The Great Depression

On My Mind | 2024.02.02

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On My Mind

Happy Friday!

As I mentioned last week, I have been debating a rebrand and slight reorientation of ButWhatFor. I appreciate all the poll participation and emails with thoughts and reactions — they have helped me weigh various alternatives and understand what is most valuable to you all.

Based on all that back and forth, I am experimenting with “History Investor” as a hypothesis for a new name and topic inspiration (You can give me feedback on this change in the poll below — name and approach is not set in stone yet). You will also see a new, less flashy but hopefully cleaner color format below. Please let me know if it isn’t an improvement — I’m somewhat color blind and find what I think works doesn’t always actually work!

As I think most readers are aware, I work in venture capital investing in early stage businesses and backing founders / entrepreneurs that are trying to improve people’s lives through technology. Before that, my investing activities were focused on building or buying businesses within the energy value chain.

Both of those roles put me in a position where it was valuable to read broadly. That wide reading was what originally inspired me to start ButWhatFor. I found I was forgetting too much of what I read, but when I spent time sharing what I read with others, I tended to remember it. Thus, I wanted to share worthwhile writing with others weekly.

And there will be minimal change on that front. I might change the curation email format a bit to give me more flexibility (solve situations where I have 3 short articles and no long articles that I want to share that week) and test different days of the week. It will take a little bit of experimenting — but I will plan to keep those curation emails going given the email feedback I have received.

What would make those emails even more interesting, to me, would be you all sharing your thoughts through comments and likes by clicking the title up top and sharing your thoughts on the web page where others can read it. Beehiiv recently improved their commenting / liking / social sharing features, and it would be interesting for me to turn these emails into more community-esque discussions as opposed to email responses with just me.

Outside of the curation emails, I want to get back into reading and sharing more from books and longer articles. As the name “History Investor” and my day job implies, I will look at those articles through the lens of investing — but that investment can be an investment in a third party business, your own business, your own career, or your own daily life. So, I am thinking about doing more things that look like my most popular article of the last three years: Supposed I Wanted to Kill A Lot of Pilots.

I hope this change makes sense and is interesting for everyone here. While there will be an underlying trend towards takeaways from the stories as it relates to investors / founders / technology companies / entrepreneurs, I will do my best to make sure the history itself is meaningful to those without business interests themselves. To the extent I fail on that front, please let me know!

Side request: If anyone has experience transferring a website to a new domain name — so taking and making it point all URLs to in a way that old links in external and internal pages don’t break — I would appreciate a quick note on the concepts / ideas I should be researching. Thank you!

ButWhatFor? Four for Friday

1. One Quote: Clear Goal and Measure

2. One Long: The Great Depression

3. One Short: How to Lose Time and Money

4. One Poll: History Investor

One Quote

I have been struck by how important measurement is to improving the human condition. You can achieve incredible progress if you set a clear goal and find a measure that will drive progress toward that goal...

This may seem basic, but it is amazing how often it is not done and how hard it is to get right.

— Bill Gates

I recently spoke with an early stage investor that has 10x the number of portfolio companies that I do. I asked him how he deals with the complexity of so many founders / management teams / businesses.

His answer was simple — he measures their progress with a few KPIs (“key performance indicators”), helps when asked to do so, but otherwise spends no time with his companies. Based on how those KPIs trend, he focuses on one core initiative with the portfolio company on quarterly calls until the trend improves. And then he just watches the KPIs again.

That’s it. He makes sure the CEO is measuring the right few KPIs every month. He asks questions about the KPIs every quarter. If done right, the fact that a few important things are measured leads to an improving business.

Something similar happened on my end personally.

In the past, I didn’t own a body weight scale. After about three years into a new job, I was obviously overweight. I bought a scale to see how overweight — and it was bad.

But now I had a scale. And I could look at my weight every morning. It took 18 months or so, but looking at my weight prompted new behaviors. My body weight declined.

Today, I don’t watch my diet in terms of calories or food amounts at all. Sure, I make sure I am getting the right mix of foods — “That’s green, I haven’t eaten that much green this week, I guess I should eat that green thing” and similar — but that’s about it.

However, I step on that scale every morning. I look at the weight shown. My brain has a reaction and I move on with my day. And then I do it again the next day. And the next. And the next. And I haven’t put back on unhealthy weight.

Measurement seems important.

One Long

For the first time in my personal business life I am witnessing a major financial crisis. I am anxious to learn the lessons of this depression. To the man past middle life it spells tragedy and disaster, but to those of us in the middle thirties it may be a great school of experience out of which some worthwhile lesson may be salvaged. With this thought in mind I am going to write down brief accounts of developments as they occur from time to time.

June 5, 1931

— Benjamin Roth

I was listening to a recent podcast with Morgan Housel where he mentions a book — The Great Depression: A Diary — having been influential on how he thinks because it showed how much of what we believe is different about our own times is, in fact, nothing new.

It is an interesting book — nearly 100% verbatim transcripts from Benjamin Roth’s (a middle class lawyer working in an Ohio steel town) diary, which he started (as stated in the quote above) for the expressed purpose of learning how to better prepare for the future by writing down his observations on the financial crisis that would ultimately become known as the Great Depression.

He starts his endeavor in 1931 and continues it all the way through 1941, which is impressive. More amazing to me, however, is that throughout all those years, Roth continuously goes back over his diary entries and updates them with new learnings and follow-ups, meaning you get to see his initial reactions in 1931, how things have transpired through 1933, and how he was ultimately proven wrong in 1938 — all through writing where he was more or less talking with himself over a decade!

Looking in the mirror, I am not sure I could ever have such perseverance. A decade of writing to yourself just so that you could learn to think better. Roth must have been an interesting man. I have only just started the book — but it is proving interesting already.

Given that, I am thinking I will start a series on the book as the first History Investor series (if we stick with that name!). My approach would be similar to some of my older writing where I pulled heavily from the source materials with added context around the edges.

I am about to get through the first section of the book — so give me another week to see if that plan actually makes sense!

One Short

How to Lose Time and Money (Link)

The most dangerous way to lose time is not to spend it having fun, but to spend it doing fake work. When you spend time having fun, you know you're being self-indulgent. Alarms start to go off fairly quickly…

But the same alarms don't go off on the days when I get nothing done, because I'm doing stuff that seems, superficially, like real work. Dealing with email, for example. You do it sitting at a desk. It's not fun. So it must be work.

— Paul Graham

Paul Graham writes insightful essays — and has a list of them on his website that I occasionally go through at random. Right now work is tough and having a baby certainly doesn’t make it easier, so every day starts feeling like a fight for time that’s already been lost. Inspired by having what feels like no time, I clicked on his How to Lose Time and Money in a sleepy haze earlier one morning this week.

Graham starts by explaining how he had to change his mental models after making a large amount of money. The thought processes he needed to invest large amounts of money were different than the skills he needed to build a business or invest small amounts of capital. In short, he had to “create new alarms” in his head to alert him to situations where he might lose wealth.

Previously, he didn’t have to worry about losing lots of money because he didn’t have a lot of it to begin with. What makes having a lot of money so dangerous is that you feel like you should be able to invest it differently to make more — so you will go do some derivative trade Goldman Sachs says is a sure thing and then an hour later — it can literally be an hour — you have deleted $20mm dollars.

So — it is important to set the right trips for those alarms.

For Graham, however, those alarms started going off in his head in another area of his life as well — time management. If you think of “time” as similar to that Goldman Sachs derivative, you can see it is actually a significantly riskier investment. Once you choose to spend time in some way (let’s say “invest your time”) you are guaranteed to delete that time.

Once invested, that time is never coming back. It is guaranteed that you will lose 100% of that invested time. Weird to think of it that way right? If you are Graham, it can change where you choose to invest that time.

One Poll

What do you think of "History Investor" as an approach?

You can add a comment to your vote after making a choice

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Results from last week’s poll:

  • Question: In what sector do you make a living?

  • Results: ~40% in technology; ~10% are business owners; ~10% are in education

If you made it all the way down here, please take a moment to forward it to someone that might find it interesting — I appreciate your support greatly!

Have a great weekend,

— EJ

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