Chapter 11: Finding Markets for the Straight-A Guide
Like anyone starting a new venture, I had to overcome many hurdles to convert the Straight-A Guide into a viable, marketable resource. First, I had to consider the potential markets. In my view, those markets included jails, prisons, and schools that served people at risk of going into jails or prisons.
How could I reach people in those markets?
With only 365 days in a year, I had to consider the many limitations that follow for a person getting out of prison. I contemplated such challenges during my sentence, especially as I moved closer to my release date.
As an exercise in personal development, other justice-impacted people can do the same. For example, imagine that you wanted to leave prison with a book or course that you could sell to administrators:
- What would be the best way to convert the words you wrote into a product that institutions in the market would purchase?
- How much would you need to invest to create each product?
- How much would institutions pay for the product?
- How much would you invest in converting a prospective institution into a client?
- What would be the difference between the amount institutions would pay and the amount it costs to produce the product?
- What fixed costs would you need to cover to create each product?
- What variable costs would you have to pay to make each product?
- How many clients would you need to build a career around your message?
- What opportunity costs would you miss if you pursued this path full-time?
- How could you sustain your family while simultaneously striving to build this venture?
The more questions I considered, the more I realized how complicated it would be to convert ideas into sustainable businesses.
Since I had only recently concluded a long term and still had time to serve on Supervised Release, Parole, and Special Parole, I faced skepticism from many decision-makers. They perceived risk in doing business with me or even allowing me to visit an institution. Still, my commitment to improving outcomes for justice-impacted people kept me pushing forward.
If I could reach people in prison, I believed I could help them see a different path than the one many followed. I wanted to show how disciplined and deliberate adjustment strategies lead to resources they can leverage. Rather than waiting for calendar pages to turn or engaging in the types of thoughtless behavior that derails prospects for success, participants would:
- Find mentors,
- Create opportunities,
- Educate themselves,
- Build strong support networks and confidence in their ability to thrive as law-abiding, contributing citizens.
Yet when making this presentation to people who built careers in corrections, I’d frequently encounter resistance. Many administrators wanted to see independent scholarly research showing evidence that the Straight-A Guide lowered recidivism rates. To provide the proof, I’d need to:
- Contract with either a research institution or a university research department,
- Coordinate funding to pay for that research,
- Find an institution that would allow us to test the course’s efficacy,
- Assess the progress of each participant,
- Measure the progress the participants made after they returned to society,
- Compare the success rate of participants who completed the Straight-A Guide with rates of similarly situated people who did not access the program,
- Coordinate an evaluation with an accredited researcher.
If the independent researchers had access to data, and their research revealed that participants in the Straight-A Guide program were more likely to succeed upon release, we would have more ammunition to distribute the program to jails, prisons, and schools across the nation.
- How much would I have to invest in proving the model?
Although I didn’t have first-hand knowledge of budgets, I read that the corrections industry consumed more than $80 billion yearly. Most of those resources went to funding staff and institutions. I didn’t know how much administrators would allocate for reentry programs. Further, I didn’t have any way of knowing whether working on this project full-time would allow me to earn a living.
Either way, I felt passionate about wanting to contribute.
Mahatma Gandhi advised that we all should strive to live as the change we want to see in the world. By sharing lessons that leaders taught me, I hoped to improve outcomes for other justice-impacted people. In many ways, it was like a calling or a personal ministry. A person who served multiple decades may feel inspired to share lessons that can help other justice-impacted people find their way.
Persistence opened a few opportunities to work with institutions. Slowly but surely, the word spread on how our program helped people build intrinsic motivation. We opened relationships with:
- Washington State’s Prison System,
- Santa Clara County’s juvenile justice program,
- The City of San Jose’s gang-prevention unit,
- Orange County School District,
- Los Angeles County Office of Education,
- Orange County Department of Education, and
- The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Revenues from those orders did not cover my production costs, but my relationships with institutions allowed me to interact with thousands of imprisoned people. As time passed, I learned how much I didn’t know about the expenses of launching a start-up venture.
Financial resources would have helped, though funding wasn’t the driver of my commitment. I wanted to change outcomes for people that went through corrections. To reach that goal, I would need financial stability.
Building Financial Stability:
When I concluded my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons in August of 2013, both Carole and I were 49 years old. We had made progress during our first decade of marriage, but we would have to cover a lot of ground to prepare for a stable future. Carole sacrificed a great deal to marry me, and I promised to work toward stability for our family.
While she advanced toward her master’s degree in nursing, I had to earn a living. The values-based, goal-oriented principles of the Straight-A Guide implied that we should never ask anyone to do anything we’re not willing to do ourselves. Accordingly, I began asking a series of questions. Since the course urged people to start by defining success, I had to be clear about what I wanted.
When contemplating a definition of success, I had to think about what my avatars would expect. I wanted to connect and influence more law-abiding, tax-paying Americans. To persuade those people that I had value and wasn’t only a person with a lengthy prison record, I would have to prove worthy of their support. What risks would they face in befriending me? I bore the responsibility of overcoming their fears or concerns.
Too many people emerged from prison and then reverted to crime. I knew many law-abiding citizens could be cynical about doing business with a man who had served multiple decades. I needed to begin with questions about their concerns, then build credentials to persuade others of my authenticity. They would have to differentiate me from people who talked but failed to produce. Thinking about those avatars would guide my decisions.
In addition to those avatars, I also considered the people in prison I aspired to teach.
- What would they expect if I asked for their time and attention?
- How could I earn their trust as someone who could teach them?
- What could I do to show people in prison that a better life awaited if they would use their time inside wisely?
Answering those questions led me to a conclusion. If I could build a financial statement showing a net worth of $1,000,000, others would deem me successful. I wasn’t living an extravagant life and didn’t intend to blow money. Yet since my avatars would equate financial success with personal success, I set a goal to make success self-evident.
With that end in mind, I set a goal of building a $1,000,000 net worth within my first five years of liberty. To achieve that goal, I had until August 2018. By succeeding, I would find it easier to inspire more people to see the value of The Straight-A Guide—with or without a validated research instrument.
Once I completed my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons, I could apply for credit. Despite a 0-0-0 credit score, I applied with Bank of America for a credit card. Soon after submitting my application, a banker called, saying she had reviewed my credit application. She had questions. By living frugally and saving resources that our work generated, the combined balances in our account exceeded $100,000.
We didn’t splurge after my release. Besides purchasing the Apple computers to launch my career, we didn’t buy much. I purchased a used Ford vehicle for $4,000, and we saved as much money as possible. The banker who assessed my application reviewed the assets I listed but asked why her records showed a 0-0-0 credit score. She wondered why I didn’t exist in the credit system.
After telling her my story, she agreed to issue my first credit card. Once I received the credit card, I felt a bit more like a citizen. Soon my credit score rose to the high 600s. The next step would be to apply for permanent financing on the house we purchased.
I had promised Chris and Seth of ABS Development that I would pay off the balance we owed on the property as soon as I could qualify for a mortgage. We had signed an agreement with them to purchase the property in the fall of 2012 while I was still in the halfway house. To help us get established, they accepted our down payment of $12,000 and agreed to accept interest-only payments on the outstanding balance until we could pay off the note. We were ready to begin the process of getting our first mortgage.
Our First Mortgage
Carole and I met with a mortgage banker and provided all the requested documentation. We took the next step of ordering an appraisal of the property. Considering comparable prices in the neighborhood, the appraiser provided documentation valuing our property at $442,500.
To avoid additional charges for mortgage insurance, we agreed to accept a mortgage of 80% of our home’s appraised value, or roughly $354,000. We wrote a check to cover the remaining amount we would owe to pay off the note to ABS Development.
With the initial $12,000 down payment and the additional funding we had to pay when we closed escrow, our total out-of-pocket investment in the property was less than $40,000. But in less than 18 months of ownership, our total equity in the property surpassed $88,000—or more than twice what we invested.
In applying for the mortgage, Carole and I considered the term of the loan. Traditionally, most people finance their properties over 30 years. The longer amortization brings the advantage of lower monthly payments. With the longer term, however, payments during the first half of the loan went primarily to satisfy the interest. Since we wanted to build equity in the property at an accelerated rate, we financed it with a schedule to pay the house off in 15 years. The monthly payments would be higher at $2,509, but each payment would reduce our debt on the mortgage by more than $1,500.
The advantage of owning real estate we financed over a 15-year term became readily apparent. Once the housing market started to heat up, our property’s higher valuation would increase our equity. If we looked at a five-year plan and property values increased by 20% over that term, our $442,000 property would be worth $530,000. In addition, by making our mortgage payments on time over a five-year period, we would reduce the mortgage debt we owed on the property by at least $100,000. If those plans worked out, we could project equity in the property of more than $250,000 after five years—a great return on the money we invested in purchasing the property.
As I made these projections, it became clear that real estate could and should play a significant role in my plan to build credibility. If I could replicate the strategy a few more times, I would reach the goal of building a $1,000,000 net worth by August of 2018, five years after I concluded my obligation to the Bureau of Prisons. I would only need to make my mortgage payments on time and build my career.
To build my career, however, I would still need to persuade more institutions to purchase The Straight-A Guide. Without independent research to validate the program as being evidence-based, I would continue to meet resistance in the marketplace. Administrators would object, saying that although I used the course to become successful, there was no guarantee that others could do the same.
I needed to build more credibility to overcome administrative objections that I anticipated. One strategy would be to write more, speak more, and create opportunities to put me in front of more prospective buyers. Each of those strategies required financial resources.
Accordingly, I started cold-calling potential sponsors who would want to get on the right side of history. Their funding could lead to reforms that would improve outcomes for justice-impacted people.
- In what ways does an adjustment through prison influence prospects for successful real estate investments?
- How could you replicate a strategy of using time in prison to prepare for success after prison?
- In what ways does the development of communication skills relate to success upon release?