June 6, 2020

JF2104: Financial Samurai With Sam Dogen


Sam Dogen is the founder of Financial Samurai and has been providing content to the world through his free blogs and articles around topics that will help you with your financial literacy and goals. He Has also been in the real estate investing experience for 17 years and shares some of his experiences with this and his personal journey.


Sam Dogen Real Estate Background:

  • Founder of Financial Samurai
  • Has 17 years of real estate investing experience
  • Owns multiple properties in San Francisco, Honolulu, and Lake Tahoe
  • Commercial real estate portfolio consists of 15 properties
  • Based in San Francisco, CA
  • Say hi to him at: https://www.financialsamurai.com/ 
  • Best Ever Book: Thinking in Bets

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Best Ever Tweet:

“I love the green marble theory.” – Sam Dogen


Theo Hicks: Hello, Best Ever listeners. Welcome to the best real estate investing advice ever show. I’m Theo Hicks, and today we’re speaking with Sam Dogen. Sam, how are you doing today?

Sam Dogen: Good. How are you?

Theo Hicks: I’m doing great, and thanks for joining us. A little bit about Sam – he is the founder of Financial Samurai. He has 17 years of real estate investing experience, owns multiple properties in San Francisco, Honolulu and Lake Tahoe; he has a commercial real estate portfolio consisting of 15 properties. He’s based in San Francisco, California, and you can say hi to him at his website, FinancialSamurai.com.

Sam, do you mind telling us a little bit more about your background and what you’re focused on today?

Sam Dogen: Sure. I actually grew up overseas, all across Asia and in Africa, because my parents were in the U.S. Foreign Service. I came to high school in the United States, and then I went to college at William & Mary in Virginia. Then I went to work on Wall Street in 1999. So I worked in finance, mainly international equities from 1999 to 2012, and in 2012 I decided to negotiate a severance and get out of there… Because after the global financial crisis in 2008-2009 it just wasn’t fun working in finance anymore. We were always the bad guys, even if we had nothing to do with the housing market.

Again, I was in international equities, specifically Asian equities, and it just didn’t feel good to work in that field anymore. Also, the pay wasn’t commensurate with the performance anymore. You could have done really well with your clients, generate a lot of business, but you wouldn’t have gotten paid commensurately, because Wall Street finance was busy subsidizing a lot of money-losing departments. So I decided “You know what – it’s been a good career.” Originally, I wanted to work until I was 40, but instead I left the industry when I was 34, and I decided to travel, spend more time with my wife, and focus on FinancialSamurai.com, which is a personal finance site I started during the depths of the previous financial crisis, in July 2009.

Theo Hicks: So Financial Samurai is like a blog where you post personal finance advice… Does that tie into real estate? Is your advice for people to go out there and buy real estate, or is it dependent on their personal situation?

Sam Dogen: FinancialSamurai.com is a personal finance site. I talk about everything from investing in stocks, to real estate, to early retirement, to career, to negotiating your layoff, to family finances, insurance and so forth. So I try to cover every aspect of what someone would think about in their lives. And money really touches upon all of us.

Real estate is about 40% of my net worth, and is something that I’ve been doing since 2003, in San Francisco… And real estate is my favorite asset class to build wealth, because it’s a tangible asset, it generates income; it’s pretty sticky on the way down during tough times, and you get to benefit from the upside, and it provides utility.  What an amazing asset class to be able to enjoy it, to provide shelter for your family, experience great memories, and maybe even make some money in real estate. So real estate has been my favorite asset class to build wealth.

Second has been stocks. I was in the stock market, in that business for 13 years. However, I think my favorite after stocks is online real estate, so owning web properties such as FinancialSamurai.com.

Theo Hicks: Nice, I never thought of it like that, online real estate; I like that terminology. Okay, so you have 15 commercial properties… Is that your entire portfolio? Are those the ones that are in San Francisco, Honolulu and Lake Tahoe?

Sam Dogen: No, the property that I owned in San Francisco, Honolulu and Lake Tahoe are physical real estate properties that I’ve bought, and that I enjoy, and I use, and I rent out, and I’m an active landlord there. And regarding my commercial real estate portfolio, it’s essentially through real estate crowdfunding, where after I sold one of my main San Francisco rental properties in 2017, because I wanted to simplify life and diversify out of San Francisco, I basically invested in a fund that had 17 commercial real estate investments, and two have exited, and there’s still 15 left.

So my thesis was to diversify across the heartland of America, because back then I was thinking to myself “Well, the cap rates are so low in San Francisco…” We’re talking 2% – 3% cap rates… And it’s just so expensive here, and I have so many investments already that I needed to diversify.

So with the proceeds that I got from the sale, I decided to diversify across the nation, and the thesis was that work from home would be more and more prevalent, telecommuting, people would be able to go to lower parts of the country to still earn a similar amount of income, but save a lot on costs. And with the lockdowns and the global pandemic I think that trend is definitely accelerating, and I’m excited to see what happens next.

Theo Hicks: How did the returns from that fund you invest in compare to your rental properties?

Sam Dogen: In San Francisco real estate has been going up; at least since 2012 it’s been a bull market. Real estate is about 80% to 100%, and now it’s probably plateauing right now… So San Francisco real estate probably increases by 6% to 7% a year. It has been. And that’s been pretty good. Obviously, let’s say with 20% down, so you have leverage… So a 6% return times five, that’s 30% return on your cash… So that’s great. But it slowed down in 2018, and 2019 was kind of “Meh…” and it started picking back up at the end of 2019. In early 2020 it was pretty good, until everything started getting locked down. So now everything’s in a wait and see mode.

In terms of commercial real estate, since about 2015-2016 when I started investing – because I invested before; I’d sold my main San Francisco rental property in 2017 – the returns have been around anywhere from 12% to 16% a year, which is great, especially if you don’t have to manage the property. And that’s one of the things that I like about investing in these properties – because it’s 100% passive income; you’ve got a professional manager there, you’ve got the lawyers and all those people doing the stuff, and  you just collect income and then you have to file the taxes.

Now, in 2020, things have obviously changed a lot due to lockdowns. So I will have some losses on properties that are in the hospitality space. For example a hotel. Surely, that property’s gonna be going down in value because nobody’s going at the hotel. It’s like an airport hotel, a Sheraton in Dallas. But the portfolio is 15 properties, so I’m assuming there’s gonna be some losses, but overall I think it’s gonna do well. If we can rebound and get out of this lockdown phase sooner rather than later, hopefully third quarter of 2020, I’m optimistic that things will get back on course.

Theo Hicks: Just to confirm – that fund of 15 properties, you’re getting 12% to 16% per year?

Sam Dogen: Yeah.

Theo Hicks: Wow. How did you find that fund?

Sam Dogen: Well, there’s a lot of real estate crowdfunding platforms. Financial Samurai is a relatively large website; it’s got about one million visitors a month organically… So there’s a lot of opportunity; you just have to go wade through a lot of opportunity. But there are many real estate crowdfunding platforms out there. I’ve been able to talk to a lot of the top ones and a lot of the big ones, and some of them don’t make it, frankly… But some of them do. And the assets they allow you to invest in are separate LLCs that continue to go on regardless of what the platform does.

So in the old days you would basically invest in a real estate fund through your network. You have a friend who’s in real estate development, he wants to raise some money, you participate, you’re a limited partner etc. Today you can go online, you can obviously buy REITs, you can buy private REITs, and you can go directly through these platforms that connect you with other sponsors.

Theo Hicks: So you’ve found this deal through your website. Someone came to you with the deal, or someone posted it on your website?

Sam Dogen: Yeah, through my website, for sure.

Theo Hicks: One thing that we stress a lot is about building a brand – our’s is a podcast website – for building a real estate company. You talk about personal finance. Is that something that — you also mentioned owning online real estate, owning websites… So what’s some advice you have for someone — well, I guess then you also have a million organic views per month… So what’s your advice for someone who wants to start getting into what you call the online real estate and owning a website? Should they build their own, should they invest with someone else’s website? What does investing in someone’s website even look like? …things like that.

Sam Dogen: I think one of the key things you have to do is own your brand and build your brand. You don’t want another platform to own your brand, for example Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, whatever. They are already huge companies, and they’re getting rich off your content and your brand. So instead of spending all your time tweeting about random stupid things on Twitter, build your own brand and start your own website, and start talking about all the things you care about on your website. It’s the green marble theory that I like to think about and say, and that is if you have a green marble, maybe it’s the ugliest green marble in the world; you put it on eBay and someone will find that green marble and wanna buy it. So if you put yourself out there, based on your own brand and what you care about, you’re going to find your tribe organically eventually. Google obviously has been around for over a decade now. They’ve done their algorithms very well. They’re gonna help people who are looking for stuff that you like, and connect. And that is really key, to build your brand and do it on your own platform.

The other thing is you need to be consistent. You can’t give up before the roses bloom. Too many people I see just work for six months, maybe a year, and then they stop doing it… But they stop right before things start getting good. So I believe the secret to success is to do something very consistently, for 5-10 years. After about three years you should definitely start seeing some results, but too bad people can’t stick with things for more than one or two years, because they just want instant gratification. But this is a long game, and if you plan to be alive for decades, then you have plenty of time to build your brand.

Theo Hicks: That’s really good advice about building your website, but specifically the 5-10 years, thinking in terms of decades rather than days and weeks and months. So you did mention about not going out there and tweeting your thoughts, as opposed to building your own website and then you’ll [unintelligible [00:13:37].23] organically. So do you recommend just posting on the website and that’s it, and then letting people find you on Google organically? Or should I still be sharing the content from my website on social media?

Sam Dogen: Of course, you create the hub. You create your pillar, awesome content, whatever it is you wanna talk about. If you wanna talk about real estate, go ahead. If you wanna be a real estate specialist, go ahead. If you wanna be a personal finance generalist, or just focused on stocks and real estate and family finances… Whatever you wanna do. The world is big enough; there’s billions of people on the internet. Focus on what you care about and you are best at. And then the spokes are social media; make sure what you’re doing on social media is helping you build your brand, not hurt your brand. A lot of people have blown themselves up on social media saying things and then just getting fired, or just crushed.

So think about the spokes after you build your hub, your own brand. So the spokes are maybe doing a podcast, getting on a podcast like this one. Social media. Maybe speaking at conferences, if they ever come back. But focus on the hub.

Theo Hicks: Okay, Sam, what is your best real estate investing advice? You can also apply it to personal investing advice too, but what’s your best ever investing advice?

Sam Dogen: In terms of real estate, I would say be patient. Every time you see an amazing property, it’s just human nature to get all excited and say “I’ve gotta buy this. This is amazing. Please, nobody else bid against me. I’ve gotta buy! Buy, buy, buy, buy!” But the reality is if you miss this one, it’s okay; there’s gonna be another amazing property that’ll come along. So I really stress patience and running the numbers, especially during a turning point where we don’t know what’s gonna happen with the economy, with 40 million-plus people unemployed. Is the government really gonna support us indefinitely? Are we gonna find a vaccine within the next 12-18 months? There’s a lot of uncertainty, so right now patience is a virtue. Don’t rush, don’t go panic-buying, don’t go panic-selling. You’ve really gotta run the numbers and think things through. If you miss out, it’s okay; there’s gonna be other opportunities along the way.

Theo Hicks: Alright, perfect. Are you ready for the Best Ever Lightning Round?

Sam Dogen: Sure.

Theo Hicks: Alright. First, a quick word from our sponsor.

Break: [00:15:53].00] to [00:16:42].07]

Theo Hicks: Okay, what is the best ever book you’ve recently read?

Sam Dogen: Let’s see… I have been recently reading Annie Duke’s “Thinking in Bets.” I think it’s an excellent book and an excellent way to think about investing. There’s never a 0% probability or a 100% probability. There’s always going to be some kind of grey area, and you’ve gotta think in bets, think in percentages.

So right now, with the S&P 500 at 3,000, for example, it’s rebounding by over 32% from the mid-March lows… What is the expectation or probability that it’s gonna go up back to its record high, another 10% up from here? I would say maybe 30%. But that also means 70% is not gonna get there. So in that regards, I position my portfolio according to the probabilities that I believe in. So thinking in bets.

Theo Hicks: If your website traffic were to collapse today, what would you do next?

Sam Dogen: Right now I have about 250k-265k in passive income, excluding my website, except for 50k. 50k comes from selling a severance negotiation book… So if my website collapsed today, I would have about 200k to 215k a year in passive retirement income. So that would be a 20% loss to my passive retirement income. Then I would basically look at my budget and make sure I’m spending within my means… Because that’s obviously the bottom line of personal finance – spend within your means.

Now, in terms of the active income I was making from Financial Samurai through advertising and so forth, I would first take a moment to grieve, because I’ve been working on this for 11 years, and then I’d take a moment to be thankful that it’s given me so much back in terms of community, in terms of learning from other people, in terms of doing something that provides me joy… And then I’d think about maybe taking a six-month break, and then I would think about maybe starting something else better or newer, and learn from my mistakes.

Theo Hicks: What is your best ever way you like to give back?

Sam Dogen: In terms of giving back, I think the best way to give back is to write on Financial Samurai. Every single article is free, there’s no paywall. I talk about highly, highly pertinent things in our lives right now, whether it’s “What should you do after the stock market has rebounded by 32% from the bottom? Should you buy, hold, sell?” I talk about “Should I apply to pre-school and spend $2,000/month? Yes or no. Should I save x amount in my 529 plan so my child can go to college in 18 years, when everything will be free and college will be completely not worth its value?” I talk about these important things for free, and to help people engage and to encourage the audience to share their perspective, so that we can all learn from each other… Because nobody knows everything, and we all only know from our experiences and how we can do things better.

So I think that’s the best gift – to share what you know, consistently, for free, to as many people as possible? Because so many people will just go through and live the same thing that you went through just the past 5, 10, 15, 20, 35 years, and they could avoid all those landmines if the experienced people spend some time sharing what they did wrong and what they did right. That’s my plan.

Theo Hicks: And then lastly, what’s the best ever place to reach you?

Sam Dogen: Oh, just financialsamurai.com. I’m always reading the comments, you can always leave a comment. It doesn’t matter how old the post is, I’ll see it. You can go on Twitter if you want, but Twitter is something that I try not to spend too much time on. Basically, those two places are probably the best.

Theo Hicks: Perfect. Sam, I really appreciate you coming on the show today and providing your best ever advice. I think the biggest takeaway for me was your advice on owning websites and your analogy of the wheel, and how you don’t want to let other larger online platforms own your stuff. So you don’t wanna just be posting on Facebook or LinkedIn or (as you mentioned) Twitter. Instead, you want to be the hub yourself, so have your own website, focus on what you care about and what you’re best at on that website. And then the spokes are the secondary outlets, things like social media, podcasts, getting on a podcast, speaking at conferences. So those things are not the hub. The hub is you and your own website. So start working on your own brand and building your own brand, and make sure you’re the owner of it.

And then how to actually grow that – you talked about the green marble theory; you’ve got a green marble, and even if it’s really ugly, you put it on eBay and someone’s gonna want that green marble. So if you put yourself out there and you talk about what you care about, and you do it consistently, and you don’t give up before the roses bloom — and by consistently you mean 5-10 years… Not giving up after a year or two years or three years – then eventually you’ll find your own tribe organically.

And then obviously you talked about your real estate portfolio, the types of returns you’re getting on it, how real estate is your favorite asset class to build wealth, followed by stocks, followed by owning real estate… So again, Sam, I really appreciate you coming on the show. I look forward to reading through some of your content. I really liked what you said about the college thing; I hadn’t thought about it like that before… But again, thanks for coming on the show.

Best Ever listeners, as always, thank you for listening. Have a best ever day, and we’ll talk to you tomorrow.

Sam Dogen: Great. Thanks a lot.

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