The Unrepentant Recalcitrant

Lessons for an accidental entrepreneur

Archive for the tag “Startup”

Charlie Munger on Inverting: The Rose and it’s Thorn

Back in the last ice age, when I was an intern at my hospital, green both in experience and complexion (it was my first night on call…and I was, lets say a little nauseous with fear!), I asked my resident “ Are you sure you should be leaving me alone with sick people who might die?”

 

Yeah, confidence was my middle name as you can tell.

 

My resident gave me some of the best advice I have ever got.

 

“ Worry about whats going to kill them and take care of it urgently. Keep them alive at all costs. Everything else will take care of itself.”

 

Fear and good advice concentrated my mind like nothing else, and I learned to worry about “The Dreaded Downside” (in this case, death).

 

Fast forward to today and my behavior has been modeled this way:

 

1. Imagine a scenario that requires action.

2. Imagine what is the worst possible outcome(s) of this scenario.

3. Ask yourself how you can prevent/mitigate/evaluate and control such a situation.

4. Put plans in place for this.

5. Initiate said plans if the scenario materializes.

6. Watch how the alternative best case scenarios take care of themselves.

 

Its been an unpleasant surprise to me just how few people understand this concept.

 

People think rosy thoughts and don’t want to consider the thorns that come with the roses.

 

Big mistake!

 

Charlie Munger and Warren Buffet have spoken about this thought process when evaluating investments.

 

They call it “inversion”

 

Lets say you are looking at company A (or starting a company called A!)

 

Something about this has attracted you and you believe there is a reason to invest, right?

 

This is the “Rose”

 

What could happen to your thesis that would make this all come crumbling down?

 

These are the “Thorns”

 

Play out these scenarios. Understand their likelihood, understand how you would recognize them and take corrective action.

 

Once you have this information, you are better equipped to make decisions and more likely to get the desired outcome or to at least limit downside loss.

 

If they don’t materialize, and your thesis becomes correct, nothing more is required!

 

Munger does this each time when looking at an investment to fully understand his risk and whether the investment should be made.

 

Its the same for managers in companies and for entrepreneurs from a decisions perspective.

 

How do I know this works?

 

How successful are Munger’s stock picks?

 

I thought that would persuade you!

 

What I find most interesting in the preceding discussion is how universal and singular the truth is. 

 

It cuts across disciplines and scenarios and is always axiomatic*.

 

This is the universal thread that I attempt to point out in my blog. It’s all connected.

 

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*Axiom: That which does not require a demonstration of proof. Contrast with a “theorem” which has been proven or a “hypothesis” which awaits proof.

 

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Valuation and its Discontents

The cornerstone of investing and entrepreneurship and perhaps even of life, is valuation.

Thats not hyperbole.

Think about it. You are valuing and weighing all day long, every day.

Obviously you need to value stocks and bonds if you are to invest.

Its also evident you want to understand how much your business is worth if you have a startup.

But there is more.

Whats that house you want to buy worth?

How about the car you purchased last year?

Do you value your collectibles? Your art?

How do you do that?

Lets go into uncharted territory.

Do you value your relationships? Looking for a girlfriend?

What is she worth?

(Its only a little tongue in cheek. Later, someday I’ll explain why. For now, we will stick with inanimate objects!)

As I described in an earlier post, we are putting a value or worth on assets (remember assets?).

Value and worth, as I have said before need not necessarily be the same as the price of the asset.

If its less than the price of the asset, we have an investable opportunity. Otherwise we don’t.

Lets use the value of a company stock as an example.

What is it worth?

There are many ways to determine this but a few that are important to consider.

Lets talk about four of them.

1. Asset Valuation
2. Liquidation Value
3. Replacement (or Competing) Value
4. Discounted Cash Flow Valuation

Asset valuation:

One way to assess value is to add up the worth of all the things the company owns…its buildings, its inventory, its machines and its cash and calculate its total asset value.

Lets say, you are in the middle of a depression. Companies are selling cheap (ca 1929).

It was possible to pick up companies at the time for less than the sum of their parts.

Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing made his fortune this way.

Liquidation Value:

A second way, in the case of a company that is being broken down and sold for its parts (liquidation value) is the total value of its assets minus some discount to account for the fact that everything it owns may not bring market value since it will be sold at fire sale prices.

More on this another day.

Replacement Value or the Valuation to Compete:

A third way to calculate value is to see the business as competition to us, and ask the following question:

“What would I need to do to build up a business just like this one and compete with it?”

Now that would include the asset value mentioned above but also the resources that have been deployed to build the brand(s), market the product(s), establish the customer and wholesaler relationships and distribution channels (among other things).

There is some hand waving involved here of course but its easy to see that the value of these intangibles (and semi intangibles) will add to the raw asset value we have described above.

Discounted Cash Flow valuation:

Finally, we can determine value by asking this question?

“If I owned this asset, what amount of money would I earn from it over a set period of time?”

If you owned a stock, what is the total value of dividends you would receive for it over time?

If you owned a whole business, what profit would you be able to get out of it every year for the duration of your ownership?

For each of these questions, we can (theoretically) construct a model of “cash flows“, i.e. the flow of money into your pocket over time.

Add that cash up.

Remember, you don’t have the cash in your pocket today. Its going to take time to get it all.

Over that time, you will live without that spending power.

So, the raw total of that cash must be “discounted” over the period you will need to get it into your pocket.

This is, in a word the discounted cash flow model of earnings (DCF) that allows you to estimate the value of an investment.
The discounted cash flow model of valuation (DCF) is de facto the most important method to understand, when valuing an asset that brings earnings.

Its incorrect to value a business with sales any other way (except in the situations I noted above).

I will speak more about DCF in later posts as it comprises the “V” in the “P/V” formula I introduced in the previous post.

I will leave you with a few final thoughts.

1. You cannot fully value an asset without cash flows (or the future promise of cash flows).

2. If you cannot fully value an asset, you cannot be sure of the relationship of Price to Value (P/V).

3. If you cannot estimate P/V and ensure a margin of safety, you are unable to ascertain whether an asset is investable.

4. If you decide to purchase the asset anyway, you have not invested. Rather you have speculated or gambled. Be clear on this.

5. Ergo, any asset without cash flows is not likely to be an investment.

Let me repeat that last statement.

An asset without cash flows is not likely to be an investment.
(Ahh…the chaos that idea will create!)

Principles of Value Investing

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Yes boys and girls, put away your Excel spreadsheets and gather round the fire.

As Steve Jobs liked to say, “I’m going to tell you three things. No big deal. Just three things.”

That’s it folks.

Three Principles.

1. P/V
2. EVA
3. Rain Falls Down

( Bonus: They apply universally and are equally and importantly relevant to entrepreneurship as well.)

Before you swoon in admiration of my unparalleled genius, I want to be clear that these ideas and even the phraseology are not mine.

This is what I learned from my master, my Yoda. (Thanks Tom, for changing my life!)

Yes folks, this changed my life. If you pay attention, it might do it for you.

And then again for those of you too lazy to listen, it might not. YMMV.

 

Definitions first and details later. Ok?

 

1. P/V : Price/Value

The fundamental metric of all investing. The ratio of the price you pay for the value you get. This needs to be less than one at all costs and the lower it is, the larger your margin of safety (remember margin of safety?: https://unrepentantlyrecalcitrant.wordpress.com/2013/10/10/all-investing-is-value-investing-the-rest-is-speculation/).

All of Wall Street that makes money off of you, conflates price and value. It is the fundamental thesis of those that believe the markets are efficient.

(If you believe that, what in gods name are you doing on my blog? Go visit that fool Cramer on CNBC or something!)

Price is what you pay, value is what you get.

The lower the price and the higher the value, the better the deal.

Buffet talks about buying a dollar for fifty cents.

That’s a P/V of 0.5

Awesome.

I will discuss the estimation of value in some detail in a later post.

 
2. EVA : Economic Value Added

Also known as Abnormal Earnings ( Economists always think that profit is an abnormal situation!), EVA is defined as:

Return on Invested Capital – Cost of Capital = EVA

As an example, if your capital costs you 9% ( say a bank loan for your business) and you are able to generate 9.9% return ( savvy investing or your business profits), you have an EVA of 10%

Needless to say, it should be a positive number!

Before you laugh at that, I will in the future show you why most businesses (the majority) are not getting a positive number and as a result have a zero EVA (bad!) or even a negative EVA ( yes, they are destroying capital!).

If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, you must (MUST) have plans for a positive EVA! If not, don’t even bother. More on this later.

 
3. Rain Falls Down:

A little more fuzzy than the others, this statement underlines that certain things are an inevitability.

You must prepare for them and account for them in your estimation of value and decision to invest ( or grow your business).

Your resistance to rain clouds and gravity is useless. Rain will fall down.

 
Simple so far, no?

Remember, Value investing is simple but it’s not easy! Oh No!

I will take each of these points and expand on them in future posts.

I will review the only economic principle(s) that matter ( YES, most of economics is a massive waste of your time!)

The only thing I can’t help you with is mental toughness.

(You need to review Kipling’s poem again and internalize it!: https://unrepentantlyrecalcitrant.wordpress.com/2013/10/06/rudyard-kipling-was-a-value-investor/)

Oh, one last thing. You know that money you saved up to buy the latest Excel program?

Go get a great dinner instead.

You ain’t gonna need Excel anymore.

If You are not out in front of the Herd, the View never changes

You will spend your life looking at someone’s ass.

And thats ok, if you are content. Who am I to judge?

I speak for all of us that want to strive for something that does not yet exist in our lives.

This is not just about entrepreneurship. No sir.

All the difference made in this world bar none has been made at the margins of the common, the accepted and the ‘norm”.

You will never make a dent, and never shake things up if you follow the herd.

To use a scientific turn of phrase, you need to embrace a paradigm shift.

A paradigm in science (or elsewhere for that matter) is a framework to think about things.

(See below for a reference to Thomas Kuhn’s famous book on paradigms)

Each paradigm is a temple of sorts for those who wrap themselves in its teachings.

If everybody (or more correctly the majority) believes something to be true, two things necessarily follow:

One: There is little to be discovered within its folds..it has been exploited and understood.

Two: The territory outside the paradigm has not been well explored and is ripe for new, innovative, ground shaking ideas and development. Also, the competition here is slim compared to the paradigm where the sweaty masses are spending their time.

Every body knew the sun revolved around the Earth until they didn’t. People lost their lives trying to change that paradigm.

Everybody knew that man could not fly until that paradigm shifted.

Ok, but you and I are not the Wright Brothers! (at least not I!).

If you are an entrepreneur, everybody knows your idea is crazy. Of course! If they did not, the competition to get your idea to market would destroy your chances!

If you are a value investor, everybody knows your stock picks are all wrong. Heck everybody knows value investing doesn’t even work “anymore”!! (Ha!, now thats a paradigm for you to bust). This is a good thing…trust me. Your stock picks are safe. It will be like taking candy from a baby.

(Note to the moms out there..I am not advocating stealing from infants).

Ok, maybe not that easy. But you get my drift.

A Nobel prize winning scientist I had the good fortune to speak with briefly once told me “When they think you are crazy and shun you, you should know you are on to something.”

This guy discovered/described a new form of life and almost lost his career and reputation doing it.

The takeaway for those of us that are far away from winning Nobel Prizes is really about conviction in your thought process.

It matters a hoot what others think. Listen to them, dissect their arguments but for heavens sake learn to think for yourself. It will serve you well over a lifetime.

And when everyone (sic) thinks a certain way, there is likely money to be made by taking a bet against them.

The House does not always win.

 

 

Bibliography:

Kuhn TS. “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” 1962. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226458113

Rudyard Kipling was a Value Investor

Those of you reading my blog for the last several columns have figured out by now that I believe that the traits and character required for an entrepreneur are very similar to those a good value investor should have.

I am going to add to that.

As you think deeply about the kinds of behavior, instincts and thought process that result in success in these areas, you will no doubt find that many of those ideas are transferable to life itself. This is something I have termed “Right Thinking” in prior posts (not my term, but one I think is appropriate).

Understanding this and applying this thinking to your project(s), you may find you are “doing better” in other parts of your life. (Oh the horror! I have become my mother!)

Think of this as a welcome side effect (As a doctor, I think in these terms…what can I tell ya!)

By no means am I a fan of Rudyard Kipling (I can tell you where he should stick his “White Man’s Burden”!).

But credit where credit is due. I believe his poem IF, reproduced below is a graphic and exact description of what you need to succeed as an investor, as an entrepreneur and at life.

I will discuss aspects of what he says in this column over time, but I am unable to summarize the whole as elegantly as he has done.

You can do much worse than read it carefully, ponder and apply to your situation! Rinse and repeat!

 
If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!

 
Now tell me thats not the most amazing advice you ever got!

Dear Dumb VC — What I Learned Building… — Medium

Andy Dunn, the author of the post I have linked below, is the founder of Bonobos. He writes endearingly scathing posts about his experience as a founder looking for capital.

Dear Dumb VC (Venture Capitalist)  has created waves all over the venture community and has been hotly debated from both the sides of the investor, and the bruised and battered entrepreneur.

It’s a love letter (NOT!) from a successful entrepreneur to his erstwhile VC. There are lessons here for all of us that start companies or projects and weigh capital raise options.

It’s a departure from the rubbish they teach you in business school (Yes even in the best schools, they teach you rubbish about the real world!)

Let’s be clear on a couple of points first.

I dont’t believe VC’s are unintelligent per se.

They are more often than not highly educated and very well spoken.

I also don’t believe that all VC’s don’t understand business.

We should draw the distinction between VC’s who have built or worked in business before (Operating VC’s) and those that have not (Financial VC’s).

But most VC’s I have met have not been been operating VC’s. So called Financial VC’s, most certainly are less experienced about actual business concerns and in many cases are only looking to turn a quick profit regardless of the overall outcome for the business.

All VC’s prefer the moniker “Operating VC”. Of course they do. Wouldn’t you?

However, having worked in business development role  in another persons company or having a career exclusively in consulting is NOT operating experience. Sister Please!

Flipping a business in a year or two is also not an “operating experience”. I don’t care what you say about it…I believe it takes time to build operating experience in a business. You may be successful as an entrepreneur if you sold your business quickly, but you don’t know operating from a hole in the ground.

A true Operating VC is worth her weight in Gold. If they are real OVC’s, you really shouldn’t care whether they want to invest in your company. Put them on your board, befriend them, do whatever it takes, but don’t ever let them go. They could be the difference between success and failure and more importantly knowledge and ignorance.

Enough of my opinion. Read and decide for yourself. It’s a very well written piece!

 

Dear Dumb VC — What I Learned Building… — Medium.

The Story of Abhimanyu: Why You Must Have an Exit Strategy

Let me tell you the story of Abhimanyu.

Long long ago in a kingdom far far away, an epic battle was fought.

The battle and its larger story were immortalized in an epic Sanskrit poem called “The Mahabharata”.

The war was between two families of cousins battling for control of their kingdom.

Abhimanyu, a warrior prince learnt the strategies of war while in his mothers womb. His overheard his father Arjuna telling his mother Subhadra how to enter, exit and destroy various battle formations.

The most complex of these  battle formations was the “Chakravyuh”, a formation resembling a rotating spiral that moved forward and expanded at the same time.

Here is where the story gets interesting (and relevant, so pay attention!).

Subhadra, listening to her husband teach, fell asleep before he finished. Abhimanyu, learnt the method of entry into the Chakravyuh, the way to fight once inside, but did not hear how he should exit.

Fast forward to the battle, many years later. The bad guys (sic) are winning. Things look grim. The Chakravyuh is advancing on Abhimnayu and his forces. It seems unstoppable.

Abhimanyu, hero that he is, rushes forward and uses his knowledge to penetrate the spiral. He breaks his way in and fights the enemy from the inside.

Alas, he does not know how to get out of the spiral, once he is in. He lacks an exit strategy.

He is surrounded and killed by the enemy forces, and dies a bloody death on the battlefield.

 

I think I’ve made my point to all of you here (and It isn’t that you shouldn’t fall asleep in class!).

Whatever you do, entrepreneurship or investing or anything else with meaning to you, consider your exit strategy.

Not an exit strategy, not even a couple. You should be devising a decision tree of exits based on your view of multiple different outcomes for your task.

While your life may not depend on it as it did for our hero, you should behave as if it does.

Your outcome(s) will thank you.

 

As a coda for readers interested in the Mahabharata, it is the longest Indian poem (the title means Great Indian Story), is available in English translation and is one of the most gripping tales ever told. The Bhagavad Gita, a discourse by Lord Krishna is a story within this story and probably better known. In the Gita, Krishna speaks to Arjuna (Abhimanyu’s father) and explains right living and the concept of “Karma”. Try it. You will love it.

 

 

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