Good things this week #6

  • Doing interviews for the Winter 2015 BGV cohort — so many talented people with great ideas.
  • GoodGym’s fifth birthday party — that’s gone quick!
  • Finding that The George has had a very nice refit and is now serving some very good beers.
  • Thought the Programmer’s Price in the New Yorker about the rise of agents for engineers was interesting — not that I’m a big fan of the tech industry becoming like the entertainment industry.
  • Watching Crossing the Bridge about music in Istanbul (we’re going for a quick break there soon).

Creativity, Inc

I loved Creativity, Inc

. It’s the story of the founding, trials, tribulations, growth and eventual acquisition of Pixar as told by co-founder and company President Ed Catmull and journalist Amy Wallace. The best bits for me were the early chapters — the personal history and the early days of the company especially as Ed found himself in the right place at the right time though a bit of luck and judgement. His interest in computer animation co-incided with a wider growth in the coming together of computer science and art, partly driven by Cold War worries about what the Russians were up to after Sputnik.

The company grew out of Lucasfilm where they were essentially the IT department, making the hardware and software for the special effects and animations on Star Wars. During the 80s as Lucasfilm struggled, management consultants came in and suggested spinning them off and after a few aborted deals, they ended up with a slightly unusual majority shareholder — Steve Jobs.

Jobs supported them to do what they always wanted to do — to make the first computer animated feature film which of course they did as they created Toy Story. The rest as they say is history and Pixar has gone on to be synoymous with computer animation and brilliant storytelling. Now Ed Catmull and his co-founder John Lasseter run both Pixar and Disney Animation.

The stuff about preserving the creative culture in an organisation of thousands of employees was less interesting to me although I think that’s what sells books like this — all middle managers want to be creative. I also found the last section where they try to reboot Pixar following the resurgence of Disney Animation a bit flat.

Anyway, other than that, it’s a great book — well worth a read.

Who are you?

Grayson Perry’s ‘Who Are You?’ is the first thing I’ve watched on Channel 4 in a while and it was very good. The conceit is to bring portriats of ordinary contemporary Britons into the white, rich, male historical figures of the National Portrait Gallery in London and it really works. You start to realise quite how brilliant an artist Grayson is — the Ashford Hijab I thought was particularly beautiful.

Then there’s the contrast with the one white middle aged political figure he does bring into the collection — Chris Huhne — as fallen rising political star. The difference couldn’t be more stark. Huhne’s identity is unknowable — even in the extreme circumstances of public humiliation and two and a half months in prison he still doesn’t crack so Grayson portrays him as a broken vase. Of course, it’s on TV and perhaps that’s why Huhne doesn’t show any sign of contrition or remorse. For a politician it’s a badge of honour not to waiver, not to change your mind. But compared to everyone else that Grayson portrays in the show, the politician comes across as a remote and tragic figure. Unfortunately the front benches (and most board rooms) are full of similar characters. And until that changes, I can’t help thinking that the gulf between ‘leaders’ and ordinary people will remain.

Memory and technology

A little while back, Douglas Coupland had a great piece in the FT Magazine. He wrote about how he thought the internet was changing the way he thought — how his brain no longer bothered to retain trivia and occasionally — conditioned by phones, tablets and screens — he’d find himself looking for the time in the top right hand corner of a book. As Coupland says when we go to look something up on our phones we’re really saying, “Let me instantaneously consult with the sum total of accumulated human knowledge. It’ll take just two shakes.” But he isn’t totally negative about this trend, “I wonder if nostalgia for the 20th-century brain is a waste of time. WhiIe I may sometimes miss my pre-internet brain, I certainly don’t want it back.”

I’m with Doug — I think the internet has affected my brain but not in an altogether bad way and I think we’ll see lots of new tools that help us adapt to the change. I’ve been using Timehop for a while and although I wrote it off as a bit of fun when I first heard the idea (I think from their investor Andrew Parker) I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the possibility of digital memories since. Timehop is super simple. Each morning it shows you what you tweeted, where you checked in and any photographs you took on the same exact day for the past few years. It’s made me use social media in a slightly different way. I’ve started checking in on Swarm more often and it’s made Instagram more meaningful for me. I use social media more as a memory box than I used to.

I think there’s lots of potential for tech for good here too. See What I Mean are exploring the idea of memory boxes by customising their speech to image software with images and photos from a person’s past and then using them as a communication aid during the earlier stages of dementia.

It could be that rather than eroding our memories, technology could enhance them.

The Education of a Value Investor

Over the weekend, I read Guy Spier’s The Education of a Value Investor

based on Diane Coyle’s recommendation. Like Diane, I sped through the book in a couple of sittings and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a wonderful, authentic, honest story about how Guy unlearned some of the unfortunate things an elite formal education can instill in you and then learned some new, more positive approaches to living life and doing business. These were mainly inspired by Warren Buffett but the book is full of all kinds of useful references to books and people that helped Guy think things through along the way.

I’m spending a lot of time at the moment thinking about the kind of investor I want to be and I learned a huge amount from the book. There are a couple of things that are different for me though — firstly, I’ve taken to investing because I want to help new things into the world — usually startups. Hence you could never really call what we do at BGV ‘value investing’ which is entirely focussed on businesses that have been around for a while and have safe, predictable cashflows. And secondly I want to help those ventures to have a positive social impact — Guy has mainly surrounded himself by people who see a disctinction between their day jobs backing businesses that act ethically but are also profitable (fundamentally they aren’t out to change the world for the better) and charities that ‘do good’. I see much less of a distinction and want to try to support ventures that do both.

It’s a great book for anybody who is interested in having a happier, more fulfilling work life and bravo to Guy for the honesty and openness he shows throughout.