Ideas, Money and Knockers

In the Robber Baron days, the only way to build a great fortune was through domination of an industry… old fashioned monopolies or oligopolies. Today, it’s a different story… and I believe it’s a lot easier to create fortunes.


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In his classical book “The Change Makers,” Maury Klein talks about the five ways Robber Barons like Gould, Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller and others built their fortunes. They either: (1) introduced some new type of quality of good; (2) introduced some new method of production; (3) opened a new market; (4) acquired some new source or supply of raw materials; or (5) imposed some new form of organization on an industry.

While great fortunes can still be made today the old fashioned way, the opportunities are far and few between… if not rare. The industrial revolution is gone. Today, it’s the information age. And ideas are money… and ideas can be turned into money faster than ever.

Jeff Bezos didn’t invent books; he just found a better way to sell them (through on the Internet). Mike Dell didn’t invent computers; he found a better way to sell them (direct from manufacturer to consumer–good-bye middleman). Charles Schwab didn’t invent the brokerage firm or open a better brokerage firm; he just opened the first discount broker (with the thinking that if an investor knows what he or she wants to buy, let them call an order desk). And Bill Gates didn’t invent the computer operating system; he just developed Windows to be a user-friendly operating system.

None of the people I mention above or anyone else behind the countless other huge American business success stories made or invented anything. They just took something that already existed and found a different “spin” to create a product. The four people mentioned above all became billionaires, not because they invented a product, but because they found a better way to do something.

In his great book, “Marketing Outrageously,” Jon Spoelstra says that somewhere inside every product or company there’s an outrageous marketing idea that could have a huge impact. The key is to find that idea.

One of my personal favorite stories is that of Joan Brant. Joan was hired by Steve Case at AOL when it had $40 million in annual revenue and 300,000 subscribers. AOL worked hard to get where it was. And Case brought in Brant in the hope that she would come up with that outrageous marketing idea.

Brant delivered big time: In only several years, revenue at AOL went to $3 billion with 23 million subscribers. How did Brant single-handedly create such growth? By coming up with the outrageous idea of giving away free AOL CDs to potential customers. The idea was a huge and immediate success: Customers got AOL free for one month before having to pay. This single and simple idea led to AOL (a virtual newcomer) being able to buy Time Warner (a company with a history spanning a century).

So, I’ve talked about “Ideas” and “Money,” but what’s the “Knockers” about?

A very successful business friend of mine once told me he was a Knocker. In his life, despite how successful he and big his business had become, he confided in me that he had never had one original new idea. He “knocked off” every good idea he was able to find… doing it better, faster or bigger than the originator. He was a “Knocker.”

Now, please don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating copying someone else’s idea or product. What I am saying is that right at this moment in your life and my life, in this country and in this world, there are more opportunities, more success stories “waiting to happen” than ever before in history. And that’s all because, in the information age, ideas can be turned into money faster than ever before.

Here’s a real life example of how I recently used the Knocker theory:

I’ve always been an avid fan of real estate investing. But, as you are aware from my writings in Profit Confidential, I am concerned that property prices are over-inflated given the current 46-year low in interest rates. So, making money in real estate investing is difficult, but not impossible, at this time. However, I do believe there are good deals out there if you look hard enough-and that’s what I do.

There was a very nice commercial building in my small town that was for sale for about six months. None of the “players” in town wanted to buy it because the price was too high. Paying what the seller was asking would only result in a 4% to 5% return on the property. But I liked the way the building looked and its large lot. I just needed to find the right angle on the property.

On Saturday afternoon, while at the office, I dropped in a video in the VCR on the history of Olympia and York, once the largest real estate landlord in the world, before it went broke in the early 1990s under an enormous amount of debt. During the documentary, a reporter interviewed Paul Reichmann and asked why he’d been so successful in real estate, to which Mr. Reichmann responded something to the effect that he can see “things” in properties that others do not see.

So, how could I knock-off what Mr. Reichmann was saying and see a “thing” in this property that others could not? I called a good friend of mine, who happens to be a construction manager for a mid-sized home builder and asked him to take a look at the property. What Frank found was that by extending the second floor of the property outwards to the back of the property, with parking provided underneath the expansion, we could stay within the city’s zoning requirement for lot coverage and expand the size of the building by three times. I found my “thing.” While potential investors were only looking at what cash flow the property could throw off in its current state, I was now looking at cash flow after expanding the property’s size threefold.

Once I bought it, I shared my angle on this property with local realtors. Within 90 days, and without putting a penny in the property (except to re-key the locks), I sold the property for a 39% return on my investment. That’s a 156% annualized return in an overpriced real estate market… just because one Saturday afternoon I knocked-off someone’s idea that I saw in a documentary. The previous owner had the property listed for six months, and I was the only taker. Why didn’t he see the “thing” I saw?

We don’t need the big and costly plants and machinery Ford and Carnegie used to create their fortunes. The evolution of man has led to the ultimate discovery that the greatest machine of all has been in our head all this time. It’s our brain. Now, if I can only get my kids to operate it properly.