Projects I believe in
Many investors formulate certain verticals or technologies that interest them. I like to think about it differently.
To me, technology and industries are mere bi-products of human need to dominate our surroundings. In our effort of establishing humans as the most powerful species in the universe, we have undertaken immense projects. Projects that transcend generations and are the headlines of human effort throughout history, and in many years to come. These projects are the core of human effort, and to me these projects are the true aim of the technologies and industries that arise.
As an investor, I am really excited about anything that will help us progress in these areas:
Originally cities was a solution to reducing friction in transactions. The Egyptian invention of cities enabled us to live in close proximity to each other. This meant that we could easily interact and get our business done. Traveling for three days to get stuff sold on the market was a thing of the past. Productivity skyrocketed. However, this only worked to a certain point.
Continuous urbanization enlarges cities to the extent that friction starts rising again. I spend a lot of time in China because my wife is Chinese. Here I experience the implication of the rising megacities. Friction is enormous. Just getting simple things done, like going to the post office or buying or buying a new sink for the kitchen, takes forever. Traffic is a nightmare and the stores concentrate in specific parts of the city. The vast number of people creates incentives for cheating. Both buyer and seller mitigate this risk by spending more time ensuring the transaction is valid. Sometimes I spent an entire day just buying a single item.
Luckily technology is our savior. Technology can increase the mobility of people and goods in urban environments. Drones can circumvent traffic. Collaborative consumption can create liquidity in the availability cars, housing and storage space. Review and trust systems make quality providers easy to find. Payment technology saves us valuable minutes in every transaction. We want the benefit of cities without the pain. Any technology that makes it significantly easier to be an urban citizen makes me excited.
Countries formed coincidentally. Only, a few countries in Africa have been created by design, and they don’t seem to work. The division of the world into independent countries made sense, because mobility was limited.
Geographical distance mattered and countries that grew into empires struggled with this problem. Collecting taxes from Britain and getting the coins to Rome was a problem. Every attempt to sustain empires failed. Thus, countries grew independently and developed distinct laws, language and institutions. Today we suffer from this.
The entrepreneurs that came before us have solved many of the long distance mobility problems. They invented ships, trains, cars, airplanes, phones and the internet. Transferring money from Britain to Rome takes about a minute now. Business can be conducted on a global scale. However, countries still exist. And the asymmetry of laws, language and institutions is a problem.
Again, technology will help us. Technology can circumvent institutions such as banks, courts and government. Technology will make it free to buy stocks in other countries and make it easy to enforce rights and agreements across borders. Technology will remove the friction of language differences and reduce the time and hassle to get from Copenhagen to New York. Any technology that makes it significantly easier to act as a global citizen makes me excited.
Life expectancy has more than doubled in the last 100 years. In large part because of medical advances. The sad story is that the extra years mostly extend old age. 6 out of 10 people now end their life in prolonged states of frailty and growing incapacity. In practical terms, it means that you don’t recognize your children and you are being spoon fed while wearing a diaper. If you want to know more about these sad facts, see Peter Saul’s TED talk from 2011. We are getting older. Just older. Needless to say, this is the exact opposite of what we want.
The thing is that time is not created equal. One year when you are 25 is worth more than one year when you are 90. At 25 you can spend those 12 months backpacking, making children and win Olympic medals. At 90, the options for pumping natural dopamine into your brain have been drastically reduced.
Health is the answer and technology is the remedy. Health adds to the other end of life. It extends our youth and vitality. Technology can provide accurate health information, ensure the right nutrients intake and hack our biology. Any technology that significantly increases our health makes me excited.
All mammals depend on information. We use it to make decisions. Biological evolution has formed bodies with sensors that obtain information in our surroundings. Humans obtain information from five categories of sensors. We call them the five senses (sound, taste, touch, sight and smell).
However, humans have a disadvantage. First problem: We only got five senses. Many animals have more. Second problem: Our senses are not particularly good. In fact they are downright inferior. We make up for that with superior processing of the information. Still, it bothers us. Imagine if we had senses on par with dolphins, fish and bees.
In fact, we have dreamt about superior senses for a long time. Ancient Gods were humans with superior senses. From the clouds or the top of a mountain they could see and hear everything. They were omnipresent. And because of this advantage they ruled earth. Seeing and hearing everything is the ultimate advantage. The quality of decisions is a function of the speed and quality of information. Any stock broker knows this.
Technology has disrupted evolution. Instead of waiting for nature to give us the sight of an eagle, we can fly drones equipped with high resolution cameras. We can participate in lectures at universities on other continents, and we can follow a package on the way to our door. We are becoming omnipresent and our thirst for this kind of power is limitless.
Startups I believe in
The most successful company in any given ecosystem is the one that is optimally positioned within that ecosystem. A startup is the hope of a future company in a future ecosystem. However, the future is fundamentally unpredictable.
Luckily, the market is a big component of the ecosystem. The market is made up by humans, and human needs are stable and predictable. Humans want to solve problems or/and have fun.
The product takes care of the human need. The founders take care of the company’s position within the future ecosystem.
Consequently, the product must demonstrate that it is superior at serving a widespread human need and the founders must be superior at positioning the company in the future.
The product is the simple part. It just needs to have potential to solve a human need in a superior way. The tell is that early customers really love the product.
The founder team is the complicated part. They need to steer the company into an unknown future. To navigate in an unknown environment requires a team with the right set of complementary skills. The right set of skills depends on the business model.
If the startup has a product that early customers love and has a team of founders with the critical complementary skills, then the startup has a fair chance. It is a bar. An entry criteria that puts them in the bucket of entrepreneurs who have a chance of success. The equivalent would be teenagers above 190cm who want to become professional basketball players. Above this height, they all have a chance and extra height is no longer required to become a top player.
Consequently, this is the minimum requirement for me to consider investing.
However, as investor I do not succeed if the company just survives in the future ecosystem. I succeed if the company becomes the very best placed within that ecosystem. Having a fair chance is not enough. The startup needs to be the likely winner. It needs to become Michael Jordan.
Because most of the things that impact the position of the startup in the ecosystem take place in the future, the founders are the most important element.
The act of positioning the startup in an unpredictable future is the daily act of deciding where to spend the resources (time and money). Founders must be good at attracting resources and spending them wisely.
Attracting resources is a function of the ability to persuade great people to join the startup and to get investors to provide money. People and money make up the resources.
The ability to attract resources is the ability to tell stories and persuade. Like any great leader in history mastered. Conclusion: The founders must be superior leaders.
Spending the resources wisely is a function of focusing the resources where they have the biggest impact. Focus makes up the impact of the resources.
The ability to focus resources where they have the biggest impact, is the ability to learn and reflect. When my daughter tries something new and learn from the process we call her smart. Conclusion: The founders must be smart.
However, the mentioned are abilities are not enough. Founders must put ability into action. They must furiously tell stories, persuade people and make decisions to apply their resources. And they must get these things done in the most effective way possible. Often the most effective way lies outside the beaten path. Often it requires actions that are way outside what other people would consider “normal behavior”. Conclusion: The founders must get things done and be unbound by the limitations of “normal behavior” . People with the latter tendency are often called crazy. So be it. I look for the crazy doers.
The logic of my thesis commands a two step approach. First I check for Entry Criteria. Does the startup have a complete and complementary founder team and a product that early customers love? If yes, then I check for Excellence Criteria. How much do the founders get done, unbound by the limitations of “normal behavior”?. How good leaders are they? and how smart are they?. I will bet on teams with the highest Excellence Criteria score.