Drew Parker: “Street smart” and “book smart”

Growing up I saw my mother deal with many different types of life challenges that ranged from difficult to painful to traumatic. She had the rare gift of being both “street smart” and “book smart”, and to top it off she was amazingly intuitive. I saw her reason through things, deal with unreasonable people, be […]

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Growing up I saw my mother deal with many different types of life challenges that ranged from difficult to painful to traumatic. She had the rare gift of being both “street smart” and “book smart”, and to top it off she was amazingly intuitive. I saw her reason through things, deal with unreasonable people, be undeniably convincing, and simply grit her teeth and push through. When she was determined she was unstoppable. I learned that when something is important to you, you apply every resource at your disposal and never give up. Creating something from nothing is never easy, but determination and a willingness to learn and adapt can overcome most obstacles.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Drew Parker.

Drew Parker is the creator of The Complete Retirement Planner (TCRP), an e-commerce site specializing in personal financial planning tools with advanced capabilities (www.completeretirementplanner.com). He is a G.I.A. trained gemologist and was Vice President of a premier independent jeweler and a diamond wholesaler before joining Nordstrom. As a Merchandise Financial Planner for a 1B dollars segment of the business, and then as the first Merchandise Financial Manager for Nordstrom Rack (5B dollars), he gained extensive experience in designing and building financial planning tools. He created TCRP in 2017, setting new standards for personal financial planning tools by making it easy and affordable for anyone to create a comprehensive, completely individualized year by year financial plan for both pre- and post-retirement.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Drew! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in Providence, R.I. in a historic area surrounding Brown University and R.I. School of Design. It was a vibrant mix of historic homes and the history that transpired there, along with the young enthusiasm of all the students. I was an avid tennis player, and at age 16 I pleaded with my parents to let me move to Florida to attend a tennis academy with the intent of becoming a touring pro by age 18. My parents, valuing a good education above all, said that I could do whatever I wanted after college, despite my explaining (with youthful exuberance) that it would be too late by then! Life got in the way shortly thereafter, with my parents struggling financially, and then my father unexpectedly leaving right after I graduated from high school. I had to put off college for a year and work full time to help my mother and I get by. It was a tough experience, but it gave me the resolve to overcome roadblocks. I ended up putting myself through college (St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD), and got interested in fine jewelry after doing some odd jobs in the Jeweler’s Building in Baltimore, MD. I became a Gemologist and worked my way up in the business, living in Boston, New York and then Chicago, before settling in the Seattle area.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Always consider the source”. This is more relevant today than ever before, with information from around the globe at our fingertips. It is not enough to just receive information; it is critical that that information originates from an informed source. This applies to everything from news, to talking with friends, to a google search looking for an answer or solution. It is easy to be misled, misinformed, or receive only partial truth even if someone has the best of intentions. As a Gemologist I am amazed at how much misinformation exists about diamonds and diamond buying (and about colored stones!), and as someone well-versed in the principles of financial planning I see poorly thought out, half true advice offered from different sources every day. Whatever the topic, only rely on a well-informed source.

A related quote that I was taught from a young age is, “Everyone does not have the right to an opinion. Everyone does have the right to an informed opinion”.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“How To Make Money In Stocks”, by William O’Neil. This may be an odd choice, but it definitely had an impact on me. I was always interested in learning how to invest because but I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of just handing over money to a broker or adviser and crossing my fingers. At the same time, investing is full of technical and fundamental analysis and complex strategies that can take years to learn, but I wasn’t interested in making it my full-time job and I wasn’t that patient. This book outlined a strategy that was easy to understand, that made sense to me, and that I felt I could put into practice right away. This became the foundation of my own system for picking stocks that I still use today. I remember placing my first trade using what I had learned. I didn’t have a lot of money and I was nervous about the possibility of losing any of it. Ten days later I sold the stock with a profit of 3,500 dollars, and I was hooked. There’s no question that good timing and good luck played a part in my success (my intent was not to “trade” so quickly, but a 30% profit in 10 days was not to be ignored), but it gave me confidence that I had established a set of criteria and guidelines for choosing stocks that I could follow going forward.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

When I wanted to plan for retirement (way too late, by the way — start as early in your career as possible) I went looking for a financial planning tool that would help me to factor in enough variables to be assured of reliable answers. What I found was budgeting apps, articles telling me to create a financial plan (how? using what?), and endless retirement calculators that omitted essential information and were all (yes, all, and I would be happy to prove it) based on erroneous assumptions. There were a few “planners” (I’m being kind) that asked a handful of extra questions, and one tool that was probably capable, but it required a technical manual to use (really?) and cost hundreds of dollars. I was shocked that these were my only options. During my search I also learned that 82% of households have no financial plan, don’t know how to create one, and don’t know how much they really need for retirement. It was clear that a lot of people, including me, needed more robust financial planning tools to help them.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

I’ve had ideas for businesses before that never went anywhere. This can happen for a variety of reasons: you don’t have the financial resources, you don’t have the time to commit to it, you don’t know where to find the right people to help you, you’re not sure how good the product really is or what the level of demand would be, you have no experience starting a business and the risk seems too big, etc. There are a thousand reasons (excuses really) not to proceed, but if you believe in what you are doing and are passionate about it, you will find a way to figure things out. To have the strength and determination to overcome challenges and roadblocks you need to have confidence in yourself and your idea/product, establish clear and specific goals, and be totally committed.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

To start, talk to everyone you know and do a thorough internet search (look beyond the first couple of pages of the search results, and search for your topic/idea using multiple search terms/key words/descriptions). Depending on the idea, you could also do a patent search. Search through Kickstarter. These days the world is at your fingertips, so explore every possibility you can think of. Even if your idea already exists, ask yourself if you can make it unique from, or better than, the existing product. They say that there’s no such thing as an original idea, but there’s usually plenty of room for improvement. Build a better mousetrap.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

Growing up I saw my mother deal with many different types of life challenges that ranged from difficult to painful to traumatic. She had the rare gift of being both “street smart” and “book smart”, and to top it off she was amazingly intuitive. I saw her reason through things, deal with unreasonable people, be undeniably convincing, and simply grit her teeth and push through. When she was determined she was unstoppable. I learned that when something is important to you, you apply every resource at your disposal and never give up. Creating something from nothing is never easy, but determination and a willingness to learn and adapt can overcome most obstacles.

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

My experience is a little different than most because I was able to get the business off the ground all on my own. The hardest part, and what took the most time, was creating the product itself. I was fortunate that I had the experience to do this, and because I would sell it online as a digital download, I didn’t need a manufacturer or distributor. However, even with product in hand, I still needed to form a corporation, design an ecommerce site, create a logo and brand name, market the product, etc. I had no idea how to do any of those things. I decided to learn rather than to spend (on hiring others to help me). I researched forming a corporation, contacted the State to be sure of regulations and requirements, and figured it out one step at a time. If you are setting up a large company it would be wise to get legal help, but at that point I was the only employee, so it was a lot less complicated.

Next, I needed a web site with the ability to accept payments. There are a few ways to go about this, but I chose to use Shopify because they offered a variety of web site formats that required minimal experience to set up and they streamlined the process for accepting payments. It took some time to learn how to customize the site for my needs, but it saved me thousands of dollars by learning how to do it myself. Once that was done, I still needed to drive traffic to the site. I was hesitant to spend money (just yet) on advertising an unknown, unproven product, and the product did not lend itself to social media exposure — a picture of a fancy spreadsheet with a heading of “financial planning” was not going to be a trending item. I decided to try what I now call the “six degrees of separation” theory of advertising. I told every friend and family member what I was doing and asked them to help spread the word to everyone they knew. It took two weeks to get the first sale, but it was a start. Within a month I had small, but regular sales, and, more importantly, proof of concept. Within a few more months we had customers from coast to coast.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I wish I had something funny to offer, mistake or not, but it was just a “nose to the grindstone” period. However, this month marks our 3-year anniversary and I looked back at the prototype of TCRP that I used to get initial feedback. Wow, I had forgotten how far it has come. I was embarrassed to look at it. I thought it was pretty cool at the time, but everyone I showed it to back then must have thought I was crazy! It just goes to show how much progress is made over time when you stick with something and continually improve it. Never be satisfied.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

The most exciting time was about 6 months after launching when I was quoted in an article about retirement planning.

They included a link to the site, and I remember seeing the site traffic instantly skyrocket. That really proved to me, beyond a doubt, that there was huge demand for this product. That moment was really exciting. It was also very informative because I was able to see the demographics of who was visiting the site — what part of the country had the most interest, what age groups were visiting, what pages did they spend the most time on, etc. Identifying who your customer is will help you to tailor the product to their needs, and to fine tune how and where to advertise.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I think I knew these things in my head, but sometimes you need to experience them to really feel the impact.

• Be prepared to be frustrated beyond belief. There were a few times when I spent days trying to get a complex formula to work properly. I couldn’t believe the amount of time I was spending trying to figure it out. At some point in creating a product or starting a business, you will feel like you have hit a wall. Walk away, take some time to clear your head, but persevere. A solution exists, you just have to find it.

• It will take far longer than you think. Creating a product is hard enough but establishing and running a business compounds the tasks and problems involved. Especially if you handle every detail yourself, as I did, you seem to add two items to your to-do list for every one that gets crossed off. If you have employees to help, same thing! There is no way to fully understand all the details that need to be taken care of, and the time it will take to get them right, until you’re in the thick of it. It’s endless.

• It will never be “done”. No matter how good your product is, or how smoothly your business is running, there is always an opportunity for improvement. To stay ahead of the competition, you must know their product as well as you know yours, and then make sure that yours is better. Always move forward, always improve. If you become complacent, your business will falter.

• Be prepared to spend a lot of time on customer service. Customers don’t just buy a product; they ask a lot of questions and they need a lot of attention (for a variety of reasons). That’s okay, but responding to every message, usually involving some back and forth, can really sap your time. That said, customer service is paramount. The customer is always right, even when they aren’t, because without satisfied customers you have no business.

• If you are not familiar with SEO, you either need to learn about it or you need to hire someone to help you. I knew what SEO was, but I certainly didn’t know the details that I needed to know, and how much of a difference they would make. A few months after going live I tried to find my site with a Google search for a retirement planner. It showed up on page 19 (I almost gave up looking). No one was going to find it. After paying more attention to SEO details, I was able to get it to the top of Page 2. Much better! Now if only I could get rid of all the ads taking up space on page 1!

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

If you can make a prototype, show it to as many people as you can. At the very least, write out a detailed description. Get as much feedback as you can, from the widest audience possible. Invite criticism, even if people offer positive feedback. You will always learn something from what others have to say, and your willingness to adapt the product to meet customer’s needs is critical. A Kickstarter campaign is another good way to test potential demand.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

I think it would depend on the complexity of your idea, and your own experience/ability. The desired time frame for bringing your idea to market (is there a time restriction?) and your budget would also play a role in this decision. You would be surprised how much you can accomplish on your own, but specific circumstances would dictate whether a consultant would be beneficial. Always consider all your options.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Again, this would depend on the scope of the project and your own financial situation. Much like the stock market, don’t risk money that you can’t afford to lose, or at least be without for a long period of time. Also, much like home re-modeling (can you tell that I like analogies?), count on the final cost to be much more than you had anticipated. Personally, I would much prefer bootstrapping, if possible. Taking on the all the risk by yourself will really drive you to achieve results, and in the end, you reap all the rewards if you are successful.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

The majority of households manage their own finances (~75% use an adviser) by relying on budgeting apps, retirement calculators, and generic advice (save a certain % of your salary, use the “4% rule”, claim Social Security at a certain age, etc.). The problem is that all these options are either insufficient, inaccurate, or inappropriate for their circumstances. My goal is to offer an easy and affordable way for anyone to create a completely individualized and detailed financial plan that allows them to accurately assess their current and future financial health and understand how they can affect the outcome. A customer recently contacted me to thank me — he wanted to retire but his wife was genuinely concerned that they weren’t financially ready, and he couldn’t convince her otherwise. When he showed her the detailed, year by year results from TCRP she felt comfortable that he could retire and that they would be okay. Having the right information allows you to make informed decisions and we want to help with that process.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’m a firm believer that financial literacy is a critical skill that needs to be emphasized more. Every household, regardless of their net worth or stage of life, owes it to themselves to create a comprehensive, individualized financial plan. They can do this themselves, hire an adviser, or use a planning tool, but there is no better way to understand how current decisions directly impact future results, and how to achieve financial security. Seeing a detailed, year by year financial plan in black and white is eye opening. Too many people rely on guessing, hoping, and generic advice that is meant for everyone but no one in particular, and 82% don’t have a financial plan. It doesn’t have to be that way. We need to keep pushing to make sure that everyone has the tools they need to take control of their finances.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Honestly, there are certainly people who I have admiration and respect for, but I’m not sure that I would like to meet them in person. Public figures often have different personas in private, and I would be afraid of being disappointed if they turned out not to be the person who I think they are. It wouldn’t take away from their accomplishments, just my perception of them as a person.

If I had to choose someone, I would choose Barack Obama. He is possibly the only politician that I have any respect for (regardless of political party) and who I would like to think would be willing to have an honest conversation. I’d like to get some straight answers. ☺

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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