How to complete next year’s NCAA Men’s Basketball bracket

A quarantine activity in my sister-in-law’s family is buying stocks. Stonks. Gamestonks? Each week, each kid, gets five dollars. They invest in whatever they want.

The best returns, to date, are from my niece. She’s 8. Her name begins with ‘T’ so her stock choices begin with ‘T’. She owns Tesla.

My three nieces and nephews aren’t competing but they do demonstrate that in small groups the best way to outperform others is ‘be chalky.’ Picking favorites is called chalky because in the days of horse racing, tracks wrote the lines on chalkboards with chalk. Even then, people liked betting favorites, so those odds were updated more often and had fresher chalk marks. Hence, ‘betting chalk’.

The same structure works for winning in any small group. To outperform, bet chalk. **However in a large group, choose variance.** Be different, and be right. We know that something will happen. We just don’t know which something.

One way to think through this approach is to consider the sum of the NCAAM final four team’s ranks. This question was posed on Wharton Moneyball and we have an answer: 11. On average, two number one seeds make it to the final four each year. Only in 1993 did all one seeds make it to the FF.

Yeah, but Covid!

That’s what I thought too. When Cade Massey proposed that it might be a more variable season I thought, base rates be dammed it’s going over. But that’s probably wrong (Narrator: It was not).

What I missed what something Daniel Kahneman wrote about in TFaS: substitution.

Rather than answer the question: Will the sum of the ranks of the final four teams be larger than average this year? I substituted the question: Will there be more variance this year?

What I missed was the idea behind hurdle technologies. In food preservation there’s not just one way that keeps food safe to eat, but a bunch. Food might be too acidic and be cooled and be sealed. It’s the combination of things, a series of obstacles, which limits bacteria.

That same idea applies in a bracket. Oral Roberts (#15) beat Ohio State (#2) and Florida (#7) but had to face Arkansas (#3) too, who won.

Ultimately the final four seeds totaled 15 (1,1,2,11). My direction was right. My reasoning was wrong.

The Restricted Actions Section

Shane Parrish on Capital Allocators:

“Even during the pandemic, there are tons of public health guidelines out there where people are telling you what to think, how to think. You need to filter that and digest it. You can’t just rely on it. They came out and said that masks don’t matter and then said masks do matter—well there was no downside to wearing a mask. You might look like an idiot in the short-term but there’s no downside to it.”

Shane Parrish

One theme in Shane’s great conversation with Ted Seides was how much the cost of looking dumb restricts possible actions. About his podcast Shane said he’s just an idiot with a microphone.

But restricted compared to what? An idiot how?

Restrictions differ by scale and is much like the old political joke: I’m a libertarian at the national level but to my dog I’m a Marxist.

This idea surfaced in Bill Brewster’s podcast with Dan McMurtrie.

“I was somewhat bold enough to call out a transaction that some people have been burned on. But when I started to get inbounds from real mutual funds and managers and as I listened to why people weren’t buying I was like ‘Oh, I’m gonna fucking win on this because I don’t have the constraints.”

Dan is super good in the interview and together they address the four levels of constraints.

  • Macro culture (society). For instance, it’s taboo to talk about sex, or at least the dating market.
  • Micro culture (office). In another Seides podcast, he spoke with Ben Reiter about culture.
  • Position (job). Certain institutions have mandates about size, moral, or industry situations. ESG is a literal example.
  • Psychology (self). In the podcast Dan and Bill joke about investors who say “See’s Candy is my fav WEB investment”. That’s a psychology restriction.

So what? Why do constraints matter? Because they limit what a person can do. Dan again:

“I never want to compete against Stan Druckenmiller in timing the market. I never want to compete against David Einhorn in valuing a company. I never want to compete against Dan Loeb in writing an aggressive letter to a board. Where I might compete is where the environmental factors means that fighter is not able to perform at their best.”

It’s not more options that are better, but different options. Having good ideas (‘Go’) that also look good (‘Show’) is twice as difficult as just having a good idea. Or, can you look a bit like an idiot?

Escaping College and Commodity Competition

When one product is similar to another there is competition. Businesses which compete on price lead to low-cost-high-volume winners. Thankfully, being dissimilar isn’t difficult. Many brands (Advil, Coca-Cola, Harvard) differentiate commodities by framing the context.

Differentiation avoids the market mechanism. But that doesn’t mean things will be easy. Being the low-cost provider or being different both take extreme amounts of work. That said, jobs-to-be-done thinking may lead to a slightly easier slog

The JTBD idea is updated on Twitter, but Michael Horn’s TAG brought up an easy idea for escaping competition. Instead of asking who are your customers, ask what do customers want?

Typically businesses count things. This is easy data. Plus, the more math the less career risk: a bit of math in itself.

Through their book, Choosing College, Horn and Bob Moesta encourage people to think about new categories. To count less and consider more. Get past demographics (high school graduate) and to demands (level-up).

What is the demographic profile of someone who eats at Panera Bread? That’s a hard question. However, what’s the JTBD of someone who eats at Panera Bread? That’s easier. Ron Shaich explained that Panera is “the kind of space where you want to sit and do an interview, a place for a bible study group, for a team meeting.” 

People hire Panera for group space and bagel spreads. That’s the JTBD. That’s the differentiation.

Being different is easier—though not easy—because it offers many directions. If a business competes on price, that’s it. If a business finds a new JTBD they might have that market all to themselves, temporarily.

Argue Zell

One trait of great business leaders (seems to be) a willingness to hear dissenting opinions. It takes a seed of humility that will sprout a culture where ‘arguing well’ can survive.

Michigan Dean, Scott DeRue told Sam Zell: “I’ve met a number of your employees and one of the things that’s universal when they talk about what it’s like to work with, and for, Sam is that it’s not always easy. You will challenge them but they know that you believe in them.” To which Zell replied:

“You don’t kill the messenger. As I say to my people all the time, take me on. I’m not afraid to defend my position and neither should you.”

Sam Zell

This has been important, Zell explained, because he’s been “business agnostic.” Investments in twenty different industries (“it could have been forty”) means that Zell has to think on the fly. As such, “No one is quicker to admit they’re wrong than I am.”

Yet, as people this is hard. It’s difficult to separate I was dumb from That was dumb. In th wrong culture it’s impossible

As Zell put it, “I’m not afraid to defend my position and neither should you.” I think it was Kara Swisher who said that when she hears someone say, ‘I like to be challenged’ they really don’t. To her it’s a red flag. Partly because, good arguments are difficult to do well. Yet in the right place, it’s possible and as Zell proves, profitable, to argue well.

Other quotes from Zell:

  • On Risk, “If my watch has one moving part then it has a very small probability of not working. If my watch has fifty moving parts then there would be another forty-nine potential reasons it didn’t work.
  • Risk, again. “I only want to be right seventy percent of the time. The real key is how wrong are you on the thirty percent.”
  • Leaving money on the table, “I think that a great deal of my financial success is directly related to the fact that we’ve been long-term players.”
  • Being different, “Look at everyone the Forbes 400 who didn’t inheret money. Everybody went left when conventional wisdom said to go right.” & “There are very few examples of high margin businesses that are done by everybody.”
  • Skill and luck, “I think ninety percent of success is accidental. Accidental in terms of the opportunity arising, not accidental in terms of people’s understanding and willingness to take it up.”
  • Action, “My advice to everyone is to become a profesional opportunist.”

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