Always Treat Money Like It Is Your Own

This should sound pretty obvious, but it isn’t. And I think a lot of people have been violating this rule, particularly on wall street and in big corporations and the economic mess we are in is at least partly because of this problem.

One of my favorite investors on wall street is a guy I’ve known for almost ten years who has been in and around the hedge fund business for more than twenty-five years. Whenever he talks about his business or the funds he is invested in, he always cites how much of his own money in in his fund and how much of the fund managers he invests with have in their funds. The numbers are impressive. Often 25-50% of the funds he invests in are comprised of the manager’s own money. His business was affected in 2008 like everyone else, but I have a lot of confidence that he’ll come out of this mess way ahead of most others.

In our business, we have put a significant amount of our own net worth into our funds. It’s often difficult to have a lot of your net worth tied up in illiquid assets like venture capital funds, but when you are writing a check every time you make an investment, it has a way of clarifying the mind.

This is particularly important when you are facing the decision to support or walk away from an old and  difficult/troubled investment. Most of the time, these kinds of financings are highly dilutive and very punitive if you don’t participate. It’s really tempting to put more money in because if you don’t, you’ll get wiped out. But if you do put money in, and the investment still fails, then you’ve lost even more of your own money and your partners money. The bigger personal check you have to write, the more likely you’ll make the right decision. If you don’t have to write any checks and all the money you are investing is other people’s money, then it’s incredibly tempting to "pour good money after bad."

If I think about all the issues we’ve had on wall street over the past year (see Michael Lewis and David Einhorn’s two part column for a great description of them), I think most of these issues have been caused by investors playing with other people’s money without enough of their own net worth at stake. Financial leverage is a good example of playing with other people’s money. You put up a tiny amount of your own money and you borrow the rest. If things don’t go your way, you write off the little you put up and the lender takes the bath. That’s been going on in the financial markets and the housing markets for the better part of ten years and we are now seeing the cost of that approach.

Why is it that most of the best managed companies are operated by their owners? Think about Apple, Google, News Corp, etc. All of these companies are run by owners who have a huge amount of their net worth tied up in the business. The same is true of Microsoft until recently when Gates left the business for the most part. But even Gates still has a lot of money tied up in Microsoft. When these leaders make decisions, they are risking their own capital/net worth, not just the capital and net worth of shareholders who they supposedly work for, but really don’t.

We don’t like to overfund the companies we invest in for a lot of reasons, but there are two big ones. First, the less we invest, the more the founders and managers own and that makes them operate like the company is theirs, not ours. And I also like the discipline that managers have when they are operating with small balance sheets. It causes them to look at every expenditure carefully and act as if the money is their own. As I’ve said, that generally leads to better decisions.

It is true that entrepreneurs and managers often are too conservative when all the money they are working with is their own. And that’s a good reason to bring in other capital, ideally sophisticated investors who understand the business and can add value. But even when you do that, you should treat the investors capital as if it was your own. It’s a mindset, and an important one. We’ve seen all too frequently what can happen when people stop operating that way.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. dfriedman

    Sorry, this post does not make a lot of sense. Both Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and the New York Time Company have stock structures that allow minority shareholders to have controlling interests in the companies; the majority of these minority shareholders’ wealth is tied up in their company.Neither of these companies is well run. Merely having your money invested in a company or fund you run is no guarantee of good performance.

    1. Andrew Weber

      I don’t think the point of Fred’s post is/was that having your own money at stake is a guarantee of good performance; I believe he’s saying that having your own money at stake is likely to make you more thoughtful about the decisions you make….which would tend to lead to better performance.I lament the fact that we seem to have so many people at companies, funds, etc. who seem to act out of their own self-interest rather than out of the interests of those who have provided the money, the company to run, etc. (as pedalpete suggests below).

      1. dfriedman

        In retrospect, you are probably correct: I misinterpreted Fred’s point. Apologies.

  2. Brian

    Right on about leverage, but the lenders should also be investing/lending like its their own money. See, the lending boom of recent years with Subprime, PIK toggles, Covenant-lite, etc and all the problems the banks are having right now. I think you’re making a much bigger point about accountability and consequences here.I had a funny conversation trying to explain how an LBO works the other day and why banks were in trouble. The response I got was, “So the company itself takes on 4X as much in debt as much as the guy trying to buy the company puts up? I hope he was a really great manager”

  3. Jens

    Agree 100%Reminds me of what Milton Friedman once said:There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money.Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost.Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch!Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get.

  4. jeremystein

    i think the title of this post is a little bit misleading. it should be along the lines of “skin in the game solves a lot of problems”

  5. bijan

    great post fred.i feel the same way.but my favorite about this post was the timestamp. looks like you published it around 11am instead of 5am. so your new plan is off to a good start!

    1. Steven Kane

      hi fred & bijani agree with this strongly alsobut then… do we lso agree that the VC business is in horrible shape, if for no other rteason then that the avst vast majority of partners have little or no meaningful exposure to their own funds risk of failure?the typical VC partnership “invests” 2% of the firm’s fund, over the entire course of the fund, usually 7-10 years (the other 98% is invested by LPs)but their management fees provide them 2% of the fund EVERY YEAR.that is, they collect 14-20% of the fund in fees while only being obligated to invest 2%moreover, almost no VC partners I know invest above and beyond that 2% requirementso for a large majority of VC prtners, LP’s management fees fund their commitments to invest in the fundso most VCs have zero or near zero real skin in the game

      1. fredwilson

        It¹s a big problem steve, but in many of the best firms the partners own

        1. Steven Kane

          Did your reply get cut off?Own what?Any case, I only know a few firms but I don’t know of any that exceed 2%Other than USV, can you cite any examples?

          1. fredwilson

            From what I¹ve been told, benchmark, kleiner, sequoia all have very large %sof their fund in the hands of the GPsI have not verified this, nor would I be able to

          2. Steven Kane

            I have invested in several LBO and real estate and hedge funds ― and allactively promoted how much GP capital was in their fund.And as you clearly point out in your post, “skin in the game” is a big deal― so one would think if it were true a fund would not hide that factSo common sense would suggest that the fact that VC funds ― even the onesyou mention — do not actively (or at all) promote their own “skin in thegame” should make one suspect they do not have any meaningful skin in thegame.Worst, so many VCs go around berating others to put “skin in the game” whenthey themselves do no such thing.An industry housecleaning may be long overdue.

    2. fredwilson

      Yes it is

  6. Jay Levitt

    “Skin in the game” is important, but I disagree that treating it like your *own* money is the right mental model. When I spend my own money, I’m making an emotional decision. Am I buying something that will give me enjoyment? Will I be happier tomorrow, or next year? Will the other kids start liking me now?When I’m spending my company’s money, it’s a financial judgement. Will we get a good ROI? Is this the best use of our resources? Is it a long-term or short-term investment? It’s a dollars-to-dollars comparison. (Though I’ve often said that “You can’t put a dollar value on money.”)Spending investors’ money as if it were my own would be very bad. We’d have secret tunnels in the office, laser tag, some really nice skis, and quite possibly some really nice ski resorts. But no revenues.

    1. pedalpete

      My thoughts exactly Jay.Investors have an expectation of a return on their investment, and it is our responsibility to give them back more than they gave. That should be the same rule for a hedge fund manager, stock broker, or company executive.

  7. nycstartupfiend

    I could not agree more and you said it perfectly. I’m almost at the extreme of not believing in the “corporate america” model of a board with minuscule ownership supervising a company run by managers who are looking out for their own interest where that interest is not, due to lack of ownership, the same interest as the company doing well in the long term. The financial services industry has been only the worst example of that but many other industries are effected and it’s one of the single biggest reasons I am so skeptical about small companies changing from a founder/CEO to a hired gun CEO. You might get someone who is more experienced but that new person is almost certainly of the employee/hired gun mentality and will look at the world through that lens. There are, of course, exceptions but it’s hard to overcome the fundamental difference between an ownership mentality (this is mine and I treat it as such) vs the employee mentality (I work for a boss who I want to impress and please this board meeting and next and next). The latter has a series of implicit short term incentives and mercenary nature that are very very hard to remove. The very best “hired help” entrepreneurial CEOs are good at impressing upon others that they have the right long term view – and some surely do – but the underlying incentives are there regardless.In financial services, when will they claw back the money that people made as a result of blowing up the company’s they worked for (but did not own)? In my world, if i blow up a company, I lose my job and my net worth, and my time, and I have not made a dime along the way. On wall street, they pay you 10s (or in the case of O’neal, 100’s) of millions for the privilege of having allowed you to destroy the company in one felt swoop. That is not a model that works and has to come to a permanent end.

  8. hypermark

    I totally agree with your sensibility, Fred. Good common sense. The counter side to this is that the market crash has made many good people with historically solid track records feel like frauds, liars and cheats, something underscored in an article I read in yesterday’s SF Chronicle:Cautionary story of fund manager’s suicide. it was a bit of a bookend to the Lewis/Einhorn piece, which was great.

  9. wanderingstan

    My first startup raised a modest angel round, about $600K. But nothing prepared me for the emotions of seeing the copies individual checks including in the closing documents; checks from individual people, coming from their own bank accounts. Suddenly the money became a lot less abstract. These people were trusting me and our team with their money, for many of them it was not a trivial amount. I knew I would have to work hard, not only for my sake, but because there were very real people behind those scrawled signatures.

  10. Facebook User

    In the spirit of wikifying your blog posts, fred, the author’s name is David Einhorn (of Greenlight Capital / short LEH fame) rather than Daniel. This minor typo does nothing to diminish the quality of this post, which is excellent. It clearly doesn’t make sense for you to have all (or even most) of your net worth tied up in a VC fund, but as an LP I would absolutely feel better knowing the GP had significant skin in the game.In point of fact, while I myself am not on the buy side, my clients frequently are (I work at a restructuring shop). The project I’m currently assigned to involves a PE fund who made an investment that has since gone south. As the fund has significant GP capital invested in it, its managers are very active investors and are working their damnedest to save the company (that’s why they hired my firm!). I am not a sophisticated investor yet, but when I get there this is going to be one of my primary criteria for investing.

    1. fredwilson

      Great catch. I¹ll fix it asap. I wish you could have fixed it earliertoday.

  11. TimWalker

    Good points, Fred. I’ve been reading Alice Schroeder’s new biography on Warren Buffett, and I’ve been struck all over again by his insistence on putting himself “on the same side of the table” as his investors. Starting from his early investing partnerships in the 1950s, if he didn’t make money for you, he *lost* money. The more money he made for you, the more he made for himself. For his investors, it made it all the easier to trust that he would do the right thing by them.

  12. ventureblogalist

    I agree. No investment bank owned by its employees would have levered itself 35 to 1.

    1. Claude L. Johnson Jr.

      This probably explains the discomfort I felt when GS went public in ’99.The IBs used to be partnerships, and the partners had non-trivial amounts of their net worths tied up in the partnerships. The compensation models, and risk taking, got seriously screwed up as they went public. Goldman was the last to do so. This has been commented on in other spheres, but Fred’s thoughts apply to the IBs (of the past) as well.

  13. Banet

    Great post, but I’m surprised to hear you characterize Google as one of the “best-managed companies.”Really great products? Well, a few really great products, a few great products and dozens and dozens of mediocre ones.Wildly profitable? Absolutely. But might it be far more profitable if they showed the slightest bit of focus or fiscal discipline?Peterhttp://www.FlashlightWorthy…

    1. fredwilson

      You are right that they could be better managedThat was one of my wishes for 2009 actually

  14. fredwilson

    Right, there is no cure all for sureAnd you are right. It¹s about % of net worth, not actual dollars

  15. Scott

    “It’s really tempting to put more money in because if you don’t, you’ll get wiped out. But if you do put money in, and the investment still fails, then you’ve lost even more of your own money and your partners money. The bigger personal check you have to write, the more likely you’ll make the right decision. If you don’t have to write any checks and all the money you are investing is other people’s money, then it’s incredibly tempting to “pour good money after bad.””Fantastic reminder. In fact, that’s one lesson I’ve taken away from B-School and will always remember: Never consider sunk costs in a decision.

  16. Druce

    possibly relevant nitpick – the important number is what percentage of the manager’s net worth is in the fund. If a manager pitched an investment in a $200m fund in which he had $5m which was substantially all his net worth, that would be more meaningful than if Warren Buffett offered to let me invest in a $200m fund in which he invested $50m.then again… a partner of Thierry Magon de la Villehuche invested all his net worth and then borrowed more to invest in their fund of funds, which was invested with Madoff -…sometimes even when the cook eats his own cooking it’s still bad.

  17. reiboldt

    I think this is a fundamental contributor to our current crisis. Too many fund managers were not judicious with the funds they managed. They treated those assets with reckless risk and as such lost a lot for their investors. I am not just talking about the extreme case of Madoff either. Far too many fund managers have been guilty of this. If I lose one dime of my investors’ assets, it eats me up inside. I also put my own money in it, so it actually does hit me at home. Any manager that won’t put their own money aside their investors’ assets doesn’t deserve your money.

  18. Blogger

    I do agree with you, our company got recently bought over by a bigger firm. Now I understand some of the thought process from the investors point of view – but I guess accountability should not be the sole guiding line. I might be wrong, still learning the ropes of the trade.

  19. Alex Iskold

    Fred, to me, this quote:If you don’t have to write any checks and all the money you are investing is other people’s money, then it’s incredibly tempting to “pour good money after bad.”Sums up exactly why Wall Street gone belly up.This lack of feedback in combination with arrogance, self-certainty and sense of entitlement is what caused the crisis. You on the other hand are always humble and appreciative of everything that happens to you.The way I see it – polar opposites.

  20. Chris Yeh

    Great post, Fred. I added my own corollary:”If you always treat money like it is your own, other people are more likely to trust you with their money.”People know that I am so cheap that I cannot bear to waste money, even if it isn’t my own. And when people invest in one of my startups, they know I’ll do my best not to spend their money unless it’s absolutely necessary, even if it doesn’t always make me the most popular guy in the office.

  21. Taylor Davidson

    I’m most interested in seeing how the ideal of “treating money like it is your own” works as companies evolve and grow. Apple and Fox, as examples of well-managed companies, are also examples of companies that are run (micromanaged?) by their founders and figureheads.Can a diffuse, open, large organization provide the kind of transparency and incentives required to give people the opportunity to “treat money as their own”? What kind of organizational structures do we need to create that kind of culture? I think we’ve all learned that stock options and “keeping skin in the game” aren’t enough on their own.

    1. fredwilson

      This is a huge issueMaybe companies shouldn’t get so big

      1. Claude L. Johnson Jr.

        Was just thinking about this earlier this morning.More companies should stay private. There should be provisions to spin-out/off new or unrelated businesses. Growth at any cost has been far too dangerous. It would also help employ more people. Let a decent size business flourish providing valuable services to their customers. Let the employees of the parent firm participate in the new firm via equity post-spinoff.Not all companies need to be public, nor should they be. Seems to cause a fair number of problems. If the logic is there, then do it. Doing it just to do it, or to create an exit for investors seems like a waste of time, energy and talent, and leads to growth at all costs far too often.

  22. Chethan Thimmappa

    i agree

  23. fredwilson

    I’ve been thinking a lot about thisIt’s worth doing a good post on itThanks for the suggestion

  24. jstrellner

    Out of all of your recent posts, this has to be the one that has hit home the most. Thank you for the incite.We are looking to raise a small round right now, despite the economy, and this is one of those posts that I think I will keep rereading and thinking about during any purchases, well into the future.Thanks again.

  25. gregorylent

    would love to hear your thoughts on the concept of “exit strategy” vs. sustainability ….. is planning for an exit strategy different than the planning for building a long lasting business? …. in the same way that we can say that managing for the next quarter’s results is not the best way to run a company or a culture?