Frugal Living: How do you start a successful business? (Part 2)
In this episode, Frugal Living’s Jim continues his conversation with Ted Lau, Owner and CEO of Ballistic Arts, about how to successfully start a business. You can listen to Frugal Living with Jim Markus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, Anchor.fm, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.
“I don’t have to make the most money. I just have to be good with money.”
In this second half of the interview with Ted, Jim asks about his frugal mindset and where his frugality came from. Many times, we learn about money from our parents. Even if there aren’t explicit conversations about finances, we tend to watch what they do and emulate it later in life.
The lessons Ted learned from his parents, as well as his “figure-it-out” attitude, led to living a life of financial independence, real estate success, and a burgeoning business. His story is an inspirational one.
To hear more from Ted, you can find him at Ballistic Arts or co-hosting Marketing News Canada.
Find the first half of this interview here:
Frugal Living: How do you start a successful business? (Part 1)
Read a Transcript of this Episode
This is Frugal Living. <music> You’re listening to part two of a two-part interview with Ted Lau. If you haven’t already heard the first part, check that out. Here’s the second half of our conversation. <music> You started pretty humbly the idea that you’re talking to these people who have these pretty wild stories and that’s awesome. But the people who listen to Frugal Living like our audience is really interested in financial independence, really, retirement, taking control of their lives. So when you say you’re certifiably unemployable, I think that’s a really relatable feeling.
I had a midlife crisis in my twenties, okay? So I did a, like, a internship at a government agency here in, in Canada. And it was for the Canadian Radio-Television Commission is basically anytime someone swore on the radio or there was some inappropriate, you know, scantily clad female on TV that they didn’t like, I’d get a phone call and file complaints. And I fricking hated it. It was a government job. It paid more than all my other friends’ internships. But I remember thinking, “Oh my God, is this, like, my life in 20 years? Like, what is my life gonna be like if I do this in 20 years?” And I just looked down the hallway to the boss lady, you know, and she’s great. Like, I’m still friends with her actually. Her name’s Marga. And you know, she actually still follows my newsletter. But I remember thinking like, “Oh Jesus, like, I do not want this.” That’s all I remember. I was like, “I don’t want this.” But I had no idea what the hell I was going to do. And I remember going to my co-op coordinator’s office. Got an ulcer out of the stress of just not knowing what the hell I was gonna do with my life. And there’s this little poster, like, outside on her bulletin board and it says, you know, digital video production or something like that. I’m like, “What?” And so, and I knew I was, you know, always creative. I did that kind of stuff in, in high school and stuff like that. I’m like, “You can actually do this as, like, a living?” And so I talked to her and, and she’s like, “Oh yeah, the class is full already. Like, I don’t think you’re gonna be able to get in. And, and it’s super popular and whatnot.” And I’m one of those, you know, fairly persistent people. So I went to talk to the professor and I’m like, “I’d like to get in.” And he’s like, “No, you’re full.” I’m like, “Well, how ’bout next term?” And he’s like, “Well maybe, ’cause of, we already have a waitlist for it. But, and you’re already behind. Like, this is actually the advanced course. And so, like, you’d have to, like, do a lot of your own studying and stuff like that beforehand.” So I just–’cause I had to ride the bus every day to this internship. So I just picked up all the books that I can on video production and started soaking it up. And by the time I got into that program, I actually knew more than all the kids in that program. And so I think it is the fear or the, like, “Oh my God, I only have one life to live. And I do not want this.” Now back to your point about frugal living and, you know, for your audiences, frugal living and, and how to have financial independence. I mean, I grew up with immigrant family, right? Like, so my dad still has clothes from 1986. Like, I swear to God, it’s like, “You’re still wearing that sweater? Like, how is that possible?” Right? And so it was one of those ingrained in us type things. Right? My, my parents were postwar, post-communist fleeing from, you know, the Mao regime and all that kind of stuff. And so it was a lot to do with how we were brought up. But you know, being a child of the ’80s, you know, you still see everyone wearing, you know, the Michael Jordans and all that kind of stuff. You, you still want that. And my parents–we didn’t get an allowance. That’s another thing. Like, all my friends had allowances. We had no allowance. So it was always just like I had to beg and plead for whatever. And I always get, like, the knockoff clothes of whatever it is that I wanted. But it, kinda, taught me a lesson that, like, if I want something, like, nothing is gonna be handed to me on a plate. And so I better damn well figure it out. And that’s kind of been the ethos that I’ve had my entire life is like, “Well, how hard can it be? Someone else has done it. I’ll figure it out.” And when it came to financial independence, there’s a few books that I read. But one book that I, I remember reading, I can’t remember the author, but it was called the, The Millionaire Next Door. And it was a book that I don’t know if you’re, you guys ever talked about it or your listeners have talked about it, but it it’s a book where it says, “You know, like, there’s plumbers out there that have more money than doctors.” And, and why is that? And, and nothing wrong with plumbers, which, just there’s a, you know, reputation or an image that you see when you compare a plumber to a doctor, right? Doctors, you know, white coat, nice car. Plumbers, like, got the beat-up truck and all that kind of stuff. But you gotta think, “Like, plumbers do okay.” They make pretty good money and they don’t have to keep up with the Joneses as it were. Right? You don’t have to put your kids through private school. You don’t have to be a member of the tennis club. You don’t have to pay exorbitant amounts of money for wine and haircuts and all that kind of stuff. You’re a plumber! So you end up saving all that, kind of, money. And I remember having my physics teacher in grade 11, Mr. Bebe. He drove a BMW, right? Now, granted, it was a used BMW, but, like, you know, high school teacher. Like, and he was telling us how, you know, he was very frugal and how he saved and all this, kind of, stuff. And, and that really got me thinking that, you know, maybe I don’t have to make the most amount of money. I just have to be good with my money. And then a friend of mine gifted me a book for my birthday, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. And so that book also really helped me understand well, “Great that you make a lot of money, but how are you gonna get money to make money for you?” And, and my parents, you know, being Chinese, property has always been a thing. So my parents, you know, my dad worked at the bank. Like, he had a regular, like, middle-management, maybe even lower-management job. My mom was a part-time Realtor raising us. Yet every year, more and more, my parents were going on vacations. Like, I actually… My house was the party house because my parents were never home. So I was like, “Hey weekend at Ted’s because well, no one’s home.” And so parents are gone and my friends are always like, “Your parents are always on vacation.” And, ’cause, you know, you don’t know when you’re growing up, like, you know, there’s some differences. You just think it’s normal. “Your, your parents aren’t in Arizona? They’re not on a cruise, you know, in, in the Mediterranean? Your, your parents aren’t in Asia? Like, what, what do you mean your parents have never left the country?” And so when I started to realize that and I started to see. And I know that my parents would buy real estate and hold real estate. And not a lot, just a little bit here and there. And it made for a comfortable living. We were definitely upper middle class by the end of my high school years. And so we saw, like, we moved up the socioeconomic chain, uh, ladder as it were because of just their frugal living. And so that’s why I was really excited to be a guest on your show because, I mean, I’m kinda the product of that. And so, you know, I, I had friends that would buy nice cars or, or, you know, nice things. And, you know, don’t get me wrong. Like, I’ve boughten a ton of nice things. But when I first started, it was like, “Uh-uh, I ain’t buying anything.” And the first thing I could do, I buy some stock. I read this book from The Motley Fool, like, their very first book on stocks and, and how to trade stocks. You know, I knew that my parents, you know, bought and sold real estate. But they never talked about it and they never showed me how to do it. They didn’t refuse to, but they’re like, “Ah, just save your money first ’cause you don’t have enough money for a down payment.” But, like, in Vancouver no one can afford an actual house. So I was like, “Well, what about condos?” They’re like, “Nah, condos are terrible.” And I’m like, “I can’t get into the market if I don’t.” So I ended up, because my parents had their way of doing things and it didn’t fit my mold, I just took a course. I took a course to learn and I made sure that this course wasn’t, you know, some dude trying to sell me their property or their investments. And I learned how to do cash flow and, and those, kind of, things. It was a step at a time. My very first condo that I bought was this terrible slumlord area in the backwater part of Vancouver, like, where I’m pretty sure crack addicts, you know, did their drugs behind the bushes and stuff like that. But the numbers worked. I was able to find a good tenant in, in there. And they’ve, you know, she now sits on Strata for me and all this, kinda, stuff. And it just, kind of, has grown from there in a step at a time, a step at a time. And I definitely don’t make as much as, you know, doctors and surgeons and lawyers and stuff like that yet. You know, we have a very comfortable living. And yeah, I mean my, my friends joke like, “Ted, at this point, you could retire. Why don’t you retire?” And I’m like, “Well, if I did, I’d probably become, like, a crime syndicate overlord or something ’cause I, I get bored! I’d be so bored. So now in a very great spot where, you know, I’ve learned to empower people, have a good staff. I still work 10 hours a day in COVID, right? Like, it’s, like, you know, eight to six a lot of days and that’s okay because I’m having fun. But it didn’t come without a lot of trials and tribulations, a lot of sleepless nights. And, you know, just, just learning and understanding that everything’s a process. Understanding that, you know, life is impermanent just by nature. And so I did a lot of, you know, mindfulness practice. I still do that. I do a lot of meditation, gratitude journal, all that kind of stuff that you hear about. And that’s really helped me as, as well as part of my journey. But ultimately it’s also relationships. You know, learning from people, from everybody around me. And building good, strong support networks has really helped as well.
One thing that comes up a lot when we talk to everyone, literally almost every interview, we talk about how we don’t talk about money. You said you grew up with this family, you know, like, you have a lot of values that you got from your parents. You know, you have a banking background and a real estate background kind of baked into your childhood. But you said your parents didn’t really talk to you about it. They didn’t give you those lessons. So you had to go out and get those lessons yourself. That’s a really common thing. But at the same time, when you talk about the success of your business and the success of your life, you credit some of that success to your family. You know, they gave you a place to start out. To your wife who was there with you since the beginning, as you know, employee number one. It’s interesting to see this dichotomy. Normally the trope that I keep encountering on this is, “Why don’t we talk more about money?” And so I’d love to talk little bit more about the conversations you did have.
I think the distinction between how I was brought up and maybe some of my friends… And don’t get me wrong, my friends have all done very well. Like, most of my friends are good old white boys. You know, like, I grew up in a place where I was like the only, the only colored folks were, like, me, the Filipino kid, and the Italian kid. And everyone else was, like, you know, children of the corn, like, blonde hair, blue eyes. So, and they’ve all done very well as well. So don’t get me wrong. But, you know, my journey about, you know, the financial independence and, and whatnot and how I started my agency, I think it’s a few things. So both my parents came from a very large family. So my mom has this, like, nine siblings. And then my dad, there’s eight. And I think my dad’s side, there were more people that actually were employed. But on my mom’s side, every one of them worked for themselves, small businesses. But, like, you know, I had an uncle, an aunt who did import exports, actually a couple of them did import export. I have an aunt who owns a tailor shop, another financial advisor uncle. I have an uncle who runs his own counseling, an aunt who runs her own counseling. I think only one sibling works for a company and she’s an accountant. And so I always knew that, like, well, it’s kinda in the blood. Like, I didn’t know a lot of my family members that, you know, actually punched a clock. They kind of just, a lot of ’em stayed at home and did their thing. And so there was that normalcy of it. Now I think the money conversation was they definitely didn’t, you know, tell us how much they made as income. But I think they didn’t feel like it was the right time to actually talk about it. It wasn’t like they were uncomfortable ’cause later on we did talk about money. But when we were younger it was more like, “Okay, you don’t have the basic foundational knowledge for me to have this discussion with you.” And this is, in fact, something that I’m experiencing as a father myself. I have a preteen daughter who definitely doesn’t want to be in the poorhouse. We talk about that. But she doesn’t have the basics of algebra. Right? So how am I able to show her, you know, how money grows if she doesn’t understand like, you know, compound interest and stuff like that. Right? So there was a lot of those things that just fundamentally we didn’t have. So it was a lot of just save your money, save your money, save your money, save your money. So my dad is the stock guy. He likes investing in stocks. My mother was, hated stocks ’cause my grandfather lost a bunch of money in the ’80s and almost went broke because of the crash in the ’80s. So for her it was, like, forever tainted. Real estate, not stocks. And so I had this dichotomy of mom likes property. Dad likes stocks. Dad wouldn’t talk about stocks, but my mother would show me, “This is why, you know, investing real estate is better than stocks.” And she would do the formula. “I bought this piece of property at this time for this and I borrowed this.” And all these, kind of, things and showed me, like, I can make this money. So actually my first big move was in real estate. Like, sure, I had, you know, the, the retirement savings accounts, but I didn’t really know anything about it. And it wasn’t until I got little bit older, started reading books that I had that. So, you know, there again, middle class immigrant family. So it wasn’t like your, the high-rolling Wall Street types. But it was being able to push the envelope and which I tend to do. And sometimes I would get in trouble for it. But eventually if you’re not gonna teach me, then I’m gonna go and learn it myself. Actually, I didn’t tell my folks I own property up until I think four years ago, five years ago. So they just thought I, you know, had the house that we live in. And it was through other conversation when I felt like I’m ready. Okay, I have like my fourth or fifth property. I’m like, “Okay, now I’m gonna talk about it.” And they’re like, “Oh, damn, he’s actually done better than we did.” Right? Or, “The stocks are going like, hay–” You know, like, when I’m saying stuff and my dad’s, kinda, like, “Oh, you know what you’re talking about?” And then having that conversation then realizing, in fact, like, “Hey, I’ve actually done better than they have.” And, and then now I’m actually, funny enough, managing my mom’s money. Right? And it’s taken a step at a time and a lot of patience and compassion for, you know, your situation and, and figuring out how that goes. But yeah, I don’t know. I, I don’t really have a, a, a right answer. I mean, I certainly didn’t feel patient while I was doing it. But over time I think I just, I didn’t really give up and I just kept going and maybe I was too stupid to pull out when the market was doing bad. I’m like, “Aaaah, I don’t know.” And then, but I’m, I was like, “Okay, maybe I should pull out and the market recover.” So I don’t know. I don’t, I don’t really wanna know what it is, but probably good luck, you know, better lucky than good.
That’s gotta be every parent’s dream for their child to do better than they. Like, you have a daughter. Presumably you’ve done and you are doing what you can to set her up so that 30 years from now she can have this conversation on a podcast with another person who has a better-sounding voice than I do about how much more successful she’s doing.
Maybe it’s your kid with a silky smooth voice.
Now we’re talking. But yeah, I love that. And I like the idea too, that when you weren’t ready, you didn’t have the basics. You had the tenacity to go out and learn yourself. And by doing it yourself, you just went and bought property. And that’s when you told them. Once you had already demonstrated, “Okay, I didn’t have the basics. Now I have an expertise. Now we can talk.” And I think that’s a very good way to go about it.
I, I don’t think it was ever planned. It was more, I didn’t wanna be bothered by the, like, “Why did you buy this slumlord piece of garbage property?” And, you know, it wasn’t, it wasn’t like, oh, I had this grand plan that I’m gonna prove it to them. I was just, like, “I don’t wanna bother, I gotta do my thing and I’ll figure it out.” They always have books that sell, you know, financial independence and all this, kinda, stuff. But I, kinda, thought, like, you know, financial independence is good. Like, don’t get me wrong. But it really won’t buy happiness. Like, and, and I’ve been there, like, you know, cross the, you know, seven-figure net worth threshold. I expected, like, “Oh, I’m gonna feel better.” No, no, no, you, you’re still you. Like, you’re still you. And so this is why I say, like, I, I still do stuff. You know, I obviously wanna make money, but it’s now about doing something I’m enjoying and growing something that, that is mine. And I don’t know. It’s been a lot more fun the last few years once I had that realization and I wasn’t chasing something anymore.
Financial independence is the starting point.
Even financial independence is, is not necessarily a starting point. It, it’s a nice to have, but I’ve met a lot of very happy people that are not financially independent. I mean, I remember having a conversation with a cousin of mine who definitely makes a fraction of what, what I make and, and probably less than the average income earner. And I remember, you know, having dinner with him and I was fricking miserable. Like, I remember, like I had a couple of stress points in the business. Probably had to do with, you know, staffing, probably had to do with a client not paying, probably not making enough money to, to pay for staff and payroll. Like, you know, it, it it, it’s stressful ’cause, you know, not only do you have to pay all these people. You know, I gotta then pay myself to make sure I feed myself and my kid. So like all of that stress and, and the not good enough, like, I know all these people that are way more successful than me. And I’m sitting there and it’s funny because, you know, we’re having dinner and I am miserable pouring out my, like, complaints and soul. This is a number of years. This is, like, almost 10 years ago now. And he was like, “You know, like, you’re chasing all this and it’s supposed to make you happy. But, like, look, I, I don’t have any of that. And I am way happier than you.” And it’s like, “That is true.” And it’s not to say, like, let all that other stuff, like, all the stuff, all my dreams and pursuits go so then I can then be happy. No, it, it’s something internal. It doesn’t matter how much, how many zeros you have or you don’t have. It has to do with, you know, the root cause of who you are and, and, and how you got here. And everyone’s got a journey and a lesson to learn and more than one probably. And so yeah, just do that. Like, the, the money will come if, if you’re doing the right things.
Don’t forego happiness in pursuit of money.
Yeah. Like there was probably a good 12 years where I was definitely unhappy. At the time I think if you really dug into that and asked that Ted, you know, he’d probably reluctantly admit that he wasn’t happy ’cause, like, there were so many stresses trying to make it go. And I had all these excuses of like, “Hey, I put food on the table.” I don’t know, like, “If you want this lifestyle…” And all this kind of stuff and guilt and, and all that kind of stuff. But when I, kind of, let that go and realized, you know, life is actually pretty good. Like, I got fresh air to breathe, clean water to drink, have all my limbs, my parents are alive and healthy. You know, I have, I have the love of my life and we’ve been together for, you know, 20 some odd years. I got a healthy, smart, you know, intelligent kid. That’s pretty damn good. Like, sure, maybe I don’t make as much as the next guy, but that’s pretty damn good. And so every day I just do this gratitude journal and I just write whatever’s on my mind of what I’m grateful for until I, kind of, like, exhaust out the, like, negativity in my head. And then we now do it at the dinner table. So every night, you know, we just go around like, “Hey, you know, what, what are we grateful for?” And I’ll say something and then we’ll pick a word of the day. Like, “I’m gonna be fantastic” or something like that. And then, you know, my wife will go and then my daughter will go and, it kind of, you know, sets the tone. And it’s not perfect. There’s definitely still yelling matches. We got a preteen daughter after all in the house, but it’s been a good ride.
That seems healthy. I, I think gratitude is a great place to ground ourselves. Can we end with maybe one thing you’re grateful for today?
So every Monday night, because it’s COVID, my mom brings over food. She cooks us a meal and gets my dad to deliver it to the house. So we got, like, DoorDash dad and, and, you know, UberEats mom. And we, we got a nice meal. Grateful for the fact that we could afford a gym downstairs and we made a gym for the house so that we don’t have to go to the gym. I’m grateful that my daughter enjoys her soccer games ’cause she can play outside and still be a kid. And I’m grateful for that, that, like, well in Canada we get, you know, pretty good healthcare. You know, I’m grateful that I have hair on my head, like all my teeth, I have all my teeth. I can see, I’m not blind. I can touch, I can smell my wife’s, you know, shampoo and I can hug my kid. You know, we always have kisses and, and, and hugs in the house. I’m grateful I have these two awesome–Oh, speaking of frugal living! So I have these two goldfish in my house. My daughter’s named them Fanta and Tangerine. And I bought them from the local pet shop for 59 cents each. They were, like, you know, the feeder fish that you feed the bigger fish. And I was, like, kinda, like, again, being frugal. And they were, like, half the size of my pinky when I bought them. And they’re now larger than my hand. And so, you know, like, grateful for my, my two goldfish, and beautiful house that we have, and, you know, great food that we, we have on the table and, and some money in the bank. <music>
Ted didn’t intend to start a successful marketing business at the start of his career. He just wanted to make indie films. He used an entrepreneurial mindset, specifically a tenacious drive to find new clients, to launch his business. And he invested in real estate as his business grew. His story is an inspiration. Thanks to this week’s guest Ted Lau and to our podcast editor intern, Genny Blauvelt. I’m Jim Markus. <music>
More about Frugal Living with Jim Markus
To hear more episodes about how to build a successful business, check out the latest episode of Frugal Living. Frugal Living is a podcast for smart consumers. How do you spend less and get more? The show, sponsored by Brad’s Deals, features interviews, stories, tips, and tricks. Jim Markus hosts season four, out now