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Six Things I Learned Reading Berkshire Hathaway’s Letters to Shareholders 1965-2013

Warren Buffett has written a letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders each year since 1965. In them, he reflects on the company’s annual performance and its future. When read continuously, Buffett’s letters discuss the business and investing ideas that transformed Berkshire from a failing textile business into one of the world’s largest companies.

Here are six things I learned reading Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders 1965-2013:

Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders 1965-2013

Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders 1965-2013

1. How Berkshire Hathaway Is Structured

Berkshire Hathaway operates as a holding company with three revenue streams:

  1. Subsidiaries: Majority owned operating businesses like GEICO, Dairy Queen, and NetJets.
  2. Marketable Securities: Minority investments in companies like American Express and Coca Cola, along with bonds, Treasury bills, and other financial instruments.
  3. Financial Transactions: Berkshire occasionally participates in arbitrage of public stocks, foreign exchange derivatives, and other one-off transactions.
Berkshire Hathaway Operating Structure

Berkshire Hathaway Operating Structure

Insurance subsidiaries like GEICO and General Re Insurance play a particularly important role. They hold huge “floats”; insurance premiums collected but not yet paid as claims. Berkshire generates billions of dollars in profit by investing these floats, often acquired at zero cost, in marketable securities.

2. How Berkshire Changed What It Bought

Warren Buffett studied under the father of value investing, Ben Graham. Not surprisingly, Berkshire’s early investments were in public company stocks Warren judged to be good value.

Today, Berkshire prefers to acquire entire operating businesses. This change in strategy gives Berkshire enormous power over capital allocation, as we’ll see next.

3. How Berkshire Reallocates Retained Earnings

When Berkshire acquires a business, it acquires the right to allocate that company’s earnings. As Warren explains:

After meeting the needs of those businesses, we often have very substantial sums left over. Most companies limit themselves to reinvesting those funds within the industry in which they have been operating. That often restricts them, however, to a “universe” for capital allocation that is both tiny and quite inferior to what is available in the wider world.

In other words, by owning companies outright, Berkshire can re-invest profits into the most globally attractive opportunities.

4. How Berkshire Values Opportunities, Then and Now

Early Berkshire investments focused on finding companies trading at a discount to their intrinsic value: the present value of expected future cash flow, including a margin of safety. In other words, spending one dollar today would return more than one of today’s dollars in the future.

Later, Warren and Charlie wisely expanded their investment criteria:

The primary factors of our evaluation are:

  1. The certainty with which the long-term economic characteristics of the business can be evaluated;
  2. The certainty with which management can be evaluated, both as to its availability to realize the full potential of the business and to wisely employ its cash flows;
  3. The certainty with which management can be counted on to channel the rewards from the business to the shareholders rather than to itself;
  4. The purchase price of the business;
  5. The levels of taxation and inflation that will be experienced.

Costly failed investments taught have Berkshire the importance of owning businesses with sustainable competitive advantages. On several occasions, Warren made a great “value” investment only to have profits disappear earlier than expected. Berkshire’s original textile mill is a great example of making a “value” investment in a failing business.

5. How Berkshire Builds Shareholder Value

In summary, Charlie and I hope to build per-share intrinsic value by:

  1. improving the earning power of our many subsidiaries;
  2. further increasing their earnings through bolt-on acquisitions;
  3. participating in the growth of our investees (minority investments);
  4. repurchasing Berkshire shares when they are available at a meaningful discount from intrinsic value; and
  5. making an occasional large acquisition.

6. How Berkshire Plays A Long Game

Charlie and I have always preferred a lumpy 15% return to a smooth 12%.

Wall Street analysts have a near tyrannical focus on short term, quarterly increases in earnings per share. Berkshire, on the other hand, takes a longer view. It happily welcomes lumpy results if the long term average return is higher.

This brings us to risk. Berkshire wisely defines risk as “the possibility of loss or injury, not volatility.” Real investors welcome volatility as an opportunity to buy companies at a discount.

Pick up Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders 1965-2013 and learn about business and investing from the best.

Also, check out what else I’m Reading.

Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles

On a recent trip to China, I was shocked by how large and modern Shanghai was. From shiny new shopping malls to gigantic skyscrapers, everything looked as though it had been built yesterday. China was certainly an emerging economy.

It then occurred to me that I had no idea what an “emerging economy” was. I’d heard the term used to describe a country experiencing rapid growth, but now I had questions. What factors cause rapid growth? Is it always sustainable? Why does China prosper and not India, Brazil, or Thailand?

Armed with ignorance and a credit card, I bought Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles by Ruchir Sharma. Ruchir studies emerging countries as Head of Emerging Markets at Morgan Stanley.

Breakout Nations Cover

Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles by Ruchir Sharma

What attracted me to the book was its format. Each chapter profiles a different emerging market like China, India, and Russia, along with less “popular” countries like South Korea, the Czech Republic, and Nigeria. The author paints a vivid picture of each country by mixing macroeconomic data with observations from his travels.

Early in the book, Sharma presents his thesis about what leads countries to “break out”:

“There is no magic formula to break out, only a long list of known ingredients:

Allow the free-market flow of goods, money, and people;

Encourage savings, and make sure banks are funnelling the money into the productive investments;

Impose the rule of law and protect property rights;

Stabilize the economy with low budget and trade deficit;

Keep inflation in check;

Open doors to foreign capital, particularly when the capital comes with technology as part of the bargain;

Build better roads and schools;

Feed the children; and so on.”

It quickly becomes clear that not all growth is created equal. For example, growth in Russia is likely a temporary result of price inflation in oil and gas. South Korea, on the other hand, may continue its steady growth from a well diversified economy.

Let’s return to China. To my untrained eye looking at the Shanghai skyline, China appeared to be a juggernaut. To a sophisticated investor like Sharma, it’s obvious that China’s growth must slow. Fewer opportunities for infrastructure investment, a debt to GPD ratio of 200%, and the disappearance of cheap labour to a growing middle class means China will have to find new ways to grow in the future.

Pick up Breakout Nations and learn how a country’s prosperity might be sustainable, temporary, or just around the corner.

Follow me on Goodreads to see what else I’m reading.

Pomodoro Keeper

I’m free to spend my days on a mix of self-directed study and building products. I don’t have a fixed agenda, just a long backlog of things to build and concepts to learn about.

I’ve adopted the Pomodoro Technique® to stay focused and productive throughout the day. Its focused sprints eliminate wasteful multi-tasking while required breaks help avoid fatigue. Try it for yourself:

  1. Choose a single topic or task to focus on.
  2. Spent 25 minutes working on that topic while avoiding multi-tasking.
  3. After, take a short break. After every four cycles, take a long break.
  4. Repeat

Download Pomodoro Keeper for iOS to time your sprints and rests. Its minimalist interface looks pretty, sounds pleasant, and “just works.”

Six Questions That Start Startups

This is a repost from my article on Medium.

I collect heuristics: processes that enable problem solving, learning, or discovery. One of my favorite collections is what I call “Questions that Start Startups.” It’s a set of patterns designed to help to overcome schlep blindness and see opportunities to change the world. Here are a few:

1. Why? What If? How?

In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger suggests that innovation begins with inquiry. In order to uncover problems and formulate solutions, you should continually ask “Why?”, “What if…?”, and “How?”

Let’s look at an example using peer to peer money transfer:

  1. Why is it expensive and slow to transfer money electronically between two people? The Automated Clearing House (ACH) model isn’t real-time. Instead, it’s a batch process that runs three times per day and involves five entities: you, your bank, the recipient, their bank, and the central bank. Transactions are all sent through the central bank, rather than banks talking directly to each other in real-time.
  2. What if we could transfer money directly from person to person safely and in real-time?
  3. How? Distribute all transactions publicly to facilitate auditing (no central bank). Cryptographically sign transactions to prove my identity. Collectively confirm transactions and make them immutable for future distribution. We shall call it Bitcoin.

2. Live in the future. What seems interesting?

Paul Graham has written extensively on how to find an idea for your next startup. In How to Get Startup Ideas, he offers this piece of wisdom:

Live in the future and build what seems interesting.

In other words, instead of brainstorming ideas with the potential to become a billion dollar business, look ahead several years and pick problems that would be cool to work on. As PG notes, Facebook, Apple, and Google all started as “toy” solutions to “cool” problems.

3. How could I help a billion people within 10 years?

Singularity University was founded in 2008 by Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. Its goal is to gather leaders from across industries and challenge them to change the world by asking:

How would you tackle the problem of helping a billion people in ten years?

It’s a well worded question. It forces you to “zoom out” and address problems of a huge magnitude like food, water, shelter, transportation, and income inequality. These problems can be overlooked by people who don’t immediately suffer from them, like most Silicon Valley technologists. Asking “how” presupposes that innovation is possible.

4. What are the fundamental truths?

Elon Musk is a co-founder of Paypal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors. Each company has been the source of massive innovation.

So how does he innovate in industries where others have failed for decades? Musk calls his approach Reasoning from First Principles. It involves two steps:

  1. Ask “What are we sure is true?” about a concept. Strip away all assumptions, leaving just facts.
  2. Reason up from these fundamental truths to a solution.

Here’s an excerpt of Musk explaining his method to Kevin Rose on Foundation:

5. What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

Peter Thiel’s CS183: Startup class at Stanford is a treasure trove of deep thinking about startups. Blake Masters did a phenomenal job transcribing the lectures he attended. Be sure to check out his new book, Zero to One, co-authored with Peter Thiel himself.

One of my favorite lectures is 11: Secrets. Secrets are not widely known or accepted answers to hard questions. The “hard”ness of the question creates a barrier to entry, and a “not widely known” answer creates a competitive advantage for the person who knows it.

To uncover what secrets you know, Peter advocates asking:

What important truth do very few people agree with me on?

In a business context, that translates to:

What great company is no one starting?

6. What steps can I remove?

Long, cumbersome processes are excellent opportunities for innovation. Removing, consolidating, or outsourcing steps in the process can lead to improvement.

One way to find an idea for your next startup is described by Nathan Kontny:

  1. Find a job people have.
  2. List out every step people take to complete that job.
  3. Remove as many steps as possible.

A great example of this is Shyp. If you sell products online you’ve probably experienced how much of a pain shipping is. Typically you must:

  1. Sell your product.
  2. Package it (assuming you have a box that fits).
  3. Buy a shipping label.
  4. Drop the package off at a post office or schedule a courier pickup.
  5. Send the tracking number to the customer.

Shyp removes steps 2-5. Take a photo of your product using Shyp’s iPhone app and a Shyp Hero will arrive to pickup, pack, and ship your product for you.

During a Y Combinator dinner, Paul Graham drew this graph:

The Startup Curve. Property of Silicon Alley Insider, and PG

The Startup Curve. Property of Silicon Alley Insider, and PG

Finding a great problem to work on is only the first step in a very long startup journey. Optimize for problems you’re passionate about to make it past the Trough of Sorrow.

I hope these questions above help you find your next adventure.

You can find me on Twitter and AngelList. Say hi.

I remember the moment I first realized I’d been living my life in black and white.

It was like discovering a colour I’d never knew existed before. A whole new crayon box full of colours. That was it for me. There was no more putting the pieces back together; no going home.

Things were different now. Asia had ruined me for my old life.

Anthony Bourdain – Track Places You’ve Been and Places You Want To Go

This year I’ve committed to creating 12 tiny projects in 12 months. The first is, an app to track places you’ve been and places you’d like to go. I use it as a TODO list for my travel bucket list.

Check out my map at or create your own.

@adammcnamara me on Twitter with your map, suggestions, and bugs (oh are there bugs….).

Everyone Can Learn Angel Investing Using Kiva

“How do you get started in angel investing?”

I’m often asked this question by friends who want to invest in startups. My default answer is “Don’t do it.” Angel investing can be fun, but being successful requires time, effort and learning. Most startups fail, and returns follow a power law distribution making access to deal flow critical. Many of those interested don’t yet qualify as accredited investors.

Starting today, my new response is:

Use Kiva to learn the basics of angel investing.

Kiva is a microlending platform for borrowers without access to traditional banking systems. Lenders can make loans of as little as $25 to borrowers on five continents. Funds are distributed and repaid through regional microfinance partners.

Kiva is similar in many ways to another fundraising platform: AngelList. On AngelList, entrepreneurs post a profile of their startup in hopes of attracting investments. Investors can screen startups based on factors like product/market fit, traction, team, and technology. If you’re an aspiring angel investor, Kiva is a great place to start developing your skills.

Here’s how to start on Kiva:

Step 1 – Create Your Investment Thesis

The best place to start is by developing an investment thesis. A thesis defines your investment goals. It often outlines requirements like industries or geographies of interest, revenue models, team characteristics, and risk requirements. Some investors like Union Square Ventures and 500 Startups have well defined theses, while others like Kevin Rose prefer “gut investing.” I’d encourage you to write down the types of investments you’d like to make. The exercise of considering what you value is often an enlightening one.

Here’s my very simple Kiva Investment Thesis:

I will lend to borrowers in manufacturing, agriculture, and construction. These ventures often have prohibitively high startup costs that, once overcome, can go on to employ many people. I prefer teams of founders — ambitious projects that create employment opportunities often take a team to create. To reduce risk, I would like borrowers with domain experience over those without.

Finally, I’m grateful for having grown up in a country with subsidized education. My computer science degree has allowed me to create an immense amount of value. As such, 25% of my loans will be allocated to individuals pursuing an education in a STEM field1.

Step 2 – Screen Deal Flow Based on Your Thesis

Once you’ve developed your investment thesis, it’s time to begin filtering opportunities through it. This can be challenging in practice. As a friend recently said to me: “I’m such a sucker for these Kiva profiles. I feel so bad.” Angel investing means saying “no” to 99 out of 100 opportunities.

Use filters to have Kiva return results that fit with your new investment thesis.

Filtering Kiva search results using my investment thesis criteria.

Filtering Kiva search results using my investment thesis criteria.

Step 3 – Deploy Capital

Once you’ve picked a few borrowers, it’s time to issue some loans. I suggest the 500 Startups-style “spray and pray” approach to lending. In other words, I prefer to make small loans to a large number of borrowers rather than a small number of large loans.

The return on an angel investment can be from [-100% – ∞%]. Interest free loans, on the other hand, range from [-100% – 0%]. There is no potential for a positive return on a loan. It’s for this reason that a highly diversified lending portfolio is the best approach. It minimizes the risk to your portfolio of a lender defaulting on their loan. Kiva is about providing access to capital for those who would otherwise be without. Each time a borrower makes a loan repayment, those funds become available to lend out again.

Final Thoughts

Kiva is a lending platform, not an investing platform like AngelList. Nevertheless, I think it’s a great place to practice disciplined investing. I find myself using a systematic approach to my loans in an effort to maximize the potential impact of each dollar loaned.

If you’re in Canada, Kiva is running a “$50 in microloans for $25” promotion on Groupon until January 31, 2013.

A $25 loan can change a life. Give one today.


1. STEM Fields.

Economic Mobility

“Started from the bottom now we here.

Started from the bottom now the whole team f’n here.”

Drake – Started From The Bottom

Josh and I are sitting in a rooftop lounge overlooking Hong Kong Island. We’re joined by a friend who recently moved to the country. He’s a former Goldman Sachs investment banker now working at a local hedge fund. We’re discussing what it’s like to live and work in different parts of the world. I asked some standard “quality of life” questions about Hong Kong:

  • What do most people do for work?
  • Was the mean and median income?
  • What is the cost of living? How much does it cost to rent an apartment?

The answers weren’t surprising. The area is very wealthy. Many of Hong Kong island’s residents are US or UK ex-pats working in finance. An even smaller number of ultra rich Hong Kong families own many of the office buildings, hotels, malls, and banks that make our view so spectacular.

The cost of living in Hong Kong is quite high. A modern 600 sqft apartment rents for about $27,000HKD/month ($3,600 USD)1. A good education is also expensive. International schools are the institutions of choice because they offer an education recognized around the world. Enrolling a child at one of these schools costs about $210,000HKD/year ($28,000USD). To get “priority consideration for enrolment”, you must purchase a refundable bond of $2,000,000HKD – $10,000,000HKD ($266,666 USD – $1.33M USD).


The tuition alone is nearly equal to the average annual income of a Hong Kong family. But that wasn’t enough to keep the exclusive classroom spots…exclusive. The added bond requirement screens out everyone but the wealthiest of families.


Growing up, my family was of very modest means. I attended a public high school. In university, I relied on academic scholarships to pay my tuition. I worked 30 hours/week while studying to pay for food and housing. My family’s net-worth qualified us as Poor2 by Canadian standards, but our income ranked us as Lower Middle Class. Because of this, I didn’t qualify for government student loans.

I was fortunate to get a world-class education in Canada despite my family being in the lowest 20% of net worth. That stands in stark contrast to what we saw in Hong Kong. After graduation, government grants provided the capital my partners and I needed to start a business. Social programs like Employment Insurance (EI) provided a safety net in the event our business failed. Luckily it succeeded, and I now enjoy a life very different than the one I had growing up.

The ability to move in social standing is called Economic Mobility. In layman’s terms, it’s a measure of a person’s “financial opportunity” in life.

In Canada and many Scandinavian countries, economic mobility is high. A person’s financial position is largely self-determined. In countries like the US and China, however, your economic standing is highly correlated with that of your parents.


It turns out that there’s a positive correlation between economic mobility (financial opportunity) and income equality. If the income gap is small, mobility increases as more people have access to the best education and employment options. If the income gap is large, it’s more likely that generation over generation, the rich will stay rich and the poor will stay poor.

Governments use programs like personal income taxes and transfers (such as social assistance, unemployment insurance, and old age security) to reduce income inequality. But this is a contentious issue. Too much redistribution and the highest earners effectively work for the masses. Too little redistribution reduces financial opportunity for the majority of the group.

It stands to reason that the ideal redistribution is one that achieves highest opportunity for value creation by the group.

This got me thinking: “How can I increase financial opportunity for others?”

Thankfully, income redistribution isn’t the only way to create financial opportunity. After all, the goal of redistribution is simply to create an environment that maximizes overall opportunity.

So maybe the question is “How can I remove obstacles to value creation for as many people as possible?” There are countless ways to do this. Here are a few ideas, along with some startups in each space:

I think this is the best area for me to dedicate a lifetime of work. I’m grateful to have benefitted from an environment that maximized my odds of success at the expense of taxpayers. But income inequality is increasing in most countries around the world. Many billions of people don’t have the same opportunities. Anything that increases the odds for others to create value at scale would have a massive impact.


1. Apartment rentals on Hong Kong Island
2. Canadian Income and Net Worth Quintiles Circa 2007

Name Quintile Individual Income Family Income Household Net Worth
Poor Lowest 20% Less than $10,700 Less than $36,600 Less than $14,200
Lower Middle Class Lower 20% $10,700-$20,300 $36,600-$58,600 $14,200-$92,400
Middle Class Median 20% $20,300-$33,100 $58,600-$82,200 $92,400-$244,300
Upper Middle Class Higher 20% $33,100-$53,400 $82,200-$115,600 $244,300-$656,700
Rich Highest 20% Greater than $53,400 Greater than $115,600 Greater than $656,700

10 Financial Lessons for my 18 Year Old Self

Here are 10 financial lessons I’ve learned in the past 10 years that I wish I could tell my 18 year old self.

Start with the proper framework of accounts:

  1. Checking
  2. Investment (retirement)
  3. Long term savings (wedding, house, car)
  4. Short term savings (vacation)
  5. Guilt free spending (clothes, dining out, and gadgets)
  6. Emergency (three months of living expenses)
  7. Credit card (groceries, utilities, etc)
Automate your personal finance framework for investing, saving, and paying bills.

Automate your personal finance framework for investing, saving, and paying bills.


Set up automatic monthly investments, savings, and bill payments. “Paying yourself first” will help you achieve savings and investment goals and live within your means.

Avoid debt. It’s easy to start, hard to stop, and expensive to keep.

Start investing in index funds as early as possible. Hold them long term and let compound interest make you wealthy.  A dollar invested today is worth many more tomorrow. Forget mutual funds and GICs.

Don’t save mercilessly on the small things, only to spend carelessly on the big ones. Buying a house or a car is a huge purchase. Take your time, do your research, and don’t spend on needless options.

When you feel the need to buy something, put it out of your mind and wait three days.

Everything you buy has three costs: the cost of acquiring it, the cost of owning it, and the opportunity cost of not using the money for something else. Consider all of them before making a purchase.

Buy fewer things, and buy quality ones. Seek happiness in experiences, not possessions.

Money increases day-to-day happiness up to $75,000/year. Above that, life-satisfaction may increase but day-to-day happiness stays the same. Optimize for the most fulfilling work, not the highest paying.

Start a business. You’ll value money more after learning how challenging it can be to earn it outside of employment.

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Adam McNamara