I was a poor high school student with mediocre grades. I didn’t play any sports. I had few friends.
I’d go home and read and watch TV all day and night. I love TV.
I was a mediocre college student. But I didn’t want to get into too much debt. I took lots of extra college courses so I could skip a year.
But my grades were so bad that the week before I graduated I had to beg a professor to give me a D+ instead of a D- so I would have high enough GPA so they would give me a degree.
I was a mediocre employee. I got fired from my first two jobs. My third job was very easy but still they would yell at me if I ever disappeared from my desk for too long.
I was unhappy. But I wanted to break out of prison. To escape. To be free.
I used to play chess all day and night online. One time my boss knocked on my locked door because my software was broken and he couldn’t get work done.
I didn’t answer because I was in the middle of a one minute blitz chess match.
Later that day my girlfriend showed up at my office near midnight banging on the door and saying, “I know you’re in there!”
I didn’t answer because 14 hours after my boss banged on my door I was still in the same match. Seggev from Israel. I couldn’t stand him! So we played all day.
One guy a few offices down started a company (Lycos) that was worth billions. Another guy on my floor sold his company a few years later for $40 million.
I played chess all day and avoided work and tried to write, unsuccessfully, a good novel. I also read comic books a lot: Eightball, Optic Nerve, Yummy Fur, Palookaville, were some of my favorites. Autobiographical comics in black and white about people who seemed to be losers like me.
The comic store wouldn’t hire me when I asked about a job. I would rather work for no pay around comics than program computers.
I started work at HBO. They asked me what my salary was at my old job. I said $38,000 so they offered me $40,000. But I had lied. I was making $27,600 at my old job. I was 26 years old.
I moved to NYC and I couldn’t do anything at the job. I crashed everything. They had to send me to remedial classes and considered firing me.
I lived in one room in NYC with Elias, a chess player I met at Washington Square Park. We had one room. He slept on the couch and I slept on the futon. I had a garbage bag for my clothes.
I took my suit out of the garbage bag each day and wore it to work and never washed it.
One day Elias came in at three in the morning and said, “Hurry! We have to move. I haven’t been paying the rent.”
And even though I had been paying him rent, I moved the next day to a roach-infested apartment in Queens with one piece of furniture. A foam mattress that would get permanently soaked by my sweat each night.
In Queens, I’d tip the waitresses with $2 bills and would write creepy notes on the bills like, “I’d like to take you to dinner. Here’s my number: …”
Then I became a millionaire.
My sister asked me, “Can you help my husband?” So I visited his office. He was in the business of making CD-Roms.
I showed him this new thing, the World Wide Web. We started playing around making websites.
He’d do the design, I did the software. Adrian, his partner, figured out all the hosting.
Then a wholesale diamond dealer, Shlomo, asked us to do a website so he could sell direct to consumers.
He gave us $35,000 cash. I had $0 in my bank account and all of a sudden, I was rich! I had $17,500 in the bank. More money than ever.
I went to the Chelsea Hotel, where I always wanted to live. All my favorite artists, poets, writers, had lived there at some point.
I had a paper bag of cash. Stanley Bard, the owner, said to me, “What are you, a drug dealer?” Still, he let me live there.
We did another website: AmericanExpress.com. Now I had more money in the bank. Nobody knew how to make websites then, except me and a handful of other people in NYC. Our frenemies for the next five years.
Then we did HBO.com, TimeWarner.com, ConEdison.com, etc. etc. We hired people. I quit my job . We did more websites. We sold the business.
I was rich.
For a brief moment, everyone wanted to be my friend. But then a few years later I was broke, and had no friends.
A business is these three parts:
- You have excess of X (e.g. empty car seats).
- Someone else wants X (e.g. someone who can’t catch a cab on a rainy day).
- The business is the platform in the middle that helps “B” meet “A”, handles the money transaction, handles disputes, etc. (e.g. Uber).
Think of this with Airbnb, Grubhub, Amazon, even a clothing store (which can only grow to the size of it’s physical space, as opposed to an online platform).
How to have EXCESS:
I messed this up a lot. Peter Thiel, in his book, makes the fascinating point that in capitalism, competition is bad. You don’t really want to compete with anyone. You want to be the best BY FAR.
Not 10% better. Ten TIMES better.
With that first business I had EXCESS as defined by these parts:
- I was the ONLY person who could do websites as fast as I could. Maybe my competitors could be as fast, but rarely (back then).
- Websites were new, nobody had them, and everyone needed them.
- It was easy for them. Just pay me and I’d deliver a complete website with no hassles and even host it for them.
- I was cheap. Because my competitors were building big businesses and I was just trying to get cash in the bank. We’d only hire anyone when we were all overwhelmed.
- I always delivered more than I promised. Your best new clients are your old clients. If you always UNDER promise and OVER deliver, you never lose your old clients.
- I’m the shyest, most introverted person in the world. But because we delivered on our “excess knowledge of the internet”, good word-of-mouth spread.
- I had passion. Everyone I spoke to, I preached how the Web was going to be everywhere. Someone with sincere passion (backed with expertise), could always beat the person just trying to make money.
I’m bad with follow-up. My main problem was that I was great at selling people, and then they (JPMorgan, for instance) would burn up my phone and I’d never return their calls.
I never return calls and I always regret it.
Plus, I had a full-time job. My “side hustle” was my full time job at HBO. My full time job was my new business.
Then I sold the company. At age 30 I was a millionaire. At age 34 I was dead broke.
Using the ideas above, there are many ways to make a million dollars.
You don’t need to be a super genius. You don’t need to build a spaceship. Or a new way for robots to detect faces. Or a billion-user social network.
You can be mediocre. You can procrastinate. You can just do nothing some days. But you have to follow some basic points.
Here are a few ideas of the model of business described above. Don’t do these if you don’t want. This is just to get your mind thinking.
- BOOKS: Find categories on Amazon with few books but high sales numbers. This means there is demand. Write five books a month (20–50 page books. Do a lot of research). In a year you’ll have written 60 books. If each book is bringing in, on average, $1,000 per month, that’s $720,000 a year. You are worth well over $1 million at that point.
- BUY LOW, SELL HIGH: Many websites out there sell things cheap: Alibaba, WaystoCap, diamond wholesalers. Set up an Amazon Sellers page. Mark up prices. Drop ship from the cheaper sites directly to your buyers. There’s more nuances here but passion will help you find them.
- INFORMATION:What are you passionate about? List 10 things you are passionate about that you think people would want to know about. Now put up 10 ads on Facebook, “buy this information”. See where people click. This shows you demand. Now create the newsletter to meet that demand. Do one free giveaway in exchange for an email address and start selling your excess knowledge to the people who are on your email list.
EXAMPLE: You love the Bible and you love dieting. Now sell the “What Would Jesus Eat” diet newsletter. Filled with inspirational Bible quotes, diet info from that period of history, anecdotes from the Bible, and recipes.
Trust me, this will sell.
- GET INTO COLLEGE COACHING: It’s harder than ever to get into college. But there are always back doors.
EXAMPLE: Columbia University has a 6.6% acceptance rate. But Barnard College (which is basically apart of Columbia) has a 20% acceptance rate. If you get a Barnard degree you can say you have a Columbia degree.
For EVERY college there is a backdoor. Become the expert, do a few for free to get testimonials, interview 50 admissions officers, and write a book to become an “expert”, charge $1,000, and coach via Skype. This becomes a business. Sell it.
- TRENDS: Become an expert in a fast growing trend that you love. For instance, I loved the internet when nobody knew about it. I loved stocks and many people were excited about stocks, etc.
Learn everything about the trend, write down 10 ideas a day how to make money off of the trend. Offer to consult companies trying to get involved in the trend, eventually start charging for consulting, speaking, etc. or build a company of your own.
Examples of trends that are hot or becoming hot: crypto/blockchain, marijuana, e-sports, big data, AI, cyber security, social media consulting, easier, niche medical care for older people (e.g. erectile dysfunction, Alzheimer’s, longevity, etc.).
Start with a manual service (like consulting or speaking) and then figure out how to automate (I failed at this side in my first business but would not make that mistake again).
Ways that trends can be monetized: be the business (e.g. grow marijuana), be the news source for the business (many crypto websites have millions of users a month), be a consultant about the trend, gamble on the trend (for instance, use statistics to figure out what fantasy teams to bet on in e-sports), take ideas from other industries and apply them to your business (for instance, a legal exchange for marijuana products, ancillary products, etc.).
- STEAL: Take an old-school brand that hasn’t been touched in 100 years. Make the same product, use social media and Amazon advertising to defeat the product. I know someone who did this to Igloo Iceboxes and overtook this 100 year old brand on Amazon in just 48 hours.
I don’t present these as ideas you should do.
If I were parachuted, dead broke, into a country I had no connections, I’d study the ideas above to learn how to think about creating a side hustle that could make me a millionaire.
I’d try more than one idea until I found what worked for me.
And then I’d hit the gas pedal. I’d CRUSH THAT GAS PEDAL.
One time I was in the hedge fund business. I raised money from wealthy people, invested it, and took a share of the profits.
A friend of mine said, “I want you to meet my boss. He runs a big hedge fund. Maybe he’d invest in you.”
So I went with him to his work. His boss gave me a tour. Then we sat down and he asked what I wanted to do with him.
I said, “I think you should invest with me,” and I gave my pitch, But I wasn’t unique. I wasn’t the ONLY one who could do this (remember above about competition).
He said, “I like you. You could work here if you want. But we already have good returns. And I don’t know where you invest your money. Maybe you do things I don’t like.”
I felt my heart getting crushed.
“And the last thing we need is to see the name ‘Bernard Madoff Securities’ end up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal,” Bernie Madoff said to me.
You can’t compete against scammers because until they are caught, they seem great.
You have to go into areas where scammers are not infested. They infest quickly.
The most important thing: love.
A friend of mine said to me, “Can you make me $1 million?” And I said, “Yes” because I had a crush on her, plus I knew I could help her.
She said, “I will follow exactly everything you say.”
So I started to tell her what to do and she was doing it. Then she said, “But I want to help people who are trying to get rid of drug addictions.”
I said, “Those aren’t the sort of people who have enough money to make you millions.”
“Let me just try,” she said and she stopped following my advice exactly. Only partially.
She built a good career. But not millions. But still, she loves it. She has a better life than making $1 million and not doing what she loves.
Love will let you put in the extra hour each day to learn more than everyone else.
Love will give you that slightly more passionate tilt in your voice when you are selling.
Love will mean your work-life balance is not an issue. It’s all LIFE. There’s no work when you love.
And if what you love can make you millions, even better.
But if you just spend the rest of your life in love, it’s a life worth living.
James Altucher is the author of the bestselling book Choose Yourself, editor at The Altucher Report and host of the popular podcast, The James Altucher Show, which takes you beyond business and entrepreneurship by exploring what it means to be human and achieve well-being in a world that is increasingly complicated. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Sharon McCutcheon.
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