I OFTEN MEET PEOPLE INTERESTED IN LEARNING TO INVEST BUT WHO DO NOT KNOW WHERE TO BEGIN. HERE IS WHERE I'D START.
Accounting is the language of business, thus a foundational skill in investing. The goal is a basic bottom-up understanding from "debits and credits" to preparing a financial statement. Do not let this step bog you down... as you practice and grow as an investor, so too will your understanding of accounting. Here is a nice four-part YouTube series introducing the basic principles of accounting...
With some basic accounting in hand, the next step is analyzing a simple business. The goal of financial analysis is to understand the key drivers behind a business's success or failure, and ultimately determine an estimate of its "intrinsic value". In the first half of the following video, Bill Ackman analyzes a lemonade stand business, covering its business life cycle from start-up to IPO, while assessing business quality and valuation...
Of course, to actually do your own financial analysis and modeling, you need some basic skills in Excel. The Corporate Finance Institute offers a host of free videos including an Excel Crash Course for beginners. If you already have basic Excel skills, consider skipping to their video on the "three statement model", which dynamically links together the income statement, balance sheet and cash flow statement, and serves as the foundation for all subsequent financial analysis and modeling...
Amarillo Slim once said... “The result of one particular game doesn't mean a damn thing… Decisions, not results. Do the right thing enough times and the results will take care of themselves in the long run.” A successful investor makes fewer bad decisions “on average over a long period” than his or her counterparties. This is where soft sciences like philosophy and psychology are critical to investing. The goal is to construct a “latticework of mental models” used to inform your decision making. This is a lifelong process, but this book is a good start…
A “value investor” seeks to buy a business when it trades below his or her independently calculated “intrinsic value” and sell that business when it trades above. Intrinsic value is derived by estimating a business’s future per share cash flows and discounting them back to the present. An estimate of future cash flows includes important assumptions regarding revenue growth, profit margins and re-investment of earnings. Warren Buffett’s letters to shareholders are a great place to begin learning about value investing theory…
The stock market is a competitive place. It is important as an individual investor to consider your advantages (e.g. smaller asset size) and disadvantages (e.g. smaller research budget) versus large institutions. You want to avoid the waters the competition is over-fishing and stick to the inlets they cannot access. Despite its silly title and occasionally dated late 90's references, this is a good book to begin thinking in terms of "your" competitive advantage versus capable competition...
CAPITAL AT RISK
Before making your first investment, you will need to open a brokerage account and deposit funds. Deposit more cash than you would "care" to lose but less cash than you can "afford" to lose. You WILL make major mistakes along your learning curve, so to repeat, DO NOT risk more capital than you can afford to lose. (A financial adviser can help with this decision.)
IDEAS & MENTORS
Finding your first idea can be daunting. Start by creating an account at Seeking Alpha and reading through the many crowd sourced ideas presented there (keeping in mind quality varies wildly from author to author). You should also follow some of the many great investment blogs out there, some of which I link to below. Several considerations: (1) Interact in comment sections, message boards and over Twitter/email with idea authors. They double as mentors and most (including me) are quite happy to pay forward all the free advice we have received over the years. (2) Be sure to do your own work. If you are blindly copying ideas without vetting them yourself, you are not developing as an investor and are going to make serious mistakes. (3) There is no single "all-knowing" investor out there from whom to learn. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. You achieve personal growth by remaining open to a variety of perspectives. With that in mind, here is a non-exhaustive list of some investment blogs I enjoy (alphabetical order)...
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CIRCLE OF COMPETENCE
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." If you cannot simply (yet accurately) express how a business makes (or loses) money, it is outside your "circle of competence". The key is being honest with yourself and sticking to businesses that are analyzable using the knowledge and data you have (or can reasonably attain) and staying away from the rest. Over time, you should seek to expand your circle of competence through interdisciplinary study across fields and subjects. Counter-intuitively, you do not become a great investor spending all your time reading about investing, but rather by reading about everything else.
It takes years of practice to develop as an investor. If along that road, you find investing isn't for you, quit and outsource the task to other people (just read some Jack Bogle first and be mindful of fees). You have limited time on Earth... you should spend it on things you are passionate about. If you find you do love investing, do not get discouraged. Your learning curve will be filled with ups and downs like this great chart from Ian Cassel at MicroCapClub. Persist.