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In 1613, Thomas Aldworth sent a letter to the British East India Company. He described his mandate as an associate of the company to handle "goods and monies" that are "to be invested in commodities" that would appeal to British consumers. Aldworth's letter is the first known use of the word "invest" to describe a business venture. Previously, "invest" simply meant "to clothe," to "put something or someone in vestments."
It is no coincidence that the modern meaning of investment emerged in the early 17th Century at the pen of an associate of the British East India Company. Advances in naval and military technologies were opening the world for trade, heralding the emergence of whole new industries and markets — and threatening to marginalize existing institutions and populations.
The East India Company (EIC) was established to make the most of these changes. To handle the risk, its founders came up with an innovative financing model that would enable regular people to buy and trade shares. Companies with multiple shareholders existed before, but they were usually restricted to small groups of upper class investors or guild-like members who were active participants in the business. The EIC democratized investment by enabling anyone to participate as a passive investor.
As William Dalrymple points out, the EIC's founders decided to offer their shares to the public in order to share the unusually high risk of overseas expeditions:
"Costs, after all, were astronomically high. The commodities they wished to buy were extremely expensive and they were carried in huge ships, which needed to be manned by large crews and protected by artillery masters and professional musket-men. Moreover, even if everything went according to plan, there would be no return on investment for several years."
Technology opened up new opportunities. Exploiting these opportunities entailed unprecedented risk. And the privileged class that previously kept such investments to itself was suddenly willing to share them with the public. It did so in order to finance something it could not finance on its own, in order to share an amount of risk it could not tolerate on its own, and, perhaps, in order to legitimize colonial actions that are easier done with broad public support.
The public, for its part, invested because it feared missing out on a singular opportunity to get rich. But investors did not just respond to the promise of international trade; they also responded to its threat. Imported goods threatened the existing business of many artisans and merchants, as well as the hereditary privileges of aristocrats. By investing in the "next big thing," such groups could hedge the erosion of their legacy business or status.
Something similar is happening right now. Technology is opening up whole new realms that can be exploited for profit. At the same time, it is threatening whole industries, socio-economic classes, and institutions. And it drives the emergence of new financial structures that help finance new ventures and share risk.
But in the 21st Century, the basic business unit is no longer a company; it's a person. We live in a world where a single individual with a newsletter or YouTube channel or trading protocol or app can generate millions of dollars in revenue, on their own.
And it's just the beginning. As Packy predicted, "within two decades, we will have multiple trillion-plus dollar publicly traded entities with just one full-time employee, the founder." We're already seeing some individuals offering "shares" to investors who wish to bet on their personal success. And we'll see plenty more of that, including the emergence of funds that invest in portfolios of individual people in the same way we currently invest in shares of corporations.
Investing in people is not just a new way to make money; it's also a way to defend your existing business and status. Just like in the 17th Century, the success of new people and industries threatens existing industries, classes, and institutions. Consider newsletter writers, for example. Their emergence shifts revenue and power away from traditional media corporations. It also enlarges the overall market for advertising which means it is not a zero-sum game. But even so, the relative loss of economic (and political) power still stings, even if things are still ok in absolute terms.
To understand what this means, imagine being a local rock band after the radio and records were invented: You might still get some gigs at a local hotel lobby, but your relative lack of talent is now evident to all. Most local people will choose to spend their time and money listening to the absolute best performer. The internet expands these dynamics to multiple professions — from programers and doctors to teachers and fitness instructors — enabling the absolute best to capture a more significant piece of the pie at the expense of the local best.
And even those who are absolutely the best at what they do cannot sleep in peace. They face extreme competition, and their success is increasingly dependent on luck and inscrutable algorithms. In such a world, any type of career is a risky endeavor. And the best way to hedge the risk of your own career is to invest in the careers of multiple other people.
It also makes sense to have multiple careers on your own — not just one after the other, but in parallel. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese poet who had dozens of heteronyms that published their own articles, reviewed each other's work, and had full-fledged biographies and literary styles. Pessoa's multiple personas were a reaction against his boring office job, against the person he had to be while at work.
In a world where our own self is a business, we will need alternative personas to separate our true self from our business self. But we can also use multiple personas to hedge our bets. Instead of living or dying by a single identity, we can have multiple ones in the hope that one of them becomes a viable business. If the most valuable resources of the 21st Century are human creativity and human attention, it's better for you and your investors to exploit a persona you create and not the person that you actually are.
Have a great weekend. 🙏 If you enjoyed this piece, subscribe to my newsletter for a weekly analysis on the history & future of finance, work, and cities.
One more thing
I'm excited to share with you a super early look at something I'm building.
I'm designing a new course about cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and Decentralized Finance — for grown-ups. By grown-ups, I mean people with significant experience in other industries who wish to get a solid and impartial understanding of an exciting new world.
I strongly believe that those who understand and harness the potential of these new technologies and tools will have a significant leg up within their own industries. I'm excited to filter through the noise and help inform and inspire you to make the most of this opportunity.
I'll be teaching this course live. You'll learn directly from me and a few special guests through several weeks of live video sessions. We'll have community discussions, practical walk-throughs, special guests, and more.
I'll be starting with a small beta group of students so I can perfect the material. That beta program will cost $500 and will be a significant discount over the final price.
There's no payment or commitment yet! This is just letting me know that you're interested in learning more about the course when the time comes. My goal is that by the end of the course, you will:
- Understand how cryptocurrencies and decentralized finance protocols work, their promise, and their limitations;
- Be familiar with the relevant terms, products, and companies in the space;
- Know how to use common tools and products, including crypto exchanges and digital wallets;
- Consider the implications of these tools and technologies for your own industry or business;
- Have a good sense of the broader consequences for society, the economy, and the environment;
- Be able to apply this knowledge in your own personal and professional life; and
- Make a few new friends.
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