Amber & Zach's Fireside Interview
Today I got the chance to catch up with Amber from ATG Financials who is taking her own unconventional path to reach her financial and lifestyle goals through quitting her corporate job and starting a franchise business with her wife.
Zach: For readers who aren’t familiar with your blog, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Amber: I was raised in the Pacific Northwest by divorced parents. I watched my mother struggle to get a college education after the divorce while at the same time working to support her 5 children. She was always frugal, and taught me to spend less than I earned.
After seeing my mother struggle financially her entire life, I swore I would never struggle with money. So I took her advice to heart and always spent less than I earned, and rarely used loans/credit.
At the same time, I was also very idealistic. I studied abroad twice, once in high school and once in college, and both times I lived in developing countries in South/Central America. I was also a service missionary for 18 months in South America in my college years.
It opened my eyes early on to how little a person really needs to live a comfortable life. It helped me see through all the consumerism embedded in our culture here in the United States. I ended up studying International Studies with an emphasis on Development. Basically I wanted to alleviate poverty in the developing world.
This lead me to choose to live “small”. A very minimalistic type lifestyle. I lived during my college years on $10-$12,000 a year, which I easily earned working as an on-campus janitor and then spending my summers cleaning hotel rooms up in Alaska.
I continued this “small” low consumption lifestyle until this day. However, I realized that by living so “small”, it was preventing me from striving for financial security.
I always spent less than I earned, but really had little to no assets. I would only have about $10-$20K cash in the bank and feel comfortable with that because that was almost two years of living for me at my consumption rate.
I knew that my co-workers who earned double my income had less cash in their bank accounts, so I thought I was doing fine. It was only after the death of my brother-in-law that I came to realize that I was living a financially dangerous lifestyle.
My brother-in-law was 34 years old when he died. He already had a net worth around $1,300,000. I was asked by my family to step into his shoes to help close out his affairs and run his business until we could get it into shape to sell.
This took 5.5 years to complete. I was immersed in managing his commercial property, his residential properties and running a business all at the same time.
I had absolutely no experience in this, but by stepping into his shoes, again I was allowed to see that it is only by acquiring assets that you can obtain financial security. When you are financially secure it’s easier to effect change in the world.
After selling his business and optimizing his properties, I went back into the corporate world. I became a business consultant for the very franchise that my brother-in-law owned. This is what led me to buying a franchise. I saw all the positives and negatives and felt it was the right move for me.
Zach: How did you and your wife come to the decide that you wanted to quit your corporate jobs to start a franchise business? Do either of you have prior experience starting a business?
Amber: I’ve known my partner (now wife) for over 13 years. She was like me and spent less than she earned, had a good savings account, and contributed to her 401K but had no assets other than the 401K.
She also saw her divorced mother struggle her entire life with money. For both of us, having the college degree and a steady corporate job was everything we thought we wanted. That was until my experience helping my sister transition after the death of her husband and the books my wife and I started to read about finances.
My wife and I decided that for us to truly move forward financially, and to have the freedom we longed for, we would need to run our own business. I had worked for someone else my entire life. I graduated college in 2001 so that put me in the corporate world for 17 years. My wife graduated college in 2005 so she had been in the corporate world for 12 years.
It was after we moved in together and realized that we wanted to get married, we started thinking about our futures. We saw all of our parents struggling financially, so much so that we knew we would not receive any inheritance.
Actually, we knew that we would probably need to help take care of our parents financially and we were not in a position to do so at that time. We also wanted to effect change in the world for good. It’s hard to do that if you are strapped to a job that demands your time and attention all the time, and if you have no assets.
So we started reading, and reading, and reading. We didn’t have a TV, so we read out loud together at night, we listened to audio books on our nightly walks, and we listened to audio books on our drives.
After a year of reading, we realized that acquiring assets was the way to go. We felt that real estate and businesses were the best way to go for us.
Neither of us have experience with real estate or starting businesses. However, I was exposed to running an existing family franchise business when I stepped into my brother-in-laws shoes after his death. I also had to manage his properties. This exposure gave me the confidence I needed to step outside of the steady paycheck into the self employment world.
Also, I was a franchise business development consultant for the very franchise that I bought into, for three years. There was little that I didn’t know about the franchise and how it would be to run.
I was able to see profit & loss statements and consult with other franchise owners during those three years. I realized that there were two types of franchise owners. Those that buy themselves a job and those who grow a business and have an asset that pays dividends even when they are not working.
Zach: What exactly does your franchise business do?
Amber: My franchise is Commercial Cleaning. We sell janitorial contracts and organize cleaners to go out and clean the contracts we sold. We also do “project” work for commercial customers, like clean windows, carpets, tile & grout etc.
It’s a lot of labor management and selling of contracts. The cleaner cleans and you take home 40% of the income after expenses.
Zach: Why did you decide to start your own business to generate your own income rather than keep your corporate jobs and simply save a huge chunk of employment income?
Amber: This was one of the main questions my wife and I would go over in our evening planning/dreaming conversations. We were making $200,000 a year combined and were able to save $60,000 cash each year, after maxing out or 401Ks and Roth IRAs.
We were very comfortable. We lived very simply in a 580 square foot apartment. My wife walked to work and I worked remotely. We grew our own vegetables, and volunteered at a chicken farm to get free or subsidized “beyond organic” chicken and eggs.
We would run the numbers of putting $60,000 a year towards real estate in the Seattle, WA market and keeping our corporate jobs vs. starting a business and growing it over 5 years.
The numbers always showed that the business would give us more freedom sooner and we’d have a higher net worth in 5 years than if we kept our jobs and invested in real estate alone.
Of course we had to project our real estate returns and our business growth. It was all projections at the time, but we wanted the freedom as well. So we took the franchise route.
Zach: Did you save up a chunk of cash and/or investments before quitting your jobs?
Amber: We did save up about $100,000 cash to start the business and pay the initial franchise fees. We still have $45,000 of that money left in our business account for an emergency fund for our business.
Many people get loans to start their franchises, which is a reasonable option, but we liked the idea of starting out debt free. (we did acquire two smaller franchises which incurred debt on the business, but it was owner financed at 0% interest, so we are actually making money on those acquisitions via inflation)
Zach: How have the first 6 months of business been? Have you earned as much income as you expected?
Amber: The first 6 months have actually gone better than I expected. We were not planning on paying ourselves anything for the first 6-12 months. I started paying myself right at the 6 month mark.
It’s enough to pay our expenses only. However, my wife was able to negotiate with her previous employer to do design work remotely. We are now saving her income to put toward real-estate. She is now an independent contractor. She works when she wants, from home, and is still able to help me on the business.
The business makes more money than I’m paying myself, but we are reinvesting the money into the business to continue it’s growth.
I would recommend to anyone, that they plan to have at least one year worth of expenses saved before starting your own business. You don’t want to drain the business too early of it’s growth capital if you don’t need to. However, if it’s not paying you a decent salary by the end of year two, you may want to reevaluate your situation.
Zach: As a franchise, do you have to pay a specific amount of your income to the franchise company and/or annual fees? Can you talk a bit about how the franchise model works?
Amber: Yes, as a franchisee, you would need to pay “royalties” to the franchisor. In my model, you pay a licensing fee, which gives you a territory that you can operate in, training and a few supplies. This is usually around $35,000.
Then you pay a percentage on every dollar you make. In my case it’s around 6% (I have a sliding scale, where the more money I make the less I pay in royalties). Other franchises require more or sometimes less in start up funds.
For example, fast food is very expensive to get into. You would need about $1,000,000 to start, and there are royalties after that.
However, there are many people who acquire one fast food place after another and become very rich. It seems there is always a demand for a taco or hamburger in this country. That type of franchise didn’t appeal to us.
We pay our royalties by the 10th of the next month on the previous month’s revenue. The advantage for us has been that we haven’t had to invest much into marketing or advertising as the Franchisor does a lot of that for us. There is instant brand name recognition.
We have had our proverbial phone ringing from day one asking for our services. Most businesses that start from scratch need to spend massive amounts of money on advertising if they want to grow big in a 5 year span. We saved that money. Of course it goes to royalties.
Another benefit is the network that the franchise gives you. You meet twice a year with other franchise owners where you can ask your questions and see how those who are running a 16 million dollar operation succeeded and find out how they handle certain issues inside their business.
Also, being a franchisee gives you access to equipment discounts due to the “group buy” process, and a marketing team that is always working to help advertise and keep your brand up to date.
The disadvantages of a franchise is someone can tell you that you have to sell a “$5 foot long” when that model doesn’t work for your location. You have to adhere to that companies rules, like closing on Sunday’s or doing a 2 for 1 sale. Or you have to repaint your vehicles because they’ve had a logo update.
If you want total autonomy, then the franchise route is not the way to go. For me, I like having a marketing team, that I pay for passively via my royalties, keeping my business on the cutting edge and keeping my business at the top of google.
Zach: What does a typical work week look like for both you and your wife? What exactly do you do on a daily basis? How many hours per week do you both typically work?
Amber: A typical work week for my wife is about 30 hours in the franchise and 30 hours on her remote design work. Because we are a commercial cleaning company, most of the time my wife will help me out in the evenings covering cleaning shifts if a worker is off or we haven’t staffed that location yet.
Most mornings we sleep in and have breakfast together and start our days very slowly. 10:00 am is usually when we are done showering, eating, and maybe going for a walk. This we love!
My schedule is around 60 hours a week working in the business. About 30 hours in the home office (we work out of our home) and about 30 hours in the field covering shifts, stocking cleaners closest and inspecting cleaners work.
Once I’m fully staffed, I’m hoping to work about 30 hours or less a week. Eventually getting to the point of 20 hours of remote work to allow for our other dreams to come to fruition. We are hoping to be at the 20 hours of remote work in 5 years.
Zach: What has been the best part about working for yourselves? What has been the worst part?
Amber: The best part about working for myself has been the power to control my financial future. There is no limit to my income growth.
In my corporate job, I would hope to get increases each year that would match inflation. So in reality, I would financially be in the same spot for the rest of my life. Maybe I would have gotten a promotion, which would lead to more money, but it would also lead to more responsibility and hours away from my family.
The worst part about working for ourselves has been staffing. It is really hard to hire reliable people who have the same standards as you.
I’ve come to realize that to be successful in business really comes down to your skill in delegating and training your skill set to those you hire. And hiring those who have a skill set that you don’t have.
Zach: What is the plan for the future of this business? Do you plan on hiring staff (have you already started doing so?) to run the business so that you and your wife can be more hands off?
Amber: The plan is to have the business strong enough to pay us a comfortable wage with only 20 hours or less of remote work in 5 years. During those 5 years, we plan to purchase commercial and residential real-estate.
With the income from the business, our residential & commercial rentals, and the stock investments (Roth IRAs, 401Ks) we think we will be set to live the lives we dreamed and still be able to help other improve their lives through our charitable giving.
We do have 10 part time employees. We need to hire 2 more. We just promoted one to a part time supervisor which has been exciting. She has started to take some of the supervisor work off my shoulders allowing me to stay in the office more.
Most of my staff have full-time day jobs and are working for me to earn money to pay off debt or to invest in real estate. I love helping people make their financial dreams come true.
Zach: What advice do you have for readers out there who may be interested in following a similar path to you and starting their own business?
Amber: My advice for those who are looking to go the business ownership route to financial independence:
Always look at your business as an asset you are building, not a job you do. Meaning, you need to have staff, infrastructure, systems and processes if you want to someday sell your business or receive dividends without working in the day to day. Owner operated businesses don’t sell for much.
Franchises do a good job guiding you towards building an asset. Your success is their success.
When starting a business, be prepared to not take a salary for at least 6 months to a year. Make sure you have enough saved to cover your personal expenses. This will allow all gains in the business to go right back into the business to help it grow quickly.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket (the business). Never stop diversifying your investments. If you buy a business, then create a separate LLC and buy a commercial building for it to run out of. Charge your own business rent, which you pay to yourself.
If you ever sell the business, you can still have rental income coming in from the new owners. Invest in other real-estate, Roth IRA’s, and other businesses that sister well with your company.
You have to learn to teach and to delegate. If you can’t train or teach well, hire someone who does. Your business is only as strong as your staff.
Make sure you start a business that you can morally stand behind. If you hate how the health of our nation is going down hill, then don’t invest in Fast Food. Run a business that you are truly proud to promote.
For more interesting interviews and articles of others trying to make their way to financial independence check out www.collectingwisdom.com