Russ Whitney: Poor Boy To Multimillionaire

Russ Whitney was born into very ordinary circumstances and had no special gifts or circumstances that might destine him for success. In fact, he faced all kinds of difficulties — personal and financial — that would have been excuse enough for failure, if explaining away failure was what he wanted to do. But Russ wouldn’t have been happy rationalizing an ordinary life. He wanted success with a capital “S.” He wanted wealth at a level that a tiny percentage of the world population ever knows. He got what he wanted. And his story of getting it is worth paying attention to.

I thought you might be interested in hearing how Russ became a best-selling author, real estate expert, and multimillionaire businessman — so I flew over to his house on the west coast of Florida and spent a day interviewing him. His house was no less than I’d expected — huge, strategically designed, and impressive. It looks onto some lake that, just around the horizon, turns into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a mansion on a modest street in Cape Coral, a small community that boasts more inland waterways than any other town in this country. Russ’ house, at 11,000 square feet, will soon be eclipsed by a bigger monster, a 14,000-square-foot gargantuan one down the block from him. One of his businesses is building that house. “The guy who bought it is a great guy, a working Joe who made some good moves. He deserves every bit of it,” Russ says.

In fact, the entire neighborhood has been transformed, sparked in part by Russ’ own investment and by a more general boom in Cape Coral — which, in turn, was sparked in some part by Russ’ extensive real-estate developments. As he walks me around his castle, pointing out the many resort-type features that are the material manifestations of his more than 20 years of dreaming, I realize that I too am thinking, “He deserves every bit of it.” Russ started his career by dropping out of high school to take a job in a slaughterhouse for $5 an hour. He was married at 20 and had his first child a year later. He was a self-improvement psycho from the very beginning, a success-book junkie from the start. He bought and absorbed countless get-rich programs, courses, audiotapes, and seminars throughout the ’80s in the hopes of finding something that would make him the man he felt destined to be.

His first success was a real-estate “subordination technique” that earned him $11,000 in a single deal. That was as much as he had earned in the slaughterhouse for a full year. He kept at it and by age 27 had accumulated a net worth of a million dollars. It was then that he wrote his first book, “The Hurdles and Pitfalls of Real Estate Investing.” He says it was “a dumb name for a book,” but it has sold well. To date, more than 500,000 copies have been purchased. While traveling to promote the book, he got the idea that he could teach the lessons he learned more effectively in a seminar format. That idea eventually blossomed into a national (and soon to be international) business that teaches the wonders of real estate to more than 50,000 people a week. (That’s 2.5 million people a year, if you’re counting.) He took the seminar company public in 1997.

Along the way, he bought and sold too many homes to count and a construction company that built 150 homes a year. He wrote five more books (the latest a best seller by Simon & Schuster) and has bought, among many other things, 2,000 acres in Costa Rica, where he is developing a conference center, an equestrian center, and condos.

Russ attributes his success to a number of factors:

* constantly feeding the mind with good books, tapes, and other business literature

* never giving up

* knowing what the customer wants

* learning how to market and understanding that marketing never stops

* having a competitive spirit

* hiring good people (“who are smarter than me”)

* having good communication skills

* having good sales skills

* working long and hard He says that if he had to narrow that list to one factor, it would be the first — keeping his mind full of ideas, opportunities, strategies, and techniques borrowed from successful people who went before him. (In fact, that is how I met Russ. He read my copywriting program, loved it, and went ahead and bought — at full price –copies for his key executives.)

It is gratifying to know that Russ is an early riser. When he is writing a book, his typical day might begin at 4 a.m. He is at his desk, banging away at the keyboard, a half-hour later. He can write up to 7,000 words a day and seldom writes less than 4,000. (To give you a basis of comparison, I am happy, as Hemingway was, with 1,000 — a figure most professional writers aim for.) He does his prodigious literary work in a four- to five-hour stretch and then “begins the regular workday.” When he’s not writing, he slouches a bit, starting work as late as 7:30 a.m. He typically works till 6 and nowadays finds time for an hour or so of exercise.

Besides his writing and “work” work, Russ serves on the board of the Cape Coral Youth Center, finds time to go on fishing jaunts with his buddies, and spends time with his family. “I’m not generally a let’s-do-lunch kind of guy. If I want to eat, I eat in my office.” He has always worked on Saturdays — but if he wants to take off during the week to see his son’s baseball game or attend his daughter’s cheerleading event, he doesn’t hesitate. He does set goals — but in November, not January. “I’ve always thought that New Year’s resolutions are hogwash and dreams that people don’t keep.

So I purposely set mine at a different time, before New Year’s.” Russ says his goals are just that — goals, not wishes. “I break them down into six-month, three-month, one-month, and then weekly tasks.” (Sound familiar?) This was a strict discipline when he was younger and his business was growing. Today, he is not so formal about it. He believes his good work habits are so deeply ingrained, he doesn’t need to be that exacting. When he sets a big goal, he likes to break it down numerically.

If, for example, his big goal were to sell 100 real-estate units in a given year, his six-month goal would be 50, his three-month goal would be 25, and his monthly goal would be 8.3. By breaking it down this way, it becomes easier for him to see the right strategy — in this case, buying a duplex a week rather than individual units. (Following this program, one year he managed to sell 123 units — exceeding his ambitious yearly goal by almost 25%.) I asked Russ if he thought he would retire someday. “Why?” was his reply. “If you love what you do, why would you stop?”