Becoming Remote

May 14, 2020 | Bogumil Baranowski
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About a year and a half ago, in Gran Canaria, Spain, I had the great pleasure of addressing a large audience of remote workers and digital nomads from around the globe. The event was organized by my friend Nacho Rodriguez, a restless entrepreneur and founder of Nomad City. The venue was a modern glass-walled lecture hall overlooking the brilliantly blue Atlantic Ocean. At that time, I had no way of knowing that soon enough, I would pack up my laptop, take an Uber home, and not return to the office for a long while.

On that trip, I learned a lot about the opportunities and challenges of working remotely. I also discussed our experience building a firm with the capacity to function 100% remotely if required. This had been an interest of mine for some time. The senior partner at Sicart Associates, my boss and mentor François Sicart, has been a huge inspiration for over fifteen years now. Ever since I read his first articles written between New York City, Mexico, Paris, and China, I was intrigued by the idea of taking your work with you wherever you go. I found it freeing and empowering. I have always enjoyed François’ stories and the investment ideas that emerged from his being away from his desk.

During the last two months, as we abruptly transitioned to 100% remote work, we’ve had more than Mr. Sicart’s decades-long remote work experience to rely on. Our early days as a newly independent investment firm almost four years ago were a prime training in remote work. Back then, our small team traded desks for couches almost overnight, and with laptops, phones, and a printer carried from a nearby electronics store, we were back in business long before our new office was ready to use. I have fond memories of turning my dining room table into a co-working space, and having my partner Patsy Jaganath join me. We were 100% remote in those days, which has definitely made it easier for us to transition back to remote work now.

In fact, for years now, as you probably know well, we at Sicart Associates are not always all in the same place at the same time since we travel often for business. My partner Allen Huang and I have frequently coordinated research and trading while one or both of us were on the road. Doug Rankin, one of our portfolio managers, maintains a satellite office of Sicart Associates out of New Jersey. From time to time our office manager Diandra Ramsammy has held the fort when we were all away from our desks, while Delphine Chevalier helps us navigate the time zones from Paris.

All that experience has helped us adjust to the current life and work reality. Almost overnight, the ability to work remotely has become indispensable in many professions, and has given many businesses a chance to endure – even flourish in these trying times. In the last two months, we have heard many kind words from our clients, who appreciate how seamlessly our transition has been. It’s been a true blessing to be able to continue to work, and serve our clients, and it’s something we are very grateful for. We have even been able to successfully onboard clients in the midst of this new business reality.

With all presentations, and conferences now fully online — I’m learning from my better half Megan how online presence matters more than ever before. She has been helping many entrepreneurs build their brands for years, and is now helping seasoned professionals catch up to this remote game — designing and developing their online personal brands that rightfully position them as leaders in their fields.

The idea of becoming remote has been on my mind for years now. I dedicated a third of my most recent book – Money, Life, Family: My Handbook: My complete collection of principles on investing, finding work & life balance, and preserving family wealth to the concept of being remote. Not everywhere, and not always, but in the investment world often enough, being at times physically, intellectually, and emotionally remote can help one become a better investor. I call it keeping a healthy distance from the desk, the crowd, and the noise. In the book, I refer to great investors as worldbound, original thinkers blessed with mindfulness. I emphasize how they know what, when, and how to buy. I picture them as explorers on a treasure hunt who seek out the best ideas, bargain shoppers who go against the crowd and buy when the price is down, and business owners who are disciplined and patient.

I shared this idea of becoming a remote investor with my TEDx audience in California over two years ago, and it prompted a memorable encounter. A college senior approached me afterward, to share his deepest fear: that he would be stuck behind a desk in a dark cubicle for his entire professional life. I explained how the whole concept of work is evolving, including the idea of remote work.  I encouraged him to explore more flexible ways to pursue his career dreams.

Remote work may have become more prevalent than ever, but it is still not the most intuitive concept to grasp. Lately I’ve spent a lot more time talking to my family. I greatly enjoy chats with my grandparents, and especially my grandpa’s keen curiosity about my professional life. Despite my extensive explanations, he still can’t quite picture how I can work from anywhere with just a laptop, good Wi-Fi, and my phone. Recently he asked me a thought-provoking question: how do I know when my work starts and ends?

My grandpa was on to something! That’s been my biggest challenge as I’ve transitioned to working remotely, and I hear the same concern from many friends. Initially, we all just worked every waking hour, partly because we had to. March was a very busy month on the investment front. Markets dropped precipitously, and many potential buying opportunities appeared all at once.  We had to find time for calls with clients, research, trading, and even, more than once, some compliance questions. By April, the workload already felt more balanced, and I found a better rhythm. In our recent team email exchange, we shared how the last two months have been some of our most productive.

I’ve mentioned in earlier posts how I’ve been able to reclaim a good amount of time that I would otherwise spend commuting. I have even picked up some online courses. I still miss travel, but on the whole, I’ve grown fond of this new work and life balance, and I’m not alone. Many companies don’t expect their employees to be back in the office until the fall or even sometime next year. At the same time, many employees and business owners are interested in working remotely most or all of the time in the post-pandemic world.

The 89-year old chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, legendary investor, Warren Buffett during the annual shareholder meeting (streamed live by Yahoo Finance from an auditorium with tens of thousands empty seats) said: “A lot of people have learned that they can work at home, or that there’s other methods of conducting their business than they might have thought from what they were doing a couple of years ago. When change happens in the world, you adjust to it.” During the meeting he praised his partner of 60 years, Charlie Munger for joining the video conferencing platform – Zoom at the age of 96. Buffett jokingly added: “He has just skipped right by me technologically.”

Kiril Sokoloff, in his 13D Report weekly newsletter (paywall), wrote recently about the historic reorganization of the traditional workplace.  He explained how we are moving towards an office-free, virtual hybrid-workforce. According to the article, only 3.6% of U.S. employees worked from home before COVID-19, while that number rose to 34% in April. The author further explains: “That’s the same percentage of people who can work from home in the U.S., according to a recent University of Chicago publication, and will most likely do so on a permanent-basis by the end of next year.”

I’m also encouraged by what I see as a change in attitude. In the face of our current logistical challenges, I’ve encountered so much cheerful innovation. “It can’t be done” has turned into “Let’s see how we can make this work.” I’ve witnessed this from personal situations (like renewing my contact lens prescription when all opticians are closed) to administrative ones (registering a car when the DMV office are shuttered).  We’ve seen it at Sicart as well, like having a new client successfully execute a wire transfer to fund the account when most bank branches were closed. Our custodian Pershing has made our lives easier, too, by further expanding the digital signing of documents.

I’ve come to believe that becoming remote as an investor — physically, intellectually, emotionally — keeping a healthy distance from the desk, the crowd, and the noise — can make you a better investor. This new perspective can inspire new ideas, give you conviction to go against the crowd, and help you find patience and discipline in your investing pursuits.

I know we didn’t ask to be locked up in our homes for months, and I know that this shall pass, but in the meantime, I admire the resulting wave of ingenuity, creativity, and a fresh look at how we work. Historically, challenges like the one we face today give us the courage to take advantage of opportunities in front of us, whether it is a new investment or a new way of working.

Bogumil Baranowski

Published:  5/14/2020




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