Candid Advice For Those Joining The Startup World: Sleep With One Eye Open

Eyeball

Sleep w/ one eye open

Ever since college graduation in 1999, I’ve had equity ownership in every single company I’ve worked for. When you get equity, no matter how small it is, you tend to pick up the litter in the hallway, champion your company outside of work, and work harder than the actual value of your total compensation. In short, having equity makes you care more!

Pride of ownership is important for maximizing employee production. There’s just one problem: sharing. If you’re a founder, you’ve got to have the generosity and foresight to let your employees share in your company’s equity. Giving up equity is one of the hardest things a founder can do because we are all naturally greedy. We want everything for ourselves despite the need for great people to make our company a raging success. Sometimes, we’d rather fail and hold onto everything than give up equity in order to succeed. Irrational.

As an owner of an online business and as a consultant/advisor for startups, I straddle both sides of the fence. And, for the first time in 16 years, I’m doing some work with no equity. Sure, it’s rare for consultants to gain stock options or RSUs, but that’s exactly what I got from my first client after 1.5 years of service. In this culture of moving around every 1-3 years, why shouldn’t a consultant who’s stuck around longer than some employees also deserve something similar?

Working with no equity feels off. It makes me want to do only 101% of what is expected, not 130%. I wonder if this is how much of the workforce feels where they don’t have any stake in the organization they are working for? Please let me know.

This post offers up some candid advice for people looking to join the startup world, either as an employee or as a founder. It’s the sexy thing to do nowadays given people want more excitement, more purpose, more control, more money (?!?) and more flexibility. Be forewarned. This post is a 2,700 word beast that will make you see the world a little differently by the end. 

Want More Money? Ask Yourself This One Question

Believe In Yourself, Squaw Valley

Once you believe, it’ll start raining money

In order to get rich, one of the most important things is believing you deserve to be rich. There are trillions of dollars out there for the taking. Why shouldn’t you enjoy some of the world’s prosperity as an honest, diligent, and talented individual as well?

I began developing my money mindset after reading countless stories of CEOs earning millions of dollars while driving their companies into the ground. They would get massive multi-million dollar severance packages for crap work that even a baboon could do. As soon as I started believing in my worth, my confidence shot up and the money started coming in.

IBM’s CEO got a $100,000 base pay raise to $1.6 million in 2015 along with a $3.6 million bonus in 2014, and a $13.3 million stock incentive reward payable in 2018. Meanwhile, IBM is down ~20% over the past two years while the S&P 500 is up 40%, a 60% underperformance! For half the compensation, you and I could do just as good a job as the IBM CEO. I’m picking on IBM here because I bought the stock in my active portfolio. One day this dog will bark!

On a more common level, I’ve seen people who are utterly unqualified get hired for jobs making multiple six figures with multiple six figures in stock options. Every time I see such an event I’m thinking to myself a couple things. The first is, What the hell were they thinking?!

The second question is the subject of this post.

Fight For The Deferred Compensation You Deserve

Deferred compensation

Make sure they pay you

Money doesn’t feel very special most of the time because we work hard for our money. When we get our paycheck or the proceeds from a successful investment, of course we deserve the money. It’s when we win the lottery or find a dollar on the street when we start experiencing that giddy feeling money sometimes brings.

I got a nice surprise in the mail from my old employer the other week. It’s shocking to think it’s been over three years since I last worked a stable job. The mail simply notified me that another tranche of employer stock was going to hit my brokerage account. Sweet! I haven’t thought about receiving deferred compensation in a while now given I’ve been so busy writing, consulting, finding new tenants, and managing my never ending bathroom construction.

Finance industry bonuses are generally broken out into cash, stock, and private investments, depending on your seniority. The more senior you are, the less cash you get. I was a Director (one up from VP) at my old shop, so my bonus was heavily weighted towards deferred compensation that was spread over three to seven years! That’s how firms make it expensive for employees to ever leave.

If you quit your job, you will lose your deferred compensation in finance much like how you’d lose your remaining unvested stock grants if you work at a startup. But if you have a dialogue with your manager, you just might be able to keep what’s yours.

Remember, everything is negotiable. The sooner you realize this, the more wealth you’ll be able to create!

Is It Better To Be A Full-time Employee Or Contractor (Freelancer)?

The freedom of being a contractor is enticingAccording to a survey conducted by independent research firm Edelman Berland and commissioned by the Freelancers Union, more than one in three workers – 53 million Americans – is now freelancing. By 2020, more than 40% of the American workforce, or 60 million people, will be freelancers, contractors and temp workers, according to a study done by Intuit in 2013.

Chances are high that you are currently a contractor or have thought about giving up your full-time job to be a contractor. When I left Corporate America in the Spring of 2012, I thought I’d never return. But in November 2013, I received an opportunity to contract for 25 hours a week, and here I am 18 months later still consulting! The X Factor I did not anticipate about building a large personal finance blog is that other companies would be interested in hiring me for my online content knowledge and services.

In this post, I’d like to discuss the differences between a full-time employee and a contractor. Some of you have told me that you never want to be a contractor because you don’t want to be treated poorly; like an outsider. While it’s true that as a contractor, you might not be treated as one of the team, there are plenty of other benefits that make the decision to contract or go full-time surprisingly difficult.

Changing Jobs Or Industries? Take A Pay Cut And Swallow Your Pride

Taking A Pay Cut To Change Jobs Or IndustriesOne of the funniest things I’ve come across are those people who want to gain experience, but who aren’t willing to intern at a company for free. If you don’t know jack shit, shouldn’t you get paid jack shit in return?

Several years ago, there was a lot of debate regarding employers taking advantage of their free interns. So, like any good Big Government would do, the US Department of Labor stepped in to establish the Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act to protect these poor interns.

The “unintended consequence” of course is that there may be fewer opportunities for eager beavers to gain experience since employers might as well hire qualified, full-time employees if they have to pay!

How To Get Hired If You Are Overqualified Or Don’t Need The Money

Overqualified For A Job, Occupy Wall StreetConvincing your spouse to allow you to go on a trip with friends to Vegas is easy compared to convincing an employer to hire you if you’re overqualified, too old, or don’t need the money. Finding any type of work is like dating. The older you get, unfortunately, the harder it seems to find a match.

But just like dating, finding that perfect someone is often hilarious, frustrating, expensive, and sometimes painful. Let me share with you a short story about one company I met with a while ago where I failed to find a connection.

FutureAdvisor Review: An Interview With Bo Lu, CEO On The Digital Wealth Management Industry

FutureAdvisor ReviewI’m pleased to share an interview I did with Bo Lu, the CEO of FutureAdvisor. FutureAdvisor is an algorithmic money manager with sophisticated tools to help clients manage their money. Over 200,000 households use FutureAdvisor’s advice to help grow $30 billion.

I invited Bo over to play tennis at my club and chat about business in between games. I’m fascinated by the entrepreneur’s story and I hope you’ll find this interview insightful. Bo shares his thoughts about the future of the online wealth management business, immigrating to America, why he decided to leave his job at Microsoft, the Y Combinator experience, and more.

INTERVIEW WITH FUTUREADVISOR CEO, BO LU

Please tell me about your background. You mentioned your parents came to the States when they were 40. Did you have a difficult time assimilating into a new culture? I’m curious to hear your thoughts on why there are so many immigrant success stories.

Bo: I was seven when I came to the US from China. I only knew two words of English — lake and cake — and I usually got them mixed up. So yes, there were some speed bumps. But I had a really great English teacher in Morgantown, Virginia, who basically made me fluent within a year. Mrs Hutchison. I’m still grateful to her.

Immigrants can see with clearer eyes how enormous the opportunities in America are. A lot of them come from places where their choices are extremely limited, so they can almost feel the freedom with their fingertips. They can taste it. If you grow up in America and never see the alternatives, you might be blind to how much you can do here.

Why did you decide to work at Microsoft? Why do people stay at Microsoft when it seems like they have gone ex-growth?

Bo: I was recruited for an internship at Microsoft while I was completing my computer science degree at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. There are great people working there. You have to remember that Microsoft is a huge company. Some parts may seem ex-growth, but some are very much in the growth mindset. When they released the Kinect in 2011, that was ground breaking. Google’s only catching up now with Project Tango. There’s a lot of innovation going on.

What gave you the courage to leave your job at Microsoft to start FutureAdvisor? Please share with us your experience at Y-Combinator.

Bo: The company was really born out of scratching our own itch so to speak. Our friends kept coming to us for financial advice and it seemed like there were no great options for young professionals like us. My co-founder Jon Xu and I both saw our projects slow down at Microsoft, so we suddenly had some time and energy to devote to our friends. Jon’s got a lot of talents, including being a great technical lead. So we set out to build this solution to help our friends take control of their finances. To do market research, we talked to our friends and countless strangers at coffee shops about what they expect from a product like this and whether they would pay for this service.

We’re great friends with Garry Tan, then the co-founder of Posterous who did Y Combinator and had nothing but great things to say about the experience. When we got in, Y Combinator exceeded our expectations. Because we built the first iteration of FutureAdvisor from scratch during YC, we got a lot of insightful feedback from the partners and our peers on a constant basis, allowing us to iterate very quickly. It also gave us a great platform to introduce our product to investors, customers and talented engineers we would later hire.

Did you make a financial plan or create financial goals before leaving Microsoft?

Bo: I’ve been investing and thinking about financial goals since I was a teenager. Most of what I earned at my first internship got invested in a number of tech funds. That was before the dot-com bust, and it taught me an important lesson about diversifying.

What is your definition of success in the startup world?

Bo: It depends on the stage of the startup. Very early stage startups are successful if they can identify a product people want, and gather a team to build it. A couple years in, startup success usually means very fast growth — like 30 percent month on month revenue increases — even if the business isn’t profitable yet. The next milestone is when the startup finds a way to acquire customers inexpensively and reaches a scale where it becomes profitable. At that point, it’s become a company that can be judged by normal financial metrics.

Bo Lu, FutureAdvisors

What percentage would you attribute success to hard work vs. luck?

Bo: Well, I’m a well educated male who was raised by loving parents and lives in America. That support and those opportunities make me feel very lucky. My parents also taught me the value of hard work, and like most founders, I do work very hard. At a certain point, work lays the groundwork for luck. A friend of mine says: “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” For me, that means that all of us create an ecosystem of friends and partners around us. We all build networks of support, we all have reputations, and we all try to deliver on our promises. The better we do that, the better the world responds.

What are the two or three main reasons why some startups fail even though the market opportunity is huge?

Bo: Every successful startup does similar things to succeed, while every failed startup fails in its own way. Everyone thinks their market opportunity is huge, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. But they need to confirm that. They need to take what they made to the people who might use it and verify how much those people would pay. That’s the first step. Some people are too precious about their ideas to really test them. Tech risk and market risk are the two biggest reasons startups fail.

Secondly, founders need to be people who can build a team. That means being just hard-assed enough to make sure things get done, and just soft enough to attract a good team and keep them happy. That’s a fine line to walk and it’s easy to err on either side.

The best CEOs are listening all the time. They’re listening to customers to discover their problems and fix them. They’re listening to employees to make operations run smoother. They’re listening to experienced investors who may have confronted similar problems before.

Third, some startups are wildly innovative but don’t manage to convince the world that’s the case. Engineers need great marketers, great communicators, and lots of visibility. The worst way to fail is to never be noticed when you’ve built something great.

What do you look for when looking for investors?

Bo: We had our choice of great investors. But best thing I would recommend anyone do is talk to other founders they trust, who have worked with investors you’re considering, and learn about how they work. You want people who will share your values, trust you to do your work, and stick with you through thick and thin.

You mentioned the FutureAdvisor algorithm is on its 8th iteration. Please explain what that means exactly.

Bo: FutureAdvisor’s recommendation engine has gotten smarter with every iteration. When we started this, we made recommendations at the asset level only. For example, very early on we would tell you that you needed to increase your foreign developed equities from 5% to 10% or that you are overpaying in fees by $250 per year on a fund.

Over time, we’ve developed more precise recommendations down to the commission-free fund that you should actually buy to move your foreign developed equities percentage and save you on fees. We would take into account your employer sponsored 401(k) plan as well in our analysis of your portfolio. A much smarter algorithm now allows us to deliver more precise portfolio results. Our premium service now takes into account tax lots to minimize tax impact of rebalancing and we can automatically harvest tax losses to further minimize your tax exposure.

Where do you see the future of the financial tech advisory industry in five years? Is the market big enough for everybody to win?

Bo: In the long run, no market is big enough for everyone to win. But for the moment, financial tech is a pretty green field. There’s so much to be done. The choke point is the talent and drive to execute on a vision. Financial services have been getting more automated for decades, ever since the back-office crisis of 1970. People and paper simply are not built to handle the volume and speed of financial data. The evolution away from people and paper will continue. In five years, a handful of financial tech firms will be household names. We plan to be one of them.

What is FutureAdvisor’s competitive advantage over other algo advisors such as Betterment and Wealthfront.

Bo: From our perspective, the major online investment managers have different strengths: Betterment is great if you’re focused on short-term savings rather than retirement. Wealthfront is great if you’re coming straight from cash, but they can’t see assets that aren’t held by them directly (i.e. prior investments across many accounts). FutureAdvisor looks at all your assets, including your 401k. We rebalance your portfolio, spreading your risk exposure across domestic and foreign equities, bonds and REITs. We balance the rest of your assets around your 401(k).

FutureAdvisor also conduct daily tax-loss harvesting — which uses any stock-market losses to offset the taxes you owe. Our typical account size is about $100,000, and we usually save people around $1000 in fees and taxes per year.

How do you think about pricing? I believe FutureAdvisor is at 50 bps, which is higher than your competitors.

Bo: Our prices are half the price of traditional wealth managers, and lower than some of our competitors. And we aim to do a lot more for investors than our competitors.

At 50 bps, FutureAdvisor can generate $5 million in revenue managing $1 billion dollars. How much under management do you need to run in order to generate an operating profit? Does being profitable matter in the short-term since there is so much venture capital money chasing deals? Do you have a target AUM over the next 1, 3, and 5 years?

Bo: We run a very lean team. Since we don’t need to pay for a large sales staff, our path to profitability is fairly short. We expect to revenue neutral at $1B in AUM. That said, we expect to raise additional funding to enable us to grow beyond that point.

Sam: Do you believe the industry is a little too complacent right now given stock markets are at record highs? How do you think the industry will change if there is a prolonged multi-year downturn?

Bo: I don’t see any complacency. Most of us experienced the dot-com crash and the great recession, and we have vivid memories of what a downturn is like. Everyone (here and industry wide) is working to make sure we can handle that situation well. Prolonged multiyear downturns always have an effect on finance. Usually you see consolidation. Firms pool their resources or die. Fewer challengers enter the market.

Sam: What is your advice for users who are skeptical of using an algorithmic advisor?

Bo: First of all, I’d say: Give us a try. You can set up a free account in a few minutes, and we’ll give you actionable advice for no charge. See what you think. Secondly, I’d say that traditional advisors are using algorithms, too. It’s just that people feel the handshake and don’t see the math. All financial advisors have models they apply to their clients.

HERE’S A SAMPLE OF HOW FUTUREADVISOR WORKS

1) Once you register, you’ll be promoted to share a little about yourself. The first chart helps FutureAdvisor ascertain your current risk-profile and goals to come up with an ideal target portfolio recommendation.

FutureAdvisor Dashboard

2) The second chart shows you your existing portfolio grades based on Performance, Diversification, Fee Efficiency, and Tax Efficiency. The goal is to get A’s in all categories.

FutureAdvisor Dashboard

3) The third chart gives you specific advice on how to improve your portfolio. I love this feature because too many times financial advice is very general in nature. I like advice that provides concrete steps.

FutureAdvisor Recommendations

4) The final chart shows your now A-rated portfolio, all thanks to FutureAdvisor’s algorithms. You can do all the changes yourself for free, or you can have FutureAdvisor manage your portfolio for you for 0.5% of assets a year. They’ll conduct tax loss harvesting to optimize your portfolio as well and there will be no more trading fees once you are a client.

DIGITAL WEALTH MANAGEMENT SOLUTION

FutureAdvisor looks like a terrific solution for those who are tech savvy, but don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to invest at the moment. You can start with as little as $10,000 and go from there, or use their free financial tools.

Good savings habits builds wealth. But it’s the proper investment of those savings that creates great wealth over time. FutureAdvisor can help you build financial freedom sooner, rather than later. Once you link your accounts, you’ll get a free Personalized Investing Plan in 2 minutes. They’ll tell you exactly how to improve it.

Regards,

Sam

This post has been thoroughly updated for 2H2015

Hire A Financial Adviser or Lose Money All By Yourself For Free?

During strong markets, anyone can make money. During weak markets, everyone gets hurt. For the most part, all ships rise and fall with the tide, financial adviser or not.happy-and-freeDuring strong markets, anyone can make money. During weak markets, everyone gets hurt. For the most part, all ships rise and fall with the tide, financial adviser or not.

So what’s the point of having an adviser?

(I have my own answer to this question and it may surprise you.)

But before we get to my answer, let’s explore the wild and wonderful world of financial advisers and our clients.

1. Financial Advisers are Salespeople.

Sweet (Or Sweat) Dreams Of Becoming A Millionaire Again

Daydreaming by Brynja Eldon Flickr CCIn 2013, my income took a big hit. The glow of a six figure severance paid out in 2012 was no more, and I didn’t have a job to pay my bills. All I had was my passive income and a tiny salary I drew from my online media company. I had no desire to pay the employee and employer’s FICA + Medicare tax of 12.4% as an employer employee. Instead, I’d rather take distributions, which are free from such taxes with an S-Corp. Unfortunately, the IRS isn’t stupid and wants to see a balanced income/distribution ratio.

I’ve always thought I was way too lucky to deserve the income I earned during my career in finance. All I did was study hard, get on a 6am bus to a career fair in Washington DC, and interview well enough to land a job that paid well. Nobody from The College of William & Mary, a non-target state school, gets a front office job at Goldman Sachs WHQ. Luck can be the only explanation.

No matter how many times you hear of high income earners going bankrupt, if you are making at least $100,000 a year, it’s relatively easy to become a millionaire. Working in finance almost felt like cheating. You not only gain extensive knowledge to make better financial decisions for yourself, you are also paid handsomely.

When I began looking for other employment opportunities outside of finance, I realized just how good the finance industry pays. It’s very hard to find jobs in tech/internet that pay over $250,000 a year. But in investment banking, practically every 27 year old Associate makes such an amount. Many CEOs in other industries doesn’t even get paid that much.

Median Income By Age And Sex In America

median-salary-by-age-and-sexDo Americans have an earnings problem or a savings problem? Unfortunately, I think we’ve got both. Take a look at the median salary by age and sex compiled by Motley Fool from the Census Bureau.

The obvious points are 1) people make more the older they get and 2) men make more than women at every single age group. Making more as you age is nothing insightful. What is insightful is how the difference between men and women’s salaries really start to grow in their 30s. A 25% pay gap is huge!

So what’s going on here? The answer must be biological (life). For example, I have a female friend who was the most gung-ho worker ever. She was an Electrical Engineer in college (one of the hardest majors) and told me that she planned to work “forever” after Harvard Business School. Two years after HBS, she was pregnant, and when I asked her whether she still planned to go back to work she said, “No way! Raising my children is the most important thing in the world to me.”

It’s been five years since she’s been out of the work force. If she decides to return at age 37, it’s logical to assume that she will have to start at a lower pay and title than colleagues who kept working while she was away. Regarding finding a solution to the gender wage gap for equal pay for equal work, the fix I’ve come up with is to have equal paternity leave rights for men and women. With equal paternity leave rights, employers are more blind to discriminate.

What’s interesting is that women have more money in their 401k on average up to the $150,000 income mark, according to a 2014 report by Fidelity Investments with 13 million tracked accounts. Women earning between $20,000 and $40,000, for example, have saved an average of $17,300 in their 401(k) compared to $15,200 for men in the same income range.