Category Archives: Personal Finance

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.

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!

Interest Rates And ‘Stacking Benjamins’

A lender contacted me last weekend about refinancing my home.  It seems interest rates have fallen roughly half a point since I first acquired the liability I call home.  But half a point isn’t quite enough for me to go through the pain of refinancing a mortgage, so I told the lender I’d sit tight for a while.  In response, the lender tried to educate me about impending interest rate hikes in December and that I’d be throwing lots of ‘Benjamins’ away if I failed to take advantage of this opportunity.  Ultimately, I think I’ll wait to refinance until a little while later, and here’s my rationale for doing so…

I’m not an economist.  I am simply a middle-aged guy doing his level best to save and prepare for a retirement…of sorts…sometime in the fairly distant future.  And I struggle to understand the intricacies of macroeconomics much less how to save for my own retirement at the microeconomics level.  The differences between microeconomics and macroeconomics seem closely akin to the differences between physics and quantum physics, except in reverse.  Ok, what?  Like, I am trying to understand how the decisions made by ‘Big Whigs’ at the macroeconomic level affect how well I can manage the money I am personally in charge of (microeconomics).  I am pretty sure macroeconomic decisions impact me directly, like in the case of my home refinance opportunity, but how exactly those decisions impact me and even how and why those decisions are made are not quite so clear.  So I am very interested in the ‘big picture’ and how Federal Reserve decisions, with regard to interest rates, impact my life, your life, and our present and future.

Today, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC), chaired by Janet Yellen, met to discuss the possibility of rising interest rates before year’s end.   The FOMC seem to say roughly the same nebulous things at each meeting, which makes me wonder about what is truly driving their decisions.  I don’t think the Federal Reserve cares much about people with microeconomic concerns (i.e., concerns such as paying for milk and gas each month much less the mortgage).  Why would they?  They are not elected officials of the people of the United States.  So here’s how I think interest rates are going to play out…

Take a look at the following chart of interest rates in the US since interest rate data have been collected:

Federal Interest RatesThe chart shows, as Grant Cardone has so eloquently pointed out to his listeners, a significant trend…to ZERO!!  In fact, interest rates have pretty nearly done bottomed-out already.  So maybe we get another tiny bump on interest rates in December, but past that, I think we are headed into negative interest rate territory.  I agree with Grant Cardone’s analysis that there is no way interest rates can go up.

I believe the key to understanding the Federal Reserve’s guidance on interest rates is driven not by the strength of the US Economy and Inflation, but instead by the National Debt.  Whoever holds cash benefits the most from rising interest rates.  Right now, many countries hold alot of cash, in the form of notes or I.O.U’s, sold by the United States to pay for things like Wars, seeking-out Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, and then Reconstruction and keeping the Government open for business.  The result is a mountainous debt (thanks to former President Bush (Republican) and current President Obama (Democrat)).  If interest rates do go up, these foreign note holders get more and more leverage as their notes become more valuable.  Simple math says you stand to collect more money if someone is willing to pay you 5% for the dollars you hold over 1%, for example, when your note becomes due.  If interest rates go down, cash and I.O.U’s become less and less valuable.  In fact, if interest rates go down enough, say into negative territory, people and entities holding cash may have to pay someone else for the privilege of holding cash.  Think about that!  The bank could conceivably charge you money to keep your cash in their bank!  You know, kind of like 401k programs do now…sort of.

So, rates may go up some in December, although I’m not sure why they would.  If the real drivers of Federal Interest Rate Policy is the minimization of National Debt obligations, then interest rates cannot go up until the US National Debt is greatly reduced.  Therefore, I think the FOMC is going to lower interest rates even more, and I think they may even go into negative territory soon.  The upside of interest rates going negative is that you might get paid to have a mortgage?!?!

I think there is still some time to consider mortgage refinancing.

 

Book Review: ‘The One Thing’

The ONE Thing

I just finished reading ‘The ONE Thing’ by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. This book was recommended by several people on many of the different podcasts I listen to, so I thought I’d give it a read. This book both bothered me and inspired me…but it mostly inspired me.

 

  • The interview question, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’, came to mind while I read this. The answer is one small bite at a time, and focus while you’re doing it.
  • The domino metaphor is a powerful one. Setup up a *HUGE* domino and try to knock it over by setting up increasingly smaller ones until the initial domino can be knocked over with a simple flick of the finger. In other words, big goals can be broken down into increasingly smaller ones, which when lined up in succession, can lead to an amazing chain of successes. ‘Overnight Successes’ are actually not a thing, but a long succession of ever increasing successes leading up to a big one.
  • FOCUS. Focus on ONE thing. Focus on ONE thing that will knock over the next domino. That’s the trick, now, isn’t it?
  • The first 4-5 hours in the morning are the most productive of the day. Don’t let anyone hijack that time. No Scrum. No meetings. No phone calls. Just productivity. Save the rest for the less productive hours of the day…in the afternoon. Easier said than done. Usually, our professional time is not our own. Perhaps, not yet anyway.
  • Keep your ‘One Thing’ in the fore front of your mind and activities always. Constantly ask yourself if what you are doing is helping you knock over that next domino.

Focusing on one thing is hard for me. I suspect it’s hard for most people. If it weren’t difficult to focus on just ONE thing at a time, I imagine there would be a whole lot more wildly successful people in the world. Focus has to be one of the secret ingredients to amazing success in life. My mind seems to always be wandering out to sea…


Somewhere on the North Atlantic Ocean...
Somewhere on the North Atlantic Ocean…

Summarizing books like this just doesn’t seem to do them justice, so I apologize in advance. These summaries are mostly for me and for solidifying key concepts in my own brain. This ONE book is definitely worth a read, however, so pick it up at amazon:

 



Dreaming Big Dreams Is Hard

“You can do anything you put your mind to.” — Pat Caple

It’s hard to believe it’s August 2016 already.  It’s hard to believe that I’ve been living in a strange house in Silver Spring, Maryland, for the last month-and-a-half, since renting my house was the only way to cost-effectively set off on our ocean rowing adventure.  It’s hard to believe that my girlfriend, Cindy, and I planned to be completing a row across the North Atlantic Ocean about this time…somewhere in Ireland.  It’s hard to believe we failed to accomplish this, and failed in such a big way.  Our row only lasted three days and two nights at sea.  Epic fail.  You can read more about our plans to row across the North Atlantic this summer on our website.

I’ve had more epic failures in my life than successes.  Successes seem really hard to come by.  Is Michael Phelps human?  Am I a sub-human?  I wanted to be an Olympic Sculler in the 1996 Olympics.  While attending Graduate School in Germany in the early 1990’s, I decided to take a long weekend to see the rowing events in the Barcelona ’92 Games.  I totally missed the rowing events, but was able to see some of the Basketball and Waterpolo events.  I was smitten with the idea of being in the Olympics one day.  I bought an Atlanta Braves Ball Cap in the Atlanta Airport on my way home from Stuttgart Germany, where I had just completed Grad School in 1992, as I came back to the United States to pursue my Atlanta ’96 Olympic Dreams.  I moved to Virginia and found my way down to the Occoquan River where the National Sculling Team trained.  I found Igor Grinko, the National Team Sculling Coach, and I asked him what I needed to do to make the team.  He said: ‘row…alot’.  I did a 2k erg test for him.  He said his women rowed faster than me.  But I didn’t quit…at least not for another two years or so.  My son was born in 1997, and that is when I decided to quit.  Ok, so my son off-set my Olympic Dream failure quite handsomely…and then my two daughters.

Looking back, I have realized that alot of my biggest dreams, and failures, have been centered around the sport of rowing.  Maybe that’s because I love the sport and camaraderie so much.  I listen to the Olympics taking place in Rio on the TV, but I can’t watch.  It reminds me too much of broken dreams.  I wish I was competing in the 4x sculling competition in Rio this year, or arriving in Dingle, Ireland, as one of the first American Pairs Boat Crew to ever row across the North Atlantic.  Damn dreams…Maybe I need to have more children to help offset this failure.

The athletes you are watching on TV now, who are competing in the Rio Olympics, have already achieved an amazing feat, regardless of whether they win a medal in the games.  It’s just an amazing accomplishment to even make the Olympic Team and to win the privilege to compete at that level.  Truly incredible!  These athletes have athletic powers well exceeding what might otherwise be attained from 10,000 hours of repetitive practice.

But forget sports.  I’m putting my mind to a new dream.  My new dream is to become Financially Free, Independently Wealthy, and to be able to ‘retire’ well before Social Security is *supposed* to kick in.  I may fail in achieving most (if not all) of my dreams, but I never want to be known as someone who quit dreaming because of failures, or never dared to dream big dreams in the first place.  Plus, this dream has nothing to do with rowing or sports, so maybe now I have a chance of reaching it.

Now, who’s got my money?

 

Crossing the Economic Chasm: From Average Wage to Economic Freedom

I was curious about putting the salaries of the US National Average into context with the salaries of the Top 1% earners, American CEO’s and Billionaires.  How significant are the disparities between these groups?  For people in the lower and middle class, how much money do they need to be considered among the Top 1% earners in the United States?

Consider the following data I found on the web…According to the Social Security Administration, the average American salary in 2014 was a paltry $46,482.  Given the cost of living in the United States, this seems pretty bad (perhaps not relative to India or Ethiopia, for example, but for America, it’s bad).  This is especially scary relative to the average CEO salary: $16,316,000.  The average income of a person in the top 1% of all American earners is $717,000.  Then there are the Warren Buffet Billionaire types…Warren Buffett earns roughly $37,000,000…A DAY!!  The amounts of money some American individuals bring in each year is simply staggering!

Here is some context represented in the following bar graphs:

Average American Salary relative to the Average Top 1% Salary
Average Income Relative to Avg CEO Pay
…relative to the Average CEO Salary…
Average Income Relative to Top 1%
…relative to Warren Buffett’s DAILY salary…
G4
…relative to Mark Zuckerberg’s Net Worth.

The average American wage earner truly has their work cut-out for them if they want to live like the average Top 1% income earners.  But the average Top 1% income is not even in the same Solar System as the income of the average American CEO.  And Billionaires?  They are in a whole different Universe.

So what’s the average American wage earner to do if they wish to achieve financial freedom like the Top 1%, the Average American Millionaire or Billionaire?  That is the question I would dearly love to answer for myself right now…

 

Book Review: ‘Money Master the Game’

Money Master the GameI just finished reading ‘Money Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom’ by Tony Robbins.  I am not a fast reader.  At over 600 pages, this book took me over two months to get through.  I stuck with the book because I want to be financially free and I’m trying to figure out how to get there.  While I was a bit disappointed in the main premise of the book – that investing in the Stock Market (bonds, stocks, treasuries, REITs, etc) was the main way to achieve financial freedom (which I hope I have stated correctly) – I loved Mr. Robbins positive admonishments throughout the book as well as his interviews with billionaire investors and his polite insistence that they share their secrets to investing success with everyone who has ears to listen.

I started this book from the fundamental belief that the U.S. Stock Market is corrupt and rigged.  I have cooled on the value of participating in the US Stock Market as an ‘average Joe’ investor – from too much manipulation by the Federal Government through Corporate bail-outs and Quantitative Easing (QE1-3) policies, to the Federal Reserve Bank and possible involvement in equity purchases, to High Frequency Traders (HFT) manipulating stock prices, etc..  Mr. Robbins book, however, is mostly about portfolio balance and diversification in equities.  While reading this book, I realized that the Stock Market cannot be ignored as at least part of an overall financial freedom strategy.

All-in-all I thought this book was extremely well researched and very good – well worth the investment of time to study and money to purchase.  It seems to be a heart-felt attempt on Mr. Robbins’ behalf to help the average investor prepare for retirement in the face of a growing retirement crisis (most Americans are not saving nearly enough money for their retirement – myself included).  While many of his recommendations for getting started toward some hope of retirement are mostly common sense steps you’d no doubt hear from any personal finance guru (i.e., save more than you spend, get out of debt and invest your savings), Mr. Robbins goes into great depth into how successful institutional investors, like Ray Dalio, Jack Bogle (Vanguard) and Charles Schwab, invest and make money (and rarely ever lose it).  I found great value in this book from the interviews Mr. Robbins shares near the end of the book with several billionaire investors, and that, I believe, is the true genius shared in this book: that we should study and emulate the behaviours, mentalities and money management practices of the truly wealthy in order to increase one’s chances of realizing financial freedom.

To that end, I realize the Stock Market cannot be ignored; however, I intend to tread cautiously in regard to these types of digital investments.  I choose to remain largely in cash right now (perhaps even in nickels, a la Kyle Bass (mostly joking)), with limited monthly investments in my 401k, and some small physical real estate investments (sorry James Altucher).

Tony Robbins, thank you for your hard work in writing this book, sharing interviews with such highly successful people, and for encouraging all people to improve their (financial) lives!  Here’s to a better (financial) future!