Stefan was “sick and tired of being poor” when he came across Rich Dad Poor Dad. He sold all of his rock band equipment and jumped all in with real estate investing. After a few years, he was elected into the Rich Dad Hall of Fame! Hear his strategy for starting from scratch and building a multi million dollar portfolio. If you enjoyed today’s episode remember to subscribe in iTunes and leave us a review!
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Stefan Aarnio Real Estate Background:
- Award winning real estate Investor, Entrepreneur, Author and winner of the 2014 Rich Dad International Hall of Fame award
- Started with only $1200, built a multi-million dollar portfolio
- Based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
- Say hi to him at http://stefanaarnio.com/
- Best Ever Book: The 4th Turning
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Joe Fairless: Best Ever listeners, how are you doing? Welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Joe Fairless, and this is the world’s longest-running daily real estate investing podcast. We only talk about the best advice ever, we don’t get into any of that fluffy stuff. With us today, Stefan Aarnio. How are you doing, Stefan?
Stefan Aarnio: Great, Joe. Doing great.
Joe Fairless: I’m glad to hear it. A little bit about Stefan – he is an award-winning real estate investor. He actually won the 2014 Rich Dad International Hall of Fame Award. He’s also an author, an entrepreneur; started with 1,200 bucks and has built a multi-million-dollar portfolio. Based in Winnipeg, Canada, and you can say hi to him – his website is in the show notes. With that being said, do you wanna give the Best Ever listeners a little bit more about your background and your current focus?
Stefan Aarnio: Yeah, my story started when I was 16 years old and I wanted to be a rock star. I told my mom and dad, I said “I wanna be a rock star. I wanna be rich and famous.” Of course, they said that’s a horrible idea, but my mom said “I support you, honey, so why don’t you go to university and get yourself a music degree”, because of course, rock stars need to have a music degree, which is completely false… [laughs] Yeah, I know, we still laugh at that.
Long story short, I ended up graduating from the university of Manitoba at age 22, and I had a post-grad depression because I dropped out of the music school, I dropped out of computer science, I dropped out of the business school, and finally I took two poetry classes, got an English degree with a minor in music, and it was 2008. There was no jobs for a guy with an English degree, so I worked my whole life, 22 years now, getting out of school, and there was nothing at the end. I got depressed.
I started working in a call center, I was making $10/hour, I had a guitar teaching job, I was teaching guitar to kids for 10k/year, living in my mom’s basement… And to me, it wasn’t the life that I was promised when I was younger. I thought “Man, there’s gotta be more out there. I’m tired of being poor.” I wanted to have a house, and a car, and maybe afford a girlfriend one day, or a wife; I thought “Man, I can’t be poor. I’m sick and tired of being poor.”
So I read a little book called Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and it totally changed my perspective. I shut the rock band down, I ended up selling all my equipment, selling my gear, everything. I went all into real estate. I started going to seminars. I bought my first house in 2009 with $1,200 of cash, with five other partners. It was a crazy [unintelligible [00:03:34].05] horrible idea. Never do that.
Joe Fairless: [laughs] Oh, my gosh…
Stefan Aarnio: Just the stupidest thing.
Joe Fairless: Did everyone put in about $1,200?
Stefan Aarnio: Oh, buddy… It was such a bad arrangement… The deal was like 5 out of 10; it was okay, it cash-flowed, but it was a horrible idea. Anyways, long story short, the first year I did one deal; the second year I did one deal. The third year I did 12 deals, and I did 24 deals the next year, and then 30 deals, and now my team does about 50 deals a year. The whole difference was I ended up getting the proper coaching, proper mentors, and in 2014 won Rich Dad Hall of Fame, which was super-cool, because the story started with Rich Dad, and they validated me… They only give out one award for that in Canada per year, and I think five in the U.S, so pretty cool to come full circle with that.
Joe Fairless: When you say you do 50 deals a year approximately now, are those buy and holds?
Stefan Aarnio: Yes, it’s a mixture. I have an acquisition team; I’ve got three guys on the acquisition team right now… And a lot of them are actually just wholesale. We tie it up, flip the contract; tie it up, flip the contract, make a little bit of money.
Joe Fairless: What do you make on average per deal?
Stefan Aarnio: I’d say usually 5k-10k, but sometimes it’s 3k, sometimes $500, sometimes it’s 20k… It’s a variable amount. Some of my students have done 70k per deal on some deals, and I think that’s amazing. But my team – it’s a lot of fives and tens. And then I’ve got a bigger commercial storage unit I’m working on, 300 storage units. That’s a big 50,000 square foot warehouse. Then I’ve got a bunch of buy-fix-refinance-rents going on, which I think is actually a pretty good strategy. The great thing about it is you just warehouse debt, you buy it now, and you just let it liquidate out for the next 25-30 years. That’s amazing, especially if you’ve got good neighborhoods, good rents.
I’m a diverse guy now. For a long time it was flipping, flipping, flipping. It was 30 flips, buy-fix-sell houses a year, 30 rehabs, and now I’m diversified, I’ve changed that.
Joe Fairless: Wow. So that first one, was that a buy and hold, or was that a buy, fix and flip?
Stefan Aarnio: Oh, bro, that was a buy and hold. For 1,200 bucks we’re not gonna be able to flip it, right?
Joe Fairless: I don’t know…
Stefan Aarnio: Yeah, man… It was–
Joe Fairless: You went in with an unorthodox structure, so I had no idea what you were gonna do with that.
Stefan Aarnio: You know what – the best part of that deal is I got in.
Joe Fairless: Yup, absolutely.
Stefan Aarnio: It broke the barrier, and I was like “Man, I’m in!” My second deal I did was a big, crazy rehab buy and hold, and it was a burnt down property, it was a burnt down mansion downtown in Winnipeg. I chopped the roof off and added an extra floor, and gutted the building and put the stairs on the outside. Never do this. This is another “never do.”
That property ended up cash-flowing $2,000/month, so at age 23 I was [unintelligible [00:06:11].24] rat race really fast. I covered my expenses as a young kid, and today it’s a great deal. It’s 2018, that was 2010 I bought that. Today it’s a great deal, but at the time — again, I don’t recommend chopping the roof off a house and adding a floor. It’s just really hard to do.
Joe Fairless: So primarily, once you got going, you started primarily with fix and flips, and now you transitioned to multiple things. One of the core aspects is wholesaling, where you all wholesale approximately 50 deals a year.
You mentioned a 300-unit storage facility – is that something you currently own?
Stefan Aarnio: Right now we got the contract. The contract is going back and forth with the vendor. I can tell you a bit about the terms though, it’s amazing. It’s a 50,000 square foot building, it’s about a million dollar purchase or so, about 1,08 million, and the vendor is giving me 5-year vendor financing, 1% interest-only for two years… So think about that; that’s a massive warehouse, great location, great signage. Actually, if I put a billboard on that building, Joe, I think it’s gonna pay for the whole deal.
So getting into the commercial space – that’s a contract I keep slapping back and forth. We [unintelligible [00:07:21].22] Not final yet… But that’s a redevelopment, with 300 units, and an office share. We’re gonna go into a big ol’ warehouse…
Joe Fairless: Just so I’m understanding the terminology, because it might be a little different in Canada — because I assume this is in Canada…?
Stefan Aarnio: Yeah, I’m up here in Winnipeg, yeah.
Joe Fairless: Okay, got it. So when you say the vendor, is that the lender?
Stefan Aarnio: Vendor — so you guys would say seller. I guess you say seller finance?
Joe Fairless: Okay, got it. Alright, I’m with you.
Stefan Aarnio: I’m French — or, I’m not French, but in Canada we’ve got all this French lingo. Sorry, man.
Joe Fairless: Okay, seller financing. Now it all makes sense.
Stefan Aarnio: Yes, you say seller financing, I say vendor financing. Yeah, seller financing… And it’s amazing, because this is gonna be a big rehab project. We’re buying it for $20/square foot, we’re putting in $20/square foot, and something like that, when it’s up and running at 85% occupancy, does $22,000/month cashflow. That’s way different than a little crappy fourplex that does 2k.
So yeah, it’s evolution, and it evolves, and along the way I’ve also become quite an internet marketer and learned a lot of business skills, and built a team… We’ve got 11 people working here every day, so I’m all about the team, and all about the leverage that you can get from having other people doing the day-to-day things.
Joe Fairless: Why not double down on the wholesaling business – because I’m sure there’s more deals out there – and just focus on that?
Stefan Aarnio: You know what, I think the limiting factor is talent. I’m actually gonna be overhauling the wholesale side pretty soon. It’s all about talent; when you start building a team and you start scaling — I was mentioning yesterday to a guy I was recruiting, I said it’s about talent and muscle. The team I have right now is okay, it’s flowing, they’re doing stuff, but I think it could be done better, Joe, and I think one of the hardest things with building a real estate business is there’s only two ways to scale – you either do more deals, or you do bigger deals. More money, or more deals. And all of that takes more skill. So you either train skills to people, or recruit better talent. For me, with that team right now, I think we have to upgrade the talent on the team; we probably have to reorganize the management a little bit.
I agree with you, man… I think that there’s a lot more meat on the bones there, but it really is about management, and it’s about — with flipping, I don’t do as much flipping, because that’s a very management-intensive thing, and I don’t have the right manager to manage that… Sort of like The E Myth – if you’ve read the book E Myth, it’s all about the manager.
Joe Fairless: When you take a look at the end of this year – or let’s just do year-to-date – overall income coming in to your business, what makes up the largest chunk of that?
Stefan Aarnio: I’m a guy who has multiple income streams; I look at it like this – there’s earned income, and then there’s the equity side, where you’re building equity… And of course, in real estate when you build equity, you can’t just cash that out, but you’re building it. And then the other side is scalable business. My organization is a multi-seven-figure operation, and the income streams are always fluctuating. Sometimes information is really good, sometimes wholesaling is really good… I’ve even had times – years ago – at a staging company, the staging company kept the business alive in bad times.
So it’s a multi-seven-figure organization, and depending on how things are doing in any way, any case — right now in Winnipeg, where I’m at, there’s talk that the market has gone down 12%. That’s gonna affect things a little bit, and it’s gonna change the game a little bit.
So they’re always changing, and I think it’s like the tide – it goes in and out. That’s why I’m a big believer in diversifying, and having a lot of different things, like for example storage. That’s a different thing than flipping. Flipping is great in an up market. When it’s going up-up-up, it’s easy-easy-easy. When it goes down, you’ve gotta be really technical and really good on your buys.
Joe Fairless: So for this year what’s the lead one?
Stefan Aarnio: This year the lead one in the real estate is probably the wholesaling. Yeah, probably wholesaling over there. Then the rentals, and they just keep chugging along. Then the other stuff – all the information, and all that. The beauty with that is that’s not tied to land.
The toughest thing I think in business is scaling, scaling, scaling; how do you scale. And one of the toughest things with real estate is you’ve got land, you’ve got the government, you’ve got lawyers, you’ve got the city that sometimes does weird things, and those are where I think the biggest limitations with real estate are – it’s where you’ve got the government coming in, or the city, and that’s where suddenly things can go really good or really bad, depending on what side of the fence you are.
Joe Fairless: Can you tell us about the staging company and how that helped you all when the economic times were down?
Stefan Aarnio: Yeah, so I’m a big vertical integration guy. That’s where you take your expenses and recapture them through vertically-integrated businesses. And when I was flipping 30 houses a year, flip-flip-flip-flip, buy-fix-sell, buy-fix-sell, buy-fix-sell, I have eight sets of staging furniture. So we have a warehouse, and we’ve got a truck, and we move this furniture around… And we would charge anywhere from $3,000 on the higher end, $1,500 at the lower end. Having sets of furniture – you can set up a set of furniture for $5,000-$6,000 and rent it for about $1,000 to $3,000 for the first month, and after that probably anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 ongoing. So if you have eight sets of furniture out there and everybody is paying you $1,000/month, that’s $8,000/month of money coming in.
I had some times where I had all these flips that weren’t selling, and suddenly, like, oh my god, we started deploying some staging, staging goes out there, and sometimes you need five grand to survive, and suddenly five grand is hitting your bank account… And those little thousand-dollar deals – they add up, especially in a business like real estate, where it’s illiquid a lot of the time. You might have a million dollars of equity and zero cash, and now you’re in trouble.
Joe Fairless: So where is that staging company now?
Stefan Aarnio: It’s still running. Again, it’s a matter of it doesn’t scale. So it’s a business where we’ve got eight sets, we have a warehouse that I lease (how is that…?), and the furniture goes out, it comes in… One of my guys and his girlfriend – they run it, and it’s cool for me, because the checks come in, I sign the checks, I pay them.
I have not staged a house ever in my life, Joe. I’ve never done it. I’ve never done the work with that; I’ve always had someone doing it, and they do the labor, so I pay them their piece… It’s almost like a real estate deal, and then you’re moving this little furniture around… But you run into that same problem – it doesn’t scale.
Joe Fairless: Why not?
Stefan Aarnio: Well, if you have, let’s say, 50 sets of furniture, the biggest issue with it is every realtor has his own little stager; so he might have his girlfriend, or he might have his own set of furniture, or he might have his friend or some people who do staging for ridiculous rock bottom prices… So the marketing and the selling of it is a little bit difficult.
Then the other thing is it’s just not a fun business to scale. It doesn’t scale well. It’s trucks, it’s people, it’s damages… Sometimes people stage a house and they forget the forks in a drawer, and you’re losing your forks and someone’s gotta go and buy more forks… Just the minutiae of that – it doesn’t scale well.
I’ve left that business at an eight-set furniture business, and it cash-flows, it makes money, but it’s probably not the biggest thing, where I’m like, “Oh man, this is gonna win the war of life for me.” It’s a cool hobby business. I always get approached by young women who are like “Hey, I wanna work in your staging company, I wanna do that.” If you’re a stay-at-home mom and you’ve got some furniture – that’s awesome. But if you wanna make a million dollars a year, I think that’s gonna be a really hard time to scale that to a million dollars.
Joe Fairless: You mentioned you were a proponent of vertical integration. What’s another example of vertical integration within your business?
Stefan Aarnio: With the flipping, the best thing that I did with that was I take a finder’s fee on the deal, so that’s the profit center. The second profit center is I get the staging contract. The third profit center was we charged a little fee for the bookkeeping, so there’d be a little admin fee… And then, if it was a joint venture, I’d take half at least, or we would have a different structure with the investors. So it’d be four profit centers per deal, which is really great, and that would help me run the pipeline, because your acquisition guys gotta get paid, stagers gotta get paid, bookkeepers gotta get paid; so we take all those little integrations there, and with the storage that’s coming up, I’m looking to vertically integrate that, because when we have the storage business, the staging is gonna move in there, and then my office is gonna move in there.
I think other things like bringing in-house a social media, marketing agency in there, bringing video production in there – all the things I spend money on, I try to recapture into vertical integration, so that rather than spending money, you’re making money on that. Some of those scale really well. A social media agency scales beautifully, whereas furniture in a truck, in a storage unit, is really hard to scale.
Joe Fairless: I get it. That makes sense. You said you have 11 people on your team… What do they do?
Stefan Aarnio: About eight or nine of them are income-generating, so those are either salesmen, in my info business, or they’re acquisitions people. Then we’ve got in-house accounting, which is awesome; having in-house accounting makes your life awesome. I haven’t opened my mail in five years. They just open it, they sort it, they bring me a stack of signed things and reports… It’s amazing.
I’ve got a really good assistant, who just gets better and better every day, and then the other person – we have a guy who does nothing but shipping mail. That’s all he does – mail, every day.
Joe Fairless: What is he mailing? Direct mail…?
Stefan Aarnio: We sell a lot of books. We’ve got a lot of books, courses, programs, so every day there’s a massive FedEx thing and a massive Canada Post going out. So that guy just does mail, and that’s a pain in the neck when you physically mail stuff, because people lose it, or they put the wrong address… And of course, the customer is always right, and Amazon gets it in one day to the customer, and they’ve gotta wait a week; people get pissed off now, right?
Joe Fairless: Right. You’ve got the 11 people, and it’s interesting how you labeled the 8-9 as “income-generating.” I love thinking about it that way… Who came first, and how did you bring on these team members? We can just group them as the nine income-generating people, the accountant, the assistant and the shipping person… Who came first and in what order?
Stefan Aarnio: Oh man, Joe, that’s the best question, because there’s so many guys out there that want to scale, but they don’t know how or they’re afraid. Now, I remember when I went – I think it was 2013, so about five years ago – to a conference, and a friend of mine was selling Infusionsoft packages. I guess he had an Infusionsoft guy that would fly in, and he was selling it, and… I’d written a book, and I was flipping a bunch of houses, and I was alone, I was one guy… And he said to me, “You should buy Infusionsoft.” And everybody goes, “Oh, man, 1,500 bucks down, and 300 bucks a month… I don’t wanna pay that.” He said, “Just do it”, so I just did. I swiped my credit card, I bought the CRM, and I went home and I had no employees.
I had a little office, I walled off a part of my house, I built a wall, with nice doors and everything, and branded it up so it’d look cool… I had this little office, empty; I went to IKEA, I bought three desks… I didn’t even know what to do with Infusionsoft; I didn’t know anything about it, and I still don’t know anything about it… Other people do it, I know nothing about it. So I hired two girls – one girl was gonna be an acquisitions person; and I put her on salary, which was a horrible idea… I would never put an acquisition person ever again on salary. Bad idea. And then I also hired another girl – I had these two girls trying out to get a job with me, and the deal was “Go out and get me a real estate deal at a discount, and whoever gets it is gonna get the acquisition job.” That was the interview, and it went on for like a month or so. These girls are interviewing for a month, trying to get a deal…
So one of the girls got a deal, I hired her for acquisitions, on salary. Bad idea. Then the other girl – I was like, “I don’t know what to do with you, but I love you, I think you’re great.” So we ended up opening an accidental coaching business. And I just call that “accidental coaching” because I never planned on having a coaching business. But I said I don’t wanna let this girl go, so I’ll open a company with her.
Then the third person we hired was a bookkeeper. That was a big disaster, because that bookkeeper didn’t bank-reconcile the books to the bank account, and we went for 2-3 years with no reconciliations, and me being ignorant, I didn’t know what a bank rec was. So suddenly, three years down the road, I had a $40,000 bookkeeping bill to clean up my books, because nothing was tied to the bank account.
I was getting reports, I was getting Excel spreadsheets, I was like “Oh, this looks great. This looks great.” Nothing was reconciled. I had some multi-millionaire investors investing; one was an accountant, and he said to me “Your bookkeeper is not reconciling anything.” I didn’t know what that meant, so I was like “Oh…” And they were getting freaky and sweaty, because they did their own books on their own account with me. So I had my rich guys in one account, then I had everybody else in another account… So their account was reconciled tickety-boo, super-tight, numbered checks in Ziploc bags, and then the other account was just the wilderness. It was like squirrels, and gerbils, and wolves, and rabbits, and eagles… It was crazy, man… That was a super-bad–
Joe Fairless: How did you find that bookkeeper, the one that messed up?
Stefan Aarnio: Oh my goodness, you know what – I don’t even remember. My guess is – I have a long list of hires and fires… The worst people have been from the online classifieds, like Craigslist, Kijiji… She was probably a Kijiji. And then all my best hires have always been referrals or customers. Those are tremendous. I stopped hiring, because I had a headhunter I hired. I think I burned through four or five bookkeepers through that headhunter, and then the lady that does it now, she’s really great. She was a referral through one of the headhunters. She came in and starting working for minimum wage in office, sorting things during that bookkeeping debacle, and then she ended up becoming the bookkeeper, and she’s grown from there. So everybody in my office is a referral. Kijiji – forget it. Craigslist – forget it. Headhunters – forget it. Recruiting people is much like acquiring customers – you need to indoctrinate them and they need to be in love with your brand. I always say it’s like Disneyland – if you don’t believe in Disney, you’re not working at Disneyland. If you haven’t seen the little mermaid, you’re not coming to Disneyland. If you don’t like beauty and the beast, you can’t work at Disneyland, and that’s how my place is. You’ve gotta read all my books, do book reports, you’ve gotta know everything about it to even come to Disneyland over here.
Joe Fairless: What’s your best real estate investing advice ever?
Stefan Aarnio: Oh, man… Best real estate investing advice ever. Are we talking for an advanced person, or a beginner?
Joe Fairless: Let’s go advanced.
Stefan Aarnio: Okay. Interesting, I think right now for me on an advanced level it’s about strategy. I’m playing it like a Monopoly board now. I want key pieces, strategic pieces of land, in strategic neighborhoods. For example, this building I’m buying right now, it’s got signage on it that’s better than the building. That’s a strategic piece.
I just bought my neighbor’s house, because I’m assembling on my street; I’m assembling, buying them one at a time. I think that when you assemble or when you have strategic pieces and you think strategically — it’s not just about cashflow… Everybody wants to know “What’s the ROI? What’s the cashflow?” They’re like these little sizzly hot little numbers. I’m more interested in what’s the strategic, what’s the 30-year term of this.
Here’s a crazy thought, actually, Joe. This might be it. If you’re doing buy and hold and if you’re holding it forever, it kind of doesn’t matter what you paid for it.
Joe Fairless: Yup.
Stefan Aarnio: And that should blow your mind a bit, unless you already think that way…
Joe Fairless: As long as it cash-flows.
Stefan Aarnio: Yeah, it cash-flows even 50 bucks, 100 bucks, or whatever. If you buy it today at any price and you hold it for 30 years and you plan to never sell, that is an amazing deal. That’s what Warren Buffet does. So jump with Warren Buffet and buy things with the intent of never selling, and buy them strategically, so you own that street corner, and you own that sign.
I just bought my neighbor’s house and I’ve put my employees in there, and they live there in offices next door. Strategic. The strategic things you do with real estate on a 30-year period or a lifetime period is where you’re gonna make the most money.
Joe Fairless: We’re gonna do a lightning round. Are you ready for the Best Ever Lightning Round?
Stefan Aarnio: Let’s do it!
Joe Fairless: Alright, let’s do it. First, a quick word from our Best Ever partners.
Joe Fairless: Alright, best ever book you’ve recently read?
Stefan Aarnio: The Fourth Turning. I think it’s by William Strauss. It’s about the four cycles of history. Amazing book, you’ve gotta read it.
Joe Fairless: What’s the best ever deal you’ve done that we have not talked about already.
Stefan Aarnio: That’s a hard one… I’d say buying this neighbor’s house here and turning into employee quarters is just really hot. It’s next-level with the strategy.
Joe Fairless: What’s a mistake you’ve made on a transaction?
Stefan Aarnio: Oh, dude… Worst one ever – I had a deal, we were flipping, it was a buy-fix-sell on a duplex, and we found out — everything it said duplex-duplex-duplex; my lawyer bought it, we paid for title insurance, and the city came back to us and said it wasn’t a duplex, and our title insurance was never purchased, so now we were suing for errors and omissions. That was absolutely brutal. That was like a 100k loss. Super-brutal.
Joe Fairless: What’s the best ever way you like to give back?
Stefan Aarnio: Best ever way to give back… That’s a really interesting question. I go on Kiva and I fund chicken farms for people. So I do micro-loans, and help as many guys start chicken farms as possible. I only do chicken farms, and that’s it. Just chickens, chickens, chickens, because chickens have such a high yield that it can get the most people out of poverty. I really believe in setting people up with the chicken business.
Joe Fairless: How can the Best Ever listeners learn more about what you’ve got going on?
Stefan Aarnio: They can go to StefanAarnio.com, or follow me on Instagram, Facebook… I’m the only Stefan Aarnio on Google, I’ve got the first 30 pages just to me.
Joe Fairless: Stefan, I really enjoyed our conversation, and thanks for being on the show. I learned about how you got to this point, as well as how you scaled, the 11 people in your company, and the order in which the first couple came about. One, the acquisitions person and the unintentional coaching business, and then the bookkeeper that didn’t work out, and how you found the person who didn’t work out, online, versus referrals and having customers then team up with you.
And then also, the vertical integration, with the staging company, as well as other ways that you look to vertically-integrate your business. Thanks again for being on the show. I hope you have a best ever day, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Stefan Aarnio: Thank you.