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Mike is a passionate and highly decorated landscape photographer. He has three times earned a silver medal in the International Photographic Competition and has been given an honorary “Master of Photography” distinction from the Professional Photographers of America (PPA). His work can be found on his photography website at: EarthTrot.com or on Instagram @EarthTrot

Hi, I’m Mike!

I grew up in a middle class family in the suburbs of Chicago. I went to school, got decent grades, graduated from the Art Institute of Colorado and started a small branding and identity company while focusing my down time on my photography. I was entrepreneurial but lacked business skills.

After many years of treading water and virtually zero savings, one of my clients (a group of firefighters with a surf company aptly named “Hawaiian Fire”) suggested that I apply to the fire department as I would only work 10 days a month and have my insurance paid for by the county. That was enticing, as was the stable paycheck, so I took the test. One thing led to another and the doors kept opening. I was hired on as part of the 28th recruit class for the Maui County Fire Department.

I was pretty excited by the accomplishment, and excited to be part of the brotherhood, but to be honest I knew nothing about being a firefighter. I always wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to be successful as an artist or entrepreneur and the fire department to me looked like a W2 job. Because of the benefits and the time off, it did become a pretty awesome W2, but it was still those “golden handcuffs” where I loved it, but also knew it was nearly impossible to leave. Almost no one ever did. Most guys put in their 25-30 years and then retired with a nice pension. Move up the ladder and the returns got even better. That all sounded pretty nice, I could retire completely at 58 and live a pretty good life after getting out. The problem was, it wasn’t me. I would be sacrificing my dreams for a stable future. One thing I’ve been saying since as far back as I can remember is that I don’t ever want to be lying on my deathbed thinking “what if…”.

So came the search for getting out and making it on my own. The fire department is great for having down time at the station. Most guys take the time between calls to watch TV, read a book, cook, or work out. Me, I spent that time planning my escape. I wrote two books on photography (The Kingdom of Maui: A Photographer’s Journey, and The Landscape Photographer’s Field Guide). I self published both of those and put them on Amazon. Now they pay me passively each month when copies are sold. It’s not much but it’s something.

During this time I was bouncing around from one fire station to another as the new guys generally do. But when I landed at my permanent station I met a guy named Steve who would be my senior firefighter. Steve was great (still is), and was dabbling in stocks and real estate on the side. He was always getting hammered trying to day trade, but his real estate ventures were local short-term rentals on Maui and they crushed it for him. I needed to know more.

Steve shared the data from his rental properties with me and when I wasn’t going over the numbers I was reading books, listening to podcasts and posting on forums about real estate investing. I didn’t have much money so I started learning how to leverage. Soon, we borrowed against our home to build out an ADU. At the time and with the connections we made that cost us $60,000. It was a ton of money for us. But when we started earning $1500/month and our payment on the note was way less than that, we knew we were on to something.

Shortly after we started making money on the rental unit in our home we did a cash-out refinance on the house and bought our first short-term rental in Kihei, Maui. By this point we were extremely clear on exactly what we wanted and where we wanted it. As soon as something checked all our boxes we pounced. We were extremely hands on with this property, gutting it ourselves, remodeling it ourselves, marketing and managing it ourselves. We even cleaned it ourselves with our now 2 year old son, Nico.

The bookings kept rolling in. So did our expenses, but so too did the income. Soon we were raising the rates and before we knew it we were blowing past our projected returns. While we were doing this, I was still a firefighter, going in to the units on my off days and fixing or cleaning things that needed attention. We never pulled any money from the business though and when we had enough saved for a down payment on the next one, we jumped on it.

Eventually we started partnering on deals and diversifying our assets. Today we have 5 short term rentals, 2 mid term rentals, 6 syndications, are developing a luxury glamping resort just outside of Zion National Park and another development project in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. We do very little of the day to day work with any of the assets. Instead, I’m more focused on business development and spending time with my family. Oh, and I was able to walk away from the fire department completely in 2021. This is where I’ve wanted to be for many years, and thanks to our real estate investments, knowledge and some strategic moves, I’m living the life that I’ve always imagined.

And trust me, if I can do it, so can you…

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