Business Management

This Millennial Entrepreneur Built Two Multimillion-Dollar Companies—And Chose to Live Out of a Van

Expertise: Personal Development, Real Estate News & Commentary, Real Estate Investing Basics
38 Articles Written

At its absolute core, real estate investing and development is the epitome of entrepreneurship. To get a successful project off the ground, you have to identify opportunity, negotiate the deal, know your numbers, produce the capital, find the team, and then execute the vision.

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The BiggerPockets community, by definition, is just that as well. CNBC’s Sidney Torres, a TV real estate developer, says that entrepreneurs, real estate developers and leaders, period, have to be A-Z people. In other words, think of vision and execution—and not the potential obstacles that leave us over-thinking in fear.

So when I post stuff, I try to get behind the mindset as much as the numbers. In this post, I talked to my buddy Kevin Hong, who’s got a pretty sick story.

In essence, he’s done everything backwards. He started out as a teen earning six figures a year, built two million-dollar companies, and raised millions while living in a van—all before going back to school at 33 and becoming a writer.

(Yeah. I know. WTF.)

He’s now a contributor for Forbes and and author of current bestseller The Outlier Approach: How to Triumph in Your Career as a Nonconformist. Here’s what he had to say about being an entrepreneur, why he lived in a van with millions in the bank, and how BiggerPockets investors can find a mentor to take their game to the next level.

You’re an entrepreneur by heart. What made you realize you weren’t going to follow the traditional school-college-job trajectory?

When I was 18, I just moved back from Korea. At this time, I had this funny Minnesota/Korean immigrant accent going on along with choppy sentences. I joined a network marketing business and started to make nearly $10,000 a month. [Writer’s note: Kevin actually somehow talked me into buying his book while on the phone with him. Just an FYI.] At this time, I had surmised sales was a psychological game that could be learned and mastered. I think that’s when I realized entrepreneurship was for me.

Many of the BiggerPockets readers are budding entrepreneurs/investors, just waiting for the chance to get started. What made you take the leap to become an entrepreneur?

I think there’s a misconception of entrepreneurs, sometimes. The media tends to portray entrepreneurs as the heart-on-your-sleeve, all-in, quit your job, stick-it-to-your boss and walk-out-the-door sort of way. There’s this sort of macho, free-spirited way of looking at it ,and I don’t believe that’s entirely accurate. I think a very key element in entrepreneurship is in the mitigation of risk. No one wants to get killed off on the first hand after going all-in.

What do you mean?

For example, when I first started my networking marketing business, I knew my parents were OK with helping me tuition-wise with school; it’s kind of a thing in Asian culture.

That gave me this sort of financial buffer for two or three months before they found out I dropped out. Little did my parents know, I wasn’t using the money for tuition. (Laughs.) I was buffering my risk, creating a cushion for what eventually became a $10,000-a-month experiment, of sorts.

Even when I started Dealflicks, which eventually became worth $15 million, I had saved about $40,000 trading in my own personal account (and spending very little money), which bought me a two-year buffer.

You guys also lived in a van, even after you raised millions.

Yeah. Because of that, I knew I could withstand any sort of financial hardship. I even continued living in a van after the [Man Van] campaign had ended. I was that committed to the vision but also committed to financial security in the event things didn’t go so well. This bought me a second, even third, life. I always have a stack of chips to stay in the game.

What was the main characteristic—or intangible, if you will—that made the venture successful?

If I had to choose one intangible quality that really defined the Man Van campaign, I think it would be belief. When we started the Man Van, we simply couldn’t afford to pay people market value. We were able to offer some stock options and a $24,000 base salary with bonuses between $10-20,000, which obviously isn’t much, especially if you’re living in LA.

What I believed in and what we, as a team, believed in was that we weren’t just a great company making money. We felt like we were re-defining the way you could bootstrap a company. We used to say, “Steve Jobs had the garage. Mark Zuckerburg had the dorms. Dealflicks has the Man Van!”

We all believed we were changing the world, and it seemed the media thought so, too. The questions they threw at us—more times than not—weren’t related to selling discounted movie tickets. They were more intrigued by how a group of people could live in and operate out of a van.

What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far?

I don’t really get into this in my book, but during the height of the recession in 2008, I was a customer service stock broker. We had all these older retired, or semi-retired clients, who were getting eaten alive by the market. Ever had a grown man call you, bawling his eyes out? It’s freaky. Especially at 23.

So, pretty much every day I was reminded of the idea of overnight failure, as opposed to overnight success. I watched everything these people had done for the last 50-some-odd years literally evaporate, sometimes in seconds, and I think that was partially what drove me so hard during the Man Van days.

Even after the campaigns were over, I continued to live in a van for over a year, just bolstering my financial buffer zone. And consider that I was later fired from my own company.

So to always keep a buffer for a rainy day?


You’re now a bestselling author, a mark you hit before it officially launched. What’s your book about and how can it help budding entrepreneurs and investors?

A lot of the tactics in The Outlier Approach are very unorthodox. I was recently on a podcast and figured the best way to describe this is that it’s an approach for someone, anyone who wants to add another zero to their income. Five figures to six figures, six to seven, etc.

I believe there’s a handful of tactics that anyone armed with the proper attitude, the proper approach, if you will, can use to make those leaps. In The Outlier Approach, I teach methodologies that, for instance, show you how to build a network vertically, rather than spending time racking up quantity, laterally.

Explain “network vertically.”

Simply put, a vertical network focuses on building a team of folks that can “pull you from the top” or “push you from the bottom.” Oftentimes, when you’re building a network that’s focused on groups that are at the same point in your career, you end up competing for the same job, business, or resources. It doesn’t give you the versatility you need to take your career to the next level.

Excellent point.

I also discuss the idea of the key influencer: how to find them, how to create relationships with them—and provide value for them. I also talk about the concept of reality distortion. About how our brains are malleable and that your focus determines your reality and that even our bodies fall in line with our mindset.

What’s a tactic a reader or investor can use to find a mentor or key influencer in real estate?

Always focus on providing value for others. In the book, I talk about offering value rather than focus on networking. So much time is wasted on getting chummy-chummy with folks when all you have to do is offer value. If you are a good ROI for someone’s time, you bet they will have no problem mentoring you. It’s really that simple.

What about the mindset; how do you have to be wired to be geared for success?

Mindset is a central theme in the entire book. Attitude. Belief. These are abstracts that can make or break an individual. I discuss, of course, living in a van and the way I and my team adapted to it and simply accepting it as reality. Living outside the box, as opposed to simply thinking outside of it. You don’t need to throw the fastest fastball. Focus on throwing the nastiest curveball.

[Featured photo credit: Kevin Hong]

What do you think about this story?

Weigh in below!

A native of Denmark, Philip came to New York in 2014 with $79 in his PayPal account. In 2015, he joined Bisnow Media (the largest commercial real estate news source in North America) and helped lead them to a $50M sale as National Editor and Director of Content Strategy. Founder of NYEG, a real estate & VC company with $80M in the development pipeline, Philip and his team are currently developing a series of historic projects, including the first black-owned high rise in Jersey City, the first smart home development in Jersey City's McGinley Square, and the first voice-controlled student housing building in Philadelphia. Philip is the best-selling author of Real Estate Wealth Hacking: How To 10x Your Net Worth In 18 Months and an expert columnist for Forbes, Black Enterprise, Entrepreneur and others.

    Cindy Larsen Rental Property Investor from Lakewood, WA
    Replied over 1 year ago
    Phillip, Very interesting and well written article about an extraordinary person. A person I would find impressive, except for one thing: By his own admission, this guy basically stole his parents money to get his start. They were giving him money for school, and he used it for his business instead, Without telling them what he was doing with their money. And he doesn’t even seem to feel that he did anything wrong. I wonder what his parents thought of his lying to them and taking their money. Probably they forgave him – they are his parents. Maybe they are rich, and it was pocket change to them. But it still displays a serious lack of integrity. It was disrespectful, and just plain wrong. If he didn’t want to go to school, and wanted them to fund his business, he should have told them. If they said no, he should have done it on his own. I certainly would not do business with a guy who would rip off his own family, no matter how smart he is. CJ
    Jami Lynn from Browns Mills, New Jersey
    Replied over 1 year ago
    I agree – just because your parents have made it clear that they’re fine with financing your education doesn’t give you the leeway to just grab the money and use it for a totally different end. What if the “experiment” had failed? How would he have felt about going to them and explaining that the money he basically stole from them was gone and he had nothing to show for it? Doesn’t show much respect.
    Philip Michael Developer from Brooklyn, NY
    Replied over 1 year ago
    Hey! Thanks for reading and commenting — much appreciated! As for “stealing,” perhaps that part didn’t come across well. In reality, they paid for his dorm for an extra quarter when he was 18 more so than “stealing.” While I totally understand where you’re coming from, I think there’s a larger motivation behind that makes this economy, business, this community and real estate, period, go around: and that’s betting on yourself. Personally, I find the story interesting and quite symptomatic of what entrepreneurship is all about: Rolling the dice, taking risks, trying something — failing be damned! The business world is full of youngster who essentially “wasted” their parents’ college funds by not finishing; Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, and the list goes on and on. And yes, Kevin’s experiement could’ve failed, but again — the decision was made from the perspective of a teenager. I totally understand where you both are coming from. However these are risks entrepreneurs take all the time. WWE’s Vince McMahon rolled the dice by mortgaging his house to buy it from his father on a balloon payment; risked it again by going on closed circuit, paying upfront money by mortgaging his house; developers and investors on here roll the dice all the time by doing their first deals after reading an article, a forum post or reading the book. And that’s what it’s all about. Which is why I wanted to tell Kevin’s story. Thought it would resonate with a lot of young, hungry, determined investors on the sidelines just waiting to get in the game. Just my $0.02, though! Thanks again for reading and commenting, much appreciated!
    Greggory Lewis from Winchester, IL
    Replied over 1 year ago
    Stealing the money his parents gave him? In one way yes, but another way no. The money was to go for his education, right? So, did he further his education or not??…..has he learned a marketable skill? I say yes. Next question though, could he have done the same while living at home….maybe yes, maybe no. I see both sides and I think the money was not stolen, maybe misdirected, but either way you look at it I don’t think his parents was not expecting to get any of the money sent for housing returned. So, if he failed….well, that would be a different story.
    John Murray from Portland, Oregon
    Replied over 1 year ago
    I’m an entrepreneur and was never a very good employee, as a matter fact very crappy. Like the subject of the this article I was always taking in data 24/7 and evaluate the merits of the information. The Asian culture is a puzzle, the money taken from Mon and Dad diverted to to business ventures I do understand. My son has friend first generation Korean that got a 1580 on his SAT. To his parents this was not a 1600 and was grounded until graduation for a year. Upon graduation he left for Seattle to find his fortune and did. I played tennis with another young Korean first gen and his sister’s college funding was cut off because she got one B. She hung herself. The Asian culture has many great attributes, competitiveness is not one of them. Mr Cho went into a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, his sister got a full ride to Princeton. It must be very difficult to live up to such high standards, these guys are Americans whether they were born here or not, great inspirations!