An International Business Banker’s Best Business Advice and More
Advice, business or otherwise, is awfully easy to come by. Want some of the greatest advice ever? Go to the film, “The Princess Bride.” Vizzini’s advice, such as it was, was: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”
For most of us, easy advice to follow. And, for the most part, really good advice.
Recently, Jeffrey Dorfman, a professor of economics at the University of Georgia, wrote about his later father, Paul Crane Dorfman, who was an international banker, and on the business lessons he learned from him. Some of that advice is just plain good advice for business or life, such as “work hard” and “treat all people well.” Other advice and lessons learned are more specific.
#1. “Look at a business’ big picture.” One suspects that “big picture” also includes “look at the details.” Dorfman (son and father, presumably) notes that any company that is, for example, looking for a loan or investment, will present itself in the best light. But the devil is in the details. “Don’t get tricked by non-standard (non-GAAP) performance metrics that companies invent simply to present a favorable spin,” Dorfman wrote.
#2. “Think short term and long term.” Dorfman’s examples are classic: Amazon didn’t make a profit for a long time. Look where it is now. “Cisco,” he writes, “was growing so fast at the height of the dot-com bubble that their growth rate was unsustainable simply by common sense; at that rate, in ten years their gross revenue would have exceeded the size of the world economy.”
It’s notable that Dorfman cites the dot-com bubble, which was a fascinating period where seemingly anyone with an Internet-based idea and some charisma could gain millions of investments and launch an initial public offering (IPO)—even if the business fundamentals or the idea itself wasn’t so great.
Ever hear of Blippy? This company wanted to link up your credit card to your Twitter account so everything you bought would be automatically broadcast to the world. At one point the company had raised almost $13 million.
#3. “You can’t foreclose on a borrower with its own army.” And no, as far as we know, this isn’t related to a land war in Asia. But the elder Dorfman’s advice is related to how difficult it was to collect on defaulted loans from foreign governments. But it’s trenchant advice for individuals involved in the biopharma industry. Jeffery Dorfman writes, “This lesson applies to cases where the money you lend or invest will be unrecoverable if the business goes bad. If a restaurant fails, you can resell the equipment for something and recoup part of your investment; if a biotech firm you invest in spends all the money on R&D that doesn’t pan out, your money is gone.”
#4. “Focus on what you are good at, delegate the rest.” There’s no reason you can’t learn and educate yourself to strengthen your weak areas, but in reality, life is complicated, and time is valuable. “Know thyself!” the Ancient Greeks used to say … probably right after saying, “And don’t get into a land war with Rome!”
Dorfman puts this into the context of his father’s rather bad skill set in investing, eventually turning over his investments to people who were better at it, but also notes that, “In your career, as much as you can, configure your job so that you spend the most time on what you are best at. Let other people do the rest.”
#5. “Business is about making money.” Here, Dorfman isn’t really stating the obvious, he’s saying that a business investment doesn’t have to be flashy or glamorous to be good. He noted with some humor that the one company his father invested in that made money rented porta potties. If there’s a corollary to this, it’s to remember that during the gold rush, the people that made the most money were the ones selling shovels, picks and sluices to the gold miners, not the gold miners themselves.
The BioSpace corollary might be: R&D is glamorous, but there are plenty of jobs in biopharma manufacturing.
#6. “Learn to write.” What becomes axiomatic in many business positions is that you’re going to do much more reading and writing than you expected to, whether it’s emails, memos, reports and proposals, or something more complex like articles, grant applications and annual reports. Dorfman writes, “Learn to write concisely, precisely, and clearly. If you can’t make a strong case in one or two pages, people will think you don’t have a strong case.”
Other well-known entrepreneurs, of course, have had their own bits of business wisdom. Here are a couple more:
#7. Time is money. It’s also finite, as is personal energy. Kevin Harrington, inventor of the infomercial and the original Shark on “Shark Tank,” noted that, “In the mid-1980s I started monetizing each minute of every day. While working with the Shopping Channel, I saw how segments were run minute by minute, 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; this gave me a concrete understanding of how each minute was valued, logged, and charged.”
If that’s a little obsessive, that’s okay, but it might remind you of how much time you’re wasting on otherwise non-money-making or non-profitable activities like social media.
#8. Believe in yourself and your vision. Maybe the word is simply “confidence,” but it also goes beyond believing in your abilities and your ideas. Marina Rose, founder of QDNA and developer of Quantum DNA Acceleration, notes, “Most entrepreneurs lose that ‘spark’ of self-belief after a few setbacks because they view failure as inescapable. Yet, this is the most crucial time to work on reprogramming your brain to win, so you can pivot and learn from your failure and move toward success.
And some of the best advice of all, of course: Don’t fight a land war in Asia.