Side project: Simple expense tracker for busy people

busywallet

I used to track my expenses religiously for 8 years – initially using notepad and Excel, later with GnuCash.

In 2011, when I started my own company, time became a limited commodity. I found it hard to keep track of my expenses. So I devised a simple minimalistic method to track my expenses – one that took just 15 minutes every month.

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Never play the Russian roulette

Charlie Munger often says, “tell me where I’m going to die, so I will never go there”. Avoidance of terminal risk is of great importance to him (and to Warren Buffett).

That is a very important thing to follow in life.

A Russian roulette is one game that is simply not worth playing at any price, even though the odds are in your favor. (There is a 5/6th chance that you will survive and there is a 1/6th chance that you’ll get the bullet, if the chamber is reset every time.)

Any game that can get you killed is just not worth it! Even if there is a good chance that you might survive and win a hefty prize.

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True financial freedom

“I want to be financially free, so I can pursue whatever I want in life”. I hear this statement often.

A friend and I were discussing money and financial freedom, amongst other things in life.

“How much is enough money to be financially free? How do you decide?” I asked my friend.

Is it a fixed number? The ability to not work for money and have enough of it to pay all your bills through your lifetime? Or is it 30 times your annual expense? 50 times? Having a good part of it in inflation beating investments? Or having a business that has good free cashflow and longevity?

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Track your expenses without sweating it out

For several years, I used to track my expenses religiously – partly because of my interest in personal finance and largely because I have an OCD on maintaining data, esp numbers.

From 2003 until 2007, I used excel sheets to manage my accounts. From 2008 onwards, I used Gnucash. Whichever the system or tool, the data is only as good as the data entry. And that can be time consuming! By 2012, I was pressed for time and it no longer made sense for me to track my expenses so religiously. Especially since I had good control over it and roughly knew my numbers. (I realized its way better to spend time on investments than on expenses.)

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12 things I learned from Jorge Paulo Lemann

A few months ago, while reading Buffett’s annual letter, I came across 3G Capital and its principals, mainly Jorge Paulo Lemann, and got curious.

This article on him that made me more curious.

lemann

Now, Buffett is an astute dealmaker. And fantastic at picking partners in business – nearly all his partners are people with outstanding characteristics. Few examples are Charlie Munger, Tom Murphy, Mrs Blumkin, Albert Ueltschi and Ajit Jain. Even the lesser known people like Ted Weschler and Todd Combs are ones I’ve come to admire a lot.

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A decade of investing

I just realized its been exactly 10 years to the day since I first entered the stock market. Being risk averse and skeptical, I equated stock market to casinos and thought I’d never touch it with a long pole. Little did I know that a large part of my own life would be devoted to studying and investing in that very same treacherous market.

The date was May 17, 2004. A senior colleague looked very pale and I came to know that he had lost a lot of money that day in the crash. I was perplexed as to why people invested in risky things such as the stock market and vowed that I would do no such stupid thing.

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Growing the root

I read this statement by Rahul Dravid in an article and loved it. It’s similar to this post I wrote a while earlier.

“When I’m requested to speak to youngsters I like talking about this phase of my life and liken it to fascinating plant: The Chinese Bamboo. You can take a Chinese bamboo seed and plant it in the ground, water and nurture the seed for an entire year & not even see a single sprout. Infact, you’ll not see a sprout for 5 years. But suddenly, a tiny shoot will spring from the ground. And over the next 6 weeks, the plant can grow as tall as 90 feet. It can grow as fast as 39 inches every 24 hours. You can literally watch the plant grow.

What was the plant doing during these 5 years, seemingly dormant period, it was growing its roots. For 5 full years it was preparing itself for rapid, full growth. Without this root structure, the plant simply couldn’t support itself for its future growth. Some would say the plant grew 90 feet in 6 weeks, I would say it grew 90 feet in 5 years & 6 weeks”

Bootstrapped & being incremental

After I quit my job in 2011 (March), I had little idea about what to do next. I thought I will experiment a bit and see whats in store for me.

I knew I was done with working for someone and wanted to see if I had any capability in building a business – any business, size or industry didn’t matter much.

Things were hazy. I had several half-baked ideas. Tapprs is one that worked out okay.

Tapprs:

Tapprs was never really my primary idea – since it is capital intensive, I kept resisting it. But all my other ideas failed to gain traction and I kept getting deeper into Tapprs and it started doing significant revenues. Natural course took over, esp after some inspiration by Lensrentals.com CEO Roger Cicala.

At Tapprs, things weren’t based on rocket-science. We simply paid attention to:

  1. taking care of customer well
  2. being fair and honest with employees and other stake holders
  3. putting business interests ahead of personal interest
  4. not taking short-cuts
  5. being fanatic about processes, systems, inventory & money management

That shows on the dashboard below, at least a bit.

metrics

If one had told me in 2011 that I could own a business by 2014 that would do these:

  • have a monthly customer service rating of 8.9+ (out of 10) consistently
  • do business north of 8 figures since incorporation
  • hire & pay salaries for up to 7 employees
  • take very little outside money
  • pay cumulative tax to government in 7 figures
  • replace a decent part of my IT salary

I would have gladly accepted it in 2011.

It’s not hockey stick growth. It’s not a ‘change-the-world’ or ‘grow-big-fast’ story. It’s simple & incremental.

And I have no issues with that.

Would I have liked faster growth? Yes. But I will take this.

Size and growth:

There is a tendency to tag small businesses as ‘non-innovative’ or ‘thinking-small’ or ‘stuck-in-a-comfort-zone’. I think you should just ignore them if you are comfortable doing what you are doing.

I strongly believe that size is a function of ambition, business opportunity and execution – if one of it is short, its hard to build a big sustained business. Also, having a strong personal philosophy and purpose really matters over the long term. That takes time to develop.

You cannot jump out of bed and decide to do something great or big or fantastic. It has to grow on you, evolve and take root inside you. Honestly, I could say, I have very little of it as of now. I am still seeking my purpose. Without that, attempting to build a large business is just playing someone else’s game.

Also, growth for the sake of growth is too boring. You are part of someone else’s plan doing that – usually the venture capitalists who would rather see you try to grow fast than not. There’s nothing wrong with them, their business model only works with that strategy. You don’t have to fall prey to their money and their ways if it doesn’t suit you.

Being incremental:

I am a big fan of Les Schwab and Sam Walton – people who didn’t start out thinking big, but just kept improving incrementally and growing one step at a time.

Les Schwab started with just 1 store not really sure what he was doing, but grew incrementally and built the largest tire dealership in US. More importantly, he built a company with strong customer service culture and an excellent opportunity for young guys to work at.

Sam Walton was 44 when he started the first Walmart store. That too wasn’t his own idea. He copied discount retailing from K-Mart and other guys. He just kept doing it incrementally. You know the remaining story.

Doing things incrementally is a fantastic way for many of us who have to grow ourselves first before attempting bigger and bigger things. Also, I have observed that I tend to err more if I try to do things in a bang. Doing it incrementally helps me reduce that.

Changing the world:

I understand there are people who want to have an impact on the world and make a dent in the universe and have largely ambitious goals. The society, investor community, media and just about everyone else loves them for their own reasons.

You don’t have to pressurise yourself if you don’t have one such goal. It’s perfectly fine to be transactional – to build a business that provides some useful service to the society, that may or may not change its behaviour in any way.

It’s great to have some purpose why you are doing what you doing. But if you don’t have one, its okay to wait it out and build something nice in the meanwhile. Maybe you will eventually figure out what your purpose is and build that. Maybe you will never do that. Sometimes, businesses are more fun without the burden of a purpose. However, irrespective of all that, the baseline for entrepreneurship to me would be

  • being true to customers and providing them with good service
  • being fair to employees and other stakeholders
  • not doing it for purely money alone

Being flexible:

In the initial days, I used to be rigid about my business thoughts. And we used to have plans and thoughts about many aspects of the business. Over time, I noticed that it doesn’t work well always. And then there are times when the underlying scenario has changed and if you still stick to your plan, you are really harming yourself.

Then I read Charlie Munger‘s letter where he spoke about planning (in his letter talking about Daily Journal newspaper and the bad things that happened to newspaper industry, courtesy internet). 

charlie-munger

These days, that resonates very well with me.

Do you want to build a large business? Great. But if you decide to build the largest newspaper and the underlying economics changes, you should have the flexibility to adapt to the changes and realize the dream is no longer economically viable. If you doggedly keep at it, you will have no one to blame but yourself.

Being flexible is important than having to execute a master plan impeccably – at least to me!

The best way to build a business:

If you want to build a business, the best way to do it is by your way.

For a few, that means raising tons of money and risking it all for some strong held belief. For a few, its about bootstrapping, learning incrementally and building things one step at a time. For a few, its about spending 16 hours a day for years together. For a few, its about a strict 8-12 hour routine and spending the rest with family and friends.

There is no single way. The only way is your own way. 

It takes time to understand what your own preferred way is. And you needn’t stick to the same way all the time. An inexperienced guy may do himself a favor by doing it slow, but once he’s learnt the rope of it, its okay for him to speeden things up and do it the other way.

Not everyone needs to bootstrap. Not everyone needs to build large businesses with tons of funding. And in any case, the business you are in and the opportunity ahead of you will by itself drive you to make decisions if you simply keep learning – a bootstrapper might see more opportunity ahead and decide to raise money.

Whatever it is, don’t let someone with a different style of way tell you that his is right and yours is not.

There is no single way. The only way is your own way.

Easy and now

“You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”
― Warren Buffett

I’ve been thinking a bit of late.

There are times when I could have done a much better job of something. I had the ideas, I had the skills. Yet, I didn’t.

I sometimes do things that are pretty mediocre – that is one big reason what pulls my results down, I think.

I wondered why.

One answer is – our brain is automatically incentivised to choose the ‘easy’ and ‘now’.

We could do something in 2 hours or we could do a quickie fix in 10 minutes. Many a time, we just settle for the latter – and justify it with umpteen reasons – no time, will do a revision soon, whatever.

And many a time, we are too ‘impatient’ to wait for things to be rolled out – we are too focused on the ‘now’. Could we afford to wait for a day or two and do a better job? We could – but we go ahead and do a quickie fix in 20 minutes because it is ‘now’.

The program you wrote has a bug and you need to fix it – how do you do it? You patch it up instead of taking the longer route of ensuring the code is clean, well thought out and reusable. Of course, you fixed it – for now. Easy.

But in the long term, that is what puts you along with those 6.99 billion mediocre people out there.

Want to be better than just mediocre?

Get rid of the easy and now.

I want to – hopefully wil get there one day!