This is the seventh chapter in my financial story series. In the previous chapter I became free. Here I’ll show you how cool is a golden cage. In next
and final chapter I’ll show you what the future looks like.
July 2020 Update: the series is not over! You can read about the dark side of my Hooli experience on chapter 9a :)
Note: I have
stolen copied been inspired by “the job experience” post series by livingafi. I loved reading his series and I’m trying to do something similar here, where I analyse both my work and finance history/goals.
Disclaimer: This chapter will be different from the others, since I still work at Hooli and I don’t want to compromise work relationships I have established here. I won’t tell much about Hooli, sorry about that!
We closed last chapter in summer 2012 with “life was amazing back then…”. It really was! I was working 2.5 days per week in Tuscany and some weekends in Veneto. A lot of money to be ‘stashed. I kept spending very little, I was still car-free and never purchased expensive clothes or gadgets. I was (and still am) fully detached from consumerism. I don’t feel joy in spending or in fancy new stuff. I’m actually proud when I cut an unnecessary expenses. I feel true power when I don’t spend.
Anyway, I saved a lot during the exponential growth of 2012. All those extra money went directly in my bank account. No complex investment strategy, I was not good at it. Just cash or short term CDs.
The only problem in sight was the VAT thing. I had few options:
- Work till end of June, reach 30k euro of revenues and stop working till end of the year to keep the same fiscality for the next year.
- Work till end of September, reach 45k euro of revenues and stop working till end of the year (or eventually take a 3 months sabbatical during summer and then work Oct-Dec) and face the issue next year.
- Work the whole year and retroactively adapt to the normal VAT regime. Very bad.
- Reach 45k, get hired by someone (NavalCompany?) and then close the VAT account and become employee again. Very very bad.
I would probably had gone for option 1 or 2. I wasn’t caring too much, I hadn’t Financial Independence in my mind. This lifestyle of working 6-9 months per year and taking long sabbaticals seemed the best I could have. Anyway, the convenient fiscality was only allowed for 5 years, then you’ve to switch to a normal one, which means my lifestyle was unstable anyway. But who cares? Something will surely happen!
And it happened.
It was beginning of April 2012 when my friend and former magic door coworker Virgil called me: “Hey RIP, Hooli is amazing! We are hiring a lot. Why don’t you try to join me? Send me the CV and I’ll refer you internally. You will skip a phone screen but you’d still have to pass 5-7 interviews… let’s try! You’re smart, you can do it!”
I: “I don’t know Virgil, I’m really happy with my life as it is today. I don’t know if I can go back to work for a boss again. Well, Hooli is Hooli and I always dreamed about working at Hooli! I don’t actually feel skilled enough! I’m getting old and I know you hire the best of the best.”
Virgil, for example, he was very talented. He was the definition of software engineering. Super smart and resourceful. I was not as good as him. Virgil: “what the fuck are you saying? Send me that CV! You’re one of the most solid and talented engineers I’ve ever met!“
I: “Ok, let’s give it a try…“
I sent the CV, I was contacted by a recruiter, I did a phone screen, I won an onsite interview and that was my first trip outside Europe. It has been an intense couple of months, where MissRIP had a lot of patience, having to deal with me spending time in Tuscany, in Veneto and weekends and free time studying Algorithms and problem solving. Two amazing months culminated with a phone call on a Friday night: “Hey RIP, you did it! You passed the interviews! You’ll soon be contacted again for the actual job offer!”
I couldn’t believe it. I was in Pisa, couchsurfing, and I couldn’t believe it. I knew 4 out of 5 onsite interviews were very good but the very last one was not. I did it! I really did it!!!
I prepared myself for negotiation anyway. Even though I knew the offer would have been very generous, I knew too that the Hooli interview process is very tough and the few who passes it are very desirable by the company. I did prepare myself studying Swiss salary range for my job description, both at Hooli and in the country. And yes, it was going to be a six digits one! I never had a six digits salary!
I looked up expected salary range on glassdoor for Hooli employee and I ended up expecting something around 110k Swiss Francs (CHF) gross per year. Given the CHF to EUR currency exchange proportion was roughly 5 to 6, it would have been a close 6 digits in Euro too.
Ok, how did I came up in Switzerland and not outside Europe? I thought about that very deeply and I’m still very proud of my decision. I didn’t want to move too far from family, friends and my lovely Miss RIP. Plus, the feeling after the 10 days visit of Hooliland was not super good. They had this office in Switzerland, country which I knew very little of, that excited me. I’ve always liked the Swiss mindset: precision, cleanness, peace. As a plus, it’s closer to both Rome and Milan. Let’s move to Switzerland!
Then, one day in June the Swiss Hooli recruiter called me while I was in Viareggio, Tuscany, working at NavalCompany. Recruiter: “Hey RIP, here’s the offer: 128k base salary gross per year, plus ~7k transportation and health insurance, plus 15% target bonus gross per year, plus a stocks package worth ~80k vesting regularly over the next 4 years, plus other benefits quantifiable in 10k per year“.
I couldn’t help myself but laugh and jump like a crazy. The recruiter laughed too. I guess they expect these kind of reactions. Yes, the Moore’s Law of my salary was not yet over. I remember I asked for a relocation package (I had to negotiate a little!) and the recruiter checked few things: “we usually don’t do for such a close relocation but I’ll see what I can obtain for you 😉“. A couple of hours later he called me back: “Ok RIP, we offer you 2 months of accommodation, plus a local estate agent to help you finding a new home, plus we cover your moving costs up to 10k, plus we give you a 2k lump sum so that you can buy seasonal clothing and give tips to the movers“. I’m not joking, in the offer letter it was stated exactly this. I had 2000 Chf (1666 Euro, 2 PhD student salaries) for spare costs like tips to the movers.
That is what my new golden cage looked like! No more complete freedom, but look at this! I’m 35 years old, I have the greatest opportunity in my life and should I decline it like I did for BGC? Maybe tomorrow NavalCompany will be hit by the financial crisis (yes, it happened!) and they will have to interrupt our lucrative collaboration. I can’t say no to Hooli. It’s the last train bla bla bla.
I told them I can’t join before November 1st, 2012, since I wanted to have yet another very very long sabbatical. I went the Mint, the same day: “Mint, I got this offer. I accepted it. I’m working here till mid July“. The Mint: “Well, congratulations! We obviously can’t compete against Hooli, so… thanks for all the work you’ve done here!” I have been transparent during the whole process though. They knew I was going to try at Hooli and that our collaboration could have been interrupted in case I got the offer.
I took the longest sabbatical in my professional history (3 months and half: July 15th to October 31st 2012) to prepare myself to the amazing new life. The uber-long sabbatical experience wasn’t that great though. I have vague memories. MissRIP was working and we had few vacation days together. We went biking along the Donauradweg for 10 days and in Croatia for a 4 days quick vacation. I remember not being able to achieve much. I went to Rome, Naples, I attended the wedding of my best friends in October. This is the only red flag I need to triple check these days with respect the whole FIRE plan. That very time I had an early retirement like experience it was not that good. I can find excuses: I had to prepare things for the expat, I had to visit family and friends, I had to correct exams and give ratings to students,… but the truth is that in October I felt a little bit depressed and worthless. The impostor syndrome was peaking. I never investigated that deeply enough.
I started on Monday November 5th 2012. I still work at Hooli, after 3 years and 9 months at the time of writing this post (July 2016). I’ve been working with the most skilled engineers I’ve ever met. I work in an amazing workplace, surrounded by smart people and a respectful environment. I’ve learned to respect diversity (not that I was a racist before!), I’ve learned to get rid or at least aware of unconscious cognitive biases, I’ve learned how to reward people. I hosted an Intern last summer, so I’ve got bites of management too. I’ve been promoted once and I got yearly raises and equity refreshes. I’ve got a generous Swiss pension pillar 2 matching program too.
Here follows the history of compensations 2012-2016:
This compensation history doesn’t take into account benefits like transportation and health insurance, pension plan and other general benefits (that sums up to >30k per year).
Yes, this year I may take home more than 250k Swiss Francs.
Anyway, setting the compensation aside, the skills I’ve learnt and developed here are invaluable and made me a better software engineer and probably a better person. I’ve been able to start donating on a regular basis. I’ve been financially helping my family and occasionally few friends. I can’t be more grateful to Hooli for the amazing opportunity I had and still having.
But more important that everything fro my bigger goal: I was able to resist to lifestyle inflation. On a certain degree. Obviously I couldn’t keep up with the borderline cheapass lifestyle I had in Milan, but… almost there! I fully exploited the two free months of paid accommodation and then I found a cheap 2 rooms 55 square meters apartment on rent at 1500 CHF per month, including condo fees and heating. Did I mention that Switzerland is expensive? Today, the same 2 rooms apartment within the city boundaries costs no less than 2000. Mine went down to 1440 since my rent is bound to inflation rate that went down during these almost 4 years.
For Italian expats in Switzerland it’s pretty common to move to a bigger apartment after a while. My colleagues that joined Hooli with me were moving to a 4+ rooms apartments that are priced no less than 3000 per month. I’m super ok with my cozy-but-amazing apartment, with a magic view over a city park, with birds, horses, donkeys and farm animals. From my south-west balcony you can stare at the sunset and listen to braying donkeys, while still 10 minutes far from one of the most expensive streets in the world. I shopped around for the cheapest internet company, cheapest mobile phone company and cheapest health insurance.
Before MissRIP moved in, I was able to live with less than 3000 CHF per month. ~2000 of which for fixed costs like rent, health insurance, bills, transportation,… and most of the remaining 1000 were train tickets to/from Milan and dinner out when she was here. Plus, obviously, some exaggerations when in Italy, where things seemed to cost nothing compared to here!
I was (and I still am) car-free and try to bike to work as much as I can, which is 3-6 months per year, depending on the weather. I’m not yet a true Mustachian badass, I know, but I’m getting there.
I had no idea back then what to do with these extra money. I told myself: “well, let’s be honest… this is not going to last. Let’s accumulate as much as possible so that when the free lunch is over I’ll take my time and relax a little bit“.
I know, I’m a lucky man. I’m here discussing Financial Independence and the opportunity to retire early because of my huge salary and the fact that I don’t have kids. I couldn’t even have been thinking about it if I were still a wannabe researcher or a videogame developer. Or could I? Yes I could, we’ll discuss this another time 😉 In any case, living in the most expensive country in the world doesn’t help in terms of FIRE. We all know it’s just a matter of saving rate. The more you spend the higher Nest Egg you need. It’s not a surprise that no one that I personally know is aiming to retire early here in Switzerland.
After one year and half living few hundreds kilometer apart, MissRIP finally quit her job in Milan and joined me. She spent time studying the language, making friendships and looking for a job. She’s now very proficient in both English and German, she has built strong relationships here and she finally found a job too. I’m not revealing her salary, but it’s sensibly smaller than mine.
We are lucky to have found a lot of friends here, mostly Italian and other foreigners. Few locals, they are usually not so inclined to deep friendship as we Italians do 🙂
Monthly expenses since she joined raised a bit. We’re now spending 4000 average per month, excluding extras like holidays. We’ve indulged in vacation quality. Several weekends in European capitals, few intercontinental trips like New York, San Francisco and Tokyo. Last year we reached 60k CHF as total spending. Quite too much for our FIRE goals (4% rule implies a Nest Egg of 1.5M Chf to keep spending 60k per year). This year we’re at 32k so far, end of July… we’re on track for 60k, since we plan on going “somewhere below the equator” for 2 weeks in November.
As I said, we didn’t inflate too much our lifestyle, but still costs skyrocketed with respect Italian life.
So, did you see what an amazing golden cage I have? Why a cage? Well, Hooli is really the best place where to work, but it’s still a workplace:
- I still have alarm clock waking me up in the morning – even though at Hooli you can be extremely flexible with your time.
- I still have to go to work 5 days a week – even though at Hooli you can sometimes work from home or from wherever you want.
- I still have to limit my vacations to 25 days per year – even though the standard in Switzerland is 20 days and I thanks Hooli for the 5 extra days.
- I still have to work on things I’d probably not work on if I had to choose and money were not an issue – even though at Hooli we’re really making the world a better place.
In this framework, my passions have to fit the spare time left after work and that’s not what I love. A good visualization of how I perceive my passions and my free time is pictured in this amazing quitting story. “This is how time feels with a full time job. Meanwhile you’re trying to plan a picnic“… even though at Hooli you can take extended (unpaid) sabbatical, like I did for 40 days in April-May 2016 for a hike across Italy, to organize your picnics!
So, Hooli is the best one can have as a job, and I still like working there. But simply I don’t see myself there forever. I’m lucky enough that if I won’t like working at Hooli in the near future I can still find a job in other tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft,… This thanks to the skills I’ve built during my career.
Anyway, one day I’ll surely want to get rid of my golden cage, reclaim my time back and do something else.
Given my frugal attitude and lucky financial circumstances (living alone for a while, having no kids, earning a nice salary) my Net Worth skyrocketed in last ~4 years. But if I hadn’t been training my frugality muscle for my entire life, than I wouldn’t have saved so much.
As I’ve said already, I was ‘stashing money aside with no particular purpose, just because I felt comfortable with financial safety. Just because if I’d lost my job, I could have survived N years before hitting ground zero.
In 2015 I discovered the world of Financial Independence: what if N == entire_life? How to do that? Can I achieve it by just saving a lot of money? The answer is MAYBE, but you need nonstashable-in-a-lifetime-unless-you-win-a-lottery amount of money saved, possibly in several currencies to limit currency crash risks, and btw inflation can still screw everything up.
You need to invest. investing edges against inflation, currencies, risks. Yes, it seems absurd: investing looks like playing the Roulette but it’s actually the safest way to preserve and grow your wealth.
So I started investing in early 2016, not the best moment ever.
I was lucky enough that I jumped in in February, after the 10% drop of January and so far, since than, my investments are performing very well. This is the necessary shift to aim for N = ∞.
Ok, finances. Here’s last 3.5 years of my Net Worth evolution.
As you can see there are 3 lines. Since November 2012 I have to interact with more currencies: Euro, Swiss Francs, U.S. Dollars. I have assets in all of these currencies so I’m tracking my total net worth in all of them. Each line represents the total NW in that currency, you don’t have to sum them up.
The big Red spike in January 2015 is due to the end of capping the Swiss Franc to the Euro. It bumped from a 5:6 ratio to 1:1 in one night, making me richer in total Euros but poorer in total Francs. As you can see things slowly settled to an intermediate value, something like 11:12, at the time of writing this post (July 2016).
Pink and Green lines have been overtaking for a while and are still dancing together, since the Swiss Franc and the Dollar are dancing around 1:1 since October 2015.
Anyway, the graph shows a pretty much linear growth since 2012. I don’t know if you took a look at the Y-axis values though. Are you ready for the recap? Fasten your seat belt:
That’s pretty ridiculous, I know. Well, that’s essentially overall exponential growth.
All the past years have been flattened away by Hooli. The investment mistake in year 2000? A straight line. Sabbaticals? Pixels. The risk of not being able to pay for my share of bills and expenses at my ex-gf apartment? Laughing out loud.
What’s next? Other dreams, obviously!