“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” — Maimonides
I love microlending. Here’s how it works: You give an entrepreneur in a developing country a loan for his business, e.g. to buy a water irrigation system for his field. This increases his productivity, with in turn increases his income. He repays the loan, and you recycle the money into the next project. This maximizes the impact of your funds, as you can re-lend the same dollar over and over again.
In 2007 I started lending on Kiva and have made over 100 loans there. I also invited 5 friends who made an additional 150 loans. (If you’d like to sign up, here is my invitation link.)
Back in the day, the process was very manual, as there was no auto-relending function (now there is). Also, Kiva works with intermediaries, which increases the lending costs for borrowers.
No middleman: Zidisha is a direct person-to-person community with no intermediaries
Lower cost: No middleman means lower interest rates for the borrowers (instead of the global average of 40%, to under 10%)
Auto-relending: 100% automated process (Kiva now has this feature as well). Zidisha claims that $50 in funds will fund $750 worth of loan projects in five years.
Impact accounts receive growth credits, so they grow
I have chosen an Impact Investment account with Zidisha. That means that a portion of the 5% service fee paid by all Zidisha borrowers is credited as growth credits, so that the value of my funds grow over time. The downside is that I cannot withdraw any funds, which is not important to me.
So far I have uploaded $1,024, which have funded $1,993 worth of loans. I have received $31.08 in growth credits, and have lost $2.47 in currency exchanges losses. All of my loan losses have been refunded by the Zidisha Members Loan Fund, so I currently have 0% in repayment losses.
To date, Zidisha has lent $16 million to over 233,000 projects. In comparison, Kiva has made $1.3 billion worth of loans so far.
Key learnings from Zidisha:
Log in every few months and use the “Receive Advance Repayment” link for all loans that have substantial delays. You will receive a full refund for those loans. I was able to recover more than $800 of late payments that way, which now should accelerate my lending cycle.
Make sure that the “Early Repayment” checkbox is activated in your preferences. With that you will receive an early repayment from the Zidisha Members Loan Fund whenever one of my loans falls 60 days past due. It seems that this automates the “Receive Advance Repayment” mentioned above.
Zidisha has a great “refer-a-friend” program. Each friend gets a free $25 credit which can be used for a first loan. Use this link to receive a free $25 credit.
Suggestions for improvements:
I’d like to set a maximum limit per loan. E.g. 5% of total fund value. This would increase diversification and reduce my risk. I had one loan which made up more than 70% of my total lending value, which is not exactly my idea of risk management.
I’d like to set a minimum value for “on-time repayments”, e.g. 90%. I just saw that a new loan has been made to someone with just 32% on-time repayments. I don’t feel comfortable with such borrowers.
Despite these shortcomings I can fully recommend Zidisha. The customer service has been great and the ability to refund delayed loans gives me peace of mind to never have substantial losses.
The style of investing that speaks most to me is value investing, as practiced by Warren Buffett and Benjamin Graham. I’m often asked: “What is value investing exactly?”
Here is my understanding of the core principles:
Have more purchasing power in the future The goal of all investing is laying out money today, so that you can enjoy more purchasing power in the future. The principle is: Instead of eating the seeds, plant them, so one day, you will have plenty more to enjoy.
Investing vs. Speculation The goal is to be an “investor” and not a “speculator”. Here is the definition by Benjamin Graham: “An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis promises safety of principle and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative.” (The Intelligent Investor)
A stock is a partial ownership of a business A stock is not just an abstract ticker symbol with a constantly moving price. It is a partial ownership of a business. So no matter whether you are buying 0.000001%, 10% or 100% of a business, the decision process should be quite similar. You have to know what the whole business is worth, so that you can determine what each share of the business is worth.
Mr. Market is here to serve you, not to guide you Treat the market as your manic-depressive business partner called “Mr. Market“. He is emotional, euphoric, moody, and often irrational. Every day, he quotes you a new price for his shares. You can reject him every day, and the next day he always comes back with a new price. You can never know what price he will offer next and you don’t know why he offers you the price that he does. Your job is to simply listen to him every day, and only buy if when he offers you a low price. As opposed to “market timing”, this is “market pricing”. You simply recognize a good deal when you hear one, but can never know when it happens.
Margin of safety Always have a margin of safety, as a buffer for errors and unforeseen situations. The principle is simple: If you are building a bridge that is supposed to support 20 tons of weight, you don’t build it for 21 tons. You build it for 40 tons, to have plenty of margin. The same is true for value investors: they try to be very conservative in their calculations. They don’t buy a stock because they think it’s 6% undervalued. They demand 50%.
Buy one dollar for 50 cents To summarize, and to quote Warren Buffett: “All investing is value investing.” In fact, Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger don’t even call themselves value investors. They simply master these principles. The goal is to find something worth one dollar and buy it for 50 cents. And even if your assessment was wrong and it turns out to be worth only 50 cents, you at least didn’t lose any money, thanks to your wide margin of safety.
Results By applying these principles, Warren Buffett has grown his net worth from $10,000 when he was 19 years old to more than $80 billion today, compounding at an average rate of more than 20 percent per year for more than 60 years straight.
If you’ve invested $1,000 into Warren Buffett’s publicly traded holding company Berkshire Hathaway in 1965, you would currently have $4.3 million.
So these principles are not just theory, they are achieving wonderful results.
A friend recently brought up this topic: He is regularly reading to his partner in the evening, and they are both enjoying it very much. I told him that my partner and I have discovered the same thing.
Pick something that interests you both. It’s wonderful quality time. You are near each other. You learn something, or entertain each other. You have the opportunity to discuss the topic. And you can perfectly wind down and then go to bed.
How I have made this into a habit:
1. After my Downtime kicks in, I brush my teeth and prepare myself for bed 2. I have added a daily “Reading time” calendar entry from 21:00-22:00
Our current topic is Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg. We love this topic and are taking a deep dive by reading everything we can.
A friend recently suggested to use the “Downtime” feature in the iPhone’s Screen Time settings.
When enabled, all your apps are blocked, except for the ones on your “Always Allowed” list.
How to enable “Downtime”: 1. Go to Settings 2. Go to Screen Time 3. Go to Downtime 4. Enable Downtime and customize settings 5. Go back to Screen Time 6. Go to Always Allowed and choose apps you want at all times
My personal downtime is from 20:45 to 06:00. From then on I only allow Audible, Podcasts, Calendar, and some other utilities. Everything else is blocked.
My expectations weren’t very high, and I was positively surprised. I really like this feature. Especially that all notifications and badges are hidden.
Also, in “emergencies”, it’s very easy to allow an additional 15 minutes for a particular app. I like the “opt in” aspect of it. There is a hurdle, but you can get your thing done if you really need to.
I enjoyed the recent TEDxBasel 2019. Here are my notes:
Choose your priorities Make health and happiness your main priority. Who would enjoy success or wealth without being healthy or happy?
Tips from a Michelin-starred chef Use a cooking apron. It will transform your mindset and you’ll feel like a chef. Try cooking with tea. Use lots of nuts. Always use salt, even for sweet dishes.
The benefits of walking Martin Vosseler is a physician and walked more than 40’000 km in his life, and he continues to walk 3000 km per year. Some of the benefits he experienced: it keeps you healthy; you connect with Earth and the Universe; you meet a lot of people; you experience a lot of love and generosity; it’s a very sustainable and earth-compatible mode of travel. It reminds me of my Just Walk habit I started a few years ago.
It took me 11 years after becoming a Warren Buffett enthusiast to finally attend my first Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. Here are my notes and my guide for first-time attenders.
Key Learnings from 2019 Meeting
Write down your thesis Before you buy a stock, write down: “I’m buying this company for [insert market cap, e.g. $500 billion], because…” If you can’t answer this question, don’t buy the company. Remember: A stock is not a piece of paper, it’s a part ownership of a business.
Broad vs. narrow circle of competence You need to find what you can understand. There is much more competition today than when Buffett started. It’s always a good strategy to specialize. Read as much you can. Figure out what you are good at. You need an edge. Be smart in spots and try to stay around those spots. Having one edge is enough.
Environmental, social and governance (ESG) Don’t spend time creating ESG committees and writing long reports. Simply do the right thing. Example: Berkshire Hathaway’s utility is on a path to soon produce 100% renewable energy in Iowa.
The Future Performance of Berkshire Hathaway “Berkshire Hathaway won’t be the biggest compounder by a long shot. But it will and continue to be a very safe way to make decent returns for a long time.” — Warren Buffett
Keep trying things “If you keep doing enough things, some of them will work out.” — Warren Buffett
Figure out what works “Figure out what works, and go do it.” — Charlie Munger
How to attend / Guide for First-Timers
This guide by The Investors Podcast (TIP) is a great starting point. But there are a lot of additional details to figure out. Here is my guide for first-timers:
When to plan the trip? Next years meeting will take place on May 2, 2020. It’s advisable to plan the trip as soon as possible, optimally as early as October or November. I planned my trip in January and it was already quite difficult to find reasonably priced hotels (I was still lucky though, see below).
Credentials / Tickets You don’t need to be a shareholder to get tickets, and there aren’t any further controls once you have tickets. The easiest way is to order them on eBay directly from Berkshire Hathaway (brka_b is their user name) and send them to your hotel address. If you are a shareholder, then simply print out a recent broker statement, bring a matching ID/passport and pick them up at the CHI Health Center on Friday before the meeting at the “Will Call”. You can pick up as many as 4 credentials, so not all of your friends need to stand in line.
Accommodation / Hotels I highly recommend staying in Council Bluffs, right across the river in Iowa. I booked in January and was lucky to find a decent hotel for just $55 per night. It only takes 10 minutes to go Downtown and the traffic was always very smooth, because you take the freeway most of the way. If you are on a low budget or like to stay with locals, you might also consider Couchsurfing. If budget is not an issue, then you might stay near the Old Market area, so you have everything in walking distance.
Rental Car / Parking A rental car is highly recommended, and only costs around $30 per day. The alternative is using Uber/Lyft, but this can get quite expensive if you want to see many things. I never had parking problems, even in Downtown. Mostly you have parking meters which cost $1.25 per hour (payable with credit card or cash). I downloaded the “ParkOmaha App” which made the process even easier. (If you don’t mind walking 10-15 minutes, you can park for free on the bridge next to the Durham Museum. That’s what I did most days. But don’t tell others ;)
Join a WhatsApp / Telegram group One of the best things I did was to join WhatsApp / Telegram groups. That way I always knew what’s going on and was never alone. We ended up being a group of 4-5 people that did most things together. One group I found on the TIP Forum, and the other through Guy Spier’s mailing list. I’m pretty sure there are others as well.
How to prepare for the meeting If you want to stand in line very early, I recommend to buy a $10 camping chair from Walmart. I did and it was a very good investment. Some Chinese people also brought blankets to lie on the ground, but I’d say this is optional. Other than that no special preparations needed.
When to stand in line for the meeting There are multiple entrances. Mohnish Pabrai recommends to go to the South Entrance, so I did that. We were there at 3.00am, which guaranteed us excellent seats. I think 3.30am would have been fine as well. Most people come after 4.00am and the line will get very long after that. I was sitting in my chair and was even able to take a few naps, as did several Chinese people next to me. In fact, most of the very early people at the South Entrance were Chinese.
How to get great seats When you pass the security check at the South Entrance, take the stairs down one floor, then continue straight until you see the Lexus Club. Take any door to the left to enter the hall (the sectors are not separated, so you can move freely within the hall). If you feel lucky, you might go all the way down to the ground floor and try to get a front row seat. We didn’t do that. We chose Sectors 104 which offers a fantastic view.
Want to see Warren Buffett up close? After you have secured your seats around 7.15am, I recommend to go the the Exhibit Hall. Warren often takes a walk trough the hall before the meeting starts. The movie starts at 8.30am, so there is plenty of time to look for Warren. Don’t forget to go to the restroom before the event starts. The morning session is nonstop until noon.
Backpack / Security CHI Center’s clear bag policy doesn’t apply to the Berkshire Hathaway meeting. You can bring a backpack. Full bottles are not allowed (empty ones are okay).
Events / Meetups There are a lot of events and meetups, and the best way to stay up to date is to join a WhatsApp/Telegram group. I highly recommend doing the 5k on Sunday. It’s a very nice and quite short run. As we’re in the US I expected 5 miles, and was pleasantly surprised to see the finish line after just 5 km :) After that I went to Borsheims to play against ping pong champion Ariel Hsing, which was a lot of fun.
Restaurants I really liked Jams in the Old Market. They have great salads. I also liked the Old Chicago pizza place in the Old Market. On weekdays they have great lunch deals.
Other fun things The Hollywood Candy store was fun. That’s where Buffett and Gates made the Sweet Nostalgia video. You can easily spend one or two hours there. Don’t forget to have a strawberry milkshake!
Disclaimer: All the above information is based on my 2019 trip. Things might change in the future, so keep your eyes and ears open.
Inspired by Rolf Dobelli’s book, I stopped using Facebook six months ago. Mainly because I was addicted, and also because the constant social comparisons and the instant gratification treadmill became toxic for me. (I’m still using Messenger/WhatsApp for one-one-one contact.)
The downside of leaving Facebook was that I lost a distribution channel for my content, and the people who were following me on FB suddenly stopped seeing my updates.
Reading Crush It! and Crushing It! by Gary Vaynerchuk convinced me that this was not wise if I wanted to maximize my impact, which I want.
#1: More reach: 1.52 billion people use FB daily. I want a slice of that.
#2: Compatible with social media software: I am using Crowdfire (they have a completely free plan, by the way) to manage my social media channels. You can only use such software with FB pages, not with personal profiles. This allows me to manage the page without having to actually log in to FB (which is what I don’t want).
#3: I can outsource my social media management: You can give third parties access to manage pages. So eventually I can completely outsource this channel.
#4: More options to customize: I can customize a page much better than a personal profile.
#5: Reply to private messages by email: I receive an email whenever somebody writes a message trough my page. I can answer by email, without having to log in.
#6: You can boost individual posts with ads. I’m not intending to do that, but it might be a good way to promote your business.
Final note on my private use of Facebook I’m feeling a clear pressure to log back into FB occasionally. Some of my friends publish exclusively there (e.g. in private groups for travel notes), so each month or so I log in to check the updates of those selected people.
Also, less than 24 hours since creating my page, I received the first message from an acquaintance who missed my updates (and I his). I now make an effort to occasionally reach out to those people one-to-one. Since leaving FB, I ramped up my calls/lunches/dinners/coffees, which is socially much more rewarding anyways.
When writing about the hyper-niche strategy, I thought back to all my own side projects. In this post, I offer a brief post-mortem for each one, so you can learn from my mistakes and don’t repeat them. (There were even more projects, but these were the main ones.)
Webmaster forum (2003-2015) While this started as a side project during my university time, it became my main project between 2003-2006. This was my first project where I could feel real traction. In its best days, it had 100.000 unique visitors per month.
The main mistake was a technical one. Most of our traffic came through organic search (SEO). In 2005, I wanted to rebrand the service and move it to a new domain. The new domain had a Google penalty from the previous owner. I didn’t know about the penalty, but I knew there were indexing issues, and I had an uneasy feeling. I did the switch anyways, mainly motivated by my ego. We lost all Google traffic for 90 days, until the ban was lifted. We never regained the past traction. F*ck! (I’m pretty sure that without this, the site would have grown to be 10x larger than it ultimately became…)
Managing a discussion board is hard. I let myself be totally absorbed by reading and writing in the community. I neglected everything else. Bad monetization, no business development deals, no development of own service offerings. Instead of working “on the business”, I worked “in the business”. We should have outsourced more and getting more help from freelancers. Don’t do everything yourself. Get help!
I just didn’t realize how many different monetization strategies could have been applied to this project. We only monetized with banner ads. We should have used more affiliate links. Write an ebook. Create paid directories of professional service providers. Promote our own professional services. Create a paid membership community etc. I’m pretty sure we could have come up with 25 different ways to monetize the site, while providing value. With banner ads alone, we made 15-25k CHF per year. Not bad for students. But not enough to make a real business out of it. It could have been a 250k a year business.
We had a niche, but didn’t communicate well enough. We should have been much more specific in our positioning/branding, and don’t be afraid to repel people we weren’t addressing. What do we stand for? Who is this service really for? We never answered those questions.
After moving on to our new startup in 2007, we held on to the site for 8 (!) more years. These were frustrating times for all community members and ourselves, and it went downhill pretty soon. Don’t hold on to projects you don’t want to focus on anymore! We eventually sold the site in 2015 for a small sum. In 2007/2008 it would have been worth much more, and we would have avoided much frustration.
I learned a lot from this project, and it pays dividends until today. I learned HTML/CSS, SEO, SEM, Affiliate Marketing, and many of the core skills I use until this day.
Keyword-based arbitrage website (2008-2013) The idea was to pick an affiliate program on TradeDoubler or Zanox, to build a highly specialized site around a specific set of keywords, attract organic search traffic, and redirect it to the affiliate program to earn commissions. I hired freelancers to write the content.
I picked the wrong market and language. It was a Swiss site, in German only. Combined with the hyper-niche aspect the total addressable market was too small. Why didn’t I pick a global affiliate program and built a site in English? I wasn’t thinking big enough. Think big!
I didn’t want to spend much money, so I hired low-quality writers. I wasn’t proud of the site. Outside of SEO, I didn’t promote the site. I didn’t want to put my name behind it. Life is too short to do things you are not proud of!
At peak months, the site had 300 visits and made 100 EUR per month.
All the money we made was reinvested in buying backlinks and content. The project was not profitable.
In the end, traffic and motivation faded away, so I shut it down.
I still think that picking a hyper-niche topic and building an authority site around it is a viable strategy. But it needs to provide real value or solve a real problem, and don’t be a pure arbitrage play.
Meditation app (2014-2016) Since 2012 I had the desire to build an app. In 2014 I had the idea for an app based meditation community. The idea was “Runkeeper for meditation”, and it was my main project in 2014. I sold it in 2016 and it still exists today.
My main goal was to build a lifestyle business. I outsourced the design and development to an app development company, and wanted to keep the operations as lean as possible.
I underestimated the amount of work (and cash, if you use contractors) it takes to create an app. It’s much more complicated than a website.
We got 40k downloads in the first two years, and our users logged 380k meditation sessions. Unfortunately, retention (in terms of repeat daily usage) and revenues were not very impressive. Only 3k Monthly Active Users and $200-$560 monthly revenues.
A larger pivot would have been needed. Addressing beginners instead of experienced meditators, create paid audio/video guides, or trying out radically different business models would have been possible approaches.
In the meantime, a different opportunity came up, and I decided to focus on that. I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes from the webmaster forum project (see above) and let the app die a death of abandonment. So I decided to find a new owner and found one. In fact, one candidate was a prominent Silicon Valley entrepreneur with >1M followers, but it ended up to not be a good fit.
I was applying the Lean Startup methodology for this project. But, I was not totally rational, intentionally so. I really wanted to build an app. It was a bucket list kind of thing. It might have been wiser to create a lean web-based version first, to validate the market, before building the app.
In the end, I learned a lot from this project. I now have the skill to build and market apps, and work with outside development companies. I was able to successfully apply this know-how at Exsila, where I led the creation of the iOS and Android apps.
Investor community (2018-2019) The idea was to build a paid membership community for entrepreneurs and professionals, and to give them everything they need to define and implement a passive stock investing strategy.
The main hypothesis was to make the discussion forum the center piece of the product. For members to share and encourage each other to take action. I recruited 40 founding members from my newsletter. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Even though it was a closed group, people didn’t feel safe (or simply didn’t want to) share their progress with others.
The guides I created for the members area were helpful and valuable. I was proud of them. Members found them useful, and I was able to inspire at least two people to start investing.
I wasn’t proud of the whole service. A larger pivot was needed.
In the end, inspired by Seth Godin, I decided to shut down the site, to have the freedom to start again with a blank canvas. Build. Test. Learn. Repeat.
I learned from this project that I don’t want to build online communities anymore. I want to have more direct relationships with people. Maybe in person. Maybe digitally enabled, but more personal. I also learned a lot about ClickFunnels, the service I used to build the site.
I still have a desire to help people achieve financial freedom. But not in this format. Maybe one day, I will come up with something new.
I seem to have trouble with Reid Hoffman’s wisdom: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” I am pretty good at starting things, launching quickly, and also being somewhat embarrassed. But, when I’m not proud of the product, I don’t want to promote it and stand behind it, limiting its early adoption.
I seem to have trouble with pivots. When the initial hypothesis doesn’t hold true, I lose motivation to do larger pivots. On the flip side, people like Seth Godin recommend to better shut things down and start from scratch, instead of being influenced by the things you already have (a form of path dependency). It seems there is no clear answer. What is clear to me: don’t hold on to a product that is not working. Move forward, or go home.
What’s next? I will keep creating new projects. I learn from each one, no matter whether it succeeds or fails. And also, to be totally honest, I see it as a personal challenge (and bucket list item) to build a side project that I am truly proud of, that solves a real problem, has traction, is fun and profitable. I’m not there yet, but I will keep trying!
What have you learned from your side projects? Let me know on Twitter.
Since the agricultural, and more recently the industrial revolution, specialization has been one of the key drivers of human economic progress. It allows for a unique win-win situation: You focus on what you do best. I do what I do best. Then we trade. In total, we produce better and more things, which keeps increasing our standard of living.
No matter how big your ambitions, whether you want to build a large company, or a side project, I believe one of the best strategies available is to go hyper-niche. Picking a niche of a niche of a niche.
Don’t be the “plant person”. Become the “baby spinach guru”.
Don’t do “asset management”. Offer “value investing for entrepreneurs in Germany with a net worth between €5 million to €25 million”.
Don’t do “book reviews”. Do “reviews of artificial intelligence science-fiction audiobooks”.
You have a chance to stand out
You can leverage your unique skills and experiences
You have a chance that your hyper-niche is not taken yet
It’s easier to find your first customers, because you exactly know who your audience is
It allows you to focus on just one thing, and not be “everything for everyone”
It helps you to say no to clients and opportunities, because you’re not that person, sorry
You have the chance to fill your hyper-niche globally and become a hyper-monopoly
Customers gravitate towards the most specialized provider. If you have eye problems, do you go to your general physician, or an eye specialist?
Your market entry strategy depends on the product you want to offer. If you offer a highly personal and professional service, you might want to start locally. If you want to build an authority website covering your topic of interest, you might want to start in one language. After you have succeeded in one segment, you might expand.
Personally, the more I think about it, the more I’m feeling the itch to go hyper-niche too. To create one (or multiple) side projects, and to create real value in a narrow segment. I had several side projects in the past 10 years, some with moderate success, and others failed miserably. That, too, is part of the game: Fall down, get back up, and learn!
I think it’s a great model for entrepreneurs. And especially a great model to build lifestyle businesses that provide value, are fun, and profitable.