How Generation X can take this country back

I’ve done some reading in recent days. First I read that GenXers aren’t happy with Corporate America and the feeling is largely mutual. It appears I’m not the only one.

But I see an opportunity in this. We have a window to take this country back. And I have a plan.The way I see it, the unholy triumverate of big government, big corporations, and big labor has done its best to ruin this country. Big government’s mess needs no introduction. While big labor drove some necessary reforms, it lost its way, asked for too much, and today we see the result when we look at the sticker prices of GM, Ford, and Chrysler vehicles. And as for big business, I could get into specifics, but I see the problem like this: Large corporations think only quarter to quarter, chasing short-term profits and never considering the long term. They hand out raises to their workers that don’t keep pace with inflation, while their CEOs make six- and seven-figure salaries plus equally large bonuses, no matter how badly they do their jobs. Since the people who do the work feel undervalued, they tend to jump from job to job a lot, so institutional memory becomes a thing of the past.

Forget them. It’s time to escape and start over. Here’s the plan.

Minimize the risk.

You can’t very well escape corporate America’s stronghold while you’re saddled with debt. Most small businesses die within three years because at some point in that timeframe the owners find themselves unable to pay the bills. So as long as you have debt, you are corporate America’s slave.

But you can escape. It doesn’t really matter how much you make or how much money you owe–you can be debt free in seven years or less. The main reason this works is because creditors generally won’t loan you more money than you would be able to repay in seven years.

I don’t know how long this movement has existed. My mother and father in law did it in the 1980s. A classic entrepreneurial book by William Nickerson, published in the 1950s, mentions the phenomenon, so it must have existed then.

There are lots of subtle variants on the plan, but it boils down to this. Gather up all your debts–car payment, credit cards, mortgage, student loans, furniture, whatever. Figure out the minimum payment on them. Now take 10 percent of your monthly income. Pick one bill, and add that 10 percent of your monthly income to what you pay on it. (If you can afford more than 10 percent, pay that.) Make the minimum payment on all of your other bills.

After you pay off that first bill, take what you were paying on that bill and apply it to the next one. Let’s say you have two $300 car payments and a $1,000 mortgage. You could start paying an extra $300 a month on one car, for a total of $600, and pay $300 on the other car, and $1,000 on the mortgage. When the first car is paid off, the $600 moves to the other car, for $900 on the car and $1,000 on the mortgage. Once the other car is paid off, pay $1,900 per month on the mortgage.

The hardest part is initially coming up with that $300. The rest is fairly easy because you’re always paying the same amount every month, but the longer you go along, the faster you’re retiring your debt because you’re paying more principle and less interest.

How you pick the order is up to you. Mathematically speaking, you’re always best off applying your extra payment to the debt with the highest interest rate. But in every analysis that I’ve seen, the difference between paying them off in the best possible order and worst possible order is only a month’s worth of payments. Many people suggest paying off the debt on which you owe the least first, so you get the psychological boost of having eliminated one debt.

I started in November 2004. It took less than a year to pay off my car. Not long after that I got married, and it only took a few more months for us to pay off my wife’s car. Right now the only debt we have is the mortgage and my wife’s student loans. Barring unexpected emergencies this year, we should be able to pay off our remaining debt by the end of the year. (We may keep one of my wife’s student loans, since the interest rate is lower than the rate we get on one of our bank accounts.)

This is the most important thing: I fully expect to own my home outright at age 33. If I played by the rules most people play by, I’d make my last payment on it at age 58.

Here’s why I say to eliminate your debt. Take a look at what you spend every month. When my wife and I looked at our spending, we found we were spending more than $2,000 a month on car payments, the mortgage, and her student loans. Meanwhile, we were spending less than $1,000 on food, utilities, and everything else. So in theory, without debt, we could live on $12,000 a year.

Which leads to the second part of the plan.

Find a business you can start that will make you more than $12,000 a year

I’m not talking about multi-level marketing or any garbage like that. Start a real business that you control and makes money for you.

I won’t tell you what business to start, because I only know what works for my wife and me. But I’ll give you some questions that will get your mind rolling.

What can you do better than anyone else? There must be something that you know how to do really well and can leverage. Find it.

What do you know how to find or make less expensively than anyone else? This can replace the question above, or supplement it.

What do you enjoy doing? If you actually enjoy doing it, you’ll work harder and more productively. I would moonlight fixing Amiga computers if there were any money in it. Frankly I find modern computers uninteresting, so I don’t moonlight fixing other people’s computers at home, because I find it boring and stressful.

And finally, what problem do people have that you might be able to solve for them?

Mull those questions. It’s OK if you don’t immediately know the answer to any of those questions, or if you know the answer but they don’t bring a business plan to mind. Keep thinking about it, and keep looking around for opportunities.

I started looking for something in mid-2004 when I realized I didn’t make enough to support my wife and me if she was in school. I don’t remember now when I first had the idea that ultimately worked, but I followed through on it in June 2005. It took two weeks for anything to come of it, but it did finally work, and it’s still working today.

Once you get an idea, explore its feasibility. Look and see if anyone else is doing it. See if you can do it better or cheaper, or in a slightly different way than everyone else does it.

If the idea looks feasible, start doing it part-time. Don’t quit the job yet. The idea is to get established while you still have the safety net of a 9-to-5 job. If you’re thinking about a service, start advertising on Craigslist. If it’s a product, eBay and Craigslist are possible venues. The upside to Craigslist is that it doesn’t cost anything to advertise there. The real key is to look at your questions as an opportunity to get creative, rather than as blockades to your progress.

Here’s one strategy for dealing with those questions. Ask yourself those questions, especially around bedtime. Your subconscious will mull over the question even while you sleep. The answer will take some time to come, and will probably come at an unexpected time. But I’ve tried it and it works. Your subconscious mind may be the most powerful tool you have.

Notice I didn’t say to go borrow money. One of the reasons businesses die young is because they can’t pay their debts. Keep your overhead low, and you have a better chance of being successful. Operate on a shoestring.

Once you have an idea and something to do, give it a try on a small scale. At this stage, don’t put up any more money than you’re willing to lose, and don’t be afraid if your initial attempts don’t get anywhere or fail. You’re learning. If you’re starting while you still have a job and you’re in the process of paying down your debt, you can afford to fail a little. At the early stages, gaining information and wisdom and knowledge is more important than success. Get enough of those three things and you will find success, and if and when success wanes, you’ll find it again.

The problem with big government, big corporations and big labor is that they are successful, but by and large they are not well informed, they aren’t knowledgeable, and they certainly aren’t wise. That’s why we’ve seen so many spectacular failures in the last 10 years.

I see lots of small business owners who aren’t informed, knowledgeable, or wise either. When their success runs out, that’s probably the end of them. But there are also small businesses in St. Louis that stood the test of time and became institutions. Lots of Fortune 500 companies have come and gone in St. Louis since Ted Drewes Sr. opened a frozen custard stand on Natural Bridge Road in 1930. And lots more will come and go before the two Ted Drewes locations close up for good.

During this time that your small business is struggling and you’re gathering knowledge abd wisdom, you’re still working for someone else and you’re paying off your debts. But along with those struggles, you should have some encouraging successes. Follow those successes, and tweak things along the way.

Chances are, by the time you have your debt paid off, you’ll have a successful small business that’s capable of bringing in enough money to support you full-time. So you can step out of the corporate world and into business for yourself. From there, the sky’s the limit, because you’re no longer working hard to make money to support the pyramid of management above you–you only have to support yourself. And without the burden of personal debt and corporate overhead, you’ll be more free to be successful.

And how does this save America?

On May 11, 2006, Robert X. Cringely wrote, “I’m counting on Google and eBay to save America.” He didn’t elaborate, but here’s what I think he meant.

Just before the dawn of the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of large corporations in the United States, but there were plenty of bright entrepreneurs with ideas. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and the Wright Brothers are examples.

The problem today is that large public companies don’t breed great people like Edison, Ford, and the Wrights. The shareholders won’t stand for it. Shareholders care only about the profits on the next quarterly report, and if the company doesn’t deliver, investors dump their shares, the stock price drops, and then (and only then) executives start losing their jobs. So companies tend to play it safe to protect their executives.

We’re seeing this problem with eBay right now, of all things. While eBay remains hugely profitable, its investors got spoiled with exponential growth. Now that the profits are steady but growth has leveled off, investors are whining, and eBay is trying all kinds of goofy things to try to recapture the magic. None of it’s really working, but they sure are alienating a lot of their best merchants.

Two years after Robert X. Cringely wrote those words, I no longer know if eBay is the right company for this recipe to save America, but it has the right business model. Someone else will pick it up if eBay decides it doesn’t want it anymore.

The small entrepreneur can’t afford to compete head to head with General Motors. But Google gives small businesses affordable, targeted advertising, while eBay and other online marketplaces provide small businesses with a low-overhead distribution channel. Google and eBay (or their replacements) won’t directly save America, but the small, bright, nimble businesses that they enable will. Small businesses can afford to think long-term, they can deliver a better product with better service (and do it faster) than the huge, lumbering behemoths, and they aren’t slaves to whiney shareholders who have lots of money but little idea how to run the companies they invested in and no vested interest in the company’s long-term health because in five years they’ll have their money somewhere else.

And since small businesses have more control over their own destinies, they’re in a better position to adapt.

If we believe the Businessweek article I linked above, corporations need us GenXers. But in my experience, as well as the experience of hundreds of people who commented on the article both at Businessweek and on Digg, by and large the corporations don’t want us. So the best thing for us to do is to compete with them. And in the long run, I think this country will be better off for it.

One thought on “How Generation X can take this country back

  • May 25, 2008 at 6:59 am
    Permalink

    Well, I guess it will come as no surprise to anyone that I agree with Dave 100%. He adds something new to the discussion, but I’ve agreed with this philosophy before – and commended it to my sons. Interest eats you up, and I see no reason to subsidise financiers who are trying to eat my substance to my disadvantage and to their gain.

    As he says, it’s no secret – it’s been being promulgated as a philosophy for a long time; and before that it was a simple way of life for our grandparents, great-grandparents, and even our governments.
    "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" was wartime propaganda. It worked for nations, and it worked for individuals. Now we have people who profit from our debt, care nothing for our well-being, and happily kick us to the kerb when we can no longer pay their usury, trying to persuade us that living within our means is treason, while nations descend deeper and deeper into debt.

    That’s not to say debt is bad, but it should be as short-term as possible, and only entered to our personal financial advantage.

    Getting out of debt isn’t treason – it’s simple common-sense. And at least as good for the individual as it would be for the nation.

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