[VIC – 69] Early stage investing. Everything is digital. We can do better. National Poetry Month. Flattery or plagiarism?

Business & Money

When thinking about early stage investment opportunities, conventional wisdom says that these are generally reserved for silicon valley elites. There’s a small cabal of elite VCs that get access to all of the best deals and companies, while most are shut out. Thus the astronomical returns that accrue to these firms far out pace what the average person can expect to make while investing.
While mostly true, there are a few other ways to get a foot in the door for early stage opportunities. Here are a few:
1) You can always invest in startups yourself. Title III of the Jobs Act opens up the opportunity for regular retail investors to get their turn at startup investing. Regular people can create an account with any number of equity crowdfunding platforms (e.g. SeedInvest, MicroVentures) to participate in startup fundraising. While Title III is a good thing in general terms, it’s very unlikely that I’ll try my hand at picking individual companies. Chances are, all the best deals will be picked through by the VCs, angel syndicates, or individual angel investors. In other words, the equity crowdfunding platforms likely offer the bottom of the barrel in terms of investment opportunities. The platforms do take on some of the due diligence work to de-risk things a bit, but chances are you’ll still lose your money.
2) More realistically, you can try to take advantage of early stage opportunities by investing in public companies. For example, take artificial intelligence. We’re clearly in the hype cycle for AI and every company, both large and small, are trying to participate in the “AI gold rush”. To understand where the investment opportunities lie, we first need a bit ot context. Without getting into the weeds, deep learning is a subset of machine learning that uses computational systems loosely modeled on the human brain. Deep learning systems require a lot of processing power and thus require advanced GPUs (graphical processing units) which are far more powerful than their CPU (central processing unit) brethren. There are basically 2 companies that own the GPU market, Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices, and both are publicly traded. NVDA is up 285% this year and AMD is up 481%. Not bad at all for a public market returns.
3) One slightly more esoteric way to get involved, and somewhat similar to above, involves investing in underlying technologies. Not investing in companies that produce the underlying technology, but the technology itself. I’ll give you two examples. First, think about the early days of the internet. Everyone and their mother were building internet based businesses and every one of those required a website. If you went on a buying spree in the 90s purchasing as many domain names as possible, you would be incredibly wealthy today. The average domain back then sold for around $0.50 – $5.00. Today, the average 5 letter word in the dictionary will cost you anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 if you want to purchase the domain. That multiple is (you guessed it), 🍌🍌🍌🍌🍌! Secondly, I’m betting that cryptocurrencies will explode over the next 5 years. The value has already gone up over 100x since inception, and I’d say were in the first inning with no outs. I’ve been purchasing modest amounts of Bitcoin and Ethereum, the two leading cryptocurrencies, betting that they will be far more valuable in a few years. I’m less worried about these as digital currencies or stores of value, and more excited by the applications that will be built on the underlying technology. We’ll have to wait to see how this last one pans out.

Human Progress

If the 20th century was an industrial century, the 21st will be a digital one. Absolutely everything is going (or has gone) digital. Money, media, communication, commerce, conflict… everything. This transformation will, of course, bring great progress. But, it will also bring unprecedented risk. Cyber security risk that is. As the number of connected devices goes through the roof, so too do the number of vulnerabilities. I’m no cyber security expert, so I won’t try to delve into the details of the myriad vulnerabilities. Instead, I’d like to suggest 3 simple ways to greatly improve your digital security profile.
1 Turn on 2-factor authentication (2FA) for your email. For those unaware, 2FA is the process by which you use a second device to verify your identity. So when you log into your email account on your laptop, it will ask you for a password that you need to retrieve from your phone (SMS). As a result, you have a second layer of protection from someone trying to gain unauthorized access. And, while you can also enable 2FA on many other applications, email lies at the crux of everything. Anytime you need to reset a password, the reset link is sent via email. Thus, if someone gains access to your email, they likely have access to everything.
2 Use a VPN (virtual private network). VPNs offer a simple way to protect the data being transmitted over wireless networks by forcing all of your data through a server run by a VPN provider. These providers encrypt all of the data providing, again, another layer of protection. These require a simple, low-cost software download from any of a number of reputable providers. This is especially important if you regularly use public wifi networks (e.g. coffee shops, NYC parks & subways, etc). Anyone on these networks can access your data if it’s unprotected.
3 Use a secure browser (e.g. Opera). These run security checks in the background while you browse (checking for phishing, malware, etc) and many also include free built-in VPN software.
None of these will guarantee that you’re 100% safe, but you’re far better off with them than without.

Philosophy

You know that philosophical question, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I’ve been thinking about my own version. “If a person apologizes for a certain wrongdoing that they’ve committed, but the victim is not around to hear it, did the apology actually happen?” I would answer “no” to both questions. In the first, the tree hitting the ground would clearly disturb the adjacent air creating sound waves. But “hearing,” that involves those same sounds waves interacting with an ear drum and the associated nerve endings that translate those vibrations into an intelligible signal. In my own version of the question, the same logic applies. Yes, the apology is spoken, but the act of apologizing, if it is to be at all meaningful, involves both the speaker’s message and the listener’s reception and interpretation thereof. So even if the apology is heard, but there is no eye contact or a lack of conviction in the voice of the apologizer, we’ve adulterated the content of the words.
I began thinking about this when someone posted on Facebook about what’s often referred to as the Apology to Native Peoples. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it (I had not before coming across this post). In essence, this was a resolution signed by President Obama in 2009 as an acknowledgment of the depredations and mistreatment of Native Americans by the US government. A formal apology of sorts. I see two glaring problems right off the bat.
First, the delivery. The resolution was quietly passed, buried deep within the Defense Appropriations act of 2009 (not an obvious location for such a resolution). But no attention was drawn to it. It’s almost like the apology was whispered under the breath so that no one could hear it. Not an apology at all if you ask me. If no one can hear it, it’s safe to assume that the act itself is narcissistic or inward focused. It serves to remove some guilt or responsibility, without putting the speaker at any risk or empathizing with the listener.
Secondly, the language.
“Whereas the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of Native Peoples.”
A new chapter?!?! Are you kidding me?? Let’s drop the warm and poetic language and call a spade a spade.
“Whereas while establishment of permanent European settlements in North America did stir conflict with nearby Indian tribes, peaceful and mutually beneficial interactions also took place.”
Peaceful and mutually beneficial? 😂😂 What a joke!
“Whereas Native Peoples and non-Native settlers engaged in numerous armed conflicts in which unfortunately, both took innocent lives, including those of women and children.”
Innocent lives taken on both sides? More like genocide or extermination of one side and flourishing on the other.
There is so much power in language. What is said is often less important than how it is said.
All of this makes me think about my own progress in delivering apologies. I, for one, can say I have a long way to go. I’ve often delivered apologies while staring at the floor, using defensive language, voice raised, arms crossed, and no eye contact. If I can’t do any better, our nation and our federal government likely can’t either. 😩 Come one! We’re better than that!

My Latest Discovery

On the same topic of native peoples, Layli Long Soldier is both a US citizen and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation (a Native American Tribe). She is also an incredible poet. And, I’ve discovered that April happens to be National Poetry Month. I thought I would share one of her exquisite yet painful compositions called “38.”

I would highly recommend you listen, but if you prefer to read, you can do so here.

Question Of The Week

When is it ok to copy?
I’m thinking about this in the wake of rampant copying by Facebook. After seeing the success of SnapChat, Zuckerberg has basically copy/pasted SnapChat’s best features, pixel for pixel, into all 4 Facebook properties (WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, And Facebook).
I’m specifically thinking about this in relation to other great innovations that have been copied and commoditized. In the digital realm, think about the like button or the news feed. Basically every social application now has both. Someone had to be first. In cars, what about sunroofs? Whoever came up with the sunroof is a genius. Now every car on the block has one. The inventor must be pissed!
When does copying stop being the sincerest form of flattery and become plagiarism? Should there be more IP protection for digital products? Would this impact innovation in a negative way? So many questions!

[VIC – Issue 66] Frequent & big problems. Republicans vs Merriam-Webster. Say hello to the undercover plumber. Grammarly is dope!

Business & Money

In thinking about what side project to work on next, I’m trying to decide what problem to tackle. That is, every business needs to solve a problem. Customer’s don’t even need to realize they have a problem. Think about Nike. Customers already had a lot of alternatives when Nike came on the scene. But they didn’t realize that wearing a certain brand of sneaker could make you cool while playing a sport, could fill an aspirational void, and perhaps even increase your odds of becoming a superstar. They created a market out of thin air.
But back to the point. We can agree that every business needs to solve a problem. That said, not all problems are created equal. In general, I’d say there are 4 different categories. I’ll bring out the top-notch drawing skills to represent these:

I’ve created two axes here:
The Y-axis represents size. Some problems are big and some problems are small. Searching to buy your first house is a massive problem. Conversely, buying tooth pics at the grocery, not so big.
The X-axis represents frequency. Some problems need solving all the time and others are more rare. I like to talk to my friends on a daily basis. I haven’t purchased a personal computer in almost a decade.
If you plot all problems on this plane, they fall within one of four categories. I’ll list them in ascending order from the perspective of which seem to make for good businesses.
1) Infrequent and small. Every now and then there is a water main break in NYC which causes the water to come out brown from the faucet. Thus I’m forced to head to the deli to buy bottled water or even shower at a friends place if the problem persists. This problem, however, is so rare and so small (at least in developed cities) that it would not make any sense to start a company centered around on-demand water bottles or mobile showers. This quadrant is the graveyard and I’d say most should steer clear.
2) Infrequent and big. Perhaps once ever 3-8 years you need to buy a new car (ride-sharing aside). An extremely expensive purchase that takes a considerable amount of time. This category, while good businesses can definitely be built, tend to be hard and capital intensive. Not only are the products themselves very complex, but the customer journey is itself complex. With cars, you are researching online, asking friends, taking test drives, etc. Marketing budgets need to be substantial since you need to stay top of mind in between purchase decisions. You also need to charge customers a lot of money to cover the cost of building the product and acquiring customers. All in all, this category, while better than the first, is still rather hard for startups.
3) Frequent & small. I like to read news about technology and business on a daily basis. It’s incredibly easy to acquire this information from a plethora of email newsletters, websites, blogs, apps etc. If you can build a compelling product in this quadrant, which inevitably becomes a habit, you’ve hit gold, though these can sometimes be fleeting such as mobile games or apps.
4) Frequent & big. You have to talk about Apple here. People will purchase a new iPhone whenever it comes out. And these things are not cheap. You simply NEED to have the best phone whenever it becomes available. Not many companies are lucky enough to hit the sweet spot, but when they do, you get lasting, defensible, cash-rich juggernauts.

Human Progress

I’m pretty sure progress by definition connotes moving forward or in a positive direction. So whether or not you like the Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare (some apparently don’t know these are synonyms for the same thing), it’s an objective statement to say that millions of Americans were able to obtain coverage that was previously outside their means. Seems safe to say that this qualifies as a move in the right direction. How we fund that or how this is implemented is surely up for debate, but we’ll leave that for another day.
The plan now being proposed is trying to completely dismantle the AAA and regress to a time when millions of Americans couldn’t afford healthcare. This seems like a clear step backward. And what happens when people can’t afford healthcare? They don’t seek out preventive care (which is far more effective) and show up in hospitals with incredibly severe conditions that are for more difficult and expensive to treat.
Don’t get me wrong, our healthcare system is in serious need of reform. I’m not sure it should be a mandate that everyone should be forced to obtain coverage (though I don’t see a downside).
Technology and digital health records should pay a much larger role. But hastily throwing away legislation without a legitimate alternative does not seem to fit the definition of progress. And last time I checked, political affiliation has no power over Merriam-Webster.

Philosophy

Every day around 3 pm I have to see a man about a horse (that’s the ridiculous phrase my grandfather used for heading to the bathroom for a #2). This past Wednesday was no different. As I made my way to the bathroom and inside the stall, I came upon an unsettling discovery. The toilet was clogged.😩😩 Luckily it wasn’t one of the gross ones, but instead looked as if someone was on a personal mission to sabotage future visitors by simply unraveling the entire roll of toilet paper into the toilet for no reason at all.
I promptly pumped the breaks, turned around, and made my way into the other stall. All good to go in this one. Then I saw a small plunger inconspicuously sitting in the corner of the stall. I stood staring at it for a few moments not sure what to do. I didn’t clog the other toilet so why should I go out of my way to fix it? Especially when there’s a perfectly functioning one right in front of me. I stood there contemplating for what seemed like ages, but more realistically was probably 10 seconds. I had to make a decision quick. The last thing I wanted was for someone to walk in while I was busy plunging the toilet, which would, of course, give off the impression that I was the guilty party. And you can’t say “I didn’t clog this toilet. I’m just being a good samaritan by clearing it for the next person.” Yea right! 😂😂 That’s totally believable.
So I quickly grabbed the plunger, went back to the original stall and had the thing cleared in about 10 seconds. Easy peasy!
If I had to put a figure on it, I’d say that probably 5% of people would do what I did. Maybe less. In any case, the point here isn’t to seek out a thank you or an acknowledgment for my services, but instead, bring to light the idea itself. Human beings are inherently selfish creatures. Our own affairs are all consuming, especially when being considerate of others will go unnoticed. This is not a good thing. We need more undercover plumbers walking around if we want to collectively flourish!

My Latest Discovery

I approach this newsletter as a rather informal communication channel. As a result, grammatical errors, typos, and other miscues are all too common. And I’m honestly not so concerned about it.
That said, Grammarly has been a godsend. You know the spellcheck functionality within Microsoft Word, Grammarly is basically spell check embedded within your browser. It calls out mistakes in the same way Word does while you write emails, blog posts or comments on social networks. If you head to the Grammarly site and log in, there’s even a browser based document editor. Now that I think about it, I can’t believe that it took until 2017 for cloud-based word processors. It’s still the norm to purchase software licenses from Microsoft and download a local version to your computer. Bananas!! 🍌🍌

Shout out to my loving grandmother for always pointing out my mistakes! 😍

 

It’s a Wrap! ✌️ & ❤️️ in the upcoming week!