Shopify, SPACs and Status, Part Two: with Jim O'Shaughnessy
Two Truths and a Take, Season 2 Episode 42
Note: this will be the last newsletter of the year (obviously; there aren’t any more Sundays) and the last episode of Season Two.
It’s also going to be the last episode under the banner, ‘Two Truths and a Take’, which was a fun name that I enjoyed, but had two problems: 1) it’s a mouthful to say; and 2) no one really called it that, myself included. So starting next year with season 3, it’ll be the same newsletter under a new name, but really the name it’s been called all along: “Alex Danco’s Newsletter.”
I’m going to take a couple weeks off to start the year, and I’ll see you back mid-January. Have a great holiday season, and enjoy kicking 2020 into the garbage can come New Years!
Welcome back to part two of my big interview with Jim O’Shaughnessy. If you missed part one last week, it was a great time and you should read it first:
We covered parts one and two last week:
Part 1: Shopify, Friction and Commerce
Part 2: Twitter, the World’s Learning Commons
This week, the back half, where it gets really fun:
Part 3: Founders and the Truth
Part 4: SPACS, Biotech, and Bubbles
As before, if you want to listen to the real thing, which I highly recommend for the full effect, you can find it here.
To catch you up on where we were, Jim had just finished telling the story of how Jamie Catherwood got his job at OSAM (by writing really high-quality stuff on the internet for a long time, but then pulling a fast one on Patrick: “Oh, in New York? Sure, in fact I’m there today!” he said, as he pulled on clothes at 4:00 am and hopped into the car.)
Alex: That is one of the classic hustler entrepreneur stories, right? Which is the... You finally get an investor's attention. And they're like, "Oh, let me know when you're next in New York." And you're like, "Oh, I'm actually going to be there on Monday." Buy the cheapest plane ticket to New York.
Jamie: Morgan Housel did that with Jason. Literally Jason said, "Let me know the next time you're in New York." And Morgan was like, "Oh, I'll be there tomorrow." bought an Amtrak ticket.
Alex: Oh, it's such a trope. It's a really, really good trope.
Part 3: Founders and the Truth
Jim: This reminds me of an article you wrote, Are Founders Allowed To Lie? I love this article by the way.
Alex: You've decided to get me canceled I see.
Jim: You are about to be the main character on Twitter.
Alex: I'm going to be the main character. I feel badly about this. So, I wrote that post and in it was some story that I have heard 100 times about the Microsoft founders making some stuff up and playing a little fast and loose with the truth when they were getting an early deal done. I had copied this anecdote out of Byrne Hobart's newsletter (another amazing newsletter.)
This is some story where, I don't know, I've heard this story so many times, I'm just going to copy and paste. And then immediately Tren Griffin, who is somebody who actually knows what he's talking about, goes on Twitter. And he was like, "Excuse me, this is completely factually wrong. None of this happened the way you're talking about how it happened."
And so, I dunno, I was stressed out about something at work. So I was like, "I don't want to deal with this. I'm going to let Byrne deal with this.” So I just tagged Byrne with a question mark on Twitter and then muted the thread, which is truly a despicable thing to do. But I was like, "I don't know man, I got to do other things. I have to do work."
Jim: Talk about throwing someone under the bus.
Alex: Unforgivable behaviour. So, anyway, Tren, if you're out there listening to this, you're right. I'm sorry. I just didn't have time to deal with that. I corrected it later.
Jim: It's funny because we recorded with him like two weeks ago.
Alex: That's great.
Jim: He didn't even bring you up, Alex.
Alex: Clearly, maybe Byrne made such a good impression on him that bygones are bygones. Anyway. So, this essay that I wrote, Are Founders Allowed To Lie. Look, this is one of those taboo topics. But that is very important with the whole idea of startups, which is... At some literal level, if you were trying to make the future and you are trying to conjure something out of nothing that does not exist, it is very hard to get things going, if you were only ever allowed to tell the literal truth all the time.
Alex: Right. And I don't just mean truth by commission, I also mean truth by omission. If you are consistently compelled to tell the literal truth about what is going on at all times, very, very hard to create forward progress where none exists.
Jim: But also that's, I mean, you've seen the movie Liar Liar, right? With Jim Carrey. It's back when Jim was still funny and he played a lawyer whose children asked for a wish that their daddy could not lie for one day. Hilarity ensues. Anyway, so, when I read the article, it was like, well, of course this is a question of degrees, right? I mean, you can omit certain things. You can massage certain things.
Alex: Right. And so there's a concept called Kayfabe, which is a term from pro wrestling, that is really valuable for understanding the contract that is at work here between the founder and other people. The scenario is basically as follows.
If you decide you want to go out and change the world in some useful, positive way, the main thing that you have to do is to get other people to feel the same way about what you're trying to do. And you need them to feel that emotion above a certain threshold for enough period of time, for them to actually start helping you, make this thing happen, right? The limiting factor is the ability to get these feelings to take place. Now you have to ask, "Okay, how are you going to go about getting these feelings to happen?"
And here's where pro wrestling is actually useful as the way of understanding this. If you go watch pro wrestling, if you go look at people who are wrestling fans, you see something interesting happened with them, which is, they're watching a show which is very clearly scripted. You're being presented with something that is not factually happening. It's a performance.
Alex: But, they're experiencing very real emotion when they watch it. They actually feel the feelings of the storyteller. And they actually feel the highs and the lows. What's being presented is clearly fabricated. But the outcome of what's being presented is very real. And there's no cognitive dissonance here, right? It's like asking somebody who just got off a roller coaster, "Don't you realize you weren’t actually on a runaway mine car?" It doesn’t matter. It felt real to me. And that's what matters.
Alex: Now, this is what founders have to do with other people around them. So, employees, partners, investors, anyone around you, is get them to feel the feeling of, I want to do this.
Alex: Right? And you're going to tell a story about all the progress you're making and all the inevitability of what you're doing and how this vision of the future that is coming true as we speak. There’s a contract that I am willing to engage into with you: Look, I'm going to present you this story of what I'm doing that is clearly embellished and incomplete but is a genuine portrayal of an aspiration, rather than necessarily the literal truth of what's happening. But the contract is that I'm going to present you this in a way that makes you feel a very legitimate feeling in pursuit of helping what I'm telling you about become real.
Again it comes back to this idea of Kayfabe. It's about authenticity and fidelity to the idea as being more important than factual verifiability. If you look at why this works so well in Silicon Valley, it goes back in a lot of ways, like the hacker mindset of the early computer programming community, where there is a big mindset of, intention matters more than rule-following.
If you have good intent, that is more important than if you are literally obeying by the letter of what you are and aren't permitted to do. That's very much the ethos. It's very honour system based. And still to this day, Silicon Valley is remarkably run on the honour system. You cannot understand the startup community in Silicon Valley without understanding first and foremost, how deeply reputation-based it is.
And part of why this works so well in fact, is that in joining this ecosystem and participating in this world where you are, it's all about getting people to feel the right feelings and signal that you have the right intent. That makes this reputation-based world function so well as it does. There are many, many, many forces holding this together, but deeply at its core, it's like, there's a trust at the centre of it that's hard to replicate anywhere else.
Jim: So, there's a spectrum obviously, right? I joked that maybe we would call it the Elon Spectrum. And so, what happens if you topple over into the Elizabeth Holmes side of things? Does that... And by that, I mean, when everyone figured out what she did, right? Does that impact negatively this spirit of trust?
Alex: Okay, so there are a couple of things here that we should talk about. The first one is that Theranos is a remarkable story, but what's remarkable about it is how not a Silicon Valley story it is.
Alex: Theranos is actually not representative of the usual process. And that is part of how things got to the way it was. If you look at Theranos as one example; Nikola, the truck where they rolled it down the Hill, did all of that really funny stuff. What is remarkable about this is that it is in many ways, an effective demonstration of how powerful the Silicon Valley system is. How yeah, you can go look around and find one or two Silicon Valley investors in there. But for the most part, their investors, their community was somewhat on the fringe of this. And this is not to say that Silicon Valley is not full of embellishment and lying and stuff like that, but it's not fraud. There's a big difference between what we're talking about versus actual falsehood.
One of the golden rules of engaging in this is this idea that as the founder, you are empowered with permission to, let's just call it, tell the “pre truth”. Have good intent, and then communicate that intent in a way that tells the future in advance and gets things to happen. And part of your ability to do that is conferred on you by your investors. Your investor is funding you with a Series A term sheet and going into your cap table and becoming the people who have the most at stake. They are effectively blessing you, like the priests blessing the King, with their divine power.
Jim: The Imperator.
Alex: That's right. It's your power is bestowed on you almost as if by the divine to do this, but as it is given to you, it can also be taken away from you. And that's very important. So the power that VCs have over the past 10, 15 years has migrated from being a hard power. It used to be, we take 40% of your company and two board seats and you don't have control. We kick out the founder and put in our CEO. VCs’ power is no longer that power. It is really a more soft power. Which in many ways is actually more effective. It's based on your reputation and your community and your standing among your social peer set and the ability to confer, but also withdraw this blessing of having the tools to get things going. It's a fascinating social dynamic.
Jim: So what was the spark that led you to write this again?
Alex: I was compelled to write it just because that particular week was Nikola, the truck company-
Jim: The truck company. Okay.
Alex: ... So again, this is a truck company that is not really a Silicon Valley company, but I had heard of it, people had heard of this Hydrogen company. So first thing is, they went public with the Jeff Ubben SPAC. And then, you have that Hindenburg research report. This is the big short sellers report. That's was one of the catalytic events for this whole big downfall of the story.
Together it paints this picture that is fairly embarrassing. But if you look at any individual thing that they did, most of them are, I don't know, I could see a founder doing that. And basically thinking it was fine. You roll the truck down the hill to make a video, big deal. They never actually said that the truck was moving under its own power. Like they called it a “road test”, which is really funny. It was on the road. They were testing. Where is the lie?
Jim: Clinton's deposition where he said, it depends on what your definition of the word is, is.
Alex: Yeah. So, and again, not to spoil the ending here, but I learned about this from one of the masters. Everybody knows here, who I'm talking about; I'm talking about Chamath. Chamath is a remarkable person because he has such a command of narrative. He is unlike anybody else I've ever met. If you were within a physical radius of him, everything he says is more compelling than anything you've heard in your entire life up until that point. And then he leaves the physical room, and for maybe 30 seconds afterwards the feeling persists. Then you realize wait a minute, none of that's true. But it doesn't matter; he has the charisma and the ability to just absolutely command a storyline in a way that was just remarkable.
Part 4: Spacs, Biotech and Bubbles
And so Chamath sat us down several years ago. And said, I'm going to tell you about this new thing we're going to do. It's called a SPAC. None of us had ever heard about this, but this is going to be the new way that companies go public.
We don't need to go into the whole mechanics of the IPO versus SPAC debate. People have heard this too many times, but the core message here was this idea: that as costs go down, not just transaction costs but also the costs and friction of communication, the essence of what is needed to go through a phase change from being private, to being public, will change.
It's a change. There is risk and effort involved. But “how are you going to get from A to B” is going to change from needing the massive, expensive apparatus of a bank, to solely needing the pure distilled essence of someone's confidence as they sponsor you through that transition. He was completely right.
I should also mention, by the way, that Chamath is uniquely equipped to be able to do SPACs well. Because you need three skill sets and few people have all three. You need the operating skill set to actually come in and do the role of being chairman and figuring out what to do. You need to know how companies work. Two you need investing experience. You need to be a savvy investor. You need to know how to be the sponsor. You need to know how to talk to the other investors. You need that experience.
Third, you need to be able to go on TV and run your mouth all day and have people love you. Right? Not many people have all three. Chamath absolutely has all three. He has all three in spades. It went through all the drama of the rest of Social Capital; it took a long time before he found Virgin Galactic. But now everyone's going to do a SPAC. It’s SPACs coming up left and right. You have celebrities doing SPACs.
Now, people are going to figure out really quickly that the identity of the sponsor matters a lot. Just like the identity of the bank that takes you public matters a lot. I know that on Patrick's podcast the other day, there was a fantastic episode with Rich Barton and Brad Gerstner talking about Altimeter’s SPAC. The identity of who takes you public matters regardless of what the mechanism is. And again, I would not be surprised at all if Chamath emerges as one of the original, OG premium vehicles for going public, just because this is a unique and rare set of skills that make him succeed.
Jim: So, what do you think the future of SPACs is then? Are they going to themselves get a hierarchy?
Alex: I'm sure. And there's no reason why the currently high fee structure of SPACs has to necessarily persist. Right now SPACs are expensive because people are still doing them one at a time, and you still need to take something public one at a time, and you were still paying retail to take the thing public. And so, currently today, a SPAC is just moving the costs of that from one place to another and charging different people. But there is no reason why you can't take 10 of these things public wholesale, right? Fairly soon some bank is going to say, let's start actually moving these things in batches. People will actually learn how to do this right, and save a lot of money in the process.
And then some of that money may get passed back to the companies going public. And others will get made by the sponsor. And others will be creatively passed back to investors through maybe it’s warrant structures, or maybe it's whatever else. I think in the short term, I imagine there'll be some experimentation with it. Right now SPACs are interesting. And they're trendy. They will probably go through a period of time where they lose their trendiness and people go back to saying they're stupid, but where the actual innovative work gets done. Where people actually dig in and figure out how to do them. And there'll be a two year winter where people are SPACs are dead. They were a trend. They went away while the important work has done.
Now I can actually just make a straight up prediction on your podcast. You can hold me to this prediction in 10 years if I'm wrong. I've already written it down somewhere. So this is just reiterating it.
SPACs are going to find true product market fit when a real sector bubble happens that is explicitly fueled by SPACs. And that sector is going to be biotech. Write this down. This will happen.
Alex: So sometime in the next 10 years, there is going to be a big time biotech bubble. It's going to be a 1999 style bubble, where there is going to be this vision of the future: enough things will have happened in the world of synthetic and molecular biology. This is already happening; these are doors that are already getting unlocked today, as we speak.
Enough things are going to come together that the public is collectively going to start realizing that the TAM of this stuff is everything. It's the internet or computers, where people realized, oh my God, the TAM of this is All The Stuff. Similarly, the TAM for biology is all of chemicals, polymer manufacturing and fuel and healthcare. The TAM of biology is so big.
Alex: So what's going to happen is there will be an increasing understanding that “this is going to happen”. This is going to be a bubble and people start realizing it's going to be a bubble. And they're going to start bidding things up in anticipation of the bubble. SPACs are going to come in as a new-ish useful financial mechanism for people to be able to speculate on the stuff in new ways.
Remember, new financial mechanisms are a classic recurring feature of bubbles because they let retail idiots get in more easily to things. In 1999, it was day trading. It was, “I can day trade from my home computer. This is so cool.” With crypto, similarly, it’s a new fundamental mechanism to speculate. Right? SPACs may very well be that mechanism.
There's perfect fit with bio. Bio is so powerful. And it's so interesting. And the other good part is, no one understands any of it. It's so hard to understand. It is completely and utterly beyond the ability of any investor to understand what the hell they're talking about when they talk about biotech companies. This is just a permanent feature of the sector. It will never change.
So because of that, you will have this scenario that is highly reflexive, where it becomes “Well, so-and-so is interested in this. So therefore I should get into it too.” And it becomes “Well, if I see this going up, then I need to get into this too, because there's zero fundamentals! Because there's no such thing as fundamentals in biotech. It is entirely an exercise in greater fool buck passing, even for real things.
Interlude: Since I might as well pull it up, here is the word-for-word prediction I’d made from last year:
“We’re going to have another bubble. This one will be less like Crypto 2017 and more like Dot Com 1999: it’ll be in the public markets, with retail mom and pop investors, and covered conventionally (and enthusiastically) in the media. And it’s gonna be in biotech.
It’ll have the three ingredients you need for a genuine bubble:
First: “I’ve seen the future and it’s incredible, we have to get in now even though we don’t understand it.” Biotech is really an ideal sector for mass speculation. It impacts everybody, and it’s inside everyone and everything: the TAM of “biology” is infinite. It’s incredibly complex, so it’s easy for novices to grasp onto a story and its importance without understanding the reality of it. And it’s full of high-leverage potential: it’s totally plausible that biological breakthroughs in health, manufacturing, fuel, etc could generate tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars of value.
Second: A critical mass of retail investors who are hooked on high returns, as the current bull run eventually runs out of gas (although that may not be for several years!). We’ll have the conditions where a large enough number of regular people, especially Gen Xers who did well in the past 10 years and who are moving into retirement, now have slush money to invest (and the time and boredom to get hooked on it).
Third: A new kind of financial innovation that becomes the instrument of speculation. These aren’t a necessary component of bubbles, but they sure help. In this case, I bet there’s going to be some new clever financial product that bundles and securitizes the highly speculative IP of biotech companies, in a way that legally lets retail investors buy them through an ETF or something. You can imagine the rationale: ‘Imagine if regular people could’ve owned a basket of the fastest growing tech unicorns last decade; well, this is that, but for all of these high-potential biology breakthroughs. Make sure you don’t miss out on $BIOVX!’”
If people ever ask me for a truly YOLO stock pick - and I want to tell them something that doesn't actually give me any reputational risk, if I'm wrong - I tell them this: go do some basic homework and learn what are the like three or four picks and shovels companies in molecular bio and life sciences. And buy those. Because if a biotech bubble happens there's no way you're not going to make 10X at least on your money, on these things for a window of time. And the bubble is over and you have to have sold by then.
Jim: Yeah . That's the tricky part, right? Because we're getting into another field where I learned that we share a love and that's in mimetics. I've been studying it for the last three years, because I think it's incredibly important and really one of my ideas is that because of mimetic desire, because of copycat, because of all of those things falling into place, you can get markets into a place where they're no longer heterogeneous, but they're homogeneous. In other words, you get everyone thinking the same thing at the same time and information cascades become all the same information or let's put it this way. They become interpreted by people in similar fashions.
Jim: And so one of my little pet theories is that there may be a way using machine learning to find a simple - not prediction, but rather confirmation. That, you might want to look at this over here really closely because it's meeting all of these particular things. What do you think?
Alex: Okay, so my brain is struggling to take this in two or three different places. I guess my first question is to say, congratulations, you've discovered growth versus value. [Laughter] Someone has discovered it, once again. The second place my mind went to, which is related to the first one, is how much of everything we know now about the way the markets work and about how capital allocation works really is all John Malone. This idea of, “You're not making the thing, you're making the thing that makes the thing.” You're not making profits, you're making value. What is value, exactly? Is it the thing that makes the profits? Or is it whatever people decide value is? Strictly speaking in terms of mimetics, there is a difference between a growth stock that people are bidding up for a variety of different reasons of why they think it will grow, for versus something like a Bitcoin.
Alex: Bitcoin is a very pure example, where there's actually a recursiveness to the thesis: people think it's going to go up because people think it's going to go up. It doesn't actually pretend to be anything else. So It's refreshing in that sense.
Jim: I agree.
Alex: So, okay. Let me actually unpack this ability. So you're saying, is there a way that you could, if you could get access to what people are Google searching? And be able to tell when things are operating in one mode versus another, when is it heterogeneous growth bidding up versus when is it homogenous growth bidding up? Is that the question?
Jim: That is the question. I'm still working on the hypothesis and where I want to get data from social media. Certainly Google searches, certainly StockTwits, all of those things. And it could end up being a null hypothesis.
Alex: Yeah. What's your contra for this? What would be the sign that it's not working?
Jim: The sign that the signal is not normal?
Alex: What do you need to be the signal that this isn't working? For example, let me give you a specific example, to pick on this guy a little bit. It’s the concept of the anti-Galloway portfolio. Scott Galloway is somebody who is very bright and good at talking to people and good at creating a certain storyline of his. “Everyone thinks that Amazon is going up and they're all wrong. And everyone thinks that these companies going up and they're all wrong.” Look, there are reasons why you might not want to buy Amazon. But not those reasons! Those are stupid! That's a useful contra. Because it tells you something.
Jim: Yeah. No I love that one. And also known as the Seinfeld, George do the opposite of everything to achieve world dominion. It's going to be hard to ascertain without human judgment. In other words, I think in the beginning rounds, I'm going to use mixed models, AI models, and then have humans judge them. Right. Okay. So I think that this is right. I think that this is wrong and then see if there's any learning around that particular set of circumstances.
Alex: Yeah. Okay. Well, let me ask you. If you made this and it worked, would it look like Twitter? Let's look at Twitter, an area of your expertise. You have a particular dynamic of people looking at the discourse and then commenting on the discourse and it spits out a result, which is “who we're making fun of today”. And that result is a signal about something. Is it predictive?
Jim: And right there, that is the goal of this project, right. Is to figure out if any of this and I hesitate to use the word “predictive”. I would look for something more along the lines of, does it confirm?
Alex: Is it explanatory?
Jim: Explanatory, right. So I guess I'll fall back on the CDO debacle. right. So I was at Bear Stearns there and walking around and saying to anyone who would listen to me: “I will short my house if I can; this is insanity.” And that was pretty easy to see, from the lines of just math. You don't use 40 times leverage on illiquid instruments.
Alex: But on the other hand, the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.
Jim: Very true.
Alex: Are you really willing to bet on this, knowing that you could get punished down to zero before the market is wrong?
Jim: And, that's my search for a confirmation signal that has a high degree of reliability and some good base rates. So does it look like Twitter? I don't know. I think we might find some very unusual things that get said elsewhere. And by that, I mean, maybe when we start collecting all of those reports that are made available on Twitter and looking for mining keywords, it's obviously not a fully formed idea on my part yet, but if you can get something that has a relatively high base rate in confirmation, then I think you have an actionable “well, do the opposite.”. But you brought in the critical element of time. And so that is also a component in this, right? So during the dot com bubble, I wrote a piece in April of 1999 called “The Internet Contrarian”. And in that piece, I said, this is the biggest bubble any of us have ever seen.
And I used AOL as an example. Its entire value was based on its future. IE growth investing. And so what's interesting about this is two fold. So I was 11 months early. Right. And this is the part that I really love after writing that piece based almost entirely on completely factual information. What did I do? I founded an internet company! I founded an internet investment advisor called Netfolio.
Alex: There are two ways you could look at that. One, you could portray it as, you are betting on the very thing that you were arguing against; watch what I do, not what I say. On the other hand, as Matt Levine pointed out, the person to most successfully short the tech bubble recently was Adam Neumann. He successfully shorted tech by raising money on the current tech valuation and then turned it into private jets. So which one are you?
Jim: Mm-hmm.. I'll take the more innocent of the two. Thank you very much.
So if you were a young person, the only thing anyone ever talked about then was “the internet is taking over everything.” And I actually have a patent, which I think just expired. I'm not sure, but I love the language of this patent. It is issued to the company Netfolio for “dispensing investment advice over a worldwide network”.
Alex: Oh my God, you could shut down Twitter. You can do it. You have the power.
Jim: I'm sorry, Jack. [Laughter]
Alex: Sorry, Jack, you have to shut down the website. You need to get in touch with Ashley Feinberg right now. Tell her, Ashley, I have the power. Twitter is in violation of my intellectual property.
Jim: Anyway, what's cool is Netfolio was the first to envision in that way, that everything would be done over the internet. You could, you could reject companies, you could tax manage it. The tech sucked though. But now Patrick has started a thing called Canvas at OSAM, which really actually works.
Alex: 20 years later, right on schedule.
Jim: Yeah. Right on schedule. Well, it's very different than NetFolio. I've got to give them full marks because it's an operating system really. And so if you're an advisor, you might do one thing and another advisor using it over here, we'll do something completely different. It just gives you really easy to use tools, to customize things, to do ESG, tax manage.
Alex: What’s remarkable is how many of those Dot Com ideas are now working out now.
Jim: Bingo. Yeah.
We finish our interview with Jim asking me: if he made me World Emperor for a Day, and I could order the world to do two things, what would they be? To hear my answer, go to Infinite Loops with Jim O’Shaughnessy and go listen to the source material. I think you’ll enjoy it.
If you read one other thing this week, make it this:
This is a supremely clear, step-by-step walkthrough of the actual source code of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine, which teaches you a couple of amazing things:
1) how stunningly similar the logic of DNA transcription and translation is to how computers read machine code;
2) how the vaccine actually works; i.e. what does this genetic code actually produce, and why;
3) a few elegant hacks that the vaccine designers incorporated to make the vaccine perform even better; there’s so much cleverness in the fine-tuning, and this post explains a few of them really clearly.
And finally, for this week’s tweet of the week that made me laugh the hardest, congratulations to Facebook for the pettiest move of the year, right here:
Have a great new year, and I will see you in 2021 after a few weeks hiatus. Thank you as always for subscribing for another season of my newsletter. I’m so lucky to get to do this with all of you every week.
My very best for 2021,