Editor’s note: Utrip CEO Gilad Berenstein has attended Berkshire Hathaway’s annual board meeting in Omaha, Neb. for the past two years. Berenstein, who was named GeekWire’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015, attended this year to observe and hear from Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett and Vice-Chairman Charlie Munger. Below are his impressions of the meeting.
I was fortunate enough to attend my second Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting this past weekend in Omaha. For those who have not been, the format may be surprising. Forty thousand people, from every profession and nationality, line up in the early hours of Saturday morning to run into the arena and grab a seat “close enough to see the facial expressions on Warren’s face,” a shareholder waiting in line at 6:15 a.m. told me.
The meeting’s format is simple:
8:30 a.m. Intro Videos: These videos include a sample of the best TV commercials created by Berkshire companies that year — funny videos of Buffett and Munger with celebrities on famous TV sets or performances with prominent musicians. It concludes with a thank you video to the executives of all the Berkshire companies.
9:15 a.m. Buffett and Munger come on stage, introduce the board of directors, show one slide of financials and explain the format.
9:25 a.m. The Questions Begin: For roughly six hours (with a one hour break for lunch) Buffett (86 years old) and Munger (93 years old) answer about 50 questions — one third from journalists, one third from financial analysts, and one third from shareholders who have lined up to ask a question. These questions are on a huge variety of topics including macro and micro business and economics questions, questions about individual businesses or sectors, politics and policy, investment advice, life advice, and more. The quotes below come from their answers to these questions.
3:30 p.m. Formal Meeting: Basically everyone skips this part.
1. “Execution is what counts.” — Buffett
This is one of my favorite Buffetisms because it’s so true — execution is all that matters. The most brilliant business strategy is merely a talking point without successful execution; something I think can easily be forgotten.
When discussing this point Buffett referred to Amazon and CEO Jeff Bezos several times. He talked about Amazon’s execution and operational capabilities as second to none. Buffett also referenced Precision Cast Parts and said the company and CEO’s intense attention to detail in the execution phase is what makes them the industry leader.
2. “If you lose the firm money I will be understanding. If you lose the firm a shred of reputation I’ll be ruthless.” — Buffet.
Just watch the clip.
3. ‘Don’t be scared of competitors. If you have a good business they will come. The question is can you out maneuver them?’ — Buffett (paraphrased).
Buffett explained that a sustainable business needs a mote and a good knight in the castle to fight off invaders.
I love this point and I augment it with a famous Bezos line: “Be customer-focused, not competitor-focused.”
If there’s no one else interested in your space, how good of a business opportunity is it anyway?
4. “My favorite question to ask public company CEOs — what would you do differently if you owned 100 percent of the business?” — Buffet.
This is a great question that I modify slightly for the particularities of the startup world – If you had no pressure from partners or investors, what would I actually do to grow your business?
Another question Buffett likes to ask CEOs: “If you had to invest all of your money in one of your competitors who would you invest in and why?”
5. “Others try to be brilliant. We try to be rational.” — Munger.
Munger was talking about investing when he said this but I think this is just as applicable to entrepreneurs.
6. “A life properly lived includes continuous learning.” — Munger.
This is probably the most important thing said all day. One should remember this both personally but also when thinking about the life of a startup.
This last one is a bonus, more about investing than startups, but is still incredibly thought-provoking. Munger and Buffett said multiple times at this year’s meeting, “Investment is harder now because of our national obsession with finance. Back then it was all low-hanging fruit.”
I found this fascinating. Because of our “national obsession,” there are so many more players investing in businesses and an entire industry (Private Equity) that exists to take them over. Buffett and Munger went on a bit of a tirade about the evils of Private Equity, which they refer to as leveraged buyouts and the “outrageous” 2/20 payout structure these funds command.