this wonderful combination of top-down leadership and bottom-up contributions.” This support is often missing in floundering organizations. On the Wharton Moneyball podcast, two professors noted the lack of leadership in professional sports.

“It really does take the buy-in from the top for that to be the case. The coach needs to know the GM has his back and the GM needs to know the owner has his back.” Cade Massey

“I’ve always argued that this is the reason coaches seem so risk-averse in their decision making. If they make an unconventional move, especially in a high leverage situation – the decision was correct but the outcome doesn’t work out – it’s all on them.” Shane Jensen

Apple was not like this. Demos were – maybe still are – big at Apple and were conducted between the directly responsible individual (DRI) and Jobs. This was the bottom up portion. As Ray Kroc wrote, “It has always been my belief that authority should be placed at the lowest possible level. I wanted the man closest to the stores to be able to make decisions without seeking directives from headquarters.”

Ken said people would bypass their boss to pitch to Jobs because they were the person who’d worked on a project. Was it intimidating? Yes. Were you ready? Yes. “Even when you get asked a difficult question you’ve been thinking about it and have this background of context.”

Kocienda said Jobs was like an editor. “He created the assignments and then gave them out to his staff and evaluated the work that came back.”

iPhone

The iPhone’s code name was Purple and it was a tough nut to crack. The problem at first was differentiation. “We had nothing to show for our phone to compete with the Blackberry.” Don’t forget, this phone was so addictive people called it the ‘crackberry’. How do you compete with that? Start with something that works, then break away.

Kocienda and the Safari team used an open source code base as a surrogate and created something of their own. Copying works so long as it’s only a catalyst. Guy Spier noted this when he wrote, “For me, the (lunch with Buffett) lesson was clear. Instead of trying to compete with Buffett, I should focus on the real opportunity, which is to become the best version of Guy Spier that I can be.”

Investors can copy Warren Buffett and have great results just like technology manufacturers can copy one another, but they’ll never exceed the original. Apple needed to make a better phone. Apple needed to make a phone without keys.

This again takes top-down cultural support. Kocienda told Michael Covel, “It’s hard when you’re shown something new and different, particularly if you have a psychological, emotional, or financial investment in the status quo.”

quote-it-is-difficult-to-get-a-man-to-understand-something-when-his-salary-depends-upon-his-upton-sinclair-27-30-36

This is the reason the best ideas are fragile, and why Sam Altman explained to Tyler Cowen, that Y Combinator does NOT have co-working spaces.

Touchscreens may seem obvious in 2019, but pre-2007 were not. “Steve’s idea was that we need a keyboard some of the time but not all of the time.” And, “We were going to provide a different vision for what a smartphone would be.” Brian Merchant explains wonderfully in his wonderful book, The One Device that the iPhone was a collection of;  technologies, minerals, glass, multitouch, ARMs, gyroscopes, and shoulders of giants.

Kocienda’s keyboard work needed work. At one point all the iPhone team were redirected to work on their advantage; software.

During our AI Week, we looked at how technology will change and specifically how cheapness leads to use. Photography went from a chemistry problem to a mathematical problem because math became cheaper than chemistry and we got Instagram.

The same spirit lies behind the iPhone keyboard. “It turns out through lots of investigation, demos, and sleepless nights that the right way to close that (typing) gap was to give software assistance.”

For example, when you type ‘t’ then ‘h’ the ‘e’ key remains the same size on the screen but the tappable area enlarges. “The breakthrough for software keyboards was assistance to the extent that the software may change the letters that you type…The software worked behind the scenes to give you what you meant rather than what you did.”

The iPhone has a great history that Kocienda gives us a peek into.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Going Deep 2019

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Aaron Watson’s podcast, Going Deep, has been a consistent source of stories, ideas, and inspiration with episodes including Barry Ritholtz, Morgan Housel, and Grant Oliphant.

On March 23, 2019, Aaron was kind enough to ask me to speak at the Going Deep Summit 2.0. I talked about careers, education, changing technology, quarter-inch holes, and what kind of tools to fill our toolboxes with. It was a treat to be included alongside Tammy Thompson, Allen Gannett, Kenny Chen, Giselle Fetterman, and Joe Vennare. When I told my daughters that people thought I was funny they asked if I was sure they were actually listening.

 

My own notes from the event were these:

  • Conditions matter. If you live expecting that X is always true but X is only sometimes true you won’t know it.
  • Good storytelling convinces people.
  • People who attended the event are awesome.
  • Pittsburgh is awesome. Part of the weekend was spent talking to locals about why Pittsburgh might be the perfect size.
  • Starting businesses is hard but not impossible.
  • Generosity is contagious.
  • Creativity is not innate.

If ideas are nothing and execution is everything, this one-day event was a manifestation of the magic humans are capable of.

Guy Spier

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Our first post on Guy Spier was from The Investor’s Podcast. This post will cover his book, The Education of a Value Investor, a book that was more philosophical than practical. The spirit was similar to Early Retirement Extreme where Jacob Fisker wrote, “It’s important to understand that doing the right thing (good strategy) is much more important than doing things right (good tactics).”

Design.

Every person, couple, and organization exist within a system and are influenced by it. Spier wrote, “We like to think that we change our environment, but the truth is that it changes us.” That means choosing the best environment for us. For Spier, the design of New York Finance was too much. Citing Taleb he writes that it was materialism extremistan.

Norms are location independent. Spier moved his office and family to Zurich, but not the bustling part. Spier hooked up his Bloomberg terminal, but only periodically turns it on. Spier has an office, but with different sections for different tasks.

His see-the-light-moment was working at D.H. Blair, where “This kind of environment is perfectly designed to get people to push the boundaries in order to succeed.”

Beyond situational changes, Spier made relational changes too. “Ideally, we should stick close to people who are better than us so that we can become more like them.” That meant more time with people like Mohnish Pabrai, Warren Buffett, and Charlie Munger.

But don’t be like Spier. “Instead of trying to compete with Buffett, I should focus on the real opportunity, which is to become the best version of Guy Spier that I can be.” Neil Gaiman advises the same thing, to be the best version of yourself because you are the only you.

And there are many ways to be the best you. Bill Gates, Spier writes, had a precise calendar. Buffett does not.

IMG_0032.PNG

In the same way, animals evolve within an ecosystem, humans act based on what’s easy for them. Once you figure out what you want, no easy task, make the negative things harder and the positive things easier.

Asymmetric, non-financial bets.

Every hour of every day is an expiring option. We can choose to call the option and create value for ourselves or let the option expire. One way is to learn from others. “For me,” Spier writes, “the beginning of wisdom was to drop these narrow prejudices so that I could begin to learn from everyone.”

Carl Turner Jr. said the same thing about running Dollar General. Turner thought the smartest person he knew was his grandfather, who only had an elementary education because he was willing, able, and capable of learning something from everyone.

Chris Cole talked about how this applies to our relationships too. Talking to strangers is a very small cost compared to the relationship that may blossom.

For Spier, this person was Tony Robbins whose Unleash the Power Within event “looked like some kind of cult” but “was brainwashing for the good.”

Stakeholders

At each level of our lives, stakeholders bump us toward one outcome range rather than another.

For investors, the professional stakeholders are their shareholders. Reading the first Berkshire Hathaway report, Spier reflected, “I’d never seen a report like this. It was designed to attract shareholders who were genuinely reading it for the right reasons.”

Rather than “shouting louder than the next guy so you could get attention” Buffett herded shareholders who would hodl.

Other leaders who also communicate well to their stakeholders are Jeff Luhnow, Wes Gray, and Seth Klarman.

Stakeholders are also why founders tend to be younger. Paul Graham encourages these ‘cockroaches’. Without mortgages, daycare, and basic standards for survival, young people can last longer on a lower budget to find sustainable profitability.

So Spier set out to select selective stakeholders, including a landlord. Pabrai told Spier “I don’t need all that razzmatazz!” in an office. Klarman has an unflashy office in Boston. Nick Sleep is “far from the grandeur of Mayfair.”

Jim Koch of Sam Adams said he didn’t have an office, plant, or even a phone. He used the pay phone outside and used them so often he knew where the warm ones were during the cold Boston winters.

But more important than landlords and investors are spouses. Spier told Danielle and Phil Towns on the InvestED podcast, “I could not be the best investor I could be if my primary relationship with my wife is not a relationship that supports that.”

We can’t be Guy Spier and we shouldn’t try. But we can pursue unique goals with the same vigor. As Buffett said, they tapdance to work. As Josh Wolfe said, they read about their business interests on Sunday mornings. As Mohnish Pabrai said, they choose 10Ks over the new movie of the week.

As Spier said:

“How does a boar find truffles? I don’t know, the guy loves truffles! His brain is working so many different ways to figure out how to get some truffles. He’s using all five sense and that, in a certain way, is the quest for undervalued businesses.”

 

Thanks for reading.