Depending on how you slice it, this is either a golden or a leaden business age.
It is a golden age, as never before in human history has there been so much access to great opportunities as there are right now.
Crowdfunding, private equity and debt secondary markets like Second Market and SharesPost, peer-to-peer lending sites like Prosper.com and Lending Club, and the Big Three social networking giants - Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter - have made information and intelligence on, and access to opportunities better and greater than ever before.
Yet, the overall spirit and mindset of business is anything but golden.
Huge and historically unprecedented public sector debt and social safety net obligations in the United States and Europe - layered on an overlapping and inter-connected global banking system cast a pale “macro” of systemic risk over the markets.
Compounding matters, never before has the drumbeat of news and information been louder, mostly shrilling that the financial sky could fall at a moment’s notice.
The overall effect of this both real and perceived angst is a “crowding out” of all of the good stuff that is happening out there.
So what should the growth-seeking, yet sober executive and / or investor do?
Well, first and foremost, get one’s mind and spirit right.
And the best way to accomplish that is to focus on what author Matt Ridley so eloquently describes as what has been since the dawn of Man the guidepost to our better future.
Entrepreneurship lives and grows in the “micro” - in sectors and niches within the overall economy either protected from or aided by the larger current.
And entrepreneurship is the antithesis of sclerotic, bureaucratic, and beyond human scale organizations (see Big Media, Big Government, Big Business) of such complexity and inertia that the application of individual motive force them to far more often than not is ineffective, no matter how good the intention.
Rather, entrepreneurship is undertaken via that finest form of collaboration known to history - small, impassioned teams driving toward an idealistic vision and mission.
To sell some thing or some service of a type, or in a way, or at a price that has never been done before.
And to make money doing it.
And the really good news is that there are more entrepreneurs - far, far more - hundreds of millions worldwide striving to have their brilliance and creations expressed and realized, and to make their futures their own.
And in their multitude, in their collective uniqueness, they are the hope and the light of the world.
Even better, be one of them.
In mindset, in spirit, and in appetite for change and risk and daring.
You’ll feel a lot better.
When it comes to education, this 21st century of ours is truly both the best and the worst of times.
It is the best of times as never before in human history has more information, more ways of learning, more access to best practices, been available to more people -- regardless of socio-economic condition and geography -- than it is today.
And, with 3 billion more people in the next 10 years coming online and joining the global information exchange, this remarkable and so very inspirational trend will only accelerate and grow.
Now, as anyone that has ever despaired over a never emptying e-mail inbox, over ever distracting and focus eroding text messages, over the always-growing mountain of things to read, listen, and watch, it can quite often feel like the worst of times too.
Yes, it is fair to say that the net sum of human information has grown far faster than that of human wisdom, satisfaction, and even happiness.
Now, the first and obvious point here is that this very well could be simply a distortion of relative versus absolute perception.
For these days, NOTHING grows like information - with every three weeks the aggregate total added to it being greater than that accumulated from the beginning of recorded time through the year 2000
So, of course, the growth of everything/anything else will pale in comparison.
Now, once we recognize this, we should also see that as this mountain of information has grown, so has grown access to and consumption of the world's greatest art, literature, and music.
Which does make us, collectively, far wiser than ever.
And with the percentage of the world's population living in poverty at its lowest level in human history, our collective satisfaction, as measured by freedom from hunger, from premature death, and by access to choice as to one's work, one's mate, one's place to live, is both very good and increasing as well.
And with being wiser and more satisfied, yes we are collectively much happier, too.
This is all well and good, but far more exciting is that we have only begun to scratch the surface of how this “always-on” Internet world of ours might transform for the better our inner lives as it has our external ones.
How this might come to be came into focus for me through a conversation with the President of one of California's most admired colleges of graduate education.
In the process of helping to develop a five year strategic plan for the school, the President and I were discussing the relative merit of enrollment growth of online versus traditional on-campus enrollment.
As we were getting pretty granular into the various modeling approaches and ways to assign value to a “virtual” versus an in-person student, I stopped and noticed a certain pause and quiet in the room.
I looked up, and in the President’s eyes was a faraway look.
He paused, and then quietly said, “values-based education cannot be measured, it just is.”
He then took a sip of water, and more loudly added, “and it is only from this place do we measure our outcomes, not the other way around.”
This inside out approach is where technology can and will lead us.
It will be a slow and bumpy, but very much an upwardly sloping road, towards all of us being truly well educated - online.
Last week I flagged the shocking and even depressing statistics that most entrepreneurs - holding constant for socioeconomic factors - make less money, work more hours and suffer more work-related stress - than their employed counterparts.
And when we combine these statistics with those that show a very incredibly low percentage of startups and small businesses ever attaining meaningful profitability, it is remarkable that people ever dream to be entrepreneurs and start businesses at all.
But start them they do!
Quite possibly the most amazing and inspiring number in all of American business is 550,000.
That is the approximate number of new businesses that are started in American each and every month, or more than 6 million per year, or close to 3% of the U.S. adult population.
Now these opposing statistics beg the question, “Why?”
Why would 550,000 people - who statistically are far better educated and wealthier than the population as a whole - engage in behavior that on the surface clearly seems contrary to their self-interest, irrational, and dare I say, delusional?
Well, on the cynical side, many of these brave folks probably think the odds of economic success are greater than they really are. And even if they know the odds, they think that they don’t apply to them.
On the slightly less cynical but still not totally inspiring side, one could argue that businesses are started out of boredom – out of the need for that “action rush” that in the realm of business only an entrepreneurial endeavor can truly provide.
Inspirationally, many believe like I do that entrepreneurship is the greatest force for positive change in the world today, and they start and grow businesses to be positive change agents, on levels big and small.
They start restaurants to create and share beautiful food, service, and atmosphere.
They open day care facilities to provide quality, spirited child care for working families.
They start creative agencies – graphic design, public relation, web development firms, and the like to leverage their business and creative talent to its most effective end.
And they start drug development and medical device companies to help people live longer, healthier lives.
And thousands of types and forms and sizes of business in between, led by entrepreneurs with aspirations big and small, driven by motivations both pedestrian and soaring.
But at the heart of all of their reasons for starting businesses, at least of the ones that survive, is that often begrudged but really most inspiring motivation of them all.
They start businesses to make a lot of money.
Now the key word in that sentence is make – as in bringing into existence through creativity, effort, and as often as not more than a little serendipity and luck, something that did not exist beforehand.
Making money is the difference between Mo Ibrahim becoming a billionaire through bringing inexpensive mobile telecommunications to millions in Africa and Mo Gaddafi stealing billions of his people’s money at the point of a gun.
It is the difference between Steve Jobs and Apple creating $325 billion in market capitalization (and untold additional hundreds of billions in economic and multiplier effect), and governmental “who you know” redistribution and inefficient waste of this created wealth.
Now often, for the entrepreneur and those that back them, the touching of this money often takes many years, even decades, of under-paid, hard, and often thankless work, before a cash windfall in the form of a business sale or a public offering.
But that is a story for another day.
For now, find those that can truly make money, encourage and back them, and you and the world will get to a better place.
This past weekend, I had the privilege of moderating a planning session for the leaders of some of the world's best known and most successful collections agencies, collectively responsible for billions of dollars of receivable's debt.
They traveled from around the world to progress toward a common end - making doing business globally as credit safe as doing so close to home.
This is of course extremely challenging, and in a world of exploding international trade, also an enormous opportunity.
So for 40 hours over three days together we grappled long and hard with the various aspects of the business problem - from the right SaaS technology to use to fee-sharing to compliance to channel and end-user marketing.
It was hard. It was draining. It was often contentious.
It was time away from the pressing and equally vexing concerns of everyday work.
AND it was glorious.
Now, if you thought that in a hard bitten business like collections - and at a meeting attended by 25 year+ industry veterans - that there wouldn’t be many moments of idealism, well you would be mistaken.
No, there were a LOT of those “aha” moments - always the best and most inspirational evidence that whole new worlds of strategic and tactical possibility had been discovered.
For sure, post-meeting the participants have now traveled back to their home markets and are faced with the hard challenges of tactical implementation and the inexorable pull of business as usual.
And while meeting for 40+ hours, and traveling to them from around the world IS hard and painful…
…and while we all love our e-mail, our text messaging, our web conferencing, our video hangouts…
…There is just no substitute for personal contact.
And there is NO faster, better, and yes cheaper way to arrive at great and actionable business ideas.
So for a moment, let’s all put down the phone, turn off the e-mail, stop the texting.
And fly, drive, run, walk, crawl to that conference, that party, that face-to-face get together.
When done right, it is always time well spent, and in its aggregate creates both businesses well run and lives well lived.
So much of the challenge that both entrepreneurs and investors face in earning return on time and capital is driven by the low growth rate of the economy as a whole.
U.S. GNP growth, after averaging 3.6% annually for the period 1982-1999, has since 2000 slowed to a mere 1.8%.
Not coincidentally, in that same period stock market returns have declined dramatically.
From averaging over a 17% annual return rate in the '80s and '90s, most of the major indices have painfully dwelled in negative return territory since.
And to pile on the misery, with budget deficits exploding from 58% of GNP in 2002 to over 100% today, all of the "free" money poured into the system over the past decade has not had any kind of meaningful stimulative effect.
But it is going to be okay.
Why? Well, because as business people and as investors we do not work in the "macro", but rather in the far more confined - and controllable - dimensions of our particular “micro.”
And here, we can escape from the “tyranny of the average.”
How? Well by simply exhibiting that most blessed of American freedoms – individual action.
Here are actions that smart entrepreneurs and investors can take today to “break out” and attain well above average results and returns:
Think and Act Globally. The developing world continues to maintain rates of growth and virgin and nascent market opportunities probably never again to be seen again nearer to home.
How about China, even with its recent slow-down, still averaging well over 8% growth?
Or India, at 6%?
Not your cup of tea? Well how about Mexico, Brazil and South Korea all growing faster than 4%?
And don’t tell me that you can’t compete there - via technology these markets are more accessible to small and medium-sized US businesses and investors than ever.
Think Sector. The overall economy may be flat, but there are sectors within it that are booming.
Like software, growing close to 6% annually.
Or how about the entertainment industry, growing at 5.5%?
Even seemingly mature industries, like transportation & food services, are growing at close to 5%.
Think Inefficiency. Remember that to make a small fortune - and a big difference - we do not need to solve the challenges and difficulties of the overall economy.
No, we just need to find those little market and competitive inefficiencies, those niche needs and wants, those investment strategies born and won far from Wall Street.
Now, when tens of thousands us follow our particular rainbows toward our particular pots of gold the byproduct of all of this thoughtful, opportunistic, and individual action…
…is that yes collectively we all do win.
The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years…He was bigger than his country - bigger than all the Presidents together…and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.”
- Leo Tolstoy, The World, New York, 1909
In honor of President’s Day, I went and saw Steven Spielberg's great movie “Lincoln” this past weekend.
As it has for many, the movie exceeded my very high expectations for it.
The film's core narrative - President Lincoln's efforts to get the 13th amendment abolishing slavery through Congress before the end of the Civil war - offered a treasure trove of leadership wisdoms applicable to our modern day.
The movie paints a basic leadership dilemma in stark relief, namely what is the proper balance between morality and expediency?
Between "being right" and being effective, and to what degree do moral ends justify messy means?
Lincoln, through the leadership role into which he was uniquely thrust, probably grappled and suffered more publicly with this dilemma than any person in history.
Beset on all sides by the bitterest of adversaries - the incorrigible racists and States’ Rights advocates of the Southern and Border States on the one hand and the moral absolutists (combined with desire for revenge) of the Radical Republican North on the other - no matter what decision Lincoln made or action he took there would be a large, powerful, and vocal group vociferously opposed to it.
Adding monumentally and tragically to Lincoln's challenge was that so much of his power and decision making revolved around those most awful of choices - to send tens of thousands of young men into battle from which the almost certain outcome for very many of them would be death.
For anyone, the awesome responsibility of this kind of leadership is beyond overwhelming.
For a great soul like that of Lincoln's, it was tragic beyond our ability to possibly relate.
But it was also triumphant, and for any of us that strive to do great and moral things with our lives, there is no better role model.
First, Lincoln did not make his enemies "wrong."
Rather, he found that delicate and transcendental space whereby he was strong in decisions to prosecute that bloodiest of American wars harshly and vigorously, but while so doing found space in his heart and in his leadership directives to not deny the humanity nor the deserving of forgiveness of his enemies.
Secondly, he did not lead from "up on high," but rather with great vigor and charm appealed to the “better angels” of his adversaries to see things a bit different - more nobly and more charitably.
And finally, Lincoln recognized that even in the midst of a horrible war, that laughter is as much a part of living as are tears.
And thus, so often when a stern reprimand or harsh words would be the reaction of a lesser leader, Lincoln chose humor to make his point.
This is maybe Lincoln’s greatest lesson for modern leaders.
To stand and to work for great things, yes…
To forgive your adversaries, yes…
But, to do so not with a heaviness of heart or obligation of purpose but with a gentle and even mischievous lightness of being that makes the journey its own reward.
And when done with the dexterity and openhearted wisdom of an Abraham Lincoln, things not thought possible even to dream about come to pass.
Happy President’s Day.
Last week, my column received quite a reaction as I pointed out how much of a disaster the public equity markets have been these past 14 years.
I shared some key statistics, especially that while from August 1982 to September 1999, the Dow Jones industrial average rose from 777 to 11,078, in comparison since 1999 it has moved only from 11,078 to 13,986 (approximately 25%).
Given that inflation since then has reduced purchasing power by over 37%, the net return for the period has been significantly negative.
To this, a lot of folks came back with basically two questions / comments:
1. Why has this happened?
2. What should we do about it?
Well, first of all with overall GNP growth rate being cut in half, from averaging 3.6% annually from 1982 to 2000 to 1.8% from 2000 - 2013, there is simply less money to go around.
Then, the returns that are to be had…well they have been mostly eaten up by the huge big bank infrastructures built up as trading volumes have increased over twenty-fold since the 1980s.
Sadly, slow overall GNP growth remains our most likely macroeconomic reality, and does anyone really see Wall Street slimming down any time soon?
So what to do about it?
Well, I suggest three prescriptions:
1. Give up on the public markets.
2. Find market inefficiencies.
3. Do it Right.
“Doing it right” should of course be all of our favorite, so on a webinar I will be hosting later this week I will share what I have discovered as to why today’s smart investors avoid the public markets and where, why, and how they invest now, including:
• How many of them no longer invest in “companies,” but rather only in projects
• How they are and how they are NOT planning to utilize the new laws regarding crowdfunding
• How they are utilizing “cross-border” and “in-kind” transactions to shelter returns from Obama era tax increases
• How they limit risk through "Black Swan" portfolio theory and modeling
The muted reaction to the major U.S. indices approaching all-times highs this past week felt a bit off for those that remember a time when folks that made their living recommending stocks were held in an almost mystical regard.
Whether they be Wall Street investment analysts, venture capitalists, or even plain old stockbrokers, the bull markets of the 80s and 90s raised all boats and reputations.
Take a look at the average annual returns of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 1982 to 1989:
And in the 90’s, the good times continued to roll - with the Dow skyrocketing from 2800 at the start of 1990 to over 11,000 by September 1999.
Now THAT was a bull market.
Since then, not so much.
Think about it, on an inflation-adjusted basis the return of all major US stock indices over the past fourteen years (1999 – 2013) has actually been negative.
And it gets worse.
Historically low interest and inflation rates - combined with massive and seemingly permanent federal budget deficits - have given the bond and money markets an even less appealing combination of low return and systemic risk.
And to top it all off, how about governmental policy and tone that if not outright hostile to the plight of the equity investor, is at its best supremely indifferent to it?
Yes, it is enough to cause despair in those that still believe that well-functioning equity markets are at the heart of a vibrant and growing economy.
But all is not lost.
You see, in the mist of all this malaise over the last 10-15 years, some investors have been making money.
Who Are They?
Now who these folks are and how they invest is something that I have dedicated a large part of my professional life to understanding and replicating.
And starting this Thursday, I am going to share what I have discovered.
This weekend I had the very good fortune to attend Ryan Deis and Perry Belcher's Traffic and Conversion Summit in downtown San Francisco.
Headlined by speakers including Guy Kawasaki and William Shatner, it was an awesome gathering of 2,000+ of the best, brightest, and most accomplished from the worlds of online marketing and sales.
“Aha” moments were aplenty for all who made the effort to attend. Here were a few of mine:
These are the Worst AND the Best of Times for New Client Acquisition.
To large part because of gatherings like this - where the best SEO, SEM / PPC, landing page, copy-writing, and e-mail marketing strategies, tactics, and techniques are shared and then used (and in volume) by creative and aggressive marketers worldwide - it is more challenging than ever to attract new customers online.
Today’s online buyers have developed a killer combination of hardened skepticism AND sky high expectations as to pricing, product and service features and benefits, and to performance guarantees.
Now for the ambitious online seller this represents not just a great challenge, but an incredible opportunity as well.
You see, while these expectations have driven up customer acquisition costs, they have also driven the cost of a competitor acquiring that customer away from you even higher.
Now, this is where most companies who sell online get off track.
The very nature of the web - with its seductive ease of marketing to prospective customers worldwide - often causes the very dangerous myopia of neglecting those so good and honorable folks that are your customers now.
It is a bit funny that this was my big "aha" moment from a conference gathering of the some of the world’s biggest, baddest, and most aggressive online marketers.
And this led to my second aha.
The truth is already out there.
In this brave new world of ours where tens of hundreds of thousands of online businesses worldwide put their best stuff online for all the world to see…
…that imitation is not just the highest form of flattery, but it is great business strategy as well.
Now yes, what to do with all of this stuff can often feel overwhelming.
And this is where events like the Traffic and Conversion Summit are so valuable.
Ryan and Perry and their merry band curate and interpret this global treasure trove of strategies, techniques, and tactics for you.
AND they give you a framework for how to do so yourself.
And finally, the energy one draws from a gathering of 2,000+ of decidedly private sector, decidedly ambitious Internet entrepreneurs and executives…
...animates in one the energy and inspiration to take all of this knowledge and translate it into that most precious of all business assets.
I usually hesitate to analogize from the world of sports that of business.
In contrary to many motivational videos, these are two very different realms of human endeavor and there is not a clear line between the attributes and mindsets that drive success in one as compared to the other.
This past week, however, I was moved by the stories and coverage of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis’ retirement after 17 seasons of professional football, and those of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban winning his third BCS national championship in four years.
Watching the various retrospectives and tributes to Lewis, the overriding takeaway was how his "always on” persona inspires those around him with feelings of action, of possibility, and of strong positive intent.
This kind of energy and presence is indispensable in very many aspects of business, but none so obviously more so than in sales and presentation.
Especially in this technologically distracted world of ours, the ability to consistently project high positive emotion is a key success factor and competitive advantage.
Now, a lucky few of us are blessed with a naturally "high motor" that can go on and on without a lot of maintenance.
But the vast majority of us have to work at it.
To eat, sleep, and exercise right.
And to feed one's mind and spirit with equally nutritional fare.
Now, when it comes working at it, Nick Saban is as great a role model as he is a legendary football coach.
While for some it was a bit off-putting to hear - just minutes after his team won the championship - - the notoriously "always on-message" coach already start talking about next season, for me it was refreshing.
Because in Nick Sabin’s world it is the work itself - as opposed to any glory or accolades or money that might come from it - that is the real reward.
And that as this work and its example catalyzes the success and growth of others, it is the satisfaction of so doing that is far sweeter and more gratifying than any personal triumph or celebration could ever be.
Ray Lewis. Nick Sabin.
Strong role models not because of their far greater number of wins than losses but because, in the words of Lewis himself, wins come and go but it is effort that is eternal.
And this effort, when taken to its methodical extreme, results in a life and career like that of Nick Saban's.
Which, of course, leads to triumphs and transformations and joys for millions to experience.
Just ask any Alabama football fan if you have any doubt about that.