Thursday, March 28, 2019

Wooditch, Fail More

Bill Wooditch, the founder and CEO of The Wooditch Group, a risk-management and corporate insurance firm, takes on what has become a staple of commencement speeches in the last few years: failure. In Fail More: Embrace, Learn, and Adapt to Failure as a Way to Success (McGraw-Hill, 2019) Wooditch covers well-trodden ground, but he does so in a commonsensical, straightforward way.

For instance, he discusses one manifestation of fear: procrastination. “It’s the salesperson who, instead of making cold calls, creates files, rearranges the office space daily, takes an hour in the break room before, during, and after lunch, and then performs like a dilettante, not a professional. … Hours go by; momentum is lost. And as the hours sweep by, so goes the day, the month, and the year.”

Failure can be constructive, leaving clues and tools a person can use to forge success. “Failure is simply a small price you must pay to satisfy the burning desire of what you must have.”

Wooditch learned in spades about failure in his first job in sales at Liberty Mutual. He made a commitment to himself to make more cold calls than anyone else in the office—350 to 400 calls a day. And he was failing upward of 315 times a day, or 1,575 times per workweek. But he persisted, recognizing that “the only way to move through pain is to partner with it.” He had to habituate himself to rejection and failure if he was ever going to improve.

Although Wooditch draws on his own experiences both as a salesman and as a CEO, he also shares examples from the careers of people like Jack Ma, Gary Cohn, Mark Cuban, David Neeleman, and Steve Harvey. Fail More isn’t going to win kudos from the academic community, but it has enough nuggets of wisdom to be a worthwhile quick read.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Mills, Unstoppable Teams

Alden Mills, a former Navy SEAL platoon commander and CEO of the workout equipment company Perfect Fitness, has written a quintessentially human book. Unstoppable Teams: The Four Essential Actions of High-Performance Leadership (Harper Business, 2019) focuses on the soft skills necessary to build and nurture a winning team. At their core is caring. Hence his four-point framework CARE: connect, achieve, respect, empower.

What sets this book apart, however, is not so much the framework as the way in which Mills engages with the reader. He tells stories from his own experiences that resonate. There was the time, for instance, when he was a child, that a doctor diagnosed him with asthma, said that he had smaller than average lungs for his size, and suggested that he live a less active lifestyle and learn chess. Through tears, he exclaimed to his mother: “Mom! Chess? I’m not any good at checkers!” His mother wisely responded that “No one, and I mean no one defines what you can or can’t do. That’s up to you.” And he became a SEAL, despite his “disqualifying” asthma. He writes about the Naval Academy crew program, which accepted men, unlike Mills, who had never rowed before and nonetheless created a nationally competitive boat. He recounts some of his SEAL experiences and the extraordinary challenges his start-up faced. He also recaps other people’s successes, sometimes despite staggering odds, in a range of fields.

If you want to create a winning team, whatever the venue (even marriage), you’ll find this book to be a heartwarming, inspiring read. Perhaps because the author cares about his readers.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Bahcall, Loonshots

Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries (St. Martin’s Press, 2019) is a terrific book, one I couldn’t put down. And it’s not just for people making business decisions. It’s for anyone who wants to understand the sociology of science and technology. I found it a compelling—and entertaining—update to Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Bahcall trained as a physicist (Harvard and Stanford), decamped from science for three years to work as a consultant for McKinsey, and then co-founded the biotechnology company Synta Pharmaceuticals, where he served as CEO for 13 years.

Bahcall’s thesis is as simple as it is brilliant. He expresses it as a three-step argument: (1) “The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy,” (2) “Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries,” (3) “Applying the science of phase transitions to the behavior of teams, companies, or any group with a mission provides practical rules for nurturing loonshots faster and better.”

He illustrates and explicates his thesis with a wide range of examples of both successes and failures. There is Juan Trippe of PanAm, Edwin Land of Polaroid, Vannevar Bush of the OSRD (the wartime loonshots nursery). He explores why the world speaks English instead of Chinese or Arabic. He debunks Newton’s status as the lone genius who discovered universal gravity, explained the motion of the plants, and invented calculus. Newton was instead the great synthesizer of the ideas of others. Bahcall’s hero is Kepler, who “broke far more violently from the past than Newton” and who was closest in spirit to Einstein.

At the heart of Bahcall’s argument is the notion of phase transitions, when “systems snap—liquids suddenly freeze, traffic suddenly jams, forests or terror networks suddenly erupt—when the tide turns in a microscopic battle.” A phase transition is the sudden change between two emergent behaviors.

As applied to the financial markets, Bahcall argues against Alan Greenspan’s view that efficient markets and invisible hands are fundamental laws that are rarely, if ever, violated. “That fallacy is one cause of policy disasters (or investment opportunities, if you are a trader).” Instead, both efficient markets and invisible hands are emergent properties, collective behaviors, “dynamics of the whole that don’t depend on the details of the parts.” And, to repeat, emergent properties can change suddenly.

I have offered here only a glimpse into the richness of Loonshots. Even though it’s early in the year, I can guarantee that it will be on my list of best books of 2019.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Webb, The Big Nine

On February 11, President Donald Trump launched the American AI Initiative, directing federal agencies to focus on the technology. The United States was slow to take even this admittedly vague action. At least 18 other countries had already announced national AI strategies. Canada was the first off the blocks, in March 2017, and, most notably, China announced its next generation AI plan in July 2017 and its three-year action plan in December of that year.

The U.S. government may not have a national strategy, but that doesn’t mean that American companies are not shaping the future of artificial intelligence. Amy Webb, a futurist and professor of strategic foresight at the NYU Stern School of Business, claims in The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity (PublicAffairs/Hachette, 2019) that nine companies now control the future of AI: the G-MAFIA (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM, and Apple) in the U.S. and the BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent) in China.

Even though Webb does not want to preclude the G-MAFIA from earning revenue and growing, she thinks it is critically important to realize that AI has become a public good, just like our breathable air. “[W]e cannot continue to think of it as a platform built by the Big Nine for digital commerce, communications, and cool apps.”

As AI evolves, becoming an ever more dominant part of our lives, we have a responsibility to steer it in the right direction. Webb outlines three possible scenarios of our future with AI—the optimistic, the pragmatic, and the catastrophic. Only if countries across the globe collaborate on AI standards and best practices and if governments, companies, universities, and individuals change their current practices, she argues, can we avert a potential catastrophe.

The Big Nine is a thought-provoking book, well worth the read.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Stevenson & Tuckwell, The Ultimate ETF Guidebook

Trust me, there’s a lot about ETFs that you don’t know. David Stevenson, a columnist at the Financial Times, and David Tuckwell, editor of ETF Stream, set out to remedy that situation. The Ultimate ETF Guidebook (Harriman House, 2019), even though in some of its chapters it tilts toward the European and London markets, should be of value to everyone using, or thinking about using, ETFs in their portfolios.

For those who want a look under the hood, the book explains the different ways in which ETFs can be constructed (physically replicating, synthetically replicating, ETN or ETC), reasons for tracking errors, and how ETF issuers can make money even if their fees are close to zero (lending stock to short sellers).

The book takes aim at the argument that passive investing is taking over and that passive funds will destroy efficient markets. It analyzes the continuum of ETF investing strategies, maintaining that passive and active is not a binary choice. It introduces the reader to factor-based investing, ESG investing, and leveraged ETFs.

Following a detailed laundry list of global asset classes, the book turns to building ETF portfolios as constituents of diversified portfolios. The authors suggest that the ordinary (in reality, the more sophisticated) investor might think about copying some of the strategies of macro hedge funds using ETFs.

The authors then devote a chapter to five model portfolios: adventurous growth, balanced, opportunistic, contrarian, and cautious. And finally, they list what they consider to be the top 75 ETFs in the London market and 26 wild card ETFs.

All in all, The Ultimate ETF Guidebook would be a worthy addition to any investor’s library.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Updegrove, The Blockchain Revolution

Those who have been following the exploits of cybersecurity expert Frank Adversego will welcome Andrew Updegrove’s fifth novel in the series, The Blockchain Revolution: A Tale of Insanity and Anarchy. This time, Frank is hired by First Manhattan Bank to be its chief risk officer for blockchain technologies. The bank is moving all its financial processes onto a global financial blockchain system, which it refers to as “BankCoin,” and it can’t afford to be hacked. Naturally, the hacker is lying in wait.

And it isn’t only the Western banking system that is in potential jeopardy. The Russian government’s cryptocurrency, designed to circumvent Western sanctions, is a second target of the hacker. And, of course, on the radar of the U.S. government. And in the portfolio of a not so upright hedge fund manager.

The Blockchain Revolution is not only a good read as a thriller. It’s also a thoroughly enjoyable way to learn more about blockchain systems and cryptocurrency. And, the kicker, the e-book is currently only $0.99 on Amazon.