The Ultra Rich

Let’s first take a look at how people make money. Loads of it. Apparently, it is one of the most frequently searched phrases in Google, and the results usually attempt to separate you from your cash rather than help you make more of it.

To be fair, this column won’t give you any get-rich-quick, sure-fire schemes or strategies. What it will tell you is why and how some people make money, and hopefully uncover some new insights. You may be able to put some of these insights to work and make yourself rich – if that’s where you think your happiness lies.

By now, it is clear to most people that they cannot become filthy rich by working for somebody else. In fact, that statement is not quite accurate. CEOs and top executives all work for the shareholders of the companies that employ them, but are filthy rich. At least, some of them are. But, in general, it is true that you cannot make serious money working in a company, statistically speaking.

Working for yourself – if you are very lucky and extremely talented – you may make a bundle. When we hear the word “rich,” the people that come to mind tend to be

  1. entrepreneurs/industrialists/software moguls – like Bill Gates, Richard Branson etc.,
  2. celebrities – actors, writers etc.,
  3. investment professionals – Warren Buffet, for instance, and
  4. fraudsters of the Madoff school.

There is a common thread that runs across all these categories of rich people, and the endeavors that make them their money. It is the notion of scalability. To understand it well, let’s look at why there is a limit to how much money you can make as a professional. Let’s say you are a very successful, highly-skilled professional – say a brain surgeon. You charge $10k a surgery, of which you perform one a day. So you make about $2.5 million a year. Serious money, no doubt. How do you scale it up though? By working twice as long and charging more, may be you can make $5 million or $10 million. But there is a limit you won’t be able to go beyond.

The limit comes about because the fundamental economic transaction involves selling your time. Although your time may be highly-skilled and expensive, you have only 24 hours of it in a day to sell. That is your limit.

Now take the example of, say, John Grisham. He spends his time researching and writing his best-selling books. In that sense, he sells his time as well. But the big difference is that he sells it to many people. And the number of people he sells his product to may have an exponential dependence on its quality and, therefore, the time he spends on it.

We can see a similar pattern in software products like Windows XP, performances by artists, sports events, movies and so on. One performance or accomplishment is sold countless times. With a slight stretch of imagination, we can say that entrepreneurs are also selling their time (that they spend setting up their businesses) multiple times (to customers, clients, passengers etc.) All these money-spinners work hard to develop some kind of exponential volume-dependence on the quality of their products or the time they spend on them. This is the only way to address the scalability issue that comes about due to the paucity of time.

Investment professionals (bankers) do it too. They develop new products and ideas that they can sell to the masses. In addition, they make use of a different aspect of money that we touched upon in an earlier column. You see, money has a transactional value. It plays the role of a medium facilitating economic exchanges. In financial transactions, however, money becomes the entity that is being transacted. Financial systems essentially move money from savings and transforms it into capital. Thus money takes on an investment value, in addition to its intrinsic transactional value. This investment value is the basis of interest.


One thought on “The Ultra Rich”

  1. Manoj,

    Great article. When I first entered university, I wanted to study where money comes from. That led me to anthropology which in turn led me to write a thesis about the fan communities that formed around an ultimately disappointing TV show. I never quite figured out where money comes from. Your article helps though.

    All the best,


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