The FOMO Entrepreneur

We live in an age of acronyms. I guess they are a form of shorthand. LOL, YOLO, DIY, IMHO, SMH, MTFBWY, FUTAB and ROTFL. If you guessed them all correctly you are in the mainstream of cool. And for those of us who are a bit more advanced in years, here’s the translation in order – Laughing Out Loud (LOL); You Only Live Once (YOLO); Do It Yourself (DIY); In My Humble Opinion (IMHO); Shaking My Head (SMH); May the Force Be with You (MTFBWY); Feet Up, Take a Break (FUTAB), and Rolling On the Floor Laughing (ROTFL).

There’s another acronym I’d like to explore today – FOMO. Give up? It’s the Fear of Missing Out and it can be deadly for entrepreneurs. One of the best examples of the FOMO concept is the crypto currency craze and more specifically, Bitcoin. It’s not important to understand the basics of Bitcoin. What’s more instructive is to understand what has happened in the marketplace. On August 15, 2010, the value of one Bitcoin was $.07. By August 1, 2015, the value of one Bitcoin had risen to $283.04. On November 9, 2016, right after the Presidential election, the value of one Bitcoin had increased to $726.36. On August 1, 2017, a single Bitcoin was worth $2,787.85. By December 20, 2017, the “value” had jumped to $18,486.51, and by February 4, 2018, the value had plummeted back to $8,922.61. Incredibly, in November 2021, Bitcoin soared to more than $67,000, then cratered to below $20,000 in the summer of 2022. Riding a roller coaster at Cedar Point would be considered like a leisurely stroll in the park compared to the volatility of Bitcoin.

Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of individuals who have jumped into Bitcoin worldwide. Some have used their life savings to buy a stake. Many think they are investing. Most hear the siren song of making a quick buck without truly understanding the risk profile or even the basics of how crypto currencies function. What drove some people to plunk down $18,486.51 for a single Bitcoin on December 20, 2017, and within 46 days, see their position shrink to $8,922.61? When examining the case studies, it’s apparent that many people were motivated by the Fear of Missing Out.

FOMO is dangerous because it’s an emotional reaction. We work hard to build our businesses, and much of our success comes from analyzing data and making decisions based upon fact – even when it comes to understanding consumer sentiment (which may be emotional in itself). FOMO is impulsive in nature and flies in the face of logical decision making. We face this dilemma every day in one of our business units that is focused on acquiring market-rate apartments across the country. Apartment investments have been hot for the past few years and the fundamentals have been strong. As a result, prices have been driven higher and returns are lower. Press releases abound announcing acquisition after acquisition. It’s easy to feel the pressure to adjust our investment thesis to keep up the pace of our own acquisition initiative. But experience has taught us to resist this temptation.

The first step in avoiding the pitfalls of FOMO is recognizing our susceptibility to it in the first place. This can happen if we have a clear set of standards that guide our approach to the way we operate. Without these standards we are very vulnerable to being tugged or pulled to follow whatever hot trend happens to emerge now. With standards, we can test against that trend to see if there is alignment. If there’s not, we must have the discipline to resist pursuing it. 

The second step is to carefully analyze the risks associated with pursuing the trend. This should be a rigorous exercise that identifies all the possible ways things could go wrong and what sort of impact would be felt. Take Bitcoin for example. I’m positive that many Bitcoin buyers have done no risk analysis and really believe they are “investing.” They are just gambling. It’s one thing to speculate with money that one can afford to lose. It’s another thing to put half your life savings on Red 32.  

Finally, FOMO can be avoided when we eliminate the emotion of envy. I doubt many Bitcoin investors believe they have been driven by envy. But when they see others “making” huge amounts of money on their Bitcoin “investments” they want to get in on the action too. When I was 10 and another kid had ice cream, I wanted ice cream. I secretly envied the other kid with the cone. FOMO to some extent is the same thing. When others are doing well, let’s rejoice in their good fortune without having any feelings that we are somewhat inferior if we don’t experience the same good fortune.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

The Warren Buffet-Listening Entrepreneur

We all know that life is full of risks. Some are more serious than others. I hold the view that I’d rather “manage” risk than “take” risk. I’ve said before that taking a risk seems a bit arbitrary. “Gee, I think I’ll try to run across this eight-lane expressway right now!” Sounds silly, right? But in a way, that’s what taking a risk seems like to me. While it may not be as spontaneous as this overdramatized example, taking a risk feels like gambling. Meanwhile, managing a risk is calculated. It is studied and planned. Risk mitigation strategies are developed. If I’m to run across the eight-lane expressway, I’m going to figure out every possible way to do so as safely as possible. That’s risk management.

One very important element of risk management is a concept that was espoused by one of the most revered investors of all time, Benjamin Graham (1894 – 1976). And this concept is practiced today by his acolyte, Warren Buffet. The concept is that of margin of safety. Entrepreneurs absolutely must understand margin of safety – but every member of society would benefit from practicing it as well. Graham and Buffet narrowly defined margin of safety as the difference between the intrinsic value of a stock and its market price. I look at margin of safety on a broader basis and define it as the difference between success and failure. In some cases, this difference can be razor thin, and in others, it can be as wide as the Pacific Ocean. The key is to take the steps necessary to push the margin as wide as possible.

In our businesses, organizations, and lives in general, we have an opportunity to become expert at creating margins of safety. One of our companies purchases apartment properties. Because we tend to hold these assets for five to seven years or longer, there can be a great deal of uncertainty about the future. What can we do to stack the deck in our favor and create a healthy margin of safety when we’re looking so far down the road? Obviously, we make year-by-year financial projections that are based upon a set of assumptions. Those assumptions include rent levels, rent increases, operating expense levels, expense increases, occupancy percentages, rates of return on which a sale price can be calculated and various aspects surrounding debt financing. The Excel spreadsheet is quite comprehensive with all these assumptions and projections – but how do we overlay a margin of safety on the process?

With one of our properties, we obtained a certified appraisal as a part of the due diligence process that indicated a value $3 million higher than we paid for the property. That’s a margin of safety right there. Perhaps we budgeted an initial increase in rents of $110 after making several physical improvements but were able to achieve $200. Our assumptions might have anticipated a stabilized economic occupancy of 91%; but we were able to operate at 93%. Operating expenses may have been right on the money, but rent increases averaged 3.25% each year rather than the 3% that we had forecasted. And remember our baseline started $90 higher than the $110 initial increase that was projected. In summary, we pushed several levers to create several different margins of safety that when combined, produced a much better bottom line throughout the holding period than expected. In so doing, we are better protected from market factors that could degrade the future value of our asset.

The principal takeaway here is to find as many margins of safety as possible. If we make decisions based upon 100% optimal results, there’s no room for error. Then a blip in the market or a miss with operations could mean failure. I have learned the hard way that if there’s no way to create sufficient margins of safety, the risk I am contemplating may be too difficult to manage. So, I move on to something else.

Developing the concept of margin of safety is an exercise in positive thinking. We are looking for ways to increase the probability for success – and that’s always a good thing.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.