Generalist and specialist managers

A really long time ago, I’d written this blog post about “comparative advantage” versus “competitive advantage” employees. A competitive advantage employee is better at a particular kind of task or skill compared to the rest of the team, and he is valued for that kind of skill.

A comparative advantage employee, on the other hand, is “dominated” by at least one other person in the team – in the sense that someone else is better than this person at everything required for the job. In that sense, the value that the comparative advantage employee adds is by taking load off his colleagues, and allowing them to do more (and focus on the more productive parts of their jobs).

Thinking about it now, I realise that a similar classification exists from the manager’s perspective as well. And this is broadly correlated with whether the manager manages a “generalist” or a “specialist” team.

A specialist manager manages a team all of whose members work on and excels at one specialist task. This task could come from any part of the organisation – it could be sales or a particular kind of operations, or some financial activity or whatever. The defining feature of this kind of task is that it is usually repetitive and needs to be done in high volumes. Such tasks also offer high “returns to experience”.

The average employee of a specialist team is usually a “comparative advantage” employee. In most cases, such an employee is likely to be “dominated” by the manager, and the value he adds is by taking the load off the manager and allowing him to do more. Over the course of time, he becomes good enough at the job to become a manager himself, and the cycle continues – he will manage a team of people who are mostly inferior to him in the job.

Due to managers dominating direct reports, such teams end up being largely hierarchical, and there can be a tendency for the manager to micro-manage – if you are better at the task than the person actually doing it, you can do worse than giving specific instructions.

Generalist managers, on the other hand, manage teams that involve at least a few competitive advantage employees. What this implies is that there is a set of people who are better than the manager at certain parts of the business. The manager’s role in such a team is more of a facilitator, in terms of bringing the team together and coordinating in a way that they can maximise the team’s effectiveness.

Generalist managers seldom micromanage, since usually their team members know better (literally). They are also usually open-minded, since extracting full value from the team means recognising each member’s strengths (and consequently their own weaknesses). They learn the art of asking questions and verifying insights and work of the team in a cheap manner (remember from complexity theory that the complexity of verifying a solution can be much lower than the complexity of finding a solution).

Regular readers of the blog might have anticipated this paragraph – the trouble comes when a generalist manager has to manage a specialist team or the other way round.

A generalist manager managing a specialist team may not offer as much as he can to the team based on his experience. He might be too hands-off and team members used to more handholding and direction might feel lost. And so on.

A specialist manager managing a generalist team can be more damaging – not appreciating that some members might know more about some parts of the business might limit the performance of the team (since what the team can do is limited by what the manager knows). Also too much micromanagement on employees who know better about some parts of the business than the manager can result in disillusionment and ultimately backfire on the manager.

I wonder if this has something to do with the Peter Principle!

Shorting private markets

This is one of those things I’ll file in the “why didn’t I think of it before?” category.

The basic idea is that if you think there is a startup bubble, and that private companies (as a class) are being overvalued by investors, there exists a rather simple way to short the market – basically start your own company and sell equity to these investors!

The basic problem with shorting a market such as those for shares of privately held startups is that the shares are owned by a small set of investors, none of whom are likely to lend you stock that you can sell and buy back later. More importantly, markets in privately held stock can be incredibly illiquid, and it may take a long time indeed before the stocks move to what you think is their “right” level.

So what do you do? I’ll simply let the always excellent Matt Levine to provide the answer here:

We have talked a few times in the past about the difficulty of shorting unicorns: Investors can buy shares in the big venture-backed private tech companies, but they can’t sell those shares short, which arguably leads to those shares being overvalued as enthusiasts join in but skeptics are excluded. As I once said, though, “the way to profit from a bubble is by selling into it, and that people sometimes focus too narrowly on short-selling into it”: If you think that unicorns as a category are overvalued, the way to profit from that is not so much by shorting Uber as it is by founding your own dumb startup, raising a lot of money from overenthusiastic venture capitalists, paying yourself a big salary, and walking away whistling when the bubble collapses.

Same here! If you are skeptical of the ICO trend, the right thing to do is not to short all the new tokens that are coming to market. It’s to build your own token, do an initial coin offering, and walk off with the proceeds. For the sake of your own conscience, you can just go ahead and say that that’s what you’re doing, right in the ICO white paper. No one seems to mind.

Seriously! Why didn’t I think of this?

Giving up your seat

So the wife has done a kind of sociological analysis of who offers seats to baby-carrying people on the London Metro. Based on the data points she’s collected over the last three months we’ve been in London, she concludes that people who are most willing to give up their seats are those who have been beneficiaries of similar actions in the past – basically a social capital kind of argument.

I don’t have such an overarching thesis on who gives up seats, but one major observation based on my collection of data points. Most of my train rides with Berry have been between Ealing Broadway, the station closest to where we live, and St. Paul’s in Central London, close to Berry’s nursery and Pinky’s office.

The Central Line, which I take for this journey, is typically crowded in both directions, since most of my trips are during peak office commute hours. However, my experience in terms of people offering me a seat (I’ve never asked for it) has been very different in terms of where I’ve boarded.

What I’ve found is that people have been far more willing to give up their seats when I’ve boarded at St. Paul’s (or anywhere else in the city), than at Ealing. In fact, in about 30-40 train rides originating in Ealing when I’ve been carrying Berry, I only recall one occasion when someone has offered me their seat. On the other hand, it’s rare for me to board at St Paul’s and NOT have someone offer me their seat.

I have one major hypothesis on why it happens – on what goes into getting a seat, and a sense of entitlement. Essentially, Ealing Broadway is a terminus for the tube, and thus an originating station for journeys into town. And I’ve seen people work hard in order to get a seat.

So you have people who leave multiple trains in order to find one where they can find a seat. They get to the station well in advance of a train leaving so that they can get a place to sit. And having invested so much effort in occupying the seat, they feel entitled to the seat, and don’t want to give it up so easily.

On the other hand, St. Paul’s is right in the middle of the Central Line, and people who have seats when the train arrives there are typically those who got them somewhere along the way. Now, while there exist strategies to figure out where a seat might fall empty, and grabbing it, finding a seat in a non-empty train after you’ve boarded is more a matter of luck.

So if you think you got your seat by sheer luck, you feel less entitled to it, and are more than happy to give it up for someone who might have need it more!

Feel free to draw your own analogies!

Opinion polls and betting

So for a change the opinion polls seem to have got it right. I’m talking about the just-concluded elections in the UK here, which has returned a hung parliament. The Tories have fallen just sort of a majority (in Kannada we’d call it “AJM“). It’ll be interesting to see how a government will be formed now.

Now, the thing is that the opinion polls got it right. While the Tories had started off with a big lead at the time the elections were announced, opinion polls over time showed that the race was getting a lot tighter. I’d piggybacked on the opinion polls to conduct my own analysis which got published in Mint.

Having shown off that I’d made the prediction correctly, let me get to my hypothesis of why the opinion polls got it right. Opinion polls in the UK have a greater chance of being right because because betting is legal here.

I was walking around Central London yesterday when I saw this poster outside a betting shop.

Because betting is legal in the UK, betting houses take bets on just about anything, including the results of elections. The way betting works is that the betting houses make markets. They present odds for each side of the deal (in this case, let’s say Tory win, Labour win and hung parliament), and whenever a punter walks into the shop and places a bet, it’s the house that’s taking the opposite side of the bet.

What this implies is that the house better get the odds right, otherwise the difference in their odds and the actual results can wipe out the shop. And how does the betting house know where to set the odds? For something like an election, they rely on the opinion polls.

If the opinion polls get it wrong, the betting houses can end up losing a lot of money (like they evidently did last year during the Brexit vote which most pollsters got horribly wrong). So there is a legal entity which has real skin in the game in opinion polls being right.

I’m not sure of the ownership of the opinion polling companies here in the UK, but I won’t be surprised if they make plenty of money by selling their results to betting shops (at a more granular level than what they make public). And given the intense competition among pollsters here in the UK (at least 15 different agencies conducted opinion polls ahead of yesterday’s elections), there is a real incentive for a pollster to get it right – get it wrong and the betting houses might take their business elsewhere.

In case betting wasn’t legal (such as in India), polling agencies wouldn’t be able to legally sell their results to betting houses and punters, and their markets would be limited to media houses. Media houses don’t have that much of a skin in the game in the polls – their profits don’t depend on getting polls right as much as the profits of betting houses. And pollsters would have less incentive to get the polls right.

Now, howzzat?

 

Tiered equity structure and investor conflict

About this time last year, I’d written this article for Mint about optionality in startup valuations. The basic idea there was that any venture capital investment into startups usually comes with “dirty terms” that seek to protect the investor’s capital.

So you have liquidity preferences that demand that the external investors get paid out first (according to a pre-decided formula) in case of a “liquidity event” (such as an IPO or an acquisition). You also have “ratchets”, which seek to protect an investor’s share in the company in case the company raises a subsequent round at a lower valuation.

These “dirty terms” are nothing but put options written by existing investors in a firm in favour of the new investors. And these options telescope. So the Series A round has options written by founders, employees and seed investors, in favour of Series A investors. At the time of Series B, Series A investors move to the short (writing) side of the options, which are written in favour of Series B investors. And so forth.

There are many reasons such clauses exist. One venture capitalist told me that his investors have similar optionality on their investments in his funds, and it is only fair he passes them on. Another told me that “good entrepreneurs” believe in their idea so much that they don’t want to even consider the thought that their company may not do well – which is when these options pay out, and so they are happy to write these options. And then you know that an embedded option can increase the optics of the “headline valuation” of a company, which is something some founders want.

In any case, in my piece for Mint I’d written about such optionality leading to potential conflicts among investors in different classes of stock, which might sometimes be a hindrance to further capital raises. Quoting from there,

The latest round of investors usually don’t mind a “down round” (an investment round that values the company lower than the preceding round) since their ratchets protect them, but earlier investors are short such ratchets, and don’t want to see their stakes diluted. Thus, when a company is unable to find investors who are willing to meet its current round of valuation, it can lead to conflict between different sets of investors in the company itself.

And now Mint reports that such conflicts are a main reason for Indian e-commerce biggie Snapdeal’s recent struggles, which has led to massive layoffs and a delay in funding. The story has played out exactly as I’d written in the paper last year.

Softbank, which invested last in Snapdeal and is long put options on the company’s value, is pushing the company to raise more funds at a lower valuation. However, Nexus and Kalaari, who had invested earlier and stand to lose significantly thanks to these options, are resisting such moves. And the company continues to stall.

I hope this story provides entrepreneurs and venture capitalists sufficient evidence that dirty terms can affect everyone up and down the chain, and can actually harm the business’s day-to-day operations. The cleaner a company keeps the liabilities side of the balance sheet (in having a small number of classes of equity), the better it is in the long run.

But then with Snap having IPOd by offering only non-voting shares to the public, I’m not too hopeful of equity truly being equitable any more!

Explaining the lack of dishwashers in India

For the last four weeks, after landing in Britain, we’ve been using the dishwasher fairly regularly. On an average, we run it once a day, and the vessels come out of it nice and shiny – to an extent that is nearly impossible when you wash them by hand. Last year when we were in Spain, too, we used the dishwasher fairly often.

Considering the convenience (all your dishes done in one go, and coming out nice and shiny), I’ve been wondering why the dishwasher hasn’t taken off in India. The requirement for water and electricity doesn’t explain it – the near-ubiquity of the washing machine in upper middle class households suggests that is not that much of a problem. It’s not a function of our using steel plates, either – if that were the only constraint, people would have switched plates to get the benefit of this convenience.

The real answer lies in the archaic concept of the enjil (saliva; known as jooTa in Hindi), and theories on how saliva can get transmitted and contaminate stuff. To be fair, it’s a useful concept in a way that it doesn’t allow anyone’s germ-bearing saliva to contaminate things around them, except for roads and sidewalks that is! Specifically, the enjil concept ensures that food doesn’t get remotely contaminated by someone’s saliva. But it takes things a bit too far.

For example, sharing plates, even when you’re using separate spoons (let’s saw when sharing dessert at a restaurant), is taboo. When you double-dip your spoon into the plate, germs from your saliva get transmitted there, and can potentially contaminate people you are sharing your food with. Or so the theory goes. The exceptions are in childhood, where a child is allowed to share plates with the mother, and after marriage, when couples are allowed to share plates! Go figure how that works.

Similarly, traditional Indians eschew the dining table, and the concept of keeping serving bowls on the same surface as plates. Again, the concept is that saliva can somehow “transmit” from the plates to the serving bowls and contaminate everyone’s food.

Next, there is an elaborate protocol to deal with used plates. They are not supposed to be washed in the same sink as other vessels. Yes, you read that right. When I was growing up, the protocol for used plates was to first rinse them in the bathroom (after throwing leftover food in the dustbin) before dropping them in the sink. It didn’t matter how well you rinsed the plate in the bathroom – that water had fallen on it after your usage would indicate that it was now purified, and fit to sit with all the other unwashed vessels.

Now consider the dishwasher. To achieve economies of scale at the household level, and to ensure vessels don’t pile up, you put all kinds of vessels in it at the same time – plates, spoons, forks, serving bowls and  cooking vessels! In other words, “saliva-bearing” dishes are put into the same contraption at the same time as “saliva-free” cooking dishes, and the “same water” is used to wash all of them together.

And that clearly violates all prudent practices of saliva management and contamination avoidance that we have all grown up with! And trust me, it takes time to get over such instinctive practices one has grown up with. And so I predict that it will at least be another generation (20 years or so) when there are sufficient households with adults who grew up without a strong concept of enjil, and who might be willing to give the dishwasher a try!

Why Brits talk so much about the weather

One stereotype about British people is that they are always talking about the weather. In the absence of any other topic to talk about, they get back down to talking about the weather.

Having lived here for a day after a half after moving here yesterday, I can offer one explanation about why Brits talk so much about the weather – the high information content. In the last day and half, the weather here has been so volatile that the information content in statements about the weather can be rather high.

Most places in the world have rather predictable weather. Delhi has hot summers and cold winters. It almost always rains in the tropical rain forests. It almost always rains in Mumbai during the monsoon. And so on. And when the weather is predictable, the information content in describing it is rather low.

For example, if there is a 90% chance that it will rain in Mumbai one monsoon day, a statement on the presence or absence of rain contains only 0.47 bits of information/entropy (-0.9 log 0.9 – 0.1 log 0.1). If the probability that a summer day in Delhi will be sunny is 99%, then the information content in talking about the weather is just 0.08 bits.

The thing with London weather, based on my day and half of observation, is that it is wildly volatile. This afternoon, for example, there was a hailstorm. And only a couple of minutes later there was bright sunshine. And then there was another hailstorm. I can see heavy rain from my window as I write this now.

Crow and fox getting married in London

A post shared by Karthik S (@skthewimp) on

So given how crazy and volatile the weather in London is, the information content in talking about the weather is rather high. As I write, there’s sunshine streaming through my window, and heavy rain outside. And I’m chatting with a friend who lives not very far from here, and whatever I tell her about the weather here is “information” to her, since it’s not the same there.

It’s this craziness and high volatility in weather in Britain that makes it worth talking about. The information content in a statement about the weather is always high. And this is not the case elsewhere in the world. And so people elsewhere get annoyed by Brits talking about the weather.

PS: What does it tell you that I’m blogging about the weather a day and half after landing in Britain?