Interview with Plastic Jungle CEO Gary Briggs

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Last week, I reviewed the excellent gift card buying/selling service Plastic Jungle. This week, we have an exclusive interview with CEO Gary Briggs.

Here was my question and answer session with Plastic Jungle’s CEO:

1. Gary, the Plastic Jungle concept is a great idea. What do you have in store for the company in the future?

Thanks, Henry. The concept for Plastic Jungle was developed by our Founder, Tina Henson, and it’s really pretty simple: Consumers have a lot of money trapped on gift cards they don’t intend to spend. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a place where a consumer can get cash for them and other consumers can then buy them at a discount — with all transactions guaranteed.

When you consider how much money is currently trapped and unspent on gift cards (estimates range from $30 billion to $40 billion, not including merchandise credits) we think that just simply getting more people to realize that they can get cash and save money through Plastic Jungle will create a bright future for us. What’s even more interesting is that retailers like the idea, too. They are recognizing that it’s much better to get that gift card you have sitting in your sock drawer moving again. It creates loyalty and what’s called “overspend,” as consumers typically spend much more than the value of a gift card when they shop. As a result, we’re very excited about the future for Plastic Jungle.

2. What’s your favorite part of Plastic Jungle?

On the consumer side, I really like that we get cash into people’s pockets in two ways: Get cash for your unused gift cards when you sell them to Plastic Jungle; save money when you shop with a gift card bought from Plastic Jungle. I think we’re building something that’s pretty unique in that it has these two significant benefits. For retailers, I’m enjoying that we are bringing a new solution to them and their response has been very exciting. Finally, I like being part of a strong, eager team of people here. For example, we have been getting a lot of new consumers in the days after Christmas and have quite a full mailbag everyday. So, we all just jump in — order in some pizza — and get at fulfilling consumer orders. It’s very fun. Have I mentioned that I like pizza?!

3. Having previously worked for eBay and PayPal, how is working at Plastic Jungle different? The same?

Of most note is simply that Plastic Jungle is a much younger company than when I joined eBay. I started at eBay in early 2002 and by then the company had over 1,000 employees with about 250 at headquarters where I worked. When I left in early 2008 the company had 14,000 employees. So size is certainly the biggest difference. What’s the same is that we’re building a marketplace at Plastic Jungle that has many of the same dynamics as the eBay market. That’s very fun to be part of and to help build. In addition, we have a lot of the same product focus as PayPal, which is something I greatly admire about the PayPal culture.

4. Why would you encourage people to use Plastic Jungle?

The top reason I would say to a potential user is that Plastic Jungle is just very easy to use. We pay for shipping and all transactions are guaranteed. So, to sell us a card, you fill out one page on the site, print out the shipping label we pay for and provide, tape the label on an envelope and then drop the card in the envelope on your way to the mailbox. In buying from Plastic Jungle you can save a lot of money when you shop by buying a discounted gift card. That’s about as straightforward as shopping gets!

Thanks Gary for taking the time to answer my questions and God bless you in all you do!

Hope you check out Plastic Jungle and try it out! I sure did and I’ll definitely use it in the future.

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Interview with Liz Weston and Pay Yourself First Challenge Winner

Here are a couple interviews with financial expert and columnist Liz Pulliam Weston and Pay Yourself First Challenge winner Kristen Shaul.

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1. First of all, congratulations on winning! You definitely accomplished much and I commend you and your husband. What was the hardest part of the whole experience? And the easiest?

The hardest part would have been finding a balance between cutting our expenses and going too far sacrificing small pleasures that add value to our life. On top of that, it was difficult creating a system where both Michael and I had a small fund that we could spend out of guilt free. After a couple months of tension we found a solution that both bolstered our savings, while allowing each person to spend on whatever they liked without feeling like they were taking from the family budget.

The easiest was finding alternative revenues on the side. Especially in those early months of the competition (the fall of 2008), the local economy in Omaha was still very strong. Add to that an integrated network in the community through Michael’s family, and we found it easy to find ways to earn extra cash. Although the jobs themselves required hard work, the opportunities were plentiful.

2. I’ve read on your blog about your giving. How has faith played a role in your finances and your choice of career?

Our relationship with GOD through JESUS is the foundation of our life. We chose our path in this world based upon our understanding of GOD’s heart for the nations through the Bible, as well as personal experiences we have had which burdened us to give our lives to HIM through missions. Following JESUS affects both the large decisions in our life (career path), as well as the everyday choices we make (having a family budget, impulse buying, finding the highest yield savings account, etc.). Everything that we have is HIS, we are simply administering it for a short time. We want to honor HIM in our administration.

3. How has living in another country changed your perspective on life? On the United States?

On a heart level, living in a developing country has broken us with the reality that so many live in poverty. So many people around the world live in hardship, without opportunities to live the ‘good life’ so many take for granted. This has changed the ways in which we see money, time, and investing ourselves. The reality is there is a lot of injustice out there. No perfect formula exists by which we can measure acceptable spending versus selfish spending, but our hearts have led us personally to minimize what we consume on ourselves, and maximize what we can do for underprivileged peoples. While the United States gives more aid than any other country, we still see wasteful consumption all around. Our take is most people just don’t realize what the world is out there. Because both Michael and I grew up in the United States we understand the normalcy that our culture teaches towards self-centered living. Many of us were taught that way, it’s something that has been passed down for generations, making it not completely our fault. We were privileged to have the opportunity to go and see ourselves what it’s like to. And it changed our life. But facts are facts: the US is the richest country in the history of the world, and billions of people are barley getting by.

We believe that we have been blessed so that we can bless others. Our lives should be a conduit of blessing. If we are faithful in what we have been given, GOD will continue to increase HIS blessing to us in order to reach more and more people. For those of us who are so fortunate to have been born in the States, we have a responsibility to do well with what we have. To him that has been given much, much will be expected. And we have found it is a joy doing it!

4. You seem to have a great relationship with your husband. What would be your best piece of advice to newlyweds?

Create the time and the space necessary to adjust to married life. Don’t go crazy with work schedules; instead maximize your time together. Learn to very open, and very honest with each other. Fluid communication is key in the beginning of marriage (not the mention the rest of it!). Discover those little things that you can both enjoy doing together. And finally, keep things simple, and keep love the center.

5. And finally, who is the role model who has made the biggest impact on you?

There has been a lot of people who I have looked up to over the years, it’s hard to pick just one. But someone who sticks out would be a woman named Kathryn Wilson. Her and her husband Thomi have been involved in missions (both local and abroad) for years. They did it well while raising a family of five kids. When I began doing missions work as a youth, they were my first leaders, and for years Kathryn took me under her wing. She taught me to believe in who GOD made me to be, to serve like CHRIST, and to work hard. I owe a lot of who I am today to her.

Check out Kristen’s personal blog and consider helping her and her husband’s ministry.

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1. Liz, being a widely read personal finance writer, what’s the single best piece of advice you can give given the economic climate that we’re in right now?

Remember: This too shall pass. We can’t know the exact shape the future will bring, but we know things always change, and every economic cycle in the past has eventually worked itself out. This one is no different.

2. As this is a Christian based blog, what role do you think faith can play in finances?

I think gratitude should play a role in everyone’s finances. We can give thanks for all that we’ve been given by sharing with others.

3. What advice can you give someone who is out of a job and is desperately searching for one but doesn’t seem to making any progress?

Make a list of everyone you know-and I mean everyone, from your grade-school buddies to your coworkers at every one of your previous jobs to people you know from church to your relatives-and let them know you’re looking. Many people find jobs through their “weak” links or the people they don’t know that well. In other words, the co-worker from three jobs ago may be more likely than your best friend to find you your next job.

4. How important is an emergency fund especially now?

Money in the bank has always helped you sleep better at night, and it’s particularly important now as more people are lose their jobs and stay unemployed longer.

But you still have to coordinate an emergency fund with your other priorities. If you still have a job and aren’t facing an immediate layoff, I wouldn’t stop saving for retirement or halt your credit card repayment plans to build up your emergency fund. It’s tough, but you need to make progress on all fronts.

5. And finally, being so knowledgeable on finances, who or what has made the greatest impact on your financial education and what do you think every high school or college student should know about money?

My mom. She believed in saving for a rainy day, avoiding debt, investing for the long term and sharing with others. If we could convince every graduate to save at least 10% of their incomes, pay their credit card bills in full every month, invest for retirement starting with their first job and give regularly to charities, then most money problems would be a thing of the past.

Liz Pulliam Weston is the most-read personal finance columnist on the Internet and writes for MSN Money and several newspapers including the L.A. Times and others. She has also authored several books on personal finance. Check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

Interview with Credit Karma CEO Ken Lin

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Here’s an interview with founder and CEO of Credit Karma which I reviewed a few days ago.

1. Ken, what was your motivation in starting Credit Karma?

Having worked in financial services for over a decade, I’ve always understood the importance of good credit. About 3 years ago, I tried a credit monitoring service and couldn’t understand why it was so expensive to monitor my own score. I mean it was my score, why should I have to pay so much for it? With that experience, I set out to find a better way to provide consumer access to their credit score.

2. Why is it still in beta and what improvements are you looking at bringing in as time goes on?

We plan on coming out of Beta before the summer. With our official release, we will have new services that further demystify credit. It will add lots of comparison points and relevance for our members. It will also help consumers save money by showing consumers how to best leverage their credit.

Long term, I don’t know if the product will ever be complete. Credit and credit scores are a complicated subject for consumers. You have to remember that the whole industry was built for lenders and banks. As such, we think there are many tools and resources that still need to be built for consumers. Our Credit Simulator is a perfect example the type of tools we are building. If you aren’t familiar with our simulator, it recalculates our score based on your specific credit report on 14 common actions. So look for more of those interactive tools over time.

3. What do you believe is the greatest benefit of Credit Karma?

TheStreet.com had a great article on how a good credit score could save an average consumer over $1MM in interest over their lifetime. On Credit Karma, our goal is to show consumers how to optimize their credit score and to achieve those savings. Think about it, if we could just help consumers save 10% of the potential, it would be $100,000 in interest alone. We think that is important and we think it is important for consumers to begin the learning process.

4. Why should anyone try Credit Karma right now?

First, the service is completely free. So that should be a very good reason.

Secondly, in this economic climate, good credit is more important than ever. Consumers have to remember that good credit doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years to build and only a few missed payments to destroy. Consumers need to start paying more attention to their credit and embrace managing it.

5. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your Credit Karma score? 🙂

My credit score is currently 784. It was 10 points higher but in the last few months my HELOC was frozen and one of my inactive credit card accounts was closed by the issuer. I think my experience just underscores how this economy is affecting everyone’s credit, good or poor. Luckily for me, I knew some of the tips to keep my score from spiraling down and I hope our members find the same tips on Credit Karma.

Ken, I’ve personally used the service for over a year now and I love it! Thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me.

Interview with Author Wade Slome

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Wade Slome is the author of How I Managed $20,000,000,000.00 by Age 32 which I recently reviewed. He is also the founder of Sidoxia Capital Management, LLC. The author was gracious enough to take some time to answer a few questions that I had. We did an email interview.

The following are Wade’s answers to my questions. Enjoy!

1. Wade, what inspired you to write the book?

Not everyone gets to manage a $20 billion investment fund in their lifetime, nor do they understand the commitment and skill necessary to successfully manage and navigate such large pools of money. My passion for investing was evident at an early age – as early as high school when I participated in stock market competitions. I have been extremely blessed in my professional career, and I believe it’s my duty to share my experiences and strategies so that investors of all experience levels can learn and apply the successful tools I collected over the years to their personal investment portfolios.

2. What do you hope your readers will get out of the book? What is the most important lesson or lessons that someone could learn from your life or your book?

At one level, I wanted to provide certain entertainment value to what some readers traditionally consider a dry subject…investing. In Chapter 6, “Managing Billions – Riding the Bull,” I cover a lot ground. Everything from descriptive stories about my global travels, and interactions with corporate titans like Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Wal-Mart chief Lee Scott are covered. Not to mention, unexpected FBI interviews, and jet flights with the likes of baseball Hall of Famer, George Brett.

On another level, I really wanted to demystify the world of investing in terms that a layman can understand. For example, I highlight opportunistic strategies and point out the pitfalls and dirty little secrets of the investment industry, in terms the reader can understand. There are three main areas of investing where I see the most mistakes committed: excessive trading, excessive fees charged by brokers, and an emotional ad hoc approach to investing. Most recreational investors, or aggressive brokers, read newspaper headlines and are overconfident in their ability to generate short-term profits. They feel they can do no wrong, if they are constantly buying investment ideas based on good news and selling on bad news. These tendencies may feel right or work in the short-run, but evidence shows, come the post-mortem review of trading statements, that individuals get crushed over longer periods of time. John Bogle, the very successful founder of The Vanguard Group, did an eighteen year study showing that individual investors underperformed the “do-nothing” index strategy by more than 10%…PER YEAR. I find it astonishing how much trading, fees, and emotions can impact long-run returns.

3. With such success at a young age, how have you stayed grounded. Has faith played any part in this?

I consider myself extremely fortunate in all aspects of my life. One reason I can place my success in perspective is due to the challenges and hardships I have faced during life. With two of my immediate family members having passed away at young ages, faith has definitely played a role in grounding me. I take my profession extremely seriously, but hundred point drops in the Dow no longer cloud my perspective. Having my wife constantly remind me to take out the garbage and clean the dishes has a way of grounding me as well.

4. What money moves are you making right now in this market?

I am putting more of my cash to work. With the tremendous volatility, fear, and panic in the marketplace also comes vast amounts of opportunity. And you really don’t need to listen to me, but rather you can just indulge me by paying attention to the wealthiest man in the world…Warren Buffet. He is putting his money where his mouth is and placing billions of his investment dollars to work in the U.S. financial markets. Right now, he is like a kid in a candy store doing cart wheels. And why not? Prices on many investments are on sale, by more than 50% in some instances. Therefore, the credo to “buy fear, and sell greed” makes all the sense in the world.
What many people don’t realize is that investing is NOT a black or white proposition. Many investors toggle between investing in 100% stock or investing in 100% cash. However, I’m finding tremendous value in the fixed income markets (bonds), where traditional equity-like returns may be achieved in the next three to five years. There are trillions of dollars in cash investments that investors are effectively stocking away in their bunkers because it feels safe and comfortable…for now. However with the Federal Funds Rate (interest rate target set by the Federal Reserve) basically sitting at 0%, investors who are stuffing money under the mattress are doing more financial harm to their financial futures than they are doing good.

5. With the markets being so volatile and the media talking about the end of the world (at least in terms of the stock market), what advice can you give the average investor who’s afraid to invest in the current market?

The best advice I can give people is to turn off the TV. I almost feel like hitting myself with a hammer every time I turn on the evening news. There is a difference between remaining informed versus constantly surrounding yourself in never-ending panic. Sure, global economic conditions will be tough and deteriorating for at least the next three to six months, but this is not new news. The pessimism we are constantly surrounded by is arguably largely factored into current market prices. What many investors fail to realize is that recessions are the BEST times to invest. According to Hays Advisory Services, the average bull market increase is greater than 88% from market bottoms. Even after the collapse of the market in 1932, prices rose approximately four-fold from 1932 to 1937. We may not be at bottom yet, but regardless, Boomers’ retirements are accelerating and many should be investing for the next 20+ years (not the next 20 days). Certainly some investors may have no business investing in the stock market, but I am clearly finding more opportunities now relative to a year ago.

6. And on a side note, have you entered in any Poker tournaments and won some big money?

As I write in my book, successful investing requires skillful use of both art and science. What I find so fascinating is that the same principles apply to poker playing. Like investing, poker is also a game of skill. Take for example professional poker player Patrick Harrington. In 2003 he finished 3rd at the World Series of Poker Main Event (the Super Bowl of poker) out of a pool of 839 players. In 2004, the following year, despite the pool more than tripling to 2,576 participants, Mr. Harrington managed to finish 4th and take how a cool $1.5 million in prize money. Luck? I think not. Odds, if left to chance, would be 1 in 25,000 for repeating this feat according to the Economist. I consider myself an above average player and I’ve won a few small tournaments, but it may be a while before you see me on ESPN winning the World Series of Poker (however, don’t be surprised if it happens!).

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Sidoxia Capital Management, LLC (www.Sidoxia.com)
Plan. Invest. Prosper.

Thanks Wade for the interview and for taking the time to answer some questions for my readers at Christian Finance Blog!