Category Archives: The Art & Science of Investing

The only thing he ever made fly was government money

On this day in 1906, the Wright Brothers were granted a patent for their “flying machine.” In honor of the anniversary, we reprint this – one of our most popular, most-read pieces.  

(Original publish date: April 17, 2013)

The process of productive capital allocation is a critical ingredient of innovation and job growth.   Entrepreneurs spending their own (and their partners’) money will create more jobs, more innovation, and a more vibrant economy than politicians picking winners and losers based on cronyism, campaign contributions, and constituent pork.

When government strays out from funding basic research into either applied research or the means of production, the results range from poor to scandalous.  Ideas are infinite, and in the absence of competent execution, they are worth nothing.  Even if the idea has merit, the true expertise is crowded out.  There are better ways policymakers can help encourage innovation.

The invention of the airplane provides an excellent example.  While we’re all aware it was the Wright Brothers, many interesting details about funding the innovation don’t make it into school textbooks.  In A Tale of ‘Government Investment’  Lee Habeeb & Mike Leven recount the race between the bicycle shop owner/operators and the government-backed head of the Smithsonian.

Who better to win the race [to powered flight] for us, thought our leaders, than the best and brightest minds the government could buy? They chose Samuel Langley. [The War Department gave Langley $50,000, an enormous sum at the time, which The Smithsonian augmented with taxpayer funds of its own.]  You don’t know him, but in his day, Langley was a big deal. He had a big brain and lots of credentials. A renowned scientist and a professor of astronomy, he wrote books about aviation and was the head of the Smithsonian.  It was the kind of decision that well-intentioned bureaucrats would make throughout the century — and still make today. Give taxpayer money to the smartest guys in the room, the ones with lots of degrees. They’ll innovate and do good for us.

For that Solyndra-type investment the country got the “Great Aerodrome,” which “fell like a ton of mortar’ into the Potomac River – twice.  Representative Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska remarked, “You tell Langley for me that the only thing he ever made fly was government money.”

Samuel Pierpont Langley’s Aerodrome  and launching apparatus.

Nine days after that second failed test flight, a “sturdy, well-designed craft, costing about $1000, struggled into the air in Kitty Hawk.”

How did two Ohio brothers accomplish what the combined efforts of the War Department, The Smithsonian, and other people’s money could not?  The authors cite James Tobin’s To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and The Great Race for Flight (2004) to provide a few answers:

  • Langley saw the problem as one of power:  how to go from zero to 60 in 70 feet, the stress of which was too great for the materials used.  The Wright Brothers, inspired by the practical skills and insights gained from tinkering in their bike shop, understood the problem was one of balance (on a bike, balance+practice = control).  They invented the three-axis control (pitch, yaw, roll) still standard on fixed-wing aircraft today.  Their entrepreneurial technical expertise was an advantage neither the government nor other private competitors (Alexander Graham Bell) could match.
  • Since they couldn’t afford repeated test flights the Wright Brothers were forced to develop a wind tunnel to test their aerodynamics.  This saved money and time, since they weren’t bogged down repairing the wrecks of a flawed design.
  • No government money also meant no government strings.  They were freer to experiment and innovate without worrying about non-essential requests and hidden agendas.  They also managed to do more with less since they couldn’t afford subsidy-induced waste.

Habeeb & Levin also offer this fascinating, if not unexpected, coda:

Though the Wrights beat Langley and the Smithsonian, the race didn’t end there. Powerful interests vied for the patent to this revolutionary invention and, more important, for the credit for it. With Smithsonian approval, a well-known aviation expert modified Langley’s Aerodrome and in 1914 made some short flights designed to bypass the Wright brothers’ patent application and to vindicate the Smithsonian and its fearless leader, Samuel Langley.

That’s right. The Smithsonian’s brain trust couldn’t beat the bicycle-shop owners fair and square, so they used their power to steal the credit. And then they used their bully pulpit to rewrite history. In 1914, America’s most esteemed historical museum cooked the books and displayed the Smithsonian-funded Langley Aerodrome in its museum as the first manned aircraft heavier than air and capable of flight.

Orville Wright, who outlived his brother Wilbur, accused the Smithsonian of falsifying the historical record. So upset was he that he sent the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer, the plane that made aviation history, to a science museum in . . . London.

But truth is a stubborn thing. And in 1942, after much embarrassment, the Smithsonian recanted its false claims about the Aerodrome. The British museum returned the Wright brothers’ historic Flyer to America, and the Smithsonian put it on display in their Arts and Industries Building on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after the aircraft’s only flights. A grand government deception was at last foiled by facts and fate.

As for Samuel Langley, he died in obscurity a broken and disappointed man. Friends often noted that he could have beaten the Wright brothers if only he’d had more time — and more government funding.

Some things never change.

The Wright brothers’ airplane business never took off (groan) due to a combination of poor business decisions and sloppy patent work.  Wilbur sadly died young (in 1912 at age 45, of illness that some suspect was contracted due to exhaustion from the patent battles) and Orville sold the company in 1915.  So the industry grew under the leadership of other companies and other men.  (Although the Curtiss-Wright Corporation remains in business today producing high-tech components for the aerospace industry.)   One can’t help but wonder what the original inventors might have done had they been the beneficiary of a strong partnership with a VC fund…

Risk-taking in the NFL

The WSJ recently analyzed NFL play calling this season and concluded that the coaching profession could use more risk-takers.  Despite “a legion of mathematicians, economists and win probability models urging them to take more chances most NFL coaches “reach for the conventional choice by habit.”

From Why NFL Coaches Take No Chances:

The Journal analysis examines how coaches played their hand this season across three broad categories of game management: fourth downs; play calling (blitzing on defense; passing on early downs or with the lead on offense) and special teams (going for a 2-point conversion and onside kicks when ahead)…

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University of Pennsylvania professor Cade Massey, who researches behavior and judgment, said many NFL coaches habitually choose to postpone the certainty of losing in football for as long as possible—even if doing so actually lowers the likelihood of winning in the end, such as opting to punt on fourth-and-short in overtime…

There is some evidence that coaches are seeing the benefits of riskier decisions. They are just becoming more aggressive at a very conservative pace.

In a 2002 paper, University of California Berkeley economist David Romer expressed hope that coaches would begin acting rationally in maximizing odds of victory when the related data became more widely available. And this year, coaches have gone for it on fourth down needing two yards or less 29.7% of the time—converting nearly two-thirds of attempt).

That’s up from 23% just before Romer published a paper entitled, “It’s Fourth Down and What Does the Bellman Equation Say?” Alas, at the present rate, going for it nearly all the time as the models advise would take over 100 years.

We think this is an excellent illustration of two ideas relevant to starting and running a high-growth company, over and above the obvious exhortation to take intelligent risks:  (1) the opportunity for a contrarian advantage and (2) the combination of data and gut instincts required to make the right call.

First, an excerpt from our  12/8/14 post, We challenged the dogma, and it was incorrect:

[The story about EOG Resources, a discarded division of Enron ] is an absorbing look at the “shale revolution” and touches on several of our favorite themes:  iterative collaboration, how to fail the right way, the incremental, adaptive ways by which success is achieved, and even the role of luck – although we’d describe it a bit more favorably as “serendipity.”

EOG is a great example of a contrarian definition of entrepreneurship:   see economic value where others see heaps of nothing, combine the self-confidence to defy conventional wisdom with the determination to overcome obstacles, and distinguish yourself more by the ability to achieve the impossible than the originality of your thinking.

Next, an excerpt from our 4/13/16 post, The Hidden Power of Trusting Your Gut Instincts:

(S)tudies show that those who rely on intuition alone tend to overestimate its effectiveness.  They recall the times it served them well and forget the times it didn’t.  Keeping a list of every time intuition is your only guide might be eye-opening.

“Common sense” justifications can be found for almost any conclusion, and as a result it can be shockingly unreliable and something that we over-rely on to the exclusion of other methods of reasoning.  Here’s how we put it in Everything is obvious once you know the answer:

It is “rarely practical to run the perfect experiment” before making a decision but we can be “more deliberative and reflective as we gather and analyze facts to inform our decisions.”  When we over-rely on common sense alone, we risk “rejecting a more thorough effort to solve a problem and settling for an easy one.”

… In our experience the best results often come from a combination of deliberation and intuition.

Finally, in the spirit of the (NFL playoff) season, we’d like to recommend two other pieces about NFL coaches that speak more to leadership challenges than data-driven decision making.

From 1/29/13, The imperfect perfectionist.  On the extent and limits of Bill Walsh’s innovative genius:

Coach Walsh’s West Coast Offense won the 49ers four (or five) Super Bowls, spawned copycats around the league and forced defenses to innovate in response.  Not a bad day’s work.  But obsession with perfection left him badly burnt out and his organization unable to implement his vision without him.

From 2/8/15, The NFL’s Best Coach*.  On the extent and limits of Bill Belichick’s…  innovative genius:

We suspect his efforts to gain those “edges off the field” will also be a permanent part of his legacy.  His team hasn’t been in 6 Super Bowls over 15 years because of deflated balls, or illicitly videotaped signals, or (pre-Belichick) a snowplow driven by a convict on work release.  But you earn the reputation and invite the asterisks when you proudly display that same snowplow in an exhibit at your stadium.

To paraphrase the old adage: reputations are built over the long-term, and can be forfeited in just a moment.  In our business failure can be counted on to make (at least) a cameo, so it’s critical to learn how to fail the right way and make a distinction between business failure and personal failure.  An entrepreneur (or coach?) can try too hard to avoid an enterprise failure and pressure himself into a career-damning ethical lapse.

Introverts can be undervalued, Chapter III

1st player in NFL history elected All-Pro to 2 positions (DE & OLB) in the same season.

Oakland’s Khalil Mack is the 1st player ever in NFL history elected as an All-Pro at two different positions (DE & OLB) in the same season.

We have written before that introverts are often undervalued in the business world (August 2015) given that introverts often have characteristics which manifest themselves in a positive way in building high-growth businesses:

– a more focused mindset to their leadership style
– better at dealing with setbacks (because they need less external validation)
– more realistic when listening to feedback or analyzing information (because they do less public promotion of themselves)

Similarly, in our post, “Do I put off a human vibe to you? (January 2014), we wrote that the public (and, often, investor’s) imagination can be captured by the extrovert – highly confident, dynamic, charismatic types who are full of outward confidence and whose natural talent or ability seems obvious after a first meeting.  We were reminded of the introvert vs. extrovert discussion when reading Robert Klemko’s feature of NFL star Khalil Mack, whom Kelmko contrasts in some detail with Jadeveon Clowney.

As many college and NFL fans will remember, former South Carolina star Clowney is an athletic marvel, able to rely on his immense physical gifts to dominate lesser opponents throughout his football career, up until his NFL career began.  Every college talent evaluator and NFL draftnik was mesmerized by Clowney’s obvious and immense physical gifts, though fewer paid attention to his work habits, hustle, and understanding of the team concept.

Mack, by contrast, was the classic diamond-in-the-rough, overlooked in the college recruiting process because of an injury in high school and his still-developing frame.  As college recruiters overlooked Mack, however, he honed his craft in relative obscurity at small school Buffalo, far away from the bright lights and television exposure of the Southeastern Conference, where Clowney played.

Far from being discouraged, however, Mack instead focused on honing his craft, paying careful attention to the technique of the position and living in the weight room, whereas Clowney lifted weights infrequently and chose to freelance more during games, confident that his talent (and other less talented teammates) would save him.  Once the talent evened out in the NFL, however, Mack’s habits have overtaken Clowney’s talent, making Mack, not Clowney, the force to be reckoned with in the pass-happy NFL as a dominant pass rusher.

Mack’s ascent has reminded us of Sequoia Capital’s philosophy of investing with entrepreneurs from meager beginnings.  As Sequoia Capital managing partner Doug Leone states, “Sequoia looks for people from humble backgrounds.  Maybe something happened in our lives early on, our system was shocked, and we have this unbelievable need to stay on top and to succeed.”

At Ballast Point Ventures, we know that entrepreneurs come in all shapes and sizes, but we too are interested in investing with those entrepreneurs who have persisted when times were difficult and continued to chase their dreams of building their companies, oftentimes far away from the glitzy limelight of Silicon Valley and the associated “unicorn” culture.  We know that building a great business takes talent and intelligence, for sure, but hard work and persistence often can carry an entrepreneur when all else evens out.  We will continue to look to partner with the Khalil Macks of the world, knowing that they share many of the values that we hold dear and will exhaust every avenue to make their dreams come true.

When You Change the World and No One Notices

crop380w_istock_000018298852xsmallWe’ve written that it’s a long and difficult journey from idea to successful business, and entrepreneurs need partners who intuitively understand the right kind of support to offer over the long term during which failure can be counted on to make at least a cameo appearance.  In other words, the road to both successful and failed business models can be paved with “innovation.”

That road can also be long and involve a great deal of anonymity.  A friend recently passed along this article about how long it took for the Wright brothers to get even passing notice for an invention that would have seemed miraculous at the time.

(T)he first passing mention of the Wrights in The New York Times came in 1906, three years after their first flight. (I)n 1904, the Times asked a hot-air-balloon tycoon whether humans may fly someday. He answered:

Count

That was a year after the Wright’s first flight.

One would like to think a breakthrough of that magnitude that would kick up the equivalent of a tweet-storm, but even today one never knows.  For further evidence check out our Vintage Future series, a tongue-in-cheek look back at the sometimes tortuous routes to success (or not) of unlikely ideas. E.g., it took sliced bread 18 years to succeed.

Back to the article, which offers a seven-step path “big breakthroughs typically follow”:

  • First, no one’s heard of you.
  • Then they’ve heard of you but think you’re nuts.
  • Then they understand your product, but think it has no opportunity.
  • Then they view your product as a toy.
  • Then they see it as an amazing toy.
  • Then they start using it.
  • Then they couldn’t imagine life without it.

This process can take decades. It rarely takes less than several years.

The author echoes our earlier point, that “invention is only the first step of innovation,” and also adds that while Zen-like patience isn’t a typical trait associated with entrepreneurs, it is sometimes required.

If you are interested in reading a little bit more about the history of the Wright Brothers’ invention, please check out “The only thing he ever made fly was government money,” one of our all-time most-read posts.  It includes a great lesson about the process of productive capital allocation.

If you are interested in a related bit of trivia:  Neil Armstrong carried a piece of the Wright flyer with him to the moon.  In “The Wright Stuff” we recount that story and Mr. Armstrong’s explanation for why they experienced “only” 150 separate identifiable failures per flight when, statistically, they expected 1000.

Talk to the long tail

In Paradox of the Power Law in Venture Capital, Ho Nam urges entrepreneurs to do their homework on their potential financial partners:

The track record of VCs is overwhelmingly skewed by a tiny handful of winners. However, as an entrepreneur, if you try to assess the reputation of VCs by only looking at home runs, you may get a skewed view.

In good times, investors will be supportive. However, how will they behave during bad times? Even great companies go through ups and downs. If your startup is not one of the big winners (which is likely, based on probabilities), how will your VCs behave? Will they abandon ship, or worse, will they turn negative or downright hostile?

VCs check references before making investments. Entrepreneurs should do the same and check references before taking VC funding. It is critical to talk not only to winners but also to the long tail companies—you will have plenty to choose from…  There will be skeletons in every VC closet (disgruntled entrepreneurs) so be realistic in how you assess VCs and what they can do for you…  some VCs will work with companies to the end, treating people fairly and with respect. Some VCs will not. You’ll get a much better sense for this when you talk to the long tail.

We gave the very same advice to entrepreneurs a few years ago in Due diligence – mine, yours, and ours.

(M)ost firms will have a good ‘rap’ so it is absolutely essential to verify through your own independent efforts that the partner you choose will be a good fit.

The entrepreneur-VC partnership is a long term one, with shared skin in the game, and so the incentive is to communicate good news and bad to communicate good news and bad forthrightly and in real-time, with both partners promoting transparency and honesty promoting transparency and honesty.  That begins during due diligence, when it’s critical to resist the implicit pressure to sugarcoat the negative, and carries through to what legendary venture capitalist Bill Draper calls the “Oh sh- meeting.”   calls the “Oh sh- meeting.”

We encourage all our prospective entrepreneur partners to speak with as many of our current and former entrepreneurs as possible – some successful, some less so – in order to get a feel for what we are like to work with in good times and when challenges arise.

Related articles:

The fate of control
Does success always start with failure?
Success is better, actually

BPV announces two new growth equity investments

PowerChord – St. Petersburg, FL
Provider of digital brand management software and services – Ballast Point Ventures has led a $10 million equity investment in PowerChord, Inc. Founded in 2001, PowerChord, Inc. provides a suite of internet brand management and digital marketing services for major brands and their dealer networks in the United States and Europe. PowerChord’s Software-as-a-Service offering allows major brands to maintain brand consistency down to the local dealer level. The Company’s customer engagement platform creates a universal online brand experience for national and international brands with consistent content, data, and messaging at the local dealer level. Today, there are over 9,000 individual dealers on the PowerChord platform. PowerChord is led by CEO Lanny Tucker and Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Pat Schunk. PowerChord will use the proceeds from this minority investment for partial shareholder liquidity, sales force additions, and to bolster its product development and marketing efforts.

 

The Zebra – Austin, Texas
Online automotive insurance agency and comparison platform – Ballast Point Ventures has led a $12.5 million equity investment in The Zebra. Founded in 2012, the Zebra offers a comprehensive automotive insurance comparison platform that allows consumers in all 50 states to compare quotes from more than 200 insurance carriers. The Company’s comparison engine collects user-submitted data via the website and displays the automotive insurance rates from multiple carriers, providing a valuable new tool to insurance shoppers that has earned comparisons to the travel search engine Kayak.com. The Zebra also operates as a licensed independent insurance agency and can currently sell and bind automotive policies in multiple U.S. states. The Company is led by Founder and CEO Adam Lyons and COO Joshua Dziabiak, both of whom were named to Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30. The Zebra will use the proceeds from this minority investment to enhance its online comparison platform, expand its insurance agency capabilities and hire new team members.

A startup culture poses unique ethical challenges

In the WSJ, Kirk O. Hanson writes that “Startup culture poses a host of temptations—and resistance is hard.”  He asked a panel of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to identify the greatest pressures and temptations they’ve faced, and where they think some entrepreneurs frequently fall short.

There are unavoidable ethical dilemmas in every profession and industry, of course, but the dilemmas entrepreneurs face are more formidable and more difficult to manage. Some entrepreneurs stay the ethical course. But they seem at times to be the exceptions. Startups generally have no infrastructure to address ethical challenges, and frankly, entrepreneurs have little time or focus for monitoring their own behavior. Their energies are elsewhere.

4 of the 10 questions addressed by the panel dealt with honesty:  do we lie to (1) the funders to get cash, (2) the customers to get revenue, (3) the public investors for a higher IPO valuation, or (4) to hit our numbers. Of course the answers in all four cases – each with its own color of temptation – is ‘No.’

We’ve often touched on this subject ourselves.  From Observing Honesty in Business:

You can’t always count on oreos to let you know if someone’s telling the truth

In our business dealings (as opposed to a poker table) we put a premium on transparency, as it’s easier to remember the importance of being honest when everyone involved in a business relationship can observe how decisions are being made.

This research gives us an opportunity to revisit the subject of when business promotes honesty.  Three years ago we cited this article from The Independent Institute, which argues that businessmen are more honest (or less dishonest) in their dealings than preachers, politicians, and professors.

Business promotes honesty, we argued, because of the importance of long-term relationships:

In our experience, the business case for honesty (the moral case is another discussion) can often be based on the fact that many businesses rely on repeat business.  So although dishonesty may improve the profit or advantage in a single transaction it would result in less success over the long term.

In that same post we quote Will Harrell of CapCo Asset Management:

The upside from being perceived as a reliable, consistent, trustworthy, &etc. vendor of certain kinds of goods and services is simply huge.  Costco’s CEO has a line I love: “No easy hits on the customer.”  Honesty is just a sub-category of this thesis, which in many cases has more to do with product quality or user experience than honesty per se:  McDonald’s consistency, the taste of a Hershey bar, etc.  It’s also not limited to customers – similar considerations apply to suppliers, capital sources, and employees.

We once wrote on this subject in a quarterly letter, On Being a Good Partner: “But however great or small a company’s advantages, it is our observation that their durability is usually directly related to how good a partner the company is to those with whom it does business.”

It may strike some as corny and simple, yet is exactly what game theory predicts will transpire between participants in repetitive transactions.  What’s surprising is that the effect is not more dominant, and that trustworthy players don’t completely squeeze out untrustworthy ones.

By the way, we mention above that the moral case for honesty is another discussion, and it is.  But we don’t want to leave the impression that the case for ethical behavior is purely a practical one.  We also try our best to act with honesty and integrity both within our firm at BPV and with our entrepreneur partners because we believe deeply that it is the right thing to do.  And we look to partner with entrepreneurs who share that view.  That approach may not always lead to a tangible win in business terms, but it defines who we are as people and allows us to sleep at night.

PDMS-BPV relationship featured at Florida Venture Forum Boot Camp

fvf faber brownYesterday at the Florida Venture Forum Boot camp event at the Citrus Club in Orlando, Josh Brown (PowerDMS CEO), Cathy McKenna (PowerDMS’s auditor for Vestal and Wiler), Jeremy Sloane (PowerDMS’s counsel from law firm Sloane and Johnson), and I had a chance to do a panel discussion moderated by Steve Castino of Vestal and Wiler on the topic of Ballast Point’s investment in PowerDMS in April of 2014 and lessons learned thereafter.

To no one’s surprise, Josh did a great job in laying out the reasons for his company’s success to date and his rationale for choosing Ballast Point as an investment partner.  Josh focused on issues of team-building and empowering employees, even mentioning the famous line from the Founders’ Dilemma as he said that he had to make the decision “Do I want to be rich or king?”  He made the point that he could have tried to build a lifestyle business where he could have been “king,” but he saw the market opportunity and the company’s positioning and made the conscious decision to build an exciting, high-growth company.

To do that, he needed to invest in his team in a big way and bring on a trusted investment partner who could really help him on the team-building and network side.  He had to relinquish some control in order to accomplish these goals of building an exciting, venture-backed company, but he was able to get comfortable with this decision by making a conscious effort on the relationship side to hire people with the highest ethical standards and choose an investment partner that he knew would support the company in good times and in bad.

Josh has let his talented employees flourish in a way that has driven PowerDMS’s growth beyond what he could have accomplished on his own, and that growth has once again landed PowerDMS on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies.  We at Ballast Point are thankful that Josh and the team at PowerDMS chose us as his investment partner, as we have joined them on this exciting journey to build a high-growth, SAAS company in central Florida.

The Ultimate October Blueprint

Our regular readers know that we often cogitate over the roles both skill and luck play in sports and business.  The eve of the baseball postseason feels like a good time to revisit the subject.

Especially since we’ve found new data, even in an admittedly a small sample size.

In The Ultimate October Blueprint, David Schoenfield studies the past 5 post seasons (“when the strike zone started increasing in size and offense began to decline“) and draws a few tentative conclusions:

  • Don’t strike out – even though you’re facing better pitching!
  • Contact trumps power, although “the weird thing is that home runs in the playoffs have matched the frequency of home runs in the regular season.”    But none of the teams who led all playoff teams in HRs – in either league – have won the World Series in the past 5 seasons.
  • Use your bullpen, early and often.  Starting pitchers don’t fare as well as they start going through the lineup a second and third time, so don’t let them lose a game in the middle innings.  “Go to the bullpen. Hope they do the job.”

However… all of the past 10 World Series teams had a starter step up in the postseason:

The thing is, sometimes that starter is a Bumgarner or Verlander or Lincecum, but sometimes it’s an untested rookie like Wacha, a veteran having a so-so season like Lester (he had a 3.75 ERA in 2013) or a mid-rotation starter like Vogelsong. And sometimes it’s Colby Lewis…

The last team to lead the majors in starters’ ERA during the regular season and win the World Series? The 1995 Braves. In other words, having a season’s worth of gems from your rotation guarantees nothing in October — maybe bad news for all five NL playoff teams, who rank 1-5 in the majors in rotation ERA.

But here’s an indicator that may help: In looking for which pitchers may come up big in October, it appears a strong finish is important.

The data also suggest that velocity is overrated.  “Maybe when the chips are down, it’s those crafty veterans throwing in the low 90s and situational relievers who win you World Series.”

Schoenfield summarizes advice for when the contest isn’t long enough for the Moneyball math to work:

[The playoffs are unpredictable but] there are a few strategies that seem to work: Battle pitchers with two strikes and put the ball in play; turn the game over to your bullpen in those middle innings; rely on one starting pitcher if you have to; get some big home runs from unlikely heroes along the way. And maybe hope you have a starting pitcher who can throw five innings of relief on two days’ rest in Game 7 of the World Series.  [As Madison Bumgarner did for last year’s Giants. – ed]

The fan inside us is fascinated by the prospect of advantages gained in the short term, but over the long term our conclusion remains the same:

While big data may help make accurate predictions or guide knotty optimization choices or help avoid common biases, it doesn’t control events and can be undone by cluster luckModels are useful in predicting things we cannot control, but for those in the midst of the game – players or entrepreneurs – the results have to be achieved, not just predicted.

 

Related stories:

Just waves of confirmation bias?

We recently came across another excellent article on data, decision-making, and cognitive biases.  It’s a story about Kristaps Porzingis , a 7’1″ 19-year-old, playing in Liga ACB, perhaps the second-best basketball league in the world.  He’s “the type of prospect that has historically torn coaching staffs and front offices apart” as they try to assess his NBA bona fides before the draft.

All draft picks are crapshoots, but some feel like crappier shots than others. It’s uncouth to plainly say, “I have a bad feeling about this guy,” so we do our best to justify our vague inklings. The stronger our distaste, the stronger our effort. So of course it’s the foreigner with the spindly frame and the funny name who has people [grasping for answers]. … What is the draft if not complete pseudoscience?  …

He’s like a young Robin trying on Batman’s utility belt — the tools are there, and they’re incredible. They just don’t fit yet, and you can’t be too sure that they ever will. His issues on defense are the same most players his age experience. He bites on pump fakes, he gets caught ball-watching, and he can be a step slow recovering to his man. But there is a chance that, five years down the line, he’ll be doing things that only a handful of NBA big men can do at a high level.

Maybe all of that hokey pseudoscience will prove prescient. Drafting isn’t an art, and it isn’t a science, but if you squint hard enough, it can look like a happy medium. It’s all just waves of confirmation bias on both ends of the spectrum posing as data points, right? It can tell you anything you want it to if you wait long enough. But it can’t, at the very moment, tell you the fate of Kristaps Porzingis. And so, like any other year, we’ll go on trying to find some illuminating detail that will solve the puzzle once and for all, blissfully ignorant to the fact that there’s only one person with the final pieces.

As with the NFL draft, pre-draft metrics have only some predictive power.  The data don’t predict a player’s ceiling, can’t account for what kind of system a player will enter, the talent he’ll have around him, the luck he’ll have with injuries, or the intangibles he possesses.

If you’re looking for a bellwether of NBA success, look to the NCAA tournament.  Its pressure-packed contests featuring the best college players in the country in front of gigantic audiences turns out to be a meaningful simulation of NBA conditions.  Even though it’s a very small sample size – for most players just a game or two – the data show that players who move up the draft board as a result of their performance in March Madness deserve it.

The crucial distinction to remember on this topic is that Big Data has limitsWhile it may help make accurate predictions or guide knotty optimization choices or help avoid common biases, it doesn’t control eventsModels can predict the rainfall and days of sunshine on a given farm in central Iowa but can’t change the weather.  A top draft pick may or may not develop based on the system, surrounding talent, &etc.

In our experience the best results often come from a combination of deliberation and intuition.  Too much data can lead to analysis paralysis, common sense can be a shockingly unreliable guide, and those who rely on intuition alone tend to overestimate its effectiveness.

The answer for Porzingis is obvious:  enroll him in an American D-I hoops powerhouse – we’d recommend a school in the Southeast or Texas – and hope that school enjoys a deep run next March.

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