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.”

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The Long War: Changing Ownership, Management Incentives & Reporting Practices

Ian Cassel, founder of MicroCapClub.com, made a comment on Twitter today which grabbed my attention:

If a company is over $25m market cap they should have to have earnings conference calls w/ Q/A. Coalition Against Private Public Companies.

Shortly thereafter, he was asked by Jeff Moore of the Ragnar Is A Pirate blog:

How about if they have more than 100 shareholders?

To which Ian replied:

yes another good idea

At this point, I asked:

so you guys are for imprisoning and fining people because they won’t give you info you want?

Ian considered it and responded:

do I think every public company should, Yes. Force probably not, but cld be part of a tiered listing standard

I think this whole idea is worth a comment so I’m now going to give it one.

The first angle with which to approach Ian’s compulsory conference call proposal is the moral one and concerns the question, “Should managers of public companies, whatever their size, be compelled by force of law (ie, threat of fines or imprisonment for non-compliance) to provide the investing public conference calls regarding their earnings releases?”

The answer to such a question would hinge on whether or not, by refusing to hold such calls, these managers were committing an act of violent aggression against the investing public, such as theft, assault or fraud. If refusing to hold an earnings call is an act of theft, assault or fraud, clearly there is justification for compelling such behavior in order to remedy this affront to the rights of the individual members of the public and the answer would be “Yes”; similarly, if refusing to hold an earnings call does not represent the initiation of the use of force against members of the public, the answer to this question is clearly “No”.

I don’t want to waste anyone’s time going into a lengthy exploration of the facts on hand. I think it’s obvious that refusing to hold an earnings call is not an act of aggressive force and I don’t think Ian provided or attempted to provide any evidence that it was. In fact, he suggested this was not an issue to be handled by the law at all. I elaborated as much as I did, anyway, because there may be people reading this who did not understand the issue in this way and may have been confused prior to reading it. For their benefit, I state plainly now, the answer to the question is “NO”.

The second angle of approach is institutional. As Ian suggested in his final comment, the solution to this perceived problem could be handled at an institutional level (in this case, the voluntarily adopted rules and internal regulations of the listing exchanges) by adopting Ian’s preference for mandatory earnings calls at a certain market cap threshold as an observed “best practice” or condition of doing business on the exchange. If a company doesn’t want to follow it, they have the option of not being listed on the exchange observing such a rule. From a moral standpoint, there is no issue as there is no coercion, and compared to the alternative of creating a top-down, one-size-fits-all-companies-and-exchanges external regulation backed by force of law by government, this solution is indeed preferable because it at least allows for the possibility that some companies would not follow this practice and would find other avenues for listing their shares and allowing for equity exchange.

This leads to the third angle which, for lack of a better term, I’ll simply refer to as the “practical” considerations, of which there are several. For starters, I wonder if this is really an issue? In Ian Cassel’s (and Jeff Moore’s, perhaps?) world, it certainly seems to be. Ian Cassel’s world would be a happier place if all the public companies whose market caps were $25M or greater provided the public (of which he is a member and would stand to benefit) an earnings call upon release of each earnings statement. But embedded in such a proposal seems to be the belief that the world should reflect Ian Cassel’s preferences, and everyone else should bear the cost and expense of preparing and providing this information to Ian Cassel (and others of like mind).

Is this reasonable? If having better earnings communications from small companies is important to Ian, and if dialoging with management is a valuable commodity, Ian already has a course of action available to him to pursue such goals: he can make his own independent effort to email, write, call or visit in person the management of these companies and create a relationship whereby they would provide him answers to some of the questions he has in mind; or, he could acquire a sufficient number of shares of the company such that he is the owner of the company and the management is now fully responsible to him and he can have any and all information about the company that he pleases.

Neither of these actions require anyone being compelled to change their current practices. Both require nothing more than the expenditure of Ian’s own effort, time and wealth. If certain companies prefer not to establish such relationships or provide such information to people like Ian, Ian always has the option of walking away from them. And if he doesn’t have the financial resources to acquire such an ownership stake so as to make them more responsive to his inquiries, that would be a problem for him to solve by finding ways to produce more wealth for himself he could exchange with others for the privilege – it is not the responsibility of the company, its shareholders or anyone else.

Another practical consideration is the arbitrariness of the threshold for compliance. There’s nothing magic about a $25M market cap (nor a 100+ member shareholder base). The first number seems to be an attempt at defining “resourcefulness”, implying that a company with a certain sized market cap “should be able to afford” such accommodations. But market caps are not determined by managements and company resources, they are determined by the passions and dispositions of the investing public. It’s entirely conceivable that a company of truly inadequate resources (say, a book value of $50,000, just to harshly illustrate the point) could be bid up to a market cap of $25M in some bizarre turn of events. The fact that it has been so valued doesn’t make it more able to provide additional clarity about its business– and even if it did, it still doesn’t have an obligation to provide anyone anything like this. The shareholder base threshold is simple populism and the democratic principle– 99 of the shareholders could own one share at a penny a piece, with the remaining shareholder holding substantial control of the rest of the shares, making them truly insignificant in the ownership structure. But by creating arbitrary rules like this these individuals would create for the company sudden obligations simply by their existence.

Another practical concern is why a person, operating in the microcap space where an edge is often gained specifically because of the lack of consistent, clear information about these companies, would want to see measures taken which would serve to increase the “efficiency” of the market and thereby eliminate a lot of these mispricings and the opportunity to cheaply invest along with them. Sure, once you’ve put your money in you might have a self-interested reason to see everyone else suddenly figure out what a great company you’ve invested in because they have these wonderfully translucent earnings calls, but before that point you’d want to see opacity. Such a rule (compulsory earnings calls) would work to eliminate those opportunities before one could make their initial investment, not just after. As microcap investors, what we’re getting “paid to do”, essentially, is to find these opaque opportunities, get in there, agitate for change company-by-company and work to clear the dirt and smudges off the glass, so to speak. We want that to happen AFTER we get involved and BECAUSE we got involved, not before and regardless.

My final issue is with the cutely-named imaginary organization “Coalition Against Private Public Companies”. The implication is that public companies run like private companies constitute some kind of social ill. But if we look at the facts, it is often the owner-operator/private companies of the world which are most efficiently managed and whose business is best looked after compared to the alternative of entrenched, professional managers and disconnected, alienated and disinterested public shareholders (see this outstanding research piece by Murray Stahl [PDF] for a convincing argument, for instance). Indeed, it is often the public companies which are most dysfunctional– how is it preferable to have a management team obsessed with short-term earnings results, attempts to influence and gain the approval of Wall Street analysts, etc.? It’s perhaps syntactically confusing but what is really worth rebelling against is public private companies, not private public companies.

A public private is a company that SHOULD be private, but is in fact publicly traded and as a result the minority partners in the business, that is, the various outsider shareholders from the investing public, are treated like nuisances or smurfs whose capital is to be dissipated at the insider owners’ discretion. Such managers have no incentive to responsibly steward the outside shareholders’ capital because it doesn’t belong to the insiders and the outsiders are, in most cases, afforded an ambiguous and difficult, if not impossible, legal process to attempt to assert their equal status as capital owners. The most benefit they can receive from the capital is to issue some of it to themselves as generous salary or bonus payments, to use it as a tool for conducting ego-gratifying acquisition strategies or by sitting on it as a kind of future retirement/pension package to ensure they can care for themselves even in old age by remitting it to themselves as needed.

A private public company, on the other hand, is a company whose capital ownership is diversified and constituted by numerous members of the investing public, but which is managed and operated with the efficiency, passion, dedication and noble conservatism such as one would expect from a competent family dynasty or other limited, owner-operator control group or person. This is a company that treats capital as a precious commodity and always seeks to maximize the returns on its use which all members of the investing public so involved stand to benefit because they are treated as equals even though they have minority status. The fact that this company is publicly traded does not influence the decisions of the management and serves only to benefit all shareholders in the instances in which the management can buy back undervalued shares or issue significantly overvalued shares to raise cheap capital.

Truly, there are very few enterprises on all of planet earth that really provide their owners (shareholders) with outstanding additional benefits by virtue of their being publicly owned and exchanged. The more I think about the issue, the more I wonder why most public companies are public in the first place. Almost every IPO seems to represent an opportunity to cash in on delusional hopes and ignorant dreams rather than a genuine opportunity to “share the wealth” in exchange for some long-term capital necessary to fund profitable growth.

If I were to join a group agitating for change, I’d like to imagine it’d be called the “Coalition To Privatize Public Companies.” But honestly, I have no use for imagination, nor for agitation. I don’t seek to have others bear my cross, even as a joke or a day-dream. No, this is in fact a principle (one of several) of my efforts as a private, individual investor in the public market place and I intend to pursue it throughout my career.

It’s part of my long war.

How Businesses Grow: “The LEGO Story”

I found this video on the Laissez-Faire Books blog after Jeff Tucker posted it recently.

It’s an entertaining and educational video that provides anecdotes about how and why small businesses grow. In the case of LEGO, because they had to– the owner-operator of the company had no golden parachute to fall back on if he failed. This kept him thinking creatively about how to solve the many challenges he and his business faced. It was “find a way” or else he and his children would starve.

It’s a story of entrepreneurialism, the essence of which is experimentation, vision and constant change.

As you watch the video, it’s hard to imagine a story like this being told about anything other than an initially small, local, privately-owned business. It perfectly captures the idea of the “benevolent dictatorship” style of business and capital management. We also get a look at the innovative process that leads to the creation of a whole new industry (or sub-industry, much like the iPhone was an emergent sub-industry within the industry of smartphones).