Index Funds: Good for Corporate Governance & Good for Crypto

On March 8th, Dick Weil, co-CEO of London-based Janus Henderson Investors,wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the SEC should prevent index-funds from voting on shareholder proxies. In it, he argues that index funds “have no interest in the performance of particular companies” and that index funds “lack a strong incentive to cast informed votes.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Weil misses some of the most important incentives that drive long-term equity holders, including index funds. In fact, index funds are likely to be superior to active funds for effecting good long-term corporate governance.

Index Funds Are Long-Term Owners

In October 2017, Jack Bogle gave an interview with Morningstar that addressed this exact issue. His argument, as usual, was clear and compelling:

Benz: How about on the governance front. I know you and I have talked about this over the years, about whether passive products are more limited than active managers from the standpoint of influencing corporate governance of the companies they own. What do you say to that assertion that passive products because they can’t walk away from some of these companies altogether don’t have that ultimate weapon that active managers do have?

Bogle: I’d say traditional index funds are the last, best hope for corporate governance.

Benz: And why is that?

Bogle: That’s because they’re the only true, long-term investors. Corporate governance should be based on long-term factors affecting the corporation, not a bunch of traders who want you to report higher earnings, gonna try and get on your board for a minute, and in a moment … I don’t know how they’re this smart to do it, but realign the entire company and then all will be well. It just doesn’t happen. In fact, the reverse is more likely to happen.

So, I don’t see … The old Wall Street rule was if you don’t like the management, sell the stock. The new index fund rule is if you don’t like the management, fix the management because you can’t sell the stock.

The critique of index funds and corporate governance comes from the mistaken idea that it is only by buying and/or selling a security that you can influence management and the allocation of capital. While there is no doubt that individual actions in the secondary market affect the price of a security, and the price of a security can affect capital allocation decisions, it is a relatively indirect link. Activist shareholders typically use these actions, but as a means to more direct control, either influence or direct membership on the board of directors.

Unfortunately, because discretionary investors have the power to walk away and sell a security, there is a weakness in their commitment to fixing a company. While some of the best activist private equity funds might spend years working to improve the returns of a company, most active investors show no such patience.

Index funds effectively operate as permanent owners of the business, so their incentive is to work to improve the performance of each and every company in proportion to their market capitalization.

Patient Capital Has Value

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of index funds as investors is their reliability as a patient source of capital. There is no doubt that the short-term focus of current capital markets is a problem for public companies looking to optimize their performance for the long term. Very often, significant changes in corporate strategy take years to implement, and can often result in negative short-term performance in exchange for the potential for significant long-term upside. Unfortunately, if most investors hold securities for short periods of time, management can be pushed for making decisions that are optimized for long-term value creation.

In fact, this problem is the focus of Eric Ries’ new startup, the Long-Term Stock Exchange.

For example, as of 2013, the average active mutual fund had a turnover of over 85% (according to Morningstar). This means their average holding period for a stock was barely over one year! They are not long-term investors, and their financial interest is incredibly biased towards short-term performance. They are not going to support any solution to a corporate problem that might hurt short-term performance.

This is not just a problem for active mutual funds. Private equity buyout funds, based on their structure, predominantly look for returns often within a relatively short number of years. Because they often use debt to leverage their buying power and maximize return on capital, their playbook also includes damaging short-term actions like the payoff of significant one-time dividends that can starve a business of long-term capital.

Index funds provide long-term, patient capital that is well aligned with the desire to see companies optimize their corporate governance for maximum shareholder value. The time frames of active investors are just too short to align with management changes and strategic choices that may not pay off for years, if not decades.

This Applies to Crypto, Too

One of the most exciting developments in cryptocurrencies has been credible initiatives around index investing. Bitwise Investments (currently available) and Coinbase (available soon) have both announced crypto index products and platforms. (disclosure: I am a private investor in both.)

Over the past few years, more and more investors are convinced there is an incredible opportunity for blockchain-based products and platforms. Though cryptocurrencies have the same liquidity as public companies, they are based on far younger organizations and will take time to develop. Index funds can act as a stabilizing force amidst the volatility, especially if index funds see continued net-positive inflows like their brethren in equity and debt assets.

Amidst all of the volatility, index funds will likely also have a role to play as aggregators of long-term holders of cryptocurrency. Index funds, given their incredibly long time implicit frames, are aligned to advocate for governance and development that will maximize the long-term value of the ecosystem.

Index funds may not control the marginal price of these assets, but they can provide a structure for a large pool of investors to have a long-term influence on the direction of these platforms. Whether the future belongs to proof-of-work systems, proof-of-stake, or other alternatives, my guess is that we’ll find that, over time, that access to long-term, patient capital is a huge benefit to products and platforms in crypto.

Long-Term Ownership Will Improve Governance

While there is no question that active investors can have a positive impact on the governance of corporations, it would be foolish not to see the additional advantages that index funds bring to the financial ecosystem.

Index funds may actually be the missing form of long-term, patient capital that we’ve needed in corporate governance to better align companies with the creation of long-term value for all of their stakeholders.

Every Function Has a Superpower. What’s Yours?

Over the course of my career, I’ve been fortunate enough to work in a variety of different functions.  No matter whether it is engineering, design, product, or service, every role has its own unique set of requirements and challenges.

Maybe that’s why I have always believed strongly that software is a team sport. If you want to build exceptional products, you have to find a way to harness the unique and diverse viewpoints of a team of professionals across a wide variety of functions.

Unfortunately, even at great companies, there is a repeated pattern where people in some functions feel disempowered. This doesn’t need to be the case.

Every function has a superpower. Make sure you know what yours is.

Every Function Has Value

Hypergrowth software companies are relentless in their pursuit of efficiency. Everyone who joins a new company dreams of building something new, something better than the companies that came before it. As a result, startups are always questioning the breakdown of functions in older, more established companies. In addition, resources are always tight, as companies stretch to make every dollar of funding count.

Unfortunately, this also means that many startups repeat the same mistakes over and over again when it comes to recognizing the value of different functions in a modern software company. This can be compounded by having a founding team or early employees who have never worked in those functions before.

You don’t really know a function until you know someone who is exceptional at it.

Inevitably, most startups, even when they have grown to hundreds of people, have gaps in their understanding and appreciation of some functions.

Avoiding Decision By Committee

Besides the lumpy build-out of different functions at fast-growing companies, the need for fast decision making also tends to bias the product process.

Great companies tend to be opinionated in their decision-making process around product, and those processes can vary significantly. Some companies may overweight decisions from engineering, others might look to a strong product function. There are companies that are largely sales-driven, and others that rely on general managers. There are companies where decision-making is hierarchical, deferring to the CEO or founder for key product calls, and others where decision-making is distributed broadly to the teams.

This isn’t surprising, however, because there is a direct tension at companies between the speed of execution and the exhaustiveness of a process. As a result, almost every product-centric company seeks to avoid “decision by committee” by assigning decision responsibility to a function or a hierarchy.

No matter what system exists, there are always people and functions that feel disempowered by the process.

Know Your Superpower

While you may not be the one to make the final product decision, it is a mistake to feel disempowered. Your function has unique value, and you can dramatically shape any product decision through your efforts.

The key is to know your superpower.

Every function has one. Here are just a few examples:

  • Engineering. Every engineer has the ability to take what is and isn’t possible off the table. I’ve seen product strategy discussions completely changed in a single weekend by engineers building something that no one else had even considered. The power to create is an awesome one, and the best engineers use this power to open the eyes of their teammates to what can be accomplished.
  • Design. Most people can’t visualize the different options that are possible around a given feature or product, and design has the power to reshape discussions completely based on visualization. Design can eliminate theoretical options, define the choices available, and most importantly trigger a deep, emotional response to certain choices in decision makers.
  • Product. At some companies, product managers have procedural power to make decisions. However, the most effective product managers use their power to frame the discussion with strategy and metrics to help drive decisions. The power to define the framework for a decision often is the power to control the decision.
  • Client Service. If you spend your day talking to real customers about real problems every day, you have amazing power to bring issues to the fore. Sometimes a decision is swayed by the scale of the problem, other times by the severity. Never underestimate the power of narrative, driven by real customer stories, to shape decisions on product and prioritization.

Every function has a superpower and everyone has the ability to do the extra work necessary to tap the unique capabilities and resources of their function to use that power to shape decisions. It requires work, but no matter what your function or role is, you can heavily influence critical decisions.

You just need to find your superpower.

 

Ikigai: How to Find Professional Success

On December 25, 2017, I tweeted out a page from the World Economic Forum about Ikigai and was shocked at how broadly it spread. This post elaborates on the concept.

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Over the last twenty years, I’ve been asked by hundreds of students for advice on how to think about their careers post-graduation. Inevitably, I’ve always responded with a simple framework to help structure their thinking around picking a profession:

  1. What are you exceptional at?
  2. What do you love to do?
  3. What does the world value?

As it turns out, there is a Japanese concept for this framework. Ikigai.

The Reason You Get Up in the Morning

Dan Buettner gave a TED Talk called, “How to Live to Be 100+.” He focuses quite a bit of his lecture on the island of Okinawa and their extraordinary number of centenarians. He identifies several diet and lifestyle habits that seem to correlate with a long and healthy life. Ikigai is one of those concepts. He recently gave an interview in the Telegraph:

They all have an ikigai. “In the Okinawan language,” said Dan, “there is not even a word for retirement. Instead, there is one word that imbues your entire life, and that word is ‘ikigai’. And, roughly translated, it means ‘the reason for which you get up in the morning.’”

He talked of a 102-year-old karate master who still practised, a 100-year-old fisherman who loved to bring the catch to his family, and a 102-year-old who, asked what her ikigai was, said that holding her great-great-great-granddaughter, a century her junior, felt like “leaping into heaven.”
In Buettner’s framework, Ikigai is not just something you think about when you are picking majors. It’s a form of balance that you seek through your entire life.

What Are You Optimizing For?

When I was in college, my mother constantly reflected on the bad advice she felt students were given as they attempted to pick a career. “Everyone tells students to follow their passion. It’s not that simple. There is a big difference between a hobby and a career.”

My father tended to be more direct. “The world doesn’t owe you a living,” he would often say, “Find something that people value.”

Our popular culture has become saturated with the idea that if you just find your passion, something you love doing, then your career will magically present itself. If only success were so simple. Finding something you love to do is critical, and if you are fortunate, you’ll find several. As it turns out, that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

The fact is, you may love something that the world doesn’t value highly. The world may value things that you aren’t very good at. And of course, you may be good at something that you don’t want to do.

The benefit of Ikigai is that it helps separate out the dimensions you can optimize your professional efforts around, in attempt to help you find a combination that will result in professional success and fulfillment.

Four simple questions.

  1. What do you love? Find something that you really enjoy doing. It’s simple to say that the journey is the reward, but when you love to do something, work can be something you look forward to.
  2. What are you good at? We all have different talents and aptitudes. With practice and determination, you can develop mastery in a wide variety of areas. However, if you have a natural (or hard-earned) talent in an area, that’s worth identifying.\
  3. What can you be paid for? Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that the other humans around you will value it. Looking for something that the market will reward financially is a critical piece of this puzzle if for no other reason than to set expectations realistically.
  4. What does the world need? Being the unabashed capitalist, I originally assumed that anything the world needed would also be something the world would pay for. Stepping away from the theoretical argument, there is significant value in transparency from separating out this requirement.

Imperfect Combinations of Three

One of the most insightful aspects of Ikigai is the imperfect combinations of three of the four dimensions that are represented in the chart by different colors.

If you find work that you are good at, that you can be paid for, and that the world needs, you may find yourself feeling comfortable but unfulfilled. In this case, you aren’t working on something you love, but likely being compensated for your work and seeing its valuable impact on others.

If you find work that you love, you are good at, and that you are being paid for, you may find yourself feeling satisfied but useless. In this case, you aren’t working on something the world needs, but likely being compensated for your work and enjoying what you do.

If you find work that you love, you are good at, and that the world needs, you may find yourself feeling delighted but uncompensated. In this case, you aren’t working on something that world pays for, but you enjoy what you do and do it well. Fulfillment without wealth.

If you find work that you love, you can be paid for, and that the world needs, you may find yourself feeling excited but uncertain. In this case, you aren’t good at what you do, but you are being paid for something useful, and you love it. Purpose without proficiency.

It is not difficult to think of situations and phases in your life where you might not need to optimize for every dimension. For example, after a financially successful career, it is fairly easy to imagine why a person might optimize around work that ignores the need to be paid. For a retiree, the space between passion and mission might look ideal.

Finding Balance

Ikigai might sound like the right way to talk to students or young professionals in your life about their professional focus. But I would argue that no matter where you are in your career, you should take the time to be intentional about your professional choices and ask yourself these four questions.

Ikigai. It might be the key to a long & healthy life.

Stanford CS 007: Personal Finance for Engineers (Reviews & Reflection)

For those looking for the course material, I’ve posted the slides for all 10 sessions on a parallel site: http://cs007.blog

On September 26th, I had the great pleasure of officially kicking off a brand new course at Stanford University, “Personal Finance for Engineers“.  The course was offered through the Computer Science department (CS 007), but was also open to undergraduate & graduate students of any major.

How quickly the quarter went. On December 6th, I gave the 10th and final lecture of the seminar. Grades were submitted by December 18th, and course evaluations were summarized and provided to lecturers by December 20th.

In the interest of learning & transparency, I thought I’d post some of the feedback here, as well as summarize a few of my own reflections on the seminar.

Summary Results: Learning Goals

Out of the 93 students who took the course, it looks like 69% (64) left feedback on the course.  The following charts and material are provided anonymously by Stanford University.

The learning goals for the course were as follows:

  1. Expose students to a wide range of personal finance topics.
  2. Provide students with both practical & theoretical frameworks to make financial decisions.
  3. Build confidence in students on how to approach real life financial decisions.
  4. Provide students with content that will encourage discussions with family and / or friends.

Overall, the student feedback on these four areas were fairly consistent. A majority felt the course achieved these goals “extremely well” (highest ranking), with a large minority giving the course “very well” for these goals.The individual comments left by students seemed to confirm these results. A few samples:

Q: What skills or knowledge did you learn or improve?

“I literally knew nothing about personal finance, but just being exposed to this material helped me ask the right questions to myself and my parents.”

“Everything — I’m a financial manager on the row and a senior, but knew next to nothing about finances. This was super super helpful.”

“I improved on a great deal in this class. From understanding behavioral finance. to deciding whether or not to rent/buy, this class truly taught me about personal finance and more.”

Summary Results: Instruction & Organization

One of the elements I underestimated when proposing this class was the amount of time it would take to prepare an 80 minute lecture every week. Converting what previously had been a 60-minute talk into a 10 seminar course proved to be a significant time commitment (one of the reasons you haven’t seen any posts on this blog since the course started).

As a result, I was particularly concerned about what the feedback would be to the course material, since most of it was new. Fortunately, the results look positive.

Individual Feedback: Student Recommendations

One of the most telling results from teaching a course at Stanford are the individual recommendations that students are asked to give about a course to future students.

Q: What would you like to say about this course to a student who is considering taking [CS 007] in the future?

These reviews confirm how much students want to learn and engage around personal finance topics. The desire is there, the fundamental problem is that few schools offer any curriculum to fulfill it.

If you are wondering, Review #12 is my Mom’s favorite.

Data: What sessions did students value most?

Stanford allows faculty to add supplementary questions to the student feedback form. I asked students specifically to name three sessions that they found most valuable, and to name a session they found least valuable.

The results were interesting. Investing was far away the seminar students found the most valuable, with compensation, real estate and debt following.

Investing 28
Compensation 16
Real Estate 12
Debt 10
Financial Planning & Goals 7
Bonus: Crypto, VC & Derivatives 6
Behavioral Finance 5
Savings & Budgeting 4
Net Worth 2

When students were asked which session was the least valuable, there were far fewer votes to count. Still, it was interesting that despite being one of the favorites, “Real Estate” was also one of the least favorites. Reading the comments, it seems as if some students felt like real estate was too far in the future to be relevant to their current situation. The students who enjoyed it clearly enjoyed the section on how to make the decision between renting & buying.

Real Estate 7
Behavioral Finance 5
Debt 3
Compensation 2
Bonus: Crypto, VC & Derivatives 2
Savings & Budgeting 2
Financial Planning & Goals 1
Net Worth 1
Investing 0

It is worth noting that 8 students actually put down that all of the sessions were valuable, so I think it is fair to say that the content was well received.

Final Thoughts & Reflections

As part of developing this course, I chose to post the slides from every seminar online within a couple of days of teaching the class. My goal was to get as many eyes as possible on the content, to ensure there were no mistakes and to get advice on places to improve it.

There was only one session that received several corrections, and that was the “Real Estate” seminar. A special thank you to those of you on Twitter who helped me improve  & correct this content.

Top requests that I received for the next time I teach the class:

  • PDF versions of the slides
  • Voice over version of the slides
  • Video of the lectures

I likely should have done all of these in 2017, but I was a bit nervous about doing this with a brand new course & course material.

The most important reflection I have on this quarter is a sincere feeling of gratitude to Stanford University for allowing me to teach this course. Mehran Sahami, the Associate Chair for Education in the Computer Science department, sponsored the course, and without him it would not have been possible. A special thank you is also due to Greylock Partners, who supported my efforts to teach this course this year.

I also would like to thank the 93 students who took the course and provided excellent feedback along the way. The course was originally opened to only 50 students, and it was incredibly gratifying to see so many students request an exception to take the class during the Fall Quarter.

If you have additional feedback or thoughts about the course, and how to broaden the reach of financial education, please feel free to reach out with comments on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Stanford CS 007: Personal Finance for Engineers (Kickoff)

Update: For those looking for full course material, I’m posting it on a parallel site:
http://cs007.blog

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of officially kicking off a new course at Stanford University, “Personal Finance for Engineers“.  The course is offered through the Computer Science department (CS 007), but is open to undergraduate & graduate students of any major.

Personal Finance for Engineers

 

It was a packed room, and I was delighted. In fact, I was delighted for three reasons.

First, I love teaching. In an unexpected coincidence, the room my course was assigned, 200-034, is the same room that I taught CS 198 for the CS 106 Section Leaders over 20 years ago as a graduate student. It was the home of CS 198 for many years. To see it filled with students again was wonderful.

Second, the level of student engagement has been outstanding. Originally set for a maximum of 50 students, I expanded the enrollment to 75, and with waitlist interest the total number of students easily went over 100. For a new course without a track record on campus, I was delighted to see so many students interested in the topic.

Third, the topic is incredibly important to me.  Those of you who have been following my efforts around personal finance education know that I care deeply about the topic. Over the past 7 years, I’ve given talks at dozens of companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter & Dropbox, hoping to better educate and inspire employees to learn more about personal finance and make better financial decisions.

I’m hoping this class can amplify those efforts even further.

Making Personal Finance Education Open

I feel grateful to Stanford University and the Computer Science Department for supporting this effort, and I hope that by making the material public, we can help get higher quality education about personal finance to as many students as possible.

My hope is that by circulating this material, more people will engage to give feedback on the content, make suggestions for improvement and continue to improve the material and the class.

After every class, I’ll be posting the slides for the session up on Slideshare. The materials from the first class, “Introduction,” are now available.

As the introductory session, I focused the seminar on three topics:

  1. Why the topic of Personal Finance is worth studying?
  2. Real data from a survey of students enrolled in the class.
  3. Full syllabus for the topics that will be covered during the course.

Student Survey Data

The second topic is based on 10 questions I asked every student in the class to complete before the start of the first session. It is hardly a scientifically representative student survey, but I wanted to ground some of the initial discussion of financial topics with data about their own experiences & expectations.

73 students completed the survey. It’s worth sharing the results of the 10 questions here:

A few data points worth sharing:

Question 1: A little over 50% of the class are either graduating seniors or graduate students. Only 14% are freshman or sophomores.

Question 2: Approximately 3/4 of the class (76%) had a “magic number” in mind when asked about how much wealth would define success for them. While the most common answer fell between $10M-$100M, the range spread from $20,000 to $15B. It was truly a blank field in the survey, so students typed in whatever number came to mind, and it started the process of open & honest discussion on why students picked the number they did.

Question 3: 92% of the students reported that they had either “some” or “quite a bit” of knowledge about the finances of their parents or guardians. Given the selection bias inherent in who signed up for this course (or even what type of students end up at Stanford), it’s hard to assign deep meaning to this result, but this was a class of students who clearly had received some meaningful exposure to financial decisions at home.

Question 6: 92% of students in the class do not expect to be responsible for any student loans after graduation. This was the most surprising result to me, based on both overall market data and my own personal experience .

I have two possible hypotheses to explain the result of Question 6. (1) The selection bias for enrollment in the class might explain part of the result. It is possible that the type of students who are most willing to sign up for a class on personal finance are not burdened by student loans.  (2) It is possible that the financial aid policies of the premier schools, like Stanford, have been highly effective in lowering the number of students requiring loans dramatically. For families with household income below $125,000, tuition is waived, and 71% of families with up to $245,000 receive scholarship assistance. (In fact, 34% of families making over $245,000 also get scholarship assistance.)

Since the syllabus was not shared in advance, Question 10 gave me a clear read of the expectations and hopes students had coming into the class. Not surprisingly, the students were, for the most part, very pragmatic. They are looking for information about compensation & job offers, the stock market, real estate and how to maximize their earning power during their careers.

Feedback

Throughout the next few months, I’ll be posting the course material in the hopes of receiving both corrections and ideas for improvement. If there are topics or material out there worth formalizing into the curriculum, I want to know about them.

Best way to reach me about the course will be through twitter @adamnash

Thank you in advance for your help.

 

Solve the Product Maze Backwards

As the father of young children, I can tell you that there is a special place in my heart for restaurants that provide puzzles and crayons for small children to pass the time.

On a recent trip out to The Counter in Mountain View, Jordan (who is 8)  was really struggling with a large maze puzzle on one of these activity sheets. It was a fairly large maze, and he was frustrated by his inability to see the dead ends ahead, forcing him to retrace his somewhat tortured crayon path.

I told him to try to solve the maze backwards.

As you can probably guess, he began at the end, and was able  to find a path back to the beginning in just a few seconds . He was delighted, and a bit surprised, to see how simple the puzzle looked like from a different perspective.

Surprisingly, I find that both entrepreneurs & product leaders miss this important lesson when evaluating ideas for either their company or their products.

Three Questions in Product Prioritization

In my experience, there are three common questions that often come up when product features are being debated:

  1. Should we build this?
  2. When should we build this?
  3. How should should we build this?

Unfortunately, even highly talented teams can become  get bogged down in debate and uncertainty when all of these questions become entangled. As engineers & designers are professionally trained to answer the question of “How,” the worst debates tend to happen around the questions of  “Should” and “When.”

Too often, when debating what feature to work on next, debates around timing quickly devolve into debates about whether the feature is needed at all.

Solving the maze backwards does a fantastic job of disentangling these two questions. Simply asking the question of “If we are successful, will we have this feature in 3 years?” tends to illuminate whether the debate is about “Should” or “When.”

If the answer is yes, you will have that feature, then the question is simple. You are just debating priority.

Avoid the Local Maximum

One of the well known issues with iterative processes for delivering product features is the “local maximum” problem.

The assumption is that where ever you start with your product, your team keeps working on improvements. Each improvement is measured to ensure it is “better” than the product before the change. However, you can reach a point where every change you make hurts the metrics that you measure. The fear is that there is a better version of your product (the absolute maximum), but it requires a change bigger than you can get to from the current design.

It’s called a local maximum problem because of the similarity to the concept in mathematics when you are traveling along the curve. From the local maximum, every move is down, even though the curve ends up higher eventually.

Solving the maze backwards can help.

By asking the simple question about whether or not your product in the far future has a given capability, it can unblock your thinking about what leaps and changes will be necessary. Whether the limitations are in technical architecture or product design, clarity on your long term vision can help your team visualize a future not trapped by their current constraints.

Too often, the real limitation is not related to either technical or design constraints, but rather a lack of clarity and imagination about what might be possible. Just like a maze, it is easy to get lost in the middle. Thinking backwards from the end goal can help the team escape a Zeno’s paradox of minor feature improvements.

Founders Can Solve the Maze Backwards, Too

It may seem hard to believe, but in early 2009 when I took over LinkedIn’s mobile efforts, there was still active debate within the company about whether to dedicate significant effort to mobile. Why? Well, back in 2009, the Blackberry was still hitting record sales, the  app store was a year old, and from a web metrics point of view, mobile views represented less than 1% of LinkedIn’s traffic. Like every hypergrowth startup, LinkedIn had a huge number of initiatives it wanted to pursue around growth, engagement & revenue, and it wasn’t obvious that mobile would move any of these needles for the company in the next few years.

Solving the maze backwards helped.

What was fairly obvious in 2009 was that the growth rate of mobile engagement was compounding at a phenomenal rate. LinkedIn, as a professional use case, might have been slightly behind social use cases for mobile adoption, but it was fairly clear that within 5 years (by 2014), mobile should represent a majority (over 50%) of all visits to LinkedIn.

Thinking backwards helped give us the confidence to invest in both talent and technology that had little short term payoff, but would become essential to engagement over the next five years as those predictions came true.

Fast forward to 2017. I was recently meeting with a founder who was debating whether they should hire a Vice President of Marketing. As he walked me through his thinking, the argument wandered, and became more focused on whether or not the company “needed” marketing.

I asked him if there was any way, if the company hit their numbers over the next three years, that the company would not need marketing, or an experienced marketing leader?

The CEO quickly responded that marketing would be essential to hit the numbers they were looking for in three years. All of a sudden, the conversation changed. The question wasn’t whether or not to invest in marketing, but more a question of when they need to.  Was this a 2017 or a 2018 problem? Is this something they would need to hit the milestones to raise their next round of funding, or something that they would invest in during the next cycle?

It was now a question of when.

Questions of “Should” vs. Questions of “When”

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” — Michael Porter

Being clear about what your product will and won’t do is a critical element of product strategy. However, because it is so important, even well-meaning teams can turn almost any feature into an existential debate.

Thinking backwards can help differentiate questions of “should” from questions of “when,” and that can be incredibly productive in moving the discussion to prioritization.

This is not intended to be dismissive of questions of prioritization. Phasing decisions are some of the most important decisions start ups make. Financing for startups is phased. Small teams can only work on a few projects at a time. Customers can only absorb so many new features at once. As a result, prioritization decisions are incredibly difficult to make.

Greedy algorithms are very good, but can be traps if you are working against competitors and an ecosystem that is willing to make bets that lie across the gap from your product’s current local maximum. Thinking backwards can help illuminate long term goals that are across the gap.

When you are building a product roadmap, and get stuck on debates about a short term feature that doesn’t move the numbers, I encourage founders to take a moment and try to solve the maze backwards.

It worked for Jordan, right?

Helping People Save is a Job Worth Doing

“Every day stuff happens to us. Jobs arise in our lives that we need to get done. Some are little jobs, some are big ones. Some jobs surface unpredictably. Other times we know they’re coming. When we realize we have a job to do, we reach out and pull something into our lives to get the job done.” — Clay Christensen

In the summer of 1993, after declaring computer science as my major, I got my first high paying software development internship. Over that summer Hewlett-Packard paid me over $5,000, which seemed like an unbelievable amount at the time.

Unfortunately, like a lot of people, I was so excited by receiving this windfall that I promptly spent it. By Thanksgiving, I was shocked to find that my bank account was nearly empty. All that money, gone. It literally sickened me.

That was the moment when I decided to learn as much as I could about personal finance and I got religious about saving.

The Theory of Jobs to Be Done

For a lot of people, there is a moment they can recall when they consciously decided that they wanted to start saving.

When I attended Harvard Business School at the end of the dot-com era, I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with Clay Christensen, who at the time had just recently published the now famous book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. In his class, we studied his new theory of disruption, and how industrial giants filled with smart people would make seemingly smart decisions that would lead to their downfall.

One aspect of his theory, which later went into his book, Competing Against Luck, is the Theory of Jobs to Be Done. Quite simply, Clay believes that companies can go astray by focusing too much on the data about their customers and the features of their product. Instead, he argues they should focus on the end-to-end experience of the job that their product is being hired to do.

In the past few years, I’ve come to believe that saving is a job that a huge number of people want a product to help them do and help them do it well.

Saving Itself is a Goal

Our lives are filled with a large number of small financial decisions and problems, but there are only a few very large financial moments that warrant the creation of an entire companies to support. Spending, borrowing, investing and financial advice all certainly fit that description. I believe that saving belongs on that list as well.

Americans are in a terrible state when it comes to saving. 6 in 10 Americans don’t have $500 in savings. An estimated 66% of households have zero dollars saved. If you are cynical about small, one-off surveys, The Federal Reserve itself estimated in 2015 that 47% of households didn’t have the means to cover a $400 emergency expense.

Saving is a huge problem, so it isn’t really surprising that tens of millions of Americans seem to be looking for something to help them save. Enter Acorns.

Hiring Acorns

Over the past two years, it has been astounding to watch Acorns grow. An elegantly simple product, designed from the ground up for a mobile generation, Acorns has grown to over 2 million accounts in less than three years. In the first half of 2017 alone, Acorns added over 600,000 new customers. Their overall mission is to look after the financial best interest of the up-and-coming, something I personally care deeply about.

It isn’t really surprising to see why so many Americans have decided to use Acorns to help them save. 75% of Americans have a household income under $100K. Acorns simple features like Round Ups automate the process of making sure that as you spend, you save. Acorns has now performed over 637 million round-up transactions for their customers – each one an action designed to help people save more. I believe that on any given day, thousands of people decide to hire a product to help them save, and increasingly they are hiring Acorns.

When I met the founders of Acorns two years ago, we immediately connected over the common ground between their culture and Wealthfront’s (the company I was running at the time.) They are very different services, focused on different problems and audiences, but with a shared belief in the power of automation. This is a company worth supporting, and I feel fortunate to serve on their Board of Directors.

At a time when people continue to grow more and more frustrated with the solutions offered by incumbent banks and brokerages, I continue to be excited about the opportunities for new products that are built around automation and world-class software design.  As an industry, we can and should radically improve the financial solutions that are available to everyone. Acorns is proving that saving is a job worth doing.