Shit shit shit if you are German, fuck fuck fuck if you are American, vagina vagina vagina if you are Spanish (coño).

It is interesting how many cultures curse and obsess with different part of the body or bodily functions/actions.

This article in Vanity Fair tries to explain how German banks squandered a significant amount of the savings of the German people lending it to crooks in a Freudian way without ever citing Freud. It’s all about shit it argues.

I found the article bad but still worth sharing. If anything it says more about the American writer.

Yes, it is true that the German language is full of expressions related to shit and they give examples. And it is also true that Germans love cleanliness and are very organized. But this does not explain why they work so much better than most other Europeans and waste their savings lending to all sorts of weird schemes. Why they believe the Greeks when they tell them they will balance the budget or why they lent to so many subprime schemes in USA. Maybe a lot of that has to do with the fact that the people who run their banks are incompetent and not so much with shit shit.

To me US bankers are insanely greedy and German bankers are just incompetent at assessing foreign risk and they should just stay mostly at home. But Germany, as well as Japan historically and now China, has the problem of nations who work hard, save a lot and then can’t find uses for these savings locally and tend to end up either making bad investments abroad or lending to debt-addicted cultures until they go bust.

Fring has once more improved the mobile video calling world by introducing group video calling for Android and iPhone. If you have a WiFi connection (e.g. using a Fonera) or a fast 3G connection, you can make video calls with up to four friends simultaneously for free and see them all on one screen.  This is useful at a social level but also for people who are constantly on the move and need to hold frequent work-related meetings. Lately I am using video more and more at work and it is saving me a lot on air travel. It’s much more personal to have video calls than only hearing each other’s voices, and you avoid annoying things like people getting distracted or even walking out of the room during the conversation (really, that happens).

I’m very happy that my friend Avi Schechter and his team at Fring keep coming up with great innovations.

I am not a VC. I am not an angel (don’t like the term). But I am a business mentor. Most of the times my mentoring is accompanied by an investment. Occasionally I get some shares in exchange for mentoring. If you look at the right side of this blog you will see the companies that I have invested in. Wikio, Netvibes, Plazes, Dopplr, Tumblr, Technorati, Eolia, Seesmic, Vuze (Azureus), Meneame, Joost, Moneytrackin, 23andMe, Aura Biosciences, Sonico, DineroMail, Sevenload, Vpod, and Xing.

As a result of these investments I get many pitches. More than I can handle. So I have two great people helping me look at these investments. One is Eduardo Arcos, the entrepreneur behind Hipertextual, the second largest blog network in Spanish in which I am an investor. The other one is Mahesh Kumar, a brilliant Indian student whose time I share with Result, a company in which I am also an investor. Now, other than that Eduardo and Mahesh are two great analysts, there is another reason I work with them going over pitches. Analysis is such a slow process.

So before getting more pitches, I would like to explain what my ideal format for getting pitches would be like. What I want is to get not the typical Power Point. Instead I want a TALKING Power Point. I want a Power Point in which I hit play and in 5 minutes I hear a presentation of the company narrated by the entrepreneur. I want to hit PLAY when I get a presentation not go over slides that were meant to be narrated but I still get 1999 style without video or sound. And of course it does not need to be in Power Point which I don’t even have (I use open source software to read PP). My ideal pitch could be slides with a small box for the entrepreneur to speak in video, or an alternation of the entrepreneur and slides, or simply slides with a voice over a la web demo. It could also be in stages. It could be 5 minutes and then the choice of… interested? Here’s some more. So if I like it and want to go in depth I can. These 5 minute pitches would make my day. And probably Eduardo’s and Mahesh’s day as well.

I would like to end by saying that my criteria to invest in a company are hardly objective. I only invest my funds, so I don’t need to have committees or fill up forms for liability protection. My criteria are: an entrepreneur with whom I would like to hang out with, a product I would love to use, and a valuation that is reasonable. But I have met some of the entrepreneurs I ended up mentoring through pitches, so I figured I would share my ideal pitch format with my readers.

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During my business career I have founded 7 companies. The first, and least known, is Urban Capital Corporation, a company that develops and manages real estate in Tribeca, NYC. I started that company while I was at Columbia University together with my partner Len Kahn. We developed over half a million square feet of loft buildings. We currently own 32 Varick St or 11 Beach Street, a 120,000 sq ft building that is made of office lofts and is a favorite with high tech and media businesses.

My other companies are high tech companies. 3 got to be worth over half a billion dollars, one did ok, in one I lost 45 million dollars and while the jury is still out on Fon, I believe it could be my fourth company worth over half a billion.

During my business career in High Tech however, I have alternated between investing in my own start ups, occasionally backing other start ups (the most successful being Eolia started out of my office by my dear friend Miguel Salis, ex CFO of Jazztel and now worth over a billion) and investing in real estate both in Europe and in the USA. Investing in unleveraged real estate has proven to be pretty counter cyclical to high tech. For example when everything went to hell in tech between ’01 and ’04, real estate did very well. And while my timing for real estate has been occasionally wrong (I lost money in 2 hotels in USA in the ’90s) it has been mostly very good. I buy real estate with little or no debt and simply hold on to it. I have rarely sold any.

As an example, 2 weeks ago I bought an apartment at the Continuum in Miami. I bought it at a historically low price. And currently I have my eyes on a San Francisco apartment. Also in a prime building. Why am I adding to my US portfolio of properties? Because real estate is a long term play and I see US real estate at a historical low now both in terms of a low dollar and low values in key markets. So after staying on the sidelines for a decade I am now buying for the following reasons:

My brief view of the contemporary financial world is that George W. Bush and his team did horrendous damage to the US economy, but fortunately neither he nor his mismanagement style are coming back. During his tenure, I avoided the US dollar and anything US related. When we raised US dollars at Fon for example, we immediately, and smartly changed them into euros. But for the next decade I have a different view. I see a Europe unable to make the changes it needs to adapt to a globalized economy and I see America avoiding the mistakes of the past and adapting well. I see Bush as a one of a kind idiot. The fact that Americans chose Obama shows that there is hope in a more educated generation of American voters coming up more focused on substance than myth. That even if Republicans win again during the next 11 years, they will win with somebody more like Bush senior than Bush junior. I think that future US leaders will have common sense and will not dilapidate the country´s economy by fighting useless wars and probably at least partly address the other two huge “leaks” of the American economy: the cost of health care and the costs of administering “justice”. Concretely, and in favor of buying real estate, I think that Obama´s team will reactivate the US economy but will be left with some inflation that will likely do two things: help real estate, and help the US dollar as interest rates rise to stop it. Both are pluses for US real estate.

Bottom line of all this is that I am now converting euros into dollars to buy more US real estate for the first time in close to a decade. I also was lucky enough to change euros into pounds at 1.05 at the beginning of ’09 in anticipation of buying a home in London as well. London is and will be the global financial capital of the world, and right now, with the pound depressed and the markets down, it is a good time to buy there as well. So far I put in bids for different homes in London but they sold for more to others. Will keep trying.

I end with an anecdote. An hour ago this auction ended in Hawaii. I participated in it and I was surprised to see that the home sold for over $5 million. Especially considering how high the real estate taxes, maintenance and membership fees are in Hualalai. A person who buys a home in Hualalai has to spend around $250K in the membership, and an extra $150K per year in taxes and various fees. Plus of course getting to Hawaii. I confess that I was not prepared to pay more than half of what the home sold for. Now you could say, why would people pay so much for real estate that if lucky they will use for a month a year? The answer is that there is something to real estate prices that is akin to brand value. Real estate, surprisingly enough, elicits feelings. And the property I own is in those places, places that turn people on for some reason. Places that other than serving as useful homes make people feel better, like brands, for better or worse, do.

So while I will continue focusing on building companies around my ideas in Tech, I will also continue looking for the new or rising real estate brands. Currently I see them in South Beach, downtown San Francisco, the West End of London and Tokyo.

What is creating the financial panic that is unfolding as I write, what is causing the shares of all financial institutions to collaps, is the simple fact that Wall Street does not know the extent of the damage to the quality of the mortgages that financial institutions own. As Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs follow Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers on a path to extinction that will cost the US economy dearly, isn´t it time that the US government really intervenes? What the US government has to do is a Brady Plan on itself. What worked for Latin America in the 80s can work now for America itself. It simply entails guaranteeing the majority of the principal and interest from those mortgages. And what was fantastic about the Brady plan is that the guarantee cost nothing to the US Treasury then. And, in my view, the same would be true now. Most of the mortgages in the States will be repaid over the next decades.

As an entrepreneur, I mourn the end of the era of US investment banks.  I am sorry that these venerable institutions were first taken over and then blown up by their own traders. Traders should have built their hedge funds and not gamble with the whole investment bank.  Entrepreneurs are now left with commercial banks to deal with.  These banks have less understanding of our businesses. Here´s a debate by my buddy Brent Hoberman on this issue in the FT.

Most investors who trade stocks and other securities trade frequently. I don´t. I am your average broker´s nightmare. I probably do around 1 trade per month. This year I decided to share my portfolio in my blog. And it has not been a bad year.

In a post I wrote on May 4th I told my readers what I thought was going to happen with the dollar. I said that Europe was in worse conditions then what it looked like at the time, and that the US were in better conditions then what it looked like at the time. That while the dollar was in a seeming freefall that it was going to turn around. For my own portfolio I reversed a 7 year trend and started moving away from the euro into the dollar. And while I haven’t done any oil related transaction, last July I wrote in my Spanish blog that oil prices were absurdly high and they had to fall.

I started sharing what I was doing with my portfolio in early 08 with a post in which I recommended buying Apple stock (on January 23rd). Apple stock had fallen from $202 to $134 per share in less then 60 days and I loved the company, I bought shares and I told my readers I had done so.

So my two trades of the year until now were shifting my liquidity into dollars and buying Apple shares. Other than that my money was mostly in hedge funds that are down around 8% on the average this year. Bad but not as bad as the markets. And here´s another 3 trades I did. I bought TEO (Telecom of Argentina) mainly because I am Argentine and don´t think Argentina is going to hell again. I bought Citigroup and Bank of America because I lived in the States for 18 years and I can´t imagine the two leading US banks going to hell. But if you look at the stock performance of C and BAC you would think that everyone else seems to think they are going to hell. So I bought those shares. I also have bought shares of Cresud (CRESY) a very large landowner in Argentina for the same reasons. They trade as if fertileland will be worthless something that in this world of still very high food prices I don´t think will be the case.

I should also note that my investments are very long term. In 2001 when I switched to the euro I kept with it until 2008. The Apple, Citigroup, Bank of America, Cresud and Telecom of Argentina stock I’ve bought I also plan to keep for quite some time. And overall I don´t own in all these equities combined more than 5% of my net worth so until this year I had no stock exposure and now I have very little.

I’m glad to announce I have invested in Sonico, the fastest growing social network in Latin America and Brazil, with now more then 17 million users after less than a year from its launch. Sonico helps users connect with their real friends, share photos and videos and other information, with a focus on security and privacy.

Sonico announced today a $4.3 million Series A financing round, led by DN Capital and by investors such as Fabrice Grinda (founder of Aucland, and OLX), Alec Oxenford (DeRemate and OLX) and myself.

Rodrigo Teijeiro, Sonico’s founder and fellow from Argentine, is leading an amazing team of more then 90 people, that in the last few years have built great products like Flodeo or cumplealerta, and now Sonico, capable of attracting millions of users at a rate that only Facebook could match, although not in Latin America, where Sonico is generally growing faster, also competing with MySpace, Hi5 and Orkut. According to Comscore, in Argentina Sonico has more than six times the number of users Facebook has.

In this short video recorded at Seesmic I do something that I never do and that is recommend to buy Apple shares as they fall to $134. Of course you should make your own decisions and Apple shares could fall much further and I could be totally wrong. Still I think that 2008 will be the tipping point year for the Mac, and the iPhone just got started. Much better iPhones will come and with Apple in the unique position of making more $ from AT&T than from selling iPhones well, that is like having bought a chunk of AT&T for nothing.

John Markoff represents what is best about American journalism. He is fair, balanced and can explain technology to non geeks. So when John Markoff says “Move Over Silicon Valley Here Come European Start ups”, people listen. And by people I mean very important people like…my mother who is 67 and who normally does not believe in things until they appear….in the New York Times. After the article appeared on line (yes, I have an online Mom) she wrote to me all excited that she had read about my investing activities in the New York Times. For her this is the only source of truth in the news world (my blog of course is at the other end of the spectrum 😉 ).

Thanks John for giving this type of “kosher” certification to my investing activities in European start ups!

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