When I tell people I lived in Korea for 1.5 years, the first question I usually get is “Why?”
That’s a tough one to answer, and there’s a long story behind it.
The second question I usually get from people is “Did you live in North Korea or South Korea?”
That one’s much easier to answer: I slap them repeatedly and then chop up their bodies into small pieces with an electrified cleaver.
I’m picking up my life story today with Part 2, which details, among other things:
- How and why I ended up in (South) Korea, among all possible places I could have gone after starting this online business in 2007
- How I created over 150 hours of video in less than 2 years, which most people would say is flat-out impossible, even for a sizable and well-funded team
- Why living in a (very) foreign country was a massive benefit to this business, and why you need to do it at some point if you ever hope to sell and market yourself effectively
- And finally, how a foreigner dressed in a pink rabbit suit (see image above) and a Korean girl who attempted to start a youth hostel in Xi’An led me to… launch and expand the Breaking Into Wall Street site
Let the fun and games begin continue:
When In Asia…
First off, you should start with Part 1 of this story or you’re going to be very confused.
Where I left off, things were really picking up in December 2008 and January 2009 – I had just launched the interview guide, recruiting season was in full swing, and recruiting had become so competitive that more and more students and professionals were signing up for my services.
I was planning to go to China to meet up with Jerry – my friend from university who started his own prop trading firm in Beijing (he also contributed a lot of the sales & trading material on the site).
And then I would head to Thailand to meet up with some other friends, and make a trek to Singapore, because well, I just wanted to check it out.
Two weeks before I got there, Jerry informed me that he was really busy running his company and couldn’t be a “tour guide,” so I came up with another plan: meet all my readers who lived in or were visiting those countries (original announcement here).
The trip turned into a mix of meeting up with dozens of readers, continuing to work with clients (resume editing and mock interviews), and working on this ever-expanding-and-never-quite-finished membership site called “Breaking Into Wall Street,” which was completely different and fundamentally flawed back then.
Meeting with so many readers was enormously insightful.
You can’t take everything you read online or via email seriously; people run their mouths, and I’ve seen countless ridiculous claims made on message boards and on comment threads on this site.
But when you meet someone in-person, you can learn more about him/her in 5 minutes than you can by spending hours reading what the person said online.
The time I spent doing this still benefits me to this day because I understand the real motivations, fears, and concerns of students and professionals better than anyone else who offers these services.
It also led to some very random opportunities, like the time I ended up speaking to students at Peking University (the equivalent of Harvard in the US, only even more elite).
How I Met a Drug Dealer and Survived to Tell the Tale
When I was in Beijing, I decided to take Jerry’s recommendation and check out a speed dating event.
Most of the people there had standard corporate jobs or were English teachers, but I ran into a Korean girl (woman? I don’t know) who had an interesting response when I asked what she did:
“I’m a drug dealer.”
I instantly recognized that line from the introduction to The 4-Hour Workweek, and rather than asking her for free samples or if she was lying, I asked her about the book instead.
It turned out that, inspired by the book, she had left her country, moved to China, and attempted to start a youth hostel in the western city of Xi’An (basically a giant desert… OK, and some clay statues), among other ventures.
We instantly hit it off, and I decided to “extend” my trip to Asia by going to visit a few more friends in the southern part of China and then going to visit her in Seoul.
I justified it to myself by saying, “Well, I have a few other friends living there as well…”
Oh, and if you think you know where this story is going, keep reading, my friend.
Lost in Translation
I landed in Korea and was instantly confused.
I didn’t know the language, knew a grand total of 3 people there, and even managed to get lost on the way to my hotel at 2 AM when it was freezing cold outside.
The Drug Dealer, of course, was being evasive and kept making excuses for why she had to stay at home with her parents (yes, everyone in Asia lives with their parents until they’re married)…
…which left me with a lot of free time to continue working with clients, developing this membership site, and also meeting more readers in Seoul.
One client kept asking me how he could learn accounting and finance rather than just reviewing questions and answers with me in mock interviews, so I decided to “front-load” part of this membership site and create a few simple videos for him on accounting and valuation.
At the time, these technical lessons were about 5% of the planned site and I viewed them as a nice bonus, but nothing especially interesting or useful.
My first videos were also terrible – I had no idea what I was doing, I was working off a tiny laptop from random cafes in a freezing-cold city where I didn’t know the language, and I had just been ditched by a faux Drug Dealer.
But my client loved them.
I started sharing these initial videos with a few other clients, and the reaction was unanimous: some of them had taken financial modeling courses and/or paid hundreds of dollars for other programs, but they all said that even the free videos I created were much more helpful.
I also decided that, while I was enormously productive on this trip because my plans fell through, I didn’t want to return to this country…
But then, over the weekend I met up with the 2 other friends I knew in Korea and had a blast.
One of them knew a group of foreigners that always threw parties and events, and I was pulled into everything from adventures to go ice fishing outside the city to hotel parties and much cheaper “bottles” at clubs there (no comment on the models).
I wasn’t “sold” on the country yet, but I decided that based on a sample size of 1 fun weekend, it would be way more interesting than staying in California.
Two Days Before Going Home…
Then, literally two days before I was set to fly back home, I randomly ran into The Drug Dealer right near a stadium that had been demolished the year before.
Yes, a completely random meeting in a city of 10+ million people.
She was with another guy.
Tell the World I’m Coming Home
I finally arrived back in the US at the end of January, after the 2 most eventful months I had ever had in my life.
It was fun traveling to Asia, but as you might imagine, I was not at all convinced that it was actually a “good” idea to go back there.
My friend Kevin had just started Management Consulted around this time, and we decided to do a speaking tour and visit a bunch of schools on the east coast.
The timing was fairly awful for this trip: I became deathly ill at one point and almost ended up in the ER, and I was still working with clients and attempting to finish this huge membership site.
It became increasingly clear that something had to change: there was no way I could handle writing for the site, doing client work, speaking, and continuing to work indefinitely on this membership site that was never going to be done.
Meanwhile, my family back in New Jersey was increasingly confused and bewildered at what I was doing with my life. The most popular theory was that I was a CIA agent.
“He goes overseas, speaks different languages, and works on the computer.”
The Last Straw
Right after I got back from this trip at the end of February, I received an email from a reader:
“I’m thinking about taking a financial modeling program. What do you recommend? Are CD-ROM and textbook programs the best? Should I just get the cheapest one?”
This was my epiphany.
As usual, I was my own biggest obstacle to success.
The answer had been right under my nose, but I had obstinately ignored it: rather than releasing this massive membership site all at once, I would release only the technical videos I had already recorded and package that as a “financial modeling program.”
I would throw out the nearly 9 months of work I had completed and only release a tiny portion of it, completely changing the site and product focus to financial modeling.
I also set a strict, self-imposed deadline: it would have to be released by the end of April, because I would leave the country in May – still uncertain of whether I’d end up in Korea, China, or maybe a small island in the middle of the Pacific.
“The Competition? What Competition?”
I knew I would have to add topics like 3-statement modeling and LBO models – neither was in these initial videos – but I could finish those in a month or less.
I was worried about how this very “minimum viable product” course would stack up next to what competitors were offering, but after looking at the products in more depth I wasn’t too concerned:
- Yes, my material was more “basic” and more focused on interview prep…
- But it would also be about 5-10x cheaper than anything else out there…
- And I had a substantial audience online and the ability to move quickly and launch products – even 4 years later, literally no one else in this market really understands the process of how to promote a product.
- Plus, I could always say that I would add new material afterward as a free bonus – a way to hedge myself and spend more time on the program if the launch went well.
I dove in and spent the month of March devouring training materials on internet marketing and launching products online.
Truthfully, I had gotten obsessed with these topics long before this: even back in 2008 I was constantly studying them.
I’ve read some comments online suggesting that the reason this site has been successful is because “I went to Stanford” or because “Our team has solid pedigrees.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
You learn very little, if anything, at these institutions that helps you succeed in creating and selling products/services in real life.
This site succeeded because I dove into the content creation and marketing process obsessively and, more importantly, learned how to sell and market products over the Internet.
This is NOT a skill you learn in school. It’s definitely not a skill you learn at “top” schools.
In fact, sales & marketing is the single most under-taught skill at universities and business schools, which is tragic.
Many institutions view sales as “below” them, and many students view it as “only something salespeople have to do” (big mistake).
That’s what attracted me to it.
I loved inhabiting the “dark underbelly” of an industry and skill set that was extremely useful, but which most people overlooked or dismissed.
It was almost like finding an undervalued stock and going all-in with a huge investment right before it surged by 300%.
I went through everything from high-end training courses to books to live events in an attempt to absorb every last bit of knowledge about marketing.
The plan crystallized over these next few weeks:
- Prepare promotional materials in March into April.
- Launch at the end of April.
- Take care of post-launch business and wrap up loose ends in May…
- And then, yes, you guessed it, return to Korea on June 1.
I’d like to say the last point was a rational decision based on my desire to “explore other cultures” and “learn a new language” and “reconnect with friends” or something.
I attempted to justify it by saying, “Well, I have friends there, I made more friends the last time I visited, Jerry just sold his company and moved there, and staying in California would be boring.”
But hey, we’ve all followed Drug Dealers down rabbit holes before, and let’s just say that you don’t always end up in Wonderland when you come out on the other side.
Product Launch Madness
The month of April began, and instantly I was even more panicked than usual.
First, the simple site I had set up barely worked and there were a ton of technical issues.
Second, I was about to start using my real name on the site. Yes, up to that point it had been completely anonymous and I was known as “The Inquisitor.”
Third, I was about to start using my voice in the promotional videos for the new course… would everyone hate it? Think I was crazy? Instantly reject it?
Most of these fears turned out to be completely unfounded.
Yes, there were a few technical hitches, and yes, I would have done some things differently, but overall the launch of the BIWS site on April 20th, 2009, went exceptionally well.
April 2009 was the best month in the history of the site to that point, by far, and hundreds of new customers signed up for a new and unproven course because they… believed in me? Weren’t satisfied with existing programs? Liked the sound of my voice? All of the above?
I’m not sure.
My favorite comment from that time came on the post I published just before the course became available:
“Do we really need to wait till Monday? =| this is worse than a cock tease….”
You couldn’t argue with the numbers, the time-limited offer, and my last-minute addition of the “Networking (Ninja) Toolkit” bonus, which got a lot of readers sitting on the fence to sign up.
But several parts didn’t go as well:
- I took negative feedback way too seriously. There was this one poster on WallStreetOasis who said the program was horrible and constantly disparaged it, so I started doubting myself. Then, even after I added more material over the next few months, he constantly said it wasn’t good enough. I look back on this now and laugh that I cared so much about what this one anonymous guy thought, when 300+ others thought it was awesome.
- I might have promised too much upfront. “Free lifetime updates and free access to all future modeling courses” was not the best idea because the site expanded from one course into almost 10, and went from 10 hours of video into 150+. By promising so much, I put way too much pressure on myself and gave up significant future income.
One Morning in the Month of May
But I survived the launch intact, and my plan to leave the country and head to Korea was on track.
Several points also became clear in this next month:
- There was a ton of demand for an Excel course, so that would have to be my next addition.
- There was also a lot of demand for real companies and case studies, along with more advanced material, so that would be addition #2.
- There was absolutely no way I could do both of the above and continue to grow the site if I was still offering resume editing and mock interviews.
I had to choose: should I shut down the services that had comprised 70%+ of my revenue to this point so I could devote more time to a new and unproven site?
Or should I do the safe thing and continue to run the services but somehow limit the number of sign-ups, or otherwise find more time for product development?
After a few weeks of freaking out, I shut down the coaching services and decided to leave my fate in the hands of the interview guide and new modeling course.
In my first draft of this article, I wrote a long explanation for this move, but here’s the short version: focus is your most important resource as an entrepreneur.
If something distracts you from the area with the highest potential, cut it out even if it means enduring short-term pain.
In the worst case scenario, I could always restore the services if I ran into trouble and needed money (I still had close to $100K of student loans by this stage).
And in the best case scenario, sales of the interview guide and modeling course would continue to increase each month and I could focus on improving and adding to those.
Landing in Korea, Part 2
I stuck to my plan and arrived in Seoul on June 1st, 2009, once again not entirely sure what I was doing there.
On one hand, I could go “learn a new language” or “learn martial arts” or do a bunch of other random things and attempt to follow The 4-Hour Workweek.
Other random opportunities kept springing up as well:
- One friend wanted me to help out with his new sex therapy course
- Another friend had an idea for a clean energy site and wanted my input
- I thought about getting more involved with event planning and meeting people like that
On the other hand, I didn’t think it would be possible to make massive additions to the newly launched BIWS site and also frolic around like a leprechaun doing everything above.
But I was very interested in becoming an actor – or at least doing voice acting – since I heard there was a lot of demand for foreigners in Asia.
Plus, according to various commenters online I have a “smooth, sexy voice” (NOTE: not my own words).
So I decided to ignore the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day, and attempted to create my own “reality distortion field” by spending my first 2 months in Korea attempting to do it all… with a few modifications.
Language Learning at the Bar
For example, I knew that language classes would never work due to my irregular schedule and penchant for working until 5 AM every night.
So I did the next best thing: I decided to learn Korean by hiring a bartender I found on Craigslist to be my teacher.
At the very least, I figured the lessons would be more “practical” than classroom training.
Incidentally, she was actually a great teacher and had real experience teaching the language to foreigners before.
More importantly, unlike most other people in the country she actually understood “what I did”.
As soon as I explained it to her, she replied with a single question:
“So it’s like a paid porn site, but for education?”
One Night in a Pink Rabbit Suit…
This strategy worked decently for the first few months, but it had its limits.
While adding the Excel lessons in May and June wasn’t terribly difficult, the more advanced additions were a hairy mess.
At one point, I actually tracked down the former IB analyst at Goldman Sachs who had worked on the failed Microsoft-Yahoo! deal and got his input.
He started off by saying, “When I heard you were creating a case study based on this deal I thought, ‘Great example… but you just might go crazy doing it.’ ”
I had such limited experience with video at this point that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know, and this “simple” addition ended up taking over a month of extremely long hours, weekend work, and me pulling my hair out while consuming copious quantities of coffee.
One night, I took a break and went out drinking with some friends…
And I ran into a foreigner who… happened to be a real “actor” in the country!
I put “actor” in quotes because his actual job was to wear a pink rabbit suit and bounce around on kids’ shows on TV all day.
He told me that “acting” was a waste of time for foreigners in Korea, and that almost everyone in the industry was bitter and disappointed.
Friends who were on TV shows and other programs there all came back with the same story: it was extremely tedious and degrading work, and unless you really wanted to be the token foreigner dressed in a pink rabbit suit on kids’ shows, it probably wasn’t a great bet.
All of that, combined with part 1 of this advanced case study (what would later become the Advanced Modeling course) left me with a simple conclusion:
I had to double-down on work, eliminate all distractions, and work to the point of exhaustion to finish everything I wanted by the end of the year.
I sat down on August 9th, 2009, and planned out everything that would have to happen between then and December 31st:
- Finish and launch a brand new version of the BIWS site (the original one was very “bare bones” and needed to be revamped). I wasn’t designing it, but I had to send feedback to the designers and answer questions every day.
- Finish the last 3 modules of the Advanced Modeling course, which would require a lot of data gathering and researching of topics that I was only vaguely acquainted with, like NOLs and book vs. cash taxes.
- Finish and launch an improved version of the Networking Toolkit course.
- Completely revamp the interview guide that had come out less than a year ago, fix a bunch of problems, add more advanced material, and add templates and sample interviews.
Altogether, it was about 1,000 hours of work and that wasn’t even counting article writing, answering comments and emails, creating promotional content, and so on.
When I added in all of those, I could see that 80-90 hour workweeks until the end of the year would be the norm.
To have even a remote chance of succeeding, I would need to level-up my productivity.
That “Vision” Thing
I also started focusing even more on long-term goals.
Even the content on this site changed to reflect this: instead of wasting time writing lots of Q&A articles, I switched to focusing on specific topics, such as “private equity interviews,” that are always popular from year to year and that barely change over time.
My goal was (and still is) to make 90% of the content here relevant for decades into the future.
(Hence the lack of dates anywhere on this site. I know it annoys you, but hey, we all have our quirks.)
If others were “covering the news,” I wanted to create Think and Grow Rich, or How to Win Friends and Influence People for the finance industry – work that stays on the best-seller lists for decades, if not centuries, because the core principles ring true regardless of the time period.
The same was true of the products: I tried very, very hard to stay from anything that would become “dated” or would stop being effective in the future.
To accomplish everything in my list above, I cut out everything unnecessary so that I could focus 100% on the task at hand.
The proper paperwork was not filed, I still don’t have a business card even now, I “forgot about” paying estimated taxes in these early years, and I convinced friends and family that I had to disappear underground for a few months.
If anyone asked what I was up to, I told them to fly to Korea.
One friend actually came toward the end of the year, but most people stayed away because they still thought I lived in North Korea.
My average day looked something like this for the last 4-5 months of 2009:
- 9 AM: Wake up and get ready.
- 9:30 AM: Write article for the site.
- 11:30 AM: Record 2-3 videos.
- 1:00 PM: Break and go to coffee shop… for Korean lesson with bartender teacher.
- 1:30 PM: Language lesson (interaction with carbon-based life forms kept me sane).
- 2:30 PM: Stay there and edit 2-3 videos I had recorded earlier.
- 5:00 PM: Answer support emails, comments, and questions.
- 5:30 PM: Provide feedback to designers on new site design or other projects.
- 6:30 PM: Break and go back home, maybe eating something along the way.
- 7:30 PM: Back to Excel work on whatever course I was working on at the time.
- 9:30 PM: Respond to client requests (at the time, I had offered unlimited resume edits for over a year before this – so I honored all editing requests that came in, even though technically I had shut down the service).
- 10:30 PM: Go back and outline a promotional video or new product launch campaign.
- 12:00 AM: Break and watch one of the many TV shows I was addicted to.
- 1:00 AM: Answer any remaining emails or comments, or go back to Excel.
- 2:00 AM: Sleep.
This routine was grueling but effective for 2 main reasons:
- There were almost no time-wasting activities. Yes, I checked email occasionally, but there were never long stretches of downtime where I was waiting around for someone else to tell me what to do, like you see in banking.
- I was creating assets, not “doing work.” Articles I wrote and products I created back in 2009 generate even more revenue today. It was the complete opposite of “day-to-day” maintenance work: almost every hour was spent on developing income-generating assets.
This is how, in the span of 2 years, I was able to create 150+ hours of video and out-produce operations with 30-40+ people.
For example, Lynda.com was a $30 million revenue company at the time and I produced more hours of video than they did in this time period – with a team of 1 rather than the dozens or hundreds they had.
At big companies, there’s almost no relationship between what employees do and revenue generated.
I have plenty of friends at companies like Facebook, Google, and eBay that do close to nothing all day and get paid for it: since the company is established and revenue comes in via pre-existing systems and contracts, they don’t have to do much to maintain it.
At a start-up, though, everything you do must generate revenue or you are wasting your time.
For my business, that means there are only 2 productive tasks:
- Creating and improving products/services.
- Marketing those products/services.
I prioritized anything other than those two at the bottom of my list.
How Did I Stay Sane?
SPOILER ALERT: The schedule above continued for almost 2 years after this, extending well into the middle of 2011. So you might be wondering how I stayed sane this time, given the sheer amount of work and my complete isolation.
Of course, not every day was quite like this: I took breaks, sometimes I didn’t work much on Saturdays, and I did a fair amount of traveling to other countries – though I spent most of my time in those places working once I landed.
But the real answer is that I lost some of my sanity in the process, and, ironically, only the fact that I was in such a foreign country counteracted all of this.
I came across dozens of other “interesting” characters in my occasional time off:
- One Thai-Korean girl who enjoyed making completely out-of-place comments all the time. Example: One time, she was at a dinner with 20 co-workers and suddenly stood up and shouted, “Guys, was Stephen Hawking ever normal?!!”
- One male friend there ran his own hair salon in Apgujeong (the equivalent of Beverly Hills in LA, with even more plastic surgeons) and almost convinced me to get plastic surgery once.
- There were quite a few Russians there, who looked Korean but who hung out with their Russian friends most of the time and… well, I don’t know what they did, actually.
- Oh yes, and then there was “Tomato Girl” – she constantly “dropped by” my apartment, walked in without asking, and then attempted to steal all my tomatoes from the refrigerator. I can’t make this stuff up.
I ended up joining a few groups, but groups there started up and shut down all the time; the only one that had legs was a language exchange group that managed to last for almost a year.
In hindsight, all of this was important on both a business and personal level.
Many people at the “top schools” stay very insulated and rarely venture outside their bubbles.
But that is completely the wrong approach if you want to master sales, marketing, and product creation.
You need to understand everything from your customers’ perspective, not your own, and you need to learn how to interact with people from all sorts of different, completely random backgrounds.
So yes, there is a good reason to put up with people who want to sneak into your apartment to steal all your tomatoes (watch out for anyone who wants to steal your oranges, though).
The Human Toll
In this flurry of activity in the last few months of 2009, I accomplished everything (and more) on my list from August 9th.
October and December 2009 became the best months to that point, and it was getting to the point where I could think about hiring people to take the pressure off myself.
But it took a toll on me, my health started to go downhill, and I got even more isolated over what I described in Part 1 of this series as I lost touch with many friends and acquaintances.
It is impossible to work at this intensity level if you have a family, kids, or outside commitments, and I would strongly recommend against starting any business that requires massive content creation if you’re in that position.
Did I Really Need to Work This Much, Or This Quickly?
Around the same time I moved to Korea, Jerry had also sold his company in China and moved to Seoul as well.
Unlike me, he decided to be silly and learn Korean at a real university rather than from a bartender he found on Craigslist.
He saw the amount of work I was doing and kept saying that I was crazy, asking the most obvious question in the process:
“Do you really need to finish everything this quickly? Why not just work 4-5 hours per day, spend the rest of your time having fun, spread out the work over several years, and not kill yourself?”
You might be wondering the same thing.
The short answer: yes, I needed to work that quickly, and here’s why:
- Since each lesson was connected to the previous lessons, I would “forget” a lot of what I had taught if I spread out the work over too long a period. The recording had to be done quickly, or I would waste too much time setting up Excel files and refreshing myself on what I was teaching each time. It’s the same reason why movies and TV shows are filmed in several weeks of very long days.
- Only the paranoid survive. I was deathly afraid that someone else would come along, copy everything, and release their own course – the site was much smaller, I didn’t have many resources, and the brand wasn’t as well-known.
So I had to release an overwhelming amount of content in a very short time period to make potential competitors say, “Damn, maybe I could do better, but this guy already has so much out there… do I really want to spend thousands of hours creating something incrementally better?”
Admittedly, I also wasted a lot of time on silly things. For example, I was still working off a tiny laptop with a small screen back then because I wanted to be “mobile.”
This was incredibly stupid because it’s 10x easier to record and edit videos on a powerful desktop computer with a huge monitor, and I probably cost myself at least a few weeks of time by doing that.
Follow Your Effort
“Don’t follow your passions, follow your effort. It will lead you to your passions and to success, however you define it.”
I’m often asked if I “enjoy” creating so much content.
To me, that is a silly question for the exact reason that Mark Cuban states above: no one ever wakes up and says, “Aha! I know! I’m going to create financial modeling videos just for fun! It’s my passion!”
It’s a gradual process, and the only way to find what you’re “passionate about” is to put in a ton of effort and see what sticks.
(Incidentally, if you’re curious about the answer anyway: yes, I do enjoy writing articles and making videos, but some parts of it, such as editing and adding captions to videos, are quite tedious.)
When I finally finished everything above and launched the revamped interview guide and the last part of the Advanced Modeling course in December 2009, once again I didn’t know what to do next.
I thought about moving to the Philippines and renting a house on the beach for a few months to relax, I thought about moving back to the US (the novelty of living abroad was starting to wear thin), and I even thought about doing something completely random and starting to “angel invest” in start-ups if I moved back home (this would have been a horrible idea, phew).
In the end, though, I took the path of least resistance and ended up staying in Korea for another year.
I did change things up a bit, though, and moved from the northern part of the city to Gangnam (in the south, across the main river in the city), where, unfortunately, I did not meet Psy.
But I got to live right next to an awesome brunch / waffle place, so all was not lost.
Key Money or Drug Money?
There’s a concept called “key money” in Korea, similar to security deposits in Western countries, except you have to pay almost the entire annual cost of renting the apartment upfront in cash (yes, Wikipedia says 2/3 but it was higher than that).
Being as prepared as usual, I didn’t even have a bank account in the country at the time and always withdrew cash from my US account.
So when it came time to secure an apartment on short notice, I called my bank to get the withdrawal limit raised to $1700 per day, and then transported the entire sum to my new landlord in 10,000 won bills (about $9 USD – 50,000 won notes weren’t in wide circulation yet) in big laundry bags.
He wasn’t too pleased.
And then my bank later ended up freezing my account for a short time – I had withdrawn so much that they flagged me as a terrorist (“money launderer” would have been more accurate).
The progression was remarkable: in December 2008 I had met a Drug Dealer and followed her here, and now I had become the Drug Dealer, transporting over $10,000 in laundry bags filled with small, unmarked $9 bills.
Back At It!
It was easy to look at everything over the past year and say, “Really? Do you need to add more? Isn’t there already a ton of content on the site? What more can you do?”
But I knew that wasn’t quite right. We were getting requests for coverage of other industries, PowerPoint, a better site, and even improvements to the existing content.
One big problem, for example, was that the Financial Modeling Fundamentals course wasn’t based on real companies.
I had been concerned that it would look “dated” if I used real companies and filings, so everything was based on made-up examples and I used “Year 1,” “Year 2,” and so on rather than the actual years.
I was mostly wrong on that one, because in practice most people don’t care much about the fiscal year in a model as long as it works properly.
But the lessons were also inconsistent with the more advanced material I had just added, and I knew that they wouldn’t “hold up” very well in the future.
And then there were other problems – like the fact that few people actually needed everything covered in the course.
I spent the month of January 2010 resting and recovering, and starting to plan out what would change in the next few months.
Got Focus Groups?
Just to verify that I had not, in fact, gone crazy, I sent out a survey to everyone in early February asking what they wanted to see next… “Coverage of other industries” and “PowerPoint” were both high on the response list.
Low on the list was “re-doing / improving the existing courses,” so on the surface it seemed like a bad idea to go back and re-do the Fundamentals course.
But I knew intuitively that I needed to get this material right first before expanding into other areas.
Sometimes, customers don’t know what they really want: new topics always sound “sexier,” but the truth is that 80-90% of people on the site have focused on the fundamentals rather than those more advanced topics.
And it is always better to improve your entry-level products and services rather than worrying about more advanced ones.
I also began the hiring process for my first assistant, because support and billing questions were growing beyond my capacity to handle.
By the middle of February, I had started re-doing everything in the Fundamentals course, aiming to create more comprehensive lessons, better models, and quick reference PDFs to go along with everything.
I also set another time limit: I had to finish the revised course and re-launch everything by the end of April 2010, to celebrate the “1-year anniversary” of the site.
Jerry, meanwhile, almost fell down in disbelief when I told him that I was re-doing an entire course and was on a strict deadline.
Partners in Crime?
Also in February, Patrick from WallStreetOasis approached me about promoting the BIWS courses on his site.
I had no time to think through the implications of this, but I did a quick survey of friends who had followed along from the beginning, and everyone uniformly thought it was a bad idea to do the deal.
The reason was fairly obvious: sales cannibalization.
Promotional partners online receive commissions for sales even if someone click the partner’s link once, never comes back, and then actually signs up through my link.
So if there’s a massive overlap between audiences – which, let’s face it, there was and still is – then it hurts whoever owns the product.
I didn’t understand how much overlap there was at that time, though, and I figured it was better to be as visible as possible rather than worrying about lost sales.
So I paid very little attention to the terms of the agreement, what he was doing to promote the courses, and what percentage of sales came from him.
This was a non-factor in the first few months of 2010, but it became much more significant later in the year and into 2011 – which I’ll write about more in Part 3.
The Downward Spiral
Just like I had hit “rock bottom” back in November 2008, before releasing the interview guide and turning things around, I was approaching the same spot in March 2010:
- I realized halfway through recording the new Fundamentals course that it was actually a really stupid idea to pick Apple for the example company… but couldn’t change it now.
- I had tons of technical problems and ended up re-doing many videos due to silly mistakes like flipping signs, poor audio, etc.
- I got far behind on the project and had to cut out a bunch of planned features, like additional quick reference guides, simply to finish by the end of April.
Things were getting worse on the social front as well:
- I had now been dating another girl for a few months, when she decided to “disappear” for 3 weeks in March. The Korean language actually has a slang phrase for this, with a literal translation of “dive underwater.” Yeah…
- My friend circle was scattering more than the Fellowship of the Ring, with some people planning to leave the country, others already gone, and generally more and more crazy people emerging from the woodwork. So I did the logical thing: I replaced real people with TV shows and got addicted to a bunch of HBO and Showtime series.
On March 14 (“White Day,” when the incident above with the disappearing girl was happening), it got so bad that I went out with a few remaining friends and drank 15 shots of whiskey in an hour, after which I passed out in a back alley somewhere.
A few days after that, I started brainstorming for ways to improve things and came up with a list full of brilliant entries, such as:
- Travel more!
- Do more activities.
- Go out at least 2-3x per week.
The elephant in the room, of course, was that none of that is possible if you are working crazy hours consistently.
Most other people, meanwhile, had no idea why so much work was required or why it had to be done so quickly.
Racing Against the Clock
I had no time to consider anything because I had a deadline: this new course had to be done by April 30th, since the price of the modeling course was going up and the course itself was being split apart into basic and advanced levels.
April arrived and I had completed only around 60-70% of the new course, so I went back into “hustle” mode and locked myself in a room, attaching a (sugar-free) Red Bull IV for a few days while Excel work and video recording commenced.
I also had to create brand new content for the promotion I was doing at the end of the month, which didn’t help.
So I made the decision to cut material and hold off on certain guides, bonus case studies, etc. until after the re-launch was done.
And then there was another big deadline in the month: April 15th.
Since I was so on top of the paperwork, I had completely failed to file quarterly estimated taxes for 2009, and I suddenly owed a very large amount of money to the US government in taxes + interest and fines.
Yes, if you’re overseas you can save a bit on US income taxes, but you can’t take full advantage of the exemption if you’re overseas for only part of the year. There are also restrictions if you’re self-employed.
I knew about most of this, but assumed that I would be OK since I was overseas for a majority of the year and therefore wouldn’t owe as much – which turned out to be wrong.
I also had to figure out a way to send the money back home – unlike my landlord, the US government did NOT seem willing to accept payment in laundry bags filled with 10,000 won bills.
From Bad to Worse
I came up with the money, but now I was in a precarious financial position because I had also been paying off my student loans aggressively this entire past year.
It was “do or die time” as the April 30th deadline approached: if the re-launch went well, I would be OK; if it didn’t go well, I would be another foreign English teacher in Korea very soon.
Five days before the launch period ended on April 30th, my laptop battery died.
Technically, this wasn’t a huge deal because it still worked – but it was impossible to transport it anywhere else or work from anywhere other than my home, at least not without constantly shutting it down and restarting.
I “borrowed” someone else’s computer, managed to find the battery online, and then paid a small fortune to have it shipped internationally, rush delivery, so that I would get it 1-2 days.
The re-launch itself and all the promotional videos were going fine: there was even more interest than the year before, and the content itself was far better after a year of 24/7 video creation.
But I made some silly mistakes in other areas:
- The sign-up deadline was April 30th at “5 PM New York time,” which equated to… 6 AM in Seoul. Yeah, not my best notion.
- I promised free access to all future financial modeling courses, and promised that I would develop the PowerPoint course, the bank modeling course, the oil & gas course, and the real estate course all in “the next year.” This created some interesting problems, which you’ll read more about in Part 3.
- Worst of all, I attempted to do everything myself. Yes, I had designers and some help with support by this time, but I was attempting to change over all the pages, swap out everything, change prices, and modify the setup all in the last few hours, all by myself.
I stayed up for 36 hours straight in the last 2 days before the launch, and I had to respond to a FLOOD of last-minute questions and emails that came in at the 11th hour.
The entire past month had taken such a toll on me that I was actually confined to a bed by this point.
I spent the next 1.5 days in bed, recovering and attempting to respond to more emails and questions that streamed in.
April 2010 became the best month ever in site history to that point.
Up until the last 1-2 days, it was an “OK, but not spectacular” promotion, and then all of a sudden around 70-80% of the sign-ups came in the last 24 hours, with almost 40% in the last hour.
Yeah, humans like to procrastinate.
I celebrated by going to my favorite cupcake place, and then, still somewhat ill and not thinking entirely clearly, I decided to pay off all my remaining student loans.
This was mostly psychological: I had made it through tax season alive, saved up a bit over the year, and didn’t want to have loans hanging over my head anymore even though interest rates were low and it didn’t make much financial sense to repay them immediately.
I was free! Free!
Or had I just made the dumbest move ever?
The day after, I looked at site stats in more detail and saw a few troubling things:
For one, normal sales had fallen to almost $0 right after we finished the promotion and raised prices.
Was the pricing wrong now? Did the packages not make sense? Was this strategy a terrible mistake?
Second, I had a huge “unfunded liability” in the form of these promised future courses.
I had no idea how I would even research the new areas, teach myself the material, and also find the time to create one shorter course and three 20-30 hour long courses in less than a year.
And third, I was exhausted. Working at this intensity for such a long period had seriously reduced my motivation, and I didn’t even want to look at Excel again.
So how would I get out of this one, restore normal sales, and create all these new courses on an impossible deadline?
No lessons or advice this time around – you’re smart enough to extract that on your own.
Just a cliffhanger ending.
Until next time!
The Rest of the Series:
- My Life Story, Part 1: How I Started This Site (2007 – 2008)
- My Life Story, Part 2: How a Guy in a Pink Rabbit Suit and a Korean Girl Changed My Life (2008 – 2010)
- My Life Story, Part 3: How I Almost Shut Down This Business (2010 – 2011)
- My Life Story, Part 4: How I Defeated Sauron and Saved Middle-Earth (2011 to 2012)
- My Life Story, Part 5: What Do You Do When You Start to Hate Your Business? (2013 – 2016)