Herodotus, Investor

It’s been a bit slow on the blogging front, but after a bit of a hiatus, I’m back. 

As you know, I’d been wandering around Silicon Valley for the past few months, meeting with people and learning about what they spend their days doing and whether I might want to do the voodoo they do.  But, of course, TS Eliot had it right when he said, “we shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  And, indeed, in a sense, I’ve come full circle as I’ve joined Venture Investment Associates where I’ll be able to pursue my passion for investing in buyout, growth equity, and venture capital funds with folks who have been friends and mentors during the decade I've known them.

Of course, those of you who know VIA might cry out, “but you share a common Greek heritage with two of your partners and whenever the three of you meet, the European Central Bank will have to call an emergency meeting, as the prospect of three people of Greek lineage talking about investing will certainly unsettle financial markets!”  And, yes, I should probably apologize for the havoc that my people have wreaked.  But I actually prefer to brandish my heritage in another way. 

After all, our countryman, Herodotus, is viewed as “the father of history.”  Now, maybe it’s because I’m trying to justify my dusty history degree by saying that the subject is a great metaphor for investing, with it's emphasis on continuity and change.  After all, both history and private equity are concerned with catalysts and their effect on the status quo; at the same time, the whole process of forming investment hypotheses and testing them sounds like a Hegelian dialectic. 

And it was Herodotus who really taught us how to do history.  After all, the word history comes from the greek word historía (ἱστορία), which means “inquiry.”  And what’s really interesting is that ἱστορία in its original connotation suggested inquiry that arises from wandering around and listening while conversing with people.  Herodotus traversed the world and absorbed the stories of the locals in search of understanding.

His lessons echo in the craft of the private equity investor 2500 years later, as we travel the world, visit portfolio companies, do reference calls, and attempt to divine the motivations of our General Partners.  In moving to Silicon Valley almost four years ago, I sought to live among the people the way Herodotus did as he wandered the ancient world.  

But why is such inquiry important?  Inertia makes it easy for some to continue in tried-and-true ways, but good investors constantly cast a skeptical eye, making each new commitment as a "fresh money buy".  Indeed, Herodotus himself reminds us: "For many that were once great have become small, and those that were great in my time were small formerly. Knowing, therefore, that human prosperity never remains the same, I will investigate both alike."  

Of course, Herodotus's investigations took place during a time of great progress and burgeoning affluence for the ancient Greeks.  As the Persian Wars about which he wrote receded into memory, the Hellenes experienced a flowering of knowledge and an explosion of wealth.  And while it may seem rash to compare our era to one of the most fecund in human history, today we are enjoying similarly profound advances in the frontiers of human understanding.  Technology-enabled advances are spreading quickly across an ever-more tightly connected world portending fresh prosperity.  

And I think that's why it's a particularly exciting time to be an investor: skilled practitioners should be able to catalyze value in companies that leverage such advances.  I believe that we'll look back on this period as a golden era of investment opportunity and that's why I'm so excited about spending the rest of my career with seasoned, savvy partners whose commitment to inquiry, to ἱστορία, matches my own.

For my friend Bill . . .

My friend Bill Dietrich passed away the other day and I've been broken up ever since I heard . . . 

There's so much to say right now, but I can't quite find the words — other than to say that my life was richer for knowing him and I was always honored and humbled to be among his friends.  If you'll bear with me and read the story below, I'd be much obliged.  

I first met Bill at the Garden Court in Palo Alto in late 2001 or early 2002.  There was a riot of people over in a corner and I was drawn over by the sheer magnetism of the moment.  I don't remember exactly what everyone was talking about — it was probably some bellyaching about the then-current malaise in the business — but I remember there was this guy at the center of the clutch with a knowing smile and a sparkling eye who sported a bowtie and glasses and whenever he spoke, everyone grew quiet.  I leaned over to my buddy Du Chai and said, "who is that guy?" and he just whispered back reverently: "Dietrich."  To this day, I haven't forgotten the instant and powerful sense of recognition.  I'd never met Bill prior to that moment, but I knew him straightaway: he was a character from a Fitzgerald novel . . . not one of those main characters, flawed, vain, and imperfect, pinballing through the world.  Instead, Dietrich was someone that people talked about through the warm gauze of memories: a man of generous spirit and quick wit, a man who saw others for what they were and loved them for what they were.  A man who sheepishly and gracefully accepted their love in return:

"Do you remember that party at Deitrich's all those years ago?" Tom Buchanan asked Daisy across the vast expanse that separated them, even thought they sat but a few feet apart.  "Yes, Tom," she sighed.  A moment passed.  Then another.  And a wispy smile came across her drawn lips:  "The stars that night hung so low," she remembered, "I thought I could stretch up on my tip-toes and touch them.  And the people . . . the people.  Absolutely everyone was there and they moved so impatiently just to see all the other people who were there.  It was like watching a waltz in old Vienna-town.  And Dietrich!  Oh, dear old Dietrich!  I don't think he moved a step that night.  The party seemed to rotate around him like the planets around the sun."  Tom gazed over at Daisy and felt some of the old, forgotten feelings swelling in him again.  "That Dietrich!" he chuckled as he reached for his Gin Rickey, "Always so quick and witty . . . and, boy, did the ladies ever love him!  You should've seen him at the mixers; no girl from Bryn Mawr or Sarah Lawrence could resist his charms."  Daisy laughed now, that sweet exciting laugh that intoxicated men and infuriated women.  "Oh, Tom, let's go to Pittsburgh!  Let's go right now, this very minute!  Let's go see Dietrich and it'll be just like old times again!"  "Yes, Daisy, let's!" Tom replied, as the old excitement animated his legs and his heart and he sprang to his feet crying out to the thin wafer of a moon that winked down at them "To Dietrich's!"

Dispatches from the Disruption, Part 2

Here's the second half of last week's post:

Now, let's get back to one of my favorite topics: disregard for convention.  A wise man once told me that most investors follow a set of rules that typically make them middle-of-road, B-level investors, but in breaking their rules they can become either  A-level investors (rarely), or (more frequently) C-minus investors.  And indeed, I've always been a bit insouciantly petulant about rules, but as far as guidelines go, but I've got to give James Montier from GMO a tip of the cap for The Seven Immutable Rules of Investing:

1. Always insist on a margin of safety

2. This time is never different

3. Be patient and wait for the fat pitch

4. Be contrarian

5. Risk is the permanent loss of capital, never a number

6. Be leery of leverage

7. Never invest in something you don't understand

And, generally, those are pretty darn good rules.  The value investor in me swoons.  But the Californian in me wonders if these rules are little more than a wind-break against the perennial gales of creative destruction?  In this zip code, after all, those rules are more honored in the breach than in the observance.   And surely, if investors had followed those rules exclusively all along, we'd still be communicating via horse-mounted couriers as we farmed the Appalachian Watershed with oxen, oppressed by the inexorable tyranny of the seasons and the immutable fright of nightfall.  Instead, we live, work, and play in ways that are scarcely recognizable to our parents and would've been unimaginable to our forebears.  Much of that progress was financed by the investors who broke their rules; some made mints while most didn't.

Now, I don't mean to critique value-oriented investing, as assets need an anchor around which to contextualize their valuation.  But if the last century, with its optimists triumphant, suggested anything to us, maybe it's that the value of businesses isn't really the discounted value of their dividends?  Perhaps businesses are better thought of as portfolios of options, some of which are very long-dated and way out-of-the-money.  And maybe the central wonder of the American economy, with California as its exemplar, is that it offers the best framework for capturing the random forward lurch of progress?  After all, the US economy, more so than that of any other nation, seems geared around exercising profitable options while letting unprofitable ones expire, often (and hopefully) cheaply.  This asymmetry is getting even more acute as value chains continue to fragment and the cost of hatching and nurturing an idea continues to drop.  The resulting left- and right-tail opportunities may be hard to differentiate from each other, but those who are unafraid of being wrong and alone will give themselves the electric opportunity of being right and alone. 

I love working on a street thick with start-ups and it's been fun to watch these companies strive and stumble and pivot and grow.  I love visiting them when engineers are piled up on top of each other in a too-cramped space; its a visceral and sensory experience when a startup finds its cadence.  The old east coast value investor in me wonders aloud, "who would invest in this stuff?  It's bananas!  These guys are violating at least four of The Seven Rules!" 

But the west coast Chris hears an echo of Steinbeck's description of Cannery Row: "[Silicon Valley] in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream."

Dispatches from the Disruption, Part 1

[Apologies for the self-indulgent post, back to investment soapboxing next time!]

Three years ago, I moved to California to open a new office in Palo Alto for my firm.  (You'll notice I never name my outfit in the blog; that's not because I'm trying to be coy or an attention-hog.  Rather, I've always tried to keep the blog "personal" so as not to run afoul of some regulatory trap for the unwary and embroil my employer in undeserved controversy.)

Anyhow, I'd already been spending 80 days a year on the west coast, meeting with entrepreneurs and investment managers, so it just made sense to make the leap.  When a then-six year-old Miss LP started matter-of-factly calling me "Weekend Dad," I knew it was time to gather up the brood and light out for the territories to follow in the footsteps of pioneers, gold rushers, dust bowlers, and dot com-mers.  At the time, I told our CEO that when our lease was up in three years time, either we'd need a lot more space because we'd been able to plant a potent seed in a fertile landscape, or we'd need no space at all, because the experiment hadn't succeeded.

Turns out that the truth lies somewhere in between, boring as that sounds. California may forever be a sunny and ample land, but for a dynamic investment firm with a global, multi-asset class perspective, other coasts and climes beckon and geographic footprints need to be reassessed from time to time.  And in our reassessment as the lease-end approached, we decided to close the office . . . and I decided to stay out here and, sadly, part ways with my firm in doing so.

And here’s another boredom-inducing tidbit: there's no drama or backstory to tell.  My firm tried to lure me back East; I thought about it, talked to the family, gazed for a while at a nearby grove of redwoods imperial — as a son of Whitman's Brooklyn, I'm endlessly captivated by the stalwart trees of the West — and politely declined.

I've had a blast working for my company; they're good people pursuing an important mission.  It's been a great seven years, but the allure of California is just too strong; I've been mesmerized by this magical place, and I don't think I'll ever leave.

CD @ HMB I don't really know what did it: the weather is the easy throw-away answer, but maybe I've been beguiled by the succession of start-ups that I've hosted here in the office?  Or it could be the open architecture of relationships out here.  People seem to network for sport, and, if you're at all credible, you're a phone call or two away from anyone.  Perhaps I've been enchanted by my neighbor who walks his home-built robot each morning, or that Miss LP asked me to clean out the garage because she wants to invent something in there?  But, ultimately, it's the energy and intensity of the people here.  Everyone seems to be Working on Something Disruptive.  And it's not just the entrepreneurs, it's the investors, too.  There's a disregard for convention that seems to define the Very Idea of California; we're not only struggling over the size of the slices of the pie, but we're also trying to figure out how to make the pie bigger.  Hector St John de Crevecoeur could've scarcely imagined California when he wrote Letters from an American Farmer in 1782, but his words seem to presage all the Golden State would offer: "Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.  Americans are the western pilgrims."

The inquiring reader asks: "what's next?"  Here's the best answer your humble narrator can offer: I'm not sure yet.  I've got a bunch of plates spinning, some of which could be really interesting, and I'm spending time with as many smart people from as many different walks of life as I can get plugged into.  The blank sheet of paper beckons and Walt Whitman's words echo: "I, now thirty-[nine] years old in perfect health begin / Hoping to cease not till death."