When most of us envision a writer, we probably think of a New York playwright cooped up in her apartment, dressed in pajamas, papers and books scattered everywhere.
Or maybe we envision a nineteenth century novelist holed up in a cabin writing with a quill pen, seated at a plank table by a roaring fire.
Chances are you don’t think of Warren Buffet, but some of Buffet’s most important advice to modern marketers can be summed up in a single word:
Warren Buffet is best known as the most successful American investor of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He was born in 1930, the second of three children and only son of Howard Buffet, a four-term member of Congress from Nebraska, and Leila Stahl Buffet.
Warren showed an early interest in making money. As a sophomore in high school, he managed a paper route, taking a deduction of $35 for bicycle expense on his 1945 federal income tax return. Later in high school, Buffet and a friend spent $25 to place a pinball machine in a barber shop. Within a few months, they had bought two more pinball machines to place in other barber shops.
After high school, Buffet attended the Wharton School in Philadelphia, but finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska. Rejected by Harvard Business School, he earned a master’s degree in economics in 1951 at Columbia University, where he had enrolled specifically to take classes under a professor named Benjamin Graham.
Buffet enters the world of finance
In addition to teaching at Columbia, Dr. Graham was on the board of directors at GEICO insurance. One Saturday in 1950, Buffet persuaded a janitor to let him into GEICO headquarters, where he found Graham’s business partner, Lorimer Davidson.
They talked for hours, and Buffet offered to drop out of school to work for him for free. Both Davidson and Graham discouraged this, however, and Congressman Buffet advised against working on Wall Street, so Buffet returned to Omaha to become a stockbroker.
During this time, Warren Buffet experienced one of his few failed investments. He bought a Sinclair gas station as a sideline, and it failed. However, Buffet took a Dale Carnegie public speaking course and gained the confidence to teach a course in investing to a group of wealthy doctors and lawyers in Omaha twice his age.
This gave Buffet an audience for his core business, using other people’s money to make even more. Buffet began buying undervalued stocks through a series of partnerships, gaining an equal share of the profits by investing his time. By 1962, Buffet had become a millionaire, and began investing in a textile mill called Berkshire Hathaway.
Berkshire Hathaway was run by executives who were not aware of its value. The company had working capital of $19 a share (exclusive of real estate and equipment), but its manager, whom Buffet later fired, was willing to sell shares for $7 a share. Why was Berkshire Hathaway so cheap?
Berkshire Hathaway had been a huge company, but it had been shrinking for years. Every time the company closed a mill they would sell it and use the proceeds to buy their own stock. Buffet figured that he would buy the stock, the company would sell another mill, and he would sell back his stock to the company at a small profit.
That is what almost happened. Sure enough, Berkshire Hathaway sold another mill, and Buffet made a handshake deal with the manager to sell his partnership’s holdings at $11.50 a share. When the actual tender offer arrived in the mail, however, the company was offering to buy back shares at $11.375. Buffet responded by buying enough of the company that he could fire the manager who tried to cheat him.
Eventually Buffet realized he had sunk millions of dollars into a cheap, but dying, business. He would later describe buying Berkshire Hathaway as the worst deal he ever made, because he spent the next 20 years fighting the textile business instead of making money in insurance and consumer goods.
It wasn’t enough to buy things that are cheap. It was also necessary to buy things that are good. Recognizing both aspects of value is essential for keeping your existing customers, who are the sources of your capital. By focusing on value Buffet has created an incredibly valuable company; most people never sell Berkshire Hathaway stock.
Clarify your thoughts by writing
But how do you know whether a “steal” is really a good buy? Warren Buffet’s answer is simple. You read a lot. Buffet reads approximately 500 pages a day. And when you have done your reading, write down the key points of what you have learned.
What does this process accomplish? Writing, especially writing with pen and paper, clarifies thinking. It helps you communicate complex ideas. It prevents lazy communication. It gives you a record for easy reference when future questions are encountered.
Writing also keeps you sharp as you age. Now approaching his 85th birthday, Warren Buffet shows few signs of slowing down. Writing won’t make you billions, but will help you find the properties and close the sales that will make you rich.