Never in my lifetime have I seen Americans as mad with the "system" as they are right now.
And never have more Americans agreed on what that "system" is:
1. It is Washington. The "out to lunch and out of touch" tone and policy responses from both Democrats and so-called free market Republicans to the historical economic crisis facing American families and small businesses.
2. It is Wall Street. It is beyond galling that the most highly compensated roles in our economy over the past year have been exactly those people most responsible for the crisis!
Bankers and hedge fund managers.
This just doesn't sit right with anyone, not even the bankers and hedge fund managers themselves!
So what to do?
Neither I nor my Growthink colleagues are ranters nor end-of-worlders. Far from it. Rather, we side with those so eloquently described by the President in his inaugural: "The risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."
We call this "Entrepreneurial Capitalism" -- the core ideal that financial rewards should go more to the creators of value and less to the speculators on value.
A strong corollary to this ideal is a wholesale rejection of the nauseating spectacle of pork and favoritism masquerading as fiscal stimulus.
So come on America, we're better than this. Let's start showing it.
Let's incentivize the scientists and the engineers and the operators of successful companies, not bankers and political and union hacks.
Let's offer the 495,000 Americans that start a new business every month tax breaks and credits and regulatory relief.
And most importantly, let's give them REAL ACCESS to capital. In turn:
1. They Will Offer Investors By Far The Best Return on Capital Out There. Over the past 10 years the "entrepreneurial sector" was the ONLY asset class other than gold to outpace inflation, with a 10-year return average greater than 30%.
2. And They Will Save The Country and Save The World. From the brave group of new companies will emerge the "chosen ones" - superstar entrepreneurs that create the "gazelle" growth companies that create the jobs and prosperity to overcome ALL of our economic challenges.
Let's run with these gazelles.
In 2010, this means emerging technology. Internet & Software, Digital Media & Entertainment, Healthcare & Biotechnology, and Green & Alternative Energy companies.
Find them. Back them. Win with them.
They are cure for what ails us - as individuals and as a nation.
An absolutely incredible and little-noted essay last week in the Wall Street Journal - Understanding the Terror Threat by Paul Campos – should be required reading for anyone in a position of authority in this great country of ours.
Campos main point: - in both business and politics we have become a nation of “irrational cowards," and of Chicken Little "sky is falling" doomsdayers.
And in so doing, we have done a grave dishonor to the sacred heritage of our country. A country built by risk-taking immigrants, by pioneers and action-driven leaders like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King.
Campos makes his point via citing the actual statistical probability of being a victim of an act of terrorism:
• In the decade of the 2000's, only one out of approximately 25 million passengers was killed in a terror attack aboard an American commercial airliner (all on 9/11)
• To put this in perspective, a person has about a one in 500,000 chance each year of being struck by lightning.
• Deaths from terrorism on airlines were at least five times less common in the 2000s than in any decade from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Campos does point to the one exception in the back of everyone's mind - the threat of nuclear terrorism. He agrees that this is a statistically real serious threat to which an intense, global policy response is very warranted.
Beyond this, though? Fuggedaboutit! The probability of any of us being the victim of a "terrorist attack" is for all practical purposes zero.
Now the pure flip side of fretting over terrorism is, as Teddy Roosevelt so famously said, is to be “in the arena,” to be a "doer of deeds" and to spend oneself in a worthy cause.
And in 21st Century America, it is our nation’s entrepreneurs who are most purely in the arena. It is they that are most courageously pursuing the opportunities that make America fly and thrive.
And you know what else? In terms of public perception, entrepreneurs suffer the opposite problem from terrorists. People think the odds of bad things happening to them (failure, bankruptcy, etc.) are worse than they really are.
For example, while most people think that 9 out of 10 businesses fail within one year, the real statistic is that only 1 out of 2 actually do.
Or while the media portrayal of entrepreneurs and small business is usually one of too much work and too little reward, less reported is how on almost all career satisfaction rankings being an entrepreneur ranks at the top of the list.
Or my favorite – most people consider investing in start-ups and small companies as the riskiest class of equity investing out there. This is anecdotally true but by no means collectively true.
As I pointed out in a recent blog post, over the past 10 years early-stage private company investing was the ONLY asset class other than gold to outpace inflation.
My favorite line from Mr. Campos' essay - Cowardice is among the most shameful of vices.
Washington and Roosevelt and King (to say nothing of the Wright Brothers) would turn over in their graves at the sight and sounds of the irrational fear-mongering that passes as public discourse in this great country of ours.
His advice and mine: Fight back.
In ways large and small, a good place to start is by learning the real odds.
And when you do, you will sleep easier on that next red-eye to JFK.
Of all of the variables to evaluate in handicapping the likelihood of success of a business, by far the most important is its "human DNA" - that killer combination of people smarts, vision, creativity, integrity and work ethic present in all great companies.
Here are 7 qualities to look for in a management team worth backing:
#7. They Are, In Fact, A Team. Great companies are not simply the byproduct of a visionary and/or charismatic founder and chief executive, but rather of a multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted, and well-meshed leadership team.
Great companies have cultures of achievement.
The tone of this culture might be, and usually is, set by a charismatic founder. But its enduring success is dependent on how it can replicate and maintain that culture as the company grows, and as its founder's role becomes less pronounced.
#6. It Is Clear Who Is In Charge. This may seem contradictory to the above, but all well led companies have clear and final points of decision making. There are many effective styles of leadership, from greatly autocratic to fundamentally consensual, but all of them share the fact that in them there is one person at whose desk the "buck" truly stops.
#5. They Have Small Business Discipline. To paraphrase Guy Kawasaki -- the worst folks to run a start-up or an emerging company are a group of ex-Microsoft executives. Entrepreneurial companies are first and foremost small businesses. As such, their management must a) fervently guard cash flow and manage it with a cult-like intensity and b) always make decisions with the mindset that they only have so many "arrows in the quiver" in terms of time and capital to pursue initiatives.
#4. They Are Risk-Takers. The proper goal of an entrepreneur with outside investors is not to run a small business in the common sense of the term. With the fear of sounding harsh, the best managers are minimally concerned with protecting their own "middle-class" lifestyles. Rather, they understand that to achieve greatly requires daring greatly.
For investors, a flame-out failure is not the only bad outcome. As damaging is "a muddling along" driven by too conservative decision making influenced by the desire to "protect hides."
Companies that run this way, in fact usually require MORE money, and counter-intuitively can often be riskier than their harder-charging brethren.
#3. They Are "Goldilocks-ish." While there are certainly outliers in this regard, the significant majority of the best entrepreneurial managers are not "too hot" nor "too cold." Again, not a hard and fast rule, but look for leaders where the key people are between the ages of 30 and 50 have had a few past successes and maybe a failure or two.
They are now in that sweet spot between youthful hunger and middle age wisdom. They know what they know, yet they still have the intellectual and emotional flexibility and curiosity to change and grow.
#2. They Are Technologists. All successful 21st businesses are, at their essence, technology businesses. This does not mean that they all would be considered classic "emerging technology" companies (though the majority of them, in fact, are).
Rather, well-run modern companies leverage technology -- from CRM and ERP to SEO and SEM to scenario-planning and simulation to "best practice" their business models. Their managers understand that information technology is not just the domain of a geeky guy to call when computers can't boot up, but is rather the drumbeat of their business.
#1. Their Work Ethic is Off The Charts. More than anything else, successful entrepreneurs work hard. As in very, very, very, very hard. They work nights. They work weekends. They take short vacations, if any. They work when they're sick. They work when they're tired. They work and work and work and then to paraphrase the great (and famously hard-working) golfer Gary Player, "The harder they work, the luckier they get."
Look for this quality above all else. It is almost always the best predictor of success.
Look to the right for a fantastic chart that tracks investment returns for various asset classes over the past 10 and 20 years.
A few points immediately jump off the page:
So that is past. What will the next 10 years hold? Here are three predictions:
My answer - yes but. Yes - because the 2 key factors that drive angel investing outperformance remain the same. One, returns have to be very high as compensation for illiquidity - most angel investments are in private-held, small companies years away from a sale or an IPO. And two, returns are high as compensation for the EXTREME variance of the asset class.
Now for the but. While the asset class returned an average of 30%+, it was attained via the sum of a very, very few winners (aka Google), and lots and lots of losers.
Quite simply, a few investors made a killing, and a giant many got killed.
But here is where it gets interesting. The one thing that has and will continue to drive angel investing returns - namely technology advancements - now allows investors, for the first time, access to smoothed-out returns (i.e. higher likelhood of hitting the 30% average versus the extreme highs and lows).
Barring a massive rally between now and the end of the year, the "00's" will be the worst decade in the history of the stock market.
As reported in the Wall Street Journal today, since the end of 1999 stocks traded on the New York Stock Exchange have lost an average of 0.5% per year.
Let's put this in historical perspective.
The 1990's were the best calendar decade in history for stocks, with an average investment return of 17.6% per year.
Even in the 1930's - the era of the Great Depression and usually considered the gold standard (pardon the pun) for bad markets, investors did better - with stocks "only" losing 0.2% per year.
And, as the Journal goes on, the news is even worst when we take into account inflation. Since 1999, on a inflation-adjusted basis, the S & P 500 has lost an average of 3.3% per year.
How bad is this? Given that the 1930's was a period of deflation, stock actually gained, in real terms, 1.8% per year during that decade. Even the 1970's - a period of both a bear market AND inflation, did better than this last decade, with stocks only losing 1.4% after inflation.
So before moving to the "what does this mean" and "what do we do now" discussion, let's take a moment of pause to reflect on just how tough an investing decade this has been
Very, very tough. Trillions lost. Retirement plans delayed. Heartache and heartbreak.
Perhaps most gallingly, while most suffered, there were those that did very well while really having no business doing so. Hedge fund managers. Derivatives traders. Bank executives.
I think we can all agree on a hope for the new decade - that the financial rewards in the next 10 years go more to the creators of value and less to the speculators on value.
Here are three more:
1. May Venture Capital Rise Again. Venture capital firms, for the first time in their history, lost money over a decade-long period.
Given the amazing and world-changing advances in human productivity and connectivity over the last 10 years, may the venture capital industry, and correspondingly the world of emerging technology - re-find its return footing.
2. May, on December 31, 2019, The NASDAQ and Dow be trading at, respectively, above 10,000 and above 30,000. Even getting to these levels will mean a return of less than 5% annually from 1999 to 2019.
This falls into the category of the equity markets being "due" for a big returns decade. A simple, but defensible premise.
3. May The Nation's Entrepreneurs Lead The Way. Never has there been more productive, focused, mature, and cause-driven entrepreneurs alive in the world than there are today.
Take a look at the below list of the top performing stocks of the past 10 year (1999-2008):
Symbol Company 10 Yr. Cum. Return
GMCR..............Green Mountain Coffee Roasters................7,895.4%
As Tim Hanson points out, these companies have three qualities in common - they were mostly ignored and obscure when they began their meteoric rise, and they were SMALL.
And you know what? Come 2019 there will be TEN DIFFERENT obscure and small companies that will make this list.
Noone knows who these companies will be. But to attain alpha, you MUST find them.
One thing is for sure - a few investors WILL find them.
The more interesting question of course is - will you be one of them?
I look forward to your attendance and feedback.
Most of the rally has been driven by widespread inflation fears, which in turn are driven by the massive and unprecedented deficits that most of the major industrial governments (save China, of course) seem committed to running for as far as the eye can see.
Gold - say the wise men - is the ideal inflation hedge, which of course is another way of saying that it is the ideal hedge against governments acting badly and confiscating the well-earned wealth of its productive citizens.
Now I would never begrudge anyone that likes betting against government as an investment strategy, but by golly if there ever was an investment that just outright appeals to the uninformed (and those who prey on them), it is gold.
Let's take a step back here, folks, and think a bit about the word "investing," defined by Webster's as "the active redirection of resources/assets to creating benefits in the future."
Now can someone please explain to me how an asset that doesn't yield or produce ANYTHING, and costs money to store, could possibly be considered an investment?
The answer, quite simply, is that gold isn't an investment. Gold, as jewelry or decoration, or accoutrement, is beautiful. Gold as investment is a cult.
A cult of negativity and pessimism, to be more precise. And one in which it would be funny if it is wasn't so sad how many of the older generation in this great country of ours are caught up.
Spend a little time amongst the retired set talking about both investing and the future of America and the amount of fear, negativity, and of an all-consuming mindset of concern for one's own hide and to heck with everyone else falls somewhere between depressing and appalling.
And as for the hucksters that play on these fears - convincing Grandma and Grandpa that Obama is leading us down the path of Communism so better to take all of your money and not just buy gold but also bury it in your backyard - well there is a special corner reserved down under for these folks.
A particularly galling trick of the gold huckster industry (coming to a talk radio or billboard ad near you) is to first promote with great fury their "sky is falling" shtick, then suggest that the only solution is not to just buy gold (that would be bad enough), but to buy gold COINS versus the bullion itself (or far more efficiently, a gold ETF like State Street's Gold Spider (NYSE: GLD)).
What they don't tell you is that they mark these coins up as much as 30% - making almost as much money for themselves as the Pirates of old. And oh yes, if gold bullion and coins were regulated investment assets as they should be, they would call that amount of markup a crime.
How About Actually Investing?
Now let's look at the polar opposite of investing in gold - namely investing in the most productive, most effective, most wealth-building sector of our economy.
I am talking of course about investing in the modern-day action heroes that are the world's entrepreneurs. The men and women who right now are starting and building the Googles, the LinkedIns, the Facebooks, the Twitters, the Apples, the Microsofts, the Amazons, of the next 20 years.
They are passionately at work at the new and young companies where the ideas are freshest, where the work ethic is most profound, and where the innovation breakthroughs are most world-changing.
And unlike investors in gold, who have gotten a negative long-term return since 1980 (on an inflation adjusted-basis, gold's $599/ounce price peak in 1981 price translates in today's $ to $1,417/ounce, investors in entrepreneurial and small companies have killed it - earning a whopping 21.4% annually during that same time frame.
So this holiday season, buy that special someone a gold necklace, or earrings, or bracelet, or gold-plated watch, for sure.
But if you want to give yourself a gift, hang up on the gold hucksters and instead find and back the entrepreneurs in your midst.
They will TRULY be the gift that keeps on giving.
And finally, let's give thanks. Iam not proud of it, but I am still addicted to reading the Sunday NewYork Times. And what a tale of woe it is. And while I know the #1 ruleof modern media - "if it bleeds, it leads," please just stop.
Betweenthe dire talk of global warming, global terrorism, and global finance,if you don't catch yourself you can't help but feel sorry for not justyou, but for all of humanity.
It is 99% bunk. The world has NEVER offered more opportunities for a larger percentage of us tolive affluent lives, to do self-expressive, remunerative work, and tobe amazed daily by the wonders of modern technology and entertainment than it does right now.Be grateful for all that and more.
Happy Thanksgiving to all. May your holiday be blessed withthe rewards of hard work, of breaking bread with family and friends newand old, and with an attitude of gratitude for the bounties the futurewill most definitely hold.
At Growthink, our mission is "to serve the world's entrepreneurs." When I share this with folks, they often come back to me with "Who are these entrepreneurs that are your mission to serve?" Touché.
So who is and who isn't an entrepreneur?
I like Professor Arthur O'Sullivan's definition, from "Economics: Principles in Action" the best - "An entrepreneur is a person who has possession of an new enterprise, venture or idea, and assumes significant accountability for the inherent risks and the outcome. He or she is an ambitious leader who combines land, labor, and capital to often create and market new goods or services."
Wow, this is good. Let's list out individuals that obviously fit this description. Then, let's dig deeper and talk about those who may not label themselves (nor may society) as entrepreneurs but by golly per Professor O'Sullivan's definition above they certainly are:
First, the "obvious" entrepreneurs:
Individuals STARTING New Companies. New companies, startups of all shapes and forms, across all industries, all around the world. The classic "man (or woman) with a plan" entrepreneur.
In the U.S. alone, this represents the more than 6 million new businesses started every year, and the many, many millions more contemplated. The figure worldwide is a BIG multiple of this.
Thank heavens for all of them - according to a famous M.I.T study new business starts account for more than 2/3 of all net new job creation. Especially as by far the biggest economic issue facing America (and the world, for that matter) is job creation, these entrepreneurs truly hold the key to our nation's and the world's long-term prosperity more than any other group.
Individuals LEADING Small Companies. Per that M.I.T study, the other 1/3 of net new job creation comes from the so-called "gazelles," - rapidly growing, emerging companies. The most common statistical definition of these are the 641,000 U.S. firms with between 20 to 1,000 employees. They, along with startups, account for more than 62% of all private sector employment.
Anyone that has spent even a day at a gazelle can literally breathe the entrepreneurship in the air. The best of them are led by deeply ambitious men and women walking the talk of American business. The President, in his inaugural speech, described them best:
"Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated, but more often, men and women obscure in their labour, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."
Let us hope he and our Washington leaders think often of these inspirationally hard-working folks when crafting governmental policy in the months and years to come.
Now very importantly, not all small business people are entrepreneurs. The key phrase in Professor O'Sullivan's definition when evaluating whether one is, or is not, is ambitious leader.
All of us know small business men and women - that while certainly possessing of many wonderful attributes - for whom it would be a big stretch to describe them as "ambitious leaders."
To best illustrate, I suggest you attend a meeting of your local chamber of commerce and hear how much of the debate is focused on problems and grievances versus vision and possibility. Sad, but true.
The "Non-obvious" Entrepreneurs
I find the startup and small business entrepreneurs worthy of great praise and respect. In some ways, I am even MORE impressed with those that demonstrate strong, ambitious, principled entrepreneurial leadership in the contexts of bureaucracy, politics, and vexing social challenges.
Here are a few:
Individuals that are Accountable for Change and Growth at BIG companies. Into this category falls Executives like General Motor's Interim CEO Fritz Henderson. Now I know that GM maybe the last company that comes to mind when one thinks of entrepreneurship. But given the beyond monumental challenges of making that elephant dance, Mr. Henderson certainly meets the criteria (whether he will make the grade only time will tell). He is certainly an ambitious leader with very, very significant accountability for risks and outcomes - huge taxpayer subsidies, tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs, American pride, etc. And his success will depend on his ability to lead GM to "combine labor, and capital to create and market new goods and services." Yes, if Mr. Henderson is to succeed at GM, he will only do so by walking, talking, and quacking like an entrepreneur.
Individuals With Leadership and Change Responsibility in Organizations of All Types. The challenges of leadership and accountability exist in ANY organization taking on meaningful and challenging objectives.
Bono, arguably the world's best known philanthropic celebrity, is an entrepreneur on two fronts. First, via his commitment to world-class creative output as the leader of the mega-rock band U2. And he is an entrepreneur, via his unique effectiveness as an activist and spokesperson and doer of big projects for causes close to his heart - human rights, third world debt relief, and AIDS and African development issues. If you think it is tough to get a city business permit, try getting governments of affluent nations to work together to solve global social challenges that barely garner a back-page sentence or two in the "it bleeds, it leads media" that voters back home call news.
In this vein, entrepreneurs exist in a wide host of non-profit and governmental institutions. Gary McDougal, former Partner at McKinsey and Company, who later in his life re-engineered the broken Illinois welfare system and made it a model nation-wide. Certainly an entrepreneur.
Whatever you think about his politics, while governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney's re-structuring of the state's health care system, absolutely required a "think outside the box" entrepreneurial approach. Gail McGovern as President of the American The Red Cross, working to expand the branding of the organization beyond disaster relief, works entrepreneurially everyday to effect this transformation.
Global Entrepreneurs. Now more than ever ambitious individuals worldwide strive to not just be entrepreneurs per the American way, but to take the best of what we do and how we think and add to it and candidly, then to crush us. And I say more power to them.
Because entrepreneurship as its essence is about creation, and the success of one entrepreneur ANYWHERE results in a better life for everyone EVERYWHERE.