Scott’s Pizza Tours: Unconventional Entrepreneur Turns Passion into Business

sptmovieI’m a sucker for people turning their unique interests into a profitable small business, especially a quirky one-person business (like this person who farms food from other people’s yards). My newest discovery came from watching the Scott’s Pizza Tours documentary about Scott Wiener, who turned his passion for pizza into a successful tour business and more. Below is a more bio and the trailer (direct link):

He runs a successful tour business in NYC, where he leads visitors to some of the best and most historic pizzerias in the world, teaching the history and science of pizza making. He writes a monthly column in Pizza Today magazine, is a legend in the pizza industry, judges pizza competitions, eats 15 slices per week, and–oh, yeah–he’s the Guinness World Record holder for the largest collection of pizza boxes, now numbering nearly 1,000 different boxes from 55 countries, selections of which are currently touring through gallery spaces in the U.S. and Europe, with tentative exhibitions planned for Asia and Latin America. In his spare time, he founded and organizes Slice Out Hunger, an annual event, which has raised over $70,000 for hunger relief organizations in NYC.

Are you happy with the path are you on? In one scene, Scott describes how he used to have a desk job with the government. After his first year, they had a little celebration and said “Hurray, only 24 years left until retirement!”. That statement really shook him, and he put in his resignation notice the next day.

“Follow Your Passion”: Too idealistic… or actually practical advice? You can’t make good money at something unless you’re good at it, and it’s very hard to get good at something if you don’t like it. That means passion fuels 2 out 3 parts of the pie (pun intended). If you can figure out how to make it well-compensated, you’re golden. Here’s a quote from Charlie Munger:

I have never succeeded very much in anything in which I was not very interested. If you can’t somehow find yourself very interested in something, I don’t think you’ll succeed very much, even if you’re fairly smart. I think that having this deep interest in something is part of the game. If your only interest is Chinese calligraphy I think that’s what you’re going to have to do. I don’t see how you can succeed in astrophysics if you’re only interested in calligraphy.

Dream job: Goal vs. Journey. Did Scott Wiener write down one day that his dream job would be to teach tourists about pizza history? No, it was a result of incremental daily movements. I’m reminded of the High Fidelity movie scene where John Cusack’s character makes a list of his top 5 dream jobs if “qualifications, history, time, and salary were no object.” After going through them, he realizes that he is already doing one of his dream jobs, owning his own record store.

I saw Scott’s Pizza Tours on the Viceland cable TV channel, but you might also be able to see it for free on Hoopla if supported by your local library. Otherwise, you can buy/rent on Amazon/iTunes/YouTube.

p.s. If you live in the NYC area, the 2017 edition of Slice Out Hunger’s $1 Pizza Party is on Wednesday, October 4, 2017. I’m impressed he even leverages his passion to raise money for a good cause (over $70,000 so far).

The Rise of Sole Proprietorships, LLCs, and S-Corporations

The Tax Foundation has an interesting article on pass-through businesses, where the business income “passed-through” to the individual income tax return of the business owner. Pass-through businesses include sole-proprietorships, partnerships, S-corporations, and LLCs designated to be treated as sole-prop/S-corp/partnerships for tax purposes. These usually represent small businesses started by an individual, couple, or very small group of people.

You may be surprised to know that 9 out of every 10 companies in the US are pass-through businesses. These aren’t just dinky lemonade stands, either. Pass-through businesses combined earn over half of all business income, and they employ the majority of the private-sector workforce.

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The ranks of solo entrepreneurs are growing. If this path sounds attractive to you, you won’t be alone! Being an entrepreneur is not a requirement for financial independence, but I believe that enjoying what you do everyday does help a lot. Some people are quite happy being an employee of a large corporation or government entity. Some might yearn for increased autonomy. Still others do both with a side business, aka “side hustle”.

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A sole-proprietorship is the default business type for a US individual. You got paid for mowing someone’s lawn? You’re a sole-proprietorship. You decided to drive for Uber? You’re a sole-proprietorship. This website started out as a sole-proprietorship and later became an S-Corporation to save money on self-employment taxes.

Solo 401k – Best Retirement Plan for Self-Employed Business Owners

solo401kThe wealth management group Del Monte published a whitepaper on Solo 401k plans, calling it the “financial industry’s best kept secret” and a “powerful and underutilized” retirement plan for self-employed business owners. The 4-page PDF does a good job at summarizing the benefits of a Solo 401k, aka Self-Employed 401k. Perhaps most importantly, the Solo 401k allows the maximum annual tax-sheltered contribution (or ties for the max) for all income levels and ages.

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Here’a a quick benefit comparison against the SEP-IRA and SIMPLE IRA:

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The key difference is the Solo 401k allows an $18,000 salary deferral at any income (i.e. if you make $18k or under, you can put aside all of it) for 2017 and then adds on a profit-sharing component. In addition, Solo 401ks a larger additional “catch-up” contributions at age 50.

I’ve had a Self-Employed 401k through Fidelity for several years, and I have been quite happy with it. The paperwork has been minimal, although you must start filing IRS Form 5500-EZ once your asset exceed $250,000 or face significant penalties. (It’s one page long.) It has been quite flexible – I am able to purchase mutual funds, ETFs, individual stocks, CDs, and individual Treasury and TIPS bonds. There is no annual fee and I’ve only had to pay trade commissions. Fidelity also accepts rollovers from outside IRAs and 401k plans.

Vanguard, Schwab, and TD Ameritrade also offer cheap in-house Solo 401k plans that work well for low-cost DIY investors. There are now several independent providers with “custom” 401k plans which can offer features like 401k loans the ability to invest in alternative asset classes (precious metals, tax liens, real estate, private equity, etc.) at additional cost. Vanguard and TD Ameritrade offer a Roth option; Fidelity and Schwab are only available with “traditional” pre-tax contributions.

Another option to consider is the Solo Defined-Benefit Plan, or “Solo Pension”. The annual maintenance fees are higher and the IRA requirements are significantly more complex, but you can make much larger amounts of tax-deferred contributions (dependent on age and income). The most affordable option appears to be the Schwab Defined-Benefit Plan. If anyone has any experience with this plan, I’d like to hear about it and would be open to a guest post.

Work + Skill + Luck + Risk = Big Success

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A new book called Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker promises to reveal surprising facts about what really determines success. The publicity tour has generated several articles about how high school valedictorians are less successful than you might think:

Beyond the clickbait, what really happened? I haven’t read the book, but I did learn that Dr. Karen Arnold of Boston College tracked 81 high school valedictorians and salutatorians for 14 years after graduation. Here are some of the findings of this study:

  • 95% went on to graduate college.
  • The average college GPA was 3.6.
  • 60% went on to receive graduate degrees.
  • 90% were in professional careers.
  • 40% are in highest tier jobs (not exactly sure what this means).

Apparently, none of the subjects became billionaires or “changed the world” in a meaningful way. Why not?

The theory is that high grades are a product of conformity and obedience, while being “successful” is about mastering a unique skill and non-comformity. Research has found that high grades are only loosely correlated with intelligence. In addition, out of a survey of 700 millionaires, the average GPA was only 2.9. If you are devoted to a single passion, it can be hard to have good grades in all subjects; thus you tend to struggle in high school.

My question is – How you define “success”? If it’s a respectable career with above-average income, it seems that being valedictorian gives you a much higher chance for that. There’s a reason why many parents want their kids to get good grades and become an engineer, doctor, accountant, or lawyer. You are playing the odds. There are many starving artists and writers, but not many starving nurses.

If “success” is becoming a billionaire, then yes it seems that being a valedictorian may not match up with that. If you want to get rich quickly, you’ll need to start your own business and take some sort of ownership stake. The richest people all own something – music copyrights, book copyrights, businesses, real estate, something.

The difference is taking risks. By definition taking a risk means there is the chance of failure. A small business can make you rich, but most small businesses end up failing. However, you’ll only get graduation speeches from the winners. This is called survivorship bias, as this XKCD comic explains:

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There is no direct formula for success, but you can still break it down into the required parts:

Work + Skill + Bad Luck + High Risk = Failure + Experience

Work + Skill + Good Luck + High Risk = Success + Experience

No Work + Good Luck = Failure

The takeaway is that you need hard work, valuable skills, taking a risk, and some luck. Luck plays a role, but you need the other three or you have no chance at all.

If you can be a high school valedictorian, I feel you are able to do hard work and thus have the ability to develop valuable skills. That’s a good base. The difference is… will you take the risk? Will you risk putting all your time and energy into developing a skill or a company that may or may not result in something valuable? Will you accept that chance of failure? Or would you rather go with the odds and do something with more reliable results? Perhaps statistically valedictorians take less risk than other groups.

I plan on advising my kids to take calculated risks when they are young and can devote 70 hours a week to a single task. That’s possible when you aren’t taking care of your kids (or your parents). However, I would also teach them that a reliable stream of above-average income plus a high savings rate equals financial freedom, aka early retirement in 10-20 years. (Getting rich via ownership just accelerates the process even further.) Once you have that financial freedom, you can do whatever you want with your life. Start a charity, write a novel, spend time with family, travel the world. Living a lifestyle aligned with your values certainly sounds like “success” to me.

Frugal Entrepreneur Earns $5,600 a Month Farming Other People’s Yards

Here’s a cool story at the intersection of entrepreneurship, frugal living, and sustainable farming. Jim Kovaleski is a one-man farm, growing produce and selling it at local farmers markets, earning over $5,000 a month. What’s unique is that he doesn’t have a central plot of land – he grows his plants on other people’s residential yards in Florida and Maine. Some stories say he “leases” the land but in the interview below he says he doesn’t pay in cash, only in veggies.

He’s profiled above on the Justin Rhodes YouTube channel. Found via Kottke.org.

This nomadic gardener travels between Maine to Florida gardening leased front yards. With a frugal lifestyle and revenues as high as $1.5K a week, he’s living the dream.

It’s not an easy job, but he gets to work on his own terms while developing a unique set of skills. I’m impressed both by the yield he gets from relatively little space, and how he keeps people’s front yards looking relatively nice (as opposed to industrial or commercial). If you live in a neighborhood with the right vibe (like my old one in SE Portland), this idea could probably be replicated.

Shelter Institute: Learn How to Build Your Own House in 2 Weeks

siframeWhile listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast with guest Mr. Money Mustache, I came across this quote from John Taylor Gatto in the comments. Apparently Gatto was not a fan of compulsory schooling and offered this instead:

I want to give you a yardstick, a gold standard, by which to measure good schooling. The Shelter Institute in Bath, Maine will teach you how to build a three thousand square-foot, multi-level Cape Cod home in three weeks’ time, whatever your age. If you stay another week, it will show you how to make your own posts and beams; you’ll actually cut them out and set them up. You’ll learn wiring, plumbing, insulation, the works. Twenty thousand people have learned how to build a house there for about the cost of one month’s tuition in public school.

The idea of building your own home is certainly romantic. I was pleased to learn that the Shelter Institute is still going strong, offering a 2-week Design and Build Class that costs $1,500 for one person ($2,500 for a couple) on their 68-acre campus in Maine. I guess people drive or fly there and stay nearby; they have housing options starting at $100 a week. Classes run from 8am to 5:30pm every day:

Intensive courses that provide you with extensive home building knowledge from site planning to foundations, insulation, engineering, design, wiring, plumbing, tool knowledge and the ability to Design and Build. Whether you have been dreaming of building a home or are already heavily involved in the building industry; the Design Build course or the Contract-It-Yourself course will provide a new understanding of construction and confidence in your ability to complete a project.

I gained some additional insight into the general concept of building your own home in Building a Home of Your Own, an article at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston for some reason:

For those who desire more individual instruction, the Shelter Institute offers intensive one- to three-week classes on all aspects of house construction. In business since 1974, the Shelter Institute has taught 25,000 students who have gone on to build 8,000 homes. “A lot of people come here thinking that there’s some magic thing they have to learn to know how to build a house,” reported Patsy Hennin, the Institute’s co-founder, in a recent interview with Down East magazine, “but there aren’t any secrets. Perseverance is the biggest thing. Gadgets aren’t the answer. It’s not about how to use a hammer; it’s about how to use your head.”

There are many books and “courses” that about building your own home, but I doubt it can replace an interactive environment where you are handling the tools and watching actual houses being built in person. A few similar schools will teach you to build your own log cabin in 5 days or build your own tiny house in a week.

According to 2016 data from the US Census, only about 6% of new single-family homes are “owner-built”, which means built entirely by the landowner or by the landowner acting as his/her own general contractor. A former manager of mine was the general contractor on his own new construction and also did the electrical wiring and other parts himself. I don’t know if I’ll ever build my own home, but I’m happy that there are still DIY folk out there doing such things. These intensive courses sound like a cool vacation idea actually (if someone could watch the kids).

HBO Documentary: Becoming Warren Buffett

HBO has a new documentary film called Becoming Warren Buffett that includes a more personal look at his life, including “never-before-released home videos, family photographs, archival footage and interviews with family and friends.” I just watched it on using the HBO Now 30-day free trial. Here’s the HBO trailer:

My notes:

Warren Buffett does have a folksy exterior. He drives around in his own car, eats at McDonald’s, drinks Coke, and still lives in the same house he bought in 1957 for $31,500. He doesn’t have a personal stylist or fashionable clothes. He likes to say things that sound like common sense.

Some people think this is a fake exterior. I don’t think so. Some people take this to mean that “anyone” can get rich buying and selling stocks. I also don’t think so.

Warren Buffett is also extraordinarily intelligent and competitive. His net worth is one of his scorecards. His skill is capital allocation and that involves extreme emotional detachment and rationality. These are features that aren’t visible, and he’s better at it than you are.

Warren Buffett is always learning and improving. Buffett skipped grades, finished high school at age 16, and finished his undergraduate degree in 3 years. However, instead of any degree hanging on his office walls, he has a certificate from a Dale Carnegie course on public speaking. Buffett realized his weaknesses and worked to improve himself.

Charlie Munger shared an analogy with someone who can juggle 15 balls in the air. How did that happen? Well, at some point they started with one ball, practiced, and then two balls, and then practiced some more…

The film does explore his personal life, albeit in a very sensitive and respectful manner. His emotionally volatile mother is mentioned but not explored deeply. His father was a great influence and Warren keeps a picture of his dad on the wall in his office. His late first wife, Susan, was shown as a very kind, considerate person. In her interviews, she came off as very well-spoken, fair, and intelligent. She definitely played a huge part in his overall development. She is also a huge reason that eventually $100 billion is going to charitable causes to improve the world.

Buffett has said many times that he won the “ovarian lottery”. He was born in the United States. He was born a male. He had many opportunities to succeed and support structures if he failed.

As a relatively new and clueless parent, I wonder about his kids. Warren Buffett spent most of his time working and not much time raising the kids. I wonder what they would have been like if their father didn’t become famous and rich. (Supposedly when they were young, Warren really wasn’t all that rich or famous yet.) Today, all three of them appear to be well-adjusted adults, but everyone’s job is to give away their parent’s money. Do they do this out of obligation to their parents? Out of obligation to make sure the money is well spent? Is this the “job they would get if they didn’t need a job”?

Warren attributes his financial success to “Focus”. Was that laser focus detrimental to his family and other personal relationships? What if he had just stopped when he reached $10 million or whatever?

Warren Buffett is worth over $60 billion, yet he doesn’t meet certain definitions of “retirement”. What Buffett has always been keen on is constructing a life that fits him. His version of financial freedom includes sitting by himself and reading 5-6 hours a day and thinking. He’s loved being his own boss since filing his first income tax return at age 13 and taking a $35 tax deduction for the use of his bicycle and watch on his paper route.

I think hero-worshipping can be dangerous when you simply try to follow everything about someone else. Every human has their flaws. We should extract the qualities that we admire, and try to emulate those qualities. Warren Buffett has a lot of worthy attributes and I value his shareholder letters, but I certainly don’t want to “be just like Warren Buffett”. For me, I respect that he basically figured out how he wanted to live his life (no bosses, lots of reading) and that he achieved it an early age. The eventual billionaire status doesn’t really excite me, other than the fact that he managed to remain “grounded” and relatable.

Overall, the film does offer some new personal glimpses but not much new deep material for those that have read his biographies – The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life by Alice Schroder and Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist by Roger Lowenstein.

IRS Estimated Taxes Due Dates 2017

irsclipIf you have significant self-employment or other income outside of your W-2 paycheck that is not subject to witholding (interest, rents, dividends, alimony), you may need to send the IRS some money before the usual tax-filing time. This is my annual reminder to either slide in a last-minute payment for 2016 if needed, or plan ahead for four equal installments in 2017.

Here are the due dates for paying quarterly estimated taxes in 2017; one last one for 2016 tax year and four quarterly installments for 2017 tax year. This is for federal taxes only, state and local tax due dates may be different.

IRS Estimated Tax Payment Calendar for Individuals

Tax Year / Quarter Due Date
2016 Fourth Quarter January 17, 2017* (Tuesday)
2017 First Quarter April 18, 2017 (Tuesday)
2017 Second Quarter June 15, 2017 (Thursday)
2017 Third Quarter September 15, 2017 (Friday)
2017 Fourth Quarter January 16, 2018 * (Tuesday)


* You do not have to make the payment due January 17, 2017, if you file your 2016 tax return by January 31, 2017, and pay the entire balance due with your return. You do not have to make the payment due January 16, 2018, if you file your 2016 tax return by January 31, 2018, and pay the entire balance due with your return.

Who needs to pay estimated taxes?
In general, you must pay estimated tax for 2017 if both of the following apply:

  1. You expect to owe at least $1,000 in tax for 2017, after subtracting your withholding and refundable credits.
  2. You expect your withholding and credits to be less than the smaller of
    • 90% of the tax to be shown on your 2017 tax return, or
    • 100% of the tax shown on your 2016 tax return. Your 2016 tax return must cover all 12 months.

If you forget to pay (like I’ve done before), then you should make a payment as soon as possible even though it is late. This will minimize any penalty assessed.

How do I pay? When does the payment count?

  • By check. Fill out the appropriate IRS Form 1040-ES voucher (last page of the PDF) and snail mail to the indicated address. The date of the U.S. postmark is considered the date of payment. No fees besides postage.
  • By online bank transfer. You can store your bank account information and pay via electronic funds transfer at EFTPS.gov or call 1-800-555-4477. It takes a little while to set up an online account initially, so you’ll need to plan ahead. For a one-time payment, you can also use IRS Direct Pay which does not require a sign-up but it also doesn’t store your bank account information for future payments. Both are free (no convenience fees). The date of payment will be noted online.
  • By debit or credit card. Here is page of IRS-approved payment processors. Pay by phone or online. Fees will apply, but the payment will count as paid as soon as you charge the card. You may also earn rewards on your credit card.

The following credit cards currently have the ability to offer rewards equal or greater than 1.87%, meaning you could theortically make money by paying your taxes with them. Please read my card-specific reviews for details.

How much should you pay in estimated taxes? You’ll need to come up with an expected gross income and then estimate your taxes, deductions, and credits for the year. The PDF of Form 1040-ES includes a paper worksheet to calculate how much in quarterly estimated taxes you should pay. You can also try online tax calculators like this one from H&R Block to estimate your 2016 tax liability, and divide by four quarters.

How To Become a Venture Capitalist for $100

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How would you like to add “Venture Capitalist” to your social media profiles?

Indiegogo and Microventures have teamed up to offer equity stakes in startups to virtually anyone for as little as $100. Here is an Indiegogo blog post and a NY Times article covering the announcement. Previously, only accredited investors were allowed access in such markets, and that required an annual income of $200,000+ or a net worth of $1 million+.

This is different from Kickstarter crowdfunding where you put up monetary support and at most get an early product sample or some form of personal recognition. This is an actual investment with the opportunity to earn a significant return. (Or you might never see it again.)

I decided to look more closely at one of the available investments. Republic Restoratives is an urban, small batch distillery and craft cocktail bar in Washington, D.C. You can invest as little as $100, which will get you the perk of being “periodically invited to special parties, happy hours and previews”. If you invest at least $250, you’ll also get a founders signed bottle of CIVIC Vodka.

In terms of financial upside, you have to look closely at the investment terms:

Security Type: Secured Promissory Notes
Round Size: Min: $50,000; Max: $300,000
Interest Rate: Revenue sharing agreement which provides the investors 10% of the Company’s gross revenue, up to the repayment amount of 1.5x of their investment
Length of Term: Until the repayment amount of 1.5x investment is repaid
Conversion Provisions: None

In this case, you don’t actually get equity. You have a promissory note that says you have dibs on part of future gross revenue, but only up to 150% of your initial investment. For example, if they raise $100,000 and they manage to bring in $1,500,000 in gross revenue, they’ll pay out $150,000. If you invested $100, you’ll then get at most $150 back. Even if they take over the world and become the next Pappy Van Winkle brand, you’ll get the same amount back. Too bad, I’d rather be able to say that I am partial owner of a bar. 😉

A brief look at another investment option, BeatStars, shows that you have the possibility of owning preferred shares of the business if the note converts.

Bottom line. In financial terms, equity crowdfunding is very risky. The businesses available are unproven and have decided not to go the traditional VC route. To put it bluntly, you really shouldn’t expect to see your money again. In my opinion, the benefits are mostly psychological. You get to feel good about supporting a business you want to succeed. You may get personal recognition via your name on a wall or a signed bottle of vodka. I like the idea of telling people that I “provide venture capital to startups” instead of my real job.

Daily Rituals Book Review: Daily Habits of Famous Creators

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I’ve always liked this quote commonly attributed to Aristotle (while the specific wording was probably paraphrased by Will Durant):

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.

Did you ever wonder what the average day was like for Mozart, Beethoven, Benjamin Franklin, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, or Maya Angelou? Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey evolved from the Daily Routines blog and includes tightly-edited profiles of 161 notable individuals including writers, philosophers, composers, painters, mathematicians, and scientists.

If you were hoping to learn some secret “life hacks” from this book, you’ll probably be disappointed. I didn’t find anything that fit that description. In fact, you might actually be disappointed at how ordinary their days were. The great human creations of the world didn’t just spring fully-formed from their heads, at times it took several years of daily effort to create them. “A high level of achievement is often an accretion of mundane acts.

Instead, all you can really do is take away what fits with your own quirks and tendencies. Here’s what I felt was most applicable to my own life:

  • Figure out what part of the day is the most productive for you, and then zealously guard that time. Make sure that your environment is ideal for productivity during that precious period each day. Some people have detached studios, some have “Do Not Disturb” signs. I have noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Some people are night owls. Some people work solely in the mornings, from dawn to noon. Many people switched from being night owls to working in the mornings, often after having kids. I have experienced this transition as well.
  • Don’t forget to make time for rest and relaxation. Some visited cafes or bars. Many of the artists took long, daily walks outside. This follows the current trend of mindfulness and meditation to counter the constant electronic noise.
  • Many artists used some sort of drug each day… or multiple doses… or multiple drugs. This includes caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, and amphetamines (many of which were legal for a long time). This is not a recommendation, just an observation. Well, at least it makes me feel better about my recently developed coffee habit.
  • Some only created when they felt inspired, but they would still have a routine to encourage creativity. They might talk to specific people, visit certain places, or take a certain drug. Many could afford to wait around for inspiration because they had the financial means and their spouse or staff cooked, cleaned, and watched the children. Others fit in their work whenever they could, in between work and household tasks.
  • Others forced themselves to sit down every day and had a daily quota in mind. Some people do better when they treat it like a “normal” job. They get dressed, they go to an office, and they do their work. Maya Angelou rents out a cheap hotel room every day she writes. Stephen King has a daily quota of 2,000 words.

I’ll end with a few highlighted excerpts that I want to remember. I already mentioned how William James espoused the power of automation in the 1800s. The book also included this snapshot of Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule. Finally, I enjoyed this excerpt about author Anne Rice (b. 1941):

For her first novel, Interview with the Vampire, Rice wrote all night and slept during the day. “I just found it the time when I could concentrate and think the best,” she says. “I needed to be alone in the still of the night, without the phone, without friends calling me, with my husband sound asleep. I needed that utter freedom.” But when her son was born in 1978, Rice made “the big switch” to daytime writing and has continued to work that way for most of her career. […] “What you have to do is clear all distraction. That’s the bottom line.”

This book mostly included artists of one type or another, but I think a good routine can apply to all part of life. I don’t see that much difference between writing a book and creating a new small business that sells handmade items on a custom website (or really anything where you work for yourself). You are still making something new, and you should create the best environment in which to do so.

Podcast Recommendation: The Distance

thedMany of the podcasts I listen to aren’t financially-related, but I’ve recently been catching up The Distance Podcast which profiles the owners of private businesses that have been around for at least 25 years. Here’s their own description:

What’s the hardest thing about business? Not going out of business. The Distance features stories of private businesses that have been operating for at least 25 years and the people who got them there. Hear business owners share their stories of hard work, survival and building something that lasts. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the company behind the leading project management app.

A few observations after several episodes:

  • If you’ve been around for 25 years, then you are both (1) good at what you do and (2) you turned down buyout offers.
  • These businesses were not highly-leveraged with debt, and thus could survive the lean times like the 2008 financial crisis.
  • Many of these founders could have sold for a sizable sum and retired (at least modestly) years ago.
  • Why didn’t they sell? For one, they have pride in the their work. Building houses, growing food, carving ice sculptures, or making cardboard boxes. It matters to them that it is done “right”. They feel loyalty to their employees and community.
  • Some are workaholics. If you’re going to always work, why not be the boss? If you sold, you’d have to start over or work for someone else.
  • These businesses are often kept in the family. Keeping it around to pass down to the next generation is another reason not to sell.
  • Some might only be in it for more money. But that seemed to be rare.

Most mass media business profiles focus on multi-national corporations (Apple) or some hot-shot tech unicorn (Uber). I found myself having a soft spot for these mom-and-pop businesses that stubbornly do their own thing.

Two Ways to Get Rich: Save Like Crazy, or Start a Business

Cash ImageTom Corley performed a study examining 233 self-made millionaires over 5 years, and found that they fell into one of two categories as outlined in this Business Insider article:

  1. They were fanatical savers.
  2. They sold something.

This aligns with my own observations as someone who has thought about financial independence nearly every day for over the last 10 years. My version:

  1. You can become financially independent by managing your income and expenses carefully over a long time. If you start at zero, you will need a 50% savings rate to retire in 15-20 years. You will need a 30% savings rate to retire within 25-30 years. Thus a household making $100k has to live on $50k (both after taxes). Being a steady, salaried or hourly-rate employee will do just fine. There is no secret besides applying discipline and consistency.
  2. You can become financially independent faster by starting a scalable business. By starting a scalable business, you are breaking the link between hours worked and money earned. As a salaried or hourly worker, you’ll never earn more than a set amount, be it $40k a year, $400k a year, or $20 an hour. As a business owner, your income has no ceiling. You take the risks, and you get all the rewards. Ideally, this results in a lump-sum “liquidity event” like a sale or IPO that provides the same amount of money as decades of steady savings. (Controlling your expenses still matters, even millionaires can go broke when the income stops flowing.)

The first option can be described as “get rich slowly” or “get rich surely”; it is more reliable but may take longer (or at least feel longer). The second option is “get rich quickly” but also “get rich maybe”; there is more risk and results are not guaranteed despite the size of your efforts. Luck will have a role, but if you don’t even try then your chances are zero.

If I was to make a broad recommendation (i.e. what I plan to tell my kids), I’d say that if you really wanted to get rich, you should (1) do both options above and (2) do it now, hopefully when you are younger and don’t have as many responsibilities. Keep your expenses bare-bones and start a business. Being a single 24-year-old meant I could still have fun with minimal expenses and spending 60-80 hours a week working on a project didn’t destroy my family or personal life.