Review – Losing My Virginity

Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way

by Richard Branson, published 2011

Spoiler alert– this book is choppy and inconsistent in the pacing and entertainment factor of its narrative. You really need to read between the lines a bit to get the most value out of it. That being said, it’s surprisingly literary for a dyslexic former publisher of a student magazine and I found Branson’s repeated reference to his high-altitude balloon voyage trials to be an outstanding metaphor for his life as a businessman and entrepreneur.

You see, in Branson’s ballon journeys, the key factors of any consistency were that: a.) Branson was knowingly and openly taking what he perceived to be a potentially life-threatening risk b.) Branson was almost always underprepared for it, or decided to go ahead with his attempt despite early warnings that something was amiss and c.) nonetheless, he somehow managed to survive one disaster after another, only to try something bigger and bolder the next time around.

And this is quite similar to the way he comported himself as an entrepreneur on so many occasions. Again and again, he’d make a daring foray into a business, market or industry he didn’t quite understand, the company would stumble after an early success leaving them all on the brink of failure and yet, each time they’d double down and somehow win.

In that sense, Branson is a perfect example of survivorship bias. On the other hand, having so many narrow misses that turn into massive accelerators of a person’s fortune start to make you wonder if isn’t mostly luck but rather mostly skill.

As an entrepreneurial profile, “Losing My Virginity” is full of all kinds of great successes and astounding failures. With regards to the failures, something I found of particular interest was the fact that Branson’s company were victims of some of the most common pitfalls of other businesses throughout its early history: taken for a ride by indomitable Japanese owners/partnerships in the 80s, repeated victim of the LBO-boom and the private/public buyout-cycle in the 80s and 90s. When you read these stories in the financial press it always seems to happen to the rubes of the business world, but Branson’s foibles help one to realize even rather sophisticated types can get taken in now and then.

The volatility in Branson’s fortunes do leave one with a major question though, namely, why did Branson’s company ultimately survive?

This isn’t a Harvard Business School case study so I don’t mean to pass this off as a qualified, intelligent answer to that question, but I will attempt a few observations and, in typical HBS fashion, some or all of them may be contradictory of one another and none will be provided with the precise proportional contribution they made to the end result:

  • the group had a cultural commitment to change and dynamism; they were not so much their businesses, but a culture and group of people who did business a particular way, a true brand-over-merchandise, which allowed them to reinvent themselves numerous times
  • the group strategically focused on being the low-cost provider in their industry, usually while simultaneously attempting to pursue the seemingly mutually exclusive goal as being seen as the highest quality offering as well
  • the group focused on serving customers but equally saw treating its employees with concern as an important value
  • the group consciously created a brand that could be applied to diverse businesses (see point #1)
  • the group pursued businesses that seemed “interesting” or sensually appealing to it, which ensured that everyone involved was motivated to do well because they liked the work they had chosen

Another thing I noticed about Branson and the development of his company was the attention he paid to the composition of management and owners and his dedication to weeding out those who were not good fits in a charitable way. Channeling the “best owner” principle, Branson made a conscious effort to buy out early partners whose vision and tastes did not match the current or future vision of the group. In this way, the company maintained top-level focus and concentration on a shared strategic vision at all times, sparing itself the expense and distraction of infighting and wrangling over where to go next and why.

Another aspect of the company’s resilience had to do with its operational structure. Branson built a decentralized company whose debts and obligations were kept separate. In an environment where new ventures were constantly subject to total failure, this arrangement ensured that no one business failure would bring the entire group down.

The final lessons of the Branson bio were most instructive and had to do with the nature and value of forecasting.

The first lesson in forecasting has to do with the forecasts others make of us, or the world around us. For example, Richard Branson had no formal business training, he grew up with learning disabilities (dyslexia) and he was told very early on in his life by teachers and other adult and authority figures in his life that he’d amount to nothing and his juvenile delinquency would land him in prison. Somehow this worthless person contributed a great deal to society, through business and charity, and by most reasonable measures could be considered a success, making this forecast a failure. If one had taken a snapshot of the great Warren Buffett at a particular time in his adolescence, when the young boy was known to often take a “five-finger discount” from local department stores, it might have been easy to come up with a similar forecast about him.

I’m not sure how to succinctly sum up the concept there other than to say, “Things change.” Most forecasts that involve extrapolating the current trend unendingly out into the future will probably fail for this reason.

The second lesson in forecasting has to do with how we might attempt to forecast and plan our own lives. When we have 50, 60, 70 or more years of a person’s life to reflect on, it is easy to employ the hindsight bias and see how all the facts of a person’s life were connected and led them inexorably to the success (or infamy) they ultimately achieved. And certainly there are some people, again using Buffett as an example, who from an early age were driven to become a certain something or someone and so their ability to “predict their future selves” seemed quite strong.

But the reality is that for the great many of us, the well-known and the common alike, we really don’t have much of a clue of who we are and what we’ll ultimately become. The future is uncertain and, after all, that’s the great puzzle of life that we all spend our lives trying to unravel. Richard Branson was no different. He was not born a billionaire, in a financial, intellectual, personal or other sense. He had to learn how to be a businessman and how to create a billion dollar organization from scratch. Most of the time, he didn’t even know he was doing it. In other words, HE DID NOT KNOW AHEAD OF TIME that he would become fabulously wealthy, and while he was hard-working and driven, it doesn’t even appear he purposefully intended to become so.

Maybe we should all take a page from Branson’s book and spend less time trying to figure out what’s going to happen and more time just… happening. We could sit around all day trying to figure life out, or we could follow the Branson philosophy where he says, “As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.”

Review – Free Capital

Free Capital: How 12 Private Investors Made Millions In The Stock Market

by Guy Thomas, published 2011

A methodical review of investors and their strategies

The greatest strength of “Free Capital” is its organization and layout– it’s truly like visiting an expertly-designed website in that the author has organized his investor interviews by four major descriptive categories:

  • geographers; top-down investors who begin with a macro thesis then look for companies and financial instruments which will benefit from that trend
  • surveyors; bottoms-up investors who start looking at individual companies and then sometimes check to see what kind of macro conditions might affect them
  • activists; investors who tend to get personally involved with their investments, taking large stakes and developing a close relationship with management
  • eclectics; people who don’t really fit any mold, but might be day-traders, value investors, sometimes activists, etc.

Within each categorical section are profiles of 12 (in total) investors that Guy Thomas spoke with, many of whom are anonymous, most of whom he came into contact with via investor message boards he participates on, and all of whom are UK-based and have managed to grow their capital into millions even over the last decade or less.

Though many were once employed by others and some came from financial backgrounds, all are now independent, full-time investors who live off of their investment returns and it is this kind of self-directed lifestyle and the resources which are needed to finance it that primarily lend themselves to the book’s title.

What’s really great is that in each chapter, Guy Thomas begins with a quick “tearsheet” profile of the investor’s strategy, key phrases, holding period, etc., then neatly organizes the interview material into background on the investor’s life and development as a financial person, outlines their strategy, experiences and any particularly demonstrative coups or failures they’ve enjoyed (or suffered) and finally and extremely helpfully, summarizes all the material again in a table at the end with the major themes or ideas explored for quick reference.

As if this weren’t enough, Guy Thomas has written a lengthy (and for once, interesting) introduction to the book that serves as a combination summary of the main themes of the book as well as a how-to manual for those looking to get the most out of their reading. Thomas is correct in suggesting that the book can be read all the way through as a complete work, or explored at random based on what, if anything, sounds interesting to the reader.

It’s touches like this that show a thoughtfulness on the part of the author that leave the reader painfully aware of their absence in comparison to many other books in the genre. Frankly, it’d be nice if authors and publishers took Thomas’s lead on this point!

My favorite part: inspiration

I was excited to dig into the book in part because a friend had mentioned it to me and had commented favorably on it. He said a lot of the material covered wouldn’t be original but that I might find it inspirational to read other people’s stories of how they got where they are.

Maybe it’s where I am in my life right now, maybe it’s the subtle suggestion my friend made planted in my mind, or maybe it’s the shining spot for the book but the inspiration was one of the most important things I took away from the book. Some of the profiles were admittedly unhelpful (such as the day-trader, an investment style I can’t see any point in) or just not interesting to me (a few of the investors followed research processes I don’t have the time or motivation to emulate), but there were a couple I identified with, which made me feel empowered and hopeful about myself as I read them.

I particularly liked the two named investors, John Lee (who is a dividend-oriented value investor of sorts) and Peter Gyllenhammar (who bankrupted himself twice before hitting his stride and amassing his current fortune). I believe all of the investors lives and experiences illustrated this point well, but these two in particular were examples of the phrase “Patience is a virtue.” If a man can dust himself off after two bankruptcies and still make something of himself he can probably do just about anything given the time and the patience. Seeing as how I haven’t suffered personal bankruptcy (yet) I felt greatly advantaged to learn from this example of perseverance and triumph over failure.

Wise aphorisms

Another theme oft explored in “Free Capital” is the role simplicity plays in good investing. To that effect, I found a lot of great investing ideas captured in brief, simple aphorisms that made them both easily digestible and sufficiently memorable to make use of them myself in my own deliberations. Some examples include:

  • Good investing “requires only a few good decisions” (a helpful reminder given the way many seem to imply that a true investor is marked by the numerousness and hyperactivity of his ideas)
  • An activist is an investor who goes looking for trouble
  • “Quiet freedom is itself exotic” (in this way, independent investors lead quite adventuresome and even exciting lives!)
  • Exposure to some chances can only arise through deliberate and possibly unpopular and eccentric choices
  • Investment skill consists in not knowing everything, but in judicious neglect: making wise choices about what to overlook
  • Freedom is like income that cannot be taxed
  • To make good decisions, you need to look actively for reasons not to buy a company. And then invest only in those where you can live with the reasons
  • Time is a limited resource with strongly diminishing returns. The first hour you spend researching a company is much more important than the tenth hour
  • If an investment decision requires detailed calculations, you should pass, because it’s probably too close
  • The sun shines even on the poor man

Also of note is the author’s book-companion blog, which goes into a bit more detail on some of the investment themes captured in the book and which I’ve found to be a good supplement to the reading seeing that I was still interested to learn more even after I put it down.

Conclusion

“Free Capital” is a unique offering. It has a styling and organization that many books in its genre lack and I hope this effort is continued in any future titles from the author. And it treads original ground in profiling anonymous, “everyman” successful investors that no one has heard of yet who have interesting stories, experiences and lessons to share all their own. We can all learn from more than just Warren Buffett, after all.

It’s not without its flaws, of course. As the author himself states, the book doesn’t cover losing investors, people who took some of the risks investors profiled took, and failed, or who took other risks that didn’t turn out right, and then explores what lessons can be learned from their shortcomings. This probably could be a worthwhile book in itself, as there is a growing literature on “failure studies” and as the first lesson every investor must learn is “don’t lose what you’ve got”, learning of common mistakes to avoid could be helpful. Additionally, as an avid deep value (Benjamin Graham) guy myself, I could’ve done without the day trader and some of the other guys who seem like GARPy, momentum-based swing traders with short time horizons and questionable “value” metrics.

But those are minor quibbles and things that Guy Thomas could easily rectify by simply writing us more great books to read! Overall, “Free Capital” was entertaining, at times enlightening and best of all, extremely gracious with my free time as I read the entire thing in just three or four hours. Given the focus on the value of time in the book, I appreciated the fact that I could digest the meat of the book and walk away with some great insights to help my own investing… and still have time left in the day to get other things done!

Quotes – Living A Purposeful Life

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

~Viktor Frankl

The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not working on hard enough problems. And that’s a big mistake.

~Frank Wilczek

Review – What Makes Sammy Run?

What Makes Sammy Run?

by Budd Schulberg, published 1941

What Makes Sammy Run? (WMSR) is a work of fiction and judging by the title, you’d think the book is about Sammy Glick, the eponymous antagonist. Certainly that is what many reviewers, readers and critics seem to focus on. But WMSR isn’t about Sammy– it’s about the people around him, who tolerate and even tacitly support him, who enable his antics in various ways and thereby lower themselves in the process. WMSR isn’t a study in lite social tyranny, as some think, but rather it is a study in the Stockholm Syndrome. The real villain in this novel is the narrator, the despicable Al Manheim.

It’s easy to be fooled. Sammy isn’t a “nice person” and he clearly isn’t a “happy person.” He’s a wildly imbalanced person with a humongous ambition and not much else of note. He isn’t necessarily handsome or well-spoken. He isn’t an intellectual. He certainly doesn’t have any charm, or empathy for others. It’s easy to dislike him and it’s easy to watch him tread over other people on his way up and make the mistake of thinking he’s the bad guy.

But the question we must always ask ourselves in a tale of moral depravity is, “Where’s the hero, and what is he up to?” Who is keeping this guy in check? Who is going to stop him. In WMSR, the answer is “There isn’t one.” So the people who bear the responsibility for Sammy’s reign are all those who could be the hero and stop him, but don’t, or worse, those who claim to find him distasteful but end up worshipping him.

The best example of worshipping the supposed bad guy in the book is the way Al Manheim falls in love with Kit, a woman who admits to a one-time sexual relationship with Sammy Glick because of her burning curiosity to know what it’d be like to have all of his ambition and energy inside of her. She’s supposed to be the strong, principled and competent femme of the novel yet she couldn’t resist her own base sexual craving for a man she knew was no good. And rather than keep her at arm’s distance, Manheim becomes a soppy wet romantic for her. This is what you call “selling out.”

Sammy’s rise to the top in Hollywood despite having no talent, no money, no experience and no real value to anyone for anything is supposed to serve as a condemnation of the industry and maybe tangentially of the voluntary, for-profit capitalist economy itself. We’re supposed to read WMSR and look around us at all the entitled pricks like him who are our bosses, our owners or are actively in the process of clawing their way to such heights and smirk or despise them. “You’re just another Sammy Glick!” But why then do people secretly admire and envy them and their achievement-less achievement?

The answer is that the Al Manheim’s of the world have no self-esteem. They don’t love themselves enough to say “This is wrong!” on the many occasions they have to say such things. They don’t admire themselves enough to ignore the nuisance Sammy’s, to resist their endless persistence, to insist in return that they go ply their filth somewhere, anywhere but here. Instead, they open the city gates, invite them in and grab them a footstool so they can be comfortable as they bark out their orders. Then, like Al, they drink or smoke or ingest their minds into oblivion when the pressure of thinking about what they’ve done gets too great.

In other words, they’re weak.

Sometimes, they’re so weak, like Al Manheim, that they become accomplices to the madness. Like Nick Carraway, they’re happy to stand silently on the sidelines and observe and oogle as long as they can have the feeling that they’re in on the big adventure, as horrible as they think it may be.

And like Jay Gatsby, the Sammy Glick’s all have a pitiable background. They come from a world without love and so they can’t imagine a world with it. They’re not human, choosing, conscious entities. That experience of life was stripped from them at birth when they entered their perceived loveless world. All they can do is march to their idiot tune and destroy a bit of the world along the way to their doom.

Only they wouldn’t get very far, if it weren’t for the Al Manheims and the Nick Carraways.

The answer to the question What Makes Sammy Run? is less interesting than you hope. It’s so simple, it’s almost stupid– he has no love. It’s also somewhat pathetic because it can’t be helped. Sammy is damaged goods and no amount of therapy or intervention can get him back. The great irony of the novel, of any Sammy Glick, is that someone, somewhere served as the Great Enabler by bringing them into the world and nurturing them long enough to develop their skewed sense of possibility. From there, they’re working on auto-pilot.

A far more interesting question is What Makes Al Go Along With It?, especially when He Says He Hates Him.

Or, something I was thinking about last week, What Makes Davey Crawl? “Davey” is a small business owner, responsible for a few dozen people, who has managed to slowly run into the ground over a period of decades what could be a valuable little enterprise. There are the Sammy’s out there, deterministically trying to skitter to the top without adding anything of value, and then there are the Davey’s just trying to hold on and desperately, desperately disinterested in doing any better.

Why? Why is Davey happy without his ambition (is he happy?) when Sammy is miserable (to himself and others) with his? Sammy wants to wrap his whole mouth around the hose so there isn’t any for anyone else, but Davey just doesn’t want to turn it on all the way when there could be plenty more.

The answer is probably similarly simple, stupid and hopeless to fix. We may just have to suffer these Sammys, these Daveys and these Als as best we can.

Review – The Art of Execution

The Art of Execution: How the world’s best investors get it wrong and still make millions

by Lee Freeman-Shor, published 2015

Note: I received a promotional copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for sharing my thoughts AFTER reading it.

Professor Failure

What can we learn from failure? Aside from the fact that there’s an entire industry of business literature fetishizing the idea that it has much to teach us (as a kind of doppelgänger to the decades of success literature that took a person or business’s success as given and tried to look backward for an unmistakeable pattern that could’ve predicted it) I’m personally skeptical of what failure might teach. Life is complex and there is often little to separate the failure and the success but timing and luck in certain endeavors.

So, I approached Freeman-Shors book with some trepidation as the subtitle of the book suggests this is a study of failure. Au contraire, what we have here is actually a psychological or behavioral study, somewhat in the vein of Benjamin “you are your own worst enemy in investing” Graham, which studies not failure per se, but rather how investors respond differently to failure and thereby either seal their fate or redeem themselves.

A Behavioral Typology

The book recounts the investment results of several different groups of portfolio managers who were categorized, ex post facto, into various groups based upon how they reacted to adverse market conditions for stocks they invested in. The Rabbits rode most of their failed investments down to near-zero before bailing out and taking the loss. The Assassins had a prescribed set of rules for terminating a losing position (either a % stop-loss, or a maximum time duration spent in the investment such as a year or a quarter). The Hunters kept powder dry and determined ahead of time to buy more shares on a pullback (ie, planned dollar-cost averaging).

While I am suspicious of backward-looking rule fitting, I do think the author’s logic makes sense. What it boils down to is having a plan ahead of time for how you’d react to failure. The Rabbits biggest mistake is they had none whatsoever, while the Assassins managed to protect themselves from total drawdowns but perhaps missed opportunities to profit on volatility rebounds. The author seems most impressed with the Hunters, who habitually started at a less than 100% commitment of funds to a planned position and then added to their investment at lower prices when the market gave them an opportunity to do so.

Freeman-Shor’s point is that when the price falls on your investment you need to decide that something material has changed in the story or facts and you sell, or else you need to be ready to buy more (because if it was a good buy at $10, it’s a great buy at $5, etc.) but you can not just hang tight. That isn’t an investment strategy. This is why I put this book in the Benjamin Graham fold, the message is all about being rational ahead of time about how you’d react to the volatility of the market which is for all intents and purposes a given of the investing landscape.

Learning From Success, Too

The author goes over a couple other behavioral typologies, Raiders and Connoisseurs. I won’t spoil the whole book, it suffices to say that this section is worth studying as well because it can be just as nerve-wracking to try to figure out whether to take some profit or let a winner ride when you have one. Freeman-Shor gives some more thoughts based on his empirical observations of other money managers who have worked for him on when it’s best to do one or the other.

More helpfully, he summarizes the book with a winner’s and loser’s checklist.

The Winner’s Checklist includes:

  1. Best ideas only
  2. Position size matters
  3. Be greedy when winning
  4. Materially adapt when losing
  5. Only invest in liquid stocks

The last bit is probably most vital for a fund manager with redeemable capital.

The Loser’s Checklist includes:

  1. Invest in lots of ideas
  2. Invest a small amount in each idea
  3. Take small profits
  4. Stay in an investment idea and refuse to adapt when wrong
  5. Do not consider liquidity

Free e-Book With Purchase!

It is hard for me to decide in my own mind if this book is a 3.5 or a 4 on a 5-point scale. I think of a 5 as a classic, to be read over and over again, gleaning something new each time. This would be a book like Security Analysis or The Intelligent Investor. A 4 is a good book with a lot of value and a high likelihood of being referenced in the future, but not something I expect to get a new appreciation for each and every time I read it. A 3 is a book that may have been enjoyable overall and provided some new ideas but was overall not as interesting or recommendable.

While I enjoyed this book and did gain some insight from it, and I think the editorial choices in the book were bold, it’s closer to a 3 in my mind than a 4 just in terms of the writing and the ideas. I’ve found a lot of the content in other venues and might’ve rated it higher on my epiphany scale if this was one of the first investment books I ever read. But something that really blew me away is that the publisher, Harriman House, seems to have figured out that people who buy paper books definitely appreciate having an e-Book copy for various reasons and decided to include a copy for free download (DRM-free!!) in the jacket of the book. This is huge. I read my copy on a recent cross-country flight and was really agonizing about which books from my reading stack wouldn’t make the trip for carry-on space reasons and then realized I could take this one with me on my iPad and preserve the space for something else. So in terms of value, this book is a 4.