Stephen Curry and mixed strategies

Ever since I learnt recently about the rise of Stephen Curry, and Golden State Warriors’ rise using a three-point strategy, my interest in basketball and the NBA has gone up. I still can’t watch a game – the randomly spaced ad-breaks are too mindfucking for that. But I’ve been reading a lot more about Curry and Golden State Warriors and Joe Lacob of KPCB.

There are two ways in which you can attack in basketball – you can either keep tiki-takaing and drive in to get close to the basket to layup/dunk or you can go for a three-pointer. We can think of each basketball attack as a “game”, where the offensive team decides to go for either the three-point or the tiki-taka, and the defensive team decides how to defend against it.

I won’t bother with drawing the payoff table here, but given research on similar “games” in sports (such as penalty kicks in football), it wouldn’t be hard to guess that the dominant strategy here is the “mixed strategy”, where a team chooses at random whether to tiki-taka or long range.

Over time, this would have led to a certain proportion of the time when the team would have decided to take long shots, and defences would have adapted accordingly (defence against a mixed strategy is also a mixed strategy).

What Curry’s extraordinary three-point shooting skills have done is that they’ve completely changed the payoffs for his team, but significantly increasing the payoff of the three-point strategy. So the Warriors have adapted their strategy accordingly, by going for the three-point game more often than the tiki taka game.

And my sense is that Curry’s shooting statistics are so much better than others’ that the proportion with which the Warriors go with the three-point strategy (as the game theoretic solution suggests) is significantly higher than the proportion with which other teams adopt such a strategy in attack.

Consequently, defences have failed to anticipate this change in the payoff matrix and defend like they do against other teams (whose mixed strategy hasnt changed). In other words, the Warriors’ opponents haven’t been playing the optimal strategy while playing against them. And this is what has led to their unprecedented 73-win NBA season.

With time, other teams are likely to adjust and adapt more optimal strategies. It’ll be interesting to see how the Warriors perform next season!

The wife graduates

pinkygraduatesPriyanka has just finished her course at IESE today. She’ll be collecting her degree (and she insists it’s a “proper degree”, unlike my similar “degree” which is actually a diploma) exactly two weeks from now.

Feeling damn proud of her. I remember her telling me in one of our very early phone conversations (this was in 2009, barely a couple of weeks after we had first met) that she wanted to do an MBA, and do it from a top-ranking global business school.

I’m damn happy that she’s overcome all odds (and she faced a lot of them in the last two years) and achieved her life-long dream. She had made a “life plan” for herself when she was 17 which involved her doing an MBA when she was 27 (or something like that). And that’s been ticked off now, and I really admire her ability to plan for a long time!

 

The other day I was asking her how her MBA had changed her, and she said that the main impact has been that she doesn’t care about bullet points anymore!

Our documented lives

I think I’ve confessed here several times that I like reading my old blogposts. In fact, I like reading my old blogposts from 2006 onwards – there was an inflexion point towards the end of 2005, and I hate my posts written before that. It was almost I was a completely different person.

Anyway, of late, these nostalgia trips have taken a different direction. Firstly, in 2006-10, I used GTalk fairly extensively, and most conversations are still archived (except for some people who explicitly turned off the saving). So once in a while I pick a random person (most often it’s the person who’s now my wife, and most of my GTalking with her was before we had even met) and check out my conversations with him/her.

Sometimes it just sends me on a bout of nostalgia. Sometimes it reminds me of what I (and these people I used to talk to) was like back then, and wonder how I’ve changed and so forth. At other times these posts remind me of what was “hot gossip” back then (yes, I was a major gossipmonger in my younger days), which, thanks to the fundamental fleetingness of gossip,  I normally don’t remember. When I remember such gossip, it’s a fun exercise to reconcile the subjects of gossip with their present selves.

Another activity I take up randomly from time to time is reading people’s blogs. Some of these have been mostly taken private as these people in question have embarked on successful corporate careers. I still have my LiveJournal account, so that helps me access some of these blogs (and others have kindly shared passwords to their now-private blogs with me).

The kind of trips these take me on is similar to what the old chats inspire – some nostalgia, some recollection of what different people were like back then and how they’ve turned out (I also make sure I read the comments), catching up on gossip of that day and all such.

In a way, I’m quite glad that so many of us live such documented lives! In that sense I quite hate Twitter and Facebook, for it’s bloody hard to search for stuff there (except for Facebook’s this day that year feature), and with a lot of documentation having moved there from blogs and GTalk, it’s quite sad!

PS: Sometimes I indulge in these nostalgic activities jointly with my wife, and occasionally it’s not fun, since she ends up discovering a part of my history which she didn’t know existed. Documentation has its downsides as well!

PPS: It makes me wonder what “oral histories” (I’ve always regarded them as a fraud concept, but I’ll save my description of those for another day) will look like one or two generations down the line, when so much of our documented histories will be available, if we choose to make them available.

Valuing Global Fashion Group

Yesterday, in Mint, I wrote about ratchets in option valuation (a pet topic of mine), and gave alternate valuations of different Indian “unicorns” by accounting for the downside protection clauses that come with startup investment.

Money quote:

This implies that a share of the company held by [investors] includes a long put option, while a share of the company held by earlier investors includes a short put option (since they have implicitly written this option). In other words, a share held by the new investors is worth much more than a share held by earlier investors.

Now comes news that Global Fashion Group (that includes Jabong and a few other fashion houses started by Rocket Internet) has raised money at a “down round”. This gives me a good opportunity to put my theory to practice.

GFG has now raised $339M for a headline valuation of $1.13 billion. In its earlier round, it had raised $169M for a headline valuation of $3.5 billion. Let us look at a hypothetical employee of GFG who owned 0.1% of the company before the previous round of investment, and see what these shares are worth now.

Absence of ratchets

GFG had a “pre-money” valuation of $3.33 billion, and 0.1% of that would have been worth $3.33 million. As of that round of investment, existing investors had 95% stake in the company, so our friend’s share of the company would have come down to 0.095% (95% of 0.1%).

The new round shows a pre-money valuation of $791 million, and so our friend’s stock would be worth $750,000 after the latest round of valuation. This is a comedown from the previous valuation, but is still significant enough.

Presence of ratchets

Let’s assume that the previous round of investment into GFG came with a full ratchet (we’ll look at other downside protection instruments later). This would mean that its investors in that round would have to be compensated for the drop in valuation.

Investors in the previous round put in $169M for a headline valuation of $3.33Bn. The condition of the full ratchet is that is that if this round’s pre-money valuation were to be less than last round’s post-money valuation, the monetary value of last round’s investors has to be the same.

So despite this round showing a pre-money valuation of only $791M, last round’s investors would claim that $169M of that belongs to them (the way this is achieved in an accounting context is that the ratio in which their preferred shares convert to common shares changes). So the earlier investors (who came before last round) see the value of their shares go down to a paltry $622M. From owning 95% of the company, the down-round means they only own 79% now. And that is before the new round has come in.

Investors in the new round have put in $339M for a headline valuation of $1.13Bn, giving them a round 30% stake. Earlier investors have a 70% stake, of which investors who came before the previous round (which includes employees like our friend) have a 79% stake, giving them a net stake of 55%.

Coming back to our friend, remember that he owned 0.1% of the shares before the last round of investment. The ratchet means that he owns 0.1% of 55% of the company’s current headline valuation. This values his shares at $622,000.

But not so fast – since this assumes that the latest round of investment has no ratchets. If we need to take into consideration that this round has a full ratchet as well, the option formula I used in the Mint piece says that GFG is now worth $760M, far lower than the $1.13Bn headline valuation.

This implies that the stock held by investors prior to this round is now worth only $421M ($760M – $339M). Investors prior to the last round held 79% of these shares, so their stake is worth $331M now. Our friend held 0.1% of that, so his stake is only worth $331,000.

In other words, if both the previous and current rounds of investment in GFG came with a full ratchet protection, the shares held by ordinary investors such as our friend would have lost 56% of its value on account of optionality alone! Notwithstanding the fact that the remaining shares are held in a company whose value is on the downswing!

Then again, downside protection for investors could have come by other means, which were less harsh than full ratchet. Nevertheless, this can help illustrate how much of founders’ and employees’ shareholder value can be destroyed using ratchets!

InMails and the LinkedIn backfire

A few months back I cleaned up my connections list on LinkedIn. Basically I removed people who I don’t “know”. I defined “know” as knowing someone well enough to connect them to someone else on my network (the trigger for a cleanup was when someone asked me to connect them to someone else on my network who I hardly knew).

The interesting thing about the cleanup was that a lot of the spurious connections I had on LinkedIn were headhunters. Thinking back at how they got in touch with me, in most cases it was with respect to a specific opportunity for which they were finding candidates. Once the specific opportunity had been discussed there was no value of us being connected on LinkedIn, and were effectively deadweight on each other’s networks.

Over the last couple of days, ever since I wrote this piece for Mint on valuation of startup ratchets, I’ve got several connection requests, all from people I don’t know. Normally I wouldn’t accept these invitations, but what is different is that most requests have come with non-standard messages attached. Most have mentioned that they liked my Mint piece and so want to either connect or discuss it.

When you want to simply exchange messages with someone, there is no need to really add them as a “friend”. Except that LinkedIn’s pricing policy makes this kind of behaviour rational.

LinkedIn offers a small number of “InMails” which you can send to people who you aren’t directly connected to. Beyond this number, each InMail costs you money. So if you want to have a discussion with someone you’re not connected with, there’s an element on friction.

There’s a loophole, however. You can send messages for free as long as they go along with a connection request. And if that request is accepted, then you can have a “free” conversation with that person.

So given the current price structure, if you want to have a conversation with someone, you simply send your initial message as part of a friend request. If the person wants to continue the conversation, the request will get accepted. If not you haven’t lost anything!

Then again, there are mitigating features – an InMail won’t get charged unless there is a reply, and LinkedIn’s UI is so bad that it takes effort to read messages attached to connection requests. So this method is not foolproof.

Still, it appears that LinkedIn’s pricing practice (of charging for InMails) is destroying the quality of the network by including spurious links. I guess they’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and believe that the cost of spurious connections is far lower than the revenue they make from InMails!

 

On writing a book

While I look for publishers for the manuscript that I’ve just finished (it’s in “alpha testing” now), I think it’s a good time to write about what it was like to write the book. Now, I should ideally be writing this after it has been published and declared a grand success.

But there are two problems with that. Firstly, the book may not be a success of any kind. Secondly, it will be way too long after having finished it to remember what it was like to write it. In fact, a week after the first draft, I’ve almost already forgotten what it was like. So I’m writing this now.

  1. Writing is a full-time job. I got this idea for the book in October 2014 when I was visiting Barcelona for the first time. I wrote the outline in November 2014. Despite several attempts to write, nothing came out of it.

    During a break from work in October 2015 I managed to get started, but I’ve re-written all that I wrote then. Part-time effort doesn’t just cut it. It wasn’t until I came to Barcelona in February that I could focus completely on the book and write it.

  2. You need discipline. This probably doesn’t need to be explicitly stated, but writing a book, unlike writing a blog post, is a fighter process, and you need a whole load of discipline and focus. After a week or two of preparing the outline, I prepared fairly strict deadline regarding when I would finish the book. I had to reset the deadline a couple of times, but finally managed it.
  3. There is no feedback. I think I wrote about this a few days back. The big problem with writing a book is that you spend a significant amount of effort before even a small fraction of your customers have seen the product. So you soldier on without any feedback, and it can occasionally be damn frustrating.
  4. You feel useless. Writing a book can introduce tremendous amounts of self-doubt. One day you think you’ve completely cracked it, and your book will change the world. The next day you start wondering if there’s any substance at all to what you’re writing, and there’s any point in going ahead with it. On several occasions, I’ve had thoughts on abandoning it.
  5. Getting away helps. The only reason I didn’t abandon the book when I had my bouts of self-doubt was that I was away in Barcelona with nothing else to do. It wasn’t as if I could ditch the book and find some work to do the next day. Being away meant that the TINA factor pushed me on. There was no alternative but to write the book.
  6. Getting in a draft is important. You are likely to have bad days when you’re writing. On those days you feel like giving up. On putting things off for another day. Reams have been written about great writers stalling their books for several days because they couldn’t find the “right word”. I don’t buy that.

    Found that when I’m in a rut, it’s better I simply push through and finish the chapter. Editing it later on is far easier than writing it again from scratch.

  7. There is a limit to how much you can write. When I said it’s a full time job you might think I spent 8 hours a day on the book. I took around 70 days to write it (including a 10-day vacation), and the draft weighs in at 75,000 words (I intend to cut it before publication). So it’s less than 1200 words per day on an average.

    That doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust me, writing on a continuous basis is quite hard. A lot of time goes in fact checks and in getting links (I don’t think I still have all the footnotes and endnotes I need for the book). Writing a book is far more complex than writing a blog post.

  8. Writing is tiring. This isn’t something I figured out while writing the 2000 odd posts I’ve put on this blog. When you’re writing a book, and for an audience, you realise that you get tired pretty quickly. I don’t think I was able to work more than four hours a day on any of my “writing days”. And four hour-days would leave me a zombie.
  9. You need a schedule, and a workplace. I did the pseud romantic thing. The entire book was written at this WiFi enabled cafe near my place in Barcelona. Pseud value apart, the point of having the workplace was that it brought a schedule and some discipline to my days. I would go there every morning on writing days (exact time varied), get a coffee and sit down to write. And not rise until I had finished my target for the session.

    Two days back I went there to work on something else. I figured I couldn’t – that cafe is now forever tied to my writing the book. The kind of focus required there was of a different kind.

I’ll stop for now. I hope to republish this blog post once the book has hit the stands!

Marketing in single-person operations

The density of E’ixample, the district of Barcelona I currently live in, is so high that there are at least six barbershops within 100m of the front door to my apartment. So when I had to get a haircut (for the first time in my life outside India), there was plenty of choice.

Cursory observations and price enquiries (some had listed prices on the door, while at others I’d to enquire) led me to this one-man barbershop called “Urban Cuts Barbershop” (the name is the only English thing about this barbershop – the barber spoke only Spanish). I think the barber has done a pretty good job, but while I had placed my head in his hands, I was thinking about his marketing.

One of the ways in which shops and restaurants advertise quality is through herding and display of crowds. Ceteris paribus, a full restaurant is seen as being better than an empty one – why else would so many others have made the choice to go there? When in doubt, people seek comfort in company; making the same bad choice as everyone else is seen as being less worse than going out of the way and making a bad choice.

So when you are seeking a barber, you seek a barber who others seem to approve of, and the only way you can find this out is by seeing how crowded it is every time you walk past (six barbershops in close proximity to your residence means it’s possible to collect sufficient data points before you make a decision). And if you see it consistently has customers, you are more likely to go there than to a barbershop that hardly has customers.

The problem with a one-seat barbershop is that its fullness is binary – the shop is either operating at 0% capacity (no customers), or at 100% (one customer). If there is no one in the shop, prospective customers walking past might assume this shop is not good. If there is one customer in the shop, prospective customers might reason more favourably about the quality of service, but might be put off by the possible waiting time (range of services barbers offer means that the service time can have a large range).

With more seats, on the other hand, there can be an “optimal level” of fullness, where the shop appears full to a customer walking past, but has enough room to serve a random customer who happens to walk in.

In other words, “marketing ability” is something to take into account while deciding the optimal number of servers. And there’s some food for thought here for consulting businesses like mine (though my fullness is not as binary as the barber’s since I work on longer term projects which can be multiplexed).