| Home | Numbers | I Like |

Tuesday 8 May 2018

50 Shades Of Brown

Simon says 
My apologies to Simon for the title, but I just couldn’t resist!

A couple of years ago, I found myself at an event which I really should not have been at - I was a proper finance noob. But as luck would have it, I was there, and one of the speakers at the event was a man named Simon Brown.

I found his talk that evening to be both informative and entertaining, and so the next day I went and checked out this Just One Lap website thing he mentioned.

What I found was life changing! The videos, articles and podcasts which cut through all the BS and gave a truly independent view on how to get the most out of your investments were fantastic, and really set me on the right path. The rest, as they say, is history…

Naturally I have been itching to interview Simon ever since, so imagine my delight when he agreed to my request! (I guess after interviewing his colleague Kristia last year, he kind of had to agree – fair is fair!)

And while the interview maybe doesn’t uncover all 50 shades, it certainly goes a long way into digging a little deeper behind his reasons for living a simpler life, his early working years, and is filled with some fantastic personal finance common sense.

But you not here to read my babbling, so let me allow Simon to do most the talking…


Maybe let's start with an introduction. Where are you from, your schooling, what was your upbringing like?

I am a KZNer, moved a bunch around the province (my folks divorced when I was 10 and I had moved 20 times already) so went to a lot of different schools and did matric in Pinetown in the 80's. Hated school but was good at parts of it like the maths.

And after school, what did you end up doing? Where was your first job, and maybe describe the journey from there until the founding of Just One Lap?

I studied film and video because I couldn't get into journalism, moved to CPT where I started an adventure magazine (amongst things) and worked for a TV production company and then back to KZN in 1993. My first job was when I was 6 (opening the gate on a farm we lived on) and from about 12 I always had a job (CNA during holidays and weekends, odd jobs, waiter).

In 1995 I started trading, fortunately no derivatives so losses were capped at 100%. I had been buying the odd share since 1987 with some luck but mostly less lucky. Then in the late 90's I started building websites as this internet thing looked like it had potential. Early 2000 I launched about 6 websites and one took off – SAWarrants, so I focused on that one. The back story is that when warrants were launched locally in October 1997 I had a friend tell me they were awesome, so I started losing money on them instead of shares. But I asked a lot of questions and got smart about them. So as they got more popular I was one of the few outside the issuers who understood them, hence the website. Then a lucky break that saw me end up on the front page of the Sunday Business Times saw traffic boom and so here I am.

I have been a Just One Lap user from almost the very beginning, and I can honestly say Just One Lap has been the main reason I started an investment portfolio. The site is now over 7 years old and even after all this time I still see the same passion and enthusiasm for educating and enabling people to be better with their money. You must find your work incredibly rewarding?

I am a teacher and the beauty of teaching is that you can really change lives and we get the feedback such as your comment above. That's hugely rewarding. So yes I love my job, being online also gives freedom from time and geography with the latter being my current plan - live in AirBnB's.

What made you want to get into Personal Finance, Investing and Trading education?

It was never a plan, it just happened. I'd been interested since the early 80's when my grandmother died and had 9 DeBeers shares. That got me asking question and writing to listed companies requesting their annual reports. Back then we had no data; even the papers had very limited market coverage with really only share prices. One of the radio stations would read out all the closing prices at 6pm every day, so I started writing them down to keep records.

Where did you pick up your financial acumen from? Was there an influential family member, a book, or did your interest just naturally lead you to be self-taught?

I read voraciously and always have been. Much of what I have learnt has either been the hard way making the mistakes, or asking questions via online forums etc. Other people have been happy to share their knowledge and help make me smarter. Being a KZNer, I also read Richard Cluver every Sunday during the late 80's and into the 90's, he had his Blue Royal list of stocks that I used to pore over with my quarterly copy of the JSE Handbook, the annual report, and my own hand drawn charts from the radio show data. The book that really triggered it was Trading in the Zone by Mark Douglas. It was published in 2000 and I read it hot off the press, it got me onto the right track with my trading.

Many people see you as an inspiration and a mentor. Do you have any mentors or people you look up to?

I have been helped by literally hundreds of people, but the biggest influence was my late mother. She taught my sister and I two important things. We can be anything and we can have anything. But we have to make it happen - nothing just arrives on a plate. This gave me insane confidence and belief, and so far she's been spot on.

What does a typical week day look like for you?

Totally random with a little structure. Mondays are busy, start of week, copy submission to Finweek and coffee with Kristia (Just One Lap CEO). Wednesday and Thursdays are podcast recording (JSEDirect and Fat Wallet respectively) and I try not to work Fridays except for more Finweek copy deadlines and The Week That Was on BusinessDay TV recording at lunch time. Sunday morning I write Finweek copy for about an hour because markets are closed so my brain thinks better.

But generally one week is very different to another. There may be a JSE listing event, meetings, events I am presenting, or managing and media work on TV and radio. I also travel a bit for events and holidays.

And a typical weekend day?

Lazy. Dinners, lunches, drinks and taking photos.

Confession time. What do you spend way too much money on?

Living. Chocolate and coffee. But in truth I like nice things and and am fortunate to be able to afford much. So for example while I don't buy many clothes, I am happy to pay up when buying. I have also been spending a whack on vinyl since I moved next door to a vinyl store at 44 Stanley. I used to be a Gen1 gadget buyer of almost every new tech. But I have smarted up to that, avoiding Gen1 entirely, and realising gadgets are fun but mostly meh. I think I also finally really understood that the new fancy gadget doesn't make you a better trader, photographer or whatever.

How do you balance experiences with saving - e.g. travelling? You have those that say experiences last forever and you should never miss out, and then you get those that say you can never get the money you spent back so don't waste it.

It is tough, and I think we probably never get the balance totally right. Thing is, if you could give me at least the year I'll die, then I know exactly how much I need (more or less, returns, inflation etc. tricky). So I err each way depending. But I also have tricks, I holiday 4 times a year, but locally. Overseas is lekker but expensive, and travel time eats into the holiday. Whereas Jeffreys Bay is grand, so is iSimangaliso, and much of the rest of South Africa. They're close and cheap and just wildly awesome.

What would you say has been your biggest mistake? Or put another way, if you could go back to when you were 18 again, what would you do differently?

Drink less and save more. It's really simple, at 18 we have +40years of savings and those first years will have a massive impact even if the amounts are small. But let's be honest, when we're 18 nothing matters but the party, and that's not going to change and probably it shouldn't. We also have very little money, so saving is not easy and we need things (education, car etc.). So maybe at 18 we just need to promise ourselves that when we get a 'real' job with a salary, we'll start saving. I got my first RA at 24 years old, it was a horrid over priced under performing piece of rubbish. But it was better then nothing (albeit only just).

In an article I did last year, you gave your top personal finance tip as - "Avoid debt and new cars". Why do you think people in South Africa are so bad with debt and the allure of a new set of wheels?

I think this is a global issue, not just South Africa. The problem is that cars are flashy and that's exactly why we want them - they show status. How else do you signal to your friends etc. that you're earning real money - you buy a flashy car. Now of course you're probably scraping by as a result, so you're flashing lies.

You recently downsized considerably in order to lead a simpler life. Can you talk us through your thinking?

Long story, here's the short version. My wife and I lived in a very large four bedroom house for no good reason except that when we moved to Johannesburg we could afford it. Then, in Christmas 2015, I was looking to buy a garden shed because I needed more space, and this struck me as insane. Later that year we were holidaying in a small 80 m2 house in deep KZN Midlands, and it was more than enough and I got to thinking. So we sold the house and got rid of pretty much all the contents (including a 4,000 book library) and now we live in a small flat at 44 Stanley - 84 m2 and it's everything we need.

My monthly household expenses (cleaning, garden, bond, security etc.) is down by 80%. Yip 80%. Now I did buy the new place cash, but even removing the bond payments, my monthly saving is almost 60%.

We keep stuff because we don't know what else to do. But memories are not about stuff. My mother passed away over 20 years ago, and I remember her almost every day, not from things but from memories. Things are baggage, seldom really useful and seldom serve a purpose. So now we have 3 pots because really why did we ever have 20 pots? We're less than a year into living small but so far it is great. We love only owning important and beautiful things, and the savings are huge.

And has it been a worthwhile exercise? In hindsight would you have done anything differently?

Working 100% as hoped. Only thing I would do differently is start sooner, like when we moved to JHB in 2007.

So.........Is it better to Buy Or Rent?

Rent - every time. But we own because this is less a financial decision and more an emotional or default decision. My wife wants to own the place we live as it makes her feel more secure in life. So we bought it rather then rent. But in truth most people never own their place, the bank does. So the question should be; rent, own or live in the banks house? Most people spend their life renting, but renting from the bank.

The readers of the blog know full well that there is no financial advice here - but what are you currently investing in?

My portfolio is pubically viewable at http://www.simonbrown.co.za/portfolio/

There are now close on 80 ETF's in South Africa, so I am going to hit you with my ETF police question. Let’s say the ETF police came around and said, "Okay Simon, these ETF's are getting out of hand, we are going to shut them all down except for one. Pick which one gets to stay"

ASHGEQ. Kristia did a podcast on just this a while back. ETFs are passive, but selecting is active, and trying to put together a market beating ETF portfolio is totally active. This is a global ETF with some 1,200 shares (including emerging markets but no Africa). I added it to my tax-free portfolio this year. 

Any tips for someone who is just starting out and wants to start allocating some money towards investing?

Do it, do it every month. Spend less then you earn every month and put the difference into a low cost ETF with a low cost brokerage. Fill up your R33k tax-free limit first. Then come back in say 30 or 40 years and you will have created wealth. It really is that simple but unfortunately it is also slow. There is only one quick way to get rich - marry money.

Where do you plan to retire?

By a beach. Right on the beach, not a short walk away. I wanna be able to see and hear the waves at all times.

What are your hobbies and interests? And I guess at the same time this is probably also going to be the answer to what you plan to do with your time once you no longer need to work?

I like listening to music, reading, playing chess online, taking pictures, surfing, traveling, learning and sharing. Thanks to the Internet, there are a million things I want to get smarter about and I can. I am currently digging around the science of cooking. Huge fun and even some great food occasionally.

Looking a little bit ahead, what are your plans for the next 1-3 years?

Get Just One Lap to ten years old, take more photos, and spend more time in AirBnBs.

And for the next 5-10 years?

Get better at my surfing.

And finally, where can people find you? Hit us with all your socials and URL's


A huge thanks to Simon for agreeing to do this interview. As you have read, he is a very busy man, so it was great that he took the time out to answer questions from little old me! I guess it is once again testament to his willingness to share, teach and help people be better.

I hope you found reading the interview as entertaining as I did writing it!

Till next time, Stay Stealthy!
 - ~ - ~