When less may be more

One of the world’s biggest companies has a minimalist website that has barely changed in 10 years. Which might not be such a bad thing, says David Bowen.

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There is one company that should technically be in the FT Bowen Craggs Index, but that we deliberately exclude. The list is based on market capitalisation and the latest FT Global 500 says that Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway is the twentieth-biggest company in the world. It is also says it’s a non-life insurance company – so what’s the problem?
Well, look at the site. It is as basic as a website can be, plain white with the address at the top and two columns of links. There are no sections, most of the linked documents are PDFs and what flourishes there are are distinctly odd. A link at the bottom leads to the online store for Borsheim’s, a jeweller Berkshire Hathaway owns, along with a quote from Mr Buffett himself: “If you don’t know jewelry, know the jeweler”. There is also a link labelled ‘Order Berkshire Hathaway Activewear’, leading to a shop where you can buy T-shirts and baseball caps. I used the Wayback Machine to see what the site looked like 10 years ago, and was not very surprised to find that is has hardly changed.
You will see, I hope, why we didn’t attempt to analyse it in the Index using our usual method, which demands a small amount of conventional thought. We assumed that Mr Buffett, famously unbuffetable, was simply refusing to use the web seriously. Then the other day I came across a piece saying that, on the contrary, he uses his site as the main way he communicates with investors – so I looked again.

Relationship builder

The most obvious point is that Berkshire Hathaway is a holding company. It may be classified as being in non-life insurance, but if you click the link leading to the 50 subsidiary company sites, you will see they range from the clothes retailer Fruit of the Loom via NetJets to Iscar Metalworking Companies. So when you buy Berkshire Hathaway shares – for $129,400 (£66,470, €83,776) each as I write this – you are buying into an investment portfolio.
Looked at purely, bar the simple news release area, as an investor relations section, it make a lot more sense. Mr Buffett is using the site to build a personal relationship with long-time owners of his stock, and he does it in a most engaging way.
Look first at the Owner’s Manual to get an idea of how he runs the company (with his partner, Charlie Munger). “Charlie and I hope you do not think of yourself as merely owning a piece of paper whose price wiggles around daily”, it begins, and continues in the same vein.

Good humorist

Indeed, all his shareholder communications mix humour with business gurudom. Here’s just one example. In the 2007 Letter to Shareholders (under the heading ‘Businesses: the great, the good and the gruesome’) is a mea culpa over his failure to snap up a business:
“Why did I say ‘no’? The only explanation is that my brain had gone on vacation and forgot to notify me. (My behavior resembled that of a politician Molly Ivins once described: ‘If his IQ was any lower, you would have to water him twice a day’.”
This is written by someone who is at ease with his shareholders, unsurprisingly, and also at ease with the English language. It is informal, elegant and clear – shades of PG Wodehouse or the best American humorists.
The question is not whether other company chairmen could get away with this sort of talk. They do not control the company and would be taking a heck of a risk. But they – or whoever – could consider injecting a little more flair into the language they use, on the site and elsewhere.
Most big companies now provide us with decent quality writing. Why not go beyond this and provide us with interesting writing? Think of the letter to shareholders – or any other personal communication – as a newspaper column, and you have permission to start playing around and even (treat with great care) to be funny. The best blogs are in essence one-person newspaper columns; we may not have noticed amid the fog of innovation, but good writing is playing an increasingly important part on the web.
Am I suggesting that we ignore people who do not have English as their first language, just to feed the gullets of the Anglophone élite? Not at all: Mr Buffett’s language is notable for its simplicity and therefore clarity. How companies use other languages is, of course, another question, though presumably the same principles apply.

Purposeful fit

You could argue that the Berkshire Hathaway site is appropriate (my favourite word when talking about the web). Mr Buffett knows who he wants to talk to, and he knows how to talk to them. Why spend money on a fancy site? Indeed, given his strong personal brand it could well be dangerous for him to do anything so conventional.
But he could also be missing out. The first ‘Message from Warren E Buffett’ on the site encourages readers (presumably shareholders) to “call on the services of three subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway: GEICO, Borsheim’s and Berkshire Hathaway Life Insurance Company of Nebraska”. That’s about it as far as marketing goes. Given his rightness-encrusted reputation, why does he not encourage everyone – shareholders or not – to use his companies?
What about jobs? I’m sure plenty of people have said to themselves ‘I want to work for that nice Mr Buffett’, only to go to his site and hit a brick wall: routes to subsidiary careers areas would surely be easy enough to construct. Job hunters may even – worse – be put off the whole enterprise by the site’s peculiar look and feel.
So, I end up sitting on the fence. Risky to change the site; missing out not to. Fortunately, I don’t have to make the decision. I will be checking back in 10 years to see if anything has changed.

First published 11 June, 2008
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