Lessons from a Musician, Insight from an Investor
RF Culbertson is a writer, investor, entrepreneur, professor, musician and poignant storyteller. I had initially been introduced to him through his weekly investor newsletter, which includes insights into general investing, the cryptocurrency world and the emerging marijuana markets. When he was in town recently from Pittsburgh, I asked him to coffee to learn more about his interests and writing career. However, after learning more about RF, I found myself asking questions about what he learned from playing music with various artists such as: James Brown as well as Elton John and whether he regrets skipping breakfasts with Steve Jobs.
Lessons from a musician
According to RF, music, investing and entrepreneurship all come with their own set of similarities: who, what, when and how much? Most people forget about the ‘who’ element – and even in the digital age how far-reaching that can become. RF remembers Maceo Parker (James Brown’s base player) teaching him the ‘what’ side of things. During a particular gig, RF couldn’t dance nearly as well as the other members of the band around him – so he ‘froze’ and became a ‘deer in headlights’. It wasn’t until Maceo yelled at him: “Do something – even if it’s wrong” that he realized that there will be times that life will confuse you, and instead of losing out due to indecision - consider staying in the game by playing quicker and with smaller size.
In terms of ‘when’, “80% of life – is just showing up.” As a musician, RF played the clarinet and saxophone, but wanted to learn to play the piano. He was living in Pittsburgh, and was convinced that if he bought a piano, that would be the impetus he needed to learn how to play it. RF recalls how he: “Walked into this dingy old piano store, where there were three other people looking at a sea of pianos. I sat down and attempted to sing and play Your Song – by Elton John. This guy sat down next to me, and told me that I was butchering the song, and told me to move over. When he started – the world stopped. It was the man himself: Elton John. When he finished, he leaned over and asked me a couple questions about music – who I’d played with, etc. He told me that he was short a sax man on Thursday night – was I available? I said yes – showed up, and played the gig.” His advice to me was to just keep showing up.”
The ‘how much’ side of things is tricky, because not all investments are equal. There are times when you ‘press’, and there are times when you take your foot off the gas. There are times to be ‘perfect’, and there are times when ‘good’ is enough. Perfection is expensive. RF remembers playing the number: Please Please Please with James Brown. “James would fake the ending, and that would lead to the show’s encore. But while James was sliding on the floor and dancing, I needed to be ‘perfect’ and start the encore on the correct beat. The entire band spent 8 hours teaching me how to be ‘perfect’. That night – between 8pm and 4am – I learned the difference between perfect – and good.”
Insights from an Investor
It was when RF admitted that one of his biggest regrets was turning down breakfasts with Steve Jobs that I realized I was only scratching the surface with this guy.
“I had reconnected with an old college buddy working at Stanford, Dave Kelley,” he said. “I remember sitting in my office looking at my Andy Warhol painting of the Apple Macintosh when he asked me if I wanted to have breakfast with Steve Jobs. At the time, the name didn’t ring a bell so I turned down the offer. If only I would have done my homework and called Dave back,” said RF, nostalgically. “Speaking with Dave reminded me of putting on an old pair of sneakers. When you put them back on, you don’t know why you ever took them off.”
It was hard to change the subject but I knew my time was running out and I wanted to ask RF what prompted him to publish an investor newsletter.
“You have to have passion for what you are doing. It’s like when you get into an argument, or when you throw a drink in someone’s face. Something pushed you to the edge – and then a little bit further. Entrepreneurs experience that on a regular basis. They use that energy to change – and start something new,” he said.
In 1998, RF had sold his most recent business venture. “I broke my cardinal rule and I went into something that I didn’t understand. I allowed a private money manager to lose some of my money. When I got mad, he fluffed off my anger,” said RF. “It was then that I realized there had to be others in my same position.”
That event started the newsletter. In the beginning he simply summarized what he was reading in Barrons, but soon started publishing original content, focused on growth areas.
“I always do my homework and I never short-cut that process. I want to understand why people do things because there may be an answer there for me,” he advised. “It’s from doing the homework that I understand an investor’s pain points, and how to address them.“
Focused on growth areas, he said it was a natural fit to zone in on cryptocurrencies.
“You can’t deny they’re on the horizon. Crypto and ‘blockchain’ will be cheaper, faster and better. They’re already a BETTER system because of their inherent non-hackable, decentralized ledger,” said RF. “Because they eliminate the middleman – they’re certainly CHEAPER. So, we just need to figure out how to make them faster. Once we do that, we will all wonder how we ever lived without them.”
The conversation turned to the Hehmeyer Cryptocurrency Index Fund and how RF met Chris Hehmeyer.
“My son had applied for a job at Hehmeyer Trading + Investments,” said RF. “He had been working at another company, and wanted to grow in a different direction. Often well-run small businesses avoid the ‘round peg – square hole’ scenario – by molding the shape and size of the hole to fit the employee.”
RF met with Hehmeyer for brunch right around the same time as his son took the job.
“Chris Hehmeyer validated Morgan’s talent by giving him a programming test, but he validated Morgan’s desire by giving him a job,” RF said. “Everyone needs to find ‘that certain someone’ who will help them over that first barrier. You believe that your barrier is insurmountable. Maybe it’s gender or skin color. Believe me, you just need someone to help you over the hurdle. You need that ‘someone’ who will believe in you. The process is always the same – whether it’s music, investing or programming.”