Meet America’s Youngest Landlord

Here’s a nice feel-good story about a financially-savvy teenager. 14-year-old Willow Tufano may be America’s youngest landlord. She bought a house in a short sale in Port Charlotte, Florida for $12,000. The 3-bedroom house is now rented out for $700 a month! (The house was on the market for $100,000 at the peak of housing bubble.)

More details – She put down $6,000 cash, her mom (a real estate agent) put down $6,000. She earned her share of the cash primarily from offering a service where she clears out foreclosed houses on behalf of the new investors. She then picks through the stuff and resells any goods or appliances that she can. She also spends her weekends looking for deals from garage sales and resells them for a profit on Craigslist.

I have to wonder about the whole nature vs. nuture thing about kids like this. Certainly having a real estate agent for a mother helped in this example, but so I doubt that in itself is enough. In my idle daydreams, I think it would be cool to start some sort of farmer’s market stand with my kids to show them some business basics. From the Ellen Show:

More: DailyMail, Inside Edition

Ken Robinson and Finding Your Passion

Passion can actually be a controversial subject when it comes to the early retirement / financial independence discussion. If you truly love your work, then why ever stop working? Alternatively, what if your passion is racing cars or playing basketball? The odds of making a living doing either is very slim. So is the answer to maximize yourself financially (even if you hate it) until you can pursue your passion in retirement?

Ken Robinson is an Professor of Education who argues that passion and creativity are the key for transforming education and the economy. He wrote a book called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything that expands on his views and also includes many stories of people finding their passion. I find his ideas interesting and added this book to my reading queue.

Of all places, I learned about Robinson in an interview inside Costco’s monthly magazine for members (emphasis mine):

Costco Connection: Can you define what you mean by finding one’s element for readers who haven’t read your book The Element?

Ken Robinson: The element is finding that point where talent meets passion. Both are important. If you’re in your element, you’re doing something for which you have a natural aptitude. You get it. I’m not suggesting that you have to be the best in the world or the best in history, but you get it and you have a natural feel for it.

I know people for whom that’s true in every type of work. Aptitude takes many different forms. But being good at something is only part of this. To be in your element, you really have to love what you’re doing. If you love something that you’re good at you never “work” again. And you can tell. If you love something, time changes when you’re doing it. An hour feels like five minutes. But if you’re doing something that you don’t care for or doesn’t resonate with your own particular energy, then five minutes feels like an hour.

I really like this idea of time relativity (having it fly by also known as a “flow” state) as it really applies to me and many activities. It also reminds me of the following Venn diagram:

Finally, watch or listen to Robinson’s related TED talk about how schools kill creativity:
[Read more...]

Start Your Own Micro-Business With Shared Coworking and Fabrication Spaces

Do you dream of working for yourself instead of “The Man”? Indeed, early retirement and/or financial independence is often achieved by successful small business owners. In addition, any retirement plan will be more robust if you can earn some extra money on your own as needed. As such, I definitely support the growth of freelancers doing their own thing. However, you may hit roadblocks like loneliness, distractions at home, or lack of resources.

The good news is that there are a growing number of places for those with the entrepreneurial spirit to share and collaborate with others for mutual gain. Live in a studio apartment? No problem.

  1. Coworking, or shared working environments. These are basically large community office spaces where you can get a desk, couches, and fast internet connection so you can work around others doing the same thing. No more coffee shops! They tend to be informal, where you can work alone or network/chat with others. It can also serve as a very cheap office where you can hold meetings with clients, or places to meet up in strange cities. You can usually just search for “coworking [your city]” but here is a directory.
  2. Techshops / Cooperative Fabrication Shops. Are you thinking of selling something physical, like iPhone cases, custom skateboards, crafts on Etsy, or wood furniture? Wouldn’t it be great if you had your own CNC machine, commercial-grade sewing machines, or professional woodworking equipment? Techshops are a growing chain of membership-based workshops that provide quality tools and equipment that most individuals don’t have access to. You’ll also find classes and lots of knowledgeable people willing to help you learn to use the machines. Not too shabby for as little as $99 a month.

    Besides Techshop, you may find independent locations like Knowhow Shop LA or Maker Place in San Diego. Many more are trying to start themselves up and looking for members.

  3. Fab Labs. These are “digital fabrication facilities”, initially started at MIT but now found around the world, where you can make higher-tech finished products using 3-D milling machines for circuit boards and laser cutters for press-fit construction of parts. (Directory)
  4. Tool Lending Libraries. If your needs are more modest, see if your community has a tool library where you can borrow tools. You can find landscaping gear, table saws, power tools, etc. (Directory)

Most of these places have membership fees, but they are usually flexible to account for the regular or occasional user. Look into them and you may be surprised at what is available near you. Even if you’re just a frugal person that likes to DIY, these are also great places for makers and tinkerers.

Poor Charlie’s Almanack: Wisdom of Charlie Munger – Book Review, Part 1

Charlie Munger is best known as the long-time friend and business partner of Warren Buffett, and officially as the Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Even though he is Buffett’s partner in investing, Munger is different in that he does not enjoy the spotlight as much and is rather more blunt and cranky. For some reason that just makes me like him more. :)

Ever since I read more about him in the Buffett biography The Snowball, I have wanted to learn more about him via the book Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger, which is mostly a collection of his speeches but also includes some of his own personal notes and reflections from his peers and family. From the website:

For the first time ever, the wit and wisdom of Charlie Munger is available in a single volume: all his talks, lectures and public commentary. And, it has been written and compiled with both Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett’s encouragement and cooperation. So pull up your favorite reading chair and enjoy the unique humor, wit and insight that Charlie Munger brings to the world of business, investing and life itself.

The first thing you should know about this book is that it is not meant to be an investing How-To book. Yes, there is a lot of investing advice in it, but the book is more about how to live a successful and fulfilling life more than the accumulation of money. Munger puts more emphasis on integrity and how to think correctly than how to calculate a company’s return on capital.

Financial Independence
One of the reasons that Buffett and Munger appeal to me is that their primary motivation for doing what they do is not simply to be rich, it is to to be independent. Here’s a quote from Buffett on why he wanted to make money: [Read more...]

Buffett on Charlie Munger: Work For Yourself An Hour Each Day

I’ve gotten to the part in The Snowball that involves Charlie Munger. A very interesting person, although perhaps not someone I’d like to have a beer with (I’d feel stupid), he is probably best known as Buffett’s long-time friend, business partner, and vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway.

Even before meeting Warren Buffett, Munger was wealthy according to most standards from real estate investing. Here is a quote from a Buffett interview in the book:

Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.

Now, I’m sure just being a successful lawyer would be plenty for many people. But if you aren’t satisfied with your current situation, why not work for yourself an hour each day? Instead of just idle dreaming, set aside specific time for action. Perhaps the key is small chunks of time, but at regular intervals.

Example. If you’re an administrative assistant making $10 an hour and you don’t want to be, don’t just sign up to work another hour for $10. Working longer is not necessarily the best idea. Instead, give up the $10 (or $8 after taxes), and improve yourself in some way or create something so you’ll be making a lot more. There is no one solution, look into yourself. Nursing school? Investment books? Finding a mentor?

Finally, another quote from Charlie Munger about the desire for independence:

I had a considerable passion to get rich. Not because I wanted Ferraris – I wanted the independence. I desperately wanted it. I thought it was undignified to have to send invoices to other people. I don’t where I got that notion from, but I had it.

I think I’ll be buying a copy of Poor Charlie’s Almanack the next time I run low on things to read, even though it costs fifty bucks.

Update: I bought a copy of Poor Charlie’s Almanack and will be reviewing it shortly. I still think this idea of working for yourself for an hour each day is great advice and timeless.

Crediting Hard Work vs. Innate Talent For Success

The conclusion from this Harvard Business Review article has stuck with me all day. Researchers looked into whether people think of their success as the result as either hard work or innate talent, and how it affected them later on. The distinction turns out to be important. Something to think about if you’re raising kids as well.

How often have you found yourself avoiding challenges and playing it safe, sticking to goals you knew would be easy for you to reach? Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids — and your belief that you are “stuck” being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined. Which would be fine, if your abilities were innate and unchangeable. Only they’re not.

No matter the ability — whether it’s intelligence, creativity, self-control, charm, or athleticism — studies show them to be profoundly malleable. When it comes to mastering any skill, your experience, effort, and persistence matter a lot. So if you were a bright kid, it’s time to toss out your (mistaken) belief about how ability works, embrace the fact that you can always improve, and reclaim the confidence to tackle any challenge that you lost so long ago.

On a related note, have you heard of the Dan Plan? Apparently a guy read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers about how it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, and decided that he wanted to go from never playing golf before to winning a PGA Tour event. He’s somewhere around 2,000 hours now. Even though I think I would have picked something different, I’ll definitely have to check back on his progress later.

Free 9/20 Only: Incorporation & LLC Formation Service From MyCorporation

If you’ve been considering making your side venture a formal separate entity, MyCorporation is offering their LLC formation and incorporation filing services for free for one day only 9/20/11 until 11:59 PST with the coupon code MYFREE (regular price $99). Also included is a copy of Quickbooks Simple Start (though I think this is always free…) and a free domain name registration. You must still pay shipping and the applicable filing fees charged by each state. I’m sure they’ll also try to upsell you some additional services, but you can decline them.

MyCorporation is owned by Intuit, makers of TurboTax and Quicken. Accordingly, you can view such online incorporation services as similar to TurboTax for taxes. Yes, you could fill out your 1040 tax forms all by yourself, but it’s much easier to go through a question-and-answer software that walks you through it and explains the steps. You could also incorporate yourself as well, may prefer some guidance. However, if you’re doing something complex or out of the ordinary, then you should hire a professional to handle it (accountant for taxes, lawyer for incorporation).

When I formed my S-Corporation years ago, I used one of their primary competitors LegalZoom and paid about $150 for the service – not including the state filing fees and shipping. It was good to have someone look over the forms before submitting, while avoiding the $1,000+ fees from a lawyer.

The decision between staying a sole proprietor/partnership or forming an LLC/corporation is not always simple. If you’d like to dig into the details on your own, I recommend the book LLC or Corporation? How to Choose the Right Form for Your Business from Nolo Press. I chose to go the S-Corp route primarily for the income tax savings. You can even have a LLC and chose to have it taxed as an S-Corp, as if things weren’t confusing enough!

California vs. Amazon.com in Sales Tax Battle

California, along with many other states, is broke. As part of an attempt to create more revenue, California passed a more aggressive law to force online merchants to collect sales tax. A 1992 Supreme Court decision stated that retailers that don’t have a physical presence in a state don’t have to collect sales taxes for sales to that state. But some states have passed new laws that redefine “physical presence” to include online affiliates and any subsidiaries.

Amazon.com affiliates are the thousands of websites like this one, where if you click on a link to a book or other product and buy something within a certain time frame, I get a commission of a few percent of your purchase. It’s a safe bet that the majority of blogs you read participate, even if the actual revenue is relatively small. But, by California’s new definition, if just one person is both an affiliate and lives in California, then Amazon.com has to start collecting sales tax from everyone in the state. What’s Amazon’s solution? Easy, cut off all CA affiliates immediately. That’s what they’ve done everywhere else. From CNN:

Other states that have passed the so-called “Amazon tax” in recent years include Connecticut, Illinois, New York, North Carolina, Arkansas and Rhode Island. The retailer has dropped the associates program in all these states, except New York, where it has a brought a lawsuit against the state.

Many other merchants that operate online like Overstock.com have been doing the same thing. They’d much rather lose the incremental revenue from affiliates than have to effectively increase prices for all customers from an entire state. For many website owners, Amazon is their primary source of income, and this move will force many of them to pick up and move.

At the same time, not paying sales tax is one of the expected benefits of buying from Amazon. (Even though in many states you’re technically still supposed to calculate and send it in manually, people rarely do.) This understandably annoys the national brick-and-mortar merchants like Walmart or Target.

As both a consumer and an Amazon affiliate, I am a concerned onlooker. These are two behemoths playing a high-stakes game, but I feel empathy towards those small businesses that just lost a huge chunk of their revenue overnight through no fault of their own. They seem to be collateral damage in this battle.

More reading: NYT, IBT

Book Review: Rework by Fried and Hansson of 37Signals

Rework is a book written by the founders of 37Signals, a company that makes online collaboration software like BaseCamp. They also write about running small businesses on their blog Signal vs. Noise. It is readily admitted that this book is a condensed and tightly edited version of topics from their blog. I don’t read their blog regularly, but had heard of it when I came across this book while browsing inside Barnes & Noble.

This is a short book with a casual writing style, complete with about 60 “chapters” that read just like blog posts. Many of the posts chapters make it a point to contradict common “rules” within the entrepreneurial and/or MBA-driven world. Here are few overall ideas that I noted, which the authors support with their own experiences.

  • Don’t learn from your mistakes. Learn from your successes.
  • Don’t make your business big. Small is okay.
  • Don’t do surveys or market research. Make something you would want to use.
  • Don’t wait for perfect to launch. Just make a decision and correct course as needed.
  • Don’t make your product do everything, especially if it means you’ll have to do it half-ass. Make it do important things, well.
  • Don’t hire based on GPAs or degrees. 90% of Fortune 500 CEOs did not come from an Ivy League for undergrad. The most common undergraduate school among them? University of Wisconsin.

I don’t use any of the 37Signals products, but they have their own niche, and they make what seems like good money at it. I believe their target sweet spot is for people who are self-employed or wish to work in a small but passionate small business that has no intentions of hiring 500+ employees or filing for IPO. This book is not for those with Facebook or Twitter-like aspirations, but if you’re trying for something smaller, I would recommend reading this book.

Book Review: The 4-Hour Workweek Expanded Edition

I recently finished re-reading the updated edition of the popular book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. I read it quickly when it first came out in 2007 or so, but this time I think was more ready for the message.

In the last lifestyle book I read, The Art of Non-Conformity, the goal was to find a convergence between your work and your passion. Ferriss goes the opposite way and clearly separates them. Forget “dream job”, matching your true dreams with a job is too hard for most people. Instead, the ideal job is the one that gives you enough money in exchange for the least amount of time. Now you can pursue your dreams.

This is a critical difference. The overarching goal is now to create automated income and free up time.

Highlights & Notes

Motivation and getting started. The timing will never be just right. Just go for it and correct course as needed. The price of failure is often low, while the price of never trying is often high.

Creating your own income. Includes various ideas on starting your own business with the goal of high income and low time commitment. Resell someone else’s products. License a product. Create your own product. Physical objects are okay, but informational products are even better if you can pull it off. Ferriss himself made his first big money by selling nutritional supplements using ads in magazines. (Not exactly a product to be proud of, which I guess fits into his point above. Good thing he’s great at marketing.)

Shifting from 9-5. Let’s say you don’t want to quit your current job yet. The goal is again to separate work from time. If you can do the work that you spread out over 40 cubicle hours in just 20 hours at home, that will create a lot of free time for you to start that side business. For some, this may be enough to start pursuing your other dreams. Detailed instructions on how to negotiate a remote-working arrangement, starting with a two-week trial and reaching a full-time remote situation.

Time management. As said elsewhere, it’s critical to stop wasting your time and energy on things are really aren’t important. Being busy is not necessarily the same as being productive. Cut out interruptions, stop time-wasters like checking e-mail all the time, and batch tasks together.

Have others work for you. Hire virtual assistants from India. They aren’t just drones, if you teach them a system and allow them to use their own discretion, they can really remove a lot of your workload. Outsource whatever you can, remember that you’re not trying just to maximize profit.

What if I actually succeed? How will you spend your time? Instead of the potentially vague pursuit of “happiness”, he asks why not simply pursue what excites you and makes you feel alive. Ferriss enjoys “mini-retirements” where he does long-term international traveling. People also tend to find satisfaction with tasks that require continuously learning and/or include helping others.

Recap

Even though sometimes I have the urge to go against popular opinion, especially when the author’s primary skill seems to be marketing, I have to say that I really enjoyed reading this book. For me, it provided a good balance of big picture theory and practical advice. As with any book of this type, 99% of the readers won’t be able to actually attain a 4-hour workweek. But in return for ten bucks and a few nights of reading, I definitely felt I got good value.

I would recommend anyone who has the entrepreneurial urge to read this book, and I’m keeping my copy around because the included companies and links are useful for future reference.

Side Business Idea For Geeky College Students: Hacking iPhones

WaPo has a story about a college student who makes $50,000 a year from jailbreaking iPhones for strangers. By opening up the operation system to tweaks, “jailbreaking” allows iPhone users to do some cool stuff like share 3G connections, switch to T-Mobile, and install non-Apple-approved apps. I can see how non-techy iPhone owners would happily pay money to enhance their iPhone, given that they are already paying $70-$100+ a month for service.

The article doesn’t provide proof or details, but with some simple reverse math, here’s how it might work. $50k a year is about $1,000 a week. If he says he can do 40 unlocks a week, that means he had to charge $25 a pop. Not bad for a cash business with zero overhead besides having an iPhone. Now, there are some risks of data loss, but I’m pretty sure that with some careful reading any college student could figure it out. There are plenty of sites that will guide you through it. In case you’re wondering, in July 2010 the courts ruled that jailbreaking was legal.

This reminds me of when I was in college, I supported my gadget desire by taking advantage of the dot-com boom and the emergence of eBay. A new start-up would offer up stuff with a “we-lose-money-but-make-it-up-in-volume” discount, and I would sell them on eBay for a profit. For example, a Palm Pilot (remember those?) might be on sale for $100, and I could sell it for $150. If I bought three, that meant I could sell two and keep one for free. If I was more motivated by actual money then (I wasn’t) I should have bought 10 or 20, and made some real money.

The main problem with this plan? Supply and demand. Just one day after this article hit, a guy is offering to jailbreak your phone for just five bucks in San Jose. I guess that’s where you’ll have to start using stuff like marketing and finding a good location to stand out. Hello real-world experience!

Life Planning Exercise: Creating My Perfect Day

I am currently reading The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau (review coming shortly). In one of the early chapters, he talks about an exercise where you write out how your perfect, idealized day would go in great detail, hour-by-hour. I’ve read about this method other places, but never actually write it down. As I go into it, I found myself getting really into it and making several changes throughout today. Here goes:

Early Morning
I wake up, naturally, after 8 hours of sleep. Many people don’t need that much sleep, but I do. I love waking up naturally, but will set an alarm as a backup, because… I have to wake up the kid(s) and get them ready for school. I still don’t have kids, but I really want them.

I make their lunch, and perhaps drop them off at school in my 10-year old Honda if it’s close enough. I take the dogs for a walk in the neighborhood park. I then do my exercise for the day. Most days it will be something active and fun, like swimming, bicycling, tennis, or running. To mix it up, sometimes with a buddy or group. Swimming in open water is fun, since I live by the ocean.

Morning to Early Afternoon
I shower and change into shorts and a t-shirt. I work at home and live in a temperate climate, so that’s what I wear every day. At the computer, I check the morning’s e-mails and do some work. Work consists primarily of reading books and online articles from thoughtful authors (not 24/7 cable news or superficial fluff), and then researching and writing on topics like personal finance, nutrition, web design, or graphic design. I actually only do specific jobs for clients occasionally, because I’m tired of dealing with customers. Writing is so much less stressful. I might also run a small e-commerce website, but nothing that requires constant attention. Part of the year, I teach something small at a local community college.

I only work 4 hours a day. I can do this because I’m smart with money and have saved up a big chunk. Mrs. MMB works half-time as well, still 9-5 downtown, but only 2-3 days a week. With a relatively simple lifestyle, our income still pays the bills with a little left over. Our portfolio is left to grow for “advanced” retirement once the kids are in college and Mrs. MMB quits completely around age 50. I feel like I’ll be doing something that earns income until at least 60.

Afternoon
I work until a late lunchtime, and then I take the dogs for another walk. If Mrs. MMB’s not working that day, we do this together. She loves to garden and much of our food comes from there. Some days, we walk to a local eatery with the dogs and dine al fresco.

I wait for the kids to come home from school or pick them up. We ate some snacks, then I help them with their homework. Next up: sports, 4-H, girl/boy scouts, or science club or whatever fills up the afternoon. I love being able to spend time with them. We shop every day at a local market for ingredients for that night’s dinner, before the after-work rush. Did I mention I never have to go to Costco or any megastores on the weekend?

Evening
Dinner is a family affair. Once a week, the grandparents come over for dinner or we go over to their place, since we live in the same city. After dinner and homework is finished, perhaps a DVD or pre-planned TV viewing. I could say “NO TV!!!”, and I’d still like to severely limit TV viewing in the house, but do think there is good content out there. Why not watch it together? Otherwise, we might play a board game or learn about that year’s Big Adventure. I am not a fan of video games at all, unless educational and done well.

I used to worry that once I had kids, I wouldn’t be able to travel anymore. However, I’ve been learning about parents who take their kids traveling around the globe for a year or longer. I don’t think that’s my style. I’d rather visit one single country/region for an entire month during the summer. I call it Big Adventure. Renting a house or apartment for the entire month would be more economical, and we could use that house as a base. During the rest of the year, we could research the country’s language and culture to plan out activities.

After the kids go to bed, I’ll probably be exhausted as well. If not, I’m sure I’ll poke around the internet some more before I pass out.

How would your perfect day go?