Dave Liu (M&T ‘93) is the CEO of Liucrative Endeavors, a strategic consulting and investment firm to high growth companies. Dave’s newly published book, The Way of the Wall Street Warrior: Conquer the Corporate Game Using Tips, Tricks, and Smartcuts (as mentioned below), can be found here.
What’s a typical day in your life?
I’ve always been an early riser largely because when I was at Penn, I did the five-year program in four years, so I had to cram a lot of classes in. On average, I was taking maybe seven classes a semester.
I only had enough money from loans and grants to fund four years of college. But I wanted to do the full five-year program, so I just figured out how to “Schedule Tetris” my way.
When I started in investment banking, I worked on the West Coast and, largely because of the habits of the senior bankers at Jefferies, we generally started really early. So for many of us on the banking side, we’d get into the office at maybe 6 a.m., and then we’d work 18-hour days and then go home. Those habits got seared into me at a young age.
Nowadays, on any given day, I’ll be up between four to five o’clock in the morning so my day typically starts on average around 4:30 a.m. I find it’s a really productive time of the day for me because the whole world is still asleep and I don’t get distracted. I don’t get pinged with lots of notifications or phone calls. I can usually get a solid two hours worth of work and exercise done before I have breakfast with my kids and drive them to school. After that, I’ll have the rest of the day ahead of me.
My days start with planning what I need to get done. I’m a religious “Zero Inbox” person. In the morning I’ll go straight to my inbox and bang out all the things I need to get done. My email is like “Whack-a-Mole” where I’m constantly trying to get it to zero. Before I go to bed, with few exceptions, my email box is at zero. I find it helps me prioritize and be really productive.
Since leaving investment banking, I primarily focused on three main areas. One is the companies where I’m an investor and board member. Usually there’s board meetings or discussions with the CEO/Founders, and these will populate my calendar throughout the year. I’ll have four formal board meetings a year for each company and have conversations with management once a week. It can be on a variety of different topics, ranging from financing to acquisitions to HR. Even a little therapy if they’re going through some challenge in their business and they just want someone to talk to or a shoulder to cry on!
Next, I’m always in the mode of starting new companies. In fact, I’m in the middle of incubating two companies where I’ll be a co-founder. I love starting companies and trying new things so I always have a few of these projects cooking.
Historically, I’ve started companies in asset management, advisory, media, and tech. I’m always dabbling in lots of different areas. There’s always a lot of work associated with starting companies: from determining product offerings, to honing market fit, to working with developers, to raising money. There is never any shortage of things to do.
The third area is philanthropy. I mentor a lot of people trying to build their careers and are looking for any edge or help to maximize their full potential. In fact, that’s why I wrote my book, The Way of the Wall Street Warrior: Conquer the Corporate Game Using Tips, Tricks, and Smartcuts. It summarizes all the tactics I never learned in school but I used to ascend the corporate ladder. The book is resonating really well with young professionals and is a Top 10 Amazon Best Seller in the business finance category. In the first two weeks of launch, it has been one of the best selling non-fiction hardback books worldwide!
I also spend a lot of time on charities and nonprofits that are meaningful to me. As you know, I’m on the board of the M&T program at Penn. I’m the Chairman of the Philanthropic Advisory Council at Smile Train, which is a charity that helps cleft affected babies and kids. I’m on the Trust Advisory Committee for Tau Beta Pi, which is the oldest national engineering society, where I help manage the endowment. I have a long list of other nonprofits that I support that include a variety of organizations helping Asian Americans. I’m actually in the midst of starting a nonprofit for Asian Americans in the media area.
In conclusion, that’s approximately how I divide my day with those three pockets of activities. As a general rule, I wake up early, have meals with my kids and drive them to school. Overall, I want to maximize my family time. I spent my life traveling, and I don’t want to do that anymore.
As an entrepreneur who has founded multiple companies, you must be experienced with both good and bad ideas. When do you know, as both a founder and an investor, that an idea is worth pursuing?
Let me start by giving you some of my perspective. I’ve founded four companies and invested in many more. Since starting Liucrative Endeavors, I’ve become a shareholder in about twelve companies. So I often ask myself or founders, “How do you know whether you have a good idea or not?” This is the key question to ask every day.
I think of the question like a multivariate equation that’s constantly changing. If I was forced to simplify it, I would say that at any given moment, I look at three things, and the weighting of each of these can vary quite widely depending on when you asked.
First I look at the “McKinsey level” research: What do the smart people in the industry think? What do they say about this area, this product, this need? Have they identified it as a pressing need? Whenever I look at a new opportunity, I always try to research as much as I can and learn the opinion of smart people in this area? That’s one checkbox.
Next, I study what people are actually doing. I have found in life that what people say and what they do are usually two very different things. What I do is observe what people are actually doing and see if my product or service will be used. I may survey 100 to 200 actual users, ask them questions, and test my hypothesis. That’s the second checkbox.
Third, I ask the “Steve Jobs” in me, “What do I think of this product?” What does my gut tell me if I wear my black turtleneck and my jeans and my New Balance shoes and I walk around like I’m Steve Jobs? Does it tell me that even though the McKinsey research and statistical sampling data say it is a stupid idea, I still believe this is the right thing to build? I factor this into my thinking as well because if the product was so obvious, somebody else would have done it already. Some of the greatest products were things that other people either never thought of or more likely people actually have done but weren’t executed well. This is the third bucket checkbox.
When I look at these three dimensions, it’s a multivariate equation that’s constantly changing that I constantly reevaluate. I think it’s good to revisit these three dimensions annually. The key is to instrument this somehow. Reevaluate constantly so that you don’t end up having massive blind spots to your own ideas, and go down a rabbit hole for a couple of years and then one day ask yourself, “How did I get here!?”
What’s your favorite thing about being an entrepreneur?
Now that I’ve done it several times, the favorite thing to me about being an entrepreneur is it’s the closest thing to being a parent but not giving birth to an actual child. Being a parent and being an entrepreneur are the same things in my mind. It’s one of these things that you can’t really know unless you experience it yourself. You can read all about it. Your friends can tell you how great it is. They can tell you how painful it is. And you can read all the blogs and learn about from all the people. But nothing compares to actually doing it.
As a father of two boys, I think it’s exactly like parenthood. Parenthood is interesting because it is such a universal activity. A lot of people become parents, but it’s also a singularly individual activity. No parent’s experience is the same as any other’s experience. To me, starting a company is exactly the same. The highs are higher than anything you’ll ever experience in the corporate world, but the lows are as low as you can imagine. It’s like your personal roller coaster.
How do you meet your co-founders?
There’s no specific formula for finding a co-founder, but I can just tell you what I’ve done.
I started a tech company with a business school buddy and very close friend of mine despite having very similar, overlapping skills. Both of us were business people who previously worked in finance. We always wanted to do something together so we decided to start a company together. We grew together, learned a lot together, built the company together and even sold the company together.
This is an example of co-founders with overlapping skill sets. It’s not complementary, but culturally and relationship wise, we’re very strong. I think that helps a lot particularly during tough times and even though we’re kind of the same person, you get twice the capacity of that function.
I started an asset management firm with my wife. We are very different but the nature of what we do is we invest. Plus I generally just follow what she wants to do so it works pretty well! With two of the other companies that I founded, it’s different. I don’t have any co-founders.
With new companies I’m starting today, I look for co-founders who are complementary to me. The co-founder may not be a black belt in financing or strategy, but they’re a black belt in coding and product development. In these situations, I look for co-founders that I’ve known for a long time. Most importantly, we may have gone through some tough stuff together. In one situation I am exploring, my co-founding partner is someone that was a client of mine. I helped this person monetize their first company, and made them a lot of money. We worked well together in the past as principal-agent but we know we can work well together. We’re very complimentary. Another company I’m looking at starting is also quite similar. It’s someone that is very good in computer science but has never started a company before. This is their first rodeo. So I provide stewardship at the Chairman level to make sure that they get the benefit of all the mistakes that I’ve made.
When do you know that you’re truly passionate about something? You said that a lucrative career lies at the intersection of money, ability, and passion. How did you find your lucrative career?
I think like everything in life, you have to try lots of things. I don’t think we ever really know what ultimately is going to drive us for the rest of our lives because our passions change over time.
If you don’t try lots of different things, I don’t think you’ll ever find your passion or, even worse, you might settle. One day you’ll wake up and you’ll have wasted years doing something that you don’t like.
I tell people in their 20s to try lots of things. For instance, if you start your career at a big company, try to get on a rotation where you can try lots of different jobs within that company. As a sidebar, I’m a big advocate of going to business school for this reason. It gives you the opportunity to try something completely different; it’s kind of a natural way to kind of jump from one career to another.
The founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken started KFC in his 60s, so I wouldn’t get too bogged down on having to do all this exploration in my 20s. But in the first stage of your career, you should really experiment and try lots of different things and try to figure out if you can find that intersection of what I talked about. I simplified it but my framework is based on the Japanese framework called ikigai, and it’s actually four questions: What are you passionate about? What are you good at? What does society value, and what does society pay for? The last two are further derivations of my framework because there’s a lot of things society values, but won’t pay for.
The intersection of this ikigai framework is the foundation of a lucrative career. Ikigai is something that you should try to explore during your 20s or the first stage of your career.
What is one lesson that the program taught you that you would like to pass on to current students?
I’ll tell you what I told my twelve year old son when he complained about homework and the subjects he’s learning. I told him school is important because you are learning how to learn. That’s the most important thing. Not so much of what you are learning, but how to learn and develop the right habits, mindset, and the thought processes to process information, interpret it, and use it. Once I told him that, his whole perspective on school changed.
I believe that much of what you learn in school today is going to be obsolete in a few years – especially technology related subjects. So my biggest takeaway from the program was it taught me how to learn.
You need to figure this out for yourself. What kind of habits work for you? What type of learning model works for you? Are you the kind of person that likes to go away and meditate on top of a mountain and read a lot of books and then think about it? Or are you a person that needs to practice the Socratic method in a group and debate things out?
Use this time to figure out your ideal learning model because those are skills that will help you throughout your life. Moreover, I believe that a lot of people who stagnate either in their career have a hard time learning. They have a hard time adapting to new circumstances or simply new information.
The most successful people are constantly of a mindset that they’re leaning forward, that they have a curious mind, and they know how to extract signals from noise. They know how to interpret different information and process it in a way that’s useful.
I strongly believe the M&T program does a good job at showing you lots of different ways of learning. You have the more traditional, “Hey, we’re going to do pop quizzes, and you’re going to have to practice for those.” You also have lab work where you’re testing hypotheses and are more hands-on.
You may do a lot of group work. This type of learning style is critical because it adds the human element. No person is an island and you can’t advance your own knowledge in pursuit of some goal just by yourself. You’re more than likely going to need to learn how to work in a group and solve a problem together. The M&T Program gives you an opportunity to learn and grow with the human element and this is an important skill to begin mastering when you are young.
This post was submitted by Samantha Su (M&T ’25)