Last Week’s Struggles and Lessons (Week Ending 7/7/24)

Current Project: Reading books about entrepreneurs and sharing what I learned from them via blog posts and audio podcasts

Mission: Create a library of wisdom from notable entrepreneurs that current entrepreneurs can leverage to increase their chances of success

What I struggled with:

  • The holiday – I didn’t publish audio podcasts on July 4 and two days after it. No excuses. I’m catching up now, but it’s been painful.  

What I learned:

  • The two-day podcasting conference was eye-opening. It confirmed that the market for people actively seeking to fill their knowledge gaps around entrepreneurship is growing rapidly. I got concrete numbers from podcasters and made valuable connections with podcasters, agencies, and service providers.  
  • Extremely successful podcast entrepreneurs are struggling to manage growth and add structure to their businesses. And so are the service providers and agencies supporting the podcasters.
  • Podcast entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs providing services to podcasters were excited to talk about how they learn and hear about new ways to learn.
  • I need to get to the point where I have a larger buffer of podcasts ready to publish so I’m not playing catchup during holidays or days when I need to take time off.

Those are my struggles and learnings from the week!

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!

+ COMMENT

Weekly Update: Week Two Hundred Twenty-Three

Current Project: Reading books about entrepreneurs and sharing what I learned from them via blog posts and audio podcasts

Mission: Create a library of wisdom from notable entrepreneurs that current entrepreneurs can leverage to increase their chances of success

Metrics (cumulative since 4/1/24):

  • Total audio recordings published: 76 (+5)
  • Total blog posts published: 98 (+7)
  • Average recording: roughly 16 minutes (+2) for a biography or autobiography

What I completed this week (link to last week’s commitments):

  • Read the autobiography of John H. Johnson, founder and publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines  
  • Attended a two-day podcasting conference
  • Had one additional feedback session
  • Compiled and sorted feedback from sessions completed the week of 6/24/24
  • Updated all links to books in all blog posts (4/1/24 and after) and podcasts with Amazon affiliate links

Content:

  • Audio content changes: I lengthened each recording by two minutes by adding more context and comparisons to other entrepreneurs

What I’ll do next week:

  • Read one biography or autobiography
  • Write seven blog posts and record seven audio posts
  • Start reading one of the books about storytelling that I purchased; this is a carryover from last week
  • Complete three feedback sessions
  • Identify two candidates who can help edit recordings

Asks:

  • Listen to my most recent series on Sam Zell and James Dyson and provide feedback on how I can improve them

Week two hundred twenty-three was another week of learning. Looking forward to next week!

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!

+ COMMENT

Sam Zell Part 5: The Wrap-up

I finished reading about Sam Zell’s journey. Sam was a colorful person, and his autobiography captures this. He published this book in 2017, when he was 75, and passed away last year at age 81.

What Was Unique about Sam’s Upbringing?

Sam grew up in a middle-class family, but his upbringing was unusual. His parents left Poland’s familiarity and spent almost two grueling years migrating to the United States. When they made it, they started from nearly zero and built a prosperous life (and learned a new language). His parents thought and acted differently than his schoolmates’ parents. Recognizing you’re in the wrong situation, taking action to get to the right situation, and successfully rebuilding from zero highlights the immigrant mentality ingrained in Sam’s parents.

That mentality was the reason Sam’s parents weren’t killed by the Nazis, and they instilled that mindset in their children. Sam’s comfort in going against conventional wisdom, ability to repeatedly change strategies, and dogged work ethic resulted from being raised by parents who embraced the immigrant mentality.

How Did Sam Become So Successful?

Sam embraced capital leverage throughout his career. He often used two forms of capital leverage simultaneously. He borrowed from banks and raised money from investors to purchase investments, which is common in real estate. When he invested using leverage, he could invest in opportunities that exceeded the capacity of his capital and magnified the returns when deals were successful. Conversely, leverage magnified painful periods for him.

Sam also invested when the prices were so low that his downside risk was significantly reduced while his upside potential was massive. For example, in real estate, he purchased when properties were selling below replacement cost, meaning that any new competitors would be forced to charge higher rental rates than Sam. 

Buying at the bottom and using capital leverage significantly reduced his probability of being crushed by leverage and magnified his gains.

Sam was a macro thinker. He could understand the implications of a macro change, such as a new law, and what micro actions to take to capitalize on it. Thinking top-down and being right about micro implications is extremely difficult, and executing on such understanding consistently is extremely difficult and rare. Sam had this gift and drew on it to invest in more than just real estate.

Sam recognized the value of having access to liquidity when using capital leverage in the business. He understood that the stock market is the only reliable source of liquidity. Even when times are tough, people are still buying and selling in the market. Sam spent time mastering the IPO process and learning how to run a company in a manner that met public-market investor expectations.  

What Kind of Entrepreneur Was Sam?

Sam was an entrepreneur, not a founder. He wasn’t focused on a specific problem or solution. He was always looking for an opportunity to make money. Finding creative and intellectually stimulating ways to make money excited him. He had no interest in focusing intensely on a single problem for an extended period.

Sam enjoyed the art of deal-making, although he doesn’t appear to have been a zero-sum thinker. He wanted everyone to win so he could do more deals with them in the future and not take every penny for himself.

Sam was a high-level strategic thinker. Operational details didn’t interest him at all. He understood this and leaned into it. He was at his best when partnered with someone operationally minded, such as Bob Lurie.  

What Did I Learn from Sam’s Journey?

The immigrant mentality is a powerful force and can change one’s life trajectory. This mindset comes with risks, but if consistently applied, it will likely put you in a better situation.

Being driven and intense exacted a price. Sam was married three times.

Thinking in terms of supply and demand is a simple way of evaluating opportunities. There’s no substitute for limited competition. Thinking about when supply and demand curves will intersect and the opportunity that will be created stuck with me.

Risk evaluation—constantly evaluating the downside and upside of every situation and acting only when downside is limited—is something to keep top of mind.

Simple tools can have a big impact. Sam used outlines to organize his thinking and cut to the heart of complex issues. When he was in trouble, he made lists and zeroed in on the tasks to accomplish each item on his list. This helped him from being overwhelmed.

Capital leverage make it difficult and stressful to weather the inevitable rough periods in the business cycle. When you’re at the top of a cycle, upside potential is reduced and downside risk increases. This is a great time to reduce or eliminate your capital leverage.

Finally, Sam was eccentric and did things his way, but he did everything at a high level and to the best of his ability. Because he did everything at a high level, he won more than he lost. Because he won more than he lost, people embraced his eccentricity. If you’re excellent at what you do, people will accept you for who you are, regardless. Everybody loves a winner!

Sam was an amazing entrepreneur. In his autobiography, Sam provided specific details on some of his biggest deals. Anyone interested in buying companies, entering new businesses, or using frameworks when investing can benefit from reading his book.

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!

+ COMMENT

Sam Zell Part 4: The $39 Billion Sale

Sam Zell was riding high in the 1980s. According to his autobiography, the early 1990s were one of his most difficult periods. His partner of twenty years, Bob Lurie, died of cancer in his 40s, which rocked Sam. He was in denial about the severity of the situation until Bob sat him down and told him he needed to prepare for Bob to die. To make matters worse, his second marriage ended in divorce in 1994.

While Sam navigated those challenges, the economy went into a recession. Sam’s companies couldn’t refinance their debt and struggled to make payroll. Sam was on the brink of default and failure.

Listing his companies publicly on the stock market was his only option for raising cash. Sam dove into learning everything about this process and, in 1991, completed his first IPO for a portfolio company. Learning how to run the IPO process would be a valuable skill. During this period, Sam listed seven of his companies for about $2 billion in total.  

Sam recognized he wasn’t the only one struggling. Many companies had too much debt and were desperate to raise capital. In 1990, Sam created a $1 billion fund to invest in distressed companies; he bought ownership stakes at discounted prices.

Sam also spotted a structural change in real estate:

  • Easy money from Japan lent to US developers caused overdevelopment
  • The savings-and-loan crisis eliminated a key source of lending to real estate
  • The Tax Reform Act of 1986 reduced tax benefits for syndicate investors (such as Sam’s father), which reduced the capital these investors allocated to real estate

With most real estate using 80% to 90% borrowed money, Sam recognized that these factors, plus a recession reducing rental demand, would make it impossible for property owners to service their debt loads. This would lead to a real estate crisis worse than the Great Depression.

Sam was right. Commercial real estate lost 50% of its value. Losses were estimated at $80 billion. Between 1989 and 1996, Sam raised four funds for $2.1 billion and went on a buying spree.

In 1992, Morgan Stanley created a new real estate investment trust (REIT) structure called an umbrella partnership real estate investment trust (UPREIT), which allowed property owners to contribute property to REITs listed on the stock market and gain liquidity without triggering a tax event. Property owners could turn illiquid buildings into liquid holdings that generated predictable cash flow (UPREITS must distribute at least 90% of taxable income to shareholders annually). Sam leveraged his decade of taking companies public in 1997 by taking his four real estate funds public as a UPREIT and named it the Equity Office Properties (EOP) Trust.

Ten years later, in 2007, Sam perfectly executed a competitive bidding process between Blackstone Group and Vornado Realty Trust and sold EOP to Blackstone for an eye-popping $39 billion. Sam’s timing was impeccable—the Global Financial Crisis was approaching.

Sam also leveraged his experience investing where populations grew and started investing in real estate in emerging markets. He created Equity International in the late 1990s and began partnering with developers in emerging markets who were great operators. Sam provided the capital and best practices on financial discipline and strategies and helped prepare the developers for public-market investors.

This period was a wild journey full of ups and downs for Sam. But two things stood out to me. Sam had an uncanny ability to recognize macro events and understand how they impacted the supply and demand of real estate and capital available to companies. He masterfully positioned himself to take advantage of these insights before others appreciated them. Sam also did a great job identifying and learning skills that could be helpful in the future. He could have relied on investment bankers to run his IPO processes, but he decided to learn the skill himself because he knew it would be valuable in the future given that public markets are the most constant source of liquidity.

In the next post, I’ll share my takeaways from Sam’s journey.

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!

+ COMMENT

Sam Zell Part 3: Transition to Professional Opportunist

In the 1970s, Sam Zell refined his business principles to the following:

  • If an opportunity has a large downside and minimal upside, steer clear—and if it has a minimal downside and large upside, go after it
  • Make sure you’re getting paid sufficiently for the risk you take
  • Never risk what you can’t afford to lose
  • Keep it simple: the more steps, the more opportunities to fail

He also refined his thinking on supply and demand:

  • Opportunity is embedded in the imbalance between supply and demand
  • Both rising demand against flat or diminishing supply and flat demand against shrinking supply create opportunistic imbalances

According to his autobiography, Sam’s refined thinking led him to realize that his thesis of investing in high-growth second- and third-tier cities had run its course. Other investors had recognized the opportunity, so more capital was chasing these properties, increasing prices and reducing returns. By 1973, Sam realized that the supply/demand imbalance in commercial real estate was getting extreme. Easy money had led to more development and too much supply, which Sam predicted would decrease rental rates. At the same time, a recession was beginning, which would reduce demand. In short, supply was increasing rapidly and demand was about to start decreasing.

Sam sold his properties and started stashing cash to take advantage of the crash he thought was inevitable. He also launched First Property Management Company to focus on managing distressed properties. Until the market crashed twelve months later and Sam was buying properties at 50% discounts, everyone thought he was insane.

Between 1974 and 1977, Sam used a creative strategy to purchase $4 billion worth of properties with $1 down per property. He borrowed at a roughly 6% fixed interest rate while inflation was 9% or higher—so he was making 3% the second the deals closed. He realized the real money in real estate is made from borrowing at a long-term fixed rate in an inflationary environment, which increases property value and rents and depreciates the value of the loan.

Sam became known as the grave dancer because he bought at deeply discounted prices when others were afraid. But he viewed it as an opportunity to resurrect properties with potential. His low entry price drastically reduced his downside risk and increased his upside potential. This perspective gave him the conviction to bet heavily and be contrarian.

In the 1980s, Sam saw overdevelopment in real estate again but believed the sector had structurally changed. He realized that his business principles and focus on supply and demand could be applied to companies, too, not just real estate. Setting a goal to have 50% of his investments not be in real estate by 1990, he bought distressed companies that had borrowed too much but owned lots of assets like plants and machinery. A weakening economy provided him with ample businesses that fit his criteria and that other investors didn’t want to invest in. He went on a deal spree. In the book, Sam discusses the deals for several public companies he bought entirely or partially.

During this period, Sam also learned that businesses reliant on borrowing benefit from understanding the motivations of their lenders and their methodologies for issuing loans. Doing so led to companies Sam owned offering financing to buyers. At that time, having these loans on their books allowed Sam’s companies to borrow more from banks, which was counterintuitive.

During this period, Sam sharpened his understanding of risk, business, and supply and demand, which led to his transition from real estate investor to investor. When asked what he did for a living, Sam began confidently saying, “I’m a professional opportunist.”

This new outlook would profoundly affect the rest of his career, but first, he’d have to survive some challenging times.

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!

+ COMMENT

Happy July 4th!

Happy July 4th!

I hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday!

+ COMMENT

Sam Zell Part 2: Rejection, Risk, and Real Estate Mastery

When Sam Zell returned to Chicago, he was rejected by 43 law firms. When he finally landed a job at a small law firm, he lasted four days. Reviewing contract details all day was painful. When he quit to start doing deals again, the firm made him an offer: if he would stay, they’d do his legal work for him and give him a 50% commission on any legal business he brought in.

According to his autobiography, Sam did so well bringing in new business that he made three times as much money as the junior partners. The firm cut his commission to 25%. What he brought to the table wasn’t being valued, so he quit, which was risky given that his wife was pregnant. Sam was 25 and didn’t want to be held back by anyone else’s rules. He wanted to control his own destiny.

He started his own investment firm focused on investing in small, high-growth cities with limited competing capital. Colleges were growing, so he focused on buying apartments in cities with universities. In 1966, he closed his first major deal, a $1 million apartment building, with his father as an investor. Sam predicted it would yield 19% annually, while his father thought it would yield 8%. It ended up generating 20% annually. Sam expanded to Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville, and Reno.

He tried to develop properties from scratch, but mistakes with Lake Tahoe and Lexington, Kentucky, projects burned Sam. He learned that development was complex and risky. Things outside of your control can change and doom a project between the idea and completion stages. Sam couldn’t stomach that level of risk.

In 1969, Jay Pritzker, part of the family that founded Hyatt Hotel Corporation, tried to hire Sam to scout deals for him. Sam declined, but Jay became a mentor and co-investor with him. Sam’s relationship with Jay elevated his thinking as an investor. Sam learned to understand risk, that most deals depend on one or two things, and that you can organize your thinking to cut to the heart of something complex by breaking it into pieces and creating an outline.

Around 1970, Bob Lurie rejoined Sam in Chicago at the firm, now called Equity Group Investments. Bob complemented Sam and they worked well as partners. Bob stayed in the office, viewed things pessimistically, and focused on details. Sam was Mr. Outside, an optimistic salesman who hated details. They had a team of 10 in the 1970s and encouraged everyone to wear what they wanted, believing that if you dress funny and are great at what you do, you’re eccentric. They wanted to attract eccentric who would do a phenomenal job, not mediocre people who could dress the role. Early on, Bob and Sam reinvested everything in deals and their business, so they were cash poor and ran the company on a shoestring budget.

In the 1970s, Sam and Bob met a brilliant dealmaker named Arthur Cohen, and they learned a valuable lesson from Cohen’s struggles. Cohen acquired an offshore mutual fund that offered daily redemptions to investors, but it held real estate, which couldn’t be sold quickly. When the market turned sour, the combination of long-term assets and daily investor redemptions put pressure on Cohen to raise cash quickly. Sam and Bob took advantage of Cohen’s predicament and bought several of his properties at attractive prices because they could decide and close quickly.

Things were going well for Sam until 1976. Then, partners at a law firm he used to craft tax-advantageous deals were indicted. One partner, Sam’s brother-in-law, was convicted. Sam was indicted, too, but the case was dropped. The stain of an indictment on his record would follow him for years. Sam learned how important reputation is when people began to question his.

Sam was in control of his own destiny, but being in control didn’t mean things were always smooth. Sam learned painful lessons, most notably how to understand and minimize deal and reputational risk. A focus on risk would play a critical role throughout his career, but especially in the next phase of his journey, a period when Sam was known as the Grave Dancer.

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!

+ COMMENT

Sam Zell Part 1: The Making of Sam Zell

Sam Zell passed away last year. The week he died, I researched him and learned that he was known as the real estate investor and deal maker who sold Equity Office REIT to Blackstone in 2007 for $39 billion. I purchased his autobiography. After having read the biographies of Summer Redstone and Wayne Huizenga, I wanted to learn more about deal-making entrepreneurs. I began reading Zell’s autobiography Am I Being Too Subtle?: Straight Talk from a Business Rebel.

Sam grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Chicago, but his home environment reflected his parents’ experiences. They escaped Poland on the last train before the Nazis invaded later that night and spent the next twenty-one months trying to get to the United States. They arrived in May 1941, and Sam was born a few months later.

Sam's parents were disciplined and made hard work and high achievement their priorities. Sam’s father couldn’t find a job in his field, so he reestablished himself as a jewelry entrepreneur. With this work, he provided Sam and his siblings’ upper-middle-class lifestyle and set an example for Sam.

At age 12, Sam bought Playboy magazines during trips to downtown Chicago and sold them in the conservative suburbs. He learned that for scarce items, price is no object. Capitalizing on supply-and-demand imbalances would be the central theme throughout his career.

By the time Sam left for college, a commitment to learning, an understanding of how to apply his learnings to real life, and a desire to challenge conventional wisdom were instilled in him.

During a summer break, Sam hitchhiked across the country for two weeks and learned a valuable lesson: you learn the most about people when you see them in their natural environment, so get out and see people; don’t have them come to you. He did door-to-door sales one summer but eventually found his calling. He pitched a real estate developer to let him and classmate Bob Lurie manage his building. This led to contracts to manage two other buildings.

Sam went to law school to please his parents but hated the attention to detail it required. During his second year in 1965, he used his money from property management to buy his first building for $19,500. He also bought the building next door and a large single-family house, which he converted into four apartment units. He was 23 years old.

Sam and Bob landed a large property-management contract, making them relevant market players. They started getting inbound deal flow, which resulted in an opportunity to buy a dozen adjected homes. They structured the $20,000 deals as individual purchases with $1,000 down and deferred closing, partnering with Sam’s dad to raise the equity portion of the deal. The elder Zell drove a hard bargain, demanding a 50/50 partnership.

They assembled the largest block of land held by one owner and sold it for a profit to an apartment complex developer. The entire process taught Sam valuable lessons:

  • Tenacity – Always assume there’s a way to overcome any obstacle, and focus on finding it.
  • Listening – The heart of any negotiation is listening. Listen to figure out what’s important to the other party.
  • Scale – Scale has exponential value. The aggregate site was more valuable than the individual parcels.

This successful deal led to Sam learning about his father’s other real estate deals and to the two of them doing deals together.

In 1966, Sam graduated from law school. He was 25 with $250,000 in the bank and had made $150,000 that year. He’d built a solid financial foundation for himself and his wife. He was ready to leave Ann Arbor, Michigan, and move back to Chicago and start his law career.

Sam’s parents and their journey to the United States significantly affected Sam. His parents instilled in him a curiosity, dogged work ethic, and ability to think for himself. Sam honed these traits in school in a small market, but they were about to propel him to another level when he deployed them in a big city.

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!

+ COMMENT

Last Week’s Hurdles and Lessons (Week Ending 6/30/24)

Current Project: Reading books about entrepreneurs and sharing what I learned from them via blog posts and audio podcasts

Mission: Create a library of wisdom from notable entrepreneurs that current entrepreneurs can leverage to increase their chances of success

What I struggled with:

  • Missing a post – Friday, I didn’t do a great job of managing my time and didn’t publish an audio podcast. It was recorded but not fully edited in time. I caught up over the weekend, so I’m back on track.  

What I learned:

  • I researched entrepreneurs who’ve successfully built businesses by sharing “knowledge” about entrepreneurship on various content-distribution platforms. I didn’t assess whether what they’re sharing is of value; rather, I focused on their visible platform metrics and made some assumptions. The likely size of the businesses they’ve built is shocking. I thought about it from a market perspective. People are actively seeking to fill their knowledge gaps around entrepreneurship, and that demand is growing rapidly. From the outside, the space looks unattractive and unsophisticated. I saw this as a sign that the market is in its relatively early stages and growing quickly but that savvy entrepreneurs are capitalizing on these characteristics.
  • Creating a set of questions to answer before I start reading a book was helpful. As I read, I can note passages that help answer the questions. It also helped with distillation. I still have work to refine the questions, but this feels directionally accurate.
  • Atlanta has a large community of content-creator entrepreneurs, and events are focused on this community.
  • Content-creator entrepreneurs struggle to manage their growth and add structure so their businesses can continue growing.
  • I need to start looking for ways to reduce my editing time, maybe by being more concise when I record and/or finding an editor who can help.  

Those are my struggles and learnings from the week!

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!

+ COMMENT

Weekly Update: Week Two Hundred Twenty-Two

Current Personal Project: Reading Books about Entrepreneurs and Sharing What I Learned from Them via Blog Posts and Audio Podcasts

Metrics (since 4/1/24):

  • Total audio recordings published: 71 (+8)
  • Total blog posts published: 91 (+7)
  • Average recording: roughly 14 minutes (+2) for a biography or autobiography

What I completed this week (link to last week’s commitments):

  • Read the autobiography of Sam Zell
  • Had four additional feedback sessions: I exceeded my target by one
  • Compiled and sorted feedback from sessions completed the week of 6/17/24
  • Drafted questions I want to answer for every book I read

Content:

  • Audio content changes: I lengthened each recording by two minutes and tested increasing my energy level by using lots of hand motions as I record

What I’ll do next week (holiday week):

  • Read one biography or autobiography
  • Write seven blog posts and record seven audio posts
  • Compile feedback from sessions completed the week of 6/23/24 and identify insights
  • Attend podcasting conference
  • Start reading one of the books about storytelling that I purchased

Asks:

  • No asks this week

Week two hundred twenty-two was another week of learning. Looking forward to next week!

Prefer listening? Catch audio versions of these blog posts, with more context added, on Apple Podcasts here or Spotify here!

+ COMMENT

Subscribe to receive new posts via email.

Submitted successfully!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Try again?