The Sam Zell book review – Am I Being Too Subtle?

I had no idea about Sam Zell before reading his book (which I only found out via Brad Feld), Am I Being Too Subtle?: Straight Talk From a Business Rebel. He runs Equity Group Investments, and their tagline is: “We identify opportunities others don’t — and invest like others can’t.” Do visit their website, it really is quite interesting. I tremendously enjoyed the book, I highly recommend reading or listening to it.

Here are some notes I made from his book.

  • always have a sense of urgency
  • trade conformity for authenticity
  • be blunt
  • culture is king
  • read risk – always understand the downside
  • listen. There is great value in this because you then know the motivations of folk.
  • look for clarity. Drown out the noise. Conventional wisdom tends to be a lot of noise.
  • “If you are really good at what you do, you have the freedom to be who you really are”
  • His daily routine: workout at 4.45am, then in the office by 6.30am, and stays there till 7pm. And he still does this at age 75!
  • Where there is scarcity, price is no object
  • There is value in tenacity
  • Use simplicity as a strategy
  • Strive to be asset rich, cash poor
  • Weak economies breed troubled companies
  • “Competition is great for you, but I’d rather have a natural monopoly; if I can’t have that I will take an oligopoly”
  • Board of Directors tend to have “good resumes whom are often past their prime”
  • Board members should be viewed as cheap consultants to the business. Management team should use them regularly.
  • Do not depend on people unless you understand their motivations. Listen to know their motivations!
  • When people ask Sam Zell what he does? “I am a professional opportunist.” (what a great job title)
  • He is always at his best when the scenario around him is at its worst
  • We should never get into a phase of “irrational denial” (like if people get cancer, you don’t get treatment, you will die)
  • Always make lists. Check them off.
  • “Liquidity equals value”
  • Find good companies with bad balance sheets
  • It is important to have owners, not just managers, in leadership positions
  • See micro-opportunities in macro events
  • Real estate tends to lag the general economy. So it falls slower than the rest of the economy when there is pain.
  • Sam is not pessimistic, but realistic. Go in with eyes wide open.
  • In real estate, he tends to assign walk scores. Takes number of steps to public transport. To the nearest Starbucks. Etc. This will tell you value of property.
  • “Please God, give us one more oil boom and we promise we won’t screw it up.”
  • “Everyday you choose to hold an asset is a day you choose to buy it.” Therefore if you get an offer greater than what you would pay for the asset today, you should sell!
  • Calculate risk, know what the downside is. Ask: if all goes wrong, what do I get from this deal?
  • “I don’t like auctions unless I am running them.” Bidding wars are something he doesn’t like to participate in.
  • Experience – you understand risk only this way. Experience teaches you how to minimise the downside.
  • Be an optimist. Focus on what is next. Do not lament on what could have been.
  • Emerging markets have built-in demand.
  • Global business requires:
    1. good partners
    2. aligned objectives
    3. vision, direction, strategy
  • Sam describes himself as the Chairman of everything but the CEO of nothing
  • Radius theory of business is the number of people between you and the decision. This will affect your ability to succeed.
  • Businesses that delegate too much fail as well.
  • Culture can either inspire or stifle innovation/creativity.
  • Fast decision making and autonomy is what usually wins out.
  • Be ready to pivot
  • Spot opportunity early for long term gains.
  • He is a voracious consumer of information. Reads 1 book per week. Knows how to get relevant information. Reads 5 newspapers per day and 5 magazines per week.
  • “If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas”
  • In everything you do, always be thinking of the next deal. Play it straight. You can be successful AND ethical in business. Do you consider their circumstances over your own? Loyalty definitely matters.
  • Always be tenacious, optimistic, have drive and conviction.

Now a GrabPay user, the promo will lead to inflated metrics

There are so many e-wallets in Malaysia now, it sure feels like I’ve got e-wallet fatigue and I don’t even spend much time in KL or use most of these wallets. I am more a fan of the AMEX, followed by Visa or MasterCard. Eventually e-wallets are going to have to implement merchant fees that seem closer to these credit card networks (your rewards have to be paid somehow…).

I have tried GrabPay before in Singapore where I loaded SGD$20 into my wallet from my credit card. I never did get to spend it. This balance sticks around for when I am next in Singapore. You have a separate e-wallet for Malaysia. I tried to set this up a few days ago, and they require a photo of your passport or IC to verify your ID (unlike Singapore). I seem to have failed this verification (it looks like an actual human does it, but when you fail it, they don’t tell you why; not that it matters, it seems you can still use it just fine). Also, Grab is now holding photos of the front of Malaysian’s Identity Cards… let’s hope they never have a data breach.

Today as I was trying to get a ride, a pop-up (potentially the first useful ad I’ve seen in the adware that is Grab…) said I could get RM5 off 2 Grab rides if I use GrabPay credits. So I promptly topped up my GrabPay wallet with RM20 (which came from my credit card), and then paid for a ride with GrabPay credits.

I see absolutely no difference with paying via a credit card. I believe you can use your debit card to pay for your Grab rides as well. There is an argument that cards are unpopular in South East Asia as evidenced by this Twitter thread, but if you have a bank account in Malaysia, you get a debit card by default that you can use for Grab. Maybe the play is that people will use it for peer-to-peer payments, like when you need to pay a friend for splitting the bill (like Venmo? Maybe I have a generation gap)?

However from a metrics standpoint, my desire to save RM5 off two rides (a total of RM10), has made me an active user of GrabPay. I loaded up a balance of RM20. Will I be able to bring that balance to zero or does Grab earn interest on my money (like they do for my Singaporean balance)? Will future promotions only apply to GrabPay payments that aren’t via credit card, but via this e-wallet service?

Yes, we Malaysians, and Singaporeans and probably most South East Asians love a good deal. One of the reasons that Grab probably won before Uber exited the South East Asian market was GrabRewards. If you could expense your Grab rides, participate in the loyalty program, and naturally keep the rebates, why would you ever use Uber?

Measure what matters. Anyway, back to e-wallets. The banks will wake up. The VC money will run out. Economics will eventually meet reality.

Molly’s Game: constant reinvention and perseverance

I recently saw Molly’s Game on a flight. It was so good I ended up getting the audiobook, to see if I missed out on anything. Molly Bloom (her Wikipedia page is a great read) is an entrepreneur. She trained to ski (and had a tough father, and siblings who skied better than her), but due to injury decided it was time to go find herself. From a terrible job as an assistant, she quickly began running poker games for her boss. When her boss decided to cut her off, she became independent and anticipated player’s needs and became an even greater success. Her games even brought in Hollywood celebrities.

When she exited the LA market, she did games in New York. So no stranger to starting from scratch, in an industry that she was already well-versed in. Eventually the law caught up with her, and she had to give up her high life. But with grit, the rebirth seems to have been writing her story, which became a movie that Aaron Sorkin directed.

Constant reinvention and perseverance. Those are my takeaways from both the book and the movie. I recommend watching the movie, then deciding if you are still interested before getting to the book/audiobook.

Beyoncé, Jay-Z, streaming music and earned media

Last week, I read in the WSJ an article about Beyoncé and Jay-Z and their new album, “Everything is Love”. If you have a subscription, feel free to read: Beyoncé and Jay-Z Go Pay-to-Play With New Album.

Naturally, that tempted me to listen to the album with my Apple Music subscription. I was not moved (keeping in mind, Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind is one of my favourite tunes).

So Taylor Swift has done before too. One of the reasons why I have subscribed to Apple Music was to listen to her music when she pulled out of Spotify. While this has changed, I have never bothered to change my streaming music service of choice.

It occured to me that these folk only do this to get in the news. It is free advertising, via “earned media”. I generally don’t read music reviews in the papers that I subscribe to, but if it makes the main pages, it is quite hard to skip over.

Vancouver observations

It has been a while since I visited Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This time I didn’t go as a tourist, so no trip to Grouse Mountain or anything.

While walking the streets, I overheard a conversation between 2 folk about how hard it was to buy Bitcoin. This is in contrast to nearly every street corner having a marijuana dispensary, some looking very inviting like a hipster coffee shop. People buy and smoke openly, even though its not entirely legal, yet.

However, I did go to a bar, the Lamplighter Public House and found a HoneyBadger ATM. Withdrawals and deposits do work for Bitcoin/Ethereum/Litecoin.

For steaks, The Keg Steakhouse & Bar seem to be very good value for money. It is highly recommended.

Instead of the Bloody Mary, you can have a Caesar that comes with Clamato (a mixture of clam and tomato juices). Yes, clams. Why do I talk about a Bloody Mary? Because I thought I could try a local variant at the St Regis (it is a ritual, a signature cocktail at the St Regis since 1934). It turns out that this is not a regular Starwood St Regis, so a fake. Read more at: Would The Real St. Regis Please Stand Up?.

I tend not to have a sweet tooth, but my weakness is good tasting ice cream or gelato. I am fond of the gelato affogato, but in Vancouver, I felt like a kid at Bella Gelateria (yes, one night I consumed a handful of scoops as dinner). They’ve won awards, and their gelato is excellent. I learned to eat gelato when I lived in Melbourne, and Lygon St had plenty. Even better? Upon returning the staff recognise you, which is amazing considering the long queues that they tend to have.

I had a massive suite at the Hyatt, and there was a user accessible balcony on the 30th floor. This is something that one would find rather odd in Asia!

Being able to walk, see parks, the water, I can see why the quality of life is generally quite good in Vancouver. I can see why they make it as a liveable city in most rankings.

The Art of Zettelkasten

While I’m not about to purchase The Archive as another app (I’m all in on Evernote and Ulysses, with a little help from Drafts 5), it seems like reading the principles behind zettelkasten seemed rather interesting.

Some highlights for me, which I totally agree with include the fact that reading is easy, writing notes is also easy, but the processing does take time. In the Collector’s Fallacy Confession, you’ll note that “For every hour of reading, it can take up to double the time to take proper notes.” I tend to agree. I don’t process notes like the author, but I myself do write down stuff with a pen and on paper. Sometimes I scribble in the physical book itself. I find that when I read on Kindle, I highlight, but don’t make notes (at which point, I’ll have to export the highlights and make notes around it).

Then I move on to reading The Collector’s Fallacy. Collecting itself isn’t progress, “Collections make us drown in liabilities.”. “kept isn’t read”.

I myself am a big consumer of RSS. There are thoughts on note taking from RSS. For me, I tend to tweet links that I think others might find interesting. But if I want to archive it, I quite happily send it along to Evernote.

When it comes to reading, you need to read analytically, practice so you know the topic, and then gain insight. I’m all in on Learn Faster by Writing Zettel Notes.

The writer refers to the short knowledge cycle, which more or less can be summed up as research (find the materials), read, take excellent notes, then compose notes. So you read, process, reflect, then adapt/change the routine as you see fit.


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