Self-Employed—And Wearing Many Hats

After developing a discount card that benefited cancer research, this NYU grad started a foam insulation business and invests in real estate

After graduating from New York University's Stern School of Business, the first obstacle I faced as an entrepreneur was resisting the urge to enter the corporate world. However, to be an entrepreneur, you often have to attempt what others won't.

My first try at a startup was creating The Cure Card—a $25 discount card that benefited breast cancer research. Shortly before leaving Stern, my business partner and I presented our idea to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and eventually landed a contract with Retail Brand Alliance, a privately held conglomerate with more than 1,000 stores nationwide.

Justin Reid BreinerOwner/FounderThe Cure Card, LLC/All Foam Tech, LLC/Overlook Investments LLC

BS Class of 2002, New York University Leonard N. Stern School of Business

The business model became an instant success, with more than 100,000 cards sold during the first year of operation and more than $1.2 million raised for our cause. After two years of running the company, we exited through a private party transaction.

I am currently involved in real estate acquisition, management, and development, and own a commercial and residential spray foam insulation business in Connecticut called All Foam Tech. The company provides a high-tech form of insulation for commercial and residential structures that is far superior to typical fiberglass insulation. I started the business to capitalize on increasing energy costs by offering homeowners a new way to insulate their homes and slash their heating and air costs in half.

Each day, I wake up prepared to be barraged with unexpected and exciting challenges ranging from tax law to accounting to financial modeling to customer support. I never realized how important my education at Stern would be in providing me with skills to face these obstacles (see, "Stern: Global City, Global View").

When you work for yourself, every day is unique (see BusinessWeek Online, 4/26/06, "Menus at Your Fingertips"). There is no boss to answer to and no employer to mentor you. The day begins as an empty canvas, and I have to fill it with something original:

7:30 a.m.—The alarm clock buzzes. I spend about 15 minutes in bed, mentally sorting through tasks and constructing goals. Those 15 minutes will set the tone for the day.

7:45 a.m.—I shower, change, and check my e-mail.

8:15 a.m.—Since I set my own schedule, I always make time for a healthy breakfast. I need to keep a clear, focused head throughout the day, so I rigorously follow the Zone Diet. While eating, I browse through the Wall Street Journal to stay aware of news.

8:45 a.m.—The phone rings, jarring me from the article I am engrossed in. It's my real estate broker calling from Litchfield County in Connecticut. She is giving me the update on a piece of lakefront commercial land I have been bidding on to build townhouses. The seller countered my last offer of $2.8 million with $3.3 million. The conversation ends after I explain that I will have to analyze the numbers to see what more I can offer.

I began buying properties in the middle of Connecticut in a low-income area while in the midst of The Cure Card business. It was difficult at first because it was before I had the resources to invest. We had to figure out clever ways to finance the properties with little money down and eventually acquired about 200 apartment units and increased their value by aggressively managing them.

9:00 a.m.—Strategizing on the next move, I open my Excel spreadsheet and review the numbers.

The next few minutes are spent contemplating other unique financing and due diligence terms I can present to the seller.

9:30 a.m.—I call my business partner, Ari Yasgur, with whom I buy and manage property. We review several offers that have been made on two apartment buildings we are trying to sell. Early on, I learned that many buyers are either not qualified to buy a property or are not 100% committed.

10:00 a.m.—My cell phone rings. It's an employee from my spray foam insulation business having a hard time answering tough questions from a potential client. I intervene because the job could be worth $30,000. I want to meet the client, which means traveling to Connecticut.

10:30 a.m.—After returning a few phone calls, I order supplies from Staples' Web site.

11:00 a.m.—I pick up my car from the parking garage and head to Connecticut. I have an office in Milford, about an hour from where I live on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Even though most of my business occurs in Connecticut, my wife Sarah works at Goldman Sachs (GS) in lower Manhattan, so we compromise by living in the city (see, 5/11/06, "Jammin' Like Crazy at Goldman"),

11:30 a.m.— While driving, I call a civil engineer I hired to help in the subdivision of a lot I purchased. I am in the process of obtaining subdivision approval from the town planning and zoning commission. The engineer and I conference in my attorney to strategize the next steps.

Noon After arriving at my All Foam Tech office, my business partner, Mike Lieto, and I head to lunch. We discuss the job specifications for the prospective customer and review our current pipeline of job orders to see if we can satisfy the new customer by executing a quick turnaround. This will probably mean paying our employees overtime to work through the next few weekends.

1:00 p.m.—I drive to Fairfield to meet with the prospective customer. I explain that we can meet his time frame and beat the price he received from a competitor. The client seems satisfied, and with some cajoling he signs the contract I present.

2:00 p.m.—On my way back to the office, I receive a phone call from a gentleman in Miami who wants to rent a house and boat slip I purchased two years ago. We quickly settle on a price and begin to converse about our professional lives. I learn that he owns a cable and Internet company that outfits new buildings throughout southern Florida. Immediately, I suggest he consider speaking with, a VoIP company I am a part owner in. The company may be able to offer private label telephone service to his customers. He seems very interested and I put him in touch with the appropriate contact.

2:30 p.m.Arriving at the office, I begin bookkeeping and invoicing. Shortly after finishing, I attend to some personal bookkeeping and filing.

3:45 p.m.—I return calls to several contractors and homeowners inquiring about services.

4:00 p.m.—Time to check my e-mail. This ritual takes place throughout the day.

4:15 p.m.—I call my graphic designer to find out the status of a brochure he is creating for All Foam Tech. The brochure will be sent to local contractors and homeowners who are beginning renovations or construction on homes.

4:45 p.m.—I leave the office to meet one of my realtors in Westport. She wants to show me an investment opportunity.

5:15 p.m.—I take a tour of a turn-of-the-century colonial. The house needs minor cosmetic work but could be flipped for a decent profit. We fill out the necessary paperwork to submit an offer.

6:15 p.m.—I head home to Manhattan, sans traffic; reverse commuting is the best. I spend the ride on the phone talking to my realtor and business partner in real estate.

7:00 p.m.—I swing by Whole Foods to grab fish for dinner.

7:45 p.m.—I am finally home. I head down to the gym in my apartment building with my wife to work out and relax in the sauna and steam room.

9:00 p.m.—The day is not over yet. After eating dinner, I write letters to several customers to whom we will be sending job estimates. I also spend time on Excel updating financial spreadsheets involving all of my businesses.

This is a synopsis of a typical day, but what I left out is all of the arduous effort and detail that goes into starting and managing a business—none of which would have been possible without an educational background in business. The first and most important skill that I learned from Stern was having confidence. Most people fail to start their own business because they are afraid.

Being self-employed means that I have to fill many different roles, from making multimillion-dollar decisions to the mundane task of picking out stationery. It also means that I have to be resolute with my mission. Quitting is not an option. If I quit, the businesses and my reputation fail. Nevertheless, the freedom to set my own course in life is well worth the risk.

Breiner can be reached at

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