Link Roundup: The Value of Hard Work

During times of plenty, when there are more interesting articles than I can do a feature review of, I will combine them into a single post called a link roundup. Here is one such event.

  1. The value of hard work. This reminds me of my time growing up in the crucible of competitiveness that is the Bay Area. Investments made in oneself through education and knowledge pays compound interest down the road, establishing a solid foundation for improved performance and confidence, that feed off each other in a virtuous cycle. Take for example a high school student taking summer classes to prepare for the next quarter’s math and reading classes. That person will get a leg up in results for the rest of his or her life, because of repeated exposure and increased familiarity, not to mention having an easier time in the class. Compared to someone like this, if you’re not working hard every day, you’re falling behind your peers. Just like in athletics, average is over. Every day you’re slacking or doing something else is a day falling behind your peer competitors.
  2. What do future jobs look like? The thinkers of yesterday and today have a vision for how the future looks, and it doesn’t bode well for some. Unskilled work will be replaced by robots. Technical and computer skills will become more valuable. Good future areas to specialize in include AI, robotics, and VR. At the same time, some jobs like in health care that deal with human emotions, where empathy is essential, will be relatively shielded from the effects of technology. But then again, you would know this from reading my book.
  3. As a corollary to the above, university students increasingly recognize the reality of a tough job market for graduates, and are tailoring their studies accordingly. This means fewer liberal arts graduates and more social science, business, engineering, and “trades” graduates. That’s probably a good thing for individual finances but a tragic loss for the country. After all, from their pen would have come art, literature, and poetry – the stuff that gives colour and meaning to life. That’s what separates us from somewhere like Singapore or India, which are
  4. If you have truly niche technical skills, you can make bank. Just look at blockchain developers. Btw, software is one of the fields where if you have the interest and the talent, you can teach yourself and get a great job without having a degree in the field. That’s the path my dad took.
  5. Here’s a great story of a self made web entrepreneur with the vision to establish a business reselling cheap Chinese toys from Alibaba to American consumers willing to pay more. Wait… why don’t Americans just buy directly from Alibaba? Doesn’t sound like a very sustainable business model but somehow it works.
  6. Concierge medicine is taking off, and whispers are that you can have a lucrative practice with low patient volume, if you cater to the rich and treat everyone like a VIP. It’s not my cup of tea, but I see disruptive potential in different delivery methods for health services. Target mini clinics are good, as is the underutilized format of telemedicine.
  7. I can’t harp on the concept of geographic arbitrage enough. By moving to a cheaper location, your dollars stretch so much further. Not only that, but your kids can grow up multicultural with foreign language skills, interesting life experiences, and a great prebuilt application essay for Ivy League schools telling them how unique you are.
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Luxury Is Cheaper than Land

Of all the innovative uses for geographic arbitrage, one of the most satisfying is monetizing one’s home and trading it for an itinerant life. That wanderlust can be satisfied in a variety of different ways. The online travel blogging community has made being a digital nomad in cheap areas like SE Asia and Latin America so commonplace that it’s become trite.

An interesting choice is to instead live on a cruise ship. It’s not just a way of life for the wealthy to live on a luxury boat like The World, but even worldwide voyages with one of the mass market lines (Princess, HAL, Oceania, etc) can be affordable, when considering all the expenses racked up on land in an expensive place like New York City.

At a certain point, if you own property in NYC and decide to rent it out, it may be able to generate enough income to subsidize all (or a great portion) of the cost of the cruise. And when you factor in food, entertainment, and travel all being bundled into the price of the cruise, it becomes an even better bargain.

Of course, this type of lifestyle is not appropriate for everyone. Not everyone likes life on a ship, whether due to claustrophobia, seasickness, or boredom. But it’s worthwhile knowing about the options to enhance life that others have found worthwhile and workable.

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Secrets of Wealthy Millennials

Is it just me or does Business Insider seem to be sliding into a paparazzi version of the staid Forbes magazine? The articles being published these days seem more like a weird hybrid of Moneyish and Gawker, with more sensationalist titles than the Daily Mail and plastered with more inline Instagram posts than TMZ.

Still, despite the descent into frivolity, there are some nuggets of truth and wisdom to be gleaned from their latest series on wealthy millennials.

The first story from BI is that of Ebony Horton. To summarize, she was a newly minted graduate making $38,000 a year in DC. She then went back to get an MBA and racked up a total of $220,000 in loans from undergrad + MBA. She freaked out at the amount, and came up with a plan to pay it all off by moving back to rural Illinois, lowering her cost of living, saving like crazy alongside her husband, buying rental property, and getting some opportune gifts from her family. Now 31, she’s debt free and ready to share her story in a book and go on the speaker circuit to make boatloads of money.

What can we take away from this?

  1. It helps to have rich parents who can support you, either directly financially or indirectly by providing free/subsidized shelter
  2. Being dual income (however miserly), no kids dramatically accelerates your savings trajectory
  3. If you set your mind to it, saving 75%-95% of after-tax income is possible
  4. Control lifestyle inflation (let your standard of living appreciate slowly) or it will ruin you
  5. Investing in the property market uses leverage to enhance the growth rate of your wealth

One of the topics in my book on finance is that in the modern age, there are a few viable paths to success. However, this book focused purely on wealth and its accumulation, the pursuit of which is unsustainable in the long term. One of my upcoming books will instead deep dive into the human mind and explore how we become happy. With that in mind, when thinking of work-life balance, there are two ways to go about it. One is to “finish” a high-paying career, accumulate boatloads of savings, and retire early. In short, this abbreviates the traditional working time and prolongs retirement. It can be very effective, as legions of FIRE (financial independence, retire early) adherents can attest. However, it requires significant discipline to accumulate that much savings so quickly.

The next BI story is that of two 30 year old teachers who managed to save $1 million after 8 years, and are now retired and travel the world. Isn’t that the dream of every young millennial these days? They did it by doing much of the same that Ebony did, only they had the advantage of minimal education debt. Their lucky break was to pick up houses in Las Vegas on the cheap in the depths of the real estate collapse, converting them to rentals. Gradually, the market bounced back and they were able to make more rental profit from the houses, which they used to buy yet more houses. Now they make $10000 per month on average from rent, balanced out against only $2000 per month in mortgage, letting them retire to pursue their passions.

The take away bullet points?

  1. Paying down debt is good, but it’s a lot better to not have debt and to divert savings into investment vehicles
  2. Being lucky (getting into real estate at the bottom, even before hedge funds) is better than being good
  3. Sometimes living in a lower cost of living area beats moving to a high cost area (Bay Area, London) to earn a high salary
  4. Buy a property and rent it out to others, letting them cover the cost of the mortgage (see my analysis of yield on equity here)

The other reasonable approach is to maintain the frugality but to intermix one’s working years with “fun” activities traditionally associated with retirement. This can come from working on cruise lines, at vacation resorts, as an English teacher abroad, etc (more examples of ways to do this are in my book). These jobs may not be high paying, but the cost of living is either low or completely subsidized such that significant savings are possible. Experiencing fun stuff as a tourist is expensive, because you duplicate costs such as housing by having to pay for a hotel and the mortgage back home, and other costs are more expensive (such as having to eat out every day). It’s a lot easier to see the same sights and go to events as a local, relying on cheaper longer term housing, cheaper grocery options, and public transportation.

On this point, BI ran not one but two (oh my how they like to recycle stories) articles about the same girl – Nina Ragusa. She took the fun road, working hard initially in multiple jobs to save up enough money to launch her career as a travel blogger. She gets to roam the world, doing the typical things on the well-trod road of teaching English in Thailand and working in the tourism sector in Australia (the working holiday visa for young people is a great boon). In essence, instead of slaving away at a desk job, she gets to live in vacation paradises, work freelance in a bunch of industries that aren’t that intense, and save a bit to boot. There are two possibilities for how she will end up. If she does well with her travel blog, she can spin that into a brand and partner with tour agencies as a promoter. The worst case scenario is that she returns to the US at some point having had a decade of amazing experiences and a small amount of savings.

You may wonder how young people can spend so much time and money on travel and not exhaust all their income or savings. For one, cost of living is so much lower for most places outside of the US, and low end wages (especially for the service sector in Australia, NZ) can be higher. Finally, many fun activities aren’t that costly. By working at a resort, you’re afforded the privilege of taking the kayak or surfboard out when you aren’t leading a tour, and sometimes can even use the company’s van for personal excursions. In a tropical paradise, many of the most fun activities are free. It’s so easy to get sucked into complacency living in these places.

Take home points for this case:

  1. For young people who want to have fun now and mix in a bit of the retired life with their youth, it’s hard to beat adventure travel and freelance work
  2. Geographic arbitrage wins again
  3. There’s an outside shot that you can create a sustainable brand/blog based around travel and never have to work again
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What is the Goal of Your Business?

A friend sent me this article about the future of entrepreneurism in the world. In short, the central thesis is that the giant companies are entrenched in their industries, and it’s harder to compete with them given their incumbent status. Thus, it’s far better to stay small, keep costs low (the key theme in my book!) and make “subsistence” level wages that replace a day job. For example, a local plumbing business is like this. At most, it may grow into a handful of employees and service the surrounding cities, but it doesn’t want to scale up and become a national presence (is there even a comparable national business that provides plumbing?). That’s too much investment, hassle, work, and time before the eventual payoff. That’s not to mention the bureaucratic headaches in providing benefits to employees, building up marketing, HR, and legal departments. In the face of this, it’s quite logical that many a business owner is quite comfortable pocketing $200,000-$1 million in yearly profits from operating a small business.

Side thought: this is a workable theme for a business concept. Uber’s premise is that it provides a single app that links service providers (taxi) to customers anywhere in the world. One could argue that independent taxi drivers and companies could have preempted Uber’s rise by banding together and making an easy to use and interoperable app. In any case, we can extend this concept by applying it to things like plumbing services. Imagine if you can access a worldwide network of plumbers at your call on the app, without having to fumble through the local Yellow Pages.

Going back to building a successful business these days, the alternative is to be high growth and low profit and eventually cash out in a sale to one of the big boys. Threaten them enough with disruption and then whisper into their ear that it’s better to head off a rival early with a manageable buyout than to face the loss of their entire business. Facebook did this to Instagram, paying a high price but preserving their business model. This is arguably easier to do in the fast-moving world of tech than in other industries.

Ultimately, is it a bad thing that so many businesses are now focused on the modest goals of profitability and sustainability? I’d argue no. For many people, there’s no need to grow big. Having fun, creating something, and being mildly profitable is surely enough to live a comfortable life.

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Minimalist Like the Japanese

I recently published an article about my experiences in Japan. One thing that stood out to me was the culture’s emphasis on minimalism. Part of it probably comes from the lack of space. Japan is an island with a few major cities, and as such people crowd into small apartments the size of shoeboxes in the US. That forces them to be selective with what they own and keep in the home. You can’t really hoard much without quickly being unable to get around.

The other inspiration for their minimalism is their culture’s appreciation of subdued elegance, a leftover from Zen Buddhism. It preaches harmony of yourself with your surroundings, inner peace, and beauty in emptiness (and by extension, empty spaces). It’s definitely an appealing (and cheap) way of interior design your home.

Still, there are some Japanese who take this to an extreme. Some hardcore minimalists have less in their house than some jail cells. You may need to find the best balance that works for you.

Luckily, with the advances in technology, it’s easier than ever to digitize our possessions and have instant access to them from a mobile device anywhere in the world.

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Jobs That Pay – Dog Walking

Hey, not all traditional jobs are poorly-paid and overworked. As I mentioned in my book on wealth, there are under-exploited niches where one can be successful as an entrepreneur. Marketwatch today ran an interesting article on a dog walker(!!!) who is raking in 6 figures working the equivalent of part-time.

Stewart says he could have grown his business into “a dog walking empire.” But he says “there’s a tipping point — where you manage people more and dogs less — and that’s not what I signed up for.”

He now has three employees who walk dogs for him, and he doesn’t plan to hire any more. He pays them a salary instead of an hourly wage and often works with them.

He charges customers $15 per walk — the going rate in Long Island City — and walks between 40 and 50 dogs every Monday through Friday, mostly between 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

He knows a solo dog walker in his neighborhood who makes $2,000 a week by working 35 to 40 hours a week. And he knows a dog walker with employees who makes $150,000 after paying his employees.

And Stewart says he makes about $110,000 a year — after paying his expenses and employees — while working 25 hours a week. “It’s full-time time pay for part-time work. I think everyone would want that,” he says, adding, “I’m doing something that I love and I have time to go to school at night.”

I’ve bolded key points of emphasis. This guy has done a great job following the rules in my book for starting up successful businesses.

  1. He understood the market. NYC folks are busy and are willing to hire nannies, dog walkers, etc. to take care of their personal lives.
  2. This is a small enough market (not a lot of prestige for dog-walkers) that someone can easily become super specialized and command top dollar (big fish in a small pond).
  3. He figured out how to stand out as elite, by promoting his expertise and experience with dogs of all kinds.
  4. His work was still paid on an hourly basis, but he removed part of those constraints by hiring others for some jobs and moving to more of a higher level coordinating, marketing, and managing role.
  5. He had limited ambitions. He kept his business small-scale enough to be adequately profitable, rather than investing tons of money to become a commercial empire, with a higher chance of losing money and even failing.
  6. He worked on what he knew and loved.
  7. At least initially, he didn’t depend on his job for money (he worked as a bartender and waiter for a while).
  8. He knew himself and had an endgame plan. He had an income level in mind at which he would be satisfied and spend extra hours on other pursuits.

One natural wacky extension of this principle that comes to mind is being a niche nanny-tutor combo to the very wealthy. Someone can bill himself as an Aristotle-like individual able to give kids the extra boost needed to get into the most elite schools, become well-rounded, and achieve success in life. For a high retainer of course! If you’re gunning for this position from early on in life, you can build a sample CV with a PhD in early childhood development, a bachelors or masters in education, empathy and skill with children (being female helps in this regard, for perception if nothing else), aptitude in art and music, and a track record of success (by babysitting and caring for family friends’ kids).

You can read about of other successful entrepreneurs and more tips on how to identify your strengths and build your own business with my book on wealth.

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The Korean Hell

I read this morning an interesting article on the state of life for young people in South Korea. Man, was it depressing. In short, if you think your life is bad, you don’t even compare with what these kids have to go through. Here are some quotes:

Hwang often goes to work on a Monday morning with her suitcase, not leaving again until Thursday night. She eats at her office, takes a shower at her office, sleeps in bunk beds at her office. “If I finish work at 9 p.m., that’s a short day,” she said.

Paychecks come irregularly — or not at all, if the show gets axed — and because she doesn’t have a contract, Hwang wonders when she goes to sleep each night whether she’ll still have a job in the morning. She can make this life work only by living at home with her parents — when she goes home, that is.

“If you have enough money, South Korea is a great place to live. But if you don’t . . .” she trails off.

My old professor in business school once told me, “No one works harder than Americans. People always think it’s the Japanese, but no, it’s Americans. Koreans come close though.” In many respects, Korea is similar to America with cultural expectations about work and a paucity of days off. Just listen to how tough parents are with their kids:

Most frustrating of all, many young people say, is that their parents, who worked long hours to build the “Korean dream,” think the answer is just to put in more effort.

“My parents think I don’t try hard enough,” said Yeo Jung-hoon, 31, who used to work for an environmental nongovernmental organization but now runs a Facebook group called the “Union of Unskilled Workers.”

My book on happiness is still being written, but this focus on work at the expense of sanity and family is not sustainable. People are miserable! And the work doesn’t even pay that much either. What’s the solution to all of this? Read my book on wealth, start your own business, acquire a a large nest egg, and get the hell out of Korea.

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