The AC Interview Series with Nate from Investment Zen

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Nate from Investment Zen

This is an interview with Nate from InvestmentZen. Investment Zen’s goal is to show you how to put money to work for you, so you don’t have to work for money. You can find him on twitter here.

What’s your story? 

How did I get on the blogger track…I ask myself that question sometimes! It feels weird to think about how I ended up here.

My main business for the last 5 years has been building, buying, and selling websites – but before that I was law student on track for a professional career. I ended up graduating but never wrote the bar – as part of my plan to escape the rat race I decided to take a leap and try to figure out how to start my own business.

When I started dabbling in online business, I was trying to figure out how to drive traffic to an e-commerce site I had built, which led to learning about search engine optimization (SEO), which eventually led to blogging. My e-commerce business didn’t take off, but I did get pretty good at driving organic traffic to websites.

I started building niche blogs around completely random topics and monetizing them by selling advertising. I was just building websites based completely on the numbers – if a website idea looked like it would be a profitable venture based on my research, I would usually launch it as a blog and hire a writer who knew the space to start putting up posts.

Eventually I started selling some of these websites when I found out there was a market for revenue generating sites. Then at some point, I realized I could buy existing sites, improve the revenue and then sell them off. If you’re curious about the weird world of buying/selling websites for profit, I did a little interview for Flippa awhile back about this rental classifieds site I bought.

Before I knew it, 5 years had passed. The websites grew bigger and I also expanded a bit to e-commerce and even working on a software business. I actually sold a blog last year in the personal development space that grew to 2.5 million pageviews a month. It was a big milestone for me!

While it’s still fun to launch new projects and watch them grow, after awhile it does feel a little meaningless launching websites in areas where you have no personal interest. Actually, personal development was the one space where I actually do have a personal interest, but it just wasn’t quite the right fit for me.

I think personal finance is a specific area of personal development that I’m most passionate about. Once you fix your finances and your financial mindset, it becomes much easier to fix your health, your relationships etc. And if you actually master money and make it work for you, then it can buy you a lot of freedom!

At some point last year, my business partner and I decided to combine our interest in building and growing websites with our interest in personal finance and investing. Our goal with the blog is to spread the message that instead of working for money, you can make money work for you. We want to share inspirational stories and actionable lessons from people who have accomplished this.

Additionally, my partner on InvestmentZen is also a web developer, so we saw an opportunity to add value by building comparison tools and calculators to help people make better objective financial decisions.

A lot of entrepreneurs are naturally perfectionist and as a result they want to launch a perfect product that matches their grand vision. But something important I’ve learned over the years is that it’s more important to start small and take action. In our case, this meant starting with a simple, but in-depth comparison table of all robo advisors, as well as a 1 v 1 breakdown of the 2 biggest players in the space.

The feedback has been good so far so we plan to apply the same model to other product categories, but we definitely want to tackle more ambitious financial tools to serve our audience and we’re working behind the scenes on a few ideas, so stay tuned!

When people ask you what you do, what’s your answer?
When most people ask, I tell them I build/buy/sell websites because that’s been my bread and butter.

If another entrepreneur or someone in the digital marketing industry asks, then I usually go into more detail about my newer, less established projects as well. But I don’t like talking too much about things I’m still trying to get off the ground – I subscribe to Derek Sivers’ philosophy about announcing your plans to the world.

If a customs agent asks, in order to avoid any hassle, I just say I’m a web developer, which I technically am…cutting and pasting code from Stack Overflow counts right?

What’s the best and worst financial mistakes you’ve personally made?
I think the question here was probably supposed to be “best financial decision and worst financial mistake”, but I’m going to answer it as-is because it’s more interesting that way! (haha, he is correct, I wrote it wrong – Adam)

Best financial mistake – The best financial mistake I made was taking on some pretty serious credit card debt to grow my business.

At the time, I was doing freelance writing/digital marketing to pay the bills while I built my own web properties on the side. One of the sites was getting some good traction, so I had to make a decision – should I double down on my own project and hire more writers, or keep growing super slowly while spending most of my time doing freelance work?

To most personal finance gurus, it probably sounds crazy and irresponsible to take on credit card debt in this situation. But I use Tim Ferriss’ framework for analyzing situations like this – what’s the risk-reward?

Worst case scenario was I’d have credit card debt that would have taken me a few years to pay off. Best case scenario was that I could stop trading time for dollars and run an actual business that would continue to generate ad revenue while I slept.

I ended up dropping the freelance work and using credit card debt to grow things quicker. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I was confident that I could make it work and was willing to work hard to dig myself out of that hole if it didn’t.

Luckily it worked out and the site started to generate a healthy income for me, and now it’s the best financial mistake I ever made.

Worst financial mistake – During my first year living on my own as a student, I had a decent amount of savings from working full-time for a year and running a side business in high school/early university. I ended up blowing through most of it in about 6 months with nothing to show for it.

It was probably my worst financial mistake, but it could also be a candidate for my best financial mistake – it wasn’t much fun at the time, but I internalized a valuable lesson about money.

What area of your life do you indulge in luxuries? Where do you cut ruthlessly?
I don’t mind indulging when it comes to experiences – usually travel. I also probably indulge more than I should when it comes to eating out.

I do cut ruthlessly when it comes to the big wins. I’ve never bought a new car, I work from a home office, I don’t indulge in lifestyle inflation and buying “stuff”.

We don’t save money just to stare at the comma’s. What goal are you working toward and why?
I’m working towards freedom in terms of both money and time. But once you’ve got enough commas to have some level of freedom, there’s still the obvious question of what you want to do with that freedom.

My goal is to build a business that has a positive impact on millions of people. That’s one of the main reasons I started working on InvestmentZen. I really believe in our motto – that money can work for you instead of you having to work for money. Once you have financial freedom you can work on the bigger, more meaningful goals on your own terms.

Having an impact through InvestmentZen means sharing inspirational stories from regular people who made money work for them, like the story of how Sean Cooper paid off his $255,000 mortgage in just 3 years, or how Mr. 1500 used his newfound millionaire status to buy happiness & freedom.

But it also means taking a look at questions like how much you should have in your 401k or whether you should pay off your mortgage and giving people an inside look at how someone who’s successful with money makes these types of decisions.

My goal is to keep improving our content and growing the site so that InvestmentZen can be a valuable resource for anyone looking to improve their financial lives.

What opinion or view have you changed your mind about in the past year?
Even though I’ve been reading Mr. Money Mustache since 2011, up until pretty recently I strongly believed that if you want to build FU money while you’re still young, you should quit your job and start your own business.

But diving deeper into the financial independence / early retirement community has broadened my perspective on this. I now think that learning to spend less than you earn, investing the difference, and rejecting consumerism is probably the best path to early financial independence for most people. Its also the most basic foundation for building wealth – you can’t out earn a spending problem!

But I do still think that – if you have any interest in entrepreneurship whatsoever – the biggest thing you can do for your financial life is to take action on that urge to build your own business, even if it’s just a tiny side hustle at first. But I realize that it’s not for everyone and getting a handle on saving and investing is probably the biggest win for most people.

What opinion or belief do you hold that most people don’t?
This seems like a slightly easier version of Peter Thiel’s famous interview question: “Tell me something that’s true, that almost nobody agrees with you on.” (it is – Adam)

I remember thinking about Peter Thiel’s interview question while reading his book Zero To One and I had a lot of trouble answering it.

Your version of the question is easier to answer since you’re not asking for a truth – just an opinion or belief. Here’s mine:

It seems like you can’t hit a news site without reading about how tough millennials have it. The economy is bad, there are no jobs, we’re being forced out of the housing market…

But I don’t believe that on an individual level, millennials are facing a shortage of work. We have an unprecedented opportunity to create our own work. It’s never been easier or cheaper in the history of human civilization to start your own business, launch a creative career, or get paid to do freelance work. Everywhere gatekeepers are crumbling and whole industries are being democratized.

There’s is a massive shift happening in the way wealth is built and how work is performed, on a scale we haven’t seen since the industrial revolution. Undoubtedly some won’t adapt and will be left behind, but here’s a great article about the mindset needed to take advantage of this once in a generation opportunity.

What’s the best $100 you’ve spent this year? 
I spent 4 days in Chiang Mai and don’t think I spent much more than $100 the whole time I was there. It’s amazing how far your dollar can go in some parts of the world.

What does your morning routine look like?
My wakeup time ranges from 8AM to 10AM without an alarm. I think I manage to get stuff done in spite of my morning habits, not because of them.

I’m naturally a night owl but I do see a lot of advantages to waking up early so it’s something I’ve been working on. I think a huge revelation for me was realizing that my morning routine doesn’t matter that much – it’s actually the night time routine that matters the most for me. Even my late afternoon actions can greatly affect the next morning.

If you toss and turn at night and struggle to have productive early mornings, ask yourself these questions: Do you drink coffee past 3PM? Are you browsing the web on your phone in bed? Are you taking late afternoon naps? Are you working on your laptop right before bedtime? All of this makes it really hard to fall asleep.

If I avoid these things the day before, I usually have a productive next morning.

What book have you most gifted or recommended?

4 Hour Work Week – the book that launched a revolution. The material on muse development is a bit obsolete, but the stuff on location independence, mini-retirements, and the pareto principle still holds up.

The Millionaire Fastlane – a must read for anyone with an entrepreneurial itch or a desire to become a multi-millionaire while they’re young (careful what you wish for). It’s about front-loading your efforts to build a scalable system to wealth, instead of the traditional path of go to college, work a 9-5 for 40 years then retire

It’s a great read, though the ideas presented aren’t necessarily the right path to FI for everyone. Here’s a solid, balanced discussion about the book on the Mr Money Mustache forum.

Zero To One – a really interesting, informative look at what it takes to build a disruptive startup. Peter Thiel co-founded Paypal with Elon Musk, was the first outside investor in Facebook, runs a number of successful investment funds in Silicon Valley, and co-founded Palantir – a big data analytics platform that was valued at $20 billion in its last round of funding.

It’s safe to say Peter Thiel knows what he’s talking about when it comes to building disruptive startups.

4 Pillars Of Investing – this book does a great job breaking down the underlying ideas behind successful long-term investing. A very good introduction to investing basics.

The Millionaire Real Estate Investor – a really solid introduction to the mindset needed to succeed in real estate investing, and a lot of actionable information as well.

What Every Real Estate Investor Needs to Know About Cash Flow… And 36 Other Key Financial Measures – I’m not gonna lie, this book is super dry, but I found it essential for understanding the fundamentals behind profitable real estate investing.

Anyways, I could go on – but these books came to mind.

Any favorite podcasts?
Mixergy – in-depth interviews with successful entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of these types of podcasts out now, but this was the original.

Biggerpockets – the best real estate investing podcast out there in my opinion.

Tropical MBA – location independent/lifestyle business.

The M.O.N.E.Y. Podcast – lots of great personal finance advice.

Planet Money – an interesting look at a variety of different financial topics, ranging from Warren Buffett’s 1 Million dollar bet with hedge funds, to selling hot dogs and beer at Fenway Park.

Startup – a really well produced look at the highs and lows of early stage startups. Low on actionable info but high on drama…basically a serial audio documentary.

Hardcore history – doesn’t have anything to do with business or money but I look forward to new episodes that come out 2-3 times a year.

If you enjoyed this interview with Nate, you can find his great site over at InvestmentZen. Investment Zen’s goal is to show you how to put money to work for you, so you don’t have to work for money. You can also find him on twitter here.

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