Jeff Bezos is a great hero and role model for all entrepreneurs that dream of doing something really, really big, and…pulling it off.
Like all legendary business leaders, he also has a number of management and creative peculiarities well worth studying and emulating.
One of my favorites is how Jeff manages the meetings of Amazon’s senior executive team, as described last year when Fortune named him Businessman of the Year:
“…the Amazon CEO's fondness for the written word drives one of his primary, and peculiar, tools for managing his company: Meetings of his "S-team" of senior executives begin with participants quietly absorbing the written word. Specifically, before any discussion begins, members of the team -- including Bezos -- consume six-page printed memos in total silence for as long as 30 minutes”
Bezos goes on to note that “Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master." Full sentences are harder to write," he says. "They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."
Now when I learn of things like this, I understand why the success of a Jeff Bezos is no accident.
Remember, in addition to founding and leading one of the most successful technology companies of all times, Jeff Bezos also made arguably the greatest investment of all time.
The story is well-known but worth re-telling. In 1998 when Larry Page’s and Sergey Brin’s Google offices were a Menlo Park, California garage, Bezos invested $250,000 of personal funds into the fledgling startup.
When Google went public in 2004 that $250,000 investment translated into 3.3 million shares of Google stock. At Google’s IPO that represented a stock share position worth over $280 million.
While he doesn’t disclose how many of those shares he still holds, at the current price of Google stock they would represent an investment position worth over $2 billion.
So, what is it about what makes Jeff Bezos tick that allows him to have such great success when so, so many others - with similar ambition and arguably even greater talent - fall by the wayside?
I recently read a great book (bought on Amazon, of course) by Mark Helprin called "A Soldier of the Great War."
It is the amazing story of an Italian PhD student in aesthetics who was drafted into the Italian Army in World War I. In addition to being an unbelievable barnburner of a read and a tale of love and heroism and adventure, it is also the story of a young man trained as an "effete" intellectual struggling to come to grips / find wisdom from and peace with the horrors of war.
The story ends with its hero - Alesandro Giuliani - as an old man looking back on his life of books, of art, of family, of adventure, and of war and loss.
In the end it is the intersection of these two - of his great intellectual journeys tempered into character and resolve via the various "mortifications of the flesh" of his life - hard work, self-sacrificing, courageous deeds and words, and the willingness to push himself to the limits of one's endurance.
And from this coupling of intellectualism and ideas with a life of action and a love of the fight does flow the genius, power and magic of a Jeff Bezos.
So at your next meeting, do like Jeff and put down the PowerPoint and pull out the pen!
Watching the disaster of a process that is the D.C. budget drama, I found myself with a curious reaction.
And maybe even a little bit of a selfish one.
It was, by golly, how happy I am that I get to work in this so dignifying world of business and free enterprise and not have to waste my precious life energy on such nonsense.
And then feeling a bit more generous, I felt happiness for the hundreds of millions if not now billions of people worldwide that are able to do likewise.
To work in or at a business, just a plain old simple business.
A software development firm. A medical device company.
An accounting firm. A roofing company. An insurance agency.
A tanning salon. A yoga studio. A specialty retailer. A freight forwarding company.
Walmart. A donut shop.
Now don't get me wrong, government is important.
And that those that work in it often are mostly truly public servants and we should be thankful for their service.
And yes, our vexing public policy challenges require our attention and concern.
But it isn’t that important.
So much of the real action in this world of ours takes place in the micro.
In that wonderful world of business production.
The world of multi-billion dollar companies like Cisco utilizing information technology to accomplish the accounting miracle of closing their books each and every day.
The world of General Electric growing great managers and business leaders time and time again.
The world of amazing customer service at places like Zappos and how that service dedication translates to strong profits that fuel our world.
The world of that sumptuous donut fresh out of the oven.
The world where, with a click of a button on my phone, I can buy a mobile app that sends me my text messages as e-mails (but don't ask me why I want this).
The world where I order new leather seat covers for my car, from Greece, on Ebay, and at a fraction of the price of what the dealership is asking.
And oh yes, by doing so making a small dent in that nation's debt and fiscal crisis.
And it is the world of my own business’ unique processes and project tasks and how we will profit from this burgeoning new world of global service exports.
Yes, the real and meaningful action is in this amazing 21st century global world of ours of hundreds of millions of points and more of concentrated business production.
That creates for all of us, this transcendent potpourri, this never-ending buffet, of essential, helpful, frivolous, sometimes conspicuous, but so blessedly diversified consumption.
And you know what else?
History has taught that the more folks focus on getting great at what they particularly produce, no matter how great and glamorous or small and prosaic it might be.
Well, it is by so doing that all of our fiscal cliff and other challenges as if by some magical hand just seem to take care of themselves.
The word from the Fed last week that it would continue with its quantitative easing - purchasing approximately $85 billion per month in U.S treasury bond and de facto continuing to expand the country’s money supply - signaled that that the era of extremely low interest rates will continue.
Predictably, stock markets worldwide cheered along with it being seen as a very positive signal for the well-recovering US housing market.
Now, as to what it means that the Fed has, since 2008, expanded the U.S. Money Supply almost 400% - from $800 billion in 2008 to over $3.5 trillion today?
Well, it doesn’t take a Nobel Prize in Economics to reliably predict the inevitable outcome…
Now, in spite of its strong negative connotations, an inflationary economy while extremely painful for very many, also offers opportunities to profit and win.
Here are three:
Winner Number One: Debtors. This is obvious, but easy to overlook. Those owing money at set interest rates - homeowners with 30 year fixed mortgages and companies issuing bonds - will benefit enormously as the inflation train rolls in.
Let’s look at a worst but not overly improbable case - a hyperinflation period where all prices rise 10X, resulting in a $500,000 home able to be credibly listed for $5 million.
It sounds crazy, but over the years in countries where hyperinflation has hit, this has not been an uncommon occurrence.
Now let’s say that home was financed (or refinanced) with a $400,000, 30-year mortgage at a fixed rate of 3.5%.
Well, with its price increasing from $500,000 to $5 million - while the amount owed on it remains fixed - all of a sudden the house’s equity to debt ratio skyrockets from 20% to 92%!
Winner Number Two: Companies with Pricing Power. Businesses with the ability to increase prices quickly without seeing sales plummet - think luxury goods and easily adjusted staples like gasoline at the pump - will hold significant advantages over businesses constrained by “stickier” prices.
Examples of the latter include services like mobile phones contracts and gym memberships, and the classic example of restaurants not increasing prices because of the cost of printing new menus.
Winner Number Three: Private Companies for Sale. My favorite, as there is no greater form of an entrepreneurial, economic success than a sale of a business at an attractive price.
In a world of rising prices, the acquisition appetites of larger companies increase as their cost of money - as driven by their valuation multiples - decrease.
This is most evident for public companies, now trading at a rich 18x earnings (S&P 500), who are able to buy smaller, usually private companies with the relatively cheap currency of high multiple public equity.
This frothiness also drives the financing environment, where buyers (investors) and sellers (entrepreneurs, companies seeking capital) more easily strike higher risk, higher valuation deals (see Fab.com, HootSuite, and scores of others) with an ease that isn’t there in a flat or deflationary environment.
So, if you're an entrepreneur, think about accelerating and intensifying both your financing and exit planning efforts.
And for investors, remember that the worst strategy in an era of rising prices is to be standing still and sliding away in fast depreciating cash.
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Last week, I talked about the communication breakdowns that occur when investors and entrepreneurs talk about risk.
Well, in most forms of angel and early-stage private equity investing, these breakdowns flow from a misunderstanding of the power and nature of outliers.
The concept of outliers and how they apply to early stage private equity investment was best described by the Lebanese thinker and writer Nicolas Taleb, in his best-selling books "Fooled by Randomness" and "The Black Swan."
In the Black Swan especially, Taleb described the nature and importance of outliers in a modern, inter-connected economy:
“What we call here a Black Swan is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable."
Taleb continues, "I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives."
Less famous, but more helpful when it comes to designing an effective private equity investing strategy is Taleb's theorizing on how technological interconnectedness vastly intensifies Black Swan impacts.
This idea of technological interconnectedness is related - though not exactly the same – as that of the much ballyhooed Network Effect that is so much at the heart of many of the biggest technological and investment success stories of the last 15 years, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIN, being first and foremost amongst them.
In its simplest form, the Network Effect posits that the value of a network increases exponentially with each new user on it.
Or, in other words, the primary reason why folks use Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIN is because there are a lot of other folks that use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIN too.
And, as more users join, such the value for others to join grows that much greater.
And so on and so on.
Thus, one of the first screens that the intelligent early stage investor should utilize is the degree to which a network effect is present in a company's business model.
Now, let’s get to the rub of the matter as to how Taleb’s interconnectedness concept both informs and signals danger for the thoughtful investor.
Simply put, global technological inter-connectedness drives the winning business models to heights never seen before …
…and because of this, there are a lot fewer of them.
Simply put, the winners are bigger and happen faster than ever - Facebook's IPO was bigger and faster than that of Google’s which was bigger and faster than that of Microsoft’s, which was bigger and faster than that of Apple’s.
And because the winners are bigger, there are less of them.
So that giant sucking sound you hear is the consuming of so much of the energy and return in the deal economy into fewer, bigger and more lucrative deals.
To put it another way, turning $500,000 into $1.8 billion in seven years as Peter Thiel did as a small minority investor in Facebook is just not beyond extraordinary - it is also unprecedented.
And, correspondingly, returns of this scale crowd out and widely skew the distribution to fewer, higher returning deals.
Now, how should we respond to this brave new and highly challenging investing and entrepreneurial world?
Well, one obvious response is to proceed extremely carefully.
Investing in early stage private companies can be great fun and you can make money beyond your wildest dreams if the stars are aligned right doing it….
…but the probabilities of doing so in any one company or deal are low…and getting lower.
And unfortunately, this is true no matter how enthusiastic, how passionate, how hardworking, how brilliant the entrepreneur that is pitching his or her deal happens to be.
So does this mean that early stage private equity investing is for the birds? And that we all should just stay away?
Of course not.
You just have to do it right.
Next week, we’ll share how today’s most successful investors and entrepreneurs do just that.
My column last week, where I praised leaders that channeled legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi’s “tough love” leadership approach, prompted a lot of responses - some nice, some not so nice (and not just from the Minnesota Vikings fans out there!).
The most thoughtful ones came back and said, “well that style maybe all well and good if you are running a factory in China, but when it comes to managing younger people (i.e. Millenials - those born after 1982) in modern service businesses, to be effective a "softer" touch is needed.
Points well-taken, so do let me offer here five "Managing Milllenials" best practices:
#5. Revel in the Importance of Company Culture. In a world where everything can and is easily and quickly borrowed, copied, and sometimes just plain old stolen - the only sustainable competitive advantage is how a company organizes and aligns, inspires and challenges its people.
Or, in a word, its company culture.
Taking it further, the modern manager is doubly vexed by the unsettling (yet exciting) reality that the plan today will almost certainly not be the plan tomorrow, and as the plan changes, so must change both individual roles and team dynamics.
And thereby so must the culture change.
Please let’s not jump over this point too quickly. It is all too easy for the ambitious, hard-working, and often older manager to just throw up his or her hands and lament over “these kids” and how “if they only knew how things were like when I was starting out” that they would think and act differently.
And how they should be just happy to have a job and not just be so – well young and self-absorbed.
Well, that is dead-end talk.
Building high-performing 21st century teams requires winning hearts and minds and doing so each day anew. The best managers REVEL in this challenge as opposed to shirking from it or whining about it.
#4. Empowering and Coddling are NOT The Same Thing. Some may read the above and shake their heads and think that this is a “coddling mindset” or entitlement culture and is exactly what has gotten us in America in trouble in the first place and a big part of why China is kicking our you know what every which way.
This is where leadership and administrative creativity are of such importance in building win-win work structures that both inspire and challenge the younger worker to work harder and get better faster.
AND allow for balance and acknowledge those aspects of work that are not so “goal-driven.”
What are these? Well, that sense of community and common cause and healthy friendship and competition that make the best workplaces, for lack of a better word, fun.
And fun, as high-performing cultures like Southwest and Richard Branson’s Virgin have demonstrated so inspirationally is - surprise, surprise - very good for the bottom line.
#3. Understand that Entrepreneurship and Youth Go Hand-in-Hand. Most ambitious young people today don’t grow up dreaming about getting that “good state job” or to work for the same company for 30 years.
Rather, and following up on that overriding sense of “specialness” with which we now raise our children, young people want their star to shine. They want to come up with the new, great ideas, and to be acknowledged and rewarded for it.
They, in essence, want all of the recognition and empowerment and self-definition and financial opportunity that attract people of all ages to become entrepreneurs.
This is a great and good thing, and is at the heart of why we live in golden, global age as young people the world over are being raised with the right kind of high self-esteems to dream and act BIG.
BUT many of even the best of them on balance do not want the headaches and heartaches and vexing, painful choices and compromises that are just as much part and parcel of the real entrepreneurial “lifestyle.”
So how do you work with this? The deep desire and burning ambition that all companies desperately want in their people on the one hand, and a wariness and even a distaste for all of the prosaic, “not fun” stuff on the other?
Well surprise, surprise, this is tough.
A general rule here is as opposed to fighting this energy, go with it and reframe the “tough stuff” as opportunities for personal and professional growth and then profusely recognize and acknowledge these “less fun” challenges are taken on.
Not easy to do for sure, but it is this leadership that both modern organizations and younger workers desperately need and want.
#2. Recognition is Key. Having 2 young sons has helped me immeasurably in understanding the sometimes gentle psyches of younger employees. Long gone are those days of fear and punishment-based parenting and schooling. Rather, understanding that a recognition-based milieu is how most high-performing young people have been raised and schooled is a key to effective organization-building.
The best guidance I have seen on effective “recognition-based” leadership comes from authors Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick in their awesome book “The Carrot Principle.”
They describe recognition done right as being “positive, immediate, close, specific, and shared:”
Positive - managers sometimes mistakenly use a recognition presentation as a time to talk about how far someone has come, or how they could have done even better. This is not the time or place. Comments must be positive and upbeat.
Immediate - too often by the time a worker is recognized for a job well done, weeks if not months have passed. The closer the recognition to the actual performance the better.
Close - recognition is best presented in the employee’s work environment among peers. Invite team members and work friends to attend.
Specific - a great presentation is a time to point out specific behaviors that reinforces key values.
Shared - typically, recognition comes from the top down; however, recognition that means the most often comes from peers who best understand the circumstances surrounding the employee’s performance. Peers, as well as managers and supervisors, should be able to comment during the presentation.
#1. Embrace Fluidity. This is perhaps the hardest reality and where the rubber really hits the road with building 21st century, knowledge-based entrepreneurial organizations dependent on younger people.
They just get up and leave.
On a moment’s notice and often for the simple and defensible reason of valuing experience and variety over the often hum-drum and slow career - building that is part of staying and growing with one organization over time.
Again, as opposed to fighting this energy, go with it. Work to design the organization and refine the business model based on relatively short tenures - say 3 years or less - and with the ability to plug new people in and have them produce quickly.
To accomplish this requires strong and well-defined training styles and processes, clearly defined and “bounded” roles and responsibilities, and a knowledge management system that captures and processes the intelligence of the organization so that it doesn’t walk out the door when that “year overseas” calls.
How About Investors?
As for investors looking for emerging companies to back, my strong suggestion is to evaluate these softer “above the line” qualities in a corporate culture and a leadership team as much as the below line technology and balance sheet factors that are usually at the forefront of an investment evaluation.
For it is the right company culture - one that gets the best out of people of all ages - that both endures and provides for success for the long term.
Green Bay Packer tackle Henry Jordan once famously described legendary football Coach Vince Lombardi’s coaching style as “He’s Fair. He treats us all the same – like dogs.”
Well, with the Big Data, “Moneyball” and “Freakonomics” management and investment revolutions, where it is a matter of high faith that you get the behaviors that you reward and that you measure, we are seeing a clear and strong movement back toward high accountability, no excuses “get it done or get out” management practices and cultures.
For entrepreneurs looking for organization structures to model and for investors looking for companies to back, here are four trends to watch:
1. Look for Companies That Harness the Power and Avoid the Danger of “Corporations of One.” Never before in human history has the world afforded more opportunities for talented individuals to work for themselves, by themselves.
The amazing tools of modern, virtual collaboration – text, email, video conferencing and every cloud-based business productivity application that you could ever dream of (and ever use) available in the palm of your hand - have eliminated most of the collaboration advantages of the traditional corporate form.
The smart, modern company understands when to marshal their power - in the form of utilizing contractors to fulfill bite and mid-sized projects - and when to resist it.
How? By focusing vigilantly on building distinct and equity - filled brands, strong barriers around their customers, and company cultures and management styles that demand and reward high performance and results.
2. And Ones That Let Virtuality Touch Them, but not Kill Them. With the now universal business adoption of “everything and more that was once only on your desktop is now in your pocket” mobile phones and apps, all of us worldwide are truly on line 24/7.
Books like Jason Fried’s “Rework,” Tony Schwarz’ “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working,” and John Freeman’s “The Tyranny of E-mail” address from various angles the promises and drawbacks of virtual work.
A common theme is almost universal doubt regarding email and other tools of instant communication and the “react versus respond” culture they foster.
What to do about it? Well, continue to look for “end of email” company movements and cultures to continue to gain steam and social currency, and for social networking mainstays like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIN to slowly but surely lose their business luster.
Companies that embrace this re-emerging “culture of the deliberate” will have the leg up where it really counts – in more thoughtful strategic positioning and consequently, more sustainable profits.
3. And Ones That Are Learning Organizations. The pressing need for organizations to innovate or perish, and of young workers equating quality work environments with ones offering intense personal and professional development almost makes the definition of a successful company as one that propels its people forward.
This company as a learning organization motif is an old one, but never before have the reductionist pressures of virtuality combined with young worker expectations made it so paramount for companies to either grow their people or see their businesses shrink.
4. And Finally, Look for Leaders that Channel Coach Lombardi. There is a fine line between an encouraging company culture and a permissive one. Inspired by the success of high accountability cultures like Amazon, Apple, and FedEx, smart investors are backing leaders that give BOTH pats and kicks on the backside.
In a paradoxical way, the typical, high encouragement environment in which most young people (i.e. the Millennials) were raised and educated has created in them a deep desire for structure, to be told exactly what is expected of them and the consequences for poor performance.
Leading “tough” like this is hard, draining work, but is a key and easy-to-identify quality in a company poised to breakout.
Find, back, and grow with companies that embody the above and winning will be more of an everyday thing for your business and your investments.
Holding constant for socioeconomic factors, the typical entrepreneur makes less money, works more hours and suffers more work-related stress than their employed counterparts.
And when we combine these statistics with those that show a very low percentage of businesses ever attaining meaningful profitability, it is remarkable that people ever even 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 year.
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 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 often 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, publish 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.
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 entrepreneurs and businesses that can truly make money, encourage and back them, and you and the world will get to a better place.
Every time I moderate a strategic planning retreat, I learn something.
About the investment of life force necessary to build and sustain a successful organization in the modern business day.
About the importance of heartfelt and mutually supportive communication among and between an effective executive team.
About how there is no more efficient use of business time than to step away from the day-to-day, to reset, and to talk about the big “whys “of an enterprise.
And from this talk, to refresh, refine and define the best, most strategic, and highest ROI use of executives’ time and of an organization’s capital.
I have the great, good fortune to moderate 1 - 2 of these “big” strategic planning retreats each month.
This past week, the group was the eight person executive leadership team of one of the larger and more prestigious hospitals here in Los Angeles.
A dynamic and highly experienced group, these eight executives have management and leadership responsibilities for over 1,500 hospital employees - providing care to over 17,000 patients, including 4,000 deliveries and 8,000 surgeries annually.
Yes, these executives have their strategic and tactical hands full to the highest degree.
In addition to the sheer scale and breadth of their organization and of the truly life and death impacts of their decisions, they also must grapple with and adapt to the sea changes beyond their control in our brave, new healthcare world.
The Affordable Care Act.
Payor consolidation, driving down reimbursements.
An increasingly Byzantine thicket of regulatory, liability, and organizational complexity that can easily make a hospital executive feel that even their best work will and cannot “tilt the windmill” toward high quality and cost effective care.
But here’s the inspirational rub of it all…
The bigger the challenge, the more engaged does become the effective executive.
And in this hospital executive team that I had the privilege of working with this past week, well they were engaged and committed at the highest level.
Well, how about this - in spite of having a more than a century of collective experience, and having to travel from their homes an average of more than 50 miles through Los Angeles rush hour traffic, all eight members of the team arrived at the retreat 30 minutes before its scheduled 9:00 am start!
Or, how about the fact that the organization’s CEO, in spite of being on the job for 17 years and being honored as one of the nation's top hospital CEOs, seeking critical feedback from a staff member on the job less than 90 days?
How about a willingness to, in spite of leading a wildly successful and highly respected 100 year old+ organization, to in an afternoon agree to scrap the team's existing meeting structure and try something completely new?
And my favorite, how about a willingness to take on the challenge of fundamentally rethinking the performance review structures of their vast and complex organization, knowing that yes, doing so will result in far more work on their already stretched plates, but committing to it as it is in the profound interest of the organization's mission and reflective of its values to do so?
And that is all that matters.
These kinds of discussions, and of course many more of the highly confidential, and often heated and pointed type, resulted in a high emotion and results-packed retreat day.
Undertake this work like our fair and fine hospital executives did this past week and watch the magic happen.
And, of course, ignore it at your peril.
Because, as Thoreau once famously said an unexamined life is not worth living.
And an unreflecting organization will, in the end, almost always turn into one not worth having.