Now that I’ve stepped down from RescueTime, I’m pondering my next thing (whether it’s a product role at a very early stage startup or spinning up my own for the 3rd time). I figure it’s a good time to be introspective and consider my motivations. Why do startups? For me, it’s more about having the choice to work on the stuff I want to work on, work with cool people on small low-friction teams, and wear a lot of hats. I definitely see the lure of the financial reward, but it’s never been a primary motivator for me. I’ve said in the past that stock options for startup employees are generally a sucker’s bet, but the argument extends to founders, too (especially when you’ve got 3+ founders and/or need multiple rounds of investment).
On a recent trip to Alaska, my ideas around “F@#$ You Money” changed pretty radically because of two conversations (which I’ll relate below). First, let’s start with a definition:
F@#$ You Money: any amount of money allowing infinite perpetuation of wealth necessary to maintain a desired lifestyle without needing employment or assistance from anyone. (via Urban Dictionary)
The first conversation I had on my Alaskan trip was with an older retired couple who was traveling around Alaska. We’d had a few drinks at a local bar and got to talking about retirement, risk-taking, and (eventually) f@#$ you money. He started talking to me about his finances and told me that he was really anxious about money despite having a “couple million bucks”. “It used to be absolutely true when people said ‘money makes more money’,” he told me. “Be relatively sharp about flipping real estate, have a solid and diverse stock portfolio, and you’re making 6-10% per year or more.” 8% of $2 million is 160,000. Add some Social Security money to that and the fact that older couples generally have a paid off house or a cheap mortgage, and that feels pretty close to permanent retirement. If you want to live more lavishly, you can chip away at the principal.
But this couple was shaken by the new reality. What, exactly, are they supposed to invest their money in that throws off 6-10%? Real estate in major metro areas are looking at a 5-20% drop in the next two years. The stock market is volatile but stagnant (more on that in a minute). Money markets are throwing off less than the rate of inflation. Top all that off with the potential that inflation accelerates, turning their couple of million bucks into dramatically less… Which means that even if they leave it in cash, there is a lot of downside risk.
The formula for a 2 million dollar retirement changes from:
$2,000,000 * 8% = $160k/yr + Social Security
$2,000,000 / # of years you expect to live after retirement (say 30) = $66k/yr + Social Security
If that all works out, you die nearly penniless on your 30th year.
The idea of a millionaire couple (surely the top 5% of retirees?) living on a combined wage that is dramatically less that what they were likely earning before they retired was pretty damn shocking to me.
The second conversation that I had on my Alaska trip was with a money manager at the Seattle airport. He was one of the top wealth managers at one of the big Wall Street firms. His belief was that it was likelier to get worse before it got better and that it could be 10 years or more before the economy bounced back. “I think we’ll see Dow 4,000 before we see Dow 12,000,” he told me. With the ratio of workers to retirees changing for the worse and with birth rates flattening, he wasn’t sure how much it COULD bounce back. Obviously, his opinion isn’t shared by everyone. But there’s a chance he’s right. Given that, where exactly do you put your f@#$ you money? A balanced portfolio isn’t enough protection against that kind of drop.
(Want to worry some more? Consider how much you have to save to retire if your savings don’t throw off interest.)
Want to be Mercenary? Time to give up on F@#$ You Money and Focus on Other “F@#$ You” Things
Pretend that you sold a startup tomorrow and walked away with a cool $5,000,000 at the age of 30 (well, $4m after taxes). Assuming you live 50 years, that gives you $80k/yr (non-inflation-adjusted dollars). Perfectly comfortable, but certainly not the image of wealth that a $5,000,000 windfall historically brought to mind. So if you’re young and angling for greatness, I think you’re better off aiming for “f@#$ you influence and credibility” (which has as much to do with your personal brand as it does your financial success). THAT is the investment that keeps giving. It allows you to charge $30k+ for a 1 hour speaking engagement. It gets you a feeding frenzy of investors when you start making noises about your next startups (reducing your financial risk to near-zero). It gets you fat advising gigs (where you trade advice and influence for ~1% of startups), seats on boards of directors (which can be compensated for in various ways). It gets you access to the best angel investment opportunities. Hell, it could allow you to raise a $30,000,000 seed fund (rock on, Dave!).
Better yet, in the mercenary vs. missionary debate, don’t think like a mercenary at all. Focus on creating value, being passionate about what you’re building every day and let the windfall (if it happens) be a happy surprise.