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Buying in China and selling in USA. The New American Dream | My Story

Hi entrepreneur I've followed this sub for quite a while, I enjoy the (rare) good posts, and I'd like to tell my story and hope you takeaway some useful knowledge. I was a 2009 college graduate, so I didn't even have a chance to join the workforce in any meaningful way. Entrepreneurship is just natural to me and I hope I can sustain it over a lifetime
My entrepreneur journey began selling football tickets during college at U of Florida. Imagine an 18-year old white kid standing next to the veteran scalpers and hawking tickets. It was the best experience I could imagine. I think of it as rejection therapy Learning to not be afraid of a 'no' is a very important part of being an entrepreneur. After college, I started buying and selling tickets online using TicketMaster and Stubhub. Selling tickets could be its own thread, it's such an interesting space. There are fortunes being made buying tickets to in-demand events online. It's just rather tedious (imagine entering 50,000 captcha phrases a year) Also, scalping tickets online doesn't provide 'value' to anyone. I read the domain parking thread today and it makes me proud to be making money by delivering value, not withholding it for profit.
I grew tired of tickets and decided to visit a friend in China. I stayed for 6 weeks and bought some watches to bring back for gifts. One watch was especially cool and people asked about it everywhere I went. I got back in touch with my friend in China (who was just teaching English at the time) and he traced it back to a supplier. I thought I needed an investopartner so I contacted the only rich guy I knew and he gave me $4,000 to be my 50/50 partner. I ordered 800 watches for $3 each, and paid some guy $3,000 to make me a website.
I scrapped that site in less than a month and built my own on Shopify. If you can operate your facebook page, you can setup a Shopify account, it's stupid easy. I set the price at $65.
It gives you so many advantages. Better customers, less returns, room for wholesale/distributors, and a higher perceived value. Anyway, I created a fun brand around this. We did fun photoshoots, ran contests in the community (facebook ads were really cheap back then), and we really gained some customers. In a stroke of good luck, I got in touch with a Groupon rep and they agreed to run a deal for my watches. I was one of the first products to run on Groupon. (Remember, Groupon was mainly for services like spas and meals at the time) This went well initially, and they slated me for a Black Friday national deal. They sold 7,000 of my 'deals' in 3 days. Turns out my supplier back in China was just a trade company, and he couldn't pull off a deal of my size on his 'credit' He almost completely screwed up the whole deal, and it was literally one of the lowest points of my life. In the end, I fulfilled about 70% of the orders successfully, and the other 30% basically told me I ruined their Christmas and got refunds. Funny thing was, Groupon still paid me out the entire amount even though there were almost 2,000 really upset customers (an omen that Groupon did not have their house in order and had their own crash coming) This company was called TIKKR by the way. The site is still up but I'm not really in business anymore. I might try to revive it someday. But I could see the writing on the wall. There were at least 50 companies I knew of that sold the exact same watch, including Walgreens which sold it without a brand name for $4.99. I dropped my price and got what I could out of it, but I needed a new idea. Also I had returns and warranties like mad and it cost me a ton of cash, the watches were just cheap...
I honestly don't remember how it came about, but I became aware of bamboo sunglasses being a thing. I was approached by my China friends to start something together. We were hanging out in Chicago that summer (2012 I think) which happened to be Groupon headquarters. I had a friend who worked there, and he got me access to their sales floor so I just kind of hung around and bothered people until I found the girl who sold fashion accessories.
Lesson 3 To get that big break, sometimes you just have to hang around until something happens to you. Not sure if that really qualifies as a legit 'lesson' but whatever.
I got her to agree to run us on a national scale. She told us to prepare 10,000 units for sale. I don't know how, but we got $180,000 together between 3 partners . The China guys, the Groupon insider, and me. (Actually I do know how, I used my TIKKR money with a big boost from Bank of Mom. Hi mom!) The China guys handled production, I handled branding, marketing, and everything else and the Groupon guy was the Groupon guy. I came up with Woodies (and I even bought Woodies.com for $4,000 from some Canadian dude who was selling hockey stick chairs) The idea came from the old Woodie station wagons where the frame was made from wood. I rented a few cars for the photoshoots I was obsessed with Ashley Sky at the time and I had the crazy idea to hire her for a photoshoot. I contacted her people and to my amazement, she was only like $600 for a day and she had 100k instagram followers! I figured we would make that money back with one post from her. The Groupon sale went live and we sold like 4,000 instead of 10,000.
Lesson 4 Be optimistic in general, but be realistic when it comes to forecasts.
I can't remember how many times I had a deal setup where I was like, yea I'm going to pay off all my student loans with this deal. It was usually mildly successful, but after all the bills were paid off, I wasn't as far ahead as I thought I would be. It reminds me of the Old Man and the Sea. You land this HUGE deal, but by the time you drag it to shore, a bunch of little things have brought it back to size. Overhead, customer service time, returns/warranties, new orders, customs fees, shipping really add up. So with that 'poor' sales showing, the China guys ran into their own cash-flow problems. Groupon guy and I were forced to buy them out basically. But we had a real business with real customers and we were rolling. We now had $140,000 capital base after paying off the China guys, not enough for a big order, so I noticed Kickstarter was really blowing up, and thought I could bridge our cash-flow with a blockbuster kickstarter campaign. This is where things get pretty interesting. I got it in my head I wanted to hire Kendall Jenner for this campaign. Somehow I tracked down her modeling agency and eventually her direct manager. They quoted me $100,000 for the day. I created a Pinterest board and sent it to her and asked if she would do it for $25,000 plus a bunch of incentives and they said YES! I was completely thrown off and not sure what to do. I ran some projections and thought that I could make up most of that money if we raised a lot of kickstarter money. I hired Ashley Sky, Damaris Aguiar, Kendall Jenner, Aygemang Clay, Lyall Aston photographed it, Sagette Van Embden videoed it, Lina Palacios styled it, Mary Guthrie was hair and makeup. It was a giant production. I couldn't believe it. I flew everyone out to Malibu, CA using Southwest Airlines buddy passes! Imagine Ashley Sky and Damaris Aguiar (so hot) standing at the Southwest ticket counter like wtf is standby? I'm over here sweating bullets hoping we don't get stuck in New Orleans and I look like a fraud. Actually I fought those type of feelings a lot during this period.
Lesson 5 Don't ever put yourself down.
Entrepreneurship is a crazy, improvisational dance. Sometimes I would look around at my competition and think they had it figured out, they were following a plan, they were 'professionals' and I was just doing my best to pretend. That's BS, we're ALL making it up as we go! Don't put this process on a pedestal, fake it til you make it! Anywho, I rent out a Malibu HQ using Airbnb and rented a van for the day. I still can't help but laughing when I remember this scene: I'm driving a large van with Kendall Jenner, Ashley Sky, Damaris Aguiar, and some bros, in the mountains of Malibu, I'm driving kind of fast around the curves because we're late for the call time I set for us. I'm wearing a captain's hat because that was my thing during that time. and Kendall's manager scolded me for taking the turns too fast. Fun times
Here is how the campaign turned out
So, I got Kendall to agree to Instagram/tweet/facebook the kickstarter campaign, but what I didn't realize is kickstarter is not mainstream and it just didn't convert. I raised like $30,000 in revenue against a cost of like $70,000. I can't say whether I would do it again given hindsight. It has led to great brand recognition because Kendall has kind of blew up and become a mega celebrity. AND her management let me write that contract so I have rights to those photos forever. One tweet by her got me close to 20,000 email subscribers which has been a stream of income ever since. (Shoutout Mailchimp!) *Monkeyrewards fyi Since then, I've been trying to come up with new designs, build on the brand, and leverage the list that came from Kendall Jenner's gravity to make sales. It's pretty seasonal, coming mostly during the summer and Christmas season. I have some big plans for 2015, but I have to keep them quiet for the time being, maybe there will be a follow-up post this next year
All that was a year ago and Woodies has had some good times and some slow times. I got into wood watches which have been really good sellers. I started selling on Amazon *affiliate, which has been a great boost to the bottom line.
Keep in mind that during this whole time I barely took a paycheck, and moved back in with mom in Tulsa, OK during a dry spell. I don't spend a lot of money, I have zero savings (except for a few Bitcoins) I actually travel most of the year, I'm in Thailand right now writing this to you. So to summarize, I've been an entrepreneur for a long time, and my success is best characterized by a few BIG wins, and mostly small, gradual losses. In between, my life has been great, I get to travel, work remotely, perform autonomous, creative work, do photoshoots with hot models, and learn a lot about myself and the world around me. I wouldn't trade it back and I'm optimistic about he future
Tech that makes all this possible:
Shipwire & Amazon FBA (Amazon FBA > Shipwire if you're wondering)
All Google Products: Gmail, Google Drive, Google Forms, Analytics
Xero for accounting
Shopify for e-commerce
[Fiverr](Fiverr.com) to boost online reviews
Alibaba for finding suppliers. Once you find them, visit them, and invest in a relationship with them
Mailchimp for Email marketing (the best thing going in my opinion)
Flexport for freight forwarding, definitely changing the game
Other takeaways:
Wholesale business and international shipping are both great if you like to waste huge amounts of time chasing small amounts of money. Stick to domestic until you're really big-time.
Never commit to big upfront costs. Always start small and test
Have a solid accounting system and data management system. It'll come in handy when you need it
I've got to shout out my friend and one-time employee Joanna (she just started OnceBitten ) I was rarely as productive as when I had someone else keeping me accountable and adding great ideas and hard work to the process. I guess the lesson is if you're going to hire somebody, make sure they're really, really good and pay them well
Things I haven't quite solved yet:
Customer Service management (I hate answering emails for real)
CRM like Salesforce or something (is this necessary guys?)
I could go on, but I think this is enough. If you're still reading this, I'll answer questions if anyone wants to ask about business in China, solo-travel, branding, ecommerce, etc I'm not an expert in many things, but I know a little bit about a lot
See you at the Beach!
Cory Stout, Owner Woodies
A couple shout-outs: My other entrepreneur homies doing big things! RevelryDresses(group orders of sorority dresses)
OtisandEleanor(bluetooth speakers from bamboo)
OriginalGrain(wood watches, prob better than mine :) )
edit: Just want to say I'm enjoying hearing from you all. I'm doing solo travel right now, so it's nice to connect with other entrepreneurs out there
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A Review of Robo-Advisors (Vanguard, Betterment, etc.) [WARNING: LONG POST]

In response to the question: What is the best robo-advisor?
To dissect this topic, I want to break it down by a custom FinTech Pyramid that I created to answer this question.
As you can see with my infographic, I separate assets and liabilities among five groups:
I will base my analysis on each group, as I believe it is easiest to declare winners in each, based on the needs of the end users, and thus how robos have segmented the market.
A firm that targets everybody, really targets nobody.
This question is very much like asking, what is the best fast food restaurant, or what is the best car? Do you want mexican or pizza? Fast casual or sit down? An economy car or luxury? Electric car or gas guzzler?
If you want to think about it like the ETF market, are you looking for an index fund or something more specialized - a Vanguard Group or a Wisdomtree? You can’t pick a “best” ETF because they are targeting different markets.
FinTech Pyramid — Savers
This segment I define as being very tied to their new financial independence. They are entering college or the workforce and have established their own bank accounts, debit cards, and are starting to pay their own bills. Any robo solution needs to address these needs.
The main players here would be Acorns (Brokerage), Digit, Stash.
Acorns (Brokerage) really was the innovator in this customer segment. For years, it was derided to offer investment focused products to college students. This has since changed that Snapchat (product) and others have announced their intention to get more involved in fintech. But, the thought of offering an investment product to those with only $100 or maybe even less to invest was very disruptive.
What Acorns did was take a page from the old Bank of America (company) ‘Keep the Change Program’ and combine it with the robo principles that were created by Betterment (product/company).
Instead of investing in a near 0% interest rate Savings Account, Acorns decided to engineer it as an investment account in the stock market instead.
It has paid off, as of the time of this writing, Acorns has 472,000 accounts!
The negative - they charge $1 per month on balances below $5,000. Given their average account size I calculate to be around $155, that means the average person is paying 7.7% per year in fees.
But, I am a strong believer in consumer driven economics, customers love this app and don’t seem to care about the high fees. If interest rates go up, I believe this customer segment can move towards something like Digit, but at 0% that is hard to do.
Winner: Acorns
FinTech Pyramid — Experimenters
This market I define as being UI UX focused. They are first time investors in the market, thus the experience needs to be fast, seamless, and educational. Robinhood (Brokerage) has done a brilliant job targeting this audience. According to a Fortune report, their average customer age is 26. They make it very simple, clean, and FREE to buy your first stocks.
Likewise, I have always been impressed with the clean UI/UX of Betterment (product/company) and how many little bells and whistles they have to make their app simple for a complimentary wealth audience. There is a reason why they have attracted over 100,000 clients. It is very easy to use for first time investors.
Acorns also has a very nice interface that wins a lot of awards for their UI/UX. You could argue they have a good product for the Savers and Experimenters.
But Betterment has a much more robust technology platform that cuts across web and mobile, while Acorns is strictly mobile and it it focused more on savings (through the round up the change feature). Betterment also has been in the market longer managing money, and has a large Data Science department that puts out many interesting studies. For these reasons, I believe they are the clear winner in this segment.
Winner: Betterment (product/company)
FinTech Pyramid — Career Makers
For those in Generation X and Millennial Generation that are just getting their careers on track, the biggest thing they are looking for is investing robustness and features. They are 20–30 years away from being able to reach a Private Bank like Goldman Sachs Private Wealth Management, and they may only have $50,000 saved up, not nearly enough to access a private bank. According to Barron’s, the median minimum investment on these private banking platforms is $3 Million.
Some of the biggest things here that are wanted would be access, investing sophistication, and breadth of platform. On the liabilities sign they are most likely starting to re-finance their student debt and using more high end crdit cards like American Express (company). They are also driven by things like rewards and new experiences.
Career makers want to go into work and tell their friends that they just invested in the next Uber (company). This comes down to what I define as “access.” Below, we show the current portfolio makeup of a Hedgeable portfolio.
This includes our own Venture Capital fund that has a $1 minimum investment, integration with Coinbase for bitcoin and soon Ethereum (virtual currency) and more products in the pipeline lie P2P Lending investments, private real estate, and green energy. Hedgeable also allows clients to change the entire makeup of their portfolio to be Impact Investing focused, or called SRI in the industry -
Career makers also want to make sure their growing sums are at least attempted to be protected from big collapses like the 2008 Financial Crisis. Remember, this demographic was in the Experimenters segment during the crisis, and they were deeply hurt by the aftermath. This comes down to what I define as “investing sophistication.”
Below, I show GIPS compliant client composite performance of Hedgeable clients from Jan 1 - Feb 11 of 2016, versus a passive “Robo Index” that we have developed.
What is Hedgeable's investment philosophy?
A third decision point here would be what I call the “breadth of platform.” Are you a small business owner? Do you want to open an account for kids? The “best” robo-advisor might not even be able to take your money because of limited account types! So this could be a very important determining factor for career makers.
Wealthfront currently supports taxable investment accounts including individual, joint and trust accounts. We also support Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs, and Rollover IRAs.
Betterment is harder to pin down, because they separate all of the account types into separate FAQ questions based on goals, but it seems like they offer about the same number as Wealthfront, with one or two exceptions.
Hedgeable offers the most account types. In addition to all those listed above, Hedgeable has 27 account types, including 4 different joint accounts and popular small business account types like SIMPLE IRAs and Solo 401ks.
Because of these three dynamics, I believe Hedgeable is the winner for Career Makers.
Winner: Hedgeable
FinTech Pyramid — Accumulators
This segment has reached the pinnacle of their careers, and their earnings start to level off. They have “access” due to their typically larger account balances than those lower on the pyramid.
They have accumulated many accounts across savings, checking, mortgage, investments. They are looking for the most robust app to keep track of these finances.
The average American in this demographic spreads investment accounts across 3 or more firms. They also have 4 or more credit cards, 2 or more kids ready to go off to college, at least 1 mortgage, 2 or more insurance premiums and health accounts, and much more. PLUS, I call them accumulators, because the numbers get larger as they reach their 60s and 70s.
This leads many to need a very robust suite of Personal Financial Management (PFM) apps to look at these accounts.
Personal Capital has done a very good job of targeting this demographic. As of the time of this writing, they have over 1 Million downloads of their PFM apps, which like Mint.com (product) was originally, are built on top of the Yodlee (company) aggregation software. Other platforms have PFM, but Personal Capital is by far the most robust.
Personal Capital allows you to hire one of their advisors if you want to talk to someone about your accounts and build an investment plan.
I like to think about Personal Capital as the only true player in the market that is disruptive to the advisory industry. Whereas firms like Acorns, Betterment, Hedgeable, Wealthfront are targeting clients that have traditionally been shut out of the advisory space - they do not meet the minimums - Personal Capital is directly competing with them with a similar business model.
The average balance of a Personal Capital client is about $125,000 according to my calculations based on SEC data. An advisor at Merrill Lynch or Wells Fargo (company) is about the same. Instead of building their own PFM apps, these advisors will use tools like eMoney Advisor for account aggregation or a TAMP platform such as Envestnet (company).
Thus, if you are in the accumulator phase, Personal Capital is a good choice as a digital solution vs. a traditional advisor.
Winner: Personal Capital
FinTech Pyramid — Preservers
This customer segment is going to be more income based, they are typically already in retirement, and are looking for products like annuities and health insurance. They also will tend to be more tied to the traditional brands like Charles Schwab, Merrill Lynch, Vanguard Group, etc, because they came of age with many of them.
This is why Schwab Intelligent Portfolios and Vanguard Personal Advisor Services will most likely be strong choices for this group. Not necessarily for the actual product offered (as of the time of this writing I do not believe either offers true retirement & insurance), but because branding and trust matters with this demographic.
Remember, Schwab was founded in 1971, and Vanguard in 1975. They were the fintech disruptors of their day. From the time the Preservers have been in their 20s and 30s - like the Gen X / Gen Y generation of today - they have grown with these brands.
The brands Baby Boomers know from the 70’s remain attractive today.
This will explain why Schwab has been able to move over about $5 Billion from this demographic, while Vanguard has been able to move over about $30 Billion, since they launched their digital solutions. According to reports, 75% -80% of Schwab’s Intelligent Portfolio AUM has come from existing clients. Their average client is over 55 years old, so this proves my hypothesis. They struggle to attract new young clients, but are very solid choices for their current Baby Boomer client base.
Tie: Charles Schwab and Vanguard Group
Pareto Principle - Other Segments
I am also a strong believer in the 80/20 rule. My pyramid probably only encompasses about 80% of the market.
For the 20% of the equation there are specialized situations that drive human behavior in consumer finance and in particular in wealth management.
Bargain Hunters
We see this “coupon” or “bargain” mentality occur a lot in the ETF space, some investors will solely look at low-cost options, and compare expense ratios of Vanguard, SsgA, Blackrock iShares, etc.
Here the competitors would be Wisebanyan and Schwab Intelligent Portfolios.
Both are no management fee, but Wisebanyan is truly no fee, Schwab is not really free when you look under the hood, as we did here -
Why does Schwab Intelligent Portfolios hold so much cash?
What is a good Schwab Intelligent Portfolios review?
In fact, we estimate that with increasing interest rates, Schwab could be making over 2% on some accounts!
WiseBanyan has done a nice job on their app design, and they have high ratings among customers in the iOS App Store.
Because of the many conflicts of interest within the Intelligent Portfolios product, I believe Wisebanyan will be the clear choice among those looking at a simple solution at no cost.
Winner: WiseBanyan
Tax Efficiency Hunters
If you have a large amount of unrealized capital gains in a taxable account or are concerned with cutting down on a potentially large tax bill on an account transfer or ongoing trading, then this sub-category is for you.
Although most people will typically compare Wealthfront and Betterment (product/company) head on, I think of Wealthfront more as a tax manager and Betterment (product/company) as a UI/UX focused personal finance app.
Tax managed investing is a very lucrative industry. For example, Parametric is a leading institutional asset manager that focuses on tax optimization, and they have over $160 Billion in AUM!
When Wealthfront pivoted from Kaching (and then their original Wealthfront business model of a marketplace for actively managed portfolios) they smartly created new awareness in the industry for Tax Loss Harvesting. This technique has been used for decades by advisors, but was never optimized for the scale that Wealthfront operated on. They obviously hit a nerve in the market, especially from high earning Silicon Valley workers, because since they brought this to the forefront in their marketing, it has become “table stakes”. Every robo is expected to offer it, and Wealthfront can be credited with this.
Below, is what Wealthfront claims is the returns from their TLH strategy (until August 2014).
Wealthfront also does tax-efficient transfers of securities. Again, if a client has a large amount of realized gains in a taxable portfolio it becomes difficult to sell them. If you go to Wealthfront, they claim to sell them in a tax efficient manner, waiting for some legacy securities to become long-term gains, etc.
Introducing Tax-Minimized Brokerage Account Transfers » Wealthfront Knowledge Center
For these reasons, I would say Wealthfront is the leader in this niche part of the market so far.
Winner: Wealthfront
Service Hunters
This niche will cut across demographic lines. Some consumer finance shoppers are most interested in the breadth of customer service.
Personal Capital and Vanguard Group approach to support is to provide a human advisor that you can chat with. So, if your only concern would be that you want to talk to someone about your account via a video portal then these would be good choices. Below, I show the video portal from Vanguard PAS -
Some people (like myself, who has never walked into a bank branch and hates talking on the phone) are looking for a more digital/tech look and feel. On the more digital side I believe Hedgeable has the most robust service, which is 7 day text messaging, live chat, support ticketing, phone, CIO office hours, digital consultations, email, and soon chatbots.
Betterment (product/company) would be a close second, they also offer 7 day chat and phone service and they get good reviews from customers on service. Although, I am writing this in the afternoon on a weekend and Betterment’s chat is offline (see below), even though the chat hours say it should’t be -
Some platforms just aren’t selling service and that is fine - sometimes people just want to go to an automat (remember those?!) versus a sit down restaurant. For example, Wealthfront doesn’t even offer a live chat feature, but that is purposeful (I assume), since they are trying to build more of a TurboTax (product) low service model.
I cannot pick a best of this sub-category, because it really depends on what kind of support is important to you - an advisor via video chat or a fully digital experience.
Winner: Depends on service type wanted
Conclusion Part I
The wealth management market is very complex, there is never going to be a one size fits all solution for everyone. Therefore I suggest the following two steps -
Determine where you stand on the FinTech Pyramid Below I created a graphic based on the levels of the pyramid and my selections in each:
Once you have determined where you fit in the pyramid (there will be some overlap in age, thus I took off the ages in some of the levels), it will help to narrow down the “best” selection for you and your circumstances.
Determine if the 20% rule applies to you If so, the pyramid isn’t going to be applicable, and you can look across the spectrum for a solution. This accounts for why about 80%-85% of most robos’ demographics fall within the same age range, but 15%-20% do not. There are many more categories, but I focused on just three in my analysis.
Conclusion Part II
A shopper that is best suited for a Hyundai (car company) is probably not going to be hanging out at the Tesla Motors (company) dealership and someone in a hurry on game day is probably not going to trade in their Papa John's Pizza order for an hour adventure at Outback Steakhouse.
Many of the answers here will point out a clear winner, but that is because they fall in a certain part of this pyramid, and they are looking myopically at the market from their own eyes. Thus, they are not even mentioning some key players in the space, that aren’t targeting their demographic. There is no way a firm can be best for everyone, and I don’t believe anyone tries to be. This is a common miss-conception in Financial Technology.
Just look at the infographic I made below. This shows data from a Citi survey, on the expected rise of robo assets over the next 10 years. Much like the ETF market, this space will be fragmented, with “best” in class equivalents of Vanguard, SSgA, WisdomTree, GlobalX, etc. Or if you want to look at it like the trading market, an options trader certainly wouldn’t think Robinhood (Brokerage) is “best” because they don’t even offer that service, even though millions of 20 somethings might love it!
There is nothing wrong with any of the players in the market, it depends on what is important to you at a particular stage in life. Happy investing!
Disclaimer: This is not a solicitation to buy or sell securities or an offer of personal financial advice or legal advice. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. It is suggested you seek out the help of a financial professional before making any investing or personal financial management decision.
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