The Moat-Building Entrepreneur

We know from our history lessons that in medieval days, members of noble families often lived in castles. These fortresses were imposing in appearance and have stood for centuries – a testament to their design and construction. Castles were built over a 900-year timeframe which is truly amazing. These structures were protected by a wide range of defenses including various forms of artillery, arrows, boiling oil, tar and sewage, and there are even reports of diseased dead bodies being catapulted at assailants. Finally, deep wide ditches were dug around many castles and filled with water, requiring access via drawbridges. In fairy tales we heard about moats being home to alligators, crocodiles, and other horrible monsters though it is doubtful that in real life moats were populated in this fashion.

So, what is your moat? Strange question you ask? I have written several times in the past about how important it is that entrepreneurs differentiate themselves from their competitors. In 2007, Warren Buffet was speaking to a group of University of Florida MBA students and had this to say about differentiation.

“I don’t want a business that’s easy for competitors. I want a business with a moat around it. I want a very valuable castle in the middle. And then I want…the Duke who is in charge of that castle to be honest and hard-working and able. And then I want a big moat around the castle, and that moat can be various things.”

“The moat in a business like our auto insurance business at GEICO is low cost. I mean people have to buy auto insurance, so everybody’s going to have one auto insurance policy per car basically, or per driver. And…I can’t sell them twenty…but they have to buy one. What are they going to buy it on? They’re going to buy it based on service and cost. Most people will assume the service is fairly identical among companies, or close enough, so they’re going to do it on cost, so I gotta be the low cost producer. That’s my moat. To the extent my costs get further lower than the other guy, I’ve thrown a couple of sharks into the moat.”

Thinking about differentiation in terms of a moat is a slightly different perspective than I have had in the past. I have viewed differentiation proactively and as an opportunity to exploit. Buffet seems to be seeing it from a defensive standpoint – thus his moat analogy. Either way, we get to the same place. There must be a reason that people want to do business with us beyond our charm and good looks.

I am advocating for a combination of defense and offense with respect to differentiation. On the one hand, I am looking for products and services that have high barriers to entry. Perhaps this is due to substantial capital requirements; extremely complex aspects to the product or service; maybe it is a patent; or perhaps there is a vertically integrated process that is extremely difficult to replicate. All those factors become the moat. They make it hard for competitors to easily jump into our space and make inroads.

Now let’s play offense. Simply keeping our competition at bay does not ensure success or profitability. It is what we do inside the castle that really counts. We can sit on a throne, eat rich foods, and get fat (dumb and happy), or we can exploit the opportunity we have to function in an arena where competition may not be as intense. This might take the form of developing a premium product, or a marketing strategy that creates FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out. Maybe exploiting the opportunity looks like the streamlining of an internal process that produces even greater profits. The point is that with a moat in place we can take our endeavor to an even higher level than ever before.

Differentiating ourselves as entrepreneurs is essential to our success. Doing so with a dual strategy of building a moat and exploiting the opportunity allows us to play defense and offense at the same time.  

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.

A Tip From Warren Buffet

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 of 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 a number of physical improvements, but were actually able to achieve $200. Our assumptions might have anticipated a stabilized economic occupancy of 91%; but in actuality 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 a number of 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.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 56 – The Mystery of the Undercooked Steak.

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.