The news that Congress is seriously considering major re-writes of the painfully anachronistic rules on small securities offerings could just be the straw that breaks the back of this now 12 year equity investing return drought.
Two bills currently being considered in Congress – the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act and the Access to Capital for Job Creators Act – shows that Washington is finally starting to grasp the chasm that separates the financial services industry as embodied in soulless and too big to understand banking institutions, and the action hero worlds of emerging company entrepreneurs and the investors that back them.
And that our fair regulators have at least an implicit understanding that very real (and real time) reputation and compliance checks and balances of our always on, always connected, online world is just better than the Feds’ analog and antiquated regulatory regime.
Heck, even consideration of these bills is a welcome sign that a consensus has formed that out-of-date and ineffective regulations - far more so than taxes - are the worst inhibitors of job growth and economic vitality.
How so? Well, the proposed bills would update core aspects of the securities laws – most of which were written in the 1930’s - to reflect how 21st Century business is actually done.
As in over e-mail. With relationships initiated, cultivated and maintained online.
They would exempt companies looking to raise $5 million or less from standard SEC filing requirements and lighten the virtually impossible to follow rules on utilizing social networking and other Internet-based communications to market offerings.
As a patriotic American, I say "hooray."
As an angel investor, I say “how can I get in on the fun!”
If these bills pass, I would predict that the value of all private companies would jump at least 10% simply because their pathways to liquidity would be far, far less.
Now attaining liquidity is almost always only possible via either a rare and difficult whole company sale or a public offering.
In contrast, these bills would remove many of the regulatory shackles that prevent secondary markets powered by inexpensive online deal syndication and transaction tools like Profounder, SecondMarket, and Prosper.com from flourishing.
And because they would allow smaller investments in private companies to be made almost as easily as into public stocks, they would address one of the biggest challenges of the Main Street investor –how to get pieces of the best deals.
Quite simply, the result would be more investors getting more of what they want - liquid, high performing equity investments.
Now what could be better than that?
So congress pass these bills!
Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at Boyan Josic’s Daily Deal Media Conference in Chicago.
Our topics were the growth and fundraising environment in the "daily deal" sector - which today happens to be both one of the hottest and one of the most maligned technology investment sectors in the world.
While I am by no means an expert in the space, I know serious, talented entrepreneurs when I see them, and Boyan’s conference was chock full of the kind of creative high IQ and high “EQ” people that smart investors love to back.
They ranged from Brian Lent, Chairman and CTO of Medio.com, an Accel Partners backed real-time mobile, predictive analytics solutions provider, to Jim Brown, Vice President of Business development at Admeris, a Toronto-based best of breed "cloud-based" mobile commerce payments provider, to Mark Donahue, CEO of TripAlertz.com, a leading travel - focused daily deal site.
And then there were the conference organizers themselves - Boyan Josic and his executive partners - Martin Tibbits and Joe Walker. While they don’t “come” from the daily deals industry (but really who does?), man do they possess so many of the great entrepreneurial skills that make this country great.
What I admire especially about them is their visceral understanding of the connection between technology, the customer experience, and making money.
Now, it was only by coincidence that the conference was held in President Obama's Chicago home town. And it was an even greater coincidence that I ended up watching part of his “jobs” speech at the same hotel where many of his 2008 presidential campaign events were held.
And by golly was the contrast stark between the energy of our President and his fellow Washington suits and that of the action hero entrepreneurs at the conference.
While Boyan and his merry cast were invigorated and hopeful as to the power of micro-innovation, small business hustle and just good old-fashioned greed as actually effective levers of real job creation, listening to the President drone on about "infrastructure" and "common cause" was like a time warp.
Heck, I was almost waiting for him to start talking about the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration and about how the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!
It felt like a liberal arts professor giving an economics lecture that is just off key because it is so obvious that the person speaking is talking about something they have never actually done themselves.
Luckily for me, the conference continued on the morning after the President's speech, and the deflation I experienced from it was quickly replaced by that happy adrenaline I always feel around people passionate in their entrepreneurial bubble.
I find that the best of them possess that delicate balance between starry-eyed idealism and cold-blooded-we're-going-to-make-money-darn-it-now-and-God-help-anyone-who-stands-in-our-way.
Really now, isn’t that the entrepreneurial change we can all believe in?
As opposed to the President’s unfathomable, Leviathan spending proposals - this latest $450 Billion incarnation is greater than the market capitalization of Apple - the entrepreneur's goals were human-sized.
Hire a programmer here, a freelance public relations staffer there. Book a plane ticket or two to see a prospective partner, and maybe while doing so buy a new laptop or tablet to better communicate the proposed strategic synergies.
Small decisions, little things.
But in their tens of hundreds of thousands aggregate, well, these are the decisions that are the making of a vibrant, prosperous, and dignified entrepreneurial society.
And decisions that create the kind of energy that all of the attendees shared at Boyan’s conference last week.
Not a profound and histrionic energy like that of a politician scrambling for relevancy and votes, but an earthy and common sense energy of entrepreneurs out to change the world one small pebble, one daily deal at a time.
Over the last two weeks, I have had the good fortune to sit down personally with both the current mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, and the city’s former mayor, Richard Riordan.
The separate meetings were under different circumstances – a roundtable discussion with Mayor Villaraigosa regarding reforming the much reviled Los Angeles city gross receipts tax - and with former Mayor Riordan in a far more casual setting at “Bruin Woods,” a family retreat at Lake Arrowhead.
Both discussions were candid and spirited.
While I don't agree with much of Mr. Villaraigosa’s politics nor his tendencies toward self-aggrandizement, I was impressed with the fact that even though he has spent most of his career in the public sector, he had a good understanding of the local tax and regulatory considerations that either contribute to or distract from a city’s business and job creation climate.
At a minimum, he was empathetically aware of the massively negative social impact of private employers leaving the city for other locales with more favorable business climates.
And as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has noted, it is at the “big city” level, far more so than at state capitals and in Washington, where the real work of public - private business partnership is being done.
This is because mayors face daily the intercity competition for the people and capital that pay the taxes that fund their governments.
This competition is fought on fronts including public safety (and both LA Mayors pointed out that city crime levels are the lowest they’ve been since the 1950’s), infrastructure, regulation, and tax policy.
Now the really GREAT thing is that on all of these fronts and more, local Democrats and Republicans are in agreement that pro-business policies are no longer an ideological choice, but a necessity for basic 21st Century relevance.
You see, because just like in the technology industry where decades of high efficiency competition have brought the cost of computers down over 99% in real terms, so too are market forces working their “tough love” magic on governments the world over.
So ignore the "it bleeds, it leads" media.
Ignore the side show that is politics as it is presented in our Drudge Report and our Huffington Post age.
The real game in government and politics these days is happening well below the radar.
It is happening in tens of thousands of little innovations, little loosenings, little efficiencies that politicians and technocrats are implementing daily.
And it doesn’t matter whether they want to make these changes or not.
They HAVE to because if they don't people and capital will just vote with their feet and leave.
To less regulatory onerous pastures, to lower tax seas.
This is great cause for cheer and enthusiasm for entrepreneurs and executives looking to start and grow businesses.
So now…what are you waiting for?
“After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with producing, buying, selling, investing, and prospering in the world."
- Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States
What if we asked Calvin Coolidge - old silent Cal - with his early 20th Century common sense and puritan ethic, for his take on current affairs?
What would he say about inflation? About risk-taking in today’s environment?
First of all, I think he would find it obvious that the combination of large budget deficits, trade deficits, and the Federal Reserve’s stated commitment to keep interest rates low makes the steady erosion of the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar inevitable.
He would say that this will be very bad for the American worker, who will feel the double squeeze of both stagnant wages and a shrinking dollar.
He would probably also say that this coming inflation will be extremely challenging for businesses with little pricing power, and ones trapped in downward cycles of commoditization and relentless margin pressures.
But Cal - living in a time of opportunism and watching fortunes being made all around him like never before in history – would probably also see that for the vast majority of US businesses that are services and exports based, inflationary conditions can be advantageous.
Why? Because the best managed of them will be able to control their input costs (labor, rents) while adjusting prices upward.
How about if we asked old Cal about the stock market?
Remember, he presided over one of the greatest bull markets in history, where stock prices rose over 380% during his time in office.
I think he would channel the famous “outrunning the bear” parable:
Two campers are walking through the forest when suddenly they encounter a grizzly bear. The bear rears up on his hind legs and lets out a terrifying roar. Both campers are frozen in their tracks.
The first camper whispers, "I'm sure glad I wore my running shoes today.” “It doesn't matter what kind of running shoes you're wearing you're not going to outrun that bear,” replies the second.
“I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you,” he answers.
This “last man standing” wisdom would suggest to Cal that stocks will do well simply because the various alternatives are so much less attractive.
Starting with cash and treasuries, Cal would probably see that they both suffer from the double whammy of negative real return and serious principal risk as at anytime the issuer - the US government - can just get up and print away their value (unlike in Cal’s time, by the way).
How about gold? How would Calvin Coolidge - almost the comically stereotypical crotchety old-timer - view gold as an actual investment?
Well, he would probably say that its recent historic price run is directly related to the sheer terror that a wide swath of the public has toward their government’s monetary policies.
But Cal’s sturdy early 20th Century optimism would frown on the defeatism and pessimism that investing in gold represents.
No, as he believed above all that the proper business of America was business, he would in all likelihood see the business of investing as mostly involving stocks and bonds of operating companies.
Of the two, he probably would be partial to stocks. Remember, he presided over one of the great bull markets in American history.
And as a sturdy and self-confident New Englander of his age, he might say that if you're going to invest, then invest and take your swings for the 2, 3, 5, and 10 bagger-potential and beyond that only stocks provide.
So if he lived in our present age, would Calvin Coolidge – a man of the early 20th Century - think that we have a mostly bumpy and discouraging road ahead?
Silent old Cal would see the great opportunities abounding in our technological and global age.
And he would probably mostly counsel for government to just leave businessmen and women alone to pursue and profit from it.
This week’s “Why bother with optimism when fear and gloom sell so much better?” shouted from all media all the time was Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the United States Government’s credit rating from AAA to AA+.
This comes after the country and the world were subjected to the debt ceiling doomsday “debate,” which after the predictable hue and cry ended mostly well – predictably.
Now, the good news is that I know that I am not the only one that:
a) Finds the weekly Chicken Little dramas tiresome to say the least; and,
b) While I am concerned that the daily avalanche of negativity runs the serious risk of becoming self-fulfilling, well just like there's been shown to be little correlation between violent video games and violent behavior, so too does the serious entrepreneur, the effective executive see the news as the sideshow that it really is; and,
c) Far from the end being near, the real truth is that we are at the beginning of a global technology - fueled boom the likes of which has never been seen before.
I mean is it really news that the United States Government has a debt problem?
I may be dating myself, but the first presidential election I remember well was 1984.
The most famous moment of it was Democratic candidate Walter Mondale stating emphatically in a nationally televised debate that he would raise taxes to address the nation's run away budget deficit.
That was 27 years ago. Yet progress has marched on.
And the reason it does is so obvious - or maybe because it is so uplifting that it isn’t considered news - is that while yes the country has a lot of debt, it has 10 times, 100 times as many assets!
According to the Federal Reserve’s conservative counting, domestic financial assets totaled $131 trillion, or more than 9 times as much as the outstanding governmental debt.
That is an impressive number for sure, but in my view it vastly understates the true count of national assets.
These include the physical - the "sea to shining sea” geographic expanse of the nation.
And the corporate, the millions of enterprises big and small with their earnings and innovation power for as far as the eye can see.
But by far America’s biggest asset - one worth so many more multiples that its debts - is the interconnected force that is its people and its culture.
Even at this low moment in national spirit and pride, still the enterprising and entrepreneurial and innovation juggernaut that is the American workforce is beyond impressive.
Forget for a moment how it rates competitively - and would you really trade the U.S. workforce in aggregate for that of any other country in the world?
Just reflect on its unique - and to be protected at all costs for the incredibly precious asset that it is - ability to regenerate itself almost daily via attracting talented and hard-working immigrants from all over the world.
Reflect on its on its fiercely independent and individualistic streaks that foster cultures of creativity and innovation that is by orders of magnitude the best in the history of the world.
And reflect on the fact that Americans for the first time in history can see clearly and instantly through the miracle of the Internet exactly where they are falling behind and why. AND because of the power of these same distributed, on demand technologies change for the better can happen faster than ever before.
So, sure, America has a lot of debt. So what?
In the grand scheme of the assets and innovation and earnings power of the nation as a whole, it is a very manageable sum.
So channeling the great Peter Drucker, let's all focus a lot more on opportunities and lot less on problems.
It is good for the soul. It is good for the psyche.
And most importantly, when it comes to the real balance of assets and liabilities in this great nation of ours, it also happens to be the truth.
To register, click here: https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/194204291
e-Commerce companies spend over $2B annually on e-commerce technologies and yet average less than 3% conversion rates.
It is universally agreed that content personalization – showing the customer the most timely and relevant information for them – is the holy grail that greatly increases low conversions.
By example, Dell Computer has recently rolled out a pilot program built around dynamic web page personalization that has improved their conversions between 30% and 70%.
How did they do it?
And what does web personalization mean for the rest of us?
For the burgeoning world of mobile commerce?
A Dynamic Panel Discussion
On Thursday, August 4th, I am very excited to be moderating a high-powered panel discussion on the future of web personalization and the brave new world of 21st century commerce and retailing.
Our panelists are:
• Mr. Richard Marcus, Former Chairman and CEO of the 41 store luxury retailer Neiman Marcus
• Mr. Chris Ratcliffe, Executive Director of Global Messaging and Marketing Programs at Dell Computer
• Mr. Mark Nagaitis, President, CEO and Co-Founder of 7 Billion People, Inc., developers of the world’s leading dynamic web personalization technology
Limited Attendance by Invitation Only
To allow for quality audience interaction, we are limiting attendance to the first 35 registrants.
So sign up right away to attend via the link below:
It's hard to say which is more unimpressive - the Washington debt ceiling “debate” or the media's breathless “end is near” coverage of it.
I guess the media gets a bit more of a pass, as after all, they are running a business and know that “news” that preys on anxieties or fears - for better or for worse - just sells better than tales of progress and achievement.
For what it is worth, I will throw my entrepreneurial two cents into the hat and predict unequivocally that August 2nd - the so called debt ceiling doomsday - will come and go with barely a whimper.
Well, that is not exactly correct. Given that the US is a $14 trillion economy - over the next seven "countdown days" - approximately $270 billion of new economic output will be generated.
Which, for those of you counting at home, about equals the combined annual output of Amazon, American Express, Apple, DuPont, Goldman Sachs, Google, Southwest, and Time Warner,with their 560,000 employees.
Oh yes, in the next week also, approximately 125,000 new businesses will be started.
AND approximately 153 million Americans will go to their jobs, reflecting the nation’s over 90% employment rate.
Perhaps most excitingly but not counted in the bludgeon of debt and unemployment statistics, over the next seven days countless millions of idea sessions will occur in conference rooms, around cubicles, at the coffee shop, while lying in bed, or in the shower….
…which in turn will generate hundreds of thousands of new sales and marketing strategies, new operational efficiencies, new technology innovations, and new “go global” initiatives led by entrepreneurs and executives across this great land.
This is the real story of the next seven days.
And it will remain so for the seven days after August 2nd too.
Sure the country has too much debt.
Sure, our political system is maddeningly frustrating..
But for every one tale of woe you can tell, I can tell 10, 100, 1,000 tales of possibility and inspiration.
Of businesses striving, growing, prospering.
Of yes, government getting better – delivering services smarter, leaner, more effectively.
Of breakthroughs in technologies and efficiencies in our healthcare system, that ALONE can solve half and maybe more of the country’s debt challenges.
Of invention quickening at yes - a sometimes scary and unpredictable pace - but one that only the most confirmed pessimists among us would say is for more ill than good.
So watch, if you like, the Washington melodrama this week.
It is pretty good theater, I guess.
But don't let it distract or discourage you from the real story – that this 21st century of ours will remain the best time of all time to be alive.
And that America is still the best, most opportunity filled place to live it.
Don't let your newspaper or your TV or your radio tell you otherwise.
Or your politicians.
I attended a meeting last week with Austin Beutner, The City of Los Angeles’ first deputy mayor and economic policy chief.
My company Growthink is headquartered just a stones throw from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), and the meeting was organized by Laurie Hughes, head of Gateway to LA - the airport business district’s advocacy organization.
The purpose of the meeting was to gather some of the district’s executives, landlords and hotel and parking lot operators together to discuss issues of importance to businesses in the area.
And what an area it is!
LAX - with more than 150,000 people per day traveling through it - is truly an Aerotropolis, a massive economic entity that employs thousands of people and contributes billions of dollars to the local economy.
The issues discussed ranged from the somewhat mundane - like the drivers of occupancy fluctuations at the local hotels through the days of the week - to the soaring, like plans for a new “people mover” monorail that will bring the LAX travel experience up to 21st century standards.
I contributed my view of how modern technology companies - with their mobile work forces and global market opportunities - should naturally be located near major airport hubs like LAX.
And as the discussion oscillated between frustration and inspiration, I was struck by how much need there is for entrepreneurial mindsets when it comes to making change happen on governmental scale.
First of all, patience and fortitude and big time sticktoitiveness are needed. To bring their vision of a new airport to life, Laurie and her team at Gateway to LA have worked diligently for 10 years and counting!
Secondly, governmental scale change is rarely about white boarding new ideas as it is about exploring and building into the “adjacent possible.”
For example, one of the landlords complained about the difficulty of attracting tenants to the area because of the Los Angeles City Business Tax, which does not have to be paid in nearby El Segundo.
Mr. Beutner replied that given the city's budget woes, the likelihood of the tax being rescinded or reduced were practically zero, but there were in it carve-outs for Internet and technology businesses that the smart landlord should explore and promote in their marketing.
Finally, it is just plain immature to treat local, state, national, and even international governmental regulation, taxation, and general economic participation as a burden or hindrance that needs to be “dealt with”, so that the “real work” of business can be done.
For the remainder of everyone’s lives reading this, the reality will remain that government - with all of its frustrations and maddening bureaucracy - isn't going anywhere.
The smart entrepreneur doesn't just accept this but creatively plans and acts to profit from and along with it.
Even better, he or she, like Austin Beutner and Laurie Hughes, work long, hard and yes entrepreneurially to bring to life new solutions and possibilities.
Like a new and better airport to be enjoyed by all.
David Allen, author of the productivity best seller "Getting Things Done," has developed an almost cult-like following for his ideas, structures, and best practices around to-do list management, prioritization, and metrics and schematics that define what an effective work day should be.
Without question, there are great benefits to his methods, and I especially like his best practice of always ending a meeting, conversation, or work on an open-ended project with the simple question "What is the Next Action?"
This discipline alone can greatly improve daily and meeting productivity, and perhaps more importantly reduce that sometime suffocating sense of anxiety common to knowledge and entrepreneurial work that there is always way more that must be done than there are hours in the day.
But a focus on simple to do list management, in the modern world, is far from sufficient.
You see, the dirty little secret that all of the self-help masters, all of the highly paid management consultants and investment bankers fail to tell you is that in our incredibly fast-moving, changing, competition from everywhere modern economy, it is virtually impossible to design a plan or strategy that is any way close to being assured of success.
The reason why is simple. Plans and strategies, by their nature, are speculative and assumptive.
They require the planner to survey the current market and competitive landscape along with assessing the current strengths and assets of their enterprise.
And then, from those assessments, forecast how a course of specific decisions or investments will be received by the market, by current or prospective customers, and responded to by the competition.
When stated this way, it becomes obvious that there is a very high likelihood that a plan as designed will not work. It really doesn't matter if that plan is to introduce a new product or service offering, a new marketing or advertising campaign, a website re-launch, or an internal re-organization.
So, does this mean that planning is worthless? Of course not! But it does point to a pair of strategic best practices:
1. Before commencing any planning process, first reflect deeply and document extensively what is working now.
These could be the practices and habits of a top sales person, a pay-per-click advertising campaign with positive ROI, an invoice collections best practice, a particularly profitable partner or affiliate.
Or, on a personal level, an exercise or diet or spiritual regimen.
Now to do more of these things that work, productivity and accountability best practices as outlined by the Dave Allens of the world are incredibly valuable and should be incorporated aggressively into the daily work habits and disciplines of the modern professional.
2. But for everything else that falls outside of this realm, the right mindset is one of testing and exploration, of brainstorming, of speculation and possibility. Of open-ended questions.
AND it should be noted extremely well that it is usually in this mode that the big outlier, “black swan” ideas and strategies and relationships are usually discovered.
As for the question as to how much of #1 – it has been called playing more of the existing game better – versus #2 – sometimes termed playing a new game, should be incorporated into your daily work flow and planning processes, well that is a decision that the best managers, the best consultants and investment bankers the most renowned self-help masters are paid a lot of money to answer.
My answer is – no surprise here if you've ever met me at a party - is to have my cake and eat it too.
Strictly schedule times, deadlines, to-dos and accountabilities to accomplish more of the stuff that you know works and leave plenty of open space - on the calendar and in one's mind and spirit - to step out of the safe harbor and into the big sea and dream more than just a little bit.
And when you balance doing and dreaming like this - and sprinkle in a little luck, a little bit of being at the right place at the right time - your dirty little secret will soon be how much money you are making.
Or even better, how much difference for the better you are making in the world every day in every way.
"….But What I do That Defines Me" – Batman
The recent capture of notorious Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger paints in sharp relief this brave new world of ours – with its full transparency and ultimate accountability for all of one’s deeds – good and evil.
Of particular interest was how, after 16 years on the run, the authorities were finally able to catch him.
He had evaded detection at least in part, not unlike the very infamous man who was once immediately above him on the FBI most wanted list, by eschewing the kinds of modern conveniences that most of us take for granted – cell phones, email accounts, or even driving a car. By so doing, Bulger avoided the electronic “paper trail” that is so easy to follow with just an Internet search here and there.
Whitey’s problem was that his girlfriend couldn’t quite manage to live the fully reclusive, offline life. She enjoyed normal things – like getting her teeth cleaned and her hair done – that involved public interaction. Knowing this, the FBI hit upon the bright idea of a public service ad aired during some popular daytime soap operas, and acting on a called-in tip, both Bulger and Grieg were captured and behind bars within a week.
This is a good thing for law enforcement for sure, but what about privacy? It seems that in our always-on, every syllable saved forever world of digital communication - it is truly impossible to hide. Probably even more troubling, often the very act of trying to hide is viewed as worse signaling than the secrets themselves!
I am of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, I am with the privacy advocates who say that even when modern media allows for the capture of a very notorious criminal, that Orwellian Big Brother fears are unsettling to say the least.
But before his publicists got to him, I also respect Mark Zuckerberg’s general take on the matter, namely that if you are so concerned about certain things that you do or say becoming public, then maybe you shouldn’t do or say those things.
You see, there is this little thing called reputation, and it is the ultimate currency in our online world.
Now, there always will be that small but very vocal minority whose main intent in life it seems is to “flame” and the more public the success, the more virulent their attacks. If you in any way doubt this, ask any celebrity, athlete, or politician about the lies, stereotypes and just downright viciousness they are subjected to online.
Adding to this, the nature of the Internet only amplifies that most unfortunate component of human nature – namely that we remember and highlight negative acts much more intensely than positive ones. Mirroring this, on the Internet the flames and the complaints are heard (and indexed by the search engines) in excess to their statistical importance.
Even with this important caveat, there remains great power and efficacy in that bright reputational spotlight that is our online, socially networked world.
Do the right thing, consistently and over time, and the world notices and rewards you.
Whether that right thing is being a power seller on eBay with thousands of positive ratings, a product on Amazon with dozens of positive reviews, an online blogger with thousands of dedicated readers, or an entertainer with millions of Twitter followers, the wheat online does get separated from the chaff.
And as for what all this means for the bad guys, well go ask White Bulger in his new holding cell if you have any doubt.