Kevin Stevens
Kevin Stevens

Am I Being Too Subtle

I’m trying something new with my book notes. Moving forward, I’ll be posting them here since the process is really simple using a combination of Roam and Hugo. The first book I am adding is Sam Zell’s “Am I Being Too Subtle”. Sam is a real estate and investing legend, and his book is full of lessons on dealmaking, culture, and life principles.

I won’t be editing them much, so at times things may seem out of context. I’m now using the zettelkasten method for my notetaking, and implementing it in a style similar to Shu Omi’s.

My focus is on finding 3-10 underlying concepts and the author’s evidence that supports them in order to distill books into practical application via “zettles” or evergreens.


  • Business is a multi-turn game, and when your business is your life the relationships you build are long-term. That means sharing in the stakes and the goal being that everyone comes out ahead of where they started.
    • “I run my company as a meritocracy with a moral compass. And for those who raise their eyebrows at that statement—who think you can’t get to the top unless you beat the crap out of everybody—you’re wrong. When you’re a repeat player, when your world is your business and your business is your world, it’s all about long-term relationships. In any negotiation I believe in leaving a little bit on the table. And in any relationship I believe in sharing the stakes. I’ve been doing deals with many of the same people for decades because the goal is for us to all come out ahead. And many of my employees have been with me for twenty or thirty years or more because if I do well, they do well.”
    • “We had unquestionable, 100 percent trust in each other. We never had a written partnership agreement, and we lived out of the same checkbook. If he was building a new home for his family, he’d take a draw from our joint company money. If I was building a new home for my family, same thing. We never had to account to each other for anything we spent.”
    • “That means I put my money behind theirs (say $150,000 of my money to $30,000 of their money), and if our investments or funds achieve their minimum target metrics, my people get returns based on the aggregate ($180,000).”
    • “Everything I do is predicated on the assumption that there’s another deal. And the way you get to the next deal is to play it straight.”
    • “My definition of “win” is not binary. It is not a zero-sum game. Negotiation that leads to a winner and a loser rarely leads to a successful transaction, or another one down the road."
    • “I believe loyalty defines your character. Do you stick with your friend, colleague, or partner when it’s not easy?”
    • “Don’t take yourself too seriously. I have to restate it because so many people do. Ego and pride have their places, but when they are not self-regulated, they can be detrimental, if not debilitating.”
    • ““The definition of a schmuck is someone who’s reached his goals.” It’s up to me to keep moving the end zone, and go for greatness."
  • Money is the scoreboard, the experience is the fun.
    • ““You don’t go wheeling and dealing for the money, you do it for fun. Money’s just a way of keeping score.” And that’s how I see it. I’ve always been much more drawn to the experience."
  • The fundamentals of business always apply. Never forget supply and demand, limited competition, and liquidity increase the odds of success.
    • “Where there is scarcity, price is no object. This basic tenet of supply and demand would later become a governing principle of my investment philosophy.”
    • “Frankly, there’s no substitute for limited competition. You can be a genius, but if there’s a lot of competition, it won’t matter. I’ve spent my career trying to avoid its destructive consequences. Competition skews people’s assessments; as buyers get competitive, the demand for assets inflates pricing, often beyond reason.”
    • “I stay true to the fundamental truths: the laws of supply and demand; liquidity equals value; limited competition; long-term relationships; and the others I’ve covered. They offer a framework through which I view potential opportunity.”
  • It’s not important to fit in, be authentically you and go against the grain.
    • “The teen years are usually all about fitting in, but in that moment I discovered that fitting in just wasn’t important to me. I was more comfortable standing apart than I was in searching for a common denominator with others. I could embrace my tendency to go against conventional wisdom. And it would later end up defining my career.”
  • When possible, visit people on their home court. You learn how they operate, how they treat people, and the example they set for employees.
  • Ignorance is bliss when it comes to limitations. If you don’t know yours, the barriers to doing new things are dramatically lower.
  • The fundamental principle to success = tenacity. Just assume there is a way through any hurdle and find it.
    • “I remember this event so clearly because it was at this point in my career that I fully realized the value of tenacity. I just had to assume there was a way through any obstacle, and then I’d find it. This is perhaps my most fundamental principle of entrepreneurialism, and to success in general.”
  • Simplicity is a strategy
    • “Jay taught me to use simplicity as a strategy. He had an uncanny ability to grasp an extremely complex situation and immediately locate the weakness. He always said that if there were twelve steps in a deal, the whole thing depended on just one of them. The others would either work themselves out or were less important. He had a laser focus on risk.”
    • “I was creating structures and terms that had never been done before. I went to Jay and took him step-by-step through this incredibly complicated transaction. And damn it if he didn’t just look at me and say, “But, Sam, isn’t the real key to this whole thing just to rent the office space?” And sure enough, that’s what the whole transaction was predicated on. Jay’s level of intellectual rigor really appealed to me. And I immediately latched on to the understanding that I could cut right to the heart of something complex if I broke the problem into pieces. It was a matter of organizing my thinking. A discipline. It brought me back to seventh-grade social studies where I learned how to create an outline. It was the same core concept, just applied at a more sophisticated level. I still apply it today."
    • ““If you really understand it, you don’t need a book,” I said. “You could put it on a single piece of paper.” They looked uncertain. “I assume this says things are going to be great, right?” They nodded. “What happens if you’re wrong? How do I get out of the room?” “What do you mean?” Randy asked. “How bad can it get?” “Well,” he said, “it’s pretty bad now, and if we fail to fix it you could lose some operating capital. But I don’t see a station in Denver ever being worth less than $4 million. I mean, the building, the transmitter—the physical assets alone are worth close to that.” “Okay, great. How good could it get?” The answer, in short, was very good. So I said, “Go do it.”"
    • ““You’ve got to be able to look at the deal and know what it hinges on to know whether it works or not. If you realize that the key component works, then you use the numbers to test it. You don’t do the numbers to find out eight hours later whether it was worth starting.”"
  • Great board members are engaged and great boards have lively debates.
    • “Also, board materials are prepared with all relevant information prior to meetings. Board members are expected to read the materials in advance, and the real purpose of the meetings is to generate robust discussion. Our board meetings are often raucous, with frequent interruptions, questions, and commentary. As a result, our companies have always benefited from the combined wisdom of our directors.”
    • “Boards that don’t exercise an ownership approach are complicit in poor-performing companies.”
  • Understanding risk is a central tenant to achieving consistent returns
    • “In addition to looking at worst-case scenarios, I look at how hard something is to execute. The simpler the goals and the steps to reach them, the more likely I’ll be successful. And if they aren’t simple to begin with, I look at how I can untangle the complexities.”
    • “risk-taking rests on the ability to see all the variables and then identify the ones that will make or break you.”
    • “As a risk-taker, my greatest fear is not having information that might protect me from making a mistake. The only way I can do that is to create an atmosphere where there are no silos—where everybody knows everything that’s going on. I tell people “No surprises” and I mean it. I’m confident enough to believe that if I catch a problem early on, we’ll be smart enough to fix it. So, don’t hide things. Relax. We don’t kill the messenger around here."
  • Radius theory of business - the ability to achieve your goal is limited by the number of people between you and the decision.