Kicking The Tires

18 April 2012 | talking about Stock Market

Wall Street analyst types are often “going undercover” to see how a business is doing. They might go to Home Depot and wonder around the store and buy a few items to see how the entire process is going. They might stand outside Macy’s and count the number of people going in and our of the store. All this to get an estimate as to how the business is doing. Over the last few years I have been making efforts to do my own little channel checks. I might not be camped out Macy’s counting people but I like to visit companies I am invested in, thinking about investing in, or competitors to companies I want to invest in. Below I am going to share two stories of my two most recent channel checks.

I love Starbucks. It has been a core holding of mine for a while now. I think they are one of the best runned companies (since Howard Schultz came back). I make every effort to visit Starbucks wherever I go to make sure they are truly consistent (it could be they are just really really well run in the Portland area). In the past 6 months I have visited a handful of Starbucks in South Carolina, Northern California, and of course different locations within my home state of Oregon. Each visit was a warming and consistent experience. It is clear Starbucks is working hard to make sure they have a brand people trust and rely on.

On a recent trip to Northern California I made an effort to visit Peet’s Coffee’s. I visited 3 different locations Cupertino, Davis, and Sacramento. Each visit was not pleasant at all. Getting on the Internet was a guessing game to begin with. Eventually I found out you have to get the barista to give you an access code good for one hour. Once connected, the service was completely unusable (in all 3 locations). In general the employees were not friendly and straight up rude in Sacramento. I found the bathrooms to be pretty gross in all 3 locations. I do not love the coffee but it is ok. It seemed a little burned at the Davis location. Nothing about the Peet’s brand really gave me any confidence. Many of the patrons I spoke with also had negative thoughts about the service and the poor wireless.

 
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Bootstrap Companies Make Better Products

12 April 2012 | talking about Internet, Products

I am always looking for product inspiration. I have a little rule that whenever I discover a new web product, regardless of the product, I create an account and take a look around. On average this turns out to be about 1 new product a day. I tend to take a binary approach to products when I review them. They are either good or bad. You can always find issues but often it is very clear if the team behind the product is the real deal or not. If a product is good I often make a note of it and come back and spend more time with the product to see what I can learn from it in terms of new product development ideas.

I on a hunch I reviewed my list of products and compared my binary rating of good or bad vs if they raised early stage funding or not. Also, I reviewed only products that charge a fee to use them. No advertising based products. It turns out with this screen 5 of every 6 companies I reviewed as good were bootstrapped or took money after already having tons of revenue. If it is not yet clear, what I am saying is that there seems to be a relationship between great product design and being bootstrapped.

 
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A Cash Cow Business

26 February 2012 | talking about Leadership

Venture capital investments are great. It allows people to focus on the business instead of day to day cash flow issues. For some businesses, venture capital is the way to go. There is no way Steve Jobs would have had a consulting practice on the side to help grow Apple. He needed all in complete focus to succeed. However, one mistake I think many entrepreneurs make is they think they need outside investment to grow their business. They get so focused on raising money they forget to look outside the box. One approach I have used for years to fund businesses is what I call a cash cow business. This is nothing more than one business funding the growth of another more important business.

Some businesses generate profits from day one - consulting business for example. Another example would be some sort of retail or service business. You mow someone’s lawn and they pay you. Profit on day one. Why not start one of these simple profit-at-day-one businesses to fund your dream business? I can illustrate this with two examples from my life.

 
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Why Amazon Is Amazing To Me

11 February 2012 | talking about Internet, Leadership, Stock Market

I love Amazon.com. I buy almost everything I can from them. Retail, hosting, media, and more. I even own stock in Amazon. I am a very happy consumer and investor. However, what I find so interesting about Amazon is not my consumer joy or my nice gains as a shareholder; it is their business model. In so many ways they have re-engineered traditional business models. The single most fascinating aspect of Amazon to me is their way of monetizing business bi-products.

As an Internet retailer Amazon has to make major investments in data centers. Trust me: Amazon runs on more than just a Linux computer under Jeff Bezos’ bed. They have built data centers all over the world. Normally, this would be a cost of doing business. In order to sell products online they have to build data centers. Using the bi-product of having to build data centers Amazon built a billion dollar hosting business, Amazon Web Services. Amazon leverages their infrastructure and rents the use of this space to web sites all over the world. This is like Best Buy starting a construction company because they are building big box retail locations. Amazon turned what traditionally would be a fixed expense into a most likely very profitable business unit.

 
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Why Don’t People Think In Terms Of ROI?

2 December 2011 | talking about Leadership, Small Business

Something that bugs me is entrepreneurs who are starting a company or making an investment but do not think in terms of return on investment, or ROI. Simply put, ROI is an estimate: if you invest a dollar how much will that dollar grow to? Typically you calculate your ROI as a percentage. Lets say I invest a dollar today and 5 years from now that dollar is worth $1.20. That means you got a 20% return over 5 years (or 3.71% per year).

roi image

Also, for the record this rant is not in relationship to the Mark Zuckerbergs, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs of the world. These guys all started companies when they had no financial worries. The only risk was failing and going back to college. I am speaking the commoners, those who already have jobs. Those who already have a family. Those who already have a mortgage and a car payment. I am speaking to the people who buy rental properties, start web companies at night, or quit their job to go all in on a ice cream shop -not kids in dorm rooms (many of us missed that boat)
 
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Why I Don’t Blog About Investing

25 July 2011 | talking about Stock Market

wall street imageI don’t blog much about investing in the the stock market. Which is odd because if you meet me in person I will talk your ear off about where I think the market is going or where I think the best investments are. The digital world might not know what an equities nut I am. I don’t blog much because unlike so many other topics I talk about I don’t see investing as a black or white type of thing. I am never 100% sure I know what I am doing. There are just so many data points. I never know if the data points that are important to me are the correct data points to look at. That is what makes a market, right? If we all were looking at the same data points and we all had the same point of view there would not be someone willing to be on the other side of my trades.

With that said I do not want to be another “talking head” telling the world why I am right and why they are wrong about an investment. More importantly I don’t want to get caught up in the rat hole of defending my thesis. There are already tons of “talking heads”; the world does not need me.

One of the things I hate about people who blog about particular investments is very often you do not know when they make the investment (if at all) and at what price. I love reading about what people are investing in as an idea generator, or as a rough sentiment measurement. Without a time frame, such postings are not really great guidance to what I should buy or sell.
 
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Restaurants Telling Me To F-Off

30 June 2011 | talking about Customers, Management, Small Business

restaurant credit cardSure, strong title. Yeah, maybe I am over dramatic, but let me paint a picture for you. I walk into a mid-grade restaurant. You know the type. The type of restaurant you go for a quick snack, or maybe a few beers with your buddies. Not a night club were there is a high chance of people getting drunk and making poor decisions. You might sit around the bar or outside on a patio. Then after being all friendly with the server and placing your order for your first round of drinks the server says “could I get a card to hold”? The server wants to hold on to your credit card to make sure you do not run out without paying the bill. I am never mad at the server I am sure it is a restaurant policy. By doing that, the restaurant management is telling me: “We don’t trust you to pay your bill, we need insurance”.  I translate that to the restaurant telling me to “F-off”.

Imagine you walk into some sort of shopping store and someone greeted you and said “Let me see your wallet, I want to make sure you can really buy something here”. I would call that pretty insulting. Restaurants are doing the same thing. They are insulting you.

I know the restaurant takes the risk of serving you food before you pay. I am asking the restaurant to take all the risk here. Yes, I am sure people dine and dash every year at almost every restaurant. However, I am rather certain that the percentage of people that pay vs. those who try to steal is very inbalanced. I would think I would go as far as estimating that less then 1% of the customers try to steal from the restaurant. A restaurant is telling us ‘we would rather say “we don’t trust you”’ to 99% of their customers instead of just taking the loss on less than 1%. Sounds like greed and not caring about the customer.

 
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All Categories Of Business

21 March 2011 | talking about Small Business

Categories of BussinessI have spent my entire professional life at the decision making level with early stage companies. Some companies I founded and some companies I was invited to join. I have been part of a failing team nearly as many times as I have a winning team. These are not all just web start-ups, many traditional businesses as well. This past year I have been reflecting and seeking conclusions to what sets a company up for success and what sends a company to failure. I realize there are no right or wrong answers, but from time to time I am going to start logging my thoughts on my blog. I am hoping to start a conversation with others around these thoughts to help strengthen these ideas.

The Different Aspects Of Business


Particularly in the web start-ups, a company starts with a thesis; “The product we are going to build will change the world because we are going to solve XYZ problem”. Founders get so focused on building this product they do not define the other categories relevant to their business and they give these categories no attention. What do I mean by “categories”? I mean all the other relevant aspects of your business unrelated to building your product: sales, marketing, pr, business development, market research, hiring, branding, fund raising, paper work, and so on. So many founding teams just think they will deal with these things once “the product” is done.

Grow Your Categories Of Business


The successful companies I have been part of have defined the relevant categories and measured month-over-month growth of these categories. Thus, my suggestion to new businesses is: define these categories of business from day one. Determine who is in charge of each category, and measure progress every month. When a founding team is building their product they are often measuring month-over-month progress of the product development.

The rule of thumb that I have seen succeed more often than not is ensuring each category grows in some fashion every month. It does not matter how much. Each category has to make more progress in the coming months than in the past months. If on month one you have an introduction meeting with a possible business partner, on month two you should have one more meeting and maybe sign a letter of intent with the meeting from the previous month.
 
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The New Age Business Man / Woman

9 June 2010 | talking about Internet, Small Business

Something that has been on my mind for a while now is; What does the new age business person looks like? As more and more consumer dollars are being spend online and less and less spent in person on the streets, how does this affect the first time entrepreneur? Really great companies have been built by people with simple resumes. I see in many ways it is becoming harder and harder for a first time entrepreneur to break ground on their dream because they have to do business on the web.

It use to just take someone that was willing to work long hard hours and maybe some start up capital to build a truly profitable business. Whatever business the entrepreneur was going to go into they did not have to have 20 years of experience working in the industry, however in many cases that helped. I have a close friend who went to college and graduated with a business degree. Other than odd college jobs this friend did not have much of a resume. He knew one thing; he did not want to work for "the man", and he was willing to work his butt of to make it happen. After much research he raised a small amount of capital and went into the fast food business. Today he has grown the business rather successfully. All this friend had was a passion and a good head on his shoulders.

The New Skill Set Needed


The above example is getting harder and harder with the move to the web. To launch even a basic business you often have to surround yourself with domain experts in all sorts of different niches. If you want to compete on the web. You need to hire a designer, web programmer, mobile programmer, sysadmin, web marketer, experts on understanding your market, and more. You can not just sit on a busy street count the people going by to understand your market. You can not just lease a space and open your doors. You have to surround yourself with domain experts that often are not cheap. So a good head on your shoulders and some start up capital turns into a bunch of people with good heads on their shoulders and tons of capital.

How Do We Solve The Problem?


The problem I want to solve; Is how do we move the world to the web but keep the "all you need is a dollar and a dream" way of business alive? I know there is not a simple answer and as the Facebook generation morphs into business people they will already be hitting the streets with a leg up on my generation and older generations, but I would like to find better ways to bridge the gap.
 
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Real Estate Vs. Da Stock Market – Part #3

8 March 2010 | talking about Real Estate, Stock Market

Overview


The point I am going to make in this post is you can use the different markets outside of Real Estate to help with timing your Real Estate transactions. Great timing can do wonders for your bottom line. I have to setup my point so read all the way through. I will put it all together at the end.

To continue my argument, (see past posts), that I believe that at the very least if you are a Real Estate investor you should have an eye on different markets outside of the Real Estate world I am going to highlight Mortgage Back Securities and what it means for the common Real Estate investor.

First lets define what a Mortgage Back Security is, or MBS. More or less a MBS is a bond sold on wall street from the big government backed firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These loans are originated by banks we all know and love. Then the banks sell these loans off to Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac in big pools (collections of mortgages). For example (and to keep things simple), lets say Bank of America lent out 100 thousand dollars to 10 people (total of 1 million dollars). Bank of America collected a bunch of fees for putting the loan together (from the borrower), also mostly likely will get to continue to service the loan (charge more fees for the service of collecting loan payments).

Now, BofA will sell this pool of loans to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. So the amount of loans BofA is willing to make each week/month/year is almost a factor of how willing Freddie and Fannie are willing to buy the loans.

Once the pool of loans are sold and out of the bank's hands, Fannie and Freddie then bundle the loans up into bigger pools and sells them off on Wall Street as bonds. So when you make your home mortgage payment you send the money to your bank, then the bank send your payment to Fannie and Freddie, and then Fannie an Freddie sends your payment to the owner of the bond. You can learn way more about this process at Wikipedia.

Why should you understand all this?


It is one big chain of influencers; The seller, the buyer (borrower), the bank, Fannie/Freddie, and the bond holder. Each phase of this chain relays on entity below it. So lets look at each phase.
 
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