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Ten Lessons Startups Can Learn From Warren Buffett

startup lessons

The number one reason that most startups never succeed is that they fail to recognize that the basic laws of business physics also apply to them.

Whether as a startup or mature business, sooner or later you have to do a few basic things: You have to get clients or customers, you have to make money, and then you have to allocate capital efficiently. Many startups—even startups run by really smart people—often focus on everything but these fundamental precepts.

I’ve recently been reading the annual Berkshire Hathaway letters —which are the detailed, first-person accounting of the investing wisdom of the company’s CEO, Warren Buffett. They’re written in a folksy and accessible tone. But they are eminently rational and chock-full of wisdom for anyone who cares about the right way to run a business.

In many ways, Berkshire Hathaway is the anti-startup. The company is hokey and old-fashioned. They don’t invest in technology much. They don’t invest in new ventures. The company uses insurance float to fund their various acquisitions and endeavors. The company headquarters is in Omaha, which is about as far away from the various startup investment hubs as you can get.

But making money in business is making money in business. And nobody’s done that better than Warren Buffett & Co. And while many of the things he does might not apply to startups, there are plenty of things he does that we would all be better off (certainly in a financial sense) if we did well. The reason for this is logical enough: The startups that will ultimately succeed are the ones who are capable of creating real money for their shareholders. That’s supposed to be the purpose of a corporation.

And if you want to do that, you’d do well to follow the lead of the Oracle of Omaha.

Here are the lessons I gleaned from reading Warren Buffett’s letters, as applied to startups:

Lesson #1: It’s as bad to be overvalued as it is to be undervalued.

This is one that startups don’t seem to get. While there may appear to be positive short-term benefits to a high valuation, such as less dilution and higher paper wealth for the founders, a high valuation can and will be a company killer long term, if it’s not realistic for the company’s long-term earnings to merit that valuation and more.

Imagine you have a company that’s worth $2 million dollars, but you find an investor who is willing to invest at a $10 million valuation. That may sound great in the short term, because you’ll only have to give up 1/5th as many shares to have that investor as part of the company.

But when the time comes to raise the next round of capital or to evaluate the company’s financials, and there aren’t any financial metrics that support that valuation, it may be very difficult to raise the next round of capital. And then the company’s future starts to look very negative. The company can try to raise a down round, but it is an awful challenge to try to raise capital for a startup that is moving in the wrong direction. What’s more, all of the stock options that you issue to your team at the $10 million valuation will be totally worthless, making it very hard to incentivize your top people to stay.

I like to tell startups to think of overvaluation as akin to a form of fictional wealth. If your goal is to tell your friends a story about how rich you are, by all means, create fictional wealth. If your goal is to obtain real wealth with your startup—the kind of wealth that can buy cars and houses and send your kids to college—skip the fiction. Don’t BS the value of your company on the upside or the downside. Try to be as brutally honest with yourself and your investors about what the business is worth.

That brutal rational honesty will pay dividends with your credibility with investors and with a real—and not a fictional—trajectory for your business.

Lesson # 2: Adopt a forever perspective.

According to Buffett, “you should be fully aware of one attitude Charlie and I share that hurts our financial performance: regardless of price, we have no interest at all in selling any good businesses that Berkshire owns.”

The rationale behind this is that a good business excels at providing a high return on capital investment. If you are an owner of such a business, there is no reason to sell it. If you have the cash from selling your business, then you just have to figure out something to do with that cash. Better to leave that cash in a well-run business.

This couldn’t be further from the attitude of many startups, who spend more of their time trying to raise capital or auction off their business than they do actually running their businesses.

Many startups see their business ideas as a way of making money on a short-term trend and turning an idea into cash.

By contrast, savvy investors look at each business in terms of how likely it is to turn capital into more capital.

Startup founders who look at capital allocation from the investors’ perspective rather than their own will understand that the perfect investment from an investors’ perspective is one that will create greater returns on capital than all other investments. In fact, when you’re selling your business to investors, you had better be able to make this argument if you want to secure capital for growth.

The best way to achieve this from the startup’s perspective is by adopting a forever perspective. Too many startup founders look at starting a business as a kind of fix and flip. Take an idea, throw a few features on it—and then sell it to the highest bidder.

This approach occasionally works. But for every one time it works, it fails 1,000 times more. Usually these businesses spend 99% of their time trying to convince investors that the business is worth a flip and 1% of the time building the business.

The best startups more commonly adopt a forever perspective. Think about the most famous founders: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg—these entrepreneurs are not trying to pawn their business off on someone else. They are constantly thinking of how to improve and innovate their businesses.

Take the forever perspective in your business and your career, and the money and rewards will come. Take the short-term perspective and it probably never will.

Lesson # 3: Seek constant growth, not early retirement.

Warren Buffett is 85. His Vice Chair Charlie Munger is 92!!!

No one needs money less than they do. But they are as active today as they were when they were in their 30s.

Contrast that with the attitude of so many startup founders—looking for the quickest of fixes and the easiest of turnarounds.

Whenever I hear a startup founder talk about how they’re going to make enough money to retire in three years, I chuckle.

The ones who are most likely to succeed are the ones who never want to retire. They’re the ones who live and breathe their businesses. For whom their business lives are the deepest reflection of their actual selves. For whom if they lost the opportunity to continue to pursue their startup, they’d feel like something was missing from their lives.

If your startup is a reflection of what you’d be doing if you already had a billion dollars, then there’s a good chance that what you’re doing is going to succeed. If you think your startup is a shortcut to making a billion dollars, then it’s unlikely that you ever will.

Lesson #4: There are hidden advantages to being far away from the action.

In the finance world, most of the action is on the coasts. New York. San Francisco. There’s some in Chicago.

But Buffett chose to live in Omaha. And that decision has served him well. It’s cheaper. There are fewer distractions. He doesn’t spend his days in constant meetings with constant demands on his time. All he does, all day every day, is research the best possible investment opportunities for his business.

That singular focus on the most critical parts of his business is something most businesses lack. And Buffett accomplishes it not by seeking out the action, but by avoiding it.

Lesson #5: Act as if your business were your only asset and you couldn’t sell it for a century.

This lesson is one of the instructions Buffett gives to the CEOs of his subsidiaries. Imagine all your money were wrapped up in this business and this is the only way you could make money for the rest of your life.

For most of his life, Warren Buffett has had 99% of his wealth in Berkshire Hathaway. His Vice Chair Charlie Munger has 90% of his assets in Berkshire Hathaway.

So many startup founders take the approach that their businesses are akin to a white elephant gift that they’re trying to pawn off on someone else as soon as they get the chance.

Act as if your startup were your only asset, that it will be responsible for your income the rest of your life. If that change in perspective changes the way you view your business, then maybe it’s time to reevaluate your business. Maybe it changes who you hire or how you spend. Maybe it changes where you allocate resources now and into the future.

This attitude will serve you well, even if you do decide to sell your business later. It’s the best attitude to have if you ever want someone else to think you have a business worth buying.

Lesson #6: Keep expenses to an absolute minimum.

Warren Buffett is notoriously cheap. He still lives in the same Omaha house he bought more than 50 years ago. He and his partner flew coach well after they were billionaires.

Even in 2017, with a market capitalization of over $400 billion, the company’s corporate offices still fit onto one floor in an unadorned downtown building in Omaha.

Too many startups think that perks and fancy offices are the signs that the business has “made it.” Your business will have “made it” when it consistently and efficiently returns capital for its shareholders. Not a moment before.

Lesson #7: Get rich slowly and consistently.

Too many people think that building a startup is about creating an app, releasing it to the public, and then becoming rich. While there are a handful of startups that create tremendous initial growth that seems like it’s out of nowhere, startups are very rarely a get-rich-quick scheme. Far more often, they are the result of years of consistent effort to master an industry and a specific craft.

And then, if you’re the rare business that does get traction and does create an impact on the market, that’s when the hard part starts. You have to service customers, hire employees, manage employees, create a culture, and then return more capital efficiently to your shareholders. If you have a created a lifetime of healthy habits and processes that you can build upon as you grow, this can be a tremendously rewarding process. But if you come into things thinking that it will all be easy, then you will likely be sorely disappointed.

Lesson #8: Selling your business doesn’t make you richer.

If you have a business that’s really worth something, selling your business doesn’t make you richer. A well-run business allocates capital efficiently for its shareholders. And if your business is truly capable of doing that well, then selling your business merely converts one type of asset, a business, into another type of asset, cash (or stock of another company). If you are capable of creating a truly great business, then you’re already rich.

Converting from one type of asset to another does not change that.

Lesson # 9: Try to create long-term, transparent win-win relationships in every business deal.

In 1962, Warren Buffet Limited Partnership started buying shares of Berkshire Hathaway stock after noticing a pattern that the company’s stock would rise every time it closed a manufacturing plant. In 1964, the company offered to buy him out at $11.50 a share. He agreed to the deal. But instead of honoring its commitment to buy him out at the price, Berkshire Hathaway’s CEO at the time tried to undercut him by lowering the price to $11.37 a share. Buffett got upset, and instead of letting Berkshire Hathaway buy him out, he started buying out other shareholders, until he eventually became the majority owner of the business and fired the CEO who tried to undercut him on price.

That short-sighted attitude of the prior CEO cost him his job. By haggling over a few cents after a deal had already been made, he changed the course of history.

Contrast that with the type of buyouts Berkshire Hathaway does today. Every year, in the company’s letter to shareholder, it sets forth a few simple criteria that it looks for in business deals. Berkshire Hathaway asks potential sellers to reach out to it if the seller is interested in being acquired, and the seller is responsible for offering a price. The company states its intentions clearly of how it intends to run businesses after it acquires them.

Then, if the acquisition happens, the acquired business becomes a financial partner for life. There is no bait and switch. Either the business is well run or it is not. Either the deal makes sense or it doesn’t.

And if it does, then everyone feels as if they have won from the deal. No one feels cheated or short-changed.

Lesson #10: A great team is a lot more important than an initial business plan.

As explained in Lesson #9, Warren Buffett started out as a majority owner of a textile business. The textile industry was doomed to failure. But Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, and Co. had a team of brilliant business minds that knew how to allocate capital efficiently. And now they’re one of the biggest and brightest stars in the financial world.

And though the textile company that gave the company the name Berkshire Hathaway did eventually fail (it was shut down in 1985), the business thrived.

An initial business plan should be viewed as akin to a table where the business initially meets. It’s is a starting point for the owners of the business to initially decide how to allocate their time and their capital. But if better opportunities arise over time, if a team is smart, the team will seize on the new opportunities to the extent they are able.

A great team with a growth mindset and consistent effort will succeed, regardless of its initial business plan. A weak team looking for short-term fixes will kill the best business idea.

The best professionals know that it’s not where you start that matters. As I’m sure Buffett would attest, it’s the quality of decisions you make over the course of your career that determines where you finish.

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