How can one become part of the 1%?
The author updated hist post on Quora, read the recent version here.
I have done it three times thus far. But there is no short cuts, so unless you are going to win the lotto, there is no get rich quick scheme here.
There are some real bitter counter to CamMi Pham's posts, most are along the lines of how lucky she was and so on. My personal view is that I would agree with about 90% of what CamMi wrote, but people probably want specific examples.
I came to US along with my parents as a teenager from mainland China back in the mid 1980s, a time no one gave a fuck about China. Even among the Chinese here in Seattle, we were considered 3rd class citizens behind other Chinese, namely American born ones, Chinese from Taiwan and so on. We had no skills, no money, no connections, but we had our physical labor we could sell. My parents were college professors from China with no language ability and zero business sense. So, no, you can't accuse me of having some kind of head start in business. They were utterly useless and had no concept of money in this new capitalistic society. They had to work as housekeepers and janitors, starting fresh from the bottom in their 50s. So yes, I want to say a gentle fuck you to all those whiners about how some of the 1% had all the advantages. The only advantages I had was I had my four limbs in tact, and chip on my shoulder.
My first job was at the local Safeway for the simple reason McDonalds turned me down due to my poor English skills. I was sixteen. I worked my ass off, always looking forward to weekends, holidays, and any overtime shifts if possible so I can earn more. I biked to work in the rain (Seattle rains a shit load), snow, ice, sometimes not getting home until 2am in the morning, and I still had homework to do. I finished 4 years of high school course in 2 years so I can graduate on time with my age group (my high school in US didn't accept credits from China). I did not want to stay in high school until I was twenty. So I had extra course load too. During this time I worked as many as three jobs at a time. Moonlighting as a clerk at the neighborhood 7-Elevens, got abused at call centers, participated in focus groups, sold plasma to the local blood bank. Pretty much anything I could do to earn extra money. So for those of you who complained that you have to make ends meet to work extra hours and take on extra jobs, I understand exactly how it goes, but you will not get any sympathy from me because the entire time I kept telling myself this is all just temporary. There is no way I won't get out of the hell hole if I worked hard.
Two years into my Safeway clerk job I moved out of the house because I met my first girlfriend, my parents didn't approve. I was eighteen. Faced with the prospect of having to make more money to support myself, saving for college, I looked for anything that would pay more for a high schooler. The only thing that paid more than $5.25 an hour was selling.
Like a lot of men, I like gadgets. I was fascinated by cameras. Growing up poor in China meant virtually no one had a camera of any kind. It was a very expensive hobby. I would hang out at a camera stores in Bellevue so I can fondle some of these amazing machines. To my surprise a lot of the clerks knew far less than I did about the equipments they were selling. This made me realize I could probably do their jobs better. So I asked their managers for a sales job. But none would hire me because my English was still not so great, of course I didn't have any sales experience. The classic chick or egg thing. I knew I had to get sales experience somehow.
I saw this flyer from Cutco ( ) promising that I could make $9 an hour. As it turned out, it was all about door to door sales. Undaunted, I bought the starter knife set and started selling. I found a directory of all the Chinese engineers in Seattle that worked for Boeing and started dialing away. I would make up stories about how showing them knives was for a school marketing project, and assumed they all knew my uncle who also worked at Boeing. Most assumed a high school kid would just be harmless, and some might have vaguely remembered my uncle's name, but few would turn me down for a house call. This taught me a lesson, if you don't ask, you won't receive. I even went so far to ask my uncle to drop me off at some of those "friends" houses so I can do my sales demo. Of course not everyone bought, but the few who did still reminds me to this day just how good those knives were!
Having had this sales experience in one summer, I used it on my resume and got a job selling cameras in the local camera store. But even this first sales job didn't come easy. I had to offer to work for free for one month just so I could get in. I told the manager if I didn't sell as much as he expected by the end of the month, I wouldn't get the job. I went from Cameras West (now out of business) to Silos (gone too), to Video Only ( ). I was always nearly the top sales guy everywhere I went because I spent all of my spare time learning about all the products I was selling. During my off days, I would go visit other electronic stores to learn about the product they were selling. I would linger around other salespeople to listen in on their sales pitches to learn. I hung out at magazine racks at Tower Books to read about product reviews. I simply wanted to know more about what I am doing than the next guy. I learned from early on that solution selling worked. I went from making $5.25 an hour to making $40,000 plus a year in two years. I was twenty.
My job at Video Only also gave me a small taste of entrepreneurism. Peter Edwards, the owner of Video Only instituted a margin based commission system for salespeople. We would all get a computer printout of the "costs" of all the items for sell along with the displayed price on the floor. The salespeople get to decide what the item actually gets sold at between those two data points. By the end of the month, the higher the profit margin of ones overall sales, the higher the commission payout. I loved the freedom this gave me and it taught me how to do deals on the fly. I would later on copy some of this approach with my own employees.
This was also the same time I got really interested in business and finance. I spent most of my "entertainment" money on books. I never partied, I saved whatever money I could so I can buy my first piece of real estate so I can avoid paying rent. I bought my first condo at twenty-one. Since I worked in retail sales and got pretty good at it, it quickly made me realize most the people I was working with were twice my age or older, and I was already doing better than them. The thought of spending the rest of my life on the sales floor made me looking further ahead. If I was going to be doing sales, the only way to "scale" was to move merchandize with much bigger dollar value or speed. So the idea of being a stockbroker or a real estate agent seemed appealing. I got a real estate license but found the pace too slow and boring. So stock and bonds sales it was. But being a minority with no connections (rich friends and family you can immediately bring to the firm) was not so appealing to most hiring managers, not to mention the fact I have yet to graduate from college.
I kept cold calling, pestering the local branch managers of various brokerage houses. Since Seattle is three hours behind NYSE opening time, it meant most brokers show up to work around 6AM. So I would camp out at the lobbies at brokers offices at 5AM in the morning, hoping to improve my odds of intercepting the decision makers. This went on day after day for more than three months. Eventually it paid off, I finally got hired at Prudential Securities by Paul Wonnacott in their Seattle branch. This is the first time I have actually encounter the 1%. Despite the fact stock brokerage was really just a sales job, I tried to learn and absorb everything I could. Finance, accounting, deal structure, annual reports, research reports, most of these were Greek to me but no matter. I read and read some more. I also got interested in technical analysis for stock trading. The early Bloomberg terminal became my best friend. I couldn't believe how much information I was able to find on this orange tinted screen. In a few years I was making six figures, or by early 1990s standards, I was in the 1% myself. I was proud but also hated my job. I hated the conflict of selling products loaded with fees or promoting stocks that we "knew" the firm had a vested interest in. After all, it was all about selling and not actually figuring out how to make trades and investments. I wanted out and started looking for a reason.
By 1996, freshly married and sick of my job, I noticed online brokers starting to flourish. Considering the fact I was charging clients $110 a trade to trade 100 shares of Microsoft, the online brokers were charging $20 a trade, I thought my business as a broker was going to be toast. Besides, at $20 a trade, it was cheaper than the $50 a trade the firm charged employees. I finally saw the chance to leave and trade for myself.
I quit my job by late spring of 1996, but all I had was about $20,000 liquid cash to trade. The first 6 months was a disaster, I lost nearly all of my $20,000 on stocks like Ascend, Shiva and a host of other bygone tech stocks. I had to drastically scale down my lifestyle and asked myself if I was really serious. In order to trade out of my hole, I needed more capital. I maxed out all of my credit cards for cash advances. Fortunately, the market turned and I recovered my losses and some. When all said and done, I had $50,000 to trade. But I knew I needed a plan to make it. I set a goal of making at least $100,000 a year to justify what I was doing. That meant making at least 200% a year from my then $50,000 stake. It seemed almost impossible.
After some calculation and observing what I did wrong I came up with a simple plan. It would be impossible to look for stocks that can double or triple in a year without major downside, these kind of stocks are volatile. But there are plenty of stocks that moves more than a few percentage points a day, if I can capture just a chunk of those movements I didn't need to hold stocks overnight. Since there are more than 200 trading days a year, it meant 100,000/200=500, or roughly 1% return a day on my $50,000 stake. This was entirely doable. The key would be to contain my losses. For those of you who knows trading, this is day trading in its essence. And off I went. By the end of 1996 I was up more than $100,000, I reached my goal.
A year later I made more than $500,000 and never looked back. Yes, I was back in the 1%. And this is also where things got crazy. Since day trading only occupied a few hours in the morning (Seattle is 3 hours behind NYSE time), and I was done usually by 10AM, I had plenty of time on my hands. I started shopping out of boredom. I bought multiple cars, houses, my expenses quickly got out of control. Pretty soon I was feeling like a slave to my purchases. The monthly fixed cost to my lifestyle was $50,000-100,000. For a day trader starting fresh everyday, I started to feel like I had to make certain amount just to stay afloat. I was not even thirty at the time. My mood was no longer upbeat, I was angry at myself and took out on people around me. I was this raging asshole because I was so full of myself yet I couldn't figure out why I was so unhappy. Looking back, I suppose it was because money didn't make me happy, despite the fact I reached my goal I had nothing but an empty feeling inside.
I had to find a way to scale my trading to pay for my now lavish lifestyle. So I went back to do what I hated, namely going after other rich people to raise funds for my hedge fund. I wasn't particularly good at networking (hard to do when you are an obvious asshole), the fund got started with a very small pool of $10,000,000, a good chunk from myself. I struggled to trade under the nagging of limited partners, I hated it. I felt like I was being watched all the time, my trading suffered. I could no longer do the same style of trade I was used to, the returns lagged and I started to feel really depressed. I went through a couple of years of depression, spending days doing nothing but staying home and browsing online. My marriage suffered. I blamed my spouse and her extended family for being greedy and always wanting more from me. Even the arrival of my son didn't cheer me up.
Due to my underperformance, people started to pull money out. It compounded to me starting to trade recklessly. I no longer had my old discipline of risk management, it simply went from one Hail Mary trade to another. By 2003 I was insolvent. I burned through all of my capital while still stuck to multiple homes and other obligations. I gave my wife the bad news and she spent days crying. I thought my life was over. I tried to kill myself.
Looking back, those were pretty dark times. I was completely alone with no one to talk to. Since I alienated everyone around me for a long time, it was now up to me to pick up the pieces. I still remember quickly packing up our belongings from my "mansion" to move into one of our much smaller rental properties one night so the neighbors couldn't see me leaving. I felt so ashamed and desperate. The mansion had a mortgage, I let it slide into foreclosure, and for the next several years I had to learn how to dodge calls from debt collectors.
Eventually I came to the conclusion that hiding, feeling sorry for myself wasn't going to solve my problems, I had to get up and look for something constructive to work on. By now we had to depend on my wife's income to support us. Gone are the days of $1M plus a year income, say hello to $70,000. Also gone are all the fancy cars, unnecessary spending and vacations. My mental attitude started to get hardened again. It was time for me to get out of the house and work. I joined a tech startup in 2004 as head of sales, after all, I could still sell.
The startup had no real funding, it was started with less than $50,000 seed by the founders. When I joined, there were all of only two founders left. It had no real customers since it had no revenue. We worked out of a warehouse in Southcenter, an industry area south of Seattle. It was actually worse than a garage, the constant noise of trucks coming and going made it difficult to even conduct phone calls. Whenever a customer or a prospect asked about the noise, I would jokingly tell them our business was booming since they can obviously hear all the commotion from the loading. I devised a plan to generate revenue anyway we could. I went around the country on sales calls, traveled to China almost monthly dealing with vendors and partners. Since there was only three of us, I did sales, business development, accounting, finance and marketing. In our first year we had revenue of $500,000, the next year we got to $2M. It was during this time I took over as the CEO since I came up with the plan and direction, generated all the sales. The business grew to $3M by 2007 and we thought we should be able to raise venture capital. Unfortunately no one in Seattle bought our story. All three of us are older when compared to the twenty something startup guys. None of us had a computer science background, as a CEO, I was the least presentable. A college dropout without any experience in the tech space. Despite the revenue, we were unfundable. The VCs in Seattle are about as WASP as they come, but they did point out flaws in our business. One of questions the VCs asked over and over again at the time was: what unfair competitive advantage did we possess. I could never give them a straight answer because we didn't have any differentiating IP, but even if we did, it wouldn't have mattered. In was only in hindsight now that the real answer was that we had heart.
It was during this fund raising process I really felt insulted. We would present to "Angel" investors, which often times made of people who got lucky to be some of the earlier employees of successful companies such as Microsoft and Google, or they retired as wealthy corporate executives, doctors and so on. Most never ever ran a business in their lives, most carried this entitled arrogance. One of the investment groups is , we presented while they were wining and dining away as a social club, I really felt like cheap entertainment on the stage. I vowed that if I ever make it big, I will do everything I can to change how startup guys are treated, we are not in medieval society with overlords anymore!
We were raising funds to find a way out of old business model, which is to develop technology to sell to OEMs (basically companies with their own brands and products). Our customer would package our technology and sell it as if it is their own. We discovered over time that we were getting $50-60 per license for our product, when it is all said and done, the end customer actually pays anywhere from $1,000-10,000. Sensing the old business model was running into a dead end, we felt we needed a change. Despite not being able to raise VC funding, we decided to pivot by 2008. This meant building out the rest of the product features and market it directly to the end customers. In business jargons, we want to climb the value chain. What it also means is that we are no longer competing against companies doing $50-100M sales, but billion dollar companies instead. This would require us building a comprehensive suite of products, integrate it with enterprise grade hardware, be responsible to deploy, service and support the product. It is utter insanity if I tried to convince investors that a dinky little company with no prior experience, no direct relationships with large accounts dare to pull it off.
Our timing was horrible. Walking away from $3M a year business while trying to build a new one with little funding was more wishful thinking than anything. We also had a dozen employees to feed. The founders and I never took a salary because we needed to reinvest all the cash back into the business. This was a real stressful time. My marriage went down the toilet. Not earning an income from me for 5 years changed the dynamics of my marriage. I was no longer the "man" of the house.
The world nearly came to an end by 2009. I had no income, the pivot wasn't going well because new business didn't pick up fast enough to offset the lost revenue from the old business. The market and the economy came to a halt. Something has got to give, as it turned out, it was me.
I got divorced, laid off most of my staff. With my divorce finalized, I was back down to $20,000 in the bank. But I had to fund payroll. I was also kicked out of my former home. Not wanting to spend money on rent, I moved into the office broom closet with an air mattress (the picture below was taken using a fisheye lens, a lens with a normal angle of view couldn't capture the whole tiny space. My head was against the other end of the room).
To make matters worse, we were late on our office lease, got cut off from our vendors and owed the bank a pile of money. I finally hit bottom again. I was broke and homeless.
There were days when my then 6 year old son came to visit me in the office, knowing full well that I lived out of the office broom closet, yet the little boy never displayed any shame or embarrassment, it was as if he knew I can work my way out it. How could I possibly not be motivated if my little boy is unfazed?!! Of course we couldn't help but turn a bad situation into something fun, so we would bounce up and down on the air mattress just goofing off.
Living out a tiny space with a few possessions makes one realize just little material things matters, I felt like a child again, my head was clear and uncluttered. My employees knew I was living out of the broom closet but no one talked about it, life and business went on as if nothing is going on, even though the whole financial system was in a train wrack. I kept telling everyone day after day just hang in there. In business, success is all about survival. We have to do anything we can to just not die!
It was obviously a dire situation in my life and business at the time, but the funny thing is that I wasn't sad or angry. I actually found my situation comical. I had always bragged to others that I came from nothing and I wouldn't be afraid to go back to nothing. I got my wish, now what? I knew I couldn't stay in the broom closet for too long, it was against the building code. My gym membership (where I took shower everyday) was going to be cancelled because it was a family membership from my ex's workplace. I had to get back to trading again.
The irony of starting with $20,000 to trade didn't escape me. This was 2009, a time with extreme market volatility. It was great for a day trader, but I had to be extremely careful not to get stuck. The overnight risk was tremendously high. Fortunately I still had some of my old trading moves, pretty soon I was making enough to make some of the payroll and hang on to my key employees. I renegotiated with our landlord, banks and suppliers to allow us to float a bit longer. I intuitively knew at the time that the worst recession of more than fifty year was going to wipe out a lot of our competitors. All we had to do was to stay alive. I needed to do anything possible to do just that.
It was during this same period I helped out a tech support guy from a competitor of ours. Let's call him Joe. Joe was recently laid off, his home was foreclosed and the entire family with three teenage kids had to move back in with the grandparents. I sensed the same burning desire in this guy to succeed after his financial failures. I offered Joe a job in sales instead of tech support. We worked together on the company's sales efforts by going after some of old accounts he supported at his prior job, we managed to poach a few this way. It gave us much needed confirmation that we were on the right track.
By early 2010 I was able to move out of our office broom closet, I turned $20,000 trading stake into $250,000. It gave the company much needed breathing room to survive. We were also able to land our first big customer with our newly pivoted product. The large customer has far flung operations all over the world (it is a household name), so the obvious question for them was how this little company with now only 6 employees can support them. I went back to something I learned from getting my first sales job, namely offering them something that is very difficult to do for free as a trial. We integrated our product with their legacy vendor's product while adding a software layer to allow easier, scalable workflow while saving the customer money. This took us a few months worth of sweat labor, but at the end we were able to deliver something a competitor nearly 100X our size couldn't deliver. To service and support the customer, we outsourced the deployment and installation while managing the entire logistical process to ensure a superior customer experience. To go one step better, we wrote an entire manage suite to monitor their operations and the health of our product to make sure all failures and bugs flow back to us immediately, so we can proactively fix the problems even before the customer is aware of any issues. The bottomline, making sure the customer always interact with our product in the best possible light. We finished the year with $1M in new sales.
With the success of hiring guys like Joe, I wanted to model our company after guys just like him and me, underdogs with attitude. Half of the company are development staff, people from all over the world. We have Russians, Romanians, Indians, Chinese, Latvians, Germans, Italians, and so on. We also have people with non computer science background who learned in unconventional ways too. Folks with majors in geography, math, and even an ex-fisherman. The sales and support staff are equally diverse, most do not have advanced degrees, some with serious family problems and personal failures in the past. But they all know we are in it together. This tight knit group has push the business ahead much better than I could have imagined.
Four years later, the economy has recovered and so have I. My company did $20M in sales in the past 12 months and we are on pace to do $50M next year. Much of this had to do with the effort of tech support turned sales guy Joe. From a starting salary of $40,000 back in 2010, Joe made $750,000 last year and he will bank more than $3M this year from sales commissions. In early 2015, Joe took care of all the bad debts from his past and bought his family a nice horse ranch right outside of Seattle with cash (no one would finance him still). The day he bought his house, we sat in the office conference room with a check for his new home, we looked at each other and nearly cried. We understood each other for the shared journey we both went through. Some day Joe should be telling his own story on Quora.
With gross margin in the 80% range and plenty of cash in the bank I paid myself $1M. The business is probably worth 2-3X sales in private market value, so anywhere between $100-150M as of this writing. I am pretty confident it will be able to do $300M in sales in a few years due to our backlog. So the number of $1B is entirely possible. It is probably safe to say that I am firmly back in the 1% again. I hope to stay there this time.
I know I went long with my crappy writing. But here are some of my lessons for myself, you can take away whatever you can from my ups and downs. If you want to be part of the 1% you have to do the following:
1. Be mentally tough. Learn to get over your fears. I might have been lucky to have been born what is the tail end of the Cultural Revolution, a time of mass chaos and destruction, both figuratively and literally. I might also have been blessed with a natural tendency of being rebellious, going against the grain and paid no respect for authority, all qualities that could have made life miserable in a conservative Asian society. But I was lucky, I left not by my choosing. The point is, I had plenty of personal turmoil at an early age, where there wasn't a lot of security and stability, so you sort of get use to it. It is also this experience that made me realize that most people are afraid, and for the most part, irrationally afraid. What happens when one is afraid? You retreat, you hold back, you dither, you procrastinate. Worse, you become more prejudice, or even take on extreme forms of hate. You miss out on opportunities, you become a prisoner of your irrationality. So learn to ask a simple question when you are uncomfortable with something, what have I got to lose? In most cases, nothing, nothing but that quickening of your heartbeat, nothing but that little burning sensation on your face, nothing but that ego of yours getting pinched. Here is thing, once you realized the absurdity of those fears, you soon realize that vast majority of people around you are pre-occupied with those same idiotic fears! So if you really want to get head and shoulders above the rest of people, you don't need to have better looks, you don't need to have more money, you don't need to have better education, you don't need .... well the list goes on and on. But you only need one thing that is actually in all of us, just reach down a bit more. You have the courage, the toughness, yours skin is thick enough, your time here is only getting scarce... so get over it already!
2. Live within your means. Don't be an idiot like me.
3. Learn how to make money, not how to save money. You will never save your way to riches. Again, this doesn't mean you need to be an idiot with money!
4. Learn how to scale yourself and the business. This means learning how to delegate, how to motivate others and recruit great talent to do works you don't know how or can't. My company is filled with people I recruited and most of them are unconventional successes as well. My sales guy Joe is a great example of this. Without the efforts of others, there is no way I am where I am today.
5. Learn all the time, I read 10-20 books on Kindle or Audible a month. I know of no better way to stay ahead and improve yourself better than reading. There is really no excuse not to read, considering all the available titles and topics, not to mention delivery mechanism. I use Audible or audiobooks to "read" when I am driving or doing random chores. By changing the reading speed to 2x I can digest an average book in only a few hours. One more note about the types of books to read, I have read only two books of fiction in the past 20 years. Reading doesn't mean reading the latest or popular businesses books. What is popular or faddish today might be worthless tomorrow, not to mention a lot of the authors have no clue about business anyways! I still remember back in the late 1980s, the most dominate topic in the business section was how Japan was going to take over the world, it was Japan this, Japan that. Guess what is popular today? China this and China that. The same goes with faddish business theories. Six Sigma anyone? How about "excellence"? You get my point. Use your own critical thinking!
6. Learn from history and previous success as well as failures.
7. Ask a lot of whys. Usually 5 whys in a row will help you dig out the truth of the matter.
8. Work with smarter people, people who like to hack mostly. Learn, steal their ideas, they won't mind.
9. Travel as much as you can afford, you will have a much broader perspective. Go get your passport already!
10. Laugh at adversity, have fun. Life can be really hard, don't take it personally, even Bill Gates have really really shitty days. It always gets better.
11. Don't be a victim, don't make excuses. Nobody gives a shit about your problems.
12. Learn a trade that can make you money in good times and bad. I personally can always fall back on my trading no matter what. This makes me fearless.
13. Find an outlet for your stress. When I really really feel like I can't deal with things anymore, or just don't want to face anything I get in my car and go on a road trip, all by myself. I am fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful part of the world, so I don't have to venture far to find peace. So of my favorite places to drive have been Death Valley, Highway 1 up and down the West Coast of USA. The other option for me is to go sea kayaking. There is no way I am going to get stressed when I am sitting down in a kayak paddling around the ocean. When I didn't have much money, I spent my zen time listening to music, mostly classical music to escape.
14. It's good to have a chip on the shoulder, it gets you motivated. But it is an annoying personality quirk too, so balance it well.
15. Maybe you are just not born with it, I mean motivation. My brother is nothing like me, he is perfectly happy being average and couldn't give a shit about my struggles and successes. Don't stress yourself out even more, if you aren't motivated, learn to be content.
16. One of the reason the West lead in development for the past few centuries is the fact for the first time in mankind's history they allowed the creative class, the entrepreneurs to actually keep their money. This allows wealth creation and built in motivation for people from all walks of life to strive to push themselves to accomplish more. Unfortunately confiscation and coercion that loots the fruit of labor still going on in much of the world today, if you find yourself in this kind of oppressed environment, you have to decide whether you want to stay and fight the system, or just leave. I was fortunate to be able to thrive and prosper in what I consider the best system in the world, I certainly couldn't have done as well in the old China I left behind.
17. Don't believe the BS about inequality. The real inequality is the level of personal drive and intelligence. I came from nothing, dropped out of college with IQ no higher than George Bush. If I can join the 1% 3 times, so can a lot of people.
18. Yes, it is you against the world. There will be all kinds things that "conspire" to put you down, but so what? But even at my darkest moments, there are inspirations I look for to lift myself up. Here is my favorite poem, you might find it a bit cliche, nevertheless, here is what English poet William Ernest Henley wrote while suffering from severe tuberculosis (lead to leg amputations and so on)
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
19. Learn how to sell. This is perhaps one of the easiest way to get above everyone else. Whether you are a doctor, lawyer, accountant or any other professional, you will notice the ones on top are usually people who can sell. They sell themselves, they sell their ideas, they sell and motivate others to do their bidding (this is scaling). Bottomline, sales people are some of the highest paid out there, and it requires no specialization or education.
20. Don't take yourself too seriously. Make sure you are having fun. The American cliche about working on something you love or having passion is grossly overrated. It is far easier to find something you can fun in. Business can certainly be fun. Often times fun and not taking yourself too seriously can be the key differentiator for your business success. Who wants to do business with a bunch of boring and sour puss?
21. For most people this is the part that is hard to take: you will never get rich working for someone else. You might still be able to join the 1% if you have a highly paid job, but you are still someone else's wage slave. Fair or not, capitalism is about the ownership of capital, the means of production. In a world where long term growth stagnates (Europe, Japan and even America), ownership takes on even more importance because access to capital is constrained and return on capital is low (try to get a small business loan these day). So the only way out for most people is through entrepreneurship. Try and figure this out early in your life. I got lucky because I didn't arrive at this notion twenty years ago through thought and analysis, it was pure drive.
22. I am probably going to offend a lot of people with this one. Yes, I am Chinese, or what might be considered a minority in US. But I never view myself as such. I mean I never considered myself as Chinese, Asian, yellow-skinned and so on. It absolutely helps to be in a country such as US where there is such a mix of race and culture. BUT, the race and culture aspect has been played far too much by the minority groups, including the Chinese. I am not suggesting there isn't racism, nor am I saying there isn't a glass ceiling for some. You can decry all the "unfairness" that is in life or you can ignore it and fight on anyways. I am grateful for the likes of MLK who helped to pave the way for minorities and the disadvantaged, but life is short, you don't want to wallow in your self-pity just because your circumstances. Race, skin color, where you are from are just some of the small bumps in your long struggle in life, so get over it. I have personally experienced what some might considered racism, but I never let it get to me. I simply try harder. You will be surprised that even racist appreciates someone who doesn't give a fuck and simply out hustles. Effort is infectious!
23. You have to know how badly you want to succeed. Some of the comments I see out there regarding this more or less suggests that I am not the norm and I got to where I am by luck. I will admit that I have been incredibly fortunate, but much of it had to do with the desire to succeed. I went through high school and college years never going to parties, never drank, never touching drugs, never traveled and so on. I simply worked and worked some more. Any spare time was spent learning and reading. This in hindsight is perhaps a tall order for most people, but it laid the foundation for where I am today. You have to be honest with yourself just how badly do you want it? In most Western countries, it isn't that hard or terribly uncomfortable to be average, so the journey to success might not be worth the price for a lot of people. Lastly, it takes a saint to live with someone like me. Some of hours and some of the ups and downs are absolutely brutal on relationships. If you don't have someone who can understand and tolerate it, you are looking at years of lonely struggle with no real prospect of paying off. Some might find my story as inspirational, but it is also a warning. Even with the best of intentions, it can wreck your life too.
24. It's OK to be a generalist. My parent's generation liked to label people. You are a doctor, lawyer, engineer and so on. When I came to Seattle when I was sixteen, my uncle was still working at Boeing as an engineer. He was someone I looked up and wanted to model my life after. That thought went out of the window when Boeing did a round of layoff in the early 1990s and my uncle took the early retirement package. He was still in his mid 50s at the time and he has never worked since. I even went so far to try and apply for some engineering oriented colleges and somehow managed to get accepted by Caltech. I think they made a mistake, because in hindsight I really sucked at math by the time I got to college and I didn't at all enjoy any of the engineering classes. I would have failed miserably. Fortunately I was too poor to be able to afford Caltech anyways, I went to University of Washington instead, but even then I didn't finish. Looking back, my work involved in sales, finance, trading, business development, accounting, HR and management. My titles were all over the place. I was a "courtesy clerk", back wall clerk, salesman, stockbroker, financial consultant, investment advisor, hedge fund manager, startup CEO and venture capitalist. If you asked me what is my specialty, I have no idea. For years my parents just assumed I BS for a living, they didn't want to introduce me to their friends. I have only recently gained respectability in their eyes because our office is larger in a nicer building. Truth is, all of my experiences brought me here today. No one should copy me. It would be almost impossible anyways. I suppose it is a recent fad that generalists like me are not acceptable but somehow thought as being a positive attribute. Being a generalist because I tried and failed at so many things is the real reason I am where I am today, but being able to synthesize all the things I learned from different aspect of work and life is the ultimate triumph.
25. Pursue what you love is so overrated. If I were to be left to my own devices, I probably would have pursued something in the arts. My parents and my brother are all classical musicians. I grew up listening and loving music, I painted, I spend a lot of time and a small fortune on photography. But most of these pursuits would have easily landed me in the poor house. My burning desire to succeed in business is what will actually allow me to pursue what I love, now that I have the time and resources. But does this mean I hated what I did all these years? Absolutely not. I loved trading, I love being engaged and building business, I love motivate people and see them do amazing things with abilities they didn't think they have. I loved the process of building a business. I absolutely despised the little tasks required to get there though. I don't care for accounting at all, yet I have no qualms spending a ton of time reading financial statements and reports to spot opportunities. I guess what I am trying to say is that one needs to have an open mind and learn to love and enjoy the process of a business, even if you rather pursue your "passion" somewhere else. If you get some success in business, you will have far more resources and time to go after your real love.
26. If you are a young man just starting out in life, this is the advise I got from someone years ago and I still try to live by it today:
Try everything in your twenties, you aren't going to be any good at anything anyways, people have low expectations from you so don't worry about failing or being lousy at what you do. Have fun, try everything!
Try and figure out what you are good at in your thirties.
Maximize what you are good at in your forties.
Since I am still in my forties, I guess I can't really tell you any more!
27. If you are starting at the bottom, regardless of your age, remember this one simple rule: always deliver more than what is expected. I don't care what job, what industry, or just how menial the task is, go above and beyond what is required. If you always do more, or delivering more value to your boss, your employer, your partner, your significant other, there is no way you won't succeed at what you are working on. Keep in mind this doesn't necessarily mean working long hours and working late, working smart matters even more! Success in one small task can lead to success in something much bigger down the road. It is the mental attitude that you are just going to do more, offer more, keep coming up with more that will impress people and make them want to work with you and offer more opportunities to you. I still remember at my first job at Safeway, I knew I was taking on the work load of 2-3 more people without getting paid more. It got me a quick promotion and raise from $3.50 an hour to $5.25 an hour. It taught me that effort does lead to recognition and payoff. Of course, if your employer doesn't recognize this, he/she is an idiot, you should move on.
28. Be different, even if it means being different for spite. For someone who grew up in a culture where conformity is expected, this is hard. It meant being an outcast, rebellious and being disagreeable a lot of times. But there is a real purpose and benefit by being different. In business, companies are being told to be innovative, differentiated in order to be more appealing to consumers and be better competitors. Unfortunately most people and companies still make the same mistakes over and over again, namely copying others, especially people and companies that society deem "successful". The problem is this, the people and businesses who are already "successful" are good at being themselves, and most likely already have more skills and resources perfecting what made them successful. If you copy what they do, you are merely trying to play a game that is perfected by them! Even if you are good, work hard and so on, you are not likely to beat them at their game. You should play a different game, a game played on your terms, perfected by you! This is why I intentionally look for and hire people who are considered misfits, weirdos, and malcontents. It is awfully hard to be "innovative" when surrounded with a bunch of generic, "boring" people, isn't it?
29. Money doesn't define you. Please learn from my mistakes! When I was this raging asshole with money back in my late 20s, I was foolish enough to think money is my identity. Plenty of people make this same exact mistake. You see them everywhere. They carry themselves based on how much money they have, here is one example Although I went nowhere near as far as Mr. Bilzerian, I can identify with the attitude. The problem with having your ego tied up with money is that when you fail, like I did, your ego will get crushed along with it too. No everyone can get up like I did, (and boy was it difficult to get back the first few rounds) then what? It might well ruin you for good. Looking back, I am proudest of the periods of my life when I was down and out, not my douchebag days :)
30. Learn to say no. Most of us want to be loved, approved of, fit in, popular and so on. Unfortunately this also means saying a lot of yes when you really don't want to for fear of offending others. I am not a baseball fan, but there is this expression in baseball called the "fat pitch". It basically means as a batter you don't swing at every pitch that is coming at you, you patiently wait for the statistically high probability pitch because you only have limited chances at swinging. You need to think life and business the same way. There are too many distractions and low quality encounters, you cannot partake in all of them, otherwise you will be dragged down. Constantly ask yourself if what you are about to spend your time on actually help you advance your cause, if not, why are you doing it? I have trained my sales staff to fire customers, yes, fire customers. If the customer isn't economically viable for us to service, we are doing them a disservice by hanging on. We would certainly not able to run a business in a sustainable manner either. With people it is the same, you want to get ahead, then spend time with quality individuals, do not tolerate mediocrity. If you find yourself the lowest caliber person in the group, that would be fantastic! You can learn from the rest of the group. If the opposite is true, you need to move on. I absolutely despise the Chinese expression 比上不足比下有余, which means when compared to those who are better, you can't measure up, but compare to those who are worse, you are doing just fine. No, you can always do better. Take charge of your time and effort.
31. What if you are just not smart! Don't sweat it! Well, I am not so sure there is a strong correlation between monetary success and intelligence. If anything, there might even be somewhat of inverse correlation! This is not to say the dumber your are the more likely you will succeed. I am not particularly smart, considering the fact I couldn't finish college, it is further proof I am your typical slacker in school. When I was a trader, I noticed a clear pattern. The "smarter" ones, you know the ones with advanced degrees, went to the right Ivy League schools and so on usually lousy traders. When I was a broker, we laughed at the doctors and engineer types because they are usually terrible investors. The head of my company's engineer is a brilliant fellow, but he is a terrible investor. Again, this might just be all anecdotal, but there might be something to it. A lot of the rich and successful people I met aren't exactly the sharpest tool in the drawer, but why? Over and over again, the "smarter" ones tend to be too logical, which leads to analysis to paralysis, and they miss great opportunities because opportunities don't always present themselves as fully formed and obvious. Smart people also tend to want to pursue an "edge". You will hear a lot of traders and hedge fund types go around and around looking for one. Meanwhile, the dumber ones like me understand the real tangible value isn't always an edge. Persistence and doing the things that just aren't glamorous can pay off big too, but it tend to take time. I used to scoff at the turtle vs. hare story and thought I rather be the hare. Now that I am much older, I realize the secret to enduring success is winning over time.
32. Always be long term greedy! Most people are selfish and greedy, they just don't want to admit it. I have no problem with being greedy. But what I cannot stand is being short term greedy. Coming from China to Seattle, a place that has a relatively sparse population (compared to most places in China) made me realize the vast difference in business mentality. When you do business in China, or when you encounter a typical Chinese businessman, the common scene is right on the surface. The Chinese business or businessman always asks how much business are you going to bring to them, what is the quantity, how fast and so on. They want to gauge the upfront upside for them before they will commit. They usually couldn't care less about the "long" term. This is what I call short term greedy, which leads to businesses that are transaction oriented. To me the reason why is simple. There is a lot of people in China (duh!), customer service and long term value isn't so important, because there is always more coming! Meanwhile, in slow going Seattle, or much of the West for that matter, you don't have the vast pool of people you can dip into. You are forced to value longer term relationships, hoping for more businesses over time. As it turns out, this isn't a bad way to do business at all! Because all businesses need to acquire customers, so there is this cost of actually getting a paying customer which we call customer acquisition cost. It can be in the form of advertising, personal selling and so on. The stereotypical Chinese businesses is very much like a hamster on a wheel, it needs to be acquiring new customers all the time because they are disposing the old ones fast! If you do the opposite, which is take care of the customer with great service and humility, you don't actually need to be spinning your wheels all the time because they come back over and over, thus reducing your overall customer acquisition costs! So is it a wonder Seattle is the home of some of the most customer friendly businesses in the world? Costco, Nordstrom, Starbucks, Amazon, and REI all started here, and they all have one thing in common, great customer service! Being long term greedy means you do the things that might not pay off right away but it will help you build sustainable business and hopefully wealth over time. If you treat your relationships with people with this mentality, you will be far less stressed out (you are not spinning your wheels all the time). Always ask yourself when you engage with people in business and life, am I being short term greedy or long term greedy? Do I want a transaction or do I want a relationship?
33. Money is a tool. When I first arrived in US, I was blown away by the wealth of this great country, I fantasied one day being able to reach middle class status. I saw this ad for the Washington State Lottery, which only had a top prize of $1M at the time, and I thought to myself if I had that amount of money I would be completely set for life! I would have a house, a nice car and never have to work again! This is all before I really had a real job or made any money of course. I suspect most people, even middle class people think along this same logic, only if I had XX amount of money! I can buy this or that! Wrong! As I have suggested earlier in my story, yes money can buy you stuff, and the pleasure that comes with it might be great, but as time goes on, the amount of pleasure diminishes, so you look for more and more expensive items to buy to get that some amount of pleasure as before. I have never done drugs, but I suppose that is pretty much what a drug addict must feel like. Unfortunately, your desire for material goods might run faster than your ability to make money, it certainly happened to me! So eventually I got into trouble. When I was going through all this, my mom asked me just how much was enough, I never gave it much thought then, it seemed no amount of material possessions was enough. It wasn't until years later, after my struggles of building my current business that I finally got it. I didn't need all that much money to build the business (remember, it took us $45,00 to build what is now a $100M business), I didn't need all that much material possessions to feel safe and secure, but why am I still trying to make so much money?!!! The answer is simple, it really isn't about the money, it is about having the tool to do things. I never thought I could be in my position today, a guy with no formal degrees in anything running a software company. But here I am tinkering, wondering about possibilities everyday with my staff, my friends, the startups I have invested in, possibilities of doing this and that. As of this writing, I am working on four companies and nearly 10 different products at the same time. I am having the entrepreneur's high everyday! I don't need a venture capitalist, I am my own venture capitalist! I don't need approval from anyone to see if my idea is sound, we simply brainstorm and start going at it. I am more engaged and having so much more fun today than I have ever been. Sure, I am not an engineer, but it hasn't stopped me from coming up with all kinds of wild and crazy ideas and pursue them. Having the means to pursue all the crazy ideas but more importantly keep having the means is more important than ever. I sincerely believe we live in a fantastic age of technology renaissance, the pleasure I derive from expressing creativity using technology is a much better high than I can get from anything else. I now understand why Richard Branson gets into so many businesses! It is just plain fun!
I should add this little tidbit. My son was diagnosed with a rare form of blood disease in 2009, while I was going through my divorce. He nearly died if not for the efforts of Children's Hospital in Seattle. He spent a month in chemo at the time he is now in remission. I am not exactly an old man yet, so this may be presumptuous at this point. If I get to stay in the 1% and even get to be a billionaire, I have no intentions of going back to my former young and stupid lifestyle again. I'm living in a middle class neighborhood this time around in an apartment smaller than 1500 square foot. I don't have multiple properties or a bunch of fancy cars. My only splurge is travel. I want to live way beneath my means and leave all of my money to Children's Hospital when I die. This doesn't mean I won't do my best to make as much money as I can at the meantime :)
I ran across
The other day. Out of curiosity I answered all the questions, it tells me I should expire at age 92, which puts me at exactly at the half way mark as of today. I have much to be grateful that I made it this far, I can honestly say if I get run over by a bus tomorrow I would go out having a life well lived. It isn't about what I have or have not accomplished, which is what the contentious debate about getting to the 1% is focused on. It is absolutely the wrong focus. The goal is to live life and reach your full potential, whatever your goal may be. Just because you struggle and follow paths like mine to strive for financial success, you will not be guaranteed of success. You will be guaranteed of discovery, I promise you that. If you push yourself you just might find the most interesting dazzling person yet, so go ahead, start digging. If this all sounds a bit narcissistic, so be it. I can't wait what adventures lies ahead for me for the next 46 years.
This post first appeared on Quora (link).