Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Last Writes

© 2013 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Most of us have assets and liabilities. We pay bills on a regular basis. We pay rent or a house mortgage. We have one or more bank accounts and credit cards. We file tax returns. We have insurance policies to cover a variety of things. However, much of what we do in these regards is in our heads, possibly with a few things marked on a calendar (possibly using our own particular shorthand). What happens then, if we are temporarily or permanently unable to do those things? How will someone else figure out how to do these things on our behalf?

A common situation is one in which a person is one of a couple and various housekeeping and record-keeping chores are divided between the two. If one partner was unable to do any of the things he normally does, could the other do them instead? If a person lives alone, who would do these tasks for them? If you are the executor of an aging parent's estate, where will you begin to sort out their lives when they die? And if an estate is paying its executor, it's easy to see how a large chunk of that estate could be spent in figuring this out.

If you have any sort of footprint on this planet at all, you will benefit from having some sort of written—preferably recorded electronically—instructions describing the myriad of things one would need to know to perform the personal administrative things you do on a regular basis.

I created such a document as part of my estate planning, and it is intended to serve as an aid to my estate's executor and to those who hold Power-of-Attorney rights if I am unable to make my own healthcare or other decisions prior to death. I update this document every six months, and send a revised copy to my executor and to those who hold various Powers of Attorney. I keep printed copies in my home safe and my bank safe-deposit box. The master copy resides on my main computer, and I might update that more frequently than twice-per-year, in which case, it's important that the most up-to-date version actually be used.

So, not long after you have been given your last rites, someone will be looking for your last writes! Do they exist and, if so, how will anyone find them? This essay proposes a series of things you would do well to document for your own situation.

Getting Started

At least the following items are needed to get the other information and things one might need in dealing with another person's business and personal interests:

  • Access to their house and/or office
  • Access to their computer(s)
  • Access to their home safe
  • Access to their safe-deposit box

Personal Data

  1. Legal name; also common names, if they are different. (Lots of people have nicknames that they use every day.)
  2. Place and date of birth
  3. Citizenship(s), passport number(s), and expiration dates
  4. Any Federal or official personal identification number (such as the US's Social Security Number [SSN])


Having all personal and/or business contact information available in one place, which is maintained by a computer program, is best, especially if it is searchable. However, this requires considerable discipline to maintain, and probably doesn't exist for many (most?) people. (Clearly, this assumes that the executor has access to the computer skills needed to do this.)

The more organized such a contact list is, the less that has to be put in the Last Writes document. That document simply need mention some key names that can be used as indirect pointers into the computerized contact database.

[I maintain my contact database in Microsoft Office's Outlook program. I use categories to group contacts having connections, as such "legal", "medical", "banking", "insurance", "auto repairs", and "house repairs".]


Like Contacts, a calendar is best maintained by a computer program. However, this requires considerable discipline to maintain, and probably doesn't exist for many (most?) people.

[I maintain my calendar in Microsoft Office's Outlook program. Not only does it keep track of my personal and business activities, I use its recurring-event facility for reminders of things that have to be done on a weekly, quarterly, or annual basis, for example. And I use it to raise alarms up to two weeks in advance of an event.]

Close Relatives and Family Information

  • Name of spouse/partner and date and location of marriage/union/divorce
  • Names of parents and siblings
  • Names of children

Close Friends

The people on this list would be notified in case of death or serious/long-term disability.

Main Employer/Employee and Business Contacts

The people on this list would be notified in case of death or serious/long-term disability.

Landlord (if renting)

  • Owner name and contact information
  • If applicable, property manager name and contact information
  • Amount of rent, rent frequency, and payment date
  • Method of payment (perhaps it's automatically debited from a bank account)
  • Amount of security deposit
  • Length of lease
  • Location of lease document

Mortgage (if buying)

  • Mortgage company name and contact information
  • Amount of payment, payment frequency, and payment date
  • Method of payment (perhaps it's automatically debited from a bank account)
  • Location of loan documents and title


  • Name(s) of legal contact(s) and executor
  • Date when the most recent will and all current codicils were drawn up
  • Location of copies of the most recent will and all current codicils

Powers of Attorney (PoA)

  • Name of durable medical PoA
  • Name of durable general purposes PoA
  • It would be useful to provide extra guidelines with respect to being in a long-term coma and the use of "Heroic measures"

Financial Accounts (Joint and Separate)

  • Checking account(s)
  • Savings account(s)
  • Retirement account(s)
  • Non-Retirement investments
  • Credit Card account(s)
  • Location of any computer files used to track financial accounts
  • Location of any computer files used to track invoices/accounts payable
  • Details of any unsecured loans made to family, friends, own business

Computer Systems and Backups

Many people own a desktop computer as well as a laptop or tablet computer. They might also use their phone for email and messaging. These tools all have usernames and passwords. Some people also have their own domain names and websites. Such facilities require their own hosting companies, usernames, and passwords.

Most email facilities allow copies of all messages sent and received to be retained and possibly archived somehow.

[I own the domain RexJaeschke.com and have the website www.RexJaeschke.com. I maintain my email accounts on my own computer using Microsoft Office's Outlook program. At the end of each month, I permanently delete all personal mail messages from my Sent Items and Deleted Items folders that are more than 30 days old. Of the remaining messages, each of those having attachments totaling 1MB or more are inspected. All such attachments that are transient in nature or for which a copy was stored separately on a hard disk, are removed and the parent message re-saved without them. I then use the Archive option of Outlook to save all messages that are older than 30 days. This results in one archive file per year stored on a hard disk. The current email database and archived mail files are backed-up as part of the monthly computer backup.]

A similar situation may exist for Instant Message (IM) accounts.

It has been my experience that too few owners of computers have an adequate backup strategy. [I backup all my data every month with copies going onto three big disks that are stored in my office, in my fire safe, and my safe-deposit box. For more information on this topic, see my December 2010 essay, "Technology, Unplugged – Part 2".]

Income Tax Records

  • Name of tax preparer
  • Location of copies of past tax returns and correspondence
  • It's a good idea to scan past returns and correspondence into computer files, so the paper copies can be shredded

Safe-Deposit Box (at bank)

  • Location and number of box, and location of key/combination
  • Copy of will
  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage/divorce documents
  • Title(s) for vehicle(s) and house(s)
  • Off-site computer data backup disk(s)
  • Other valuable things (such as coins and family heirlooms)

Fire Safe (at home/office)

  • Location of safe and key/combination
  • Copies of various papers, including will and codicils
  • Passport(s)
  • Copy of Title(s) for vehicle(s) and house(s)
  • Computer systems usernames and passwords
  • On-site computer data backup disk(s)
  • Bank ATM/Cash Machine and credit card ID numbers
  • Emergency cash

Business Assets

  • Computer systems
  • Software
  • Technical/reference Books
  • Furniture
  • Intellectual property


  • Real Estate
  • Vehicle(s)
  • Cash and investments
  • Checking account
  • Savings accounts
  • Retirement accounts
  • House contents
  • Accounts receivable


  • Home mortgage(s)
  • Vehicle loan(s)
  • Personal loan(s)
  • College tuition loan(s)
  • Credit card accounts not paid in full each month
  • Home Equity line of credit
  • Any big-ticket item being financed (such as furniture or appliance purchases)
  • Major monthly bills
  • Any loans or other liabilities where you are a co-signer or guarantor


  • Medical and Prescription
  • Dental
  • Optical
  • Life
  • Automobile
  • Disability
  • General Liability
  • House contents
  • Renter's coverage
  • Computer hardware and software loss coverage
  • Business liability (plus Errors and Omissions coverage)

Memorandum re Asset Distribution

Generally, a will doesn't cover everything, just the main things. As such, it's good to have more documentation about who gets what with regard to the more personal stuff.

  • Computer backup disk(s)
  • Computers, other hardware, and software
  • Books (technical, reference and fiction)
  • Music/video (audio tapes, CDs, and DVDs)
  • Travel diaries (audio, hard-copy bound books, and electronic versions stored on a computer)
  • Home movie recordings
  • Family Photographs
  • Family tree books and hometown history books
  • Collections (such as stamps and coins)

Miscellaneous Notes

  • Organ donation
  • Funeral arrangements
  • For cremation, location where ashes should be buried/scattered
  • What to do with any website or blog


The more someone's Last Writes document contains the better. And while it won't help the person who has passed on, those left with the task of winding up an estate will be most grateful.

The Big Move

© 2012 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

My guess is that most of us probably live in relatively few different places during our lives. In my case, I left home soon after my 16th birthday, by which time I'd lived at five different addresses. Since then, I've lived at 10 more. Overall, I've averaged fewer than four years/house. And, NO, I'm not in the Witness Protection Program!

I started accumulating stuff soon after I left home and as finances allowed. I was 18 years old when I "set up house" with two friends. Seven years later, I traveled more than halfway around the world to take up a job for at least a year. Putting my life into two suitcases was quite a challenge and required ruthlessness. So when the travel plans changed drastically only weeks before departure, and I was limited to only one case, halving my "treasures" turned out to be quite easy. Who needs two sets of socks and underwear anyway? [By the way, regarding socks, you can get five days from a pair: wear them, turn them inside out, swap feet, turn them inside out again, and go without! This is a well-known fact exploited around the world by young men who have left home and who have to do their own laundry.] I should mention that some years later, once it was clear that I was staying abroad, I did ship a container of stuff that had been in storage.

Apart from having a limited baggage allowance, moving abroad requires one to evaluate one's life from a number of perspectives. Can I do without all my favorite things, my familiar environment, and my friends? So much so, that if one stays in the same environment for a long time, beyond a certain point, moving across town—forget about moving to another city, state, or country—can be a very intimidating prospect for all those people who get very settled in their ways. "How will I make friends?" "Will I have good neighbors?" "Will there be room for darling Tricky Woo to run and play?" "I'll have to start from scratch." "I can't bear to think about it." "That settled it; I'm not moving!"

In 1984, I moved to a townhouse. A month later, my son was born and he lived there until he completed his first four years of university. I lived there a total of 28 years. Often when I went down into the basement, I'd look around at all the stuff I had in storage—indeed had around the house in general—just waiting to be used perhaps, maybe, one day! From arriving in the US in 1979 with one suitcase and a briefcase, I'd progressed to a 1-, 2-, then 3-bedroom apartment, and then to a 3-level, 3-bedroom townhouse. Where did need end and want start? Having traveled to the third world and seen whole families living in one or two small rooms, I was pretty sure I could live with less in a smaller space without any unnecessary hardship. I was very interested in downsizing not only my living space, but my life as well.

This essay outlines the process I used to prepare and sell that townhouse, to determine what sort of place I'd like to live in next, and to find and move to that place.

It's All in the Planning

I started out by following my own advice, and making a plan. (See my essay from May 2011, "Planning for Success".) Over several months, it was revised and expanded. One of my golden rules is, "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing right!" Besides, buying and/or selling a house is about the biggest financial transaction most of us will ever carry out.

The goal was to sell my townhouse and, hopefully, to downsize, which meant getting the house ready for sale, selling it, finding a new place to live, and moving. Very quickly, I recognized that selling one place and buying another were both big tasks on their own, and combining them would complicate things especially if I could find a new place, but not sell the old one. After all, there was a big housing slump here in the US, and I wasn't going to sell at a low price. Besides, there was one big question: In what area did I really want to live? In reality, I could live within an hour of any major airport in the world in any place that had a decent internet connection. However, not only doesn't that help narrow the problem it expands it hugely!

Having owned one residence or another pretty much continuously for 36 years, and having lived in societies in which home ownership is the pinnacle of personal financial achievement, I thought only of owning the next place. However, somewhere along the way I had an epiphany. To separate completely the selling and buying stages, why not rent for a year in between, during which time I'd figure out "what next and where next?" And if I didn't have an answer, I could rent for another year! So the plan became to sell my house, to then rent it back from the new owner while I looked for a new place, and then to move. Then a year or so later, I'd look to buy another place. Yes, it would involve moving twice, but that just meant I'd have two chances to get rid of stuff and to re-evaluate my downsizing plan. (Something good really does come from everything.) And most importantly, buying the new place would not be contingent on selling the old place.

To begin, on the selling side, I identified two real estate agents who both came highly recommended. I met with each separately and explained my plan. I asked for their advice on how to prepare my townhouse, and I wanted to know the best times of the year to have a place on the market. In fact, I had a whole list of questions, which I refined as I went. With the advent of the internet and electronic property-access lock-box cards, things had changed quite a lot since I last bought or sold a property. I made no commitment to either of them regarding using them for the sale, and rightly, they considered it an investment in a future possible relationship. We made a thorough inspection of the house and I made notes about all the suggestions they each made regarding renovation, cleaning, and other preparation. Prior to their visits, I'd made a detailed list of all the things I thought might be factors, based simply on common sense (which, unfortunately, doesn't appear to be so common), and I was very happy to find it covered the vast majority of things. I then wrote a detailed renovation plan with a time line.

In parallel, on the renting/moving side, I started to make notes about my requirements. There was just me, I wanted to rent for at least a year, and I was happy to get rid of a lot of stuff. Besides, I was going to repaint the inside of my old house and replace the carpet before the house went on the market, so why move everything out temporarily only to move it back again, and then move it permanently when I leave? Better just to get rid of stuff during the renovation stage. [Many people I know can't bear to think about being separated from their stuff. "I can't decide what to get rid of, so I'll just pack it and take it to my new place. I can sort through it there. Sure!" I can say with absolute certainty that that is not a plan for success! By the way, I highly recommend listening to George Carlin's take on stuff.]

Regarding my next, or at least a future, style of living, I explored the idea of having a really small, permanent home base and traveling in a camper van, a travel trailer (called a caravan by some), or a Motor Home/Recreational Vehicle (RV). I also considered buying land and buying a prefabricated, transportable home, or building a log cabin from a kit.

Finally, I "bit the bullet" and decided I'd buy a mobile phone to help me in locating the rental property. Now don't fall out of your chair just yet. Rex with a mobile? Yes! However, as you'll read later, I still haven't violated my principles from my November 2010 essay, "Technology, Unplugged – Part 1".

The Renovations and Preparation

The main renovation tasks were as follows:

  • Replace the vanity cabinets, sinks, faucets, towel rails, and lighting in two full bathrooms, a half bathroom, and a vanity area in the master bedroom. [The bathrooms themselves had been renovated some years earlier.]
  • Remove all window treatments and brackets from all walls and ceilings, repair the drywall, remove all wallpaper, and paint all inside walls and ceilings.
  • Repair and paint all exposed wood outdoors.
  • Replace all carpet.

Minor tasks included pressure washing the deck, landscaping both front and rear yards, trimming ivy growing up the front walls, and cleaning.

On the purging and preparation-to-move front, I dealt with the following:

  • Disposed of most of my professional library. (I retained "visiting" rights, however!)
  • Donated bookcases, loads of office supplies and equipment, and many personal things to thrift shops and Non-Profit organizations.
  • Gave away tools and personal stuff to friends and acquaintances. [In the end, anyone who came to visit had to take something home with them when they left!]
  • Made numerous runs to the recycling center, disposing of many hundreds of books and the shredded remains of 25 years of personal records (after I'd scanned copies to my computer).
  • Recycled or donated 20 years-worth of old personal computers and equipment.
  • Disposed of all hazardous waste (e.g., paint and chemicals)

This all took place over an 8-month period, at my own (controlled) pace. By the time it was all done, the place looked so good I thought perhaps that I should stay in it. And, in fact, if I didn't get a decent offer, that's exactly what I planned to do!

On the Market We Go

I decided to have the house ready for sale by mid-January, and although mid-winter might seem a bad time to sell, I was assured that it was one of the three best times. While there might not be many buyers, neither are there many properties. Besides, when it comes down to it, you only need one, the right one.

When the first open house was held, I had my feet up on a Caribbean island where it was 80 degrees F with wind chill! After that, I was in-town for subsequent open houses, but was asked to "vacate the premises". Each time I came home, I had to locate certain things that I'd left out, but which the selling agent had hidden from public view "lest they upset the karma of a possible sale". How dare I leave a clean skillet on the stovetop? Oh, and thou shalt not put any blue tablets in the toilet water tank while the house is on the market. Apparently, although prospective buyers may well have blue water in their toilets, they are not allowed to see it in a house that's for sale. Say what?

Apart from open houses, buyer agents came by during the week to look. All of them actually called ahead and made an appointment, but just in case they didn't I had to actually keep the place in tip-top condition all the time, as in make the bed every morning and do the dishes after every meal. Oh, the games people play!

During open house, every light in the place had to be on and all the blinds had to be open. But with its being winter, that was hardly energy-efficient, but, hey, it's not the agent's money!

The Serious Offer and Negotiations

A couple of weeks after the house had gone on the market, I received an offer that was so low, I considered it an insult, and to the buyer's dismay, I completely disregarded it. Then came that one buyer I wanted. She and her agent spent no more than 10 minutes looking through, and a few days later submitted an offer, which was low, but not insultingly so. I countered by dropping my price just a few thousand and I re-presented the long list of renovation and replacement work. Her next offer went up almost all the difference, and we soon made a deal. That was five weeks after the place had gone on the market.

As it happens, having a signed contract at a given price is just the start, as that was subject to several inspections. One inspector found a faulty power outlet and broken seals on two windows, one large one small. So I repaired/replaced those. He claimed the chimney needed to be cleaned, but as it had never ever been used, I refused. He claimed that the roof needed replacing, to which I countered that it was done 10 years before and had a life of at least 25 years. He tried to save face by insisting it be cleaned. I refused, but my wimpy agent offered the buyer money from his commission towards that. The house failed the radon test. $1,000 later, that problem was fixed (although it resulted in the installation of an exhaust fan that would run 24-hours a day forever).

Finally, we agreed we were done, but as neither party was in a hurry, we delayed settlement for several months. During that time, I had the buyer over several times for afternoon tea, so she could measure things and plan her own move. I also prepared a detailed list of things regarding maintenance as well as a list of local businesses she might care to know about, as she was moving from out-of-state.

The Settlement

The buyer and her agent, and my agent and I met in a conference room at a title company. After signing lots of sheets of papers, we shook hands and went our separate ways. There were no last-minute snags and the proceeds were transferred to my bank within 24 hours. The sales contract gave me a 5-week rent-back during which time I had to keep the place "in good repair".

The Search for a Place to Rent

Over a number of months, I'd been driving around several neighboring, rural counties getting a feel for the geography and kinds of places available. Along the way, I was refining my criteria. Then, as soon as the settlement check cleared, I started my search in earnest.

  • Using an online search facility, I identified 12 potential places and spent a weekend planning an efficient order in which to view each from the outside and without an agent. (I discovered that nowadays, a buyer also needs an agent, unless it's a private sale.)
  • I bought a prepaid-card mobile phone, so I could interact with renting agents as I was driving around reading their advertising signs.
  • I set my alarm for quite early on a Monday morning. The weather out was miserable, I hadn't slept well, and I had a raging headache. Then as I pumped gas in my car, I locked the keys inside. Things went downhill from there!
  • The first house was very nice, in a quiet neighborhood, in the largest town of the neighboring county, but it had three levels, which meant stairs. It, or something like it, would be my safe option if I failed to find "the right thing" in my rent-back period.
  • Then came some truly forgettable places, some truly awful locations, sometimes along bad or unfinished local roads.
  • Then I found a split-level house on an acre of land with many large, evergreen trees. It looked very good and it came with great neighbors. I called the agent listed on the sign to find that someone had submitted an application the previous day. Bugger!
  • After more bad weather, more crappy places, crappy locations, and bad roads, I followed a sealed road along the tallest hill in the area in heavy fog. Forget getting in and out on the steep roads in that area.
  • I eventually found a very nice, small stone cottage way out in the country, but it had stairs, and I probably couldn't get large furniture up the narrow staircase.
  • By 7 pm, I was back home, dejected. But, of course, it was only Day 1 and the 5-week countdown clock had hardly moved.
  • At 7:30 pm, I phoned the agent I'd spoken to earlier that day and suggested we submit a second offer. She said that wasn't worth the effort; however, a new place had just gone on the market that afternoon and she suggested I look at it online. I did, and despite the outrageously high monthly rental, I fell in love with it. After looking at all the photos, reading the detailed description, finding the location on a map, and considering the cost, I called her back that evening and asked her to set up a viewing the next day. (Instead of thinking about how much money it cost, I thought in terms of how many days a month I'd have to bill clients to pay the rent. When that came up to a very low number, it was a no-brainer decision. Besides, the place was on five acres with a 4-acre forest. In fact, it really was a botanic garden with a house in it!)
  • On the Tuesday, I inspected the place and filled out an application.
  • I was approved on the Wednesday.
  • On Friday, I signed a 1-year lease and got the keys.
  • On Saturday, I started moving in.

So, one day after I started looking, I found my dream house, and I made only one call on my mobile.

The Rent-Back

I had negotiated five weeks rent back, which I figured was sufficient time to find a place to rent. I moved all my stuff out in a week, so the only thing I needed to do in the remaining four weeks was to clean a place that had been painted and had new carpet. It was not a difficult task. On one of the final visits I made to it I thought, "I lived here for 28 years, but I am so much in love with my new place and the whole idea of moving to a new life that I have absolutely no separation anxiety whatsoever. After all, it was just a house! Home is where I currently live."

The Move

I moved a lot of stuff by myself in a minivan from which I had removed the seats. On several days, I had an assistant who helped with some of the mid-size stuff. I unpacked boxes as I moved, so I could reuse them and to see the progress I'd made.

For the last two days, my son came to visit and we moved all the big/heavy stuff using a pickup truck. There was only one door into the new house that could accommodate large things, and even that had to be removed to get the sofa through. Although it rained a little that week, it didn't while we were driving between houses.

After a number of sports injuries and subsequent knee surgeries, I pretty much avoid certain physical activities. However, I'm a 110%-effort guy, so I pushed hard, which resulted in my left knee swelling considerably. Fortunately, that was temporary, but it took 10 days to recover fully.

Life in Paradise

I'd abandoned pay-TV several years earlier, and I very quickly found I had no real TV reception via an antenna. Thirty seconds after discovering that, I viewed that as a positive thing. After all, I wanted to spend more time reading, writing, entertaining, and watching videos. Also, the internet service was slow, but it was adequate. I really didn't need much speed for email and casual internet browsing.

The kitchen was a delight, and as I like cooking and entertaining, I set about making full use of that. The property came with a John Deere tractor with which I had to cut the grass. That brought out the farmer in me (as you can see from the accompanying photo). The outdoor deck and entertaining area were wonderful, and I ate outdoors as often as possible. I also sat there late at night and watched the stars. And the forest was complete with deer, rabbits, and lots of birds. Even a large turtle came to visit one day. There were no streetlights glaring in my windows and the constant noise of a city was a fading memory.

There were a few adjustments, but nothing major: no pizza delivery; I couldn't just walk to the store; there was no town trash/recycling pickup; I had a 150-foot drive to shovel if there was snow; I had a well (no power=no water) and a septic tank. I did, however, have no stairs (YES!) and a window over the kitchen sink (and YES! again). I had a great landlord and some nice neighbors. And I had a 2-car garage, my first ever cover for a car.

The Post Mortem Results

Despite the national downturn in home sales, I got a good price for my house. It helped that my city, Reston, is always in demand and that a subway line is coming to the area in the next year. The fact that I didn't have to sell by any given date made it is a calmer process. My detailed plans all held up and there were no unpleasant surprises.

Regarding downsizing, my new place is slightly smaller including a 2-car garage, but not that much so. However, by downsizing all my stuff, I'm well positioned for the next move at which time I expect I'll get rid of quite a few more things. Along the way, I reinforced my dislike for the real estate business.

I used the move as an opportunity to change all sorts of things; basically, it allowed a complete attitude change in many respects.

What's Next?

Since my move, I constantly notice which of my things I'm actually using. Of all the things I kept during the big purge, I still don't use 90% of them on any regular basis or at all!

Having scouted out the area to which I moved, I've decided to buy something small, and I've refined my selection criteria and figured an upper price limit. My plan is to buy 2–3 months before my rental agreement expires, so I'll have plenty of time to do renovations and repairs. I'm quite prepared to redo completely a kitchen and bathroom, to paint inside and out, and to replace all the floor coverings. All those things are cosmetic and can easily be changed. All that said, if I don't find the right place, I'm quite willing to rent again, but definitely something smaller and much cheaper.


I firmly believe that one can and should plan for success, but one should leave room for the nice, fortuitous surprises that can come along. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I've also reconfirmed that it's good practice to re-evaluate one's lifestyle occasionally and to expand one's horizons. I consider the whole move to be an adventure with a safety net.

If I hadn't called back that rental agent, I never would have found my dream rental house! Our lives are defined by the actions we take and, just as importantly, by the ones we don't take.

Now I mentioned earlier that I'd finally bought a mobile phone. It's a nifty Samsung unit that cost only $10, and I subscribed to the Tracfone pay-as-you-go plan. The phone came with double-minutes and after I had it for a couple of months, I bought a 2-year card that gave me 1,000 minutes. The total cost is slightly less than $8/month. The thing is I don't use it unless it's absolutely necessary or very convenient, and only a couple of people have my number. I am so disciplined that in six months, I've used it to make fewer than a dozen calls. Besides, I have unlimited calling on my home phone, so why pay for calls that I can make at home for free? I haven't even activated the message-answering option, and I don't do texting or email on it. Unlike many people, I have a very full life without having to play with my phone every spare moment.

Starting Your Own Business

© 2010–2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


[If you have not already done so, I strongly suggest that before reading this essay, you read, "Talk is Cheap. Write it Down" (February 2011), and then, "Planning for Success" (May 2011).]

I started my own computer consulting business in July 1984, and it's been successful ever since. As far back as I can remember, I've wanted to be self-employed, and once I got permanent residency here in the US, I put my plan into action. I started my business, bought a townhouse, and my son was born, all within a couple of months. There's nothing like a little pressure to get the adrenaline flowing!

In recent years, I've been mentoring students at an alternative high school. For one or more of a number of reasons, the students there don't quite fit into mainstream schools, which is why they are at that school. The good news is that they all want to be at that school. More than a few of them think of themselves as mavericks, and they dream about running their own business. Whenever I get a chance to talk to them about that possibility, I cover many of the points in this essay.

Following the main sections below, are short notes in list form. I leave it as a reader exercise to research each one in the context of the business being planned.

The Dream vs. the Reality

Yes, you can get all the rewards, but you get to take all the risks and responsibilities as well. There really is no such thing as a free lunch! So, while the idea of driving around in a souped-up convertible company car and flying Business Class might seem wonderful, sooner or later you have to have a defensible plan to make a profit (well at least to not lose money). Assuming that you want to enjoy your work, will people actually pay you to do what you enjoy?

Goals – What is it you really want to do?

To be sure, I didn't have a detailed written plan when I went into business. However, I put in a lot of time and effort thinking about it in the year before. I planned to be a computer consultant, but I recognized early on that I really needed to distinguish myself from the thousands of other people having that same title on their business cards. The big question was, "Why would someone engage me over someone else? Just what was my angle?" In truth, I was prepared to do whatever it took to pay the rent, and I certainly had a lot of skills. What I really needed was a specialty I could claim that would make me attractive. After identifying a short list of candidate topics, I selected one and rode that wave to the top.

Right from the start, I had two very important rules:

  1. Never ever ever hire anyone – From my short, but very hectic, corporate career I learned that I simply didn't like to manage people. I can work with people, but that's a whole different scenario.
  2. Take as much time off as I could afford – You can't buy time. So rather than work fulltime and retire at 65 (hopefully) with some money, but not necessarily with great health and any urge to travel, I wanted more than the usual time off as I went. [I came to the US from a culture that provided everyone with 4–6 weeks of vacation per year, and where people worked a 37.5-hour week with flexible working hours.]

I have never regretted either rule, and, in fact, I've re-endorsed them both many times over. If I got a contract that was more than I could handle, I gave it to a larger player and subcontracted back a manageable part. And with regard to time off, I started with three months off in my first year, spread out over the year. [Except for three years in recent times—when I deliberately took on fulltime projects—I've taken off between three and six months each year.]

As far as I can remember, I've never heard an American say that they wanted to remain a 1-person company forever. The all-American goal seems to be that one is only a 1-person company until one figures out how to be a mega-corporation. But the evidence is well documented: Most small businesses fail in their first five years, and the kind of person who can run a small business is not at all like the one needed to run a medium-sized or large one.

A couple of years after I started my business, I took a break during which I analyzed my success. That's when I moved from being a brute-force success to a smart success. That is, by figuring out what made my business successful, I got smarter about planning. Either I could make more money for the same effort, or I could work less time for the same money. And I did some of each.

Many people have a narrow focus; they see only one path to their goal(s). They often place a lot of constraints on themselves. Are they able to travel out of town overnight? Are they willing and able to work long hours, weekends, or public holidays? Are they really prepared to "do whatever it takes within reason"? In my case, I figured that it would be hard enough to get potential customers to my door, so I didn't want to turn any away unnecessarily. As a result, I was prepared to be—and I remain today—very flexible.

Although I started out actually designing software systems and writing the programs to implement them, to help start my business, I began writing for publication with first one, and then a second magazine. Not only did this generate some cash flow, I got to keep all the rights to the intellectual property, I had a reason to learn and keep up with evolving technologies, and I had something to add to my resume. I was also getting directly to those who might want my services, and I could give potential clients copies of my published work. That led to my developing seminars using my published materials (some of which became books) and to the lucrative training business. With seminars, instead of charging per hour of work, you charge per person attending. The next step was starting the first of two publications, which led to editing and publishing. Now it's very rare that a client will hire one to learn on the job, so I had to find a way to do that myself. My solution was to get involved in national and international standards groups for my profession.

Twenty-seven years later, my business card still says "Computer Consultant", but my focus has evolved considerably, primarily because of my flexibility and the fact that about every three months I review my situation. Where am I now and where do I want to be in six, 12, or 24 months?

In reality, my consulting led to learning about topics on which I got paid to write. For topics I researched for writing, those skills could be sold as a consultant, as could those I learned when teaching seminars in a variety of environments. And my standards involvement overlapped and reinforced all the other parts of my business.

In truth, how could I know with certainty 27 years ago where I wanted to end up? Most of the technologies I work on now didn't exist back then.

And while having goals is important, so too are having non-goals. In my case, I had no interest in building an empire. Now that doesn't mean that I couldn't run one; it just means that that doing so is not one of my goals.

Selling Services vs. Building/Selling Products

It takes time and expense to provide a service. To provide the same service to more clients, you need to extend your hours and/or hire others to help you.

It also takes time and expense to build a product, and unless you are in a lucrative custom-made situation, you'll need to hire others to help you. (They need not necessarily be employees, however; they could be subcontractors.) Then there are the inventory-related issues of storage, insurance, cost, shipping, and tracking, and excess and out-dated inventory, along with sales tax collection.

In my case, I figured out a way to reuse some of my deliverables, namely, my intellectual property. I got paid to write it for publication. I re-used it as seminar materials, and I published it in book form. None of these activities required help or a physical inventory, which is worth keeping in mind as many economies move from manufacturing to service-based models.

Business Organization

There are a number of options for your business classification, including sole proprietorship, partnership, and various kinds of corporation. Each has its pros and cons. In my case, I decided to trade under my own name and to make that name my brand. After all, I was selling myself, not a product.

I've never been swayed by the argument that for a 1-person business like mine incorporating provides more legal protection. In these litigious United States, a determined plaintiff is just as likely to come after the individual owner(s) as he is to come after the company.

Are You in Business or Just Pretending?

If you don't have a business card, you won't convince me that you are in business, and you might not convince anyone else either.

Your business name should be important to you as a brand and you will want to promote it. As such, chose it carefully, protect it legally, and register it as an internet domain. Then put your website at that domain (of course, you'll have a website!), as in www.YourBusinessName.com, with your email address as YourName@YourBusinessName.com.

If you claim to be in business, then why not look like you are in business!


Each of us comes to a business with a set of skills and we'd like to think that we're at or near the top of the heap in our particular field. And maybe we are. However, to run any business successfully, especially one that has employees, you should be prepared to be a little bit of each of the following: a lawyer, a salesman, an accountant, a bookkeeper, a tax expert, an office manager, a negotiator, a promoter, a crisis manager, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a marriage counselor, a motivator, and a sage. And when you've finished all those tasks, you might even get time to do the things you liked and were really good at to begin with!

From a book of quotes I once read, comes the following: "No matter what your circumstance you should always believe that you work for yourself". It is highly unlikely that anyone cares about you as much as you should care about yourself. And, frankly, why should they?


A Summary of Things to Consider

  1. The Dream vs. the Reality
    1. You get all the rewards
    2. You get to take all the risks and responsibilities
    3. Will people actually pay you to do what you enjoy?
  2. Goals – What is it you really want to do?
    1. Consulting, writing, speaking, making a product (multiple paths to some goals)
    2. General guidelines are good, but don't be too rigid
    3. What are your constraints?
      1. Are you able to travel overnight away from home
      2. Parenting duties
      3. Hours on working days
      4. Availability on weekends and public holidays
  3. Services vs. Product
    1. Services:
      1. Time and expenses
      2. More services requires more people
    2. Product:
      1. Manufacture requires more people (employees vs. subcontractors)
      2. Inventory (storage, insurance, cost, shipping, tracking), excess, out-dated
      3. Sales tax
  4. Business Considerations
    1. Organization
      1. Sole proprietorship
      2. Partnership
      3. Subchapter S corporation
      4. Other corporation
      5. Non-profit
      6. Woman/Minority-owned or small business certification
    2. Who is your backup person?
    3. State/county business license (maybe need from multiple states)
    4. Insurance
      1. Liability
      2. Errors and Omissions
      3. Disability
      4. Medical/Hospital/Dental
    5. Taxes
      1. Both employer and employee social security contributions
      2. State income (quarterly estimated)
      3. Federal income (quarterly estimated)
      4. State sales tax
  5. Business Presence
    1. Website
    2. Email address
    3. Business cards
    4. Stationery (real and/or for Fax cover pages)
  6. Marketing and Promotion
    1. Advertising (print, web, direct mail, cold calls, …)
    2. Joining trade groups, associations
    3. Speaking at events, free mini-seminars
    4. Writing articles in target-audience publications
    5. Giving away time/products and getting publicity
    6. Going after government contracts
  7. Setting up an Office
    1. Space – in-home office vs. professional office space (Do you really have the discipline to work at home?)
    2. Telephone
    3. Fax
    4. Hi-speed internet connection with reliable up-time
    5. Computer
      1. Desktop, laptop, both?
      2. Wifi capability
    6. Printer (color vs. black and white)
    7. Computer file backup (frequency, on-site vs. off-site copies)
    8. Shredder
    9. Fire safe (documents and on-site backup media)
  8. Billing, Payments, and Cash Flow
    1. Accepting payment by cash, check, credit card, electronic transfer
    2. Issuing invoices
    3. Issuing receipts
    4. Sales tax collection
    5. How many days to pay?
    6. Penalty for late payment
    7. Travel time (local vs. out-of-area)
    8. Need cash flow to cover 30–90-day net payments
  9. Record Keeping
    1. Financial software
      1. Banking
      2. Invoices
      3. Accounts receivable
      4. Accounts payable
      5. Tax preparation
      6. Expense tracking
    2. Contact list/lead manager
    3. Electronic calendar with alarms
  10. Rates
    1. Charging by the hour, day, or job
    2. Are expenses included?
    3. Things to factor in
      1. No paid vacation
      2. No paid public holidays
      3. No paid sick leave
      4. No employer-provided health insurance
      5. No employer-provided contributions to a retirement plan
      6. Administration, banking, record keeping, backup, marketing and so on all take non-billable time
    4. What does your competition charge?
    5. Are you a generalist or a specialist?
    6. Pro-bono vs. full rate; should you ever discount your time?
  11. Professional Services
    1. Legal
    2. Accounting
    3. Payroll
    4. Taxes
    5. Safe-deposit box at a bank
  12. Agreements and Contracts
    1. Written vs. unwritten expectations
    2. Explicit vs. implicit guarantees
  13. Keeping Current: Clients don't hire contractors to learn
    1. Books and videos
    2. Training (in-person and self-paced)
    3. Certification/endorsement

Planning for Success

© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.


For some years, I've been saying, "Success comes from planning, not from hoping or wishing". Yes, you can plan for success, although I must say that this seems to be news to many people. More often than not, many people I have observed try something halfheartedly or in a disorganized fashion, and then when they fail, they rationalize that "it simply was not meant to be". Not only is that wasteful, it's nonsense! Ignoring external factors, most people are exactly where they deserve to be; those who plan for success most often are successful, and those that don't most often are not. It's that simple.

How then does one plan for success? This essay is my attempt to answer that question. I start by introducing the basics steps of the process as I have determined them, and then I illustrate them using a scenario. Although the names of the protagonists and some of the details have been changed, the problem and solution are real.

Note that the approach I document relies heavily on one writing things down at every step of the process. As such, you would do well to read first my essay "Talk is Cheap. Write it Down" from February 2011. If you can't master the steps outlined in that essay, you certainly aren't planning for success.


I'm a big fan of making lists, so let's begin with one that contains in order the main questions/steps in planning for success:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Who is impacted by this problem and its resolution?
  3. What constraints exist?
  4. What is the solution?
  5. What are the costs of solving this problem?
  6. Who will implement the solution?
  7. How did it go?


Now unless you are very experienced at problem solving, you would do well to follow these steps for even seemingly simple problems. If you cut too many corners too early in the development of your skills, you likely will not achieve the desired results.

It is important to understand the meaning of the term problem as used in this context. According to my dictionary (American Heritage), when used as a noun, problem is:

  1. A question to be considered, solved, or answered.
  2. A situation, matter, or person that presents perplexity or difficulty.


To many people, the word problem has negative connotations, as in "He's a real problem." and "She always was a problem child". Such usage is not applicable to this essay.

As I stated in my first blog post ("Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it's Off to Blog We Go", December 2009"), regarding emotion, I am a Vulcan. As you follow the steps above, be careful to temper your emotions with a generous dose of reality, especially when it comes to wants versus needs.

A Case Study

Several years ago, Robyn rented a 2-bedroom apartment, and to help cover expenses she sublet the 2nd bedroom to Julia. They shared the cost of the landline telephone, the high-speed internet connection, and the cable television service. Recently, Robyn announced that she was getting married and that her husband would move in with her. As Robyn and her husband would be a 2-income family and they desired privacy, they wanted the place to themselves. Julia would have to find somewhere else to live.

Julia had recently gotten a sizeable pay raise, and she wanted a place of her own. She did the math and determined that by going without a few luxuries and by keeping to a sensible budget, she could manage to rent a 1-bedroom apartment on her own.

Step 1: What is the Problem?

Define the problem by first thinking it through, then verbalizing it, and then putting it in writing. Make sure it is the real problem, not just the most quickly or perceived problem.

I cannot emphasize enough the underlined sentence above. Over the years, I have seen some very elegant, efficient, and cost-effective solutions; however, they solved the wrong problem! People in a hurry or without sufficient discipline quite often think that the first thing they see must be the real problem; however, that is often not the case.

For Julia to get her own place, she would have many issues to consider. However, for the purposes of this discussion, we'll limit them to just a few. The problem as she defined it was, "Regarding telephone, high-speed internet connection, and television services, what is the most cost-effective solution for my current needs?"

Let's revisit the issue of defining the real problem and the potential for "running off the rails" by making an emotionally charged decision. Many of us are being bombarded constantly with advertising promoting mobile phone options, super high-speed internet connections, and whiz-bang subscription TV choices. If we want to keep up with the "in crowd" or we have way too much money, we might write the problem as, "Which package is the best that gives me all these features?" In Julia's case, the problem statement contains "most cost-effective solution" and "current needs". Until she considers her current needs and constraints, she can't begin to answer her question.

Step 2: Who is Impacted by this Problem and its Resolution?

Ask, "Who is impacted by this problem and the actions taken? Who should be notified? Is there likely to be any backlash from any other party?"

Apart from others being able to reach Julia by phone and email, no one else is impacted by the problem or any solution.

Step 3: What Constraints Exist?

Consider if there are minimum or maximum time limits, or whether a solution is needed by a specific date. Is cost a factor? What other issues impact the solution?

Some sort of telephone service needs to be in place by the time Julia moves into her new apartment. If she chose a mobile solution, that service could start prior to move-in.

Although Julia enjoys renting videos occasionally, watching TV is low on her list of priorities. Her main recreational activity is reading.

It would be useful for high-speed internet service to be in place by move-in, but this is not necessary,

Julia is an elementary school teacher. As such, she cannot be interrupted during the workday by personal phone calls. Thus far, her landline at home has been adequate, and she projects that one just like it will suffice for some time yet. Her internet needs are minimal; primarily they involve web browsing and private email (which she is prohibited from doing via her work computer). With her local supermarket renting DVDs for $1/night, she has no interest in downloading videos over the internet.

Cost is certainly a factor. Looking at nice-to-have features is okay, but she needs to separate wants from needs. However, she'd like to be able to add features to her service as she can justify and afford them.

Ultimately, Julia determined that her needs were as follows:

  • A landline with a 50 local calls per month package. (Long-distance calls would be done via a discount calling card. International calls would be done via Skype-Out at 2 cents/minute.) She didn't need Caller ID, call waiting, or any of the myriad optional features.
  • A broadband internet connection that permitted email with small attachments, and web browsing without large file downloads.
  • No subscription TV service; she would buy and use an indoor antenna to access the numerous free channels available in her area.

Step 4: What is the Solution?

Identify the final decision(s) and state the actual steps needed for a complete, timely, and successful solution to the problem.

Here are the steps that Julia determined she needed to take:

  1. Draw a table containing rows for each of the features available with phone and internet services, with one column for each supplier.
  2. Contact each service supplier and record their information in the table, adding new rows, as new features become known. If features from one supplier don't exactly match those from another, try to weight them, so comparisons can be made logically rather than emotionally.
  3. Choose one supplier for both services or different suppliers for each service.
  4. For internet service, hook up the modem/router and install any required software.
  5. For phone service, set up a Skype account, sign-up to Skype-Out, and set up a Skype-to-Go local number for access by regular phone. Configure Skype-to-Go speed-dial numbers via the computer.
  6. For TV service, hook up the antenna and configure the TV tuner to the channels available.
  7. Configure the DVD player to both play and record, and configure the VHS player to play.

Step 5: What are the Costs of Solving this Problem?

Consider the costs in time/money/resources.

Apart from actually paying for the new services, the main cost was the time it took to obtain and compare the prices and services from different vendors. There was also the cost of an indoor TV antenna.

[In Step 7, we'll see that recording to DVD resulted in an unexpected cost.]

Step 6: Who Will Implement the Solution?

Consider who will take the action, and, if need outside help, identify whom.

Julia did the research herself. A friend helped her select and buy the antenna, and installed the internet and video equipment. She was able to set up Skype-Out and a Skype-to-Go local number herself. [Note that having a friend help can involve risk. Is that friend able to see the issues from the other's perspective or are they introducing their own bias to the solution of the problem?]

Step 7: How Did it Go?

Afterwards, do a postmortem as to what did or did not work and add any necessary improvements to the general plan. Did it succeed because of the plan; was it accidental, or influenced by outside forces?

How do you know you succeeded? After having spent time and money, but not necessarily having a defensible plan, many people rationalize that their solution "must be okay", even when it really might not be!

In Julia's case, the best phone deal included unlimited local and long-distance calls in the US for a reasonable fixed price. It also included DSL internet access, whose performance was adequate. (While it wouldn't support high-speed video streaming, that was not a requirement.)

Although more than 35 digital TV channels were available over the air in the neighborhood, inside, the reception for many turned out to be poor or non-existent. Julia's apartment was on the second floor of a 4-floor building with large trees front and back. It was hard to get a good signal with an indoor antenna. That said the few channels she watched regularly generally were available.

Recording TV programs to DVD required an unexpected cost, of some $300. The tuner in the TV was just for the TV, and like pretty much all digital TVs, her TV had no capability to output a signal to a recorder. (This task is usually handled by a cable or satellite box.) As such, Julia had to buy a new DVD unit that had a built-in digital tuner. This let her record one program to disk even while watching a different program live. The unit she bought was a combo DVD/VHS.

The bottom line was that the implementation was a success, and, except for the cost of the new DVD unit, it went exactly as planned. In fact, Julia would recover the complete cost of her new 40" digital TV, antenna, DVD/VHS unit, and 3-handset wireless phone system with the savings she'd make by not having subscription TV for the next 12–15-month period.

Additional Rules for Success

Once at short notice, I was asked to give some guidelines on being successful. Here's what I came up with:

  1. It is much easier to be different than it is to be better. (Think outside the box. Don't compete head-on; look for an angle.)
  2. Always think that you work for yourself even if you really work for someone else.
  3. Invest in yourself. (If you don't take an interest in yourself, why should anyone else?)
  4. Do you really want to manage people? Be honest now.
  5. Opportunities are all around us; they simply need to be recognized. They can even be created!
  6. Good written and spoken communications are extremely valuable. (No matter how good your ideas might be, if you can't express them they'll languish.)
  7. Be true to yourself first, and then to your friends/family and employer/clients.
  8. Treat every first meeting as the beginning of a potentially long-term relationship.
  9. Don't be afraid to volunteer. (Being an organizer of an activity puts you at the center of that activity even if you are brand new to the group.)
  10. Getting noticed could result in more opportunities, so don't be afraid to "blow your own horn" a bit.


There is an old adage, "Success breeds success". I've seen that happen and I've experienced it firsthand many times. If you plan for success, then except for faulty planning or factors beyond your control, why shouldn't you be successful? After all, you are as good as the next person, maybe even better. Right? Now go forth and succeed, and remember, if you tell yourself that you can't do something, don't be surprised if that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy!