Startup Philosophy – Cater to the Whims of the Rich

Warren Buffett has always published insightful yearly shareholder letters. This year’s is no different. The key passage that stood out to me was his critique of the hedge fund industry. With the exorbitant fee model, and given the fact that even their own managers don’t invest in their own product (what’s the opposite of dogfood?), why do they still survive?

Uncle Warren explains the answer:

I believe, however, that none of the mega-rich individuals, institutions or pension funds has followed that same advice when I’ve given it to them. Instead, these investors politely thank me for my thoughts and depart to listen to the siren song of a high-fee manager or, in the case of many institutions, to seek out another breed of hyper-helper called a consultant.

That professional, however, faces a problem. Can you imagine an investment consultant telling clients, year after year, to keep adding to an index fund replicating the S&P 500? That would be career suicide. Large fees flow to these hyper-helpers, however, if they recommend small managerial shifts every year or so. That advice is often delivered in esoteric gibberish that explains why fashionable investment “styles” or current economic trends make the shift appropriate.

The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.

In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars. This reluctance of the rich normally prevails even though the product at issue is –on an expectancy basis – clearly the best choice. My calculation, admittedly very rough, is that the search by the elite for superior investment advice has caused it, in aggregate, to waste more than $100 billion over the past decade. Figure it out: Even a 1% fee on a few trillion dollars adds up. Of course, not every investor who put money in hedge funds ten years ago lagged S&P returns. But I believe my calculation of the aggregate shortfall is conservative.

Emphasis mine. That there is the key to understanding that there is money to be made in catering to the whims of the rich. I’ve always thought but never said out loud that the keys to a successful startup are one (or more) of the following:

  1. Get paid
  2. Get laid
  3. Feel special

This sets apart the *great* startup ideas from the merely good ones. Take for example Airbnb, Uber, and Coffee Meets Bagel. For the end user they offer convenience, but they also offer other incentives – matchmaking or earning money – to the participants. Contrast that to any sort of home food delivery service (which were hot startups not that long ago). Sure, they were nice incremental convenient improvements on the status quo, but they weren’t life changing. I could just as easily call up the restaurant myself for not that much difference in value.

The special sauce comes with #3. Basically the user must think there’s something mystical or unique about the service’s secret sauce that’s an improvement over everything else. Airbnb and Uber are great ways to monetize (for a decent amount of money) assets that you already have. Nothing else out there is comparable. CMB gives you the right amount of control over matches and simplifies the overwhelming dating world.

The last category can be a stand alone business idea all by itself. Just think to all the hostess cafes in Tokyo where a cute young woman caters to your every whim (except sex). That’s a huge boost to a shy nerd’s self esteem. Great niche to be in, as these guys tend to be high earning engineers! A hedge fund can basically be thought of as a hostess cafe for the wealthy. Here come all these experts to fawn over you and make you feel special. I bet that at some level the rich know that they’re going to lose money compared to an index fund, but nothing beats the thrill of having access to Ivy League educated experts at the tip of their finger. That fulfillment, and not any actual investing expertise, is essentially the business model of a hedge fund.

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