By this point you probably know all you ever wanted to know, and more, about Mr. Money Mustache’s long-ago path to early retirement. But my story is only one of an infinite number of possibilities, which means it is valuable to look around at how other people are doing it.
Because of that, I’ve been sharing more reader success stories recently, and I’ve been particularly excited to share this one for quite a while because it comes from a completely different direction.
I first met Zeona McIntyre just over two years ago, on a warm early summer day in Boulder. Without my knowledge she had created a Facebook group called Boulder Mustachians and already amassed a substantial collection of fun people before I even got word of it. We coordinated to hold a gathering in a beautiful riverside park downtown.
Late that night, after the main party and a smaller afterparty at a pub with a group of diehard survivors, the two of us were walking and talking the two miles across town to get Zeona back to her apartment, and me to the main road so I could bike back to Longmont. And she mentioned something vague and slightly mysterious about how much her life had changed, due to a new rental real estate business. I didn’t understand the details in full, but it sounded significant.
Fast forwarding to the almost-present, I encountered Zeona again. This time she was leading a session on real estate investing at the Camp Mustache Florida event in January*. By this point, she had the relaxed demeanor of an old pro. She owned at least four extremely profitable properties, bought at low prices and bringing in high rent due to the magic of AirBnb. She had more income and opportunities than she had time to think about. By my definition, she was already just about to hit semi-retirement at age 29, which means she had done it both younger and faster than I had.
Since Zeona’s story combines a bunch of hard work, sound business principles, relatively fearless thinking and involved some techniques that had never even occurred to me before, I thought would we could all get some benefit of having a little conversation with her. So let’s see what she has to say:
An Interview With the AirBnb Entrepreneur
MMM: Let’s start with a leading question on the basics first: your Mustachianism story. What was your financial and work life before you encountered this blog, what led you to it, and what changes did you make first?
ZM: My mother got me interested in personal finance right around the time I headed to college. I remember being home on school breaks, watching The Suze Orman show with her and renting books like “Rich Dad, Poor Dad”, from the library. Although I had already begun to amass significant financial aid debt, I already had the concepts of snowball payments and index fund investing, ingrained in me early on.
Sometime around 2012 after stumbling across your blog a few times, I became convinced and converted to hardcore Mustachianism at the ripe ole’ age of 26. I didn’t know how I was going to retire by 30, but I held the vision fiercely.
At the time, I was in massage school, working at a dispensary for $12 per hour, with something like 50K+ of student debt left in a Parent Loan. So I started to bike everywhere, trained my friends to cook meals with me instead of going out to eat, started a massage practice in my living room, lived with my mom for a bit, and put every extra cent towards debt paydown.
MMM: At some point you veered off the standard “work hard, save, invest” path and took a bigger jump into hosting a short-term rental as a source of income. Where did you get that idea?
ZM: My best friend from high school was living the high life in New York City with a stressful career and an expensive apartment, then suddenly found himself laid off. At a friend’s suggestion, he decided to try renting it out on AirBnb while he went off to travel for a while before starting again. His little vacation turned into a year living in Spain and South Africa and by the end of it, he told me that he made $50,000 off renting his apartment!
I decided I had to try something similar for myself.
MMM: What did your own AirBnB financial stuff look like initially? And from that point, how long did you let it ride and what did it feel like?
First, a disclaimer: I stumbled into Airbnb during the earlier days of the platform and with no knowledge of the rules. These days, things with AirBnb are much more formal. So some of this stuff (renting out rooms from within a rented apartment) is a gray area.
I began my Airbnb journey in August 2012. My mother decided to move back to Hawaii, so I got a two bedroom apartment and a roommate who could help with rent. I furnished it with all the stuff my mom and I had, knowing that I could sublease it for more to a roommate if it was furnished and because I was curious about trying out Airbnb.
My new roomie was only around part-time, which allowed me to test the Airbnb waters a bit while she was living there (I gave her a cut) and then see if I wanted to get another roommate after she left. I never did.
I started by renting my room, renting hers when she was away, and renting both when she moved out. I would stay in whatever room wasn’t rented, stay with friends, basically whatever I had to do to make it work. I also did all the cleaning myself.
The rooms rented between $45-90/night each including the cleaning fee, and my portion of rent was only $575 so it covered it rather quickly. At the time, I had begun a massage practice by donation, out of my living room, which covered food/gas/bills and Airbnb covered my rent/utilities.
Luckily, I knew how to live frugally; I’m a bit shocked looking back at how little my earnings were to start and proud that I figured out a way to live job-free. I remember feeling so rich with freedom during that time in my life.
In September, after just a month of sampling AirBnb entrepreneurship, I knew I wanted to expand. So I took on a lease on a second apartment, furnished it in a weekend and I was off to the races. That place was basically training wheels. I made a ton of mistakes and only made a couple hundred a month after expenses. And in December, a neighbor alerted the landlord to what turned out to be a violation of the lease policy, and he asked me to leave.
Although the apartment was relatively painless to dismantle and I got my entire deposit back, I was really shaken up from the experience and thought I might be done with the whole Airbnb experiment. Luckily, my father insisted that I pick myself up and try again, so I did.
My next place was a one bedroom condo that I was renting for $1025/mo, and this experience was much better. I averaged $500-1500/mo. profit from this location, while continuing to rent out rooms in my own home, going to school, doing all the turnover cleans, and doing some massages on the side. Although it sounds busy, it was really fun and flexible. Every day was different, and I only worked a couple of hours a day.
MMM: What was the next step in the expansion? What tricks did you learn and use to make it successful?
ZM: My experiences taught me that there was more profit to be made renting a home as a whole unit, instead of renting single rooms. At the same time, I found myself traveling more often, which forced me to seek out a cleaner that could cover me when I was away.
Looking back, this was a huge and somewhat obvious move towards expansion, and yet it took me awhile to realize. I was very focused on being a “true” mustachian: not hiring out if it was something I could do myself**. Although there is merit to this way of thinking, if you are attempting to scale up, at some point you have to let go and delegate.
I also tested a new vacation rentals software company that responded to guest inquiries/emails/questions if I was out of range for too long. This was the beginning of the automation that presently rules my business, and that same company is the one that I circled back to years later when I pushed to 5+ properties.
Although I mention specific settings that can be used to optimize your Airbnb listing on my blog, I don’t know if there are many “tricks” and I want to be clear in saying that I think it is a very accessible profession for anyone who might have an interest in hosting and hospitality. Thinking of it as a hospitality business rather than a turn-key real estate investment was a significant perspective shift I learned along the way. It is important to consider what sort of experience you are creating for the guest and how you can continually work towards improving that.
MMM: Did you notice any significant change in your life, once you realized how different a semi-passive income like property rentals can be, when compared to a purely active income like a massage practice?
ZM: Yes. In the Fall of 2012, just a few months after I started dabbling with Airbnb, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. I was pulled away by my mother’s illness and started taking multi-month leaves of absence to support her. Near the end of 2014, I knew I could no longer be away from home so I brought her back to Colorado to live with me. The grief of losing my mother and one of the closest people in my life forced me into a sort of the “early retirement”. This is when Airbnb saved me, because the rentals were still working for me when I could not work myself.
MMM: That’s a sad story, but I remember feeling the same way when my Dad was on his way out last winter. It would have been much harder to make those international trips on short notice, and to deal with the sad times, if I also had to maintain a chipper and productive face, managing a team of software engineers back at the cube farm.
So anyway, as with any type of success, it takes a certain type of personality and skillset to build a successful business of this type. What general skills, traits, and unusual passions do you think you ended up having, which in retrospect are making this thing succeed.
1. Flexibility, I would say is the number one skill that really made this work. For years, any booking took priority over my plans. If someone was willing to pay for my house, I was out. I would either move over to my other apartment (I lived between two condos for 3+years) or stay with a friend. It sounds easy enough but it was ungrounding and quite exhausting.
2. Organization – Scheduling multiple cleans and juggling bookings from multiple sites, gave me a crash course in building systems. My former weirdo obsession with spreadsheets helped me keep track of all my earnings / expenses.
3. Optimization – I was careful not to waste time, resources, supplies, etc.
4. Negotiation skills – Everything is life is negotiable: rent, airbnb rates, cleaner fees, etc. I did my best to maximize earnings.
5. Communication skills – As a manager I really need to listen and keep a cool head. I am frequently responsible for sorting out the needs of guests, property owners, cleaners, you name it. I lean on the side of over-communicating, as I need to check in with everyone to make sure we are on the same page.
6. Believing / Visualizing – I have a uniquely limitless outlook on life. I like to believe that anything I put my mind to is possible and I feel challenged rather than discouraged when someone tries to doubt me or project their limitations on me.
7. Being a Risk-Taker – For as long as I can remember, I have had a large appetite for risk. The way I see it is that I am really thorough in doing my research and after checking out all the possible outcomes, things that look risky from the outside feel like a safe bet.
MMM: What’s the current state of your operation?
ZM: I now own four properties in St. Louis Missouri – single family houses purchased for an average of under $70,000 each. Plus an apartment in Boulder bought long ago for $162,000. On top of this, I manage another 10-20 properties for other property owners for a fee (a practice called co-hosting).
To handle it all, I have hired a team of several people: an assistant, receptionists, management software, cleaning teams, co-hosts working under me, etc. My goal is to take myself completely out of the picture.
After just a year of co-hosting other properties, my business went from $4,000-$6,000/mo. gross, to today, my biggest month to date: a whopping $18,000 (likely $13,000/net). I work about 8-10 hours a week now and I’m excited to ramp down.
Although I have built my business to a place of near automation, I am still called on sometimes and I have a few jobs left to outsource. I am happy to no longer be pulling the 40+ hour work weeks that I did for a few months during the build and I see Early Retirement coaxing me over to her spacious arms again.
MMM: So what’s the future? Have you given up other sources of income? Faced an existential dilemma of what to do with your life if there is no point earning additional income?
I find that as the “earning and spending money” side of life becomes solved, it opens up a whole new can of worms. It can be a very joyful way to live, but you have to be careful because it also gives you the option of sitting around doing nothing, which is not joyful at all. Seen any pitfalls?
ZM: The future is getting myself as close to full retirement as feasible, ASAP. I am still the big boss so I expect an occasional problem to come across my desk, and yet, I feel the key to happiness for myself is having the lowest amount of stress and responsibility on my plate as possible.
Last November, I finally gave up my massage practice in totality. It was strangely difficult to do. I was only making a couple hundred dollars a month and yet, it felt like some sort of safety net. Now, I am experiencing that same fear in letting go of taking on new clients myself (I defer them to my team for a smaller percentage) and running this Airbnb business directly. Although I have hit my “enough” number with my investments, transitions can be scary to make.
At the moment, I am looking forward to more space and time with myself. The two years that I spent essentially retired, gave me great practice at keeping myself entertained. I quickly realized that I had to find another way to derive meaning from my life than working or productivity. I was fortunate enough to find that being there for the people in my life gave me that.
I now travel nearly five months out of the year, have a good social circle and a lot of interests to keep me delighted for years to come. And the worst case scenario? I can always create some new business to tinker with down the road.
Looking forward, I see finding a compatible partner and creating a family as my next challenge to embark on, as well as developing creative pursuits. I really love writing. I would like more time to dedicate to my blog and am toying around with the idea of writing a book at my own leisurely pace. I am also quite terrified of public speaking, so the idea of doing a TEDx talk, sounds like a healthy way to confront that.
(note: you can find Zeona’s personal/business blog at ZeonaMcintyre.com)
MMM: One of the unusual things about you is the number of interesting trips you take. Can you tell us about some of the most interesting ones, and how this plays into the house-sitting and informal sharing economies?
ZM: I just got back from a birthday month away. I dog sat in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands for 2.5 weeks, had a layover in NYC with some friends, sailed for a week in Greece, then caught up with a friend who just moved to Portugal and did a road trip in her Sprinter van from Lisbon to Porto.
I bought the flights with miles, stayed for free everywhere except on the boat, which I got on a half price, last minute tip; all while renting out my homes and car to support my eating out habits.
I guess you could say I am a poster child for the share economy. When I’m out in the world, I rent my car on turo and my homes on airbnb. I travel hack to cover the flights. Promote Airbnb for travel credits. I’m a huge fan of house/pet sitting which still seems to be underground and I use that method to stay in awesome homes for free (and sometimes even get paid) all over the world.
MMM: Thinking about the bigger picture, what is your own definition of a life well lived, and what (if anything) do you think people in your peer group might be overlooking, if they don’t happen to encounter the right teachers early in life?
ZM: I’m all about quality of life. I believe a life well lived is one with lots of love and laughter. People to hug, share delicious food with, and have adventures with. I believe creativity is born out of free time, which Americans especially are deficient in. I think it’s important to spend a lot of time in nature and with the unique opportunity of discovering yourself. The real work is within. I find that people especially my age, are so distracted with things outside of themselves / needing to prove something.
The biggest set back I see around me is limiting beliefs. I see a lot of people telling themselves old stories that keep them stuck in patterns that aren’t serving them. I really enjoy sharing my experiences to show others what is possible. I think the biggest compliment I can ever receive is that I inspired someone, if I’ve done that for even one person, my job is complete. Nothing I’ve done in my career is out of reach to the average person, you’ve just got to believe.
MMM: Thanks for sharing your life with us Zeona!
*Yes, you may be noticing a one-dimensional theme to my social life these days, but hey, it’s hard to beat Mustachians if you’re looking for interesting people to hang out with.
**For the record, Zeona was actually being totally Mustachian here – hiring employees to expand a profitable business. My policy is that you’re not allowed to hire people just to facilitate your own convenience and consumption at home, because you could probably benefit from the extra exercise and learning – along with the extra money.
My wife and I are buying a house now that has a two bedroom one bath unit in the back yard. We’re planning on putting it on air bnb to make a little side income. We’re in Los Angeles, so the demand should be fairly high. I’ll try to keep you all updated about how it goes.