The Financial Freedom Crap Shoot

In 2017, the world’s billionaire club grew by a healthy 13% to roughly 2,043 people.  In my home state of Virginia, according to Forbes, there are just 5 such billionaires.  Since there are roughly 8.3 million people living in Virginia, this gives me about a 5 in 8.3 million chance of being counted as a billionaire.  As remote as that possibility is, it’s still better than the 1 in 258,890,850 chance I have of buying a winning Mega Millions lottery ticket, and the pot for that currently stands at a paltry $145 million.

Yes, the odds of becoming a millionaire or a billionaire are annoyingly remote, even for the average ‘free’ American.  Nevertheless, my goal is to be financially free and in command of my own financial future at some point in my life before I die.  The benefits of financial freedom are obvious.  We all dream about it.  But the execution of the dream seems to vary greatly, while many have completely given up on it all together.

Here’s a rough plan to Financial Freedom I have begun to formulate for myself.  This particular plan, as opposed to the ‘win the lottery’ plan, seems easiest and most practical for me to execute, even though it is far from ideal:

According to my current calculations, my closest shot at financial freedom will be in 19 years when I turn 67.  That kind of sucks, but let me sketch it out anyway.  I have three kids to get through college over the next 8 years and I have a house mortgage to pay off.  I have accelerated my mortgage payoff through additional principal payments of $1000, which should allow me to pay it off in the next 10-13 years (if I can be consistent with the plan).  Helping my kids get through college will induce some financial headwinds over the next 8 years.  As a divorcee, my alimony payments will end in roughly six months, which will free up additional capital to help with college expenses.  Once Child Support, Alimony, College and Mortgage expenses have all been paid, I estimate my monthly expenses to be somewhat akin to the following:

  • Food: $540
  • Gas: $150
  • Water Utilities: $50
  • Electricity Utilities: $67
  • Gas Utilities: $42
  • Phone: $85
  • Gym: $15
  • Internet: $80
  • Health Insurance: $800
  • Car Insurance: $60
  • Life Insurance: $45
  • House Taxes: $410
  • Car Taxes: $25
  • Annual Car Maintenance: $167

Total estimated monthly expenses should be around $2,536, or $30,432 per year.  My current estimated monthly Social Security benefit at age 67 is $2,893, which should just cover these estimated living expenses.  Additionally, If I can manage to save $1500 per month for the next 228 months (taking me to age 67), the nut accrued could provide an additional $950 per month for the next, and probably last, 30 years of my life.  So from age 67 to 97, I should have about $3,843 per month to cover living expenses, at least until I succumb to assisted living (at which point I become my kids’ problem lol)!

I estimate my odds of achieving financial freedom by age 67 at around 75 percent.  My next steps are to figure out ways to compress my financial freedom time line by studying how billionaires have made their extravagant fortunes.

The Weekly Billionaire Case Study: Jeff Hoffman

“Ideas are welcomed, but execution is worshipped.”

My girlfriend and I attended Freedom Fast Lane Live in Austin, Texas in 2015 (I wrote about this experience here) and we were fortunate to hear Jeff Hoffman speak.  We learned that Mr. Hoffman went to Yale University and graduated with a degree in Computer Science.  He almost got kicked out of school on his first day because he could not pay his tuition bill.  To pay his tuition, he started a software company in his dorm to help pay his way through college.

He learned early on that entrepreneurship is a tool that could allow him to solve problems in not only his own life, but the lives of others as well.

“Entrepreneurship is the shovel you use to dig a path to a brighter future.”

Mr. Hoffman dreamed of doing bigger things.  It did not take him long to start launching his own companies.  As a result of his entrepreneurship, he became a multi-millionaire in his early twenties.  At the time we heard Mr. Hoffman speak in Austin, he had taken two companies public, two companies he had started had failed, and two companies were still going strong.  Perhaps the one company he started that he is most well known for is priceline.com.

“The whole point of being a business owner is to design the life you always dreamed you were going to have.”

Here is some great advice I’ve noted from some of his talks:

Solve Real Problems: Entrepreneurship is about solving real problems.  Mr. Hoffman created software that allowed people to book travel online as opposed to over the phone with a travel agent (this later became Expedia).  He was once annoyed that only one person who worked for the airlines could print boarding passes.  He created and patented kiosk technology that allowed anyone to print their own boarding passes.

FOCUS: Follow One Course Until Success.  Win a Gold Medal at ONE thing.  Then move on to your next best idea or thing.  And winning a Gold Medal is *REALLY* hard.

Harness The Power of Wonder/Curiosity: Stay curious about things around you.  Never stop asking ‘why?’.  Answers to your curiosities can lead to innovations, newer and better ideas, and solutions to problems.  Never be satisfied with the status quo.

Info-Sponging:  Spend time each day reading about things and look for things that interest you outside of your industry.  Write these things down.  Try to connect the dots between interests over time.

Filter Data Through the Eyes of Your Customers: If your executive team is not a representative cross-section of your customers, take their data analysis and decision making with a grain of salt.  Get real feedback from real customers.  Sam Walton used to put on a John Deer hat and go to a diner to buy Apple Pie for people who were representative Walmart customers, so he could learn more about their buying patterns.

Dream Big and Make it Happen:  Hone in on your dream.  Print out a picture of it.  Make it the reason behind the things you do.

“Dream Big, Work Hard, Create Value.”

I could not find an estimate for Mr. Hoffman’s net worth online.  My assumption, however, is that much of Mr. Hoffman’s billionaire status is tied to an equity stake in priceline.com, which currently has a market cap around $88.5 Billion.

The Weekly Billionaire Case Study: Sarah Blakely

I told my youngest daughter this morning that I am trying to write a quick article about a different Billionaire each week.  This week I was planning to write about either Warren Buffet or Sarah Blakely.  I asked my daughter to choose between these two for me, and since she is familiar with the ‘Spanx’ brand, she chose Sarah Blakely.

My daughter is 14 and she is familiar with the Spanx brand. I have not really heard of Spanx before this year, or if I have, never thought much of it. That is until one evening when my girlfriend and I were pondering applying for a patent on a goofy sock idea we had (that’s another story). While searching for information about patents I stumbled upon the story of the creation of Spanx and it’s founder, Sarah Blakely.

Here are some things that strike me about the meteoric rise of Ms. Blakely and the Spanx brand:

  • Ms. Blakely scored low on the LSAT. Boy can I relate!
  • She went to work for Danka selling fax machines door-to-door.  This sounds like a brutal job to me, but I’m sure this experience provided the spark and sales skills she needed to start her own successful enterprise.
  • To build a prototype of her idea, she went to hosiery manufacturers in North Carolina.  She promptly discovered that the female undergarments industry was dominated by men who never actually tried the garments out they were making (at least none that would admit to doing so).  She stumbled upon a complete lack of female influence in the production of undergarments for women!
  • Her Dad taught her it was OK to fail, and apparently even encouraged it.  Robert Kiyosaki (‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ author) is constantly harping on the Public Education System for not allowing kids to feel comfortable with failure.  Many people who are afraid of failure may never try to do something hard or new, and thus may never realize big success.
  • Ms. Blakely worked full-time at Danka while she was working on Spanx business and only quit in 2000 when Opra featured her product on the Opra Show.
  • In the ideation of the ‘Spanx’ Brand name, she wanted to create a name that had a hard K sound in it, like successful brand names Coca-Cola and Kodak.
  • Spanx first year revenue was $4 million.  Second year revenue was $10 million.  Then she signed a contract with QVC and sold 8,000 units in the first six minutes of operation!

Forbes estimates Ms. Blakely’s net worth at $1.08 Billion today.

The Weekly Billionaire Case Study: John Schnatter

“All you’ve got to do in life is find something you love and are good at.”

John Schnatter is the founder of Papa John’s Pizza.  I was skimming my latest edition of Bloomberg Businessweek (edition June 11, 2017), and started reading my favorite section in the magazine: ‘How Did I Get Here?’  I was immediately interested to learn that Schnatter grew up in Jeffersonville, a small town in southern Indiana.  My family, on my Dad’s side, is from New Albany, IN, which is right next door to Jeffersonville (or ‘Jeff’ as my Grandmother used to call it) – both towns are immediately across the the Ohio River from Louisville, KY.

According to Forbes, Schnatter is the grandson of German immigrants who came to the U.S. in 1867.  His grandfather and father were entrepreneurs.  His grandfather owned three successful businesses, while his father started 20 business that all faltered.  Schnatter started working to earn money by cutting grass at 8 years old, and started painting gutters at 12 (starting to work for an income early is generally a sign of financial success later in  life).

Jeffersonville, IN is a pretty small town.  Not much appears to be happening there, at least the last time I was there, 5-6 years ago.  In fact, one of Schnatter’s Life Lessons is: “If your business can be successful in Columbus, Louisville, or Evansville, you’ve probably got something you can franchise.”  Presumably, he chooses these cities because of their relative size and the amount of business taking place in, and around, them.

So, Schnatter graduated from Ball State University in 1983 or 1984 with a degree in Business.  Nothing remarkable there.  But before he graduated from college, he may have discovered a secret to his future successes.  While working as a dishwasher and pizza cook at Rocky’s Sub Pub from 1977-78, he discovered that he hated washing dishes!  He also discovered that if he made the pizzas right, the plates would come back empty, but if he didn’t, they’d come back half-eaten.  The lesson being, make really good pizza and you have to do less work!

After graduating from college, Schnatter helped out at his Dad’s bar, called ‘Mick’s Lounge II’, in Jeffersonville.  His Dad’s bar had accumulated about $64k in debt so Schnatter sold his Camaro to cover the near-terms costs of the bar.  According to Forbes, he settled the Bar’s debts in about 4 months.

He started making pizzas out of a broom closet in the bar and immediately went from making $300 a week, to $1500, then $3000 and then on to grossing over $100,000 a year in 14 months!  The first Papa John’s was built next to his Dad’s Bar.

With the help of Schnatter’s brother, Chuck, a lawyer, they were able to sell 100 franchised restaurants between 1986 and 1991.  Schnatter says he put his brother, Chuck, through college and law school, and in return he received free legal services.  This ultimately resulted in Papa John’s having their franchise agreements created by the top law firm in Kentucky.  This was probably another key ingredient in the franchise success of Papa John’s, I would guess.

“In 1991 I didn’t have $2,000 to go on vacation. In 1994 the company was worth $200 million.”

Papa John’s filed for IPO and went public in 1993 with 232 franchised stores.  The company is listed on the NASDAQ as ‘PZZA’.  In 2016, they did $1.7 billion in sales worldwide.  So, roughly 10 years after graduating from Ball State with a degree in Business Administration, Schnatter finds himself at the helm of a publicly traded pizza company that would soon be doing almost $2 billion in top-line business each year!

“What gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded gets repeated.”

According to a January 26, 2017 video posted on Business Insider:

  • Peyton Manning owns 30 Papa John’s franchises in Denver, CO.
  • Jerry Jones own 89 Papa John’s franchises in Dallas, Ft. Worth, Waco and Austin.
  • Jerome Bettis owns 4 Papa John’s franchises in the Pittsburgh area.
  • Jamal Mashburn owns 57 Papa John’s franchises across the U.S.

Forbes reports that Papa John’s currently has a market cap of $3.2 Billion, yet it has only captured about 1/10th of the Pizza Market currently dominated by Pizza Hut and Dominoes.

John Schnatter’s net worth is currently reported to be around $1 Billion.

The Weekly Billionaire Case Study: David Geffen

“We are each a figment of our own imagination.”

I’ve decided to choose one Billionaire I’m interested in each week and to write a bit about them in order that I might learn something about how they attained their financial wealth and success.  Of interest this week is the media magnate, David Geffen.

According to Wikipedia, Mr. Geffen was born in New York to Jewish Immigrant Parents.  His Mom apparently owned a clothing store in New York. His parent immigrated to the U.S. during the Great Depression. He was born into a tough environment with tough financial characteristics: Jewish Immigrant parents, New York City, Great Depression – oy vey. His mother called him ‘King David’; she told him, ‘you have golden hands, you can do anything you want’.  Parents can and do make a difference.  My Mom always told me I could do anything I put my mind to, so we at least have that in common…

A college drop-out (college apparently has nothing to do with financial success, kids), Mr. Geffen lied about having a college degree just to land a job in the mail room at a talent agency, William Morris Agency (WMA). Landing this mail room job was a significant hack. Because he worked in the mail room, he was able to intercept, and modify, a letter from UCLA to WMA stating that he had not attended college at UCLA.

While working in the mail room at WMA, Mr. Geffen became friends with another college drop-out, Elliot Rabinowitz, who partnered with him in later ventures. Note to self, never underestimate the talent of people working with you, even if they are in the mail room.

Geffen soon dropped out of WMA to form his own Talent Management Company where he managed Laura Nyro primarily at first, and then became a talent manager for musicians like Crosby, Stills and Nash. It was his discovery of Jackson Browne that instigated his creation of Asylum Records.

He later sold Asylum Records after purportedly tiring of supporting the personal and professional lives of the artists he represented. He then was asked to become instrumental in merging Asylum Records with Elektra.

He fell in love with Cher and lived with her for 18 months (and he was gay)!  At the same time, he had the top three selling record albums.  Talk about crushing it!

“Start with what you know.  You never know where it will take you.”

He then went on to form Geffen Records, signing big names such as Dianna Ross, Elton John and John Lennon.  He sold Geffen records.

He went on to form the film production company, Dream Works, making hit after hit with Director Steven Spielberg and Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg (movie hits like Beetlejuice, Little Shop of Horrors, Shrek, Risky Business and Saving Private Ryan).

Mr. Geffen now has a net worth around $7.6 Billion.

For a more in depth look into the life and career of David Geffen, I highly recommend the movie, ‘Inventing David Geffen’, which you can download on iTunes.

Barbarians Inside the Gates: AWS Security Roadshow

AWS Security Roadshow, Tysons Corner, VA (5/23/2017)

I attended the AWS Security Roadshow yesterday in Tysons Corner, VA (5/23/2017).  Members of the AWS Technical Services Team delivered various briefings and answered one-on-questions regarding best practices for securing one’s AWS Cloud-Based Software Solutions.  One of my biggest take-a-ways was the idea of ‘DevSecOps’.

The software development life cycle (SDLC) is typically a process balanced by two competing forces: Development and Operational Staff.  The Development Staff is typically motivated by the imperative to deliver quality code quickly and often, while the Operations Staff is typically motivated by the imperative to keep the Production Environment running and stable, with as few changes as possible.  AWS are encouraging users of their platform to include a third competing component in the typical SDLC: Security Staff.

Security Staff, the ‘Sec’ in the term ‘DevSecOps’, are motivated by the imperative to keep the bad guys away from Enterprise Data, promising to make the balancing act between Development and Operational imperatives even more contentious, albeit a necessary contention at that.  Security Engineers need to be integral components of any Enterprise Software Engineer Team, and they need to be driving Security concerns and architectural decisions from the very beginning of the SDLC.  Computer Security is not a quality gate, but an integral part of the SDLC.

Security Inconsistencies

While overall I am impressed by AWS’ focus on Cloud Security, and their desire to ensure that AWS customers practice ‘Safe OpSec’ (Safe Operational Security, for you AFN Fans) on their platform, I have noticed a few inconsistencies in the overall security messaging:

Practicing Safe OpSec Costs More

Keeping technical assets secure in the AWS Cloud costs more.  For example, if you want to keep your Lambda function safe from the wily internet behind a Virtual Public Cloud (VPC), the VPC is going to cost you.  Moreover, if your Lambda function, running safely on your VPC subnet, needs to access the public network for anything, like to access SES to send out an email notification, your VPC will need to be attached to a NAT to forward internet bound requests out through an Internet Gateway.  The NAT/Gateway implementation is also going to cost you.  So, in reality (and this may matter quite a bit to bootstrapped startups using AWS), it will cost a customer significantly more to secure their cloud-based solution than not.

Even Ehrlich Bachman and his ‘See Food’ startup express angst over AWS charges…

Penetration Testing Can Get You In Trouble

The AWS Staff encouraged participants at this particular Road Show gathering to automate security testing, and penetration testing in particular, into the CI/CD code build and deployment pipeline.  However, penetration testing, in someone else’s cloud infrastructure, can land you in hot water.  You need to be sure to read the law of the land on this issue, and request permission to pen-test from AWS (https://aws.amazon.com/security/penetration-testing/).  From a newbie customer’s perspective, these instructions seem a bit ominous and could deter folks from even bothering.

Alexa Skill Security

I asked one AWS Engineer some questions about Alexa Security and how Alexa might be securely utilized in the Enterprise.  The engineer I asked was not an Alexa engineer, so agreed to forward my question to the Alexa Engineering Staff.  I have not heard anything back yet on my questions, but I suspect IT security and Alexa Skills have yet to meet one another.

Think Like A Barbarian

I am impressed that AWS is concerned enough about sharing security concerns with their customers that they are traveling around the United States to help ensure that IT security remains a primary concern.  AWS have a vested interest in customers who are well educated on AWS Cloud services and security best practices.  Their message is clear: when deploying applications to the AWS infrastructure, think like a Black Hat and use AWS services and best practices to help protect your assets.  As more and more organizations move to AWS, IT Security becomes increasingly important for the growing universe of AWS Cloud Customers.

Marine Corps Historic Half 2017

One of my goals this year was to run the Marine Corps Historic Half, on May 21st, 2017, with two of my three kids this year (my youngest has no interest in running 13.1 miles, understandably…).  The last time I ran with my oldest two kids was in 2011 when we ran the Marine Corps Irish 10k.  Here are some pictures from our 10k run on March 26th, 2011:

We have not run together since 2011, so I wanted all of us to get back out there to tackle bigger and better challenges.  We had a great time yesterday at the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon (13.1 miles) in Fredricksburg, Virginia.  My kids and I have come a long way since the last 10k run we did together!  My girlfriend joined us on the run.

Our next big goal is to run the Marine Corps Marathon together this October.  Oohrah!

I Command You To Grow!!

Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

I love synchronicity – the Jungian idea that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur with no causal relationship yet seem to be meaningfully related. This Spring, I started reading Mike Michalowicz’s book ‘The Pumpkin Plan’. The central idea of his book is that business people should be more inclined to trim away customers to focus solely on their best customers in order to grow them, and their company, to the biggest size possible. Mike likens this business focus on the best customers to a farmer who tries to trim away all pumpkins on a vine to a select one or two in order to grow the biggest pumpkins possible. This Rhode Island farmer’s pumpkin grew to 2,261.5 pounds!! What?!?

Speaking of books, I currently have two books for sale on Amazon if you’re interested: ‘The Lean Startup’ and ‘Sprint’.

Growing is what Spring is all about. For some reason, this Spring in particular has had me focusing inordinately on growth: growing my own vegetables, growing my income, growing my net worth, growing my muscles, growing my cardiovascular strength, growing my family bonds, helping my employer grow. Every day I think about GROWTH. How can I grow more? How can I get bigger? How can I 10x my life??!?! I’m done shrinking!!! I look at the earth – not the World as a whole, but dirt – and biological organisms and how life literally springs forth from it every Spring. No matter what man does to the planet, seemingly, life still springs forth every year. The life force is so strong on earth. Life wants to grow! Life must grow! It can’t be stopped. That’s what this planet does – springs forth life and growth – and humans are no different.

My girlfriend and I started a garden in our back yard a few weeks ago. It was back-breaking work. We got covered in dirt and mud. It rained as we worked. Our backs and hands hurt. I could barely stand upright the next day. It felt awesome. We now have spinach, beans, herbs, bee-balm, tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers growing. We also have planters of grape vines, black berries and blue berries growing. Despite our lack of farming skills and knowledge, the earth continues to spring forth life. The energy to give life, emerge and grow is unstoppable and everywhere. It’s awesome to think that we humans are products of this energy.

We didn’t stop at a garden in the back yard though. I bought some land down in Southern Virginia this Spring so I could grow even more life! My family and I were down there last weekend (West of the Richmond area) planting Apple, Plum, Cherry and Oak Trees.  We also seeded Sun Flowers, Wild Flowers, and some other seeds.  If we let the land sit for long enough without intervention, trees and weeds of all sorts would eventually take over the land. I am trying to impose my own growth plan and will on the land instead by determining what life I say will grow there.  Why must we grow Fruit and White Oak trees and Sun Flowers, JC? Because I said so, that’s why.  I command it to grow!!

Also in the last few weeks, I discovered this guy, CT Fletcher, and how he uses the phrase, ‘I command you to grow!’, to grow his muscles as he lifts weights. He commands his muscles to grow! Why? Because he said so! It’s his ‘Magnificent Obsession’! This is genius! CT has learned to envision the change he wants to affect in his life, and to impose his will over it to make it so. Can I do that too? Can you?

My new mantra when I look at my Bank Account, my Gardens, my Trees, my Relationships, AND my muscles is: ‘I command you to grow!’ Why JC? Because I said so, that’s why!