The Long Haul

From a recent piece in the New York Times, in response to the Goldman Sachs’ episode:

Wall Street, of course, has always sought profits — but if greed were to be countenanced, it should be long-term greed, not short-term greed, in the words of Gus Levy, who led Goldman Sachs in the 1960s and ’70s. With long-term greed, money was made with clients, not from them.

Nostalgic as it might seem, seasoned players at Goldman and other top-tier firms insist that there was a time when long-term greed was the order of the day, at least publicly and often privately, too. But over the last 25 years, as the incentive structure metamorphosed, longtime bankers and scholars say, Wall Street has been remade in ways that Mr. Levy would hardly recognize.

With the rapid growth of proprietary trading beginning the 1980s, as firms used their own capital to make bets, a short-term mentality came to dominate firms, according to Mr. Elson. “You make a much bigger buck on a transaction than on the long-term relationship,” he said. “You have profiteers as opposed to advisers.”

When I read this article, it was the proverbial icing on my cake, in a high-profile and broad-reaching way.

You see, over the past year and a half, I’ve increasingly observed and experienced a pattern of transaction trumping relationship, cost-cutting trumping investment, and outcome trumping process. Some of that has been personal but much of it has been environmental, as seen in the Goldman Sachs case.

It all has me wondering, what ever happened to the long haul? What happened to planning for, and thinking about, the future? How come we rarely hear about predictions, forecasts, and prognostications beyond one year out? Why don’t we romanticize technologies of the future, like we once did with robots and flying cars? Is it because we ignorantly believe that the future is here? Or is it because we’re just so content with iPhones and the internet?

What I’ve found equally worrisome is the increasingly short-term view in the world of startups and entrepreneurship. Having been in that world for over 16 years, it’s a trend I noticed over the last 3-4 years (save for the dot-com boom). Some people have said it’s another sign that we’re living in a bubble. But for me, it’s more than just financial; it almost feels like a cultural shift, manifested in the expectations we now have.

These days, we get giddy about startups that form over a weekend but don’t bother following up to see what happens to those ventures. We celebrate wildly when companies go public in a few years and then beat them up for drops in stock price weeks after the IPO. And startups that get into highly competitive accelerators? After fawning over them for three months, we’re disappointed when they can’t raise a boatload of capital or get covered by TechCrunch. And, of course, it doesn’t help when companies go from “0-60 in four seconds” (although the lesson there is to simply never, never, never give up).

So let me address both my worries about the long haul in one fell swoop: I predict things are going to change.

I believe we’re going to start investing in people rather than companies. People build things, create value, and make progress. Companies come and go. When they fail, people bounce back but companies vaporize. When they succeed, people push themselves to greater heights but companies trip over themselves trying to replicate their success.

I believe founders will increasingly put their foot down and insist that they know what’s best for their startups, not investors, bloggers, or self-proclaimed experts. After all, it’s their baby; anyone who’s a parent knows what I’m talking about.

I believe we’re going to value learning over metrics. Learning has a compounding effect; it builds upon itself so that over time, one gains wisdom. Metrics change with the wind and are a snapshot view at a single moment in time. In and of themselves, they have zero value.

Speaking of learning and metrics, I believe we’re going to evaluate entrepreneurs differently. Rather than where they went to school or how much passion they have, we’re going to look at what they’ve built, if they’ve failed, and whether they have the moxie to be a strong leader.

Finally, I believe we’re going to get more connected in real life, not less. Interaction by text and Facebook is most productive as an outcome of relationships, which are an outcome of face-to-face interaction. Deals get done in person, not virtually. The trend toward telecommuting is already shifting toward co-working. The word “meetup” has become part of our vernacular.

So there you have it…my predictions about the future are really about a shift back to the long haul: making investments today in order to build value over time. Sure, I may be naive and idealistic, but isn’t that what people said when JFK predicted we’d go to the moon?

NOTE: This post was published yesterday on Crain’s Chicago Business’ web site. Also, I learned from Seyi Fabode, co-founder of Chicago startup, Power2Switch, that he published an eerily similar post on their blog…be sure to check it out!


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