Business Lessons from Alton Brown

I decided to write a blog post about Alton Brown (“AB”) not just because he is interesting, but because he is an entrepreneur who built a business without venture capital. AB has on several occasions talked about how he needed to get bank loans to grow his business. Since bank loans, together with personal savings, loans from friends/family and cash flow from operations are the way most entrepreneurs finance a business, his story is a great example for aspiring entrepreneurs to learn from. AB is also interesting in that he was forced to deal with gatekeepers (cable channels) to get distribution for the product his business creates since his career began before the rise of streaming. The YouTube option was not available to AB when he was trying to build his business.

AB is a story teller who taught himself to be an entrepreneur so he can tell his stories. AB’s back story can be told with a few quotes from him and two sentences from a Wikipedia entry:

alton brown

“I started off as a cameraman when I was still in college, and moved into shooting music videos in the ’80s, then became a full-time cinematographer and a director-cameraman for TV spots, which I did for about 10 years.”

“I shot commercials, many of which weren’t very good. I was unhappy and cooking made me feel better.”

“I remember I was watching food shows, and I was like, ‘God, these are boring. I’m not really learning anything.’ I got a recipe, OK, but I don’t know anything. I didn’t even learn a technique. To learn means to really understand. You never got those out of those shows. I remember writing down one day: ‘Julia Child / Mr. Wizard / Monty Python.’ That was the mission. I knew I had to quit my job and go to culinary school.”

“Two pilot episodes for Good Eats (“Steak Your Claim” and “This Spud’s For You”) aired on The Chicago PBS affiliate in 1998. The show was discovered by Food Network when an executive saw a clip of the show on the Kodak website.”

The usual quotes from the subject of this blog post (AB) are:

  1. “Because I was executive producer, writing the show, directing, all this stuff, I was so busy doing the work that I didn’t think about getting famous. There was no social media. So there was no feedback.” “When I did my first season of 13 episodes I didn’t know if people were even watching until we got renewed.” 

Feedback is fundamentally important in any healthy system, particularly if someone is trying to make it grow. What the internet and connected customers have done is enable businesses to create systems that harness feedback. These systems now overwhelmingly reside in the cloud and are more powerful interpreters of customer feedback than the world has ever seen before. The availability of cloud services enables businesses to create innovative products and services for a fraction of what it would have cost just ten years ago. By combining relatively inexpensive web services with modern data science it is now possible for businesses to run many thousands of experiments that utilize the scientific method. Most of these experiments will fail, but some will be spectacular successes. The people who can operate these cloud based systems (e.g., data scientists and artificial intelligence experts) have become the new high priests of the business world. The businesses that have the best systems which harness customer feedback and the most talented high priests are outperforming the business that don’t. It’s that simple. This phenomenon is just getting started and will become even more pronounced as the years pass.

When AB started making television, the primary feedback system was the Nielsen ratings. Businesses today like Netflix know vastly more about what their customer’s  consume than businesses that rely on Nielsen as their primary source of feedback. One implication of the increased value of data is that providers are increasingly going direct to customers and cutting out distributors. For example, you see businesses like Disney deciding that they must directly stream their own content in order to capture the customer data. As I said above, control of the customer usage data is increasingly what gives businesses a competitive advantage. If a distributor sits between the creator and the end customer that data often can’t be captured.

Social media is obviously a big source of customer feedback. AB has mastered the transition to the social media era as well as anyone. One of the more interesting questions about this new “connected customer” era is whether AB would have been able to sell his show to a network today. How effectively would AB have been able to compete in today’s business world if he was just now starting out? There are so many people trying to get traction on streaming network would he ever have been able to get traction? The number of cooking shows YouTube is astounding. That number isn’t 24.5 million, but it is a lot. Even my neighbor’s dog has a cooking show on YouTube.

Read the rest of the interesting article here

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How To Live off 35% of Your Income & Retire by 40

In the age of Silicon Valley, a lot of us dream of launching the next Warby Parker, Instagram, or Airbnb—a wildly successful business that will leave us financially set for life. But the game is kind of rigged. Research says that, on the whole, entrepreneurs aren’t the fearless, high-achieving heroes we imagine them to be. They’re just rich kids—people with inherited wealth and safety nets who can afford to take risks that would bankrupt the rest of us. A 1998 paper published in the Journal of Labor Economics concluded, “individuals who have received inheritances or gifts are more likely to run their own businesses.” And economist Ross Levine told Quartz last year that the chances of becoming an entrepreneur “drop quite a bit” when your family isn’t loaded.

But those of us born without trust funds need not cry into our IPAs. What if, instead of going into business to get rich, you got rich so you could go into business? Take Peter Adeney, better known as the blogger Mr. Money Mustache. Adeney initially won Internet fame because he “retired” at age 30. Working as software engineers, he and his wife, Simi, saved and invested their income until they’d amassed a nest egg of about $700,000. At that size, their small fortune could generate returns substantial enough to live on. So Adeney quit his job and set about doing, well, whatever the hell he wants. He’s since become the face of the early retirement movement—sometimes referred to as FIRE, for Financially Independent Retired Early—and inspired thousands of people to follow in his footsteps.

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I’m one of them. For the last five years, my husband and I have been using Adeney’s basic blueprint so that we can retire decades early, too. And we’re in good company. Mr. Money Mustache now racks up around 750,000 unique visitors and about seven million page views a month. Like Adeney, I don’t conceive of retirement as endless leisure. Forty years of golf and reruns would turn my brain into applesauce. To my mind, the most interesting thing about Adeney—and his relevance for would-be entrepreneurs—isn’t that he retired so young. It’s what he’s done with his retirement. Namely, as he explains on his blog, “the Mrs. and I started a cozy new two-person company that does whatever we want it to do.” So far, that’s included carpentry projects, building and selling a house or two, and the Mr. Money Mustache blog.

It’s almost as if Adeney built his own trust fund and turned himself into a rich-kid entrepreneur. Some of his achievements are directly attributable to the fact that he didn’t need that business to generate a profit in the short term, or even much of a profit in the long term. Adeney’s success as a blogger has been expressly built upon his financial independence. It gave him his subject, for starters, and allowed him to write in whatever tone he wanted, instead of catering to advertisers. Readers took to his irreverence—and no wonder, when most personal-finance writing is gratingly chipper and seems like filler in between credit-card ads.

Readers could also trust Adeney, knowing that his advice wasn’t contingent upon what would fatten his own bank account. While this kind of personal credibility probably should be de rigueur for a money guru, it’s still more the exception than the rule. It’s not a great big leap to say that Adeney ended up making around $400,000 a year from his blog in large part because he didn’t need to. The advantages don’t stop there. His self-built trust fund also insulated him from the brutal realities of the online media business, in which Google and Facebook scarf up around 90% of new ad dollars and many fledgling outfits crash and burn. He’s also been able to take breaks and work on the blog when he wants to, rather than adhering to the sort of ruthless schedule many entrepreneurs are stuck with.

I totally get that saving up your retirement nest egg decades early might seem like an even tougher dream to realize than just going ahead and starting your business. Judging by the “Mustachians” who post and comment on the site, the demographic appears to be reasonably high-earning folks with naturally frugal tendencies. Not everyone is in a position to save and invest, of course. A single person earning $70,000 in New York might not have much left over after taxes, rent, food, and the odd late-night Uber. A married couple in Cleveland earning $200,000 (nearly four times the median household income, let it be said) probably wouldn’t find this tactic very difficult at all. Such high-paying jobs are very much the exception, not the rule—and that’s to say nothing of those who can’t find jobs at all.

Personally, I’m not exactly frugal—I just prefer to live like a grad student because it keeps life simple. Right now, my husband and I live on about 35% of what we make, net. We earn more than we used to, but we’ve been able to avoid lifestyle creep because our tastes haven’t shifted much and certainly haven’t improved much. (We splurge on food and travel. But we still drink $6 wine, buy used books, and get t-shirts from Uniqlo, none of which I regard as any kind of sacrifice.) In business, you’d call this operating leverage. Market willing, we should be able to retire in five years, when we’re 39 years old. Then we’ll start a company that “does whatever we want it to do.”

So how much money are we talking? To size your nest egg, you calculate your yearly living expenses and multiply them by 25. Then you invest and use the magic of compound interest to help you reach that goal. (Adeney suggests index funds—simple, low-fee investment vehicles that typically track the returns of the stock market.) Once you’ve hit your number, you withdraw funds at a rate of 4% a year, known as the Safe Withdrawal Rate. A $1 million nest egg, for example, would yield $40,000 each year. A $2 million nest egg would yield $80,000. Simulations of model portfolios suggest this rate allows for lifelong withdrawals in nearly every market scenario. That means that you should still have money left at the time of your death, even 30 or 50 years hence.

I’m aware that the tone of this advice could seem money-obsessed or money-grubbing. But I don’t say it out of the conviction that the world’s already abundant supply of rich jerks needs adding to. (Parts of this article were written on January 20th, an auspicious day for rich jerks everywhere.) Rather, I think the dream of financial independence is worth chasing because I’m convinced that freedom is one of the worthiest goals around. If you’re a person with big-time creative dreams, it would be a tragedy straight out of Arthur Miller to spend your life working for someone else—or waiting around for the world to change. We seem to be decades away from instituting a universal basic income. So it might be time for you to try to DIY one.

Rich kids may dominate the entrepreneurial landscape. But over time, you could become one of them yourself—a person for whom many of the usual risks don’t apply.

  • QZ

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Planning for a Non Retirement

Much of financial planning focuses on retirement. But what if your client isn’t planning to retire?

Trish Wheaton, former global managing partner of one of the world’s largest communications groups, is grateful that she could work 30 years in advertising — an industry notorious for employing youthful “mad men.” She wasn’t surprised when she was told that her time was up at age 65, but she also wasn’t ready for a traditional retirement.

Wheaton mused:

“Sixty-five is the new 45. I had to ask myself ‘what’s next?’ I realized I didn’t have a clue. When I talked to my female peers in the same situation it turned out that they were feeling the same way. We were all used to being successful. People still want to invest in their passion . . . it’s just a question of where do they invest it now.”

retirement

She decided to form a Leaning Out™ salon: a gathering of high-achieving women who discuss finding post-career success and purpose. “With the same energy, goal orientation, and drive that propelled them to lofty career heights,” Wheaton explained, “these female professionals are radically redefining ‘post-career’ and turning it into a time of abundant purpose, goal redefinition, and personal well-being while over-turning some well-entrenched approaches to ‘retirement’ in the process.”

I participated in one Leaning Out session, where we discussed a host of topics, including what motivates women to non-retire. Most successful women truly enjoy working. That message came through during our salon with comments like:

“I hate saying I’m retired.”

“After my job ended, I would go to my computer in the morning and when I looked at my email, I would feel like I don’t exist.”

“I miss the intellectual stimulation from work.”

“I want to do something different now . . . something that will matter to me.”

Opting out of retirement might even be good for longevity. Shigeaki Hinohara, a Japanese physician, worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week until his death at the age of 105. He spoke to Judith Kawaguchi of The Japan Times about the secret to living a long life:

“There is no need to ever retire, but if one must, it should be a lot later than 65. The current retirement age was set at 65 half a century ago when the average life-expectancy in Japan was 68 years. Today, people live longer so they can work longer.”

Five Non-Retirement Scenarios

1. Boards of Directors

Many professional women assume that after they move on from their roles as senior executives, they will immediately be asked to sit on corporate boards. They have heard that women directors are in demand, and they expect to be invited to serve based solely on their experience and gender.

“Be careful. Don’t make the grand assumption that you will be in demand the day after you move out of the executive suite!” says Joanne De Laurentiis, a corporate board member and former president and CEO of The Investment Funds Institute of Canada (IFIC).

“Often people think that the simple fact that they have been an executive qualifies them to sit on a board. But the skill set required can be quite different from their work background. Board members must have a strong combination of skills such as strategic thinking, problem solving, and leadership, but perhaps most importantly . . . they need to have specific expertise related to the business dealings of the organization.”

If you are planning on sitting on a corporate board, you need to have developed the full spectrum of skills required and should be known for your expertise.

The best way to plan for life on boards?

As De Laurentiis explains:

“Start developing your board skill set in the early years of your career. I started volunteering on boards right out of university and I have been on boards throughout my entire working life. When the time came for me to leave my traditional job, I didn’t need to seek out any board positions, I was already well-known as an expert in my field.”

  • Read the full article here

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How Many Greater Fools Does It Take To Make A Bubble – Jason Zweig

Where do market “bubbles” come from? A team of neuroscientists and economists has produced the first scientific evidence for what prudent investors have long believed: Paying attention to what others are doing is the easiest way for traders to get carried away.  This new research can’t prevent the mass contagions that lead to bubbles. But it might help you step back before you get swept up in the next one. Economists have struggled and failed to explain why markets turn into manias. Some have denied bubbles exist; others have argued bubbles must somehow be “rational.” Often, the argument is that bubbles are caused by “uninformed” traders, or “dumb money,” while the “smart money” sits on the sidelines.

jason zweig

The latest findings suggest, however, that bubbles might be caused not by traders who lack information but by those who have too much. The new research, published this month in the journal Neuron, was conducted by economists, psychologists and neuroscientists from the California Institute of Technology, Royal Holloway University in London and the University of Utah. The study was led by Colin Camerer, an economist at Caltech—who, coincidentally, won a MacArthur “genius award” this past week for his innovative studies of financial behavior. In the experiment, Caltech students had their brains scanned while they viewed a stock being traded in a laboratory game. In that experimental market, the fundamental value of the stock was based on its payments of dividend income and declined almost to zero by the last round.

In half the sessions, the participants viewed trading that hadn’t resulted in a bubble, with prices that quickly converged on fundamental value. In the other half, traders had driven the stock to multiples of two, three and four times fundamental value, creating bubbles that then burst—wiping many of them out. But the participants didn’t just watch the trades of others; several times during each round of the game, they got the chance to trade at the latest market prices. Later, the researchers tested how accurately the participants could infer what is on another person’s mind based on a photograph of his or her eyes.

Those who scored high on this test showed greater “activation,” while they were trading, in a region of the brain associated with imagining what others are feeling—especially during bubble markets. In normal markets, activation in that part of their brain, called the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, was unrelated to their trading performance. That suggests that traders pay more attention to what others are doing in the midst of a bubble than they do in placid markets.

Read rest of the interesting article here

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Investing By Going Against the Grain – Whitney Tilson

If you were a serious baseball player, would you make it a point to read The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams (the last man to bat .400) and other books by history’s greatest hitters? Of course you would, in the hopes of maximizing your chances of repeating their successes — and avoiding their mistakes. For the same reason, I think all serious investors should read as much by and about the most successful investors of all time. My favorite books in this category are:

whitney tilson

The Intelligent Investor, by Ben Graham. Graham was Warren Buffett’s teacher at Columbia Business School and lifetime mentor. I agree with Buffett that this is the best book ever on investing.

The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America, by Lawrence Cunningham. This book organizes Buffett’s brilliant annual letters to shareholders by topic — a far more efficient (albeit slightly more expensive) way to read them (they’re available for free on Berkshire Hathaway’s website).

Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, by Philip Fisher. Fisher, regarded as one of the pioneers of modern investment theory, may be the most underrated investment thinker of all time. He focuses on identifying growth stocks that can be held for the long run.

The Money Masters, by John Train. Nine chapters — one each on nine of the world’s great investors (Buffett, Fisher, Graham, Templeton, Cabot, T. Rowe Price, Tisch, Kroll, and Wilson).

You Can Be a Stock Market Genius, by Joel Greenblatt. You’ve probably never heard of him or his book, but Greenblatt has compounded money at over 40% annually for the past 17 years, primarily by investing in special situations like spin-offs, restructurings, and rights offerings.

Additional favorites along these lines are: One Up on Wall Street and Beating the Street by Peter Lynch, John Neff on Investing by John Neff, Margin of Safety by Seth Klarman, and Value Investing by Marty Whitman.

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Losing the Losers Game – PFP Wealth Management

“The  first  panacea  for  a  mismanaged  nation  is  inflation  of  the  currency;  the  second  is  war.  Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.” – Ernest Hemingway.

“Recovery in sight, says departing Bank of England governor Mervyn King..” – The Daily Telegraph.

ppf wealth management

In one of the most powerful and memorable metaphors in finance, Charles Ellis, the founder of Greenwich Associates,cited the work of Simon Ramo in a study of the strategy of one particular sport: ‘Extraordinary tennis for the ordinary tennis player’. Ellis’ essay is titled ‘The loser’s game’, which in his view is what the ‘sport’ of investing had become by the time  he  wrote  it  in  1975. Whereas tennis is ‘won’ by professionals, the practice of investing is ‘lost’ by professionals and amateurs alike. Whereas professional sportspeople win their matches, investors tend to lose the equivalent of theirs through unforced errors. Success in investing, in other words, comes not from over-reaching, in straining to make the shot, but simply through the avoidance of easy errors.

Ellis  was  also  making  the  point  that  as  far  back  as  the  1970s,  investment  managers  were  not beating the market; rather, the market was beating them.
This is a mathematical inevitability given the  crowded  nature  of  the  institutional  fund  management  marketplace  and  the  impact  of management fees on end investor returns. Ben W. Heineman, Jr. and Stephen Davis for the Yale School of Management asked in their report of October 2011, ‘Are institutional investors part of
the problem or part of the solution ?’ By their analysis, in 1987, some 12 years after Ellis’ earlier piece,  institutional  investors  accounted  for  the  ownership  of  46.6%  of  the  top  1000  listed companies  in  the  US.  By  2009  that  figure  had  risen  to  73%.  That  percentageis  itself  likely understated  because  it  takes  no  account  of  the  role  of  hedge  funds. Also  by  2009  the  US institutional landscape contained more than 700,000 pension funds; 8,600 mutual funds (almost all of  whom  were  not  mutual  funds  in  the  strict  sense  of  the  term,  but  rather  for-profit  entities); 7,900  insurance companies; 6,800 hedge funds; and more than 2,000 funds of funds (the horror ! the horror !)

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The 3 investing questions retirees need to ask

Managing your investment portfolio in retirement can be tricky. Investors need to balance income generation with risk and capital preservation. Getting the balance wrong means you could run out of money.

When trying to make your money last in retirement, every penny counts. And you can lose a lot of those pennies in surprising places. That’s why all retired investors should ask themselves three questions to see if they are wasting precious retirement resources

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Five mistakes to avoid when investing in an ELSS fund

With the tax-saving season having begun, a lot of people are looking at investing in equity-linked saving schemes (ELSS), where they can get equity-like returns along with the benefit of tax saving. However, investors also make a number of mistakes when investing in these funds. Here are some of the common ones that they should avoid.

Beginning late in the year: Many people start investing in ELSS funds only towards the end of the financial year, when the time for showing proof of investment is upon them. This is a poor strategy. One, it could lead to cash flow related problems towards the end of the financial year. The second problem with investing at the end of the year is that it forces investors to invest a lump sum amount. This, in turn, creates the risk of market timing. If the equity markets are up, the investor ends up purchasing the fund’s units at high valuations, which in turn affect his returns.

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The 1 thing Millennials need to know about investing

The oldest Millennials are now starting to enter their formative years in the workforce and the youngest of the group will soon graduate from high school. Millions of Millennials are going to be making decisions about what to do with their finances and how much to spend or save for the future.

As Millennials think about their financial future, there’s one concept over all others that they should understand: compound interest. It’s compound interest that leverages the young age of Millennials and the time that’s on their side in the market. And time is one guaranteed advantage any investor should take.

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Venky's to buy Blackburn Rovers

Blackburn have edged closer to opening up a new frontier in English football by becoming the first Premier League team to have Indian owners.

The club confirmed that talks with the Venky’s conglomerate over a £46million deal are close to conclusion and a takeover should be completed next month. The price includes £25m to buy the club from the family of the late Blackburn benefactor Jack Walker and a further £15m to clear debts.

Venky’s managing director Balaji Venkatesh Rao, whose father founded the company, said: ‘It’s very much confirmed and we will be announcing it formally in the next 10 days.

‘It’s a £46m deal. I wouldn’t say that is cheap or expensive but we will have to pump in some more money later on. The money is up front from our own sources. We are not here to compare with anybody but this is a first for India. It’s a prestigious moment for everybody and one we should cherish.’

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