Ryan Morfin: Welcome to Non-Beta Alpha. I’m Ryan Morfin. On today’s episode, we have John Darsie talking to us about SALT and the future of communication in the asset management industry. This is Non-Beta Alpha. John, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.
John Darsie: Thanks so much for having me, Ryan. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Ryan Morfin: Well, I have to tell you, your organization has done a great job of pivoting. You guys were marketing geniuses prior SALT, SkyBridge Alternative Investment Conferences, The Gold Standard and events, but you guys have gone for two now and SALT Talks has really delivered premium content at a whole nother level. And I wanted to just to chat with you a little bit about your view as a company and how you guys look at marketing and building community and educating and why you do it, because I think it’s very imperative that financial advisors and companies for that matter really think about their digital media brand today and how they’re delivering content. So you guys are the experts it’s an honor to have you on the show.
John Darsie: It’s a pleasure to be here and thanks so much for having me. Yeah, you talked a little bit about the SALT Conference and I’ve been at SkyBridge for about five years and I took over the SALT brand a few years ago. And one of the big things I wanted to do was stop thinking about it as a conference. The SALT Conference is very well known as being this big gathering every year in Las Vegas. We also do international conferences. We’ve done them in Singapore, Tokyo, and then most recently in Abu Dhabi. What I wanted to do is stop thinking about it as a conference and start thinking about it more as a thought leadership brand and a durable community that live 24/7 and breathe and then we could continue to connect people even outside of those three days in Las Vegas.
So we had had in the works plans to do something like this and the digital media type space and the COVID pandemic, like I think it did for a lot of people just accelerated our plans to take that SALT brand and move it into a digital format. And so it’s been a trial and error period. Like a lot of people have experienced during COVID where we decided to go ahead and use Zoom as the platform that we’ve posted these on is as just a highly simplified, easy to access tool. We’ve had Rubenstein, we’ve had folks like Mark Cuban and then I think one of the hallmarks of SALT is that we’d like to provide a window into the mind of subject matter experts, across a variety of different topics, whether it be hedge fund managers or politicians, public policy figures, or people in the venture capital space.
So it’s been fun talking to a variety of different people. We’ve gotten a lot of great engagement. Thank you for tuning in and some of your business partners as well for tuning in. The interactivity of it has been a lot of fun and I think this is just going to be a springboard for us to continue to build that community like I talked about and just add value for everyone who interacts with SALT.
Ryan Morfin: No I tell our advisors and our employees that it’s a must watch series and so I think the content is always timely and relevant. How do you guys look at creating the content themes or finding out which speakers you want to bring in, and what’s the editorial process like from your perspective?
John Darsie: Yeah, again, we like to have a very diverse set of guests and we do a lot of listening to our community as well. And at our core we come from an investment perspective. So SkyBridge Capital, which wholly own SALT is a global alternative investment firm that’s primarily a fund of funds. So we have deep access into the hedge fund community and we like to talk to some managers, even ones that don’t often speak in public. We had someone like Dan Loeb on SALT Talks a few weeks ago, giving the ins and outs of the way he’s looking at markets during the COVID period. But yeah, we really like to provide a diverse set of speakers like we do at our conferences and relate it all back to, “Okay, now thinking about this person’s worldview and their areas of expertise, how does that inform my decision making from an investment perspective, from a philanthropic perspective and a variety of different perspectives?”
So yeah, we like to bring on interesting people across a lot of different realms and and always tie it back a little bit to, “Okay, how does this inform my view of the world and how can it inform my investment decisions and other decisions in my life?”
Ryan Morfin: And you guys have used, I think YouTube as one of the primary distribution mechanisms. What are the pros and cons and I’m looking more from a practitioner’s perspective of that platform versus using like a LinkedIn or places like that, or do you use all of them?
John Darsie: We market ourselves on all platforms. So we have a pretty robust presence on Twitter via both Anthony, our founder and managing partner, as well as we’ve built up a decent following on our social accounts for SALT, given that more digital focus as I talked about earlier. But YouTube, it’s one of those things where a lot of people like to use white label proprietary type of platforms. You can do something like Vimeo or other more customizable video sources, but YouTube provides from an SEO perspective search engine optimization. It’s just the optimal platform because people… and we’ve found this with SALT Talks, especially as people start discovering your videos that might not have had any idea what SALT was previously. I think one of the most powerful things about digital marketing and doing SALT in a digital format is that you just never know who’s watching.
I can’t tell you how many emails, LinkedIn messages, and other unsolicited messages I’ve gotten from random people in the world who’ve watched our videos and said, “Hey, I think what you guys are doing is really interesting. I’d never previously heard of SALT. Now that I’ve stumbled upon it, I’d love to come to your conference. I’d love to be part of your community.” So YouTube, we think provides the broadest reach and it’s the most democratic putting aside some data issues that people sometimes have with things like Google, but we just think it’s the platform that gives you the broadest reach, the most interactivity, and from an SEO perspective, it allows you to get your brand out there more broadly than using other platforms.
Ryan Morfin: And all your content is educational and it’s with global thought leaders. How do you guys measure ROI? Is it just associated with the brand, or do you guys tend to find new client leads potentially out of the relationships that you guys create out of this community?
John Darsie: Yeah, we absolutely do get new client leads from it. As I was talking about earlier, SkyBridge is a fund to funds and one thing we’re really known for is democratizing the alternative investment space in the hedge fund space in particular, is that the structure of our funds and I don’t want to get into too much detail about it, but essentially we provide access into some of these leading hedge fund managers for credit investors with smaller minimums than the typical hedge fund or fund of funds did previously. And so SALT was a natural evolution for the business to host these conferences and this type of digital content to educate the masses about what are hedge funds? How do they add value to your portfolio? And so that’s one of our big goals is to really democratize access to this type of information. And so our conferences are invitation only type of events, but we like the idea of broadening out that education to a broader constituency, and that’s what SALT Talks has allowed us to do.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah. I had the opportunity to talk at the last in person, SALT in Vegas and it was, I mean, a ridiculously widely attended venue. People from all over the world were there. Let’s just go from the last Vegas SALT Conference to the first. How has it grown and what have you learned from the in person conferences?
John Darsie: Yeah. I think digital communication is great and Zoom is great and SALT Talks have been a lot of fun, but you can’t ever replace really that human interaction that you get at in person events. So in person events will certainly be a big part of what we always do and the history of SALT, I wasn’t around in the early days but Anthony Scaramucci is a very contrarian type of guy. In 2009, the world was in shambles after the financial crisis that hit. And he decided to take a contrarian view on conferences and Las Vegas as a destination. So everyone in the world was canceling conferences, President Obama came out and said that nobody should be traveling to Las Vegas on their company dime.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of jobs and a lot of people that depend on the conference business and industries that exist in Las Vegas. So Anthony said, “You know what? Let me go out.” He got a good deal on a hotel, worked very closely with political leaders in Las Vegas and other business figures there and said, “You know what? Let’s bring a very modest three to 400 person conference here the first year, build a critical mass and then build it from there.” The first year, it turned out bit bigger than I think anyone expected yearning for in person interaction and networking. And the next year they got Bill Clinton to speak through some connections that Anthony had and so that elevated the profile of the event to another level.
And then from there, it was off and running. In the mid 2010s, the SALT Conference was the conference in the industry. I think a lot of the investment conferences that you see today are ones that piggybacked on what SALT was doing in those early years of the event. It’s about 11 years old now. And so now we’re one of many conferences, but I still think we stand out for a variety of different reasons. One, it’s a great laid back type of atmosphere that people have a lot of fun. It’s a great environment to network and two, that diversity of content and thought leadership lends itself to a very diverse audience and a diverse set of people that come together.
We have leading speakers in the venture capital space, we have leading hedge fund managers and it brings people together in a way that I think a lot of other events don’t. So today we view the next five years of SALT being very heavily emphasizing the digital piece. We’re going to do more international events. So we did SALT Abu Dhabi in December, which was a massive success. We really didn’t have that deep relationships in the Middle East prior to that, but these events allow us to just gain really deep footholds in certain parts of the world. So we’ll do more international events, more digital thought leadership and more digital networking. So we’re working on a few proprietary pieces of technology that are tailored towards the investment management industry that allow people to network in a more customizable type of way.
Ryan Morfin: Well, and at the conference, you guys utilize, I guess, maybe a turnkey white label package for appointment setting between participants. Is that something you guys built out internally or is that something you guys use and you’re iterating off of that for the future?
John Darsie: Those tools are always imperfect. They’re good for what they are. They allow you to message with fellow attendees and do a little bit of research on the different types of firms that are there. But really the reason people are paying big money in a lot of cases to sponsor and attend an event like SALT is the networking piece of it. So we bring together a lot of large LPs ranging from large institutions, pensions, endowments, foundations, sovereign wealth funds for our international events. You have RIAs, you have high net worth individuals, family offices. So a lot of the fund managers who are ones that are paying the premium ticket to show up at these events are doing it because they want to network with those LPs that are in attendance. So what we said is rather than using a white label off the shelf type of solution, let’s work on building something proprietary for the space.
And so we’re partnering with a couple of people that have worked in the industry for many years to help build that piece of technology, just not only to make the networking at our in person events more efficient and richer but also to make that community more durable, like I was mentioning. So year round, providing not just SALT Talks from a thought leadership and content perspective, but year round networking so that Ryan, if you’re running hedge fund and you have a great strategy that’s buying distress credit assets post the global pandemic, that you can target institutions, families, RAIs that might have an interest in that type of strategy.
It makes everyone’s life easier in terms of finding people that match up with your goals and maybe the products that you’re offering, if you’re a fund. And so that’s what we’re really excited about from a technology perspective is technology is eating everything and driving everything in the world today. We want to bring SALT into being a technology first type of firm.
Ryan Morfin: And you guys often somehow grab the media cycle during that week. The last memorable one that I enjoyed hearing was I think vice president Biden and I believe it was Mr. Ackerman out in New York. How do you guys look at the media landscape during these events? The who’s there, but how are you grabbing that content, clipping it and pushing it out? I mean, is that something you guys do in house or do you outsource that?
John Darsie: So I think any organization takes on the DNA of its founder and its leadership, and obviously Anthony has his fingerprints all over SALT. He’s someone that is omnipresent in the media and believes that most press is good press. I wouldn’t say all press is good press, but most press is good press. So it’s something that over the years, it’s been heavily covered by media. And as I mentioned, I took over SALT a little over two years ago now and one of my things was, “Let’s take all this media coverage and let’s take it from seven to 10.” So last year we live streamed a lot of the content for the first time, as opposed to taking a closed door type of approach. We said, “You know what, let’s take this content and make it a little more democratic,” like I mentioned earlier, “and let’s live stream some of it.”
So that allows media, not just media that has the budget to attend the SALT Conference live, but also media that might want to cover it in a digital format. So it took everything up three notches like I mentioned. The next day after one of our days of SALT, The Washington Post ran above the fold cover story on what was happening at the conference, which was that we were bringing together people of all different stripes. This was in the era of Trump. He’s a little bit of a polarizing type of guy, but Anthony being a former Trump administration official was bringing together Obama administration officials. He was bringing together members of the Trump cabinet, he’s bringing together people in venture capital, he’s bringing together people in the hedge fund community and they were all speaking together in a way that maybe doesn’t happen today for whatever reason, maybe social media contributes to some of those echo chambers.
But yeah, I think one of the things we do is we like to engage a lot with media. We’re not afraid to comment on a story about us. There’s been some stories written about SkyBridge post the pandemic. We had a large draw down in our portfolio in March, and I think a lot of firms would no comment, all of those inquiries for any story that’s being written about your firm, but for the most part we’ve responded and said, “Yeah, we’d love to talk to you about what’s going on.” We’re very transparent in the way we run our business. We’ve never had any regulatory issues. So we’d like to comment on stories about us and we’d like to be someone who helps drive the narrative.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah. I think your point about social media echo chambers is critical. I think it’s getting more and more like that as Facebook is starting to maybe pressure conservative topics not let them take the posting, I guess velocity they should. Parlor opening up and becoming a place where conservatives are flocking to get their message out. I mean, it seems quite dangerous, not only from a social standpoint, but also more dangerous from an economic standpoint because if you’re not getting diversity of opinions, you could all correlate your opinions to a bad outcome.
John Darsie: Yeah. I mean, Mark Zuckerberg has a very hard job. He gets a lot of heat because he’s not censoring certain types of content that go on the platform, but it is very difficult for a platform like Facebook to become arbiters of truth and to go and say, “You know what? I don’t like this message, but I like this message.” And then from a business perspective, Facebook and this is maybe a little bit of a criticism of Facebook, but they are incentivized to want to drive people to engage on the platform. The way you do that is by reinforcing people’s existing viewpoints. And so what they’re doing is if you express certain views through your Facebook profile, they’re going to drive you content that reinforces those views, that you’re going to be enthusiastic about interacting with. So yeah, I think social media creates a lot of dangers.
I go to the shopping center or something down the street from me sometimes and I look at kids that are 12 to 15, 16 years old and I’m a pretty young guy, I’m in my 30s, but I didn’t grow up in that digital native environment where I spent a lot of time with my face and my phone. And I worry a little bit about those generations and I have three young kids myself and I try to think about as a father, how you communicate with kids that grew up in that environment and get them to open their minds to different viewpoints.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah, that is going to be a challenge going forward. I think until we figure out a post partisan equilibrium here. I think it’s going to be very important that parents teach kids to weigh and consider not to contradict or believe. But, well one question I had for you is so you guys have been putting on conferences, what are some of the other best venues or conferences or events that you guys look to, to say, “Wow, look at how they did it over here,” at say formula one or what have you to help bring new ideas into the asset management conference sector. Because before you guys came along, it was quite a boring endeavor to host a wealth management or asset management conference.
John Darsie: Yeah. There’s several that we look at today that are really impressive. I think the one that you have to hold as the gold standard in the event industry is the Milken Global Conference. They’ve done a fantastic job of that event. I think it’s a credit to Mike Milken himself as well as his team. But Mike has a gravitational force that draws people to him. He’s helped make a lot of people a lot of money. He’s a very smart guy and after everything he went through, he pivoted a lot to philanthropic work and has done an amazing job there. And he’s changed so many lives from a medical research perspective that I think he’s been able to attract a very diverse set of guests and speakers and attendees at his conferences as well.
And that the networking is second to none, both on the court there at The Beverly Hilton, as well as on the sidelines of that event for three or four days. One from a speed dating or a capital introduction perspective, that’s done a really great job is Context Summits which take place in Miami every January. There’s a set of events down there in South Florida in January that do a great job of bringing people together. But Context Summits is one that’s done a great job of matching up emerging hedge funds and other alternative investment funds with LPs. The guy who was the driving force behind Context Summits is a guy named Ron Biscardi, who I think would be an interesting person for you to talk to as well for your series. But he actually recently left Context and is helping us build that proprietary technology that I spoke about that’s tailored to the investment management industry.
And he helped put on an amazing event that Anthony and I were on the advisory board for called Funds 4 Food that leveraged digital technology to do that matchmaking, that cap intro function the way I had described earlier. So all the proceeds from that event went to benefit charity. So it was a great win-win. Then another one that’s been interesting to us to follow that I’ve been to every year that it’s been held as the future investment initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. So that was one that really turned us onto the idea of wanting to do an event in the middle East. And Richard Altius Associates is a company, a very well known company in the event space.
Richard Altius helped launch the World Economic Forum and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Davos, which I went to for the first time last year with Anthony, but Richard’s done a great job of going from zero to 60 with a conference business with FII that is continuing to grow. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with the conference this year in October. It’s in coordination with the G20. But right now they’re planning on still doing it live in person. And they’ve done some really interesting things, both from an entertainment and a content and a networking perspective.
So those are a few of the events that I think really stand out the world economic forum, like I mentioned, is one that like milk and I think is the creme de LA creme in the event space. And just the quality of the people that gather in Davos every year, both the people that are inside the ropes that go into the convention center and listen to the talks, but just on the outskirts of it as well. There’s tens of thousands of people that come to that area and network every year. And there’s all kinds of interesting people in content that takes place in and around Davos in January.
Ryan Morfin: No, that’s a good calendar to keep. Quite a lot of airline miles.
John Darsie: And you’re going to learn a lot and I’ve been fortunate to have a mentor like Anthony who’s brought me along to a lot of these type of events despite me starting my career in a more junior position. And the amount that I’ve learned, both from the content of the speakers and the operation from those events has benefited me tremendously as a person and as a professional.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah, no. Anthony is a great guy. He’s been very kind to me with his time and mentorship over the years. What makes him so special, you think? Why is he wired differently than other CEOs in the asset management space?
John Darsie: You know, for one, he was born the way he is. He’s extremely smart. He remembers a lot of things. He could meet you Ryan 15 years ago, and he sees you again, 15 years later and says, “Oh, Ryan, we met on the third floor of 532 Madison Avenue and we talked about this. So how your kid’s doing?” He has that natural gift. And his dad was not as educated as Anthony. He didn’t go to college, but he always had that gift the way Anthony describes it in terms of remembering people and having those interpersonal skills. I think that combined with Anthony’s work ethic that he got from a young age, he worked in a blue collar household that they basically gave him the platform to grow beyond what he and his parents did as professionals.
I think they provided him a good upbringing, but he was thirsty for a little bit more ambition from an academic and professional perspective in life. So he had just tons of energy that he put towards wanting to grow businesses and to help people and I think ultimately that’s what defines Anthony. He likes to help people. And some people ask me why he got into politics, right? He was this wealthy, successful guy and he decided to go into public service. And I say, why I think the same way he’s helped people in business over the years, and he’s mentored tons of people and has an unrivaled network of people that he can call on for a variety of different things, he said, “You know what? I’m in my early to mid 50s, I want to go and try to help people within public service.”
So he went and he tried to serve his country. It didn’t maybe go the way that he had mapped it out, but he took a shot at public life. I think he’s happy to be back in private life after experiencing the knives that exist in Washington, D.C. Yeah, he’s got a natural way about him in terms of people. He’s extremely well-read. I think people that don’t know him as well, don’t realize how much he reads and how much of an academia he really is. There’s really not a book that comes out of any substance that he hasn’t read. So then combination of those things has made him a successful entrepreneur and he likes to be entrepreneurial. Some people that work on Wall Street are set in their ways and they’re doing this and that, but he likes to, people come to him with different types of ideas in the technology space, in the event space.
He likes to take risks. A few years ago, talking about digital marketing, he decided to license the rights to Wall Street Week, which was a show that was on PBS for 30 years with Louis Rukeyser was the host of that show. It was before CNBC and Bloomberg and Fox Business and everything else, that was the appointment television for anybody who wanted to learn about what happened in financial markets. And it had been dormant for a few years. So he decided to license it, host it and bring it back to Friday nights to give people a long form holistic view of what’s going on in financial markets. I think what ended up happening is when he went to serve in the Trump administration, he was unable to continue hosting that show. So it went dormant again but we tried to pick up that mantle with SALT Talks and provide people outside of the soundbites that exist on most financial television. We like the long form type of conversations that we get to have with leading investors and innovators and technology and people in the political world as well.
Ryan Morfin: Well, you bring up a great point about content forms. And so do you guys, in your content format, SALT Talks is a little bit longer, but it’s very educational and if you have an attention span, not everybody does anymore. You can get a lot out of it and the question for you guys is do you see people watching the whole hour long, or is it better just to get the highlight reels out on social media? I don’t want to call it clickbait, but I guess that’s what it is. Just to get the message out and hopefully try to drive viewership or what are your thoughts around that?
John Darsie: I mean, we’re definitely a little bit contrarian in that we do like the long form content, as opposed to the shorter form content. We do post some clips on social media that help drive engagement, we think. What people really get out of this is getting to have that thoughtful 45 minute conversation with these people that oftentimes came from humble backgrounds and built themselves up into being really successful entrepreneurs or politicians, and just getting to soak in all that knowledge that people accumulated over the years. I think another podcast that helped inform my view on long form content that I would encourage all of your business partners and your listeners to listen to is Masters in Business by Barry Ritholtz. Barry Ritholtz was one of the earliest big bloggers in the financial blogosphere and he was writing a lot around the financial crisis in 2008.
And he launched probably five or six years ago, now Masters in Business, it’s hosted by Bloomberg, it’s a podcast, but he does what we do is he brings on titans of finance mainly but other titans in business. And he just gives them a platform to speak at length about how their career developed and the things that drive the success of their organizations. We think we could get a larger audience by doing more short form content, but I think that the more meaningful audience for us as the one that’s going to dial in both for the live interview that we do on Zoom, that typically has a few hundred to a few thousand people, depending on the guests. Then we also post all the episodes On Demand, on our YouTube channel as you mentioned earlier, that allows people to consume it at their own pace if they want to.
And we’re in the process of taking every episode and putting it in podcast form as well, because we’ve gotten a lot of feedback. I’m a podcast listener, not as much actually, since I don’t commute into the city like I was doing pre-pandemic, but podcasts are a great way. You can multitask and listen to podcasts. So we like a multimedia type of distribution philosophy, but we do like the long form type of content.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah, no, I agree with your view. I think the short soundbite economy has its limitations. Well, one question I had for you is are there any stories that glean lessons about editorial process or hosting events and producing content. Any stories we haven’t heard about from SALT that you can share that you think are teachable moments or things that people should, if they’re paying attention look at when content is being created that an expert… like hen you watched our show or someone else’s show are like, “Oh, they’re totally screwing that up,” or, “God, they didn’t do that right.” What are some of the insights on content creation that an expert such as yourself looks at when you see something online?
John Darsie: Well, the thing I would say is that when you’re backstage at an event like a conference or you’re backstage on SALT Talks, we’re like a duck that’s on top of the water, right? Above the water, we’re putting on this great image and we seem very placid and relaxed and everything’s going smoothly, but under the water, those feet are kicking furiously and there’s all kinds of stuff going on. And I think when you’re running an event and something small goes wrong you have a lot of anxiety and stress about the way people are going to perceive it, but for people that are attending conferences or consuming media, I don’t think they really care about little hiccups that take place. So I think the biggest thing I would say is don’t let this the desire or the search for perfection and the way you present something, prevent you from putting yourself out there.
I think it’s the same way with writing. So I do a lot of writing, both on my own internally at SkyBridge and with SALT and I also help Anthony with his writing. And one of the things that a lot of times, as a writer, you put something down on paper, you don’t feel like it’s perfect. You don’t feel like it fully captures your views, but it’s much better to go ahead and publish that and get your views out there and not spend those extra hours or days trying to make something perfect. And I think the same thing with digital content when you’re talking about from a marketing perspective, applies there as well, is that people aren’t as concerned about polished today. Social media, other things have made it such that things like TikTok exist and Facebook and Instagram and everything else.
I think people are much more accustomed now to consuming raw content. And so when you’re putting things out there with SALT Talks, my instruction to my team at the beginning of this was, “Okay, guys, let’s try to make this as polished as possible, but let’s not kill ourselves trying to make this look like CNBC.” And it’s funny because we’ve taken that approach, that’s a hyper simplified approach using Zoom, but other people comment to us all the time. “Wow, it’s a very professional production. How do you do it?” And the biggest thing is we just don’t stress ourselves out too much about the whole thing. The first SALT Talk we did with David Rubenstein, Anthony’s at his house on Long Island and his internet clearly was cutting out or he was connected to the wrong network or something. So he’s cutting in and out.
He’s trying to log in and out, back on Zoom and I’m asking David questions, and one of my colleagues is asking David questions and it was very stressful in the moment, and it was the first one that we did. But David is a very… fortunately for us, he’s the one who went through it. He’s a very patient and relaxed type of guy we got through it and it’s been trial and error in terms of perfecting all the production elements. What I would say is, like I said before, don’t be so caught up on perfection. You don’t have to make everything look perfect. You never know who’s watching and just get on, be your authentic self, talk about things that are interesting to you and you’ll be surprised about who consumes the content and what it leads to from a business perspective.
Ryan Morfin: Yeah. I think your point about just getting your ideas out there and having an assertive view is critical. And by no means you guys aren’t shy at SkyBridge that’s for sure. Do you have a favorite speaker that you’ve had on either speaker at the conference or a speaker at the SALT Talks?
John Darsie: Well, the good thing about SALT Talks is that I get to hear all of them. The problem with the conference is that I’m always running around. I’m the feet of the duck that are under the water, putting out fires. Whether it’s a sponsor that… you guys were a sponsor, very graciously of SALT in 2019, and you guys were very low maintenance. I can’t say that for all sponsors. So I’m always putting out fires at the events, but I don’t always get to hear the speakers on stage. One speaker that we had in person at SALT many years ago who I thought was fascinating, this was before I was leading the conference team was Frank Abagnale from the movie, Catch Me If You Can, is how many of you probably know him, but he clearly-
Ryan Morfin: That’s awesome.
John Darsie: … was one the type of guy who… In the movie, one of the more interesting parts to me was they asked them, “You did all these things, you impersonated a flight attendant or a pilot, and you pretended to be a doctor, how did you pass the bar exam?” And he said, “Well, I studied for a couple of weeks and I passed it.” He didn’t go to law school, but he gave an incredible talk at SALT, probably 2014, 2013 type of timeframe. That was fascinating. He wasn’t like an expensive paid speaker. We paid him a little bit to show up, but he was one that he’s clearly such a smart guy and now he’s applying his expertise and his intelligence towards both helping snuff out white collar crime, and also to speak to audiences about how he did what he did.
And he was a fascinating speaker. In terms of SALT Talks, I would say one of the more interesting ones that we did and it’s expressed in the number of views it’s gotten on demand was Chamath Palihapitiya. So Chamath is a venture capitalist. He was one of the early executives at Facebook that I think people probably realize how much of his fingerprints are on the success of that company. But he’s clearly another savant, a brilliant guy who… He was living his life in the typical Silicon Valley type of way, he was making a lot of money, partying and just decided one day that he didn’t like the path that his life was taking. So he turned social capital, his firm into a family office. He decided to investing in a little bit of a different way, less catering to all the needs of LPs and just saying, “You know what? This is what we’re going to do. If you want to invest with us be my guest.”
But he’s such a brilliant guy and now he’s helped take Virgin Galactic public via a SPAC, which is a special purpose acquisition company that you might have heard about because there’ve been a lot of SPACs recently, but he’s a guy who has brilliant insights into how tech companies build themselves and become successful. He has a great presentation that I would encourage your viewers to look up regarding Amazon and how they look at building new business lines. Essentially what Amazon does is they take any cost center that they have as a company. It started out with things like server costs. They’re doing it now with building their own delivery service, but they take any cost center they have as a company and they turn it into a business.
So, okay, we’re spending millions and millions of dollars on servers, let’s go start a Amazon web services that does cloud servicing for people. We’re spending tons of money on shipping and logistics, let’s go build a shipping and logistics company. That’s just one example, but he’s done just amazing work helping technology companies grow and Virgin Galactic is just the latest example. They came out with their plans for their new Mach 3 plane that they’re building along with Rolls-Royce is going to supply the engines. And that’s a company that we’re watching closely and we love Chamath and everything that he brings to the table. His SALT talk was fascinating. You want to go to our YouTube channel and watch it.
Ryan Morfin: Absolutely. I saw it and it’s great. And it was timely too. I mean, he was talking about a lot of the stimulus… some controversial comments that I’m sure a lot of your viewers didn’t really agree with, but maybe they did, but you know what it got eyeballs and it was content that was worth discussing.
John Darsie: Like we talked about earlier, we view ourselves as an open platform of ideas. We don’t let our own political biases filter into the way we curate content. Like I mentioned, in SALT 2019, we had Ben Carson and we had Valerie Jarrett and those were conversations that we said, “You know what? Let’s stop so much of the polarization. Let’s bring people into the same room, see if we can find some common ground and put information out there and let people consume it, how they want to consume it.” Chamath is an example of that. He has very sharp viewpoints on a few of those social issues and government issues, but it was fascinating to hear his perspectives.
Ryan Morfin: So what are two or three content arches you think we’re going to talk about in the next six months?
John Darsie: So I think in general, going forward, there’s going to be a heavy emphasis on technology. So we’ve had a couple speakers on artificial intelligence and things like that. We had [inaudible] expert also a Chinese national who’s helped China become one of the leaders in the AI space. And we had Eric Daimler who was basically the AI Zara under President Obama talking about what we’re doing as a country to stimulate AI growth. But things like that. We like to get speakers from companies that are doing space exploration, AI, as I mentioned other software as a service type companies. So I think there’s going to be a heavy emphasis there. I think for the next three to four months, obviously the election is going to be top of mind and talking about, “Okay, how are things shaping up for the election? How should that inform my investment decisions?”
There’s been a lot of debate about if Biden wins the presidency, what does that do to the stock market? What does that do to the overall investment landscape? So we’re going to have some conversations, both with handicappers of the election and also people that can interpret for us what they think is going to happen in the case of a Biden presidency or in the case of four more years of a Trump presidency. So I think that’ll definitely be a focus, but I think technology in general, in the most recent two or three SALT Conferences, we’ve tried to do a good job of making it balanced from an alternative investment side between hedge funds, private equity firms and venture capital firms.
So I think you’ll continue to see that balance. Hedge funds aren’t going to go away, but I think that industry is shrinking as people devote more resources towards. And another thing that I have to touch on is things like ESG and sustainability, I think, and that’s driven a lot by our LP participants in our conferences. Foundations, endowments, pension, sovereign wealth funds, increasingly those investment mandates have an ESG or sustainability element built into them. So we’ve had some great speakers on capitalistic ways to address climate change and global warming and things of that nature. So we’ll continue to focus on ESG themes as well.
Ryan Morfin: What are some silver linings from your perspective on the US economy today and where we’re going? I mean, I know it’s some rough data out there, right? Q2 data that the lowest GDP print ever at 32.9% reduction in Q2. What are some silver linings though, from your perspective?
John Darsie: I think the biggest thing the pandemic has done is accelerate some trends that might’ve already been in place towards things like remote work. I think it could have the effect of depressing some wage growth, but I also think it’ll create a little bit more democracy in terms of access to jobs. I think there was some people that were flocking to cities because a lot of the jobs exist in places like New York or Silicon Valley. Steve Case is another one that did an interesting SALT talk with us. He’s the founder of Revolution, a venture capital firm based in Washington, D.C. He was initially a co-founder and chief executive of AOL, but he’s a big believer in this idea of the rise of the rest, which is companies in maybe second tier US cities not to use a pejorative term, but second tier US cities.
He thinks there’s going to be an explosion of entrepreneurship and growth in places like Birmingham, Alabama and Raleigh, North Carolina and Boise, Idaho, and other places that he’s investing in entrepreneurs in those cities. So I think maybe a good thing, a silver lining about the pandemic is that might distribute both population and entrepreneurship and economic growth throughout the country, as opposed to making it so concentrated in some of the urban centers and some of the business centers. I also think anytime you have a crisis like this, it helps to remove some excess from the system.
I think there are certain things like the junk bond market, which the federal reserve is supporting and probably creating some artificial resilience in the junk bond market. But I think it does help you empty out some excess in the system. Unfortunately it seems like the stimulus that the government has provided has done a pretty decent job of replacing household incomes, but what it hasn’t done a good job at is helping to save some of these small businesses. So I think that’s going to be challenging. The restaurant industry is one, for example, that I think you’ll see a substantial number of great restaurants that have to shut down permanently.
So there are some unfortunate casualties, but I think consumers are resilient. I think again, the government response has been good not worrying so much about deficits in the short term and replacing income as much as possible for consumers. And so I think we’ll start to see some consumer elements of the economy come back fairly strongly. But I think when the dust settles, there will be a little bit of pain that still exists there that we’ll have to work through. And hopefully we can retrain our workforce and pivot our country in terms of technology and things of that nature the same way we’re talking on Zoom as we normally would be talking in person in Las Vegas. So I think again, it’s accelerated some of those digital trends, and I think it’s removed some excess from the system that I think hopefully will help us build our economy in a more sustainable, efficient way going forward.
Ryan Morfin: One macro trend that we’re going to focus on in the next six months is the decoupling if you will, of China in the US from a globalization standpoint, and if it accelerates or pauses, I mean, what are your thoughts? I mean, are we in a new economic war here, cold war 2.0 or are we in a political season where things are going to pass?
John Darsie: This is a tough one and we’ve had a lot of conversations with people in China about bringing the SALT Conference to the mainland in China, which is still a goal of ours. And we like to be connectors of people and we like to be people that help people find common ground. And one thing that we’re intent on doing as it relates to China, I do think there will definitely be a decoupling of manufacturing, especially of critical infrastructure and things like healthcare, drug companies, and things like that. You’ll see a repatriation of a lot of key manufacturing. I don’t think we’re currently in a cold war, but I think if we’re not careful, we’re going to get there with China. China, one of their mantras to be that sleeping tiger. Don’t show your strength until the need arises for you to project that strength outward.
I think they’ve gotten to a point now where they’re so powerful, they have so much both military and economic power and strength that we have no choice, but to try to find common ground with them. And I think that we had a great guest again on SALT Talks last week, a guy named Chris Fenton, who is a Hollywood executive, who has done a lot of business taking large Hollywood productions and taking them both to the Chinese market and also helping censor films that the Chinese wanted their people to potentially watch in the United States, but didn’t want certain projections of China to be out there in the mainstream, even in places like the United States in Europe.
And what he found is that there are certain elements of Chinese society and Chinese value system that we’re not going to be able to be compatible with the United States and the values that we have in terms of things like human rights and democracy and things of that nature. But the place we can really find common ground with the Chinese are exchanges of commerce and exchanges of culture. So it’s very important that we continue to emphasize that common ground and find areas to do business together. Because I think over time, what you’ll find in a place like China is that if there is that exchange of culture and commerce, over time, that closed system will start to open. Deng Xiaoping started that opening process and President Xi has actually started to close China a little bit more, again, both in terms of censorship of ideas and the way it approaches the rest of the world.
But I do think over time, as young people grow up and they start to have a little bit more thirst for the outside world and Western values and Western culture, I think you’ll start to see a little bit of a dulling of some of that closed system that China’s building. You’ll start to see them open up again and I think it’s going to be all cyclical in China, and hopefully we can get to a point when I’m older, when I’m in my 50s and 60s, that these are two benevolent powers that work together to foster peace around the world.
Ryan Morfin: That would be a great outcome. I think we’re in this prescient moment here where I do think though some of like the facial recognition and the AI, it could really accelerate also the capabilities of a police state and there may no be no coming back for a democratic China in the future, but yeah, it’s something we’re definitely going to pay attention to, and hopefully it doesn’t lead to conflict. But what are some areas or places that you go to, to get news or books you’re reading right now that are leaving an impact. Any recommendations of, you mentioned that podcast earlier. Any your recommendations of places that you go to, to learn or get ideas.
John Darsie: Yeah. I like consuming content like SALT Talks. I mentioned Masters in Business by Barry Ritholtz. I like other variety of long form podcasts. I follow some blogs that help curate great podcast episodes that come out on a variety of different platforms. Like I said, there’s two sides of the lack of commuting. I don’t get to consume as many podcasts and do quite as much reading in the mornings and in the afternoons the way I typically would on my commute.
But I think a big thing and I’ve spoken to some business schools and things like that as well, including my alma mater, which is Emory University in Atlanta, but about reading all the newspapers and things that come out every day. So I like reading books, but also like reading The Wall Street Journal cover to cover. I typically read most of The New York Times. The book I’m reading right now is the Power Broker. I’m a native North Carolinian, but if you’re a New Yorker or you’re interested in New York and how power is distributed and how power is seized and how the world becomes the way it is, it’s a great book to read about power and money and the way things end up the way they are. We have this feeling that things are inevitable and that the world exists the way it is for certain reasons.
But really our world is shaped a lot by the decisions and the whims of a select few people. And Robert Moses is an example of that how he shaped New York and the freeway system and the parkway system that we have here and some of the issues related to traffic and other things that exist in New York today. But it’s a fascinating book. It’s a long read, but one that I would definitely encourage your audience to read.
Ryan Morfin: Fantastic. Well, keep on doing what you guys are doing. The educational content is phenomenal. We appreciate you guys putting the energy and the effort to delivering that. And think if anybody who’s watching this, hasn’t been all over SALT Talks you definitely are missing out. And so John, appreciate you, hope to see us soon and thanks for doing the show.
John Darsie: Yep. Thanks so much for having me. I enjoyed it. Thanks Ryan.
Ryan Morfin: Bye-bye. Thanks for watching Non-Beta Alpha. Before we go, please remember to like, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts and the YouTube channel. This is Non-Beta Alpha, and now you know.
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