The official "blog of bonanza" for Alfidi Capital. The CEO, Anthony J. Alfidi, publishes periodic commentary on anything and everything related to finance. This blog does NOT give personal financial advice or offer any capital market services. This blog DOES tell the truth about business.
It's the time of year when my mentoring relationship with a very good national accelerator kicks off again. Startups will flock to the Cleantech Open to prove they have the right stuff. A few will become successful businesses. Others become very expensive hobbies for their obsessed founders. The ones that want my mentoring need to start off the right way. Here's my announcement for the ones that take my involvement seriously.
Keep everything honest and legal. I continue to shake my head at the number of would-be entrepreneurs who think dishonesty is a shortcut to success. It is actually a shortcut to workplace injuries, product recalls, class action lawsuits, regulatory fines, and even prison terms. I have a longtime habit of kicking dishonest people out of my life. I terminated multiple friendships in 2014 when I discovered dishonesty in my social circle. I will terminate business relationships that threaten my personal integrity.
Turn in your homework on time. Mentors can help find resources that will complete a business plan and its supporting details. They are not employees to be bossed around. One entrepreneur demanded that I complete his worksheets for him, because he was too lazy to take notes in the workshops he attended. His business idea has never succeeded. If you own the idea, you do the work.
Take professional advice seriously. If finance experts tell you to make realistic estimates of costs and revenues, then you need real industry data. If marketing experts tell you that Customer Development builds use cases that improve your product, then that's something you need to do. I do my own CustDev when I visit major conferences. Asking companies' booth representatives about their biggest pain point is my way of finding problems for entrepreneurs to solve.
I am only scratching the surface. The startups I used to meet outside of well-run accelerators like CTO made me want to run for the hills as fast as possible. They invariably violated the above guidelines. I now only deal with accelerators because I appreciate the discipline of entrepreneurs who subject themselves to rigorous development. Alfidi Capital is serious about business, behind its veneer of humor.
I got my first limited exposure to TiECON just this year. I was lucky enough to score a free pass to the social entrepreneurship track. Someone told me it would also score admission to the entire conference but the check-in people told me that was not the case. What a bummer. I prefer free admission whenever possible.
I did not know that the UNICEF Innovation Center existed until they sent a representative to speak at TiECON. I would like to see more success stories about how tech breaks the cycle of victimhood in humanitarian aid. More self-reliant clients means more inefficient relief NGOs can close their doors. I'll believe UNICEF is serious about Big Data relief solutions when it works its way out of existence.
The social investors panel dropped some gems of wisdom. If I recall correctly, one expert said innovation, reach, impact, and determination are the preferred social enterprise success factors. Show me the KPIs for each category so our social entrepreneurs know how to fulfill each factor. The funders see entrepreneurial potential in Indian high school grads in the academic top 10-15% of their classes who gain admission to engineering and medical school. I think they should refine their criteria to include personality assessments that select for people with intrinsic motivation and a low need for approval. The funders are also big believers in personal role models for the high-potential proteges they identify in underprivileged communities. It sure is nice when someone powerful launches a deus ex machina into a poor region.
I give bonus points for the creativity in naming a talk "Making the Elephant in the Indian Economy Dance." Just don't dance anywhere near that elephant and you should be okay. Infrastructure attracts capital and talent; Silicon Valley has long known this and Indians have figured it out. I thought of Maslow's hierarchy of needs when the speaker dude said making a change in someone's life meant meeting all of their needs. The point is that it's impossible for an entrepreneur to reach Maslow's self-actualization pinnacle if they worry about what to eat and where to sleep. Here comes my massive revelation, people. Short of meeting all human needs, a scalable social entrepreneurial solution lowers the challenges a disadvantaged population faces, so they can meet their own needs with less difficulty. The solution must of course serve a large target market to be worth scaling, and India definitely has a large population of very poor people.
I had never heard of the Hinduja Group Foundation until this conference. The controlling family's representative could certainly practice her public speaking skills before addressing TiECON. Having family wealth grants access to the WEF at Davos but does not guarantee obvious strategic vision. I agree with the family's advocacy for greater gender parity and maternity benefits in career tracks. I always want to see women get ahead, especially the ones wiggling shapely behinds as they climb their career ladders.
I still cringe when minimally qualified people get a public platform through the luck of their birth into privilege. Gall dang it, I would rather have spent time in TiECON's oil and gas track than listen to a dilettante mouth off. Speaking about social capital means having competence in allocating capital. Family mouthpieces need to have the most competent parts of their bloodline facing the public. The weaker people should stay on the sidelines at the polo field.
The final panel shared some best practices for nonprofits' success. The panelists wasted time talking about everything their nonprofits did, except for how they succeeded! I kept wondering about a best practice for scoring with hot nonprofit babes. If donors are the equivalent of VCs for nonprofits, they should make their expectations clear through the various forms of donor-advised giving. If nonprofits want to avoid being held hostage to donor demands, they should develop market-based revenue streams that will make them financially independent.
TiECON is doing the right thing by branching out into social entrepreneurship. More care in selecting their noted experts would enhance this track's credibility at future conferences. TiE should note how SOCAP operates. The nonprofit sector doesn't generate the returns that TiE's capitalist entrepreneurs are accustomed to seeing in their careers. I appreciate the hot Indian babes who attended this particular track. I'm certain I can leverage their assets in some future joint ventures, if you know what I mean.
I spent this Memorial Day weekend remembering those Americans who died while serving in the military. Most of the rest of the country went on vacation. That's nice. I'll remember them the next time an enemy force is shooting at me.
Stanley Fischer is dialing down expectations for the Fed's interest rate increases. The Fed let its messaging get far ahead of its planned actions. Now they have to walk markets back. They can change their long-range estimates anytime. They can't change much about their balance sheet without severely disrupting the fixed-income market. It's time to smack some bond fund managers who are too lazy to compare the Fed's PR to its financial statements.
China solicits private investment in its infrastructure. Doubling down on overbuilt urbanism takes some serious chutzpah. All of those phantom cities in the hinterland could not possibly need more water treatment facilities. Beijing is betting that the outside world is too stupid to care. Any day now, sovereign wealth funds will line up to throw good money into this black hole. If they cannot or will not do so, ordinary Chinese savers will be forced to convert their shadow banking WMP products into these new PPP investments. Same garbage, different landfill.
I don't have any links to hard data on the IQs of Wall Street people. I'm pretty sure that hedge fund managers and analysts would test high on IQ and low on EQ. They're blind to black swans that can instantly destroy their investment philosophies. I'm also sure that most investment bank managers would score high for sociopathy. I don't think any of them stopped to honor Memorial Day the right way.
I secured a last-minute invitation to CIOarena's San Francisco conference last week. I had to skip the last day of Apps World North America but that turned out to be the right call. The CIO types held forth on security policies that enterprises must address. I did not see any signs worth photographing nest to my handwritten name badge, so forget that Alfidi Capital tradition this time. Just imagine the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco in all its glory. My thoughts below reflect what I learned from the speakers.
I get my normal fill of updates on advanced persistent threats (APTs) through military-related news. The private sector tracks the same open sources. IT gatekeepers should think hard about what they reveal on LinkedIn to avoid becoming social engineering targets. The APT attack process is sufficiently well-defined that proactive IT people can monitor data exfiltration and shut down exposed portals that display abnormal usage spikes. Machine learning means automated IT security audits should develop predictive abilities after some critical mass of iterations.
I love the term "managed services." It ranks right up there with "paradigm shift" and "game changer" for scoring points in after-work drinking games. Outsourcing routine IT ops means inexperienced contract managers can hand managed services over to high-cost outsiders. Watch out when senior managers start using the term in strategic planning when they need to cut headcount. Enterprises seem to have challenges maintaining a robust configuration management database (CMDB). I don't see how any outsourcing makes that challenge easier to handle.
I have no elegant solution to identity management problems. Managing identities with MS SharePoint was simple enough when I was a knowledge management officer several years ago. I can only suggest a way forward. Building a 2x2 matrix to optimize identity management for each business unit would be a start, with number of identities on one axis and number of devices on the other axis. The SBUs in the quadrant with the most of each get the closest scrutiny. I also have no elegant solution for data lifecycle management. Industry standards for data lifecycles and analytics frameworks are widely available. Lifecycles will compress as speed becomes the critical factor in processing huge Big Data volumes. High performance computing (HPC) will be a growth industry, given the need for speed in more organizations handling Big Data.
CIOarena met its stated goal of furthering my educational needs. I can't speak for the other attendees, who did not appear to be taking notes. I'm usually the only person who takes notes at these things. I have no idea why other humans have so little interest in documenting what they know for further reference. Maybe some top corporate people think they can blow through their careers without ever applying what they are supposed to learn. That is not my style.
Apps World North America held court last week at San Francisco's Moscone Center, and I was in attendance to display my usual flair for original thinking. The Internet of Things World event happened concurrently but I only had room on my schedule for the first day's apps action. I'm in demand these days. Stand by for a blast of Alfidi Capital wisdom.
I continue to be impressed that the Customer Development model works for startups. App developers launching into the Apple and Google app stores really do their CustDev homework. Apps that don't collect customer data have an advantage in not having to worry about privacy policies or data breaches, but their disadvantage is that they must still collect usage data somehow. The rise of the app coding, rock star, mercenary hacker owes much to local culture. Silicon Valley likes to overpay for talent and now programmers think too much of themselves. Cheap outsourcing may be a shortcut to app development while quality ultimately suffers, at least according to conventional wisdom. The developer community has every incentive to perpetuate that belief. Code testing separates the good app developers from the poseurs. The elegant solution is to make some portion of a coder's pay dependent upon the outcome of independent testing.
Google's sales pitch for monetization included pitches for its other properties. If I owned a property like YouTube, I would also be a fan of a broadcast channel dedicated to an app's vertical. I'm sure that's also a great reason to buy Google AdWords campaigns. Mobile deep linking will be challenging for unskilled developers; standard formats will keep the UX the same across different platforms. Google's AdMob service will probably corner the market on in-app purchases and native ads. Google has its eyes on the Web's next growth phase and that means owning the biggest app monetization plan.
Evernote CEO Phil Libin wanted us to mourn the pending death of apps. His point about content taking priority over architecture resonates with users who don't have to design anything. Even wearables need some kind of reachback capability into the cloud where all of the architecture and almost all of the data must ultimately reside. I appreciated Phil's insights that wearables will profoundly shorten session length and multiply use frequency compared to mobile app use, and that screen size on a smartwatch is not the crucial form factor for apps in a wearable world. I'll quote him: "UX will replace apps." He wants us to design experiences for the person, not the device, so handoffs between phone and watch will be seamless. A single session on multiple devices means marketers expect us to be immersed in our own private clouds every waking minute. If there's no need for every app feature on every device, some of those devices will do background work that won't require user input. Think quantified self here, folks, then think about involuntary biofeedback from your smartwatch. Taking Phil's advice to design for short, frequent sessions measured in session opens the door to invisible apps that work with body's automatic rhythms rather than our conscious minds. Phil's talk was heavily attended but I wonder if anyone came away with as much to think about as I did from my front-row seat.
All that talk about ubiquitous UX made me think that the real action is still on the back-end. If developers gravitate to UX the way they currently do to gaming, anyone left who works on the back-end will face little competition and higher compensation. Outsourcing back-end services carries risk. Most app builders may not be skilled in supervising third-party providers. "Storyboarding" is a very important part of app development for some companies. Big companies tend not to do it while startups tend to break an app's process into different storyboards. Third-party libraries can be useful sources for code that has universal appeal, especially for security and encryption.
New developers have two more metrics to learn: cost per install (CPI) and cost per unique user (CPUU). App Annie shared some developmental wisdom about soft launching to find an app/market fit. I did not know that test launching in an Asian market has a lower CPI until App Annie said so on stage. I also did not know that markets with similar development demographics will show comparable LTVs. Wow, listening to App Annie is better than listening to Gartner. These developers will need finance types like me to help them model their LTVs if they take App Annie's lessons seriously. Look before you leap, test the app before you deploy, and model the business before you launch.
I was maxed out on apps after the first day. Building a business around apps is easier than ever. The elimination of difficult entry barriers is precisely what makes the app space so attractive, and so crowded. I believe the game developers at this Apps World will pivot to wearables once they figure out how to make games for those short sessions Phil Libin foresees. Your smartwatch will play a game with you to get you to take the stairs more often and eat less sugar. I'll see the devices at some future Apps World but I much prefer to wear my old-fashioned watches.
I recently attended a founder's talk at a SOMA tech startup. Confidentiality agreements prevent me from revealing its identity. Suffice it to say that the '90s dot-com era is back with a vengeance. All of the trappings of excess capital were on display: custom bike racks, stacks of board games, and even a Foosball table. The one contemporary update was the constant flow of gourmet food. All of these things will be gone in short order.
Venture-backed startups can afford expensive nonsense like in-house dietitians and custom menus in gourmet food courts. Conventional wisdom holds that top-notch technical talent absolutely must have a work environment that resembles their parents' living rooms. Talented engineers can't be bothered to make their own cheap lunches at home or grab a quick pizza slice at the corner shop. Catering to these whims cultivates a perpetual adolescence among the most highly educated people in the world. It's no wonder Millennials are in love with the Affordable Care Act and other government entitlement programs. Desire for cradle-to-grave security now carries over into their Silicon Valley workplaces.
Here comes a hard-core smack upside the head for these overgrown babies. Venture capital funds have an easy time attracting investors right now because institutional investors (pension funds and university endowments) need higher yields in their portfolios to match the liabilities of their future payout streams. They can't find those yields in the Federal Reserve's zero interest rate environment. The easy availability of risk capital thus engenders VC investments in wasteful startups. Fast talkers with a cute coding idea are now populating very crowded B2B and B2C marketplaces, all because VCs need to throw money at things.
These euphoric waves in hot startup sectors always end painfully. Normal interest rates will destroy investors' appetites for risky investments. Higher rates will also destroy the stock market's bull run that would otherwise have allowed lucrative exits for even the worst tech businesses. Startups with tons of pampered employees will be nothing memories in a couple of years. Maybe their exposed brick SOMA offices can be re-zoned for affordable housing, where former tech rock stars can live once their unemployment checks kick in.
I will not miss the gourmet food or its enabling ecosystem of culinary experts. Vegetables and other healthy things are cheap. Insanely expensive spices have low-cost substitutes called salt, pepper, and butter. Healthy meal ideas are one web search away, with no need for costly food professionals on retainer. A return to financial sanity in Silicon Valley means a return to frugality. Millennials will learn to pack their own brown bag lunches.
Behavioral finance research discovered that good financial decisions are often counterintuitive. Sarcasm can also be counterintuitive but that is not an iron law.
Credit card companies love doing business in hyperinflationary Venezuela. Charging fees to banks that pay in hard currency (the US dollar at present) is the key to success. When hyperinflation comes to the US, expect card companies to charge banks using Australian and Canadian currency. Americans won't know the difference because they'll be swiping that card for a jar of peanut butter priced at $10M of worthless US currency.
Critics of the TPP's fast-track bill may be right about some of its risks. The business elites pushing the trade deal don't care much for Dodd-Frank rules. Wall Street sees the rules as little more than a nuisance because its lobbyists helped write the law. Sleepwalkers at the SEC have little incentive to enforce rules that will harm their chances for future employment on Wall Street. Waving a weakened Dodd-Frank in the progressive Left's face is a cheap tactic for policymakers who know how banks get around rules.
Fannie and Freddie securities will soon be one combined issue. The sucker institutional investors who buy MBS will now have an easier time going bankrupt. They only have to buy one product full of subprime mortgages for people who can't pay bills. No one learned anything from the mortgage loan nonsense of the last housing crash. The chase for yield in a zero interest rate world now means dumb fixed-income portfolio managers will pile into MBS all at once.
I have spent way too much time lately dealing with trivial things and people. I must now make more effort to ignore those things and avoid those people. I will soon discover whether a small amount of time I spent on a high-payoff opportunity was time well spent.
The foxes are in the hen-house, the inmates run the asylum, and perversity remains a hallmark of the financial sector. Here I sit in my San Francisco sanctuary, pondering it all.
Japan's public debt continues to balloon out of control. Abenomics is no more sane than the Bernanke/Yellen paradigm. How many yen Japan will have to print to hyperinflate the debt mountain away is anyone's guess. I won't guess the number of yen I should hold; it will be precisely zero until Japan wises up.
China is eager to do business with Russia. Sanctions are for law-abiding countries, not single-party kleptocracies. Russia knows it's the junior partner here and doesn't care as long as it gets cash up front. Expect Putin's circle to steal that cash and leave Russian infrastructure to languish further. The scheme will come back to haunt Russia in about a decade when Chinese colonists try to slice off Siberia.
Climate engineering is an emerging solution in search of a problem. Our planet's periodic temperature changes may not be radical enough to warrant spewing dust or water vapor into the upper atmosphere. That won't stop some motivated groups from trying.
The science behind climate engineering's effectiveness is even more contentious than the science behind climate change theories. Even the IPCC is skeptical of climate engineering. How much climate engineering is needed to normalize the planet? How much will it cost? Who will pay for it? Modeling atmospheric modifications in laboratories is not enough to determine policy impacts. Other policy options, such as carbon taxes and carbon trading regimes, are already in place.
Planet hackers who worry about introducing a profit motive into climate engineering need to get real. Nothing big happens without an economic incentive driving behavior. Carbon trading has already introduced private investment into climate modification. Private investors could fund small-scale climate engineering in fertile regions to enhance crop yields. Some iron fertilization projects have shown limited results; this is the natural result of allowing private investors to experiment with novel ideas.
Someone is going to make a buck from climate-related phenomena. The easiest way to moderate climate change is to plant trees. People have been doing that since the first Arbor Day, for crying out loud. Demand for saplings means timber REITs have fat years ahead. More exotic approaches that require adventures into the upper atmosphere may eventually benefit specialized aviation services, if any governments with deep pockets are willing to fund such programs. It is perfectly okay to make a fortune by saving the planet.
I attended the Emerging Technologies Coordinating Council (ETCC) quarterly meeting in San Francisco last week. They were "Charting the Course to Integrated Solutions" this time at PG+E's SOMA complex. It made perfect sense to convene talks on building integrated solutions at one of the best local clearinghouses for the topic. I was charting my own course to building systems knowledge and free food. All of those elements were on hand.
I have heard engineering and design professionals discuss biomimetics as an efficient design principle. One ETCC speaker mentioned biophilia as if it were the next evolution in design. I would like to see how that plays out. Biomimetics gives us individual devices and structures that look like they came from the natural environment's sustainable processes. Biophilia should link those devices to larger social systems.
Public domain statistics on zero net energy (ZNE) buildings show California leading the US. This implies a large addressable market for things like IoT components that snap into efficient buildings. The growth of solar tech and integrated energy storage solutions is getting lots of buzz. Let's see the stats from market leaders. Tesla Motors and SolarCity are pumping that hype machine for all it's worth.
I was not surprised to learn that finance types in the energy sector lack the technical competence to evaluate a product's viability. The claim that PACE providers of integrated packages are typically more creditworthy than mortgage lenders reflects this lack of understanding. Financing a new building upgrade with a PACE assessment can easily lead to wasted investments if the proposed retrofit technology doesn't deliver as promised.
The experts on hand revealed that obtaining ZNE benefits through retrofit is still difficult with CPUC code restrictions that discourage improvements in older buildings. Larger frameworks like ecodistricts and energy use intensity (EUI) encourage developers to think beyond the ROI of a single building when redeveloping a neighborhood. Developers are learning how to charge premium rents for ZNE buildings by calculating accelerated lease-ups and lower operating expenses after retrofits.
Finance people who need to recalculate the ROIs of ZNE targets can find helpful data at UC Berkeley's Center for the Built Environment and DOE LBL's Flexlab. Peer-reviewed technical data isn't just for engineers and architects. It matters in calculating the added rent per square foot a ZNE building earns. Find the energy cost savings first, fellow analysts.
I'm certain that geospatial Big Data on sunshine, wind, and cloud cover will play a role in optimizing a ZNE building for a local climate. Analytics are the low-hanging fruit of any disruptive opportunity in building construction. Building systems are complex and diverse standards complicate integration. A unified data source of best practices would be a valuable and disruptive tool for real estate developers. I'd like to see the UC Berkeley and DOE tools include APIs that make monetizing the data easy.
I have not heard the last of ETCC's bright ideas. The startups I mentor in the Cleantech Open will be glad that I'm on top of these developments. Forget the finance sector people who don't know what they're talking about. Alfidi Capital suffers no such deficiency because I know where to look for data.
I was privileged to attend a talk tonight at USF's School of Management campus in downtown San Francisco. My own USF MBA has proven totally worthless but sometimes these talks are entertaining, and they always offer free food. That's the only value I will ever obtain from my education. I went to hear USF Prof. Vijay Mehrotra describe his "Confessions of Angel Investing." He had five main lessons to share. Here they are, verbatim.
1. Invest in entrepreneurs who are sufficiently obsessed with their business success.
2. Invest in those companies and founders who have a strong idea of who their customers are, and why they do (or do not) spend money.
3. Invest in companies that have some kind of unfair advantage.
4. Invest in and with people where your value to one another goes beyond money.
5. Invest only with people who you deeply trust and share your values.
Those five lessons reflect a lot of the wisdom on display at countless tech conferences and VC panels I've attended since 2011. I totally agree with Prof. Mehrotra that worthwhile startups should make the world a better place and that exceptional customer knowledge is tough to obtain. His qualitative insights into the value of experience should include the one thing that I have come to understand as crucial for a successful startup. That one thing is the presence of a serial entrepreneur on the team.
Serial entrepreneurs bring obsession as a habit because they've done it all before. They have exceptional customer knowledge from launching and growing several startups in the same vertical. The seasoned executive brings that "unfair advantage" of anticipating routine problems that rookie entrepreneurs don't see coming. The remaining Big Data challenge is to somehow collate the quantitative results of serial entrepreneurs running startups.
Prof. Mehrotra shared some stories of acquaintances who succumbed to ethical lapses in their lines of work. Even experienced angel investors can miss red flags in the character traits of founders. I would add that due diligence requirements increase with the cash commitments startups need as they mature. A few background checks on the founding team are cheap to perform. Checking for fraud can save a lot of invested capital from entering the valley of death.
The good professor asked his audience to write down what "success" meant to each of us. I did not have to think at all about what I needed to write, and I'll share it now.
- Living with honor and integrity
- Having a small number of high-quality friends worthy of trust
- Achieving maximum possible self-actualization
- Sharing love and wisdom with others, especially the close circle of friends
- Having a clear understanding of one's place in the world
You may recognize some of these concepts from ancient Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations helped me understand why these things are important. Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative reminds me to always act in ways that support these beliefs. Notice that I didn't mention money or worldly power in my success definition. Those things should follow naturally once the above qualities are evident.
I left the lecture early due to a schedule conflict, so I missed the other experienced investor following Prof. Mehrotra. I would like the angel investing community to take serial entrepreneurs and ethics more seriously. Long years of varied experiences build the kind of intuition that serves executive judgment well. Success should follow naturally.
In some parallel universe, sarcasm does not exist. I would hate to live there. My universe's sarcasm calibration makes life way more interesting.
Warren Buffett cautions against a minimum wage increase. Every once in a while he spouts some common sense like the small business owner he used to be. The guy may not be going soft after all in his old age. He's a step ahead of the federal policymakers who don't read their own CBO and CRS reports showing clear relationships between a higher minimum wage and lower job growth.
Greek bond trading volume just went down a big hole. No one in their right mind wants to buy Greek bonds while the Tsipras government must go hat in hand to Brussels. Hedge funds still buying this junk are insane. The dumbest private investors hope debt relief will hit the troika's Greek bond holdings first. Good luck with that plan, idiots. The troika has every right to throw private investors under the bus when the time comes.
The SEC is dragging its heels in paying whistleblower rewards. That figures. The SEC couldn't catch Bernie Madoff and other fraudsters, so they spite the ones who do catch them by showing passive-aggressive behavior with payouts. I can think of a couple of local phonies I'd like to nail if it would get me some of that payout money. Waiting years for a claim would cramp my style. That's what they mean by "close enough for government work" when the check clears three years late.