How Less Becomes More

What Joe Budden and Michelangelo can tell us about stripping down to build back up

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A few years back, my friend Caleb Silver became the editor-in-chief of one of the best resources in all of finance - It was quite a career pivot. Not many Emmy-award winning television producers could have pulled it off. Financial television requires putting brand new information in front of viewers all day long, and explaining to them what that information might mean in real-time.

Investopedia’s mission is precisely the opposite. Rather than push information in front of people, it relies on people to pull it, usually via search, on an a la carte basis depending on what they are trying to study or better understand. Investopedia needs to have the definitive version of every financial term’s meaning and be helpful to as broad an audience as possible, from grad student to day trader to chief of compliance to ordinary investor browsing from a home computer. Financial TV prioritizes the new and the now and opinions drive the programs once the facts are laid out. An entry published on Investopedia, on the other hand, is an exposition of fact and it must be evergreen in order to be useful.

But that wasn’t the biggest adjustment Caleb had to make in his new role. One of the most interesting things he learned from the SEO experts who helped him overhaul the website was how excess content ends up working against your search ranking. This is counterintuitive as most people would just assume more pages, more definitions, therefore more search traffic. It doesn’t actually work this way.

Thousands of pages that no one is looking for or landing on makes the overall site heavy with non-relevance in the eyes of the algorithms. Bushwhacking those pages away allows the algo to better appreciate (and, thus, rank more highly) all of the site’s pages that are relevant and useful to visitors. By deleting thousands of irrelevant entries, you’re strengthening the whole.

Having more pages isn’t better than having the right pages.


Anytime we’re writing about investing philosophy at Ritholtz Wealth Management, we usually turn the assignment over to Ben Carlson, who has actually written most of the content on our website and a majority of the letters that go to clients from the investment committee. Barry’s voice is the voice of Barry’s blog and Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio. My voice is the voice of this site and the representation of our firm on CNBC. But Ben’s voice is the written voice of our firm. This is important because, as the Latin proverb goes, “Verba volant, scripta manent” - spoken words fly away, written ones remain.

When Ben details our philosophy, one concept comes up again and again - less is more. Or, stated differently, simple beats complex. Even when the investment puzzle become highly complex, this doesn’t necessarily imply that a complex solution is what’s required. Ben has been hammering this point home in a thousand blog posts, columns, articles and client-only communications for a decade.

It’s more than just a philosophy because we aren’t just writing. We’re investing. Our hands are in it, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. One of the methods we’ve been using lately to demonstrate this undeniable truth to prospective clients is to upload their brokerage statements to our software tool, the VRGL Wealth platform. We were early adopters of VRGL’s technology (now we are investors and advisors to the company as well) but one of the first times we used it, we were able to uncover an incredible amount of information for someone who had sent us an 80 page brokerage statement from one of the wirehouses. VRGL’s automated technology sucks data in directly from a PDF of a brokerage statement (for real, it’s amazing) and spits out reams of important information - allocations, position overlaps, tax basis, imputed costs and internal expenses, etc.

Once we’ve performed this diagnostic for a prospective client, it becomes crystal clear that the majority of the activity in their accounts is not benefiting them. Our proposed solution is likely to be an unwind of all manner of alts and structured products and other stuff that was more lucrative for the salesperson than it was for the end-investor.

Most of the time people come to us with an existing portfolio of holdings, not a seven-figure pile of cash. We have an important responsibility to look at what the investor is doing even before they agree to become a client of ours. We see many of them doing way too much, with way too much complexity than is necessary.

Don’t believe me? Show Ben and the committee what you’ve got, we’re all ears.

Less is more. Simple beats complex. Having more sophistication isn’t better than having the right amount of sophistication.

Stripping Down to Build Back Up

One of the most attractive aspects of starting the new site here at was relieving myself of all the weight of The Reformed Broker site. Sometimes I felt buried beneath it - the history, the legacy, the traditions and conventions of the thing. It would have been too much effort to try to cut away and edit what I had been doing there. Crawling out from under it and starting from scratch here felt like the better move. It was.

But because my readers - yes, you - mean everything to me, I brought everyone who had subscribed over the years along for the switch. 12,000 subs made the move. Then, when I announced the new site on social media, another 3,000 subs joined the party. And since I started writing here a month ago, it became just shy of 20,000. What’s really interesting is that every time I hit publish, I get a whole new influx of subs - mostly because people send the post to their friends and colleagues or it gets reshared on social media - but I also get a bunch of un-subscribers too.

I’ve learned over the years that this is the best thing that could happen. Shedding unengaged subscribers is part of the improvement of the overall experience. Writing for people who don’t care or are in a place in their lives right now where they don’t have the time to pay attention is not worthwhile. Writing for people who get it and want to take the journey - that’s the best feeling on earth for me. So it’s addition through subtraction.

I don’t want to bark at a million people who are barely listening. I want to talk directly to you and have a meaningful connection as we learn, investigate, explore and improve as investors, together.

Having more readers isn’t better than having the right readers.

The Audience Size

This is my friend Ian Schwartzman with me at the NYSE last week. Ian manages creative talent in the music industry but his artists are all entrepreneurs and creators. They are branching out from music into areas like broadcasting, fashion, events and other ventures where their tastes and sensibilities can connect with the fans. Ian is most well known for working with Joe Budden to create the best podcast in the world for people who love hip hop music and culture.

Joe is a media genius. He was one of the first rappers to understand the power of directly connecting with his fans and using an online platform to begin a dialog. He was doing this twenty years ago and the dialog has never stopped. The term “blog” didn’t exist when he started. There was no such thing as a podcast. Joe’s instincts were ahead of everyone else’s when it came to audience development and boxing out the middle man. That’s why millions of people tune in to hear what he has to say each week. Not because some media company put his name in lights. Joe did it himself. He runs it independently and is accountable to his audience only. His platform is larger than anything someone else could have handed to him.

The audience listens regularly because they trust him and are entertained by him. He’s brought them into his world with authenticity. It can’t be faked. You cannot fool this many people for this long of a period of time. Impossible. Joe is one of a kind and the listeners who ride with him wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ian recognized this and has been working with Joe on the show and all of their related media business ventures ever since. He told me something the other day that was as counterintuitive as the Investopedia example I gave you above: When it comes to audience development, almost everyone thinks bigger numbers are better. Almost everyone is wrong.

Ian said “I’d rather have a thousand people who have told me about themselves and are fully engaged with the content than a million random email addresses with no real connection.”

The assumption with media is that more eyeballs, clicks, subscribers, traffic, pageviews is always better or more profitable than fewer. Surface level, maybe, but these are vanity metrics. They look good in a slide deck. They catch your attention in a headline. But in real life, what do big numbers of barely connected followers accomplish for a creator? Very little. Advertisers started to figure this out last year and it was an apocalypse in the “influencer” space. Budgets were cut back or pulled entirely. It turns out influence isn’t always influence.

These kids aren’t influential at all, they’re just good at making 5 second videos! Nobody’s buying shit!

To Ian’s point, these are the only questions that matter, once you get past the follower count vanity metrics: Do people take action when you speak? Do they care enough about what you’re saying to actually do something after you’ve said it?

When you start measuring impact as opposed to surface level engagement the truth comes out.

Ian and Joe do not sit around concocting schemes to get their show in front of people who don’t really care about it so they can tell Coke and Pepsi how many new listeners they added during the last fiscal quarter. Any liar or idiot can play that game. You can collect a few sponsorship checks this way, but you can’t sustain it. Because the audience isn’t really there, they’re not taking action and no one is really connecting or benefiting once the money has been spent.

Having more listeners isn’t better than having listeners who love what you do.

The David

The year is 1501 and a gigantic block of marble (actually known as Il Gigante) sits untouched, having once been a sculpture in progress some thirty five years earlier. The artist Michelangelo is awarded a commission to work with it by the authorities in Florence, who had hoped it would become one of twelve massive statues of biblical figures to adorn a rooftop in the city.

Michelangelo asks for the block to be turned upward so that the statue he is to complete can be better visualized. The previous sculptor was attempting to carve his figure in a supine position. Over the next three years, the artist completes his David, a 17-foot tall masterpiece that he has seemingly pulled away from the confines of the rock. “What David did with his sling, I have done with my drill,” he told an admirer. The analogy of Michelangelo having fought with giants of his own to complete the commission hasn’t been lost on art historians.

According to the author Victoria C. Garnder Coates, Michelangelo was working in secrecy but with no shortage of political pressure to finally unveil a masterpiece that would dazzle the public. There was a government reformation currently underway in the city and the work being done on this Il Gigante block of marble had become synonymous with the work of the politicians to restore the city-state. If the sculpture were a letdown, it would cast a pall on the larger effort, which the artist felt some responsibility for.

He didn’t let anyone down. Coates tells us that:

The sculptor had overcome the daunting narrowness of the block by turning the figure so his body faced the viewer but his head was in profile. The figure seemed almost to quiver with physical and psychological tension, as if the stone had really been brought to life. Michelangelo had used his unusual knowledge of anatomy to show a physique that might be still for the moment, but whose muscles were tensing for a fight. For he had chosen not the traditional moment of triumph for David, but an earlier point in the story when the shepherd watches the approaching giant, waiting for him to get into slingshot range.

Victoria C. Gardner Coates, ‘David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art’

Michelangelo didn’t assemble the David. To hear him tell it, he simply carved away everything that wasn’t the figure of David. The statue you see today is what was left after getting rid of everything else.


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