Thirty Second Intro
Hey, I’m Sean O’Neill. I grew up in Townsville, Australia, and earned an honours degree in psychology before moving overseas in 2014. I lived in Fiji for three years, before returning home in 2017 to continue working in finance. I contributed to Motley Fool Australia for five years, and moved to Sydney in 2018 to work on algorithmic content for Simply Wall St, eventually becoming Content Lead there.
I left Simply Wall St in 2021, and currently work on brand & content, customer experience, and growth, for a large corporation.
The Long Version
I started investing in 2008, pretty much at the trough of the GFC. Not understanding global finance, I couldn’t understand how subprime loans in the USA would affect Australian business. The first stock I ever bought was Macquarie Airports, which I followed with investments in Commbank, Wesfarmers, Stockland, Rio Tinto, and BHP. Through ignorance I made a directionally correct bet for roughly the right reasons and did very well in subsequent years. Emboldened by my genius, I went into small caps and mining services in 2011-2012, lost a lot of money and gave back most of those gains.
In 2012 I graduated with honours in psychology. Broadly, I thought university was a joke and wanted a Real Job. I worked as a labourer at a scrap metal yard until a friend suggested I contribute to The Motley Fool, which was just starting out in Australia.
The Foolish Years
I freelanced for The Motley Fool from 2013-2018. I took advantage of the remote life, and lived in Fiji for three years. That was my first exposure to emerging markets and I became very interested in the human talent that is totally underutilised because of a relative lack of opportunity.
The first properly good call I made as an investor was the end of the iron ore boom in 2014. In 2013-ish I’d started buying iron ore stocks like Rio and some juniors like BC Iron. Global iron ore demand was growing ~4% per annum, prices rose to >US$100 due to a mismatch in supply and demand, the AUD was US$0.80 and falling, and miners were printing obscene amounts of cash. I made ~100% of my purchase price in one year in dividends from BC Iron.
The industry ramped up production to take advantage of high prices. BHP, RIO, Vale flagged ~30% increases in output within a year, and juniors were aiming to double production. I sold. The rest is history. Iron ore went to $40, the industry went through a massive cost structure reset, Fortescue bonds were trading at 50 cents and most of those junior miners don’t exist anymore. (Writing this in 2021, it is satisfying to observe much stronger capital discipline in the industry today).
My horizons broadened and I grew interested in technology businesses, food, and healthcare. I read industry and labour regulations and the usual investing books. By 2016 I was growing bored and disillusioned. Over the next two years I watched a significant amount of very strong talent leave Motley Fool for other opportunities. I thought, and still think, that it was nigh-criminal from an organisational perspective to let these people get away. Australian readers will recognise most of their names: Owen Raszkiewicz (Rask Finance), Matt Joass (Maven Funds), Claude Walker (A Rich Life), Andrew Page (Strawman).
That was the first time I recognized that it is very difficult for organisations to facilitate proper careers for their most capable staff, and it’s an observation I’ve taken with me everywhere since.
The 10foot years
By early 2017, freelancing was rote and stale. I started an anonymous blog, 10footinvestor, to push myself further and focus on more detailed research without fear of sanction from either my employer or readers. My goal was to only buy stocks where I had never read any professional coverage of the business, and track my returns against both the ASX200 and an absolute hurdle of 8% p.a. (The final return of that portfolio was 7.3%p.a. with an average of 30% in cash).
Shortly after starting that blog, I stumbled across a group of companies named after pirates – Henry Morgan (ASX:HML), Benjamin Hornigold (ASX:BHD), and John Bridgeman (NSX:JBL) – that greatly concerned me.
The apparent contradictions intrigued me. To give a few examples of things that I saw:
- A company publicly engaging in behaviour where its prospectus specifically says “we are not able to engage in this behaviour”
- A fund talking about its views on macro markets, Mexican Peso etc, when all of its assets were in unlisted businesses, and the overwhelming majority of reported performance was driven by mark to model on a portfolio of Level 3 unlisted assets
- When both sides of a transaction are reported differently (e.g. Company A reports selling 100 shares to company B at $1, Company B reports buying 87 shares from Company A at $1.30)
10footinvestor wrote a series of reports on the Pirate companies that highlighted the potential for incomplete disclosures, inflated asset valuations and various other fun miscellanea. You can read this corrective disclosure to the ASX to get an idea. Very forthright language was used to describe these companies. I have been told, to my chagrin, that I hold the unofficial record for the number of “f- words” quoted in the AFR.
You can read more about that here:
- Stuart Mcauliffe to expose anonymous investor blogger
- Pirate Investor Stuart McAuliffe faces mutiny
- Hedge fund’s pirate-themed door has hidden door but no plank
- ASIC’s gripes with skyrocketing pirate fund unearthed
- Shadow director probe in pirate fund business
In 2018, a group of Benjamin Hornigold (ASX:BHD) shareholders led by Gary Miller, Sulieman Ravell, and Michael Glennon (assisted by law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth and myself) applied to the Takeovers Panel to reverse a related party takeover bid. The Panel found that the bidder had improperly used a lock-up device to reduce the attractiveness of BHD to alternate buyers, and ordered the reversal of the lock-up device.
Messrs Ravell, Miller, and Glennon subsequently rallied enough shareholders to vote out and replace the Pirate directors. Thanks to their efforts, BHD was able to recover ~$7m for its shareholders, exit suspension, and return to trade. Shareholders were able to realise approximately a third of their assets (all that was left). You can read more about that here:
Of the other two companies involved, Henry Morgan and John Bridgeman, both have since been delisted by their respective exchange operators. I consider the work I did here to be the dividing line between my amateur and professional careers.
The Simply Experience
In 2018, a friend reached out to me on Twitter (I was still anonymous at this point) and encouraged me to apply for Simply Wall St. The job was writing “robo” articles for distribution under Simply Wall St News. I met the Head of Growth, Adam Hejl, and the CEO/Founder Al Bentley. I almost take didn’t the job, but fortunately said yes, and it was an excellent professional decision. Later, Al took a chance on me and I became Content Lead, a position I held until I left.
Wait, but aren’t those robo articles really bad?
No. To view them as “bad” is to misunderstand the purpose. The purpose is to provide structured, timely information in an easily accessible format to investors. If you want to know the ownership structure of XYZ company without calculating it yourself – there’s a Simply Wall St article for that. If you want to know what analysts are forecasting for next year & if the forecasts have changed – there’s a Simply Wall St article for that. Yes, they are “robo”, but you know what you are dealing with and you get the information fast, in an attractive format, with no hidden agenda, literally for free. Simply Wall St doesn’t recommend or promote stocks, and the only way revenue is generated is via individual subscriptions to the analysis platform (this could have changed since I left).
The numbers don’t lie. When I left, the articles attracted upwards of ten million unique readers a month just in the USA. Many of these were repeat readers. The majority of readers read each article to the end. Simply Wall St is one of the largest financial publishers in the world, and the content is free. Not bad for robo, eh?
Writing algorithmic articles was extremely interesting because it explicitly forces you to assess base rates across an entire universe, not just in a single industry or geography. I learned a lot there, and when they made me a manager, well, that was a learning experience too. Becoming explicitly responsible for the process that produces the outcome, with limited time for direct output myself, was very very interesting and formed the genesis of this site.
What were your main takeaways from Simply Wall St?
- Work with people who are more talented than you are.
- Put yourself in a position where serendipitous exchange of ideas, collaboration, and the cross-pollination of skillsets leads to magic (1+1 = 3 moments).
- The best type of management is facilitation. Once the team understands its role, the best thing management can do is focus on facilitating the team’s ability to produce good work, i.e. generally getting out of the way and spend your time removing roadblocks, coordinating dependencies and so on.
- The success of an organisation depends not just on its ability to attract talent, but to apply it effectively and with limited frictional loss.
- Org structure and processes must be continually reworked to avoid spiralling bureaucracy and maintain speed of iteration.
- The concept of org reworks (a dynamic, shifting organisation, or what I called “good transitions“) should be introduced into the culture & lexicon as soon as feasible. People should understand that they will need to recurrently shift their attention to focus on the area of highest need/impact.
- Offsetting this; the organisation should not change too frequently. If the minimum effective period for delivering product is a quarter, the best versions of that product don’t come until two or three quarters later, when people have had time to think, research, collaborate, and iterate.
- Domain-specific expertise is nontransferable and difficult to replace.
- There is a trade-off between process and chaos; the optimal mix is in the middle. Too much chaos and you lose the ability to coordinate and to apply resources to pressing problems; too little and you lose the magic I described above.
- Every management decision should be approached with a conceptual dial in mind. Are you turning the needle towards or away from chaos? Towards or away from autonomy and creativity? Towards innovation or iteration? What is the optimal mix and what outcome are you seeking with this decision? Why?
(more thoughts on this in The Rebrandening and Management: Infinite Nuance)
- “Strategy”, “leadership”, “direction”, “process”, “alignment” are much maligned buzzwords – but you don’t know you’re missing them until you haven’t got them. They become critically important as an organization moves beyond the single product team stage.
I was extremely fortunate to work there with the people that I did.
Nowadays I work on growth, content strategy & direction, & business operations and alignment. I consult from time to time to financial services businesses in my areas of expertise. If I can help you with that, please get in touch.