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Guy Spier is a Zurich-based investor and the author of, “The Education of a Value Investor”. In June 2007 he made headlines by bidding US$650,100 with Mohnish Pabrai for a charity lunch with Warren Buffett. Guy talks to John on some of the key lessons he learned from that three hour lunch with Warren Buffett and how he helps founders get funded.
Lunch with Warren Buffett – Interview with Guy Spier
Today’s guest is Guy Spier who is the author of The Education of a Value Investor, he also had lunch with Warren Buffett. He had to spend $650,100 on a charity auction to get that lunch with Warren Buffett which lasted three and a half hours. This totally changed Guy’s life, his attitude, and his network of people. Guy has a whole philosophy about life, he said, “Generate more value than you take and be humble with everyone you meet”. Guy is full fascinating information.
Guy currently lives in Zurich and he has run the Aquamarine Fun for the last seventeen years. He is an ardent disciple of Warren Buffett. He launched the fund with 15 million dollars in assets, very closely replicating the structure and approach of Buffet’s original partnerships. Guy was educated at Oxford University, where he was a tutorial partner of the former British Prime Minister David Cameron and was the top of his class in Economics. After his stint in management consulting, he attended Harvard Business School, and then worked as an investment banker before starting his own fund. He is a regular commentator in the media and has appeared in CNN, in Bloomberg Television, as well as many other important places. Guy welcome to the show.
It is such a pleasure to be here. Hey, that Guy Spier sounds very cool, can I meet him?
Exactly. Isn’t it interesting when we hear our own bio sometimes? Like I did all that? I am in Los Angeles and you are in Zurich. Which is fantastic and cool that we could get to have this bi-continent, continental conversation. What I always ask my guests is to take us back, let’s start early, before your career, even before you went to Oxford. Did you have a personal passion for economics or investing as a child? What got you interested in all this?
That was not the case for me at all, John. The only time I heard something investment-related, was when we were living in Iran. Funnily enough, I remember the stock symbol. My dad was working for a German chemical company, and my father had opened up a brokerage account with Merrill Lynch in the United States, and he was following IBM. He would pick me up and I would sit next to him, and he would make me look in the newspaper to find out what IBM share price had done on a day-to-day basis.
But, other than that, I had no contact with the stock market until, really, my final year in business school. Then, actually, the guy who was interested in it was a classmate of mine that I was doing a project with, whom I write a little about in the book. He’s now really well-known. He’s the CEO of Zinger. He wanted me to go in with him to buy Philippine Long Distance, a Filipino telephone company, and I said yes, so that was the first time that I started talking about the stock market with somebody at business school. It was really in my last year, and after I’d already seen Warren Buffett speak in my first year, that I suddenly said, “Oh, I want to go to finance.” Now, I have to tell you John, I was twenty-six at that time, so I wasn’t that young. Warren Buffett was about a decade younger than me when he got going with investing the stocks. I have to say, at that time, I would not have admitted it to anyone, but I was all about greed. I fancied myself as a little Gordon Gekko, and I am not proud of that.
You have transformed yourself so that’s fine, right?
It is easy to talk about it when you’re something different. That true.
One of the things that I really want to ask you about is this fascination of where did you find the money? Did you find that it was a good investment? And tell us about how you were part of a charity fundraising charity event and bought an opportunity to have lunch with Warren Buffett, right?
My story, I think, is far less inspiring in that regard in comparison to this other guy that I write a lot about in the book, my friend, Mohnish Pabrai. In my case, I had gone to this investment bank, D.H. Blair, and it really ruined my reputation, because it was an unsavory place that was ripping off orphans and widows. It would be the short way of talking about it. I really ought to have left within five minutes, but I stayed eighteen months. When I finally left, people did not want to offer me a job, and I went two or three rounds with a number of interviews, and people just shut down, and I knew it was because they could see that I had those stains. I saw that in my boo. I toyed with calling it a stain. A bloody stain like Lady Macbeth. It felt horrible to me. It felt like I couldn’t wash it off, and nobody wanted to hire me.
In my case, my dad – and don’t ask my why he did it – decided to gamble the substantial portion of his life-savings on his son, and he came along and he said, “Look, I think you should try and start a business and I’m willing to be your key client to do it.” I think that I am quite an entrepreneurial type, but with my dad and the proportion of his net wealth that I knew he was investing with me, unless he had something stashed away somewhere else that he had not told me about, I knew that I could not mess this up, and I was once in awe of his willingness to trust me, and at the same time I was scared stiff. And still, to this day, I don’t fully understand why he did that.
But then I think, John, the thing is there are so many difficulties in life. What I realized now – I didn’t want to accept it then – but if you should take the help from wherever it comes, and there’s so many people who are using whatever advantage that they have, and I realize now, in many ways, I had all sorts of disadvantages. I was an immigrant into the UK. I was kind of an immigrant into the United States. There are many people who had deep-rooted family and other kinds of connections that they are using. So if my dad was going to help me, that was perfectly legitimate and that was alright, and I think it’s something that I did not realize at that time, but to anyone starting a business, do not be afraid to accept help from those close at hand if that’s the help that is available. Take what you have and use it. But, what I would say John, is the fact that it was my original source of money delayed me about five or six years in terms of really learning how to sell myself. I did not really understood how to do that. So, it came with that kind of disadvantage, if you like. It got me going, but then I did not know how to scale from there.
Interesting. I love that insight: “Accept help from wherever you can get it, and don’t be embarrassed about it.” One of the things you are describe in your book is how you spent a fortune, $650,100, to have one lunch with Warren Buffett. How did you find the money and what’s that story?
Let me preface it by saying that it was before the financial bubble burst, so I had a very good two or three years. I was not spending money I did not have, and it’s important that I was one-third of that sum; my friend Mohnish Pabrai, came up with two-thirds of that, and I had gotten to know him and he came up with this idea. Like you, I was like, “You want to do what? You want me to participate?”
And this is the thing, John, how can something that can sound so ridiculous, suddenly when you listen to the right person talking about it and their clear headed thinking becomes something that’s quite obvious and quite straightforward? My reaction was the same as yours, and then Mohnish Pabrai, at this breakfast in a Mandarin Hotel overlooking Central Park, talks me through why it’s a really smart thing to do.
Before we can get into all the reasons why, I can tell you that in terms of return on that $650,100, if you like, the people I have gotten to meet. It’s not just you saw that photograph of my wife with Bill Gates, which is really wonderful. I can’t say we had a long conversation with him, but even just that photograph with Bill Gates is very special. But below that, there are dozens of people that I would never have met had I not gone to that lunch with Warren Buffett. It’s not that Warren Buffett introduced me to them, it’s that there are just a lot of people who would not mind meeting the guy that paid $650,100 to have lunch with Warren Buffet.
What I understood beforehand, is that it comes down to the very special personality of Warren Buffett. So, it wasn’t just a soft of, “Let me meet you for half an hour and then I’ll run off.” He hung out with us for about three and a half hours. He came determined in a degree. It was unnerving actually.
I mean, here’s a guy who’s one of the world’s richest men. He does not have anything that we could give to him, and all he wants to do is serve us. All he wants to do is make us feel like we got so much value for it. That came afterwards. We showed up in Omaha one hour early for the Berkshire meeting and he invited us up to his office. He gave us a tour of his office. We hang out. Then he introduced us to Tracy Britt, is now one of these “30 under 30” women. She’s a rock star. She is heavily involved in the next generation of Berkshire Hathaway managers, and he says, “Tracy, why don’t you just come to lunch with us?” So, he’s been delivering value, and he invites us to this brunch every year, where you get to hand our with people. I mean, one year, Charlie Rose was there. Bill Gates is there every year.
He delivered enormous amount of value, and it has changed my life, it has changed my network. But also just to witness that, what does it say to you, me, and a whole lot of other people if Warren Buffet, at his level of success, is humbly trying to deliver value to some guy who won a charity auction with him, can you imagine what he’s like with his friends? I don’t think that he is any different, and so that really taught me that I had to have a tremendous humility with all sorts of people, not just because it is a good way to be, but because it is incredibly rewarding, and it’s smart business. I mean, look at what I am doing now. I am taking the time just to talk about Warren Buffett. It’s gets me so excited to think about it. The ultimate in being immense, being a good person, which will generate massive business rewards is to do stuff for people where there’s no way they could thank you, you know?. It is the kind of thing that they could not reciprocate.
Let me give you of an example of this in my work. I was giving a talk a couple of weeks ago to the CFA society, and a guy there emailed me and asked if he could come by and have and get his book autographed. I said, “Sure,” except I did not realize that he did not mean at the CFA talk, he meant that morning in my office. So, I get a knock on my door at the office, and I had some other things going on, but I realized that we had crossed wires and he actually came in the morning. Inspired by Warren Buffet, I said, “alright, fine. I’ve met him. Now I am going to take half an hour. I made him a coffee. I did the Warren Buffett thing.” This guy was a young student from Finland, and it was the same motivation. I wanted to make him feel that he got a surprising amount of value. I spent time with him in the library, I took photographs with him, we hammed it up a little bit, and I know that he is grateful to me, and he will talk about that. I took photographs of it actually.
It sounds like, to me, that you passed on what you learned from your lunch with Warren Buffett to the next generation. the idea is to be humble with everyone you meet, regardless of who they are.
I would argue that the returns of the lunch with Warren Buffet, not just the network that I got exposed to, but seeing him up close and seeing some things that were really surprising that I did not really expect, was priceless. Like so many people, I have a certain ego, and I feel like I’m quite a smart guy. There was some pare of me that thought, ” I may be as smart as Warren Buffet.” Sitting for lunch with Warren Buffett, I knew that I wasn’t. I knew that he had a clocked speed that was higher than mine, and it was painful to experience that, and as this friend of mine, William Greene, says, “weirdly liberating,” because it freed me up. I was investing a lot of energy trying to be something that I was not, and it is a waste of energy, and I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. So I gave up that version of myself.
Well, just the freedom to not have to be the smartest person in the room all the time, I would think, would be very liberating.
Yes, it absolutely was, and not just liberating. I think that you use up brain cells that could be better used doing something else, thinking about whether it’s your and your wife’s anniversary, which it was yesterday. I didn’t do very well with that.
Well, we won’t let that ruin everything. You know, what you said to me reminds me, Guy, reminds me of a statement I once heard which is, “If you focus on being interested in the other person, as opposed to being interesting to them, you will have a better conversation.”
Yes, exactly. There’s a story about the British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: if you met him, you left thinking you were brilliant, but if you met another Prime Minister, Gladstone, you left feeling that he was brilliant. You want to be like Disraeli. It’s not how you feel. It’s how you make other people feel. Can you make other people feel good about themselves?
That’s so useful for my target audience, who are probably in the position of going to pitch investors: if you make the investors feel good about themselves, investing in you as opposed to trying so hard to impress them with how smart you are, you come across confident but not arrogant, and I think that’s really what you are saying here.
Let me ask about the preparation you did for your lunch with Warren Buffett. If you are going to spend that kind of money, over $650,000 to have lunch with somebody, I’m imagining that you put some thought and effort into the kinds of questions you were going to ask during the lunch with Warren Buffett, right?
This is the funny thing John. So, this is me to Mohnish Pabrai, who is way wiser than I am and way smarter as well. I said, “Mohnish, shouldn’t we prepare? Shouldn’t we reread all of the publicly available information?” He said, “You know, Guy, we have been studying.” I mean, at that point, I’d been going to the Berkshire meeting for ten years. I was reading every single annual report. At the time, there was one biography that I’d read at least a couple of times and it was like, “Don’t worry the conversation will just flow.” So what Mohnish did, in investing in the lunch with Warren Buffett, was brilliant, and this is something that may be really valuable for everyone. What was will as a power lunch became a soft of family occasion. So Mohnish came with his wife and two children, and I came with my wife. It was very clear in a couple of radio and TV interviews that we were just there to say thank you to somebody that has taught us a lot. These were all things to de-escalate the tension, de-escalate the sense of defensiveness that Warren might have.
Here’s something that I just think doesn’t work anymore in a hyper connected world where everybody can just reach for anything through Google search, which is that the preparation of the pitch, in a certain way, it should be about saving the other guy time. It’s not about trying to force them to listen to you, because they can find whatever they want. We can all find whatever we want. All of it is on sale on the Amazon at a very low price. So, to save them time and to think about, “How do I reduce their sense of tension, their sense of defensiveness that will come up if there is something that is being asked for?” What’s so wonderful about being around and studying somebody like Warren Buffett is there are so many valuable stories to land. For example, I’ll tell you about Byron Trott, who’s the only investment banker that Warren Buffett deals with. He has told it in a couple of interviews. He got this one-off meeting with Warren Buffett. Byron got about half and hour, and he’d flown out to Omaha. So he said, “Warren, give me a problem that you’ve got that nobody else has been able to solve. I can’t guarantee that I will solve it for you, but I’d like to try.”
So, here are all the things that I love about that question. First of all, it says, “This meeting is all about you. It’s not about me. I want to hear what you want to say.” So, it’s offering something. It’s offering your time to listen to what’s on their mind. The other thing that it does is, instantly, without having to go through, it says, “I know you already have a lot of great service providers. I know that you have a lot of great stuff on your plate, and guess what? I don’t want to compete with any of them because I’m sure that you’re happy. I want your unsolved problems. If you’ve already got some people solving your problems, I don’t even want to start saying that I can solve your problems better.” I think that Warren Buffett is so brilliant. He heard that question, and he knew that he has a guy in his presence that he liked, because this guy was about Warren Buffett and his needs, not about what he was trying to pitch. Warren makes these decisions and, bang, Byron Trott was in his inner circle, and they have done I don’t even know how many deals. What Warren gave him, what he said to Byron Trott was, “Please, could you get me security issues that pay a negative interest rate.” So we are paid to issue the security. It did not actually work out financially. They had an embedded stock option in there that ended up costing Berkshire quite a bit of money. But, again, it got Warren’s mind churning, and it makes me think of when I was a couple of years out of business school, I know of a guy who got an internship with Warren Buffett. He wrote to Warren Buffett from Columbia Business School, and he asked for a job or for an internship, and then he included a check for his estimate of the amount of time it would take Warren Buffett to read the letter. I don’t think Warren ever cashed the check, but what Warren loved was that this guy was thinking in the right way. He was thinking about how Warren’s time was valuable, and he did not want to waste Warren’s time, and he thought, “A guy who thinks like that is thinking in the right direction.”
Well, it’s a classic case of empathy, isn’t it? You put yourself in Warren Buffet’s shoes and you realize how valuable his time is, and you did a gesture that acknowledged that. The thing I love about the story that you just told us of how he picked that investment banker, “Give me a problem that you have not been able to solve.” That’s what everybody wants to hear in a pitch. “Tell me a problem that you are solving that nobody has solved yet, or you are solving it in a way that is unique.” It’s disruptive, it’s going to change the world, make the world a better place. So, on a one-to-one basis, if you can help somebody solve a problem, and, of course, on a global basis, if you are looking for an investment. That’s such a great story and so helpful.
I really want to dig in a little bit about what you write earlier in your book about, “the more you understand yourself ,the better of an investor you become.” Can you elaborate on that?
Even before we get to investing, let’s talk about teams. I’m sure that you’ve done it, man of use have done it. I have been in small teams. It’s usually people who work for me, and there is a commitment that they made, and they have failed to make it, and I realized that it is not of the lack of desire. It is because they did not understand who they really were and they didn’t understand, and it’s not that their communication to me was bad, that they were being dishonest or not trustful. It’s that they did not understand their deepest desires or they did not understand their own capacities. I think that when you have somebody who shows up at work, it is so much nicer to hear somebody say, “You have asked me to set up this computer. I am not very good at it, I am not sure if I will succeed, but if you really want me to try, I will, because it is not actually my strong suit.” This attitude really breed trust and I think, in a certain way, if we come to investing, it’s the same thing.
If I identify with my rational brain, I’m going to trip up, so I feel like I have these teammates inside of me that I have to bring along. So, there’s the rational brain but there is also this emotional thing going on, which is raging around all over the place, and that, unfortunately, it’s like a member of the team that you really wish you could lose but can’t sometimes. So, I can’t ignore that person. It’s like you try and ignore that teammate and you try and put them in a corner and shut them up, but then they go and really wreak havoc.
Then they get mad.
Yes, so you really have to find a way to involve them in a certain way, and I think that just being honest with myself, one of the examples that I write about is that, unlike Mohnish Pabrai, I have this inordinate fear of loss. I don’t want to have to start from scratch, and I am more fearful, I think, than many people of losing money. So, I don’t think it would have made sense to ignore that. I think I had to be honest with myself and with my investors and say, “You know, if I was utterly rational, this is a great investment. But you know what? It scares the hell out of me, and I can’t sleep with that.” So, I am not going to worry about it, even if it means that my returns will be lower.
Right. Know yourself and know your own risk tolerance. If you’re an entrepreneur, you have to be comfortable with your own risk. You might be risking not having a steady paycheck for a while, and what if your company does not do well, or whatever it is, you have to know yourself and your comfort zone, and I love what you say about thinking of all the different parts of our brain, left brain, right brain as members of the team as opposed to fighting ourselves. We’re all on the same team here, so let’s figure out how we can best work together instead of shutting everybody up.
It’s like I think that we’ve all been through these times where we fight with the forces that are arrayed around us in the universal. Like Jacob struggling with the angel, it just does not work very well. It works much better when we align ourselves with those forces. Then, in a strange way, actually, when you talk – if you don’t embrace the risk or you don’t embrace the fear saying, “You’ll do this, this is great. I’m fearful or you’ll do this. This is great.” It’s like because I see the risks so clearly or because I feel the fear so much, this is motivating me to take all these actions. So, if I’m not honest with myself about my fear of loss, or if an entrepreneur is not being honest with himself about the very real possibility of failure, we are not going to be motivated to do everything that we can possibly can to make it succeed. The strange thing for me is that the times when I’ve been in those kinds of circumstances, on the one hand I feel utterly alive. You know, actually, writing the book was actually like that. And then, on the other hand, it’s like once I am through it, I’m like, “I don’t want to go through that again.”
I understand. In fact, I wrote a whole blog about starting a podcast and the three faces of fear that I had to overcome. The fear of rejection, the fear of failure, and the fear of the unknown. For me, identifying those fears in the three faces helped me deal with them. So, it wasn’t just any kind of fear. I would say, “Which fear is this?”
But there is something else that I think is so incredibly critical. I learned this from a friend of my who’s a psychologist: emotions are a call to action, and if we don’t feel those emotions, we are not going to take the action that we need to take. I felt it as you were saying it that the fears that you were dealing with, it wasn’t that you were just dealing with them, they were motivated you to do stuff. If you did not feel that, you wouldn’t have done as good a job when setting up your podcast.
Emotions are a call to action. I love that.
They’re two side of the same coin, you know. I was just listening to Brene Brown TED Talk with a couple of friends the other day. It was about how the vulnerability is what gets the healing, is what gets the result, and we just cannot have the one without the other.
It’s so true. Earlier you and I were speaking about your sense of liking to help people, especially the founder, possibly even get funded so that when they sell their company, they’ll remember you. Talk to me about how that all works in your world.
I’ll tell you because it’s just amazing the way it started. It started out of a very venal place, which wasn’t generous at all. I read Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and it’s got this great story about these Hare Krishna money raisers who would hand out plastic flowers in airports. The human reciprocation tendency is so strong that even if you hand out plastic flowers, they you still will feel obligated to give something is very effective. So, I’m thinking,”Damn, I could use this.” So, I am in New York and I’m giving the doorman a piece of candy; I’d carry sweets or chocolates around with me. I’d be giving stuff to people all the time, but I wasn’t coming out of a place of love for humanity or of generosity. I was coming out of a place of pure manipulation. I was like, “Let’s see how I can manipulate people to do stuff for me,” and all sorts of things happened as a result of that. But, really, this is part of why I wanted to write the book: I suddenly found that I actually enjoyed it, not because I could manipulate people into doing something, but because I realized that people genuinely responded, even to my fake giving. I know, over time, I think my fake giving turned into something which was much more genuine. Then, over time, what happened was that I started wanting to do it on a large scale. I have a friend who starts medical technology companies in Minnesota, and I suddenly realized that i was coming across people that he would be interested to meet, and it sort of tapped into the same idea of finding a way to be generous because good things come back to me if I’m generous.
Actually, I’ll give you a story. I am a member of this organization called the Entrepreneurs Organization, which is fantastic. So, I helped start the Israel chapter. Again, this was my idea of wanting to help people, but, with the idea that, at some point, these guys – some of them might build big businesses and have money to invest and then they might send that money to me. One of the members is a woman who is looking for funding. Her name is Mikhail Lodski. She was looking for funding. I hadn’t even met her. So here’s what I did: I wrote up something which said, “Dear, First Name, I am a member of an organization called EO, and EO’s has a member called Mikhail Lodski, and she’s got what looks like a great business plan and I would be really grateful if you take a look at it.” Then I wrote, “Look, I don’t understand a lot about it, but if you were to at least take a look and see if you could help, it would mean a lot to me, and I would be grateful to you for that.” Then I went to my LinkedIn profile and I did a search for a hundred people who, in some way, were involved in the world that she was looking for funding in. They were either venture capitalists, or they were angels, or they were in that business, and I just cut and pasted that message like I don’t know how many times, and you know what was interesting? It was unlike asking for it yourself; the fact that I was asking for it and they know me, there was some connection, I’d met them at a conference or something. Even if they had no interest, they could see that I was doing this out of the desire to help somebody, so they accepted it in a way that if she’d gotten in touch with them directly, they wouldn’t have, and then one of them actually took a close look, it was in their space, they liked it. They ended up funding her business.
What a great story. You can never underestimate the importance of a warm introduction. It’s everything. It’s been so wonderful hearing your stories, and personal transformations. I want to know how people can follow you on social media. What is the best way for people to follow you? Like Twitter and the other stuff.
My Twitter account is the first and last initial of my name, so its @gspier. I also started a LinkedIn group called the Education of the Value Investor. There are a couple of others there. I am actually really enjoying LinkedIn groups. It is a great place to be. I am also enjoying Twitter, I have to say because I just like the random conversations with all sorts of people from all over the world.
Your LinkedIn group is it the name of your book? The Education of a Value Investor?
Yes. That’s nice of you to do that.
Of course, perfect. Thank you so much for this discussion on what you’ve learned since your lunch with Warren Buffett. Is there any last piece of advice you have for someone who’s in the world of starting a business, looking for funding, or about life or business, in general, that you want to share as a closing thought?
What I would say, and the thing that I feel I’ve learned that is so important is always leave a little on the table, always generate more value than you take, always leave people wanting more. Then, just keep doing that for a decade. I told the guy that came and did an internship with me, I said, “If you help ten people you have friends. If you help a hundred people you will probably find a job. If you help a thousand people, you can probably start a business. If you help ten thousand people, you will have a quite successful business, and if you start being in the range of helping a hundred thousand people then you’ve got a substantial business. When it gets to million you are like Warren Buffet, and when it gets to ten million then you are like Mahatma Gandhi.” But that’s approximately the order of scale, and it’s just about having how many people out there that just feel grateful that you are on the planet.
What a great philosopy.
When you do that, good things will come to you. They might not be what you wanted. God might have other plans stored for you but good things will happen.
It’s just having that as the intention: “Generate more value than you take.”
I want to reach out and give you a hug, John. this has been wonderful.
All the way across the ocean, thank you.
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