November 15th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Post-Mortem: The Wreck of the Libertalia

So if it was such an easy life, why'd I leave it? Repair bills. And bad credit, and getting dicked over by a few event staffers, but mostly repair bills.

By the time I bought the Libertalia, the 8 year old, 37 foot long, Pace Arrow bus conversion RV that I was planning on living in and using for my new business as a full-time huckster? My credit was ruined, because I believed a developer. Well, no. I was cynical about the developer's promise of when I was going to get paid. I just wasn't cynical enough. When a developer approached me about buying the Brad Davidian Compound, my old house in Bridgeton, for about $100k more than I owed on it, he told me that he already had enough houses on tentative contracts to close the deal "within 30 to 90 days." But I knew people who'd been screwed over by counting on getting their money from a developer within 30 to 90 days, so I knew it'd be longer than that. Still, when I was fired and blacklisted by The Conspiracy because I caught the CEO's best friend sabotaging critical company infrastructure to make it look like we, not his department, were responsible for a major screwup, I looked at the money I'd saved up and concluded that all I had to do was last a year. That in not much more than a year longer than the developer was telling me, I'd have plenty of money to start my own business. And I had plenty of money saved up, enough to live on for 14 to 16 months if I was careful.

It took two years. The actual closing date was within 96 hours of the scheduled foreclosure date. I very nearly lost the whole shebang. But what I did lose, by not being able to make my mortgage payment those last 8 months, was a ton of my startup capital in penalties and legal fees, and my credit rating. But I thought that the good news was that a local conversion van dealer had a huge, comfortable, and business-ready land yacht on their lot they had taken as a trade-in that they were desperate to get rid of, because they didn't even have room for it. And I was able to negotiate them down to about what I had been expecting to pay for something 2/3rds the size. That left me with enough cash on hand to pay all my projected living expenses for three years. And I firmly believed that within 3 years, I could make my business plan profitable. And that wasn't the part I was wrong about; at the 2 year mark, I was well on my way ... despite one of my most profitable shows letting their dealer's room be run by someone who was either corrupt or incompetent, because she managed to lose my vendor registration two years in a row. And despite letting some event organizers persuade me to bring my business to events where I lost money hand over fist, because their expense was way out of line with their attendance. Even with that, I was bringing in, in net profit, as much by the end of my 3rd year as I had projected for the end of the 3rd. Income was already caught up to projected, budgeted monthly expenses.

But the budget was broken, for a reason I could not have foreseen with the information I had on hand.

I knew I was buying an elderly RV. So I asked an awful lot of people who'd bought RVs that old what they were spending, average over time, on repairs. And what I was told was to budget 1% of what you paid for the RV, per month, in repairs. I paid $30k for the Libby. So, to be wildly pessimistic, I budgeted my business plan around having to spend $400 per month on repairs. But when I totaled up the end-of-year expenses for the first year, repairs had run $7,400. Over $600 per month, roughly double the estimate I had been given by experienced RVers. Even by elderly RV standards, the Libby was a lemon. The previous owners had used it hard. And then, early in my second year, with my savings running down fast, I got the crippling blow: exhaust manifolds, carburetor, generator, and water pump all failed at once, within the span of a week and a half. And a few other things. I called an RV mechanic and got an estimate on getting the whole thing up and running again, livable and drivable: $6,000. By that point, I had less than $6,000 in cash on hand. And without a moving RV, I had no way to move the roughly $5,000 (retail) worth of inventory I had stocked for the year.

I went into this with supreme confidence that I had over-planned it. I had a business plan, but I also had seven different emergency backup plans for how I would make enough money to pay for the RV's repairs and my groceries and gas, labeled Emergency Backup Plan A through G. By the end of the first year, nervous about repairs, I started trying to implement some of those plans. In a matter of months, backup plans A through D collapsed. By spring of that second year, I fell back to plan G: settle somewhere and get a real job, any kind of a job, and save up enough money to put myself back onto the road. And I got a good job, bouncing at a strip club. But after two months, because the town I was in was in the middle of a complicated legal case over strip club legality that ended up going to the Supreme Court, the owner decided he needed to save money by laying off the most recently hired half of the employees, myself included. My immediate manager offered me a glowing recommendation, and on that recommendation I implemented my Omega Contingency Plan: I moved back to St. Louis, sold the RV to a rehabber for $2k cash and a 10-year-old conversion van, and moved in with friends -- only to find out that the job I was promised long-distance when I called, based on Tiny's recommendation, had evaporated. And then the van itself got stolen and wrecked. The next several years went so badly that they almost certainly contributed the final crushing stress to the breakdown that put me on disability.

Could I have prevented this with more research? Probably not. I had put two years of research into that purchase. But I had been warned, in the FAQ of rec.sports.outdoor.rv, that no matter how much research you do, "Your first motorhome teaches you what you should have looked for when you bought your first motorhome." If I had realized in advance how much the developer who was going to buy the Brad Davidian Compound was lying about the progress of the deal, I could have found a way to plan for it that would have prevented me from wrecking my credit rating. Had I done that, I could have traded the Libby in on a better deal when I found out what a lemon it was. Even with wrecked credit and an unproven business, I very nearly did manage this, when I found what would have been an excellent choice for my business, a 3-year-old (then) Safari Motor Coach Trek 2430 Arctic Safari for only $20k. But the loan fell through.

*shrug* I made the best decisions I was capable of making, being the person I was, in possession of the information I was reasonably able to get. No regrets, no blame. And I enjoyed the heck out of it, and derived some actual benefits from it, even beyond all the great stories I got out of it. But I do wish it had turned out differently.

In hindsight, though, I will say that it was an ill-starred name. Tomorrow: the real, original Libertalia.