Graham’s Newsletter

Taking a step back

Published 2 months ago • 9 min read

What's up guys, it's Graham here.

This article is going to be very different from what you usually read on the newsletter.

If you’re a long-time reader of the newsletter who wants to know what’s going on behind the scenes, how I’m thinking about the YouTube channel, my different projects, and the place they occupy in my life, then this article is for you. If you’re a business owner or entrepreneur, you might even find something in here that you could apply to your life. But if you’re interested only in the personal finance and investing content, that’s not today’s article – I’ll be resuming that from Sunday. So here goes.

I usually talk only about investing, finance, and real estate, and don’t share much about myself – so for those who are unfamiliar, here’s some context:

Chapter 1: Beginnings

Since I was a kid, I remember being obsessed with two things: Money, and work. I used to be one of those kids who saves the Christmas and birthday money so that I could go all in on my “obsessions”. For example, when I discovered that quarters minted before a certain year were pure silver, I started hunting them down to make a buck. My first real obsession though was with aquariums. I dove deep (pun intended) into the world of fish and corals, and I was fascinated with everything to do with saltwater aquariums. Very soon, that became my real job when I found a part-time job at a local aquarium where I was given a dollar for every coral that I photographed, photoshopped, and uploaded.

So that’s how it started – here I was, a 15 year old kid, sometimes making as much as $120 a day while doing something I loved and had fun with, and to be honest, that kind of ruined education for me because I didn’t see the point of grinding away at school when I could be making money and gaining experience (Life came full circle eventually… I got to interview the owner of the aquarium who gave me my first job on my podcast!).

But that lifestyle kind of blinded me to the concept of education and specialization, looking back. It came back to bite me when the aquarium was sold to a different set of bosses whom I did not enjoy working with – at all. We disagreed all the time, because they curbed my freedom while I thought that they were doing so many things wrong, and they couldn’t understand why a 16-year-old was telling them what to do. Anyway, I quit eventually – and the aquarium shut down soon after. Hey, just saying.

I was out of a job but driven to make big money. But all I had to show was some work experience and a bunch of terrible grades. But I decided that I’d go where the money was, and started learning about “investment banking.” So at 17 years of age, armed with the confidence of youth, I cold-emailed every investment firm within a 10 mile radius being honest about what I could and couldn’t do, explaining my willingness to learn and even work for free and do anything they wanted to as long as I could get my foot in the door. And surprisingly, it worked.

The job I got was pretty much like starting at the bottom of the barrel, doing data entry and inter office mail deliveries. It was simple, but I started getting tired of it soon because I realized that the corporate 9-to-5 wasn’t for me. The job stamped out all individualism and demanded complete conformity, and that’s okay for some, but I quit the job because I didn’t really feel good about it. That’s when I came across the idea of becoming a real estate agent.

Chapter 2: Real estate

I realized that I could just give my real estate licensing tests online, and once I did that, I didn’t cold-email people – instead, I went to open houses on every weekend, just trying to meet other real estate agents and soak in their experience. This was at the peak of the housing market bubble, and when I started, the crash happened. Most real estate agents were very discouraging, saying that I had missed the boat, that it was a bad time to start, and I was too young for anyone to give me a chance.

I ignored all of them, and just kept trying

But then I met one agent who was really supportive and encouraging. He told me that it was the perfect time to get started, because by the time my friends finished their college courses and started working, I would already have 4 years of work experience under my belt, and I could be making as much as $100,000 a year. Now was the perfect time to start because I had no baggage, family, or commitments to slow me down. He made me an offer – he would take me under his wing, and any business that I brought in, I could split 50-50 with him. His experience and credibility made it easier for people to do business with me, and I had the drive to succeed.

For the next few years, I literally spent 12 to 13 hours, 7 days a week, closing deals that nobody else wanted to close because they would be losing money on them – but even a few hundred dollars at that point was like the equivalent of $100,000 to me. I was learning, making contacts, and building credibility. But guess what, the people I did business with started sending more business my way, and the time I spent grinding paid off. I would take on even small deals like 2-3 year leases worth a few thousand dollars, making 5-6% in commission off of those. But the referrals multiplied my business.

And I was saving almost everything that I was making. In 2011, I bought my first property in San Bernardino county worth $72,000 by sinking $12,000 into a down payment. It was almost everything I had at that point, and people were telling me that it’s a bad time to invest, that the market was going further down, and that it may never return. But I knew this market fairly well, and I locked in the deal.

Then the market started picking up, and apart from seeing my investment grow, my business grew every year too – almost every year, I saw my business grow by 50%. People I had helped with leases would buy houses through me, and then refer others to me, and so on. When I was 25, I joined the Oppenheim group, which is now Selling Sunset on Netflix.

By the time I bought my fourth property, in Los Angeles, I was able to hit a million-dollar net worth at 26. I did it thanks to a high income, an absurdly high savings rate, and investing as much as possible. That’s when you come in.

Chapter 3: YouTube

I had always been a big consumer of videos on YouTube, and I loved watching creators I followed grow their own community and space. I never thought that I had the ability to start and run my own channel – in fact, I even made a Reddit post saying I loved the work of some creators, but they weren’t living up to their potential. So I could help them with the business side of things, by investing in them, getting them equipment, and growing with them – as long as I didn’t have to show my face. (Un)fortunately, nobody took me up on that, so after postponing it for a long time, I finally posted my first video in December of 2016 – and guess what, nobody made fun of me, and my friends didn’t leave me like I feared.

I found it fun and exciting, and I kept posting videos. Within a couple of weeks, I started posting 2 videos a week, and then I upped the frequency to 3 a week. At one point, I used to work from 9 to 7, come home at 9, and then stay up till 1 am working on my videos. It’s all I looked forward to. I found it insane that the YouTube channel hit 10,000 subscribers in a few months. But then it hit 100,000 in a year, and then 1 million in another year. It was absolutely bonkers. This just doesn’t happen, for a niche like finance that is so information heavy. It was surreal.

But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit in 2020 that I went all in on YouTube. I started my second channel, started the Iced Coffee Hour with Jack, and even posted on my vlog channel. Usually, that was 7 videos a week. Sometimes, it even went as high as 11 videos a week. And I did that for years – until recently.

Chapter 4: Scarcity mentality

Now, something has changed. For the longest time, I operated from this place where I was afraid that if I slowed down at all, and took my foot off the gas even just a bit, I would be giving up everything I had worked so hard for. I know it sounds ridiculous, but as a real estate agent, I had trained myself to view each sale as the last – if the house I sold was the last I was ever going to sell, I planned my life in a way to make that money last as long as possible. I carried forward that mentality to YouTube.

What that meant was that my entire life was optimized to make more and more videos, because I was convinced that more is better. If I could make 3 videos a week, why not start a second channel? If I could make 7 videos a week, why not bump it up to 10? And this started seeping into my life everywhere, to the point that I wasn’t even able to go out for breakfast or spend time with friends without wondering about a thumbnail for a video or the best comment to pin. I wasn’t able to switch off and unplug from life.

I thought hiring would be the solution to this: Hiring Jack in 2020 was meant to be a step towards relaxing a little and delegating work, and he made life so much easier by taking a lot of work off my plate. We also started The Iced Coffee Hour podcast and Jack made it so easy that I just had to show up and talk to the guest, while he took care of all the backend work. But outsourcing the main channel work wasn’t as successful. Though I hired Alex in 2021 to help out with the editing and visual aspects which he was great at, I just wasn’t comfortable outsourcing the scripting of the videos.

Eventually, it got to a place where I was optimizing so much for the algorithm that it stopped being fun. And when you aren’t happy, your work suffers and people start noticing. I also had access to a lot of successful people whom I looked up to, and almost every one of them told me that the next step was to delegate, outsource, and build an empire – but that’s just not what I wanted to do.

Final chapter: Here’s what it means

Everything changed when I began to optimize for happiness instead. Last year, I took a five-day trip to New York that completely changed my perspective on work. Before going, I had been paranoid about how the trip would affect the video schedule and how much work I’d have to catch up with – but after traveling around a bit, and recording podcasts, I realized that I felt happy without being in 100% overdrive mode.

I realized that if I wanted to travel more, it would cut down my time on the channel. I was terrified that the channel would die if I went down from 3 videos to 2 videos a week – but then, surprise, nothing happened. Then I dropped it down to 1 video a week, and the videos actually did better on a per video basis. I also realized that I want to focus a lot more on the podcast, and that I really enjoyed talking to people and acquiring experiences that make me a well-rounded person.

The time this freed up helped me take my health seriously (and even lose five pounds of belly fat). I’ve also been catching up on other activities that make me zero money but give me a lot of joy – like working on my reef aquarium, painting, and repainting the garage. I’m able to stay present with people I love and my relationships are so much better.

So that’s it – after struggling for a long time to separate my work from my personal life, I’m at the closest I’ve ever been to “balance”. Instead of chasing more, more, more, I’m trying to take a step back and appreciate what I have, and practice gratitude. I know these seem like really simple changes, but I’d say that this gradual change has probably helped me the most when it comes to living a more fulfilling life…

And if it triggers some thoughts in you, about what you are going through right now, and any changes that you plan to make, drop me a reply. I’d love to know what’s up.

That’s it for today! If you enjoyed reading that, do share it with a friend, and I’ll see you soon with a different story.

113 Cherry St #92768, Seattle, WA 98104-2205
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Graham’s Newsletter

by Graham Stephan

A 33 year old real estate agent and investor with over $120M in residential real estate sales. This is my way of sharing actionable ideas that will make you a smarter and wealthier investor.

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