Home Loan and Personal Budget Calculator

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I recently created a budget calculator (click here to access it) to determine what it would actually cost me to take out a home loan in the context of my daily life, including money I spend on food, commuting, healthcare, etc. My goal was to figure out what I could afford in real life, as opposed to a generic loan calculator online that only accounts for the loan. The model includes:

  1. Basic home loan calculator.
  2. Tax, Insurance, and HOA considerations.
  3. Resale model based on growth rate, years until sale, and closing fees.
  4. Actual income breakdown accounting for interest write off on taxes.

Below is a partial snapshot of the budgeting tool I developed on Google Sheets. If you’d like access to the full spreadsheet so you can adapt it your own budget, click here and follow the instructions to make your own copy.

I hope you find it helpful, and please leave comments if there’s anything missing or if you have ideas on how to improve it. Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here to access the calculator

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The Walmart Story, 3-page Takeaway Summary

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made-in-america

Walmart is an American institution that serves the entire country. Some live by it, others blame it for the demise of small business. The story behind its rise and the fundamental guiding principles of its founder, Sam Walton, is captured in the autobiography: Sam Walton, Made in America (link to Amazon book here). While an autobiography may be somewhat bias, the book is filled with core business lessons and values that I believe are worth sharing. I’ve summarized the main topics I found most valuable in a 3-page summary document. The high level topics are outlined below, and you can click here to download the full 3-page summary document.

  • Creating a Family Partnership or Corporation to own stock
  • Discount Strategy
  • Hiring Store Managers as Limited Partners
  • Investing in Technology
  • Saturation Strategy
  • Policies and Technology
  • Competition
  • Middlemen
  • Vendors
  • The Customer is the Boss
  • Think Small

Click here to download the full 3-page summary document

If you enjoy the summary, the book is entertaining, easy to read, and provides the context for the summary document. You can order it for less than $10 on Amazon here.


The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker; 5 Habits To Master

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the effective executive

Time management has become one of the most important skills an individual must master in the workplace and arguably personal life. The Effective Executive, by Peter Drucker, is a timeless, no-nonsense guide to 5 habits for effectiveness in management:

  1. Manage your time
  2. Be result-oriented
  3. Build on strengths
  4. Prioritize
  5. Focus on the fewest decisions with maximum impact

While we all know about these habits, Drucker hammers home the point about being self-disciplined in practicing these habits on a regular basis. For a 3-page summary of the book, click here. If the summary piques your interest, then I’d highly recommend the book itself, available on Amazon for under $10 (link here).

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE 3 PAGE SUMMARY

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE 3 PAGE SUMMARY

Job Hunt Basics: Resume, Cover Letter, Networking

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Get a job

This past fall, I had the privilege of lecturing at a local university. Naturally, there were a couple of students who asked for job-hunting advice and resume tips. There are certainly all levels of advice on this topic and in this post I’d like to outline the very basics that may be especially useful for international students who come from different cultural norms and new entrants to the professional job market.

I will focus on 3 main areas: resume, cover letter, and networking.

Resume

  • Keep it short – 1 page.
  • Simplify formatting (click here for example).
  • Research the position and make your resume relevant per job.
  • List accomplishments per job and quantify them.

In today’s age of 140 characters and short attention spans, brevity is key. I would advise a resume no longer than 1 page. In that 1 page, focus on the experience that is most relevant for the position you are applying to. This means that your resume may be different for one job versus another, and it also means that you must have a clear understanding of the job before applying. Applying to hundreds of jobs with a non-specific resume will be less effective than researching each role and providing a tailored resume. This initial research may even disqualify some jobs that you realize are not as interesting as you thought.

Keep the format simple and easy to read. You may choose to start with a brief (1-2 sentence) summary that highlights your key strengths as related to the job. Then follow with professional experience and education. Make certain to list quantified accomplishments with each role, and do so with the general sentence structure: Action + Accomplishment + Process. For example: Grew top line revenue by 120% over 6 months through targeted ad campaigns on Facebook.

Make it as easy as possible for the hiring manager to find the most relevant information so s/he can say, “yes, this person has demonstrated the kind of skills I’m looking for in our new hire.”

Cover Letter

  • Keep it brief (half a page if possible).
  • Tailor it for each company – do NOT use a generic template where you simply change the name of the company each time.
  • Demonstrate your potential value; what does this role really need and why are you the best person to provide it?

I’m not sure how relevant a cover letter is anymore, but the content is certainly valuable. Whether it’s a formal cover letter, or an email to a hiring manager, formulating a summary of your qualifications for a job can be a helpful determinant for the hiring manager if it highlights your value as related to the job opening.

This blog post links to 8 specific examples of “good” cover letters; it’s important to remember that each job and scenario will vary, which means that good in one instance may not be so in another. As you’ll find, each one is good in its specific scenario:

Networking

  • Find and attend relevant events (meetup.com is a good resource).
  • When you meet people at events, ask questions to learn about them and their industry; try asking some deeper questions to demonstrate your interest and engage in meaningful conversation beyond superficial topics.
  • Once it’s your turn to share, you can tailor your message based on what you’ve learned from all your questions.
  • Build your network by constantly learning, eventually you’ll be able to connect the dots.
  • Never directly ask for a job or recommendation, it will come naturally.

Networking is a very valuable and often overlooked aspect of job hunting. Blindly submitting your resume to hundreds of companies will result in very few hits. Recruiters and hiring managers view many many applicants every day. Hopefully you’ve tailored your resume and cover letter so it stands out, but it’s also very helpful to build a network that may be connected with the job you’re seeking through networking events.

Focus on meeting new people at each event by having meaningful conversations, rather than trying to collect as many business cards as possible. It’s important to leave a lasting impression during your initial meetings so you develop a valuable network, rather than an inflated network. Keep track of your connections by immediately following up with a personalized email thanking them for their time and reiterating a specific conversation topic to anchor the memory. And remember to add them to your LinkedIn network.

If you’re interested in developing your networking skills, one of the best books I’ve read on the topic is Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi.

Conclusion

Using this systematic approach in all three areas will greatly improve your chances at landing an opportunity that is best suited to your skill set and career objectives.

It’s important to remember that you’re going to be spending a lot of your time at your job, so make sure you choose something you’re going to enjoy (at least the majority of it) and that the job is a stepping stone towards your next move.

Good luck and please provide any of your own tips for job hunting in the comments section. Thanks for reading.

 

Additional reading: Job Search Funnel: 4 Steps to Getting the Job of Your Dreams

4 Step Process To Change Any Habit or Behavior

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The Power of Habit - Book

 

Change habits, even if you’ve tried and failed before

Do you wish you could get up earlier? Do you wish you went to the gym more often? Do you wish you ate healthier? Do you wish you could quit smoking? Do you wish you watched less TV? Do you wish you could leave work earlier? Do you wish you didn’t procrastinate everything until the last minute?

Change is never easy, especially when we don’t have the right tools or knowledge to make the change stick. Forcing ourselves to do something is often neither enjoyable nor effective. But we still wish we could change. If you can relate, pick up a copy of Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. He uses countless examples that relate to all kinds of people (stay-at-home moms, religious leaders, marketeers, etc.) and how to take control of habits to your benefit – whether it’s changing bad habits, or forming new ones.

The book is essential to understanding the underlying concepts to habits, and he provides a short-cut methodology at the end in 4 steps:

  1. Identify the routine you want to change.
  2. Experiment with different rewards.
  3. Isolate the cue.
  4. Have a plan.

1. Identify the routine

The routine will have 3 components: a cue; a routine; a reward. For example, an afternoon stop at the muffin shop is comprised of a cue (perhaps afternoon boredom at work); a reward (leaving the office to go to the bakery); a reward (engaging in conversation with the staff at the bakery and people watching).

2. Experiment with different rewards

In the afternoon muffin example, the reward may be the need for a sugar rush, the need for distraction from work, or the need for getting some blood pumping by walking down the street. In order to determine the true reward, try different rewards every day for a few days or weeks to see which one satisfies your habit. For instance, instead of going to the bakery, just go for an extended walk. Or eat an apple. Or sit outside and people-watch. Experiment with different rewards other than the muffin itself.

After each reward, jot down in a notebook the first 3 things that come to mind when you get back to your desk. Emotions, random thoughts, reflections on how you’re feeling, whatever. Just write down 3 things. This method is used to cement that moment in your mind.

Then set an alarm for 15min. When the alarm rings, think about if you still have the craving for a muffin or not. This will reveal if whatever reward you substituted actually replaced your normal habit (like eating a muffin).

3. Isolate the cue

In order to isolate the cue, each day when the urge for your habit hits, write down five notes that cover: location, time, emotional state, other people around, immediately preceding action. Once you do this for a few days, you will start to recognize a pattern about what triggers your habit.

4. Have a plan

Once you’ve mapped out your habit loop, you know the reward driving your behavior, you know the cue that triggers it, and you know the routine itself. Now you can start to change it. You can follow the general formula: “When I receive CUE, I will do ROUTINE, in order to get REWARD.”

So using the muffin example, if the CUE is a certain time in the afternoon, and the reward is actually the distraction of walking somewhere and people watching, then the new plan could be: “At 3pm every day, I will walk to the park and people watch for 10 minutes.”

Used by great marketing firms

This is a simplified version of Duhigg’s book, which will help you master your own habits as well as how to create new habits, for yourself, those around you, or even your customers (as great marketing firms often do).

Thanks for reading, comments are welcome below.

3 Part Series On Startup Failure: Part 3, Validation

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Customer discovery and validation

Cultural Differences Spawn Opportunity

In the summer of 2007, I had the opportunity to move to Berlin with a large company. Relocation was part of the package, which meant helping me with visa and work permit issues, finding housing, and even getting started with the language. Moving was a very pleasant experience, and my new home felt as comfortable as the one I had left in California.

Fast forward a couple of years and I could fill out a book with the cultural differences that make Germany a very different place than the US. I previously wrote about 3 Ways Americans Can Learn From Germans, but in that article I didn’t mention that I actually launched a business around a major cultural difference between Germans and Americans: if you can pay someone to make your life easier in the US, there’s a demand for that service; in Germany, it almost felt like the cultural norm was to do things the hard way, just because there was an outdated rule that said that’s how it should be done and any deviation from that outdated rule would be treason. That’s probably not a totally fair assessment, but it’s how I, and many other foreigners, felt with certain aspects of German life. If interested, you can read a bit more on how to be German in this hilarious blog post by a Briton in Germany.

Customer Service For All

With this background, in the winter of 2012, I decided I needed a change in my professional life and wanted to draw upon my years of international management, MBA, and cultural experience, to launch a bilingual personal assistant service to make life easier in Germany. I imagined a comfortable blanket-service that would serve as a buffer between foreigners and the often confusing circumstances of every day life in Germany. The first version of Ask Geoffrey was born, with the original robot:

bg-robot-768@2x

The business concept was simple: customers could email in their tasks, questions, or problems, and a local bilingual assistant would help them resolve it. Each request was limited to 15min of assistant help; bigger requests would need to be broken up. The service would be provided on a subscription basis (X amount per month for Y number of requests).

Collecting Interest

I tried to be smart about the business, following the validation approach of gauging demand before fully launching the service. So I setup a simple landing page through Launchrock, and started telling friends about the service, tweeting links to signup, and posting on Facebook. The list of submitted emails started to grow. So I decided to open up shop for the first small batch of users and start processing requests myself. It worked, and people liked it! They referred more people, and the email list grew to a few hundred.

Running Lean

At this point, I decided that this system would only grow if I figured out an efficient way to contract local assistants, train them, and get them running in the system. (The “system” was a cleverly hacked-together system of emails and off-the-shelf customer service software). So I did exactly that: prepared job postings, interview procedures, & training material. Before long, I had 2 freelancers in the system answering ad-hoc requests and getting paid per request.

Turnaround time on requests was really important, and the freelancers were not always immediately available. So I thought it would be wise to increase the number of freelancers in the system to increase the chance that one would be quickly available to answer new requests. I assumed the incentive of getting paid per request would encourage them to be first to answer.

Users – Yes; Customers – No

Over the course of about 5 months, users (free users, careful distinction from paying customers) steadily grew to over 200, with over 100 of them active on a monthly basis. The system was working ok for the most part, with occasional screw ups on requests, or extended delays in response times. In July 2013, I introduced the pricing model:

  • €25 per month for 5 requests
  • €45 per month for 10 requests
  • €85 per month for 20 requests

Of the 200+ registered users, about 3-5 signed up over the first 2 weeks. BURN. I decided it would be a good idea to offer discounts, so I dropped the rates by about 20%. I got a few more signups, but nothing near 200.

At the same time, I was in discussions with some newfound friends in Tel Aviv who loved the idea and wanted to try it out there. We spent a good amount of time mapping out the strategy and translating the website. In the end, it never happened. Sidetrack and distraction.

Meanwhile, back in Berlin, I thought the lack of interest was due to a lack of publicity. So I went to work trying to spread the word – through personal and extended networks. I even managed to get a few articles (in German and English) written about the service in blogs or local tech news. It barely moved the needle.

At this stage I had poured a few thousand Euros into the website (nice design matters for B2C products, screenshot of landing page below), payout to agents, and admin fees for setting up a legal entity. But the actual (revenue) numbers were nowhere near the estimates in the financial plan I had so carefully crafted.

Pivoting from B2C to B2B

Around Q4 2013, I shifted gears to reposition the service as a perk for employees that businesses could offer, because I finally learned that B2C is a very challenging model and B2B was a potentially far better model for this service, in-line with my original subscription model. Furthermore, we had a couple of power users for business purposes and paid for by their companies, and these were the best customers in terms of accountable revenue as well as low maintenance.

By the end of 2013, it was clear that the service would need more investment and time to reposition as a B2B service and it came down to personal belief in the service. And while I loved building the business, I had to admit that I was not personally fulfilled with what I was building. It went from trying to fill the void in customer service culture in Germany, to taking care of largely trivial tasks for the international elite. Perhaps the future may have been bright, but in order to pull myself through the rough patches, I would have needed the burning belief that this service was truly solving a far-reaching problem. And I had to be honest with myself that I didn’t believe it anymore. I shut down in January 2014, transitioned customers to an alternative service, closed the Berlin chapter of my life and moved back to California in February 2014.

Five Lessons Learned

  1. Lack of validation: I thought I was validating the business, but I wasn’t really because validation includes the service/product at a given price; free users are obviously different than paying customers, but I was too caught up in the idea to realize this.
  2. Didn’t address or frame a problem: we offered the service as a convenience to individuals who didn’t necessarily need it, or didn’t have the perception that they needed it. This links back to validation, where we should have done a far better job at identifying the real burning pain that we could have solved and focused on that key topic.
  3. Wrong market: my network was in the startup scene in Berlin, which is vibrant, but not necessarily well-financed. And having positioned the service as a convenience, most were quick to categorize it as a nice-to-have instead of a must-have problem solver. Again, we should have found the most urgent pain we could solve and focused on that market.
  4. Lack of focus: we tried to solve too many problems for too many people. While that was our eventual goal, our service offering was too broad and general so people didn’t make an immediate connection between pain and solution. We should have focused on singled out pains, established a loyal base, gained credibility, then expanded to other pain points we could address well.
  5. Complexity: at one point, we had 10 simultaneously contracted agents. This happened with the customer in mind and making certain responses were provided within 1-2 hours max. Instead, it had the opposite effect where agents were demotivated as it meant a lower chance of a significant earning for the month. For example, instead of paying €20 to 10 agents, we should have concentrated €200 on 1 agent.

So What?

Writing this 3-part series was a great exercise in reflection. We tend to get caught up in the fast-moving environment of our work and life, and it really helps to pause and take a step back once in a while. As much as I hope I don’t get caught in the same mistakes and failures that I’ve written about, I’m sure I’ll relapse to old behaviors once in a while, but I also hope I’ll catch myself in time to correct course. The one mistake I’m clear about now is to pursue an idea I care about. As many have said before, startups and the entrepreneurial lifestyle are an emotional roller coaster; there’s no challenge in staying the course when everything (or at least most things) is going well, but the real test of your perseverance is when everything seems to be going wrong – what will keep you motivated then? Most likely a strong support system of friends and family, and your own conviction that what you’re doing is worth the (temporary) pain.

Thanks for reading. You can also read the first 2 parts on Execution and Focus. Since moving back to California, I’ve started working on the first marketplace for medical writing. Check back again next month for a post I’m working on about the US healthcare system, a very broken system that is in desperate need of reform.

Screenshot of the Geoffrey landing page (click and zoom in to enlarge):

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3 Part Series On Startup Failure: Part 2, Execution

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Strategy-Implementation-Signpost

2008: The Markets Collapse, An Opportunity Emerges

In the Fall of 2008, I was sitting in Berlin, glued to the BBC TV station, watching hourly reports of the NYSE dropping at record levels. This was the unraveling of the US financial system that eventually spread like a malignant cancer throughout the global financial community. It was surreal.

During this time, my soon-to-be-cofounder of our second business together was working at a commercial real estate consulting firm in San Francisco. Their firm was booming by taking advantage of California Proposition 13, which enabled owners to calculate property tax based on current market value. This was especially useful during the post-2008 financial meltdown, as many people had purchased homes at the peak of the real estate bubble pre-2008, and were paying property tax on a higher value than they should have been.

For example, if I had bought a house in early 2008 for $700k, I was probably paying about $7k per year (1% of value) in property tax. But in 2009, when real estate went south, my property dropped in value to $500k, meaning I was paying an excess of $2k for property tax. Prop 13 gave me the right to file for a property value re-assessment to current market value, and correspondingly adjust my annual property tax to $5k.

tax reduction

Automating A Manual Process

Re-assessing property values was usually done by consultants who would charge large fees (upwards of thousands of dollars). We figured out a way to automate the process using Zillow API’s and publicly available county forms. An online turnkey solution would pull comparable values from Zillow, walk you through the form, and provide you all the documents needed for the appeal process in PDF format to send into your local county office. The entire package would cost about $50 and save you many multiples more. It was a home run idea in a high-demand market, all it needed was a robust website.

Too Little Planning, Too Much Outsourcing

We basically knew what we needed on the website, and had to develop a first prototype to get in front of customers and test it out. Neither of us was able to setup a dynamic website pulling data from Zillow, so we had to hire a third party. Our budget was limited and we found an outsourced solution in India to complete the project. They spec’d out the project, provided exactly what we asked for on paper, and we agreed on milestone payments in 4 parts.

At the first checkpoint, we had basic functionality. At the second checkpoint, we made further progress in terms of function and some aesthetics. At checkpoints 3 & 4 we started to recognize our cultural differences and extreme level of micromanagement needed to create a logical UX and decent UI. We lost our patience and instead of staying focused, working together with the dev team to complete our vision, we grew frustrated and lashed out at the project manager for being incompetent. We grew increasingly frustrated with the entire situation and felt that we had come too far to turn back. We also realized our contract was setup in a way that we had to complete all 4 payments in order to take ownership of the code. We thought we could take what they had done and hire a freelancer to polish it off. Unfortunately, once we did this and showed the code base to other developers, they explained that the entire project would be better off scrapped and started from scratch as the code base was a total mismatch with our goals.

Three months and thousands of dollars later, we were out of budget and time. Competitors started to pop up and we lost our window. Our golden opportunity had passed us by. It’s still frustrating to think about it today; we definitely learned our lesson the hard way.

Four Lessons Learned

  1. Whether you’re hiring a marketeer or a programmer, make sure his/ her skills match the job requirements, which also means you need to know (or have access to someone who knows) about that subject.
  2. Map out the user experience as much as possible before submitting anything to code. Use power point or any other means to walk through the entire process, show it to friends and strangers, and make sure it makes sense. It’s your job to understand your customer’s needs.
  3. Stay focused on your end goal, especially at the hardest of times. It’s easy to get things done when they’re going well, but it’s critical to stay focused when everything seems to be going wrong.
  4. Allocate a realistic budget, and then set aside another 50% as a rainy day fund. You don’t want to get halfway through you development, only to realize you under-budgeted and won’t be able to deliver the best possible product.

Thanks for reading. In the next and final installment in this 3-part series, I’ll review a business that had a proven business model but failed at the most crucial step, validation. You can also access the first part on Focus here.