Abdullah Al-Rezwan is a Bangladeshi-born US-based business analyst and entrepreneur. He is the founder and author of MBI Deep Dives, a subscription-based newsletter/website that provides in-depth research on publicly-listed companies, primarily those listed in the US. MBI Deep Dives runs on a simple model — one deep dive per month on a company of MBI’s choosing, which contains the full spectrum of both quantitative and qualitative research, including financial modeling to help readers better understand the sensitivity of variables and expectations embedded in the stock price. Rezwan, who goes by the alias "Mostly Borrowed Ideas (MBI)" on Twitter, has gained a broad following among the investment and business community in the US and beyond for his "superb insight".
Before starting MBI Deep Dives, Rezwan worked as a generalist at Madison Investments on their US large-cap team, where he covered a wide range of companies, from UnitedHealth to Amazon and Boeing. Prior to that, he worked for three and a half years in Bangladesh after his graduation from Dhaka University, covering the financial sector in sell-side Equity Research before pursuing his MBA at Cornell in the US.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with Rezwan. We discuss a wide-range of topics including (but not limited to) his personal journey to what he is doing, how his upbringing and early life experiences have shaped him, the creation of MBI Deep Dives, what it means to be internally driven, the critical importance of high pain tolerance for entrepreneurs and creatives, we delve into the power of the internet, the rise of the pseudonymous economy, the impact of the social media platforms, the state of internet culture in Bangladesh, and what it takes to build a vibrant entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem, we go deep into his approach to writing and running MBI Deep Dives, the state of the newsletter, and his ambition for its future, the upsides and challenges of working solo, his approach to work and productivity, and the future of the media business and we reflect on the nature of conviction and belongingness, the importance of finding and following your interests, his favorite podcasts, and the importance of finding joy in your work and much more.
The interview is a brilliant read in its entirety. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed doing it.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Can you please introduce yourself and talk about what you are working on?
I'm Abdullah Rezwan. I was born and grew up in Bogura, which is in the northern part of Bangladesh. I finished high school in Bogura and then I moved to Dhaka to attend Notre Dame College. After college, I went to IBA, Dhaka University from where I did my undergrad. I majored in finance.
After my undergrad, I worked for about three and a half years. I worked in a couple of brokerage firms in Bangladesh. I worked at IDLC Securities and then just before moving to the US for my MBA at Cornell, I worked at BRAC EPL, a stock brokerage. I was a sell-side equity research analyst, covering mostly macroeconomy and financial industry in Bangladesh.
After graduating from Cornell’s two-year MBA program, I worked for a buy-side firm called Madison Investments, based in Madison, Wisconsin. I was there for about 10 months and then my work authorization in the US expired. I had to leave the firm. That was June 2020.
As you probably remember, the pandemic had already started in March 2020. A couple of things happened at that time. When the pandemic started, I started spending more time on Twitter. I just had more time. I didn't have to commute and was kind of stuck at home. I think I opened my Facebook account back in 2008. And maybe around that time, I opened my Twitter account as well like in 2009. But I never spent much time on the platform. Near the end of my time at Cornell, one of my friends asked me, hey, are you active on Twitter? I was like, no, not really. And he was like, a lot of people from the investment world spend time discussing ideas on Twitter and it is an interesting community. I was like, okay, that's interesting. But I didn’t go the next day, opened Twitter, and started using it. That didn't happen. I think I had the discussion and then forgot about it.
I graduated from Cornell in May 2019. And a couple of months after I graduated from Cornell, I opened a Twitter account. From July 2019 to I would say December 2019, I was mostly lurking on Twitter. I was not posting anything or interacting with people. I was just reading things on the platform from time to time. Over time, however, I kind of grew a sense of belongingness in that Twitter community, which is called Fintwit, meaning financial Twitter. I was like, this is a pretty cool community, where people talk about stocks all the time.
I come from a family and social background where people don't talk much about stocks. Although people in my circle talk about the stock market, they talk mostly about the Bangladesh stock market. Nobody talks about the US stock market. When I found the Fintwit community, I was super excited. I didn't have anyone to talk to about these ideas and stocks and then I found this community. I started to think I wish I were more involved. I didn’t have a lot of time at the time. I didn't know how to engage with people.
Twitter does have a cold start problem, right? It’s not easy for new users.
When you start posting on Twitter and you don't have any followers, it can feel like you're just posting things in the void, which makes it hard to get started on Twitter. Much harder than I would say Facebook or any other social platform. If you are opening an account on Facebook, you just go and add a bunch of your real-life friends and they add you back. Pretty soon you have a reasonable network. On Facebook, and Instagram, it's a social graph. On Twitter, it's not a social graph, there may be some minor element of it. It's more like an interest graph. People are more interested in ideas. I'm interested in the stock market, I follow people who have similar interests.
Anyways, As I started spending time on Twitter, I got more curious about how to be part of this community. But I didn't think much about it initially. When the pandemic started, I was like, I have more time now, I'm gonna spend more time on Twitter. I enjoy reading it. I will start interacting with people and see how it goes. So I started spending more time on Twitter.
In June 2020, when I had to leave my job, I didn’t have any idea about what I would do. When I moved from Bangladesh to the US, I financed my MBA with a student loan. There was no scholarship or grant or anything like that. It was 100% financed by student loans. I worked for only 10 months after graduation, so I still had loans to repay.
It was a pretty jarring moment for me. There's a pandemic going on. You are concerned about your health, safety, and so on. Everything was doubly difficult. And I couldn’t work because I didn't have work authorization in the US. I knew this was a possibility. That's why I also applied for permanent residence in Canada. But due to the pandemic, that process also got severely delayed. I had no clarity in terms of when exactly I would be able to move to Canada.
While it was a jarring and difficult moment for me, I was also aware of the fact that I have to take responsibility for my life. I have always been an internally driven person and I was thinking about what I could do.
Can you expand more on what you mean by an internally driven person and how you think about it?
I think some people have a strong internal locus of control and some have an external locus of control. I like to think I'm the kind of person who has an internal locus of control. If something bad happens to me, I take a hard look to see what I can do to improve that. If something good happens to me, I appreciate it and then I try to understand the factors that are not my contribution in making some of those good things happen.
When something bad happens, I don’t criticize or complain about how unfair life is and all that. I'm not the kind of person who wants to focus on that. I certainly have my criticisms, but I wasn't thinking about why the US immigration system is like this, why is the pandemic going on, why haven't we heard about vaccine rollout and all that. I wasn't doing any of that. I was mostly focusing on what I could do to improve whatever situation I found myself in.
My conclusion was that I have to start something on my own and that something, whatever it is, cannot require a lot of capital. Since I was spending more time on Twitter, I had some following. I think at that point, I had around 15,000 followers which frankly surprised me.
When I started spending more time on Twitter, my thought was if I have like 1000 followers by the end of 2020, it would be more fun to interact on this platform. The pandemic was raging and people didn’t have anywhere to go. People were spending a lot of time on social media. Being active around that time helped. There was also a growing interest in the stock market. At the beginning of the pandemic, the market took a nosedive. S&P 500 was down almost 30% in a month. And then it kind of roared back and people had this enormous interest in the market. People didn't have a lot of things to do at that time. Everybody was kind of stuck at home. I think that helped.
Twitter has this thread feature. I was posting threads regularly. One particular thread on Mark Zuckerberg received a lot of traction. Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y Combinator, who has millions of followers, somehow came across my thread and retweeted it. Within a day, my followers went from 300 to somewhere 2500. I remember that day thinking that I never quite understood how the network effect worked. Intellectually, I understood what the network effect was. I could explain it, but I never had a visceral understanding. If one of your write-ups gets traction, the network could just blow the entire thing up out of proportion, helping you gain a significant number of followers. Sometimes you can gain more followers in a day than you can probably get in an entire year because of the network and how things spread on the internet.
When Paul Graham retweeted, a lot of entrepreneurs, VCs, and investors started following me. So I thought, I have kind of a cool audience. A lot of these people, frankly speaking, if I had emailed them a couple of days before that moment, probably wouldn't respond to my message but now they started following me. I took it as an opportunity and I wanted to be thoughtful about what I post on Twitter.
I decided that I'm going to treat my followers as sort of like colleagues. When you email your colleagues, you don't post random stuff. You don't spam your colleagues. I decided to adopt a similar philosophy for Twitter. I also realized that Paul Graham wasn't following me. It means your content can travel anywhere. You have no idea where it will land. And it's probably better to be more thoughtful about what you write and post than otherwise.
By the way, I probably should mention that I started writing on Twitter with my pseudonym, Mostly Borrowed Ideas (MBI). The great thing about writing under a pseudonym is nobody has any idea who you are. Obviously, I divulged my identity later. But at that time, I was anonymous. Nobody had any idea whether I'm just a random guy from Bangladesh or a hedge fund manager managing a couple of billions of dollars. When you don't have your identity revealed, people are forced to evaluate you based on your work rather than where you are from, your background, what you do, etc. And that is extremely powerful. I think we, generally speaking, underestimate how powerful that idea is when you don't have your identity revealed, and people are forced to focus on your content to evaluate you. A lot of interesting outcomes can happen. If you think about it, I am a random guy from Bangladesh, who spent less than a year in the US working for a fund. There are a lot more experienced analysts and investors writing on Twitter. So it's not a very impressive resume by any means. And there are thousands of people who went to Cornell and Harvard. It's not a huge differentiator by any means. At least, not on Twitter.
Nobody's going to follow you because you went to Harvard. People follow you because they like your content, your ideas, or what you have done. So I started with my pseudonym. I think that helped, at least in the early days. My content was speaking for me instead of who I am and what I do.
After Paul Graham's retweet, I told myself I want to be consistent without losing much quality. My following kept rising. As I said, 300 in March 2020, and 15,000 or something like that by August 2020. In less than six months, I went from almost nothing to 15,000.
When I was thinking about what to do going forward, I started getting some DMs, and messages from different brands asking me whether I would like to promote this or that app, etc. Those were usually day trading apps and I don't believe in day trading. It's fine if someone wants to day trade. I just don't want to promote it. I'm not a believer. I'm never going to day trade and it's uncomfortable to promote something that I don't believe in. I was thinking there must be a better way to monetize the audience in some form or fashion. More importantly, I wasn't building the audience to monetize it.
When I lost my job, I was like I have to do something and was thinking about what I could do. After some thought, I realized when I was working for my fund, my job was that my boss would ask me to spend a few weeks digging deep into a company and industry, prepare a write-up and then present it in front of a couple of portfolio managers. And this particular fund was paying me a lot of money to do this. I was like, okay, what if I just do the same thing, but on the internet, and instead of asking one person/fund to pay me, what if I come up with a ridiculous price point that becomes almost a great deal? I didn't have a grand vision or idea. My thinking was simple. Even if only 10 people show up, that's more than zero, which is what I made in July and August 2020. I made $0 in those two months. I was like okay, even if 10 people showed up out of those 15,000 followers, and if I charge them only $10 per month, that's $100 that I don't have. And my big, audacious hairy goal was like 500-600 subscribers. I was starting something with almost zero capital required.
I was like US GDP per capita is like $70,000. If I go from zero to $70,000 without any capital requirement for this business in a year, that I would say is a successful endeavor. I launched in the first week of September 2020. And it didn’t take me long to realize that this has potential. I think I built some goodwill over the past six months from March to September 2020. People were quite receptive to what I was trying to build. On the very first day, I had like 150 subscribers. I thought I'm on to something. It's definitely way better than zero. Within like five months, I crossed 500. I hit my kind of big, audacious goal within a year. Obviously, it exceeded my expectations.
I moved to Canada in January 2021. I already had more than 500 paid subscribers by then. I thought I should just focus on this. My initial idea was that if it doesn't work out, I can always move to Canada when the border opens and look for a job when I move there. But once I finally got there, I decided not to look for a job and instead decided to keep building MBI Deep Dives.
I don't know how other entrepreneurs feel or think. I have grown an enormous sense of affinity for my company over time. It's not like day one, oh, I'm so excited about what I'm building or I'm gonna do this for the rest of my life. That's not what I was thinking on day one. I was just trying to figure out how many people would show up. As I said, my thinking was even $100 is better than zero — anything was fine.
Over time, as it kind of moved from September 2020 to today, I have an enormous sense of love and belongingness for MBI Deep Dives. It is a bit of an abstract idea. It's all in my head. And I can totally feel it. It's hard for me to think beyond MBI Deep Dives. I don't know what I would be able to do, if not for MBI Deep Dives and that's why I have an enormous sense of gratitude to my subscribers for allowing me to do this.
Right now, I don't care about US immigration laws or any country's immigration laws. I don't care about a lot of the external factors that are going on as long as I have this direct relationship with my subscribers. If I do a good job, I think things will fall into place. Because I'm an internally driven person, I am in a good spot mentally.
Although things will never be completely in your control, I feel that a lot of factors are within my control now more than any time before. And that's why I feel like MBI Deep Dives allowed me to have that mindset and continue to live in that mindset. I have an enormous sense of gratitude and an enormous sense of love for the company that I'm building.
There are a lot of interesting and important points there to talk about and I'm tempted to go in many different directions. But I think we can start by going back to your childhood and talk a little bit about your background. I love the way you described how you see things and being an internally driven person. That I have as an individual a lot of responsibility in terms of how my life turns out. That's a way of looking into the world. Can you talk about your childhood and your family and the impact your early life has on you and the way you look at life and work?
Like I said I grew up in Bogura. My mother is a homemaker. My father was a businessperson. I'm going to mention this so that you may find some connection about how I approach things. One of the things that probably made quite an impression on me from my childhood is that I was kind of consistently ranked first in my class. I remember there was a huge pressure from my family to remain first. For example, I remember when attending the primary scholarship exam in grade five, there was a huge pressure on me to be first in the entire district in Bogura. It was a huge deal. I was first in my school. For my parents, it was a huge matter of pride whether I would be able to be first in the primary scholarship exam. I came third in that exam and I remember, my parents were feeling quite let down by me.
When I look back, it doesn't quite make sense — why is it so important to be ranked first in class? But that has left a lasting impression on me in the sense that I still feel I have to do a good job and there is no other option. Being second doesn't cut it. The bar was set very high for me in my family.
I think you learn some good stuff when you go through huge pressure to excel at whatever you do as a kid. It can have both positive and negative repercussions. The positive way to look at this would be that your bar will always be high. And you have to exceed that bar every single time. I'm conscious of one thing, I'm adamant about killing the idea of embarrassment. I'm not embarrassed to fail.
But it is also important to remember that if you're trying to push yourself, failure is inevitable. And you shouldn’t feel embarrassed about it. For example, I'm picking stocks in the public market. There is no way I can't be wrong. It's impossible. Every single person who's trying to pick stocks in the public market will be wrong. In fact, if I am right 55% of the time, I'll probably be one of the best investors of all time. The math is kind of surprising. People, who don't understand, can say, what, only 55%? I can do that. But if you look at the data, most companies go out of business. Most investors find it hard to remain relevant. Warren Buffett certainly has made a lot of money and his returns are kind of ridiculous. But I think the primary reason we still talk about Warren Buffett is that he's been able to survive in the investing business for five-six decades. I have a theory that he may be the last investor to be able to post super impressive investing results in the public eye for five-six decades. There will be a lot of investors who will be making money for a long, long time. But to be able to do it in front of the public where everybody sees and knows what he owns and what he's doing with some minor lag, I wonder whether there will be another investor in my lifetime after Buffett. He is 91 and I may not see the next one. People talk about who is the next Buffett, there is probably nobody. Maybe he is the final Buffett.
I discuss my portfolio on Twitter. Today I have like 115,000 followers. If you think about it, if you disclose your portfolio every month to more than 100k people, it’s an invitation to get embarrassed. I have lost a lot of money last year. My stocks have gone in the opposite direction. But I think it's important to feel comfortable with your failure. Obviously, you're not aiming for failure. You work hard to avoid failure. But if you want to grow as an individual, it's important to appreciate that failure is always an option. My job is to avoid it as much as possible. But when I’ve to face it, I learn from it and keep moving forward.
Anyways, I don't have complaints about my childhood. My parents came from nowhere. They spent the first 20 years of their lives in a remote village in Bogura. My parents got married in their early 20s. When I was born my father was 23 years old. They were trying to just get by and make sure we received good opportunities that they didn’t get. I think they kind of latched on to their kids from the thinking that if we want to make it we need to make sure our sons are good at what they do. We're not in the mood of wasting our opportunities.
Looking back, I understand that my parents must have received a lot of social respect and admiration from my friend's parents because I was first. It was not totally irrational for my parents to want me to remain first.
It has also made me comfortable dealing with pressure. Coming first in every single exam you attend is not easy. It is more so when you are young. I have mostly positive takeaways from my childhood. It's very important to feel comfortable with pressure, especially in the kind of job I do. The market tells me every day that you're stupid — you bought this stock about six months ago, and it is down 50%. You are stupid. People in this business generally feel a lot of pressure. Psychology is probably the most important component of investing. Everybody can read 10 annual reports. Everybody can build models. But it's hard to learn psychology. It is hard to remain calm, cool and collected when you are under pressure. And that's probably the primary requirement to succeed in investing. I think I received good training in my childhood in that sense.
It is hard to overstate the importance of having a high tolerance for failure in life. I think it is at the heart of any meaningful work. Your childhood experiences certainly played a role in developing this mindset in you, but is there anything else in how you have built this tolerance for failure? As you said, you put this in-depth analysis of public companies out there, and it’s always a possibility that you might be wrong. To do your work, you have to accept that possibility at the very beginning. How did you come to make peace with the possibility that you may fail?
My philosophy is simple. I want to take my work seriously. But I don't want to take myself seriously. I approach my work with utmost seriousness. I work with diligence. But I don't want to take myself too seriously. Of course, I can fail. There are a lot of brilliant investors who failed before me. There will be a lot more after me. I'm viscerally aware that it is a possibility.
I think of it this way. A lot of kids in Bangladesh play cricket. They're swinging their bats or trying to bowl fast in their backyard. If you go to these kids and say, hey, you know what, there is no possibility that you will be playing for Bangladesh Cricket Team. Of course, you will be right. Almost none of them will play for Bangladesh in 20 years. But it is also a possibility that a few of them will make it. Either way, you can’t know it unless you try.
I approach investing from a similar perspective. It is a possibility that I may fail. Statistically speaking, it is likely that I will fail. But one of my friends told me once that statisticians are not good entrepreneurs. If you operate by statistics, you're never going to start a business. Why would you? You're likely to fail. But I don’t see it like that. I want to give my best and see what happens. If I come out fine and become a successful investor, it'll be so much fun. And if I'm not, I have to make sure that I don’t completely self-destruct myself and my family. There needs to be some tweaking. But even if a lot of things turned out to be not as what I expected or hoped, that's still fine. I still gave it a shot.
We all are dealing with a problem called N = 1. N is the number of lives we have. What's the point of not giving a shot just because of the fear of failure?
I want to do my best work but I don't want to take myself, the person, too seriously. If you worry all the time, oh my god, I'm gonna be so embarrassed because I'm down so much this year or whatever, it is a terrible way to operate. Because who cares if you're down or up? I know a lot of people who are down even more than I am. How many minutes do I spend thinking about their failures? People just don't think about you. In our heads, we are the protagonist of our life. We are the center of attention. And that’s the case for every other person. They are busy with themselves. You have your problems. I have my problems. I'm not spending time thinking about other people and what they're doing wrong or whatever. If you want to try something, you can't take yourself too seriously.
That's interesting. You are the only person who is thinking all the time about yourself. Nobody else is doing it. Everybody else is busy with their own life. You mentioned going with a pseudonym, MBI Deep Dives, on Twitter and it had the unintentional benefit of separating it from your identity. People are forced to see your work based on its quality, which I think is hugely powerful. Do you see any other benefits of approaching creative work pseudonymously? I think it should also allow one greater creative freedom because it is easy to detach yourself from your work when you're posting pseudonymously, which you kind of touched on: the importance of taking your work seriously but not yourself. It becomes impersonal. I think Balaji Srinivasan talks about this pseudonymous economy where people will be putting up their work anonymously and so on. What's your take on all these?
I think Balaji is probably a bit more optimistic than I am on this particular point. You're right. Yes, theoretically speaking, if you're anonymous, you have more creative freedom. Unfortunately, I think more often than not people abuse that freedom. And I think there are benefits to identity as well.
The way I kind of explain it, even if you think your Twitter account is pseudonymous or anonymous, I believe that your Twitter account takes a life of its own. It almost starts acting like a person and maybe a very different person than who you are in the real world. It's like, you’re playing a character. Think about it. You are Ruhul, you have a character in your head about who you are and how you behave and all that. You play that character reasonably well in your day-to-day life in the physical world. It is the exact same thing but online. You're still playing a character. It's not in the physical world, but in an online world, where it's the exact same thing.
Now think about it, in the physical world, if you don’t have an identity, it is almost like lawlessness. Then obviously, you understand intuitively that there are people who do some things that we would think are less than ideal. That's what happens on different platforms, not just on Twitter, but in any public forum where people can play without revealing their identity.
So it remains to be seen. In theory, it makes a lot of sense. In practice, however, I think there can be a temptation among people to abuse that system.
That makes sense. Particularly your point about personal responsibility, if you are anonymous, you can avoid that personal responsibility. And essentially, when you are thinking about an economy where people are not revealing their identities, you are considering people are rational actors, which humans are not, which is another interesting part. To that end, do you think internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have a built-in incentive for people to be snarkier? Many people claim that extreme opinions get more attention on these platforms which provides people with an algorithmic incentive to share extreme exchanges. Do you see platforms have a role to play here because as they say, the medium is the message?
That's a popular narrative. I am uncomfortable with that narrative. My source of discomfort comes from the fact that I'm an internally driven person. This line of argument makes it an external locus of control. It's like “this platform made me do this. I wouldn't have done that otherwise.”
First of all, I don't think that's what platforms are actively trying to do. For example, on Facebook, if I log in, and if I just start quarreling with people for hours and hours, at one point I'll get tired, there is a limit to what I can take, and I'll simply stop logging in. That can’t be an incentive for the platforms. If you think about lifetime value, Facebook would be a much more powerful, durable, and valuable company if I log into Facebook 20 years from now.
I may get more instant gratification by arguing with people — I just showed him why he's wrong and so on. And I might be satisfied with the attention people give me for that. That's probably a motivation. You can say in a brief snapshot of the time these platforms made me happy and I'll spend more time on this platform. But if I don't feel good about myself, the lifetime value of me as a customer is less for these platforms. To be clear, I'm a shareholder of Google, Meta, and Amazon.
Two things here. One, like I said I'm an internally driven person. I don't like to think Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram are making me do things that I wouldn't do otherwise. Again, this is not just about these three companies, you can go to any platform on the internet, and it's the same thing again and again. So at some point, you should stop and ask, wait, is it us? Could we do something differently? How long can we keep saying, it's the platforms that are making all these decisions and the problems? I have been following the social networking space for the last four or five years. I feel exhausted at times when people keep blaming the platforms and are never willing to take a hard look at themselves. It is like these all-powerful mediums do all these things on our behalf, and we have zero power and control over our life. I feel that is a bit disingenuous. Perhaps, it's probably somewhere between the two.
I'm not saying platforms have no power at all. They have. That's why these are extremely valuable companies. But what I'm trying to say is that these companies probably care more about the lifetime value of their users and that it will hurt them if they do a disservice to their users in any form. What we're talking about can be a short-term profit maximization strategy. And I don't think that's what at least some of the platforms are trying to do. They're trying to build a durable business, a valuable business with significant lifetime value of their customers. And it's really hard to do that if your users are constantly fighting and leaving the platform because of the unhealthy environment. It does not make sense. Do you see someone on your friend list on Facebook, who has been fighting for 10 years?
I don't see that. It's usually a few people who come and go and they don't appear on my feed anymore. Because it's tiring to be a critic all the time. At some point, you realize, what's the point?
Platforms have responsibilities. Platforms can make changes and I think they try from time to time. There are legit criticisms against these platforms, and many people are doing that and I applaud that. At the same time, I think we should not be too willing to not look in the mirror. As individuals, we have the responsibility to look in the mirror from time to time.
I also don't think platforms are responsible for all the criticism they come across. My point was more on the side of what you pointed out earlier that we all are characters on Facebook. It's like a real-life version of a digital world. These are not different entities that are using Facebook. We are using it. As we discussed, humans are not always rational actors. People probably would have done the same thing in real life that they do on Social media given the opportunity. But they don’t because it's so tiring to be a critic all the time or to be difficult or take on behaviors that are on the extreme end of things. There are costs of doing that in the real world. But people can easily do that online. One challenge for the platform is that the incentive mechanism appears to encourage extreme behavior. Things and opinions that are on the edge get more reach and views. It is either too good or too bad. Since platforms have designed their incentive mechanism in a way where things that are on the edge go viral, creators are fed with this incentive to create things accordingly. That's where I am coming from. I don’t buy the conventional narrative of technology companies being bad actors. That these platforms are somehow motivated to do evil things and control everybody. My question is rather on the opposite end, humans are malleable and humans have tendencies. Do platforms have roles amplifying extreme human tendencies because they get more views? Whether creators are incentivized to create things that go viral instead of being their authentic voices? For example, for people who are interested in creating long-form content, now you have incentivized them to create short-form content because short-form content often goes viral. That’s where I was trying to draw your attention.
Two things. One, I think social networking, or the internet, is still not in its adulthood. It is still in its early stage. We are still learning how to assimilate these platforms and mediums into our lives.
We are probably first/second generations of Facebook/Twitter users. It's going to take some time to get used to the norm and etiquette, optimal use, etc. We have been running this social experiment in the real world for thousands of years. Whatever social structure we have today in the physical world, it took many different turns and experiments to come to that state. It's early days for the internet and these platforms, and it will take time to probably go to some sort of optimal situation.
Second, about the creators' incentives. In many ways, these platforms try to do what the users want. It takes a long time to read a long blog. If you want to read my deep dives, it's going to take an hour. That's a long time for many people.
I'm pretty sure these platforms can see what people click on and like and what people don't. It's almost biology at work. We are visual beings. We like to see more. You can't change biology. Let me put it this way, could this platform encourage us to read more long-form? My answer is probably not. Probably they wouldn't be able to do so. Yeah, they may give me more reach. I may get a couple more extra clicks. But by and large, people are not going to read my hour-long deep dives because they may simply be not interested. They don't have time. They want to spend their time differently. If you think from that perspective, it's not really the platforms that are driving the boat forward. It's the users. And this is a competitive space. All these platforms are trying to figure out what the users want, how they can serve that interest, and present content in front of these users that they would like.
The thing is the internet is big enough. It's inherently global. Anyone can read almost anything. You don't need to pander to the masses. You don't have to be Taylor Swift. You can try, that's fine. You may be, who knows? But the beauty of the internet is not that. I think that because people talk about these edge cases so much that we tend to forget and under-appreciate the beauty of the internet. Because we discuss those kinds of negative aspects so much, it discourages a lot of people from pursuing their interest in the internet.
For example, my job is really simple. For MBI Deep Dives, I want every single long-term investor in the world to come across my website and be a subscriber eventually. First of all, this is a minority population. Very few people are investors. Moreover, I'm a fundamental investor and not a quantitative investor. So I’m a subset of a subset of people in this trade. It means I deal with a tiny little percentage but the good thing is that it is internet scaled. When it's internet scaled, your percentage doesn't matter. Because whatever your percentage is, if whatever you're doing has some value proposition and is global, it doesn't matter how small your subset is, you’ll have a large enough audience.
But if you're doing something locally, it can be challenging. But if it's more global, then your potential universe is everyone on the internet and then it's a subset of a subset of a subset. And whatever the percentage is, you will be fine. We don't know the degree, whether you will be a millionaire or billionaire or whatever.
But I think, by and large, creators should not be worried because of this tendency in readers. The more important thing is whether you are taking a shot on the internet. That's a problem that I see in Bangladesh. I believe that there should be more global content from Bangladesh, but I rarely see that. It's very localized. The moment you are trying to build localized content, it has different dimensions and challenges, because now you're just not a subset of the internet, you're a subset of the local region. So you're unlikely to be able to utilize the massive potential of the internet.
What do you think about the internet culture of Bangladesh? I don't think we have a strong internet culture as yet. People go on Facebook and do things there. In terms of creating content either for the local market or global audience, that's not happening at scale. How do you see that?
This is something I wonder myself. If you want to read a good piece on BRAC or Fazle Hasan Abed or Iqbal Quadir or Grameenphone or bKash and Kamal Quadir, you won't be able to find one. If you find something, it could be some kind of PR exercise. It's not that there's no opportunity, I just think people are not utilizing that from Bangladesh. I posted something like this on one of my Facebook groups.
People like Fazle Hasan Abed or Iqbal Quadir have been instrumental in Bangladesh's development. But if you talk to university students from different public and private universities, I think very few people will know about these people and their work. Contrary to that, probably 99% of them know about Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk. But they may not know what Iqbal Quadir or Kamal Quadir did. Why is that?
I think there is an opportunity. It's very simple. Open a website, write about these instrumental entrepreneurs in the history of Bangladesh, and what exactly they did, and do it properly, not like a PR exercise. Nobody is that great. There are challenges and obstacles these people faced and that story can be told over the internet and you don't need permission from anyone. You don't need to publish on the Daily Star or Prothom Alo. You can just do it on your website.
The thing that I want to convey is that on the internet, there are so many people who can publish one good piece. Tens of thousands of people are intellectually capable of publishing one good piece. It will be a tiny percentage of all the people who are intellectually capable of publishing something great once to do it consistently.
Consistency is hard. If you can build that, if you can publish high-quality work consistently on the internet, and do it for a long enough time, you will succeed. I can't say if you do it tomorrow, you will be successful in one or two months. There is no guarantee like that. But if you do high-quality work consistently for a long time, I think success is a question of when not if.
And frankly speaking, if you're doing it for 10/15 years, and nobody's paying attention, the conclusion has to be that your work is not up to the mark. There is again, nothing shameful about it. Not everybody is a great writer or analyst. You don't have to be a great analyst. I'm not a great musician. I'm not ashamed of that. If you do it for a long enough time on the internet and if it's high-quality work, the internet tends to find you. It will find you.
That's a super interesting observation: do high-quality work and do it for a long period.
Let me put it this way, instead of thinking about what people would want to read, I will start with what you want to read. So instead of thinking about what people would like to read, it is more useful to think about what you would like to read and then do it at the internet scale.
Interest is important for other reasons as well. If you want to do it consistently for 10-15 years, there is no way you can fake it. Contrary to mainstream opinion, I think it is easier to fake in real life than on the internet. You can fake on the internet, but only for a short period. If you want to do anything on the internet for 10-15 years, there is no way you can fake it. And if you're truly interested in something only then you can be consistent for a long time without seeing the results. That's the only way.
If you're doing work for Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, you have to be deeply passionate about it. I don't know about Fazle Hasan Abed and Iqbal Quadir, but I want to know their story. I want to know how they have built these companies. These are great companies in Bangladesh. Without Grameenphone, Bangladesh would be a different country. Without BRAC, Bangladesh would be a different country. These people have made enormous contributions but few people know about them. If you think about Zuckerberg and Musk, these people are in the press almost every single day. People are talking about them all the time. They get so much press and so much attention. Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, contrary to that, get little positive attention. I don't know but I think even university students are barely aware of the work of Fazle Hasan Abed or Iqbal Quadir.
That's an interesting point and more so to me, as I was telling you about the origin of Future Startup and the sorry state of meaningful business journalism and business knowledge in the country. I have a couple of questions about the cultural differences between the US and Bangladesh. And this is one of the points that I wanted to talk about. As you mentioned, people know little about important Bangladeshi entrepreneurs and they are rarely talked about. I think we have this cultural orientation where we see entrepreneurs and business people with skepticism that these people are out for profit and so on. We are a low-trust society where people are generally skeptical of other people and more so about the people who are doing well. When we look at countries like the US and many other countries where a lot of things are happening around innovation and entrepreneurship, culturally they seem to be more open and high-trust societies. Of course, people criticize each other. Big businesses receive criticism regularly but they also celebrate these people. What cultural differences do you see between these cultures — cultures in countries like the US where entrepreneurship and innovation are high and Bangladesh?
I don’t think this is a Bangladeshi problem. People in general may tend to look for black-and-white answers. When I talk about Fazle Hasan Abed or Quadir Brothers and their contribution to Bangladesh, I don’t imply that it's all positive. We tend to lean one way or the other too extremely. It's fine to mention Fazle Hasan Abed's enormous positive contribution to Bangladesh's progress, but there may be areas where he may not have done a pretty good job. And it's fine to mention it as well.
If you talk only about positives, it's going to be a PR exercise and your readers may lose interest. If it's balanced and more like a reflection of reality, then it's much more interesting. But that’s not what usually happens. Even in the US, there are a lot of people who wouldn’t be able to tell you anything positive about Elon Musk, which is surprising given what he's accomplished. The same is true about Mark Zuckerberg or Rockefeller because they focus on the negative aspects so much. We're all humans. None of these people like Mark Zuckerberg or the Quadir brothers are saints. They're humans. They have vices and sins just like most of us. We don't have to put them on a pedestal. But if we think we have nothing to learn from them, we are wrong.
I always think about Amazon. This is a company that was founded in 1994. In less than three decades, this company has conquered so many aspects of American life, it is astonishing. It is a dominant player in retail and cloud computing, two of the largest industries in the world. It was not like people just gave money to Jeff Bezos. No. He had to start from almost zero. And he came from almost zero to where he is today. There is a lot to learn and understand about how exactly you build these things from zero. 1994 is not too long ago. The same applies to BRAC and Grameenphone. It's important to tell these stories to inspire the next group of entrepreneurs.
I think there's a huge opportunity for anyone in the world who wants to learn. You have access to all this free knowledge. This is an incredible time. There's this podcast called the Founders. David Senra, who is the host of Founders, basically reads biographies of founders and entrepreneurs who went on to do great things and does a podcast on that, every week. And it's free. Think about it. That’s the beauty of the internet.
People spend so much time criticizing all these platforms. I'm like, no, no, you are missing the bigger picture. Today, you can be born in Bogura, in a lower-middle-class family, and basically can have access to something like the Founders podcast for free. There are many other podcasts where you can listen to successful entrepreneurs and founders who would have been impossible for you to reach.
I think there will be an enormous difference between people who are internally driven, and who can find inspiration on their own, versus someone who is waiting for inspiration from the system around them, waiting for other people to tell them what to do. There'll be an enormous difference between these two groups of people over time, especially because of the internet.
You have zero control over where you are born. You can't decide that. But if you can find inspiration on your own, it matters a lot less. You can get a lot done regardless of your geographic location. There are limitations. I'm not saying it's all good. It's probably not going to be possible to build a Tesla if you're born in Bangladesh.
I think one of the biggest differences that I see between America and Bangladesh is the height of ambition. American entrepreneurs are by default exceptionally ambitious. They want to conquer the world. They start small, but the ultimate goal is simple: they want to conquer the world.
In Bangladesh, when I talk to someone, I don't get that same kind of ambition. They don't want to conquer the world. The thing is on the internet if you want to build an internet-scale business, your competition is the world, it's not Bangladeshi companies. If you're building an eCommerce company, you have to entertain the possibility that Amazon will be here eventually. So you have to build an ecommerce business thinking that you can outsmart even Amazon.
In some sense, it's going to be more challenging but it's also going to be much more exciting. If you are talented, if you know what you're doing, geography is going to be less and less important even in my lifetime. The importance is never going to be zero because there are physical limitations in certain aspects. But it's going to be a lot less important than the world I was born into.
Since we are talking about these topics, two questions: one is about the importance of geography and another is about ambition. You rightly pointed out that people in Bangladesh are conservative in terms of what they want to become, and how they see the world. Tyler Cowen has this interesting phrase: Raising the aspirations of people. He says, if you can raise the aspirations of people, it can transform their lives and the lives of people around them. But how do you raise the aspirations of people?
I think you have to consume the right kind of content. That's one part. If I think about my own life, how did I learn to speak English? I was born in Bogura. I didn't go to an English medium school. I learned through watching cricket matches and listening to English commentators.
It's hard to go from zero to 1000, you have to go step by step. I think it's possible for me to be one of the best public market equity analysts in the world. I couldn't believe that five years ago. It was an impossible ambition. But I now think it's a possibility. And again, it takes time to start believing that. The fact that I was able to build something on my own from nothing, and I was able to gain an audience from all over the world, gives me confidence that you may be able to do it. Obviously, there is no guarantee. But you can strive to do that. The younger you start, the better it is. I am 32. I tell myself, if I do it for another 10-15 years, I should be much better at this than I am now. And in 10 years I'll be just 42.
In my job, there's no retirement plan here. Because this is not a job for me. I want to do this for as long as I want. Again, if you want to increase your aspiration, you have to follow your interest, whatever that is. It doesn't have to be a business. If you're interested in music, learn how some of the great musicians made it. It's so easy to find out. Anything that you are interested in, you will find plenty of content on the internet. Plenty of forums on the internet, where people are discussing that. Whatever you're interested in, follow that inspiration, follow that interesting path, and you will find something but you have to be interested enough.
I can't tell you that you should be interested in music. How can I convince you of that? You can't convince me to be interested in something that I am not. And I think people are generally interested in something. You have to take the initiative. And that's why I think, although you don't have to be an interest-driven person, people who follow their interests will be at a decided advantage because you're not waiting for other people to tell you what to do and stuff like that. You're not busy complaining about how things have been unfair, how life has been unfair to you. It's a good trait.
If you think about my own life. In July 2020, if I started complaining about my life, how ridiculous would it be — a guy who was born in Bangladesh, who made it to Cornell and finished his MBA, complaining about how life has been unfair to him. I mean, are you kidding? There are billions of people who would love to take my place, so how can I complain seriously about my life being unfair? That makes no sense to me. People who are internally driven will be at a decided advantage in the age of the internet. And people who are waiting for other people to inspire them, it's going to be tough for them.
Related to the same question is the point that you mentioned: the Internet has kind of flattened the world in terms of access to opportunities, knowledge, and many other aspects. But do you think geography still plays an outsized role? If you look at the history of genius or innovation, things have almost always been geographically concentrated. There were and are certain hubs and clusters of happenings. In the past Paris used to be the hub for writers and fashion. If you wanted to make it as a writer, you had to move to Paris. In today's world, if you're talking about finance, it's probably London. If you're talking about technology, it's Silicon Valley. If you're talking about entertainment, it's probably LA or something like that. I think it also has a role to play in terms of whether you can become ambitious. That's one part of it. It's also about access to resources. It doesn't matter how hard you work, if you live in Bangladesh, by default, you will be excluded from some opportunities. How do you see that?
As I mentioned before, geography will always have a role to play. Talent density is real. I don't quite see Silicon Valley's role diminishing anytime soon or the role of any of these geographies that you mentioned. They will have their place and relevance, but you don't have to be there to make a name. I think it's also a matter of scale. If you are going to build a $100 billion business with a significant presence in the US, you will need to have an office in Silicon Valley or have your presence in the US. Again, it's a matter of scale.
But if you are someone like me, I can just do this thing from anywhere in the world. If you are a TikToker, you can build your audience from anywhere in the world. You don't have to be in LA. I'm pretty sure there are a lot of Tiktokers out there who are just making content from their home, they probably get more views than some movies. There is a shift going on.
I understand the strengths some of these regions have. But I think that pales in comparison to what normal people like you and me have today in comparison to any point of time in the history of civilization.
There are two ways to look at this. One, you can complain that there's still so much difference between me and the person who is in Silicon Valley. That's one way to look at it. And you would not be wrong. There are differences. There are advantages and benefits to being in Silicon Valley versus in Bogura or Dhaka.
The other way of looking at it is that never in the history of human civilization could someone like me have as much possibility and potential to capitalize as I do today. People are always going to be born in Bogura. Not everybody is going to be born in Silicon Valley. But it is the best time in the history of human civilization to be born in a place like Bogura. If the difference between these places were 1000 and 1 in the past, it has come down to 1000 and 100. We have narrowed the gap. That's what I'm trying to say. I'm not saying that there's no difference and it's all flattened. No, it has not. It probably never will.
I deeply care about equality of opportunity and meritocracy. If you're Elon Musk in Bangladesh, I want to help. I wish and I hope that you will be able to realize your potential. I'm not saying there are 10,000 Elon Musk or Zuckerberg or Bezos in Bangladesh. We don't need 10,000. We need five or ten. The question is whether these 10 can realize their potential. We need to figure out ways to help them. That's all we can do. And I do think they have a much better chance to realize their potential today than at any time before.
The last thing I would mention here is: people talk about how they are disadvantaged and how they are so far behind. Think about Akij, for example, you mentioned before or most of the famous Bangladeshi entrepreneurs that you know of, if you go back and read their history and think about when Akij started or all these other local Conglomerates in Bangladesh such as Pran, when they were starting, just try to imagine yourself in those founders shoes, and then ask yourself, are you in a better position or a worse position than they were when they started? Today, you see Pran and Akij as they are today and think that they have always been like this. No, they were not always like this. When they started they were in a worse position than probably you are right now. Of course, not everyone but most of them.
That's where I usually come down to. If you have enormous potential, you have almost nothing to be depressed about in today's world. You have so many more ways to capitalize on your talent than there ever were.. I’m not claiming that you will be able to equally capitalize on your talent like someone who is in Silicon Valley. You will not be able to do that. There are a lot of ways the world is unfair in favor of the Silicon Valley person. But that's life. We can't solve everything in our lifetime. It's a journey. You know, progress happens gradually. It can't be turbocharged to the end state.
I just want to push this a bit. In terms of what you said, probably we have five potential Elon Musk and there are chances that they are not being able to realize their potential. Probably we have a lot of people who are super talented and if they are put in any different environment, they would have done very well. What can we do differently to enable more people to do well? What can we learn from these super successful ecosystems of innovations and geniuses?
One of the things that the Internet has enabled is that you almost have to reach global competitiveness. If you want to build something truly global, an enduring business, your competency and expertise have to be at the global standard, not the local standard.
One thing that I hope that Bangladeshi people do more is that you don't have to travel to America to meet people. You can interact with people from all over the world in different forums. If you think about the internet, it's so important to go beyond your local area. If you're just interacting with Facebook, you're talking to other Bangladeshi people, it's hard to realize the potential. You have to go to different forums. The Internet is a world itself in many ways. You have to travel. There is no visa required. There is no passport required to go to these different places on the internet, at least not yet. So you can do that. If you're interested in autonomous vehicles, go and spend time with people who are interested in autonomous vehicles.
There are a lot of instances where even teenagers come up with pretty exciting innovations. And you may think they're like 17 years old, 16 years old, and you may think, how can this person come up with such incredible innovation? They must be very talented. Yes, they are talented. But there's something else you are missing. You think that these are 16/17 years old, but they have probably been thinking about that particular problem for five-six years. They have been spending all their time on different forums on the internet, trying to get to the bottom of it. They've probably been thinking about everything about the product for five-six years. And then at the age of 16-17, they came up with this innovation and we are like he/she's such a young kid. But on that particular problem, he/she may be much more experienced than anybody in the world, because that person is focusing on that particular problem for five-six years. This is going to be even more pronounced over time.
Because the Internet has so much content and distractions, it's hard to be focused on something. But if someone is focused, trying to research and investigate a particular problem for 5-10 years, it is out of the question that that person can potentially become one of the experts in that particular field regardless of where that person is from. It's possible because of the internet. You don't have to come to New York and go to the New York library to have all this knowledge. It's all out there on the internet. That is an enormous power. If you're 10/12 years old, and you're following a particular interest and following that path, over time you just build the level of competency, and you’ll eventually get noticed.
You briefly mentioned how MBI Deep Dives came about. I wanted to go back a little to get the history of MBI Deep Dives. So you started posting on Twitter, you got some traction and people started to share your things, talk about your work, and what happened after that? Did you just decide okay, this is interesting, I can probably put together a website and start publishing analyses that I used to do for my employer before. What happened after that?
I mean, that's pretty much what I've been doing. My business is simple. I just publish one deep dive every month on a publicly listed company and people subscribe to read my work. Almost no capital is required to start this business. My job is to publish every month. There's no vacation. Not that I need one. But it's a simple model. And that's what I just kept doing.
There are some tweaks I may do in the future such as I also started recording my deep dives. You can listen to them now. There may be a few tweaks here and there, but I'm not expecting a significant change in my model. What I love about my business is that it allows me to keep following my passion, following my interest. I do and share my work. That's pretty much it. I don't make any promises. I don't have any claims that I'm a great analyst. I'm trying to be one but I don’t claim to be one.
From the reader's perspective, it is a very low investment. If you are hiring an analyst on Wall Street, you're paying more than six-figure salaries even for someone who is just out of college. That's a huge investment when you don't know whether that person is any good.
My model is simple. And by extension of that, my life is simple, which is what I like about my business. My life has become abundantly simpler than it ever was in my entire life. I wake up, start reading and start doing my work. I don't have a lot of meetings and stuff like that. That's the way I intend to keep it.
As I said, my personal goal is to remain above the US average GDP per capita. Anything above is kind of a bonus for me. If it goes below US GDP per capita, then I'll start thinking about opportunity costs. But as long as it's above US GDP per capita, I'm totally fine doing this for as long as I want to and as long as I'm intellectually capable of doing it. I'm a big believer in the idea that the internet rewards people who stick to things for the long term.
Because how many people are going to do this for 10-15 years? Very few. Probably fewer than five. I'm not even sure I will be able to do it. I remind myself, most people will fail. In fact, almost everyone will fail to be able to stick to whatever they're doing on the internet. It's super hard. If I do survive, it is almost inevitable that I will become one of the most familiar analysts in the US market, at least. That's what I'm trying to do. I've been doing this for two years. And it's funny how many people are familiar with my work. If I can do this for 15 years, I don't know what's going to happen.
I'm not raising capital from anybody. I don't have anyone to answer. I have enough to live my life comfortably. I almost feel like I am playing a video game here to see how many levels I can cross in 10-15 years.
You started in September 2020, how much has your way of looking at the work and approach to doing it evolved over this period?
I do think I am getting incrementally better over time. I do not personally rate some of my earlier works highly. The fact that I am kind of nauseous about my earlier work shows that I'm probably getting better. The goal is to retain that feeling over time so that I can continually get better. In terms of workflow, there haven't been a lot of changes. If you think about the nature of my work, as I'm covering more companies, my understanding of how the world works is expanding. As my understanding expands, I'm able to connect the dots more clearly. Again, nobody quite understands how the world works. I will never be able to get to the finish line. I know that stock prices can go here and there in all sorts of ways. It's hard to fully comprehend that. But I can incrementally get better over time as I keep doing this for years and years.
I always want to be a better analyst. But it's hard to turbocharge it. I probably have published 28 deep dives. I would love to publish 100 deep dives, but I can't do that in two years. I have to do it in 10 years. That's the thing. It's a gradual process. You have to be patient. It's hard to find shortcuts in this business.
What's your process of finding, researching, and writing about companies? How do you approach that?
I have tried many different approaches when it comes to finding companies. If I summarize instead of going through all the details, it's simple. In the US, there are so many companies that you can write about. There are hundreds of companies that I would love to know more about. There is no possibility that I will ever run out of companies to cover. You can roughly think, I am mostly picking randomly. There are some inner tweaks. But if I have to summarize, that's how I would put it — it's somewhat random. There is no compelling explanation for why I covered Airbnb recently.
As I'm extolling the virtues of the internet, I utilize the internet a lot to study companies. I start with reading public filings. These are public companies. They publish their annual report and quarterly reports and they also have quarterly earnings calls with the analyst. I try to understand the business. I spend a lot of time browsing through the internet to figure out about the business, about the competition, and all that.
I also spent a lot of time on Twitter and Substack to see what other people are talking about these companies. I would reach out to a couple of people who have been following and writing about this particular business on Twitter to discuss it. I spend like a month on a business.
By the time I start having a conversation with some of these people, I usually have a pretty good idea of what this business is about, where I may have some questions and concerns, and the potential that I see. These are more of a discussion around what they think about this business, why, etc and we'll have some back-and-forth arguments about different aspects of that business.
Those exchanges are very helpful for me to form my own opinion. It is useful to listen to what other people are thinking and their views about these businesses. Especially someone who has spent a lot of time following a particular company. Then I start writing.
I don't remember who said this but it resonated with me that thinking happens when you are writing. It's not like you think and then write. Rather as you start writing, you are also thinking simultaneously.
For instance, I had a certain bull case for a company but as I start writing, I realize my argument is not making sense. I have to find more evidence to substantiate my concern or my bullish view. There's a back-and-forth internally in my head as I start writing. I go back and forth when I'm writing. Once I am done writing, I publish them.
Sometimes I learn more after publishing a deep dive. Some of my readers will tell me their takes or one of my takes is wrong or I don't agree with you, etc. A lot of this feedback is super helpful.
What's your writing routine?
I read and I talk to people. And then I build some sort of a quantitative model. And then I start writing. As I said, my life is simple. I basically wake up, freshen up and then open my laptop and start working. I go to bed at 12:00 am. My laptop is open most of the time from 7 am to 12 am. I will probably work till 8-10 pm. There is no formula to it. I don't have any favorite time of the day to write. When I'm writing, I'm writing. But I do not pull all-nighters. Rather I work consistently.
How do you structure your day? If we talk about a typical day, what does a typical day look like for you?
As I said, my typical day is almost the same every day more or less. I don't do weekends and stuff like that. I wake up at roughly 7:00 am, freshen up and by 8:00 am, I'm in front of my laptop. I check my emails and maybe Twitter for a while and then I start working.
Depending on which week it is, my type of work varies. For example, if I just published my deep dive, I start reading for the next deep dive. If it's in the middle of the month, I'm building my model for the next deep dive. Maybe in a week or so, I will start writing.
But as I said, when I write, I also continue reading. Because when I start writing, I may realize I don't understand or forgot some of the stuff that I've read. I go back and reread a lot of the stuff. If I have to summarize, it is mostly reading and writing.
I'm also active on Twitter. I probably receive more Twitter messages than emails. I try to respond to them. One of my goals is to have zero inboxes everywhere — all my emails, Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp, everything is seen and responded to. If someone reaches out to me, I respond to them.
If the market is open, I may take a look from time to time. I'm trying to avoid it as much as possible because there's not much information other than where the stock is trading today. But I do find myself looking at that at different times of the day. Sometimes I would have calls with people but that's pretty much it.
Apart from that, I walk for an hour every day. That's super helpful for me. I feel more energized after the walk. I also started playing some cricket regularly in Virtual Reality (VR) lately. I spend half an hour playing cricket, something that got added recently. That's pretty much it.
Do you have any particular approach to improving your craft? Some people try to say that writers and knowledge workers should approach their work like athletes and should have some sort of training program.
I think of myself first as an analyst, then an investor, and then probably a writer. I'm an analyst who is trying to understand and put down my thoughts on these businesses. It's not necessarily meant to be entertaining. That's why I feel like I don't have a massive writer's block. Sometimes I find it hard to write, but that doesn't last that long. It's mostly because maybe I'm distracted, but it's not like I'm blocked for months or weeks.
As an analyst, there's always room for improvement, but it's incremental. One benefit that someone like me has is that I have the market to guide me. If I write something, you may not agree with me and we can talk about it the whole day telling each other why I'm right and you're wrong. In politics, there's almost no way to settle that debate. In the market, however, there is a way to settle the debate over time, which is the stock price. Stock prices may be wrong. In fact, as active investors, we are essentially making the argument that the stock price is perhaps wrong. That's why you're buying or selling. But over time markets do give you a message that hey, you probably were wrong or you were right. Because I think of myself as an analyst, I'm trying to understand these businesses well. The way to measure that is basically, the market will tell me and the stock price moves in the direction I think it should.
A good analyst may not be a great investor. You may do a fantastic analysis, but stock prices are a function of many things. Great investing is a lot about probabilities and betting big on the right side of those probabilities. An analyst can do excellent detective work, but the analyst may not necessarily be good at assessing those probabilities and sizing those bets correctly.
It has only been just two years. Obviously, it's not a long time. But over time, I do expect the market to give me a lot of signals. I hope to learn a lot more from what the market is going to tell me over the next 5-10 years.
Your work is more on the side of thinking than the prose and the quality of sentences or those kinds of things. Can you give us an overview of MBI Deep Dives today and tell us about your priorities going forward?
In terms of numbers, I have roughly 1600 subscribers. In terms of the future, it's highly likely to remain a one-person company for a long time.
My thinking is that if I ever exceed a million dollars in revenue, I may start thinking about hiring someone. But it will still be a small organization. Even in the crazy bull case for MBI deep dives, I don't think it's going to be more than three or four people.
If I wanted to hire today, I would have to hire someone from a low-cost-of-living region of the world. I don't want to hire talent based on the region. I want to hire the best talent. If I hire someone, I have to feel that the organization has gotten better because of the two people. To feel that I need someone who is the right person. I put it this way: I want to hire someone who is in the range of 80 to 120% of who I’m. If they are more than 120%, let’s say twice as good as I’m, they will not work for me. They're just too good. I have to be pragmatic about that. If they are 80% of who I am, I can probably guide them in some areas to get to 100% of who I am. That's the goal. I don't want to hire people for the sake of it. And it seems like that's a long way to go.
One thing I have realized over time is that it's hard to forecast revenue. One of the reasons is that investing is somewhat of a cyclical business. Consequently, interest in the stock market is cyclical. When there's a bull market, there's a lot of interest and when there's a lot of interest, people are probably looking for something like MBI Deep Dives. But when the market crashes and there is an extended downturn, the interest also plummets. It's possible that MBI Deep Dives could also be somewhat cyclical in sympathy with the rise and fall of stock markets. That's why it's important for me to maintain a low-cost base so that even if there's a long bear market in the US, I can survive. The moment I hire people, there's a fixed cost. I have to take care of that. I think when you cross a million, there's a significant cushion. Even if there's a long-term drawdown, you have time to work through it.
What are the upsides and downsides of working solo?
I used to think the downside would be no colleagues and stuff like that. But thanks to the internet, I do have some sort of quasi-colleagues. People on Twitter, for example, they're always a message away. I'm always a message away and we kind of banter with each other, and talk to each other, which feels like what you would do if you were in an office with your colleagues. I don't quite feel like oh, I wish I had colleagues. I'm totally fine with whatever the situation is now.
In my particular case, I don't think there are a lot of downsides. There are very few downsides. One obvious downside would be that if I get sick or face other challenges, the business gets halted. If you work for a company, you get some sick leave, and so on. Those things don't exist.
For me, it's mostly about doing what I'm doing and being consistent. That's the number one goal — to be consistent. One of the upsides of my model is that it allows for consistency. That's why I picked one deep dive and not two or three. I couldn't convince myself that I could do two or three deep dives a month for 10 years. But I could convince myself that I could do one deep dive per month for the next 10 years. But if I do 2-3 deep dives per month, the probability that I’ll lose interest is significantly higher, which I don't want.
Do you invest in the companies that you write about? Does it influence your thinking about those companies?
Not all the companies but some of the companies, yes. I think I have written about 28 companies so far. And I've invested probably in seven/eight of them.
I didn’t know that I'd buy the company before I studied them. I study these businesses, I do the deep dive, and then I may come to the conclusion that I would love to be a shareholder of this business. When I invest in a company, I give the disclosure that I own the shares of this business at the top of the deep dive so that people are fully aware.
I don't claim that the fact that I own this business does not influence my thinking. I think making such a claim would be bogus. But I disclose everything in terms of whether I own the company and what is the weight of that stock in my portfolio. I disclose stats so that people can see that I own this business, but if that's like 0.1% of my portfolio, that might have no meaning. I study before and buy later. It's not like I buy them and then I start studying. Then it will be a somewhat perverse incentive where I'll try to find arguments to justify my ownership.
We’re living through an interesting time. You mentioned several times the kind of opportunity the Internet has created for everyone. We have seen a reflection of it in the rise of independent creators, subscription media, etc. Many prominent journalists are leaving their jobs and launching substacks. People like Ben Thompson have been doing it for a long time. In many ways, individual creators are competing with large organizations. It seems people prefer Packy McCormick's analysis of some private companies to the analysis of the New York Times per se. There is a decline in trust in large media companies. What's your take on all this creator economy narrative, subscription economy, and one-person media companies? Where do you see this trend of subscription media going, given that it is a relatively new thing?
I think advertising will remain the dominant form of content monetization over subscription. Subscription will gain some prominence but I don't think it's going to be the majority. Advertising will have the dominant share in terms of overall content monetization on the internet. I think independent creators have a lot of potentials to monetize their intellectual property. But there are challenges. The Internet tends to follow some sort of power law distribution. There are more than 1000 analysts in the world working for different funds, companies, and institutions. If they all want to start building their one-person shop, could they do it? Do I think there will be 1000 equity analysts covering independently? I don't think so. They will make a fraction of what they make in their day job. That's part of the reason why, over time, you become more powerful on the internet if you survive. People will always prefer an analyst who has been around for 10-15 years to the one who just launched his or her website. That's why the big get even bigger over time. Power law accentuates. It gets more dominant and more established.
But it doesn't mean that smaller creators have no hope. People on top of the power law are going to make millions. But people who are in the middle or at the bottom can still make enough for themselves as the internet matures more. Kevin Kelly talks about the idea of 1000 true fans. If you have 1000 people who love your work, you are set. 10-20 years down the line, a middle class will be created based on this tendency of the internet. You don't have to be at the top of the power law to be able to make a living. Now it's hard to make a living if you're not in the right part of the power law. That may change over time. However, the nature of the distribution will not change. Power law will remain. Substack follows this power law distribution. The top 10% Substack authors probably make 80-90% of total subscription revenue on that platform.
I don't think the big institutions are going away. I'm not a big believer in the narrative that it's all independent individuals and that independent journalists are going to take over.
What's your take on the rise of the subscription media trend? Many people are saying that the future of media is at least some form of subscription. How do you see it in the context of your work?
I don't think advertising is going away. Advertising has much more scale and it's much more affordable for a lot more people. For instance, I may think that $10 is such a low price point, anyone can afford it. Maybe in the US, anyone can afford it, but not in Bangladesh. Not in India. In those places, it's a lot of money.
The way I think about my own business is that there are two kinds of subscribers. One is professional investors, who would probably want to hire me for their institution. If they wanted to hire me, they would have to pay a lot of money. Now they're paying like $100 per year to hire me and read my intellectual property. It's a great deal. There is another group of subscribers who are casual subscribers, who are not professional investors and would never hire me. They may think, I pay $12 per month or $100 per year for MBI deep dives. Why am I paying that? I pay Wall Street Journal $10 and Wall Street Journal has so many things but MBI Deep Dives publishes only one deep dive per month. This last group of customers may be a bit more volatile based on the cycle we are in. If it's a bull cycle, there will be a lot more people coming in because they're interested in learning about the market. But if it is a bear cycle, they will think I'm not getting value out of it and don’t want to pay for it. It's always going to be cyclical.
The challenge subscription businesses face is that you're always one click away to unsubscribe. It's very consumer friendly. There are newsletters that have like 20% monthly churn. You can't build any business with such churn.
Second, people may subscribe to a few newsletters at once. But they're not going to subscribe to 50 or 100. Even if they do subscribe, they will unsubscribe from 45 of them after a few months. Whereas people are a lot less inclined to unsubscribe if it’s just ad-based.
For example, how does my business grow? You may find my work through Twitter or one of my subscribers shared my work with you saying, hey, you should read this guy. But when your model is advertising, anyone can read it, which makes it so much easier to reach more audiences. Even when I'm publishing my work, it's behind a paywall, you don't know whether it's any good. So the subscription model has some inherent challenges. But if you’re advertising-based and if your work is any good, it's easier for you to reach scale.
But it's hard to do sponsored deep dives for someone like me because there's a conflict of interest. If I'm covering Airbnb and Airbnb is sponsoring my deep dive, how can I expand on the potential risks of Airbnb? How can I be independent?
If 10 years down the line there's a wide consensus that I do good work and am a good analyst, my work is worth reading then I'll get most of the incremental subscribers in the world who are willing to pay to read deep dives. But it'll take time and I have to survive. As I said, most people will not survive. That's kind of a given. My challenge is to make sure I'm not one of them.
Lessons from your journey so far.
I started MBI Deep Dives when I was in a very difficult situation. I would’ve never started anything on my own unless I found myself in that situation. That's why I feel like, even if you are in a dire situation, try to listen to whatever the world is trying to tell you. I'd be pretty happy working for a fund, and getting paid every month. That was my dream before coming to Cornell — to work for a buy-side fund. Over the last two years, the biggest thing for me is the amount of joy I have from my work. I don't look forward to weekends, vacations, or anything like that. I don’t feel like I need to go somewhere to recharge. I am recharged. I have enormous joy in working on my own thing. I didn’t have this understanding when I was starting this thing. I couldn't possibly know that you could have something like that.
The other lesson is that you gain conviction over time. I didn't know that this is what I should do when I started this. I was okay with failure. I was okay with this not turning out to be anything. Over time, however, I have gained more conviction. I have gained more confidence that this is what I should do and put my energy behind it.
Advice for young people.
I've been kind of saying this the whole time. Follow your interest, whatever that is. You don't have to be a computer scientist or analyst or you don't have to work at a hedge fund. Just follow your damn interests even if it's completely inconsequential or sounds dumb or niche. Follow whatever you're interested in and participate on the internet in that particular interest. Find other people who are interested in that same thing and be part of that community.
It's so much easier to get good at something that you're interested in. Because you will naturally spend a lot more time with the things that you are interested in and you will get better.
Most people should try their luck on the internet. I'm not saying you will make it. As I said, the internet has power law distribution. By definition, most people will not have a positive outcome, but you should try. Because you wouldn't know unless you try. I think over the next 20-30 years, the internet will become a dominant source of people's livelihood. Everything is becoming digital. The tide is not going to change. More and more people will make money on the internet.
My own family, both my brother and me, earn our livelihood with the help of the internet. I didn't know that I could be an independent research analyst three years ago. I would never think such a thing is possible for me. That's why it's important to keep your eyes open and pay attention to what's going on.
That's the simple advice: follow your interests. Most of you have all the resources you need. You can listen to any famous investor and entrepreneur. If you want to learn about business there are so many resources out there. How many people in Bangladesh understand Amazon? Very few. But you can study Amazon in-depth if you want to. These are listed companies. You can find a lot of useful resources on these companies on the internet. If you're trying to build a great business, it's probably helpful to know how other great businesses such as Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, etc have been built. Those stories are out there. You can listen to podcasts or read.
Again, you have to be interested. Nobody can convince you to be interested in a particular thing that you are not interested in. That's why it is important to find and then follow something that you're interested in. Spend some time. Find a community or niche on the internet and participate.
Your favorite podcasts that you would like to recommend to our readers?
I have become a complete podcast addict of late. I listen to at least two-three podcasts per week. First, podcasts are great. I think most nonfiction books can be podcast episodes. It's more efficient just to listen to podcasts. I'm not making the case that you should just listen to podcasts and not read books. It varies from person to person. Second, I listen to podcasts according to my interest, which may not be any match to yours. So keep that in mind.
My general suggestion would be to find the podcast that you're interested in. I can talk about mine. I usually listen to Founders, a great podcast. I listen to Invest like the Best. The other podcast that I would recommend is Acquired. They have extremely long episodes on Berkshire Hathaway and most of the companies that you know. Those are great learning tools. You can learn about many iconic American businesses by listening to their episodes. If I have to pick three: founders, acquired, and invest like the best.
One final question. Life is short and transient, how do you think about life and death?
I don't think I would have many regrets if I die tomorrow. I enjoy my work and I don't have any retirement plan or things like that. Ideally, I would like to work until the day before I die. That's my ideal life. A lot of people want to move away from work. They want to retire. They would think it’s a sad life if you have to work the day before you die. To me, that's a good life. Work has a bad rep in our culture today. But work is essential for us to feel valuable. It doesn't matter what you do— whether you're collecting garbage or building a Tesla, or writing MBI deep dives, what society needs and wants is for you to be productive. Society will not move forward unless we are. The progress will stop if we stop being productive.
Today, I don't think I'd be too sad if I die tomorrow. Of course, if I know right now, I'll be dead tomorrow, it's hard to think I will not be sad. But it's not devastating for me. My life, by and large, has been interesting to me. I'm not trying to convince anybody that my life is interesting. If it ends tomorrow, or whatever the time frame is, that's fine. I don't know, maybe it will get worse and worse from here to the next 20-30-50 years. But so far my life has been pretty good. I'm pretty happy about where I am in life. I don't know what's going to happen in the future. So far, I don't have many complaints.
This is a good place to end today's conversation. Thank you for taking the time and sharing your insights with me.
Thank you for the conversation.