I am frequently asked what I have learned from working at home these past seven months. I dutifully give the answer everyone expects: it is confining, but very efficient; it reduces the chances of infection; it’s tiring to do Zoom calls all day.
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Those answers are true, but this is what I have really learned.
First, there is a gigantic industry that calls people at home during the day to sell them things they never realized they needed: to convince me the electricity is about to be turned off unless I quickly wire money to some offshore account seemingly unrelated to my utility; to solicit contributions to charitable organizations I never knew existed (or think should exist), and to seek my views on surveys that are so detailed they take an hour to answer.
Since I get these calls almost daily, there must be a high success rate, even though many of the callers seem to be trapped in a submarine or on a staticky cell phone in some remote part of the world. And those making the calls are clearly well trained—as soon as a serious question is asked, the phone immediately clicks off—on to the next call to someone hopefully more likely to listen and believe.
I wish there were an ETF for companies that make these calls—there is gold there.
Second, roofing companies must be among the most profitable industries. Weekly, two to three companies knock on my door wanting to repair my roof. My claim that it was recently repaired falls on deaf ears. Apparently, there is a new type of roofing tile designed to repair roofs that were repaired only a few weeks ago.
Third, the business of religious conversion must also be a profitable one, for I get at least two entreaties at the door each week seeking to convert me from my religion to theirs. Or at least to contribute some money to that religion. And I guess they must know what they are doing. I have converted and bought a sticker for my door saying I have converted already and no need to knock on my door.
Fourth, one of the great growth businesses is lawnmowing. In my neighborhood, every neighbor feels compelled to have their lawn cut every other day. On the alternative days, powerful, Ghostbuster-like machines blow leaves around as Paul Bunyan look-alikes cut down branches and trees. The noise from all this cutting and blowing is non-stop, seven days a week. If Shakespeare had lived in my noisy neighborhood, he couldn’t have written even one sonnet, let alone a play.
In the old days, I used to get emails from Nigeria telling me money had been put into a secret account that I could access by providing a lesser sum to another account. I miss those emails. I assume those sending them made so much money they retired, or they realized the telephone soliciting, roof repairing, religious converting, lawn maintaining and tree trimming businesses had far higher margins.
Private equity is a good business. But clearly not as good as the businesses I have been learning about by staying home to do private equity work.
David M. Rubenstein is Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman, The Carlyle Group.