Introducing – MyRiverGuides.com

I’ve kept a journal in some form or another since 5th grade. Sometimes I write every day, and sometimes I go a few months without writing anything down. The consistent trend with my writing is that I get a lot of value out of it.

When I was in highschool, I used to break down my wrestling practices and meets, remembering how I felt before/during/after in an attempt to get better at a mentally challenging sport.

In college, I wrote a lot about the summer internships I had. The brain has an amazing capacity to change our memories and backfill history, so I’ve learned. But, the act of recording history trumps your brain’s ability to deceive.

One act of journaling was quite pivotal in my life: After my junior year, I interned at a large investment bank. I didn’t have a great summer and knew I wanted to do something else. Nonetheless, 3 weeks after getting back to campus in September, I was ready to sign my full time offer for this bank. I’d completely forgotten how much I was dissatisfied with my internship, and what my original goals were. Luckily, before I signed the offer, I re-read a journal entry I’d written over the summer, and remembered how much I didn’t want to go back…. the 15 minute exercise of writing that journal entry literally saved me a few years in a job I didn’t want.

Because of this experience, I recently created MyRiverGuides.com . The discipline to journal, write down what will be relevant in the future, and unearth these facts at the right time is hard! MyRiverGuides.com makes this process a whole lot easier and automated for those of us doing internships this summer. Now others can save 2 years through a 10 minute exercise!

Why Blog

A few weeks ago, as I opened up Dan Primak’s Term Sheet newsletter, I found myself irrationally hoping to see a link to a blog post written by someone like me, two years older, and two years wiser.

I’m at a minor cross roads in my life. They first year of business school is almost done (second semester finals start tomorrow), and now my classmates are looking ahead to their summers – McKinsey, Goldman, General Management Programs, Startups, Hedge Funds, the whole gambit. And, while I think I have my head on straight (I stayed true to my orignal goal of finding a great role at a SF based growth stage startup, and luckily realized success in that search), I found myself stressed out the other day.

In my stress, I remembered back a few years ago, when I’d read the blogs of young VCs. At the time, I was desperately seeking a job in venture capital. And, with a dirth of mentors with VC experience, I turned to one sided conversations with virtual mentors. The conversations were incredibly helpful. They gave me strategies for success in gaining a job, insight into the VC world, and acted as a very powerful calming agent (I guess I like being in control and information is power).

I’ll admit, I started this blog for very selfish reasons. I wanted to write a bunch of stuff to show venture capital firms so that they wouldn’t just think of me as a finance guy who didn’t know the difference between VC and any other buy side job. But, I hope that as I continue to write, it’s actually useful to people. Maybe I can share some knowledge that someone a few years behind me can use, or some insight I’ve stolen from one of the great people I’ve gotten to work with that can help someone desperately googling for the mechanics of a convertible note, or a list of good blogs to read.

Nilsby.com – a question and answers site for the special needs community

I’ve been a bit absent from my blog, but for good reason!  In my free time I’ve been working on a new project – a Q&A site for the special needs community – Nilsby.com.

I’m the oldest of four, and my youngest brother has prader-willi syndrome.  I’ve seen the struggles that a family goes through to provide a child their best possible life when that child has special needs.  There is an innumerable amount of information about education, healthcare, trusts, government subsidies, summer camp…and the list goes on!  Interestingly, parents have become the experts  and many times they are the best place to find the answers to questions another family is dealing with.  And so, just like programmers can share knowledge on Stackoverflow, families with special needs children can now share information on nilsby.com!

We just got the site up and running recently thanks to the guys at rootbuzz.com.  Check it out, spread the word, and let me know what you think: phil@nilsby.com.

Technology, the great equalizer

In the past few weeks people have been talking about how technology destroys jobs.

Some stats have been thrown out there.  Did you know that there were 3.25 million horses employed in England in 1901?  Sadly, those jobs went away with the rise of the automobile.  I have nothing against horses, and in fact my name means “lover of horses.”  But, I wouldn’t say these horses really had jobs, just like I wouldn’t say a VHS player had a job.  Humans are different, we can think and adapt when faced with change.  What I’m saying is, the horse stat isn’t all that relevant.

Another statistic revolves around the macro economy.  GDP grew at a rate of 2.5% from 2000-2009, but jobs actually fell 1.1% as technology supposedly replaced humans in many tasks.  To me, this is really fuzzy math and there could be lots of things that account for the discrepancy besides technology.  First off, it’s very probable that while the economy grew, sectors that employ large amounts of people, like auto manufacturing, took a hit.  And, it’s arguable that these sectors are struggling because they didn’t innovate fast enough to become stronger, cheaper, and more beautifully designed then their competition overseas.  Furthermore, even if technology were replacing  jobs, the net effect on the world seems to be positive (until we hit the point where SkyNet goes crazy and John Connor has to save us all).

First off,  technology adds value to society as whole.  If it didn’t add economic or social value, then it wouldn’t be adopted.  For example, a piece of software which turns a $5B industry into a $1B industry will hurt the incumbents.  However, the buyer of this software just saved $4B, now they have more capital to invest in their people, and grow their company (of course the shareholders may just decide to pocket the cash, but that’s a debate for another day).  Another example: Twitter is a technology which provides a non-economic value to its regular users (regular meaning not a celebrity or business).  It allows them to digest news faster, interact with new people, share ideas, etc.  This may cut into advertising revenues for the New York Times a bit, but I’m guessing that the overall change to society is a big net positive.

To me, the most important point about technology is that it is the great equalizer.  Today, you can take classes at some of the best universities in the world, for free, because of technology.  Take a Stanford entrepreneurship class on iTunes U, download a Harvard Business Review Podcast, or study computer science on MIT’s Open Course Ware.  Further, technology has enabled talented and ambitious people to build businesses, whether that’s through an eBay store, or an online dating site – because there are a set of tools out there that allow people to quickly turn their ideas into companies.   Lastly, the future spread of technology will enable entrepreneurs in places like rural Africa to spring up more readily, and help to solve some of the key problems plaguing emerging markets.

There’s no doubt that the automobile really messed up a lot of horse’s dreams of pulling wagons around.  And, there are good people today who are displaced by technology, I’m sure.  However, net/net innovation has been the key to the advancement of our society and will continue to be a positive influence on people’s lives in the aggregate.  And so, I’m not quite sure what all this debating is really about?

Sometimes Money isn’t Enough

Over the course of the past several months, I keep running into internet companies which are arbitraging what their customers will pay for a constituent to take a given action, and what they need to pay the constituents to take this action (more on that in a second).  I want to dive a bit into what I consider a flawed business model, and how these companies could be improved.

There are a few examples of this type of business.  Wellness companies are paid by self insured employers to promote incentive plans where employees are given reward cards and other token items in exchange for going to the gym, eating better, and generally taking care of their health.  If the employees do this, it cuts down on their overall medical bills, and the days when they are out sick, thus saving the company the cost of paying for care and lost productivity.  The company pays the wellness company which takes a cut and then pays the rest to the employee in the form of gift cards.

Another example are the product check-in companies which essentially pay consumers to interact with brands at a physical store.  A consumer walks into BestBuy, takes a picture of a product with their phone, and then gets a gift card as a reward.  The check-in company would take the $10 they got from BestBuy (their customer), and pass $5 along to the consumer.  The hope was that engagement with the product would result in increased sales.

These strategies are simple enough, and seem to make sense.  Pay someone for doing something you want.  And, pay them less than the value you accrue from their action.  However, I’ve yet to hear of a company strictly sticking to this model which has taken off, and I think it’s because they aren’t changing the actual behavior of a person.  For example, I might walk into BestBuy and snap a photo of the latest RIM phone if I can get a $5 gift card for doing so.  But, I’m not going to do that every day, week, or even every month.  I have better things to do, it’s not all that fun, and $5 is not a compelling reward.  Similarly, I might go to the gym 10 times per month for 2-3 months if it’ll get me reward points which I can turn in and buy real products.  But, I’m eventually going to revert to my old habits once the novelty of the prize wears off.

In order to change behavior, you need to appeal to something more powerful than trinkets, like social pressure.  For example, if there was a chart shared by my friends that showed how often I went to the gym, I’d probably go more often.  I’d show I was taking care of myself, and I’m sure if I slacked off at all they’d let me hear about it.  Layering in positive feedback mechanisms would make this even more powerful.  To me, this is a much more effective model.  And, I’d be curious to hear about any businesses that have used a hybrid rewards/social model, or perhaps a purely social model to great success.  Feel free to drop me a line.

My Pinky, and What’s Wrong With Healthcare

I always find it very interesting to hear the story behind just about anything (a business, organization, town, person).  And, I was lucky enough to know some of the “story” behind what was going on with my pinky last weekend.

During a freak kickball accident last weekend (don’t worry, I got the person out), I ended up dislocating my pinky.  After jamming each of my fingers countless times during my wrestling days, it finally took a sunday kickball game in the LES to cause any sort of damage that warranted a trip to the emergency room.

Mistake one was going to the emergency room.  I am well aware of, and actually sought out, urgent care centers in Manhattan.  Unfortunately, none were open on this fateful day.  The sight of my pinky completely mangled urged me to try my luck at the NYU hospital and give up the search for a potentially better alternative.  For the undeducated, urgent care centers are like mini emergency rooms, they are specialized and super efficient so that they get you in and out in an average of 45 mins (ER average is 4 hrs, and 70% of visits can be handled by urgent care, which is also cheaper).  Apparently these business haven’t fully penetrated NYC yet, maybe real estate is a bit too expensive.

So, I spent 5 hours in the ER.  After 2 x-rays, some novocaine, a splint, a lot of time waiting around, I was finally on my way out.  I consumed a lot of resources, and unnecessarily, at that hospital.  But, there was still more to come.

For my little dislocated pinky, that took 45 seconds to relocate after being properly “diagnosed”, I also had to see a hand specialist.  In the days of malpractice paranoia, every precaution is taken, even if it means spending lots and lots of money on people’s pinkies!  The hand specialist of course wanted to do another x-ray.  Did you know medical images are actually transmitted through CD most often?  So, of course, the ER couldn’t send either of my two previous x-rays to the doctor in time for my visit.  Companies like Life Image are trying to solve this by setting up networks through which medical images can be transmitted digitally, but it takes time to fix a broken system.

And, of course, my new doctor owns his x-ray machine, and doctors who own their machines take 5x more x-rays than those who don’t own them.  This is how they make the big bucks.  In fact, an entire industry has popped up with companies like American Imaging Management providing radiology benefit management services.  I got a call from these fine people asking me what the heck was going on with my finger.

But wait, that’s not all.  My new doctor also found some sort of gray mass on the x-ray he didn’t understand and so thinks it’s appropriate to get a CT scan.  This probably brings the total spend on my finger to well over $1,000.  All this for my little pinky that would have been popped back in by a trainer in any sort of scholastic sporting event.  And that is what’s wrong with healthcare!

The only remotely interesting part of the ordeal was seeing several of the emerging companies I’ve run into at Bessemer, or at least the problems they are trying to solve.  At the very least, going to the hospital is a great way to find new investment roadmaps!

Beating “Efficient Markets”

I touched upon my dislike for the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) in an earlier post, but thought I’d bring it up in a little more depth here.

The EMH is a framework for thinking about the stock market that is taught in many undergraduate and MBA programs.  Basically, the theory states that all information that is publicly available is reflected in a stock’s price.  So, when a company announces a new partnership, the stock pops at that moment and perfectly reflects the expected value of this new partnership.  The information made available to the public is now supposedly reflected in the price.

But, the reality is that not all information is readily available (even if it is public).  And, many times you have to dig.  That may mean calling on people in your network who have specific knowledge you’re after, reading obscure blogs, or reaching out to someone who is in the know.  We do this a lot at Bessemer to try to better understand industries and companies we are interested in.

I’m bringing this up as a result of my experiences in our ongoing efforts to find a new analyst to start this summer.  We’ve interviewed a lot of candidates, and many of them have made me realize how lucky I was to have gotten this job in the first place (there are a lot of smart people out there!).  But, the few that that have stuck out obviously did their homework to understand the job, the recruiting process, and woven these knowledge points into their interviews.  They’ve read a few blogs written by our professionals (especially the posts about the analyst recruiting process, which exist), researched our portfolio, and have asked friends in VC what it’s like.

The 5% of candidates who have done this work have stood out – and in my mind they have gone beyond what is public knowledge of our firm and what we do, in order to give them an edge.

More generally, this type of digging seems to be what separates people who are pretty good at something from the people who are the best.  When I talk to friends working at some of the most successful hedge funds, I ask how they can make money on a consistent basis when so many people fail.  The answer is almost always that they spend extra time figuring out what exactly is going on in a market, and going off the beaten path to solidify their investment thesis.  They are rewarded quite quickly through higher returns and a bigger pay check.

But, I think this sort of methodology applies to many facets of life beyond investing: everything from sports to building a business (MyCityWay for example is a company that is leveraging publicly available info to build a cool mobile app – apparently few others building this type of app had came across these data sets).  And, I can remember back in my wrestling days breaking down tapes of Russian wrestlers to try to learn techniques that my opponents hadn’t seen before and wouldn’t know how to defend.

These sorts of data are quite valuable, but even more so is the mentality of digging in order to get an edge.  I just hope I can keep that mindset and try to find new ways of getting those advantages as life goes on because I truly feel those small advantages add up in a big way over time…

Disrupting The Dating Scene

Well – no, I’m not talking about running shirtless through a speed dating session or getting into fights over members of the opposite sex at bars (all of which I would call “disruptive”).  Although, that would be a really fun post.

The Spark

A friend of mine met his girlfriend through match.com.  And, ironically, she was only a second degree of separation away – meaning that one of his friends actually knew this girl.  If this common connection knew both of these love birds, why did he not connect them in the first place (instead of making them resort to online dating)?  More importantly, how powerful is our second degree network?  I’m sure that this force has been harnessed by all of us at one time or another to get a job, or borrow a car for the weekend.  And, hopefully there will be easier ways of utilizing this resource through the evolution of social applications (LinkedIn comes to mind).

So, we’ve identified an opportunity.  Instead of meeting your future consorts through an algorithm (match.com), or out at a bar (life), why not leverage the power of the people that know you best to find suitable potential mates?  How do we do this?

The Idea

My first reaction is to build an application on a social network (probably facebook) that allows a common connection to “match” people.  Basically, if I know my friend Cindy and my other friend John who are in mutually exclusive social circles are both single and I think they’d get along, then I put them in contact together.  Maybe if they email each other I get points, and if they actually end up dating I “level up” to a “matchmaker.”  Game mechanics would basically drive people’s incentives to match up their friends.

Also of interest, I’ve found that several people simply go through a friend’s facebook pictures in hopes of finding Mr/Ms Right posing for a candid (as strange as that sounds to actually write down).  What if, after not so creepily perusing friends’ facebook pics in hopes of finding mr/mrs right, we could tell our mutual friend in common that we were interested in being set up.  The key is to indicate that you want to be connected, and then have your friend actually put you together.

Here’s another example of one’s second degree helping out:  Say you want a job in advertising in New York.  If you have 30 friends that live in the city, then you’re probably going to have a few 2nd degree connections to advertising execs.  What if there was a way to let your network know what you’re looking for, and actually stay top of mind?  Would people be willing to pay to be on someone’s dashboard (where a dashboard is a listing of people you know who want a job/date/apartment/etc)?  And, why are people checking their dashboard in the first place?  Maybe they are seeing if any of their requests are fulfilled.

Maybe some people have to pay to be on someone’s dashboard, and others come up to the top because they’ve done that person a favor before, or are a highly valued contact (do your boss a favor and maybe she’ll return it later).  Food for thought.

China Vs. The US, which would you buy?

Recently I ran into a company which was contemplating buying one of their competitors – not an uncommon conversation as Bessemer sometimes finances these types of transactions.

The company I was talking to is on a tear, growing at 150% annually, flirting with profitability, and has a best in class technology.  For reference, let’s say the acquiror is around $7 million in revenues.  To complete the picture, the business they’d like to buy is a stodgier business, has been around for the last decade or so, and has some decent customers, but the product isn’t that great and they are going to get beat by their competitor in the future unless something changes.  The target is around $21 million in revenues, with $5 million in profits, and 5% growth.

So, which would you rather own: a company 1/3 the size, with no profits, but strong growth and what appears to be a much better product?  Or, a solidly profitable company (which you could put debt on), which has been around the block and is 3x the size?  Which is worth more?

The answer is that if the company growing at 150%/year is growing for the right reasons (a truly better product, better customer acquisition strategy), and those reasons also point to it being the better long term bet, then it’s very feasible the fast growth will continue and quickly make it a larger company, and thus worth more today.  And so, the smaller company buying the “larger” one makes sense.

This somewhat analogous situation sparked an interesting conversation with one of my colleagues over the value of the US relative to China (if you were to think of them as two different companies – although I’m not sure either will be buying each other out anytime soon).

For those unfamiliar with the numbers, the US has a $14.6 trillion GDP (or $2 trillion in taxes, which is more akin to revenues), 2-3% growth, huge losses each year (trade deficit of $500 billion in 2010 alone), and a horrible balance sheet ($14 trillion in debt, here is a scary site: http://www.usdebtclock.org/).

China is growing at 10% per year, with $5.7 trillion in GDP ($1 trillion in taxes), a $185 billion trade surplus, and a balance sheet that includes $1+ trillion in US treasuries alone.

Of course, there are a thousand other metrics, both economic (unemployment rate, hourly wages, industries driving growth), and social (education, cultural values), but I think the above gives a decent picture, just as the revenues/profit and growth of the two companies give us a quick picture of what is going on with their relative values.

The US growth may have slowed a bit, but we are still 3x the size of China, have loads of talent and the infrastructure to support growth.  We can essentially borrow at will (cost of US debt is still well below 4%).  And, some none economic factors like a culture more suited for innovation, the world’s best equipped military, and 100 other things make me think the US is still the right bet to make.  It’s interesting to think about nonetheless.  Maybe someone should create an exchange where you can essentially bet on countries (or maybe that’s what a combination of country focused ETFs and the rates market already is).