‘There’s all this academic, peer-reviewed, time-tested academic evidence as to how we should invest, and yet we have a whole industry that is trying to get us to do more or less the very opposite.’
Today more than ever, if you want a comfortable retirement, it’s up to you to put the thinking and the work in. And the sooner the better. Financial journalist Robin Powell has made it his mission to counter the misinformation and cut through the jargon, and the result is How to Fund the Life you Want (co-authored with Jonathan Hollow).
He talks to me about his own journey to financial literacy, via journalism, and how he went about turning his findings into a practical and readable book that could really make a difference to someone’s life. We even touch on what happens when co-authors disagree!
Robin’s blog: https://www.evidenceinvestor.com/home-uk/
Robin on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobinJPowell
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
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The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
Alison Jones: I am here today with Robin Powell, who is an award-winning journalist, author, and video producer specialising in investment and personal finance. He worked in television journalism for more than 20 years as a reporter, producer and presenter. He’s the founder of Ember Television and its specialist division, Regis Media, which provides content and social media management for financial advice and wealth management firms around the world.
He runs two blogs, The Evidence-Based Investor and Advisor 2.0, and his second book, How to Fund the Life You Want, co-authored with Jonathan Hollow, won the Work and Life Category at the Business Book Awards 2023.
So first of all, welcome to the show, Robin. It’s very good to have you here.
Robin Powell: Well, thank you very much for having me, Alison.
Alison Jones: So much in that bio that I want to dig into. But firstly, I’m going to congratulate you, although my teeth are firmly gritted as I do it, a win at the Business Book Awards. How wonderful for you, how delighted I am.
Robin Powell: I’m sure you’ll win next time. And, I’ll be gritting my own teeth wishing I’d beaten you.
Alison Jones: So just for context, Exploratory Writing was in the work and life category.
Having read your book, Robin, I was a bit like, ‘oh, okay, fine. It’s really good, I suppose that’s okay’. So there you are.
Robin Powell: Oh that’s kind of you.
Alison Jones: I’m trying to be generous. No, no. It is a terrific book.
But first of all, tell us, how are you feeling? What was it like on the evening when they called your name?
Robin Powell: Yes, well, to be recognized for any work you do, particularly by peers, is amazing. And it’s actually particularly encouraging for me because I’m a journalist.
And you know, I’m a very firm believer in the distinction between PR and journalism. And frankly, a lot of what passes as journalism these days is actually PR. I believe in telling people exactly how it is whatever that subject is. My subject, as you say, is investing, finance, asset management. And there is so much journalism masquerading as PR in the financial space.
Well, quite, yes, exactly.
And as a result, I tend not to get nominated for awards. I certainly don’t put myself forward for awards because I know I would never be, you know, I would never win because often awards in sort of financial journalism are handed to those who sort of say the right things.
So to actually win an award for a change was very gratifying.
Alison Jones: And the point you make there is really interesting because, and one of the things I wanted to talk to you about was you’ve obviously been a journalist for a long time, in print, and you’ve also worked in television, you blog, and here you are writing books as well.
It’s interesting that you notice that books are qualitatively different from the journalism in that they tend to be, well, less PR, less fluff, less sort of reactive perhaps. I’m putting words in your mouth now, but just, you know, as you look at those different content types within the ecosystem, what do you notice around your experience of working in them all?
Robin Powell: Well, I mean, you like to think, don’t you, that books are different somehow and are in a sense, on a higher level, if you like, than news journalism or certainly sort of internet media and so on. But actually there are lots of books out there written about investing in finance, which frankly are just there to sell products and to sell people’s companies or trading systems or whatever it is. And I find that immensely frustrating.
And that’s really one of the reasons we wrote this book. We wanted to write a book where we were on exactly the same page as the reader. That our interests were 100% aligned.
We weren’t trying to sell them something, obviously we wanted to sell them the book because it wasn’t much use to them if they didn’t buy the book. But we had nothing to sell. We had no products, no strategies or services or whatever to sell. Yes, generally, often, long form content and books, you know, they are better than short form journalism but that doesn’t mean that they’re not sometimes conflicted. And as I say, in this space, they often are.
Alison Jones: Absolutely. You get bad books, you get bad journalism, you know, none of these are sort of, sacred forms in their own right. It’s interesting to see how they work together.
I’m very interested that you’ve worked across the span of them. That point you make about writing the book for the reader and being on the same page as the reader. Absolutely what I got from it. It’s very… it’s like somebody coming alongside you, just saying, don’t be frightened, here’s the principles and stuff.
And I know that kind of reflects your own journey in a sense, doesn’t it? This is not kind of where you began. So just tell us a little bit about your personal journey into this expertise.
Robin Powell: Well, that’s right. I mean, I’m not a financial journalist by background. I mean, I always wanted to be a journalist as a kid. And it began when I won a sports writing competition with the Daily Express when I was 12 or something. And my mum was very ambitious for me, so she wrote to the Editor of the Daily Express at the time who, I’m showing my age now, but he was a guy called Derek Jameson. I don’t know if you can remember Derek Jameson. He was very, really larger than life character. I remember him inviting us down and meeting all these journalists and so on. And I just decided then that, yes, journalism’s definitely what I wanted to do. But, you know, I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to write about money. I wanted to write about, well, sports, I suppose, as a kid. And then I suppose as I got older, I thought, well, maybe I ought to write about something a bit more serious, like politics. But then after leaving television news and I was really just a jack of all trades reporter really, specializing in nothing in particular. Set up my own video production company and our very first client was a financial services company. Financial advice firm actually, who wanted to make a documentary about investing.
And I’ll be honest, I was shocked at how little I really knew about investing. I thought I was, you know, I thought I was pretty good at it, to be honest. I read the Sunday Times money section every week and dabbled in a few shares and so on.
But I’d never really looked at how I was actually performing as an investor and it turns out I was pretty clueless and yes, was really honored to go and interview some really key people in finance. I’ve interviewed Nobel Prize winners William Sharpe, Eugene Fama, Harry Markowitz actually who died a few days ago, age 95. And one of the real sort of giants of academic finance.
I interviewed Jack Bogle, who was the famous index fund pioneer, founder of Vanguard Asset Management. And I was just shocked really, that there’s all this information out there, all this academic, peer-reviewed, time-tested academic evidence as to how we should invest, and yet we have a whole industry that is trying to get us to do more or less the very opposite of what we should be doing.
And over the last 10, 11 years become my mission to educate investors in how to do it properly.
Alison Jones: And I guess now more than ever, it’s a really important thing for people to be thinking about their future. They perhaps can’t rely on the stability that they’ve assumed would be there in the past.
Robin Powell: Well, exactly. I mean, we had this really fortunate situation or I suppose my generation in a sense had had this sort of very fortunate position of having direct benefit pensions. So in other words, you retired on a reasonable percentage of your final salary.
And that was great and it gave people a lot of security. They just didn’t really have to think very much about retirement and pension planning and so on. But they were a really good deal.
Alison Jones: It was a moment in time, wasn’t it?
Robin Powell: Absolutely. Companies have realized they can’t really afford them anymore.
So we’ve now moved to what’s called defined contribution system instead. Where basically it’s up to you, you’re on your own to put in money into your pension.
Alison Jones: And that’s, if you’re lucky enough to have a pension scheme, there’s so many people on zero hours contracts and so on.
Robin Powell: Well, there is that, there is that, although thankfully now the government has introduced what’s called auto enrollment. It’s actually one of the few useful pieces of financial legislation we’ve had in the last sort of 20 years or so, which at least has made sure that pretty much everyone, everyone who’s working, should have a pension. And their employers are at least putting a little bit in. But you know, for most people it’s only a little bit and it’s nowhere near enough.
Alison Jones: It’s not going to keep them in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed.
Robin Powell: Absolutely. On your own as far as pension planning is concerned.
Alison Jones: And that note there about you know, what the government has done recently and our specific circumstance and so on leads me to a really interesting point in that this book is really specifically written for, I mean, I’m sure that there, well there are principles that are applicable everywhere, but the legislation, you know, the stuff that you comment on is quite UK focused, which is real treat to read as somebody in the UK.
But I know that that might have been an interesting conversation with your publisher, Bloomsbury, because actually business books tend to have a global market.
Robin Powell: Well, that’s right. I mean, we were very torn really, because clearly, as authors, you want the book to be read by as many people as possible.
But you cannot have a serious book about investing without discussing in detail the peculiar sort of tax regime in that particular territory and the rules around pensions in that country. And, you know, if we’d written a general book about investing, it would not have been anywhere near as practical as we wanted to make it.
We are not telling people what to do. You know, we are not financial advisors. I mean, I’m a journalist. Jonathan is a writer, used to work for the money and pension service. But that notwithstanding, we wanted to make this as practical as possible and really explain to people what their options are and present them with an evidence-based approach to investing for retirement in a cost efficient way.
Alison Jones: And in a specific regulatory framework and political and social context.
Robin Powell: Yes, yes, exactly. So, we’ve thought about a book for America, but honestly I don’t know nearly enough about the American… 4 0 1 K is their sort of standard sort of retirement scheme there. We would actually need to get a third author on board right to assist us with that. Now look…
Alison Jones: And then it becomes less useful for every reader has something that’s irrelevant to them.
Robin Powell: Exactly. And look, you know, my blog, The Evidence-Based Investor, I mean, we have more followers in America than in the UK. I regularly visit America to interview financial experts and so on. So I, in a sense, I’m very much kind of in touch with other sort of financial educators and so on in America. But actually, what you need to know wherever you are, wherever you are watching this, is you need to actually find out what is the most tax efficient way to invest. That’s in a sense the most critical thing.
You know, because here in the UK for example, you know, it’s actually a very good deal. There are actually very good tax incentives to invest in pensions. We are obsessed in the UK with houses, as you know, everyone wants to get a foot on the housing ladder.
What I say is get a foot on the pension ladder and actually rather than making it hard for you, like, you know, soaring interest rates are at the moment. The pension ladder, the government actually wants to give you, now does give you two or three steps up the ladder in terms of tax relief and and so on.
And, you really need to be taking advantage of that.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. So, I mean, financial advice, absolutely, read the book and it opened my eyes to an awful lot of stuff that I haven’t been aware of and thinking about. So, yes, I’ll be onto my accountant quite soon.
And I want to talk to you about your writing process. So, you are obviously a prolific writer, you know, you’ve done lots of journalism, you blog regularly.
Tell me about your book writing process. What does that look like?
Robin Powell: Right, well this is a jointly written book. I’ve written two books and both have been jointly written, so I actually don’t know…
Alison Jones: I don’t have my own. I just borrow someone else’s.
Robin Powell: So I don’t know about how you write a book on your own.
Alison Jones: Tell me how you write collaboratively.
Robin Powell: Well, there is this amazing thing called Google Drive, which you know I shouldn’t really be giving a plug to Google, but it’s just amazing.
Alison Jones: Other file sharing mechanisms are available.
Robin Powell: Absolutely. Absolutely. But it does enable you to just share ideas just really easily. And I suppose with our book, I’ve been blogging about this for, well, since about 2015, so I actually had loads of content that I’d already written.
Clearly, we didn’t want to fill the book with stuff that is already out there and generally on the internet and so on. So what I did was for each chapter, so as I originally had the vision for the book and set out the plan, the structure with Jonathan’s help, we sort of tweak that sort of slightly.
And then for every chapter I would just really put what I thought were the key points, and then gave him examples of articles that I had written and that other people had written, which I found insightful. And on the basis of that, he went away and wrote each chapter. And I have to say, you know, he did it so, when I say quickly, you know, he didn’t rush it, but he was just super focused and I was expecting this thing to take months and months and months. But actually, I can’t actually remember how long it took him to write but you know, 10 weeks, something like that. I mean, so interesting.
Pretty amazing, really.
Alison Jones: What a brilliant partnership in terms of the division of labour. The sort of sense, you know, you have a plan for the book, you’ve got the content already written, and then you’ve got somebody who sort of pulls it together and creates the text.
Haven’t seen that model before. That’s really interesting.
Robin Powell: And actually I think it’s good in a sense to have a couple of authors because you kind of you know, if you do it properly, you are more than the sum of your parts.
Alison Jones: Yes, and you sort of mitigate against each other’s blind spots as well, don’t you?
Robin Powell: Yes, absolutely and Jonathan is such a meticulous guy, you know, everything’s got to be of a really high quality. I tend to be more of a kind of volume person, you know, getting them, just getting them compared to as many people as possible. I’m a journalist. Yes, exactly. And actually that would challenge me.
And I’d think, yes, actually Jonathan does have a point, you know we need to have another meeting about this chapter. It’s not quite right as it is at the moment. And so in a sense we kind of cajoled each other into making this the best book we possibly could.
Alison Jones: Very complementary approaches as well as skillsets.
Robin Powell: Yes, absolutely.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. And I always ask my guests for their best tip. I mean, I guess your best tip would be hire Jonathan, but you know, if somebody’s starting off on this journey and they are just about to write their first business book, I guess I’m asking what do you wish you’d known before you’d started?
What would you tell them?
Robin Powell: Well, I don’t want to start on a negative note here, but don’t expect to make any money. I would say would be the main thing. Look, don’t get me wrong, writing a book is very rewarding, actually seeing the book in print, seeing people buy it and review it, you know, even winning an award if you’re lucky enough to. You know, they’re all great things, but look, there is a heck of a lot of work and effort that goes into it.
I suppose the one bit of advice I would give is, most factual books or some business being factual, you know, they don’t sell very many. I read somewhere that the average, you might correct me on this, you probably know more than I do, but I read somewhere on average that it’s about 500 copies or something that.
Alison Jones: Oh, if that.
Robin Powell: It is a real struggle. If you are JK Rowling, no worries at all, you know.
Alison Jones: She tends not to write books on investing though, although she probably could.
Robin Powell: So I suppose what you’ve got to think is, there are already oodles of books out there on business and very definitely on investing and finance.
What can you say that hasn’t already been said? And if you can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said, don’t even think about writing a book. Yes, that’s what I would say.
Alison Jones: Yes, really interesting. There’s something as well about the upstream part of it. So you said it’s very rewarding watching people read it and getting awards and so on. Again, it’s a very leading question. I don’t even care. Did you notice anything intrinsically rewarding about the process of writing and what it did for your own sort of thinking and structuring your ideas? Or was that something you had pretty much in place anyway?
Robin Powell: I think writing, I mean, I’m biased because I’m a professional writer and I love writing, but I think there is something about the writing process that really clears things up in your own head. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the benefits of journaling. It’s not something that I do, but I’ve often thought, well, maybe I should do it because actually it is a way to really make you think what are my thoughts on a particular subject?
So I found that really helpful.
Alison Jones: Yes, it’s almost that stage before you put it out to the world, isn’t it? It’s sort of a stage where you write for yourself first.
Robin Powell: Yes, yes, and I’ll be honest, there were some things that Jonathan and I slightly disagreed about. You know, we don’t necessarily see a hundred percent eye to eye. I mean, you know, 95, 6, 7% we do. But there are things where he would have a certain sort of spin or more emphasis on a particular area than I would for example
A good example of that actually is the final couple of chapters where we look at financial advice and whether people need financial advice and generally speaking, I think people should seek professional financial advice. Jonathan is much more wary about the value of advisors.
And, you know, I agree that you certainly shouldn’t overpay and there are lots of financial advisors charging far too much money and frankly offering not very much value in return. But that was interesting that we sort of agreed to disagree.
And I suppose the last two chapters were, you know, a little bit of our views on that subject. But I think we’ve, I hope we’ve hit the right note with it.
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating because you are right, most of the time when people are writing a book together, they pretty much agree on what they’re writing.
I think it’s almost more interesting when you have different nuances and you have to discuss that, expand it, clarify your own thinking as you discuss it, and then work out how you’re going to present this to a reader. So it’s a really interesting part of the process.
You see, I’ve only ever written books on my own, so I don’t know that that part of it. Although I have enough debates with myself, so I can’t imagine what it’d be like.
I’m also going to ask you to recommend a book, it doesn’t have to be a business book, but a book that you think that people listening to this podcast should read or consider reading if they haven’t already.
Robin Powell: As a content person, I would definitely say anything by Seth Godin. Yes.
He has to be worth reading. He really gets it, the importance of content. And you know, actually he got content marketing before anyone else did as far as I can work out.
Alison Jones: Yes, he writes in such a concise, crisp way. Any particular favorite that you’d recommend?
Robin Powell: Oh, you got me thinking now. Purple Cow is one of them.
Alison Jones: This is Marketing is a great place to start, isn’t it?
Robin Powell: Exactly. Exactly. And it’s really all about, you know, working out what your clients, what your prospective clients or your target audience, what they want, you know?
Don’t interrupt them, it’s just old fashioned sort of interruption marketing. They don’t want that. They want to be met where they are.
I can recommend anything by Seth Godin. Yes.
Alison Jones: And you’re right, it’s not just what he’s writing about, which is brilliant. It’s how he writes. It’s a real masterclass in how to write well, absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you.
And if people want to find out more about you, Robin, more about the books, more about the blogs and, you know, all the stuff that you do, where should they go?
Robin Powell: Okay. Well, the book is called How to Fund the Life You Want by Robin Powell and Jonathan Hollow. It’s published by Bloomsbury.
I have a blog called The Evidence-Based Investor and the url is evidenceinvestor.com, evidenceinvestor.com.
And I’m on Twitter. I shouldn’t spend so much time on Twitter as I do, but there you go. @RobinJPowell that’s the best place to find me.
Alison Jones: Amazing. Thank you. I’ll put those links together with the transcript of this conversation up on the show notes at extraordinarybusinessbooks.com. So if you haven’t got a pen and paper in your hand, then you can always go to the show notes and find all the links there.
But thank you so much for your time, Robin. It’s terrific to talk to you and if I had to not win the award then I’m glad that you did.
Robin Powell: Oh, bless you. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Alison.