403bwise Turns 20 🎂
March 31, 2020
In March 2000, in a chilly garage in Anaheim Hills, California, my good friend John Moore and I stared at the "publish" button. For the past four months we had been busily working on our first web endeavor: a site to help educate teachers about the K-12 403(b) plan. We were now ready to launch. Would anyone find us, we wondered? Would anyone care, we worried? How did John and I get to that point?
Way back in 1992 I had been a first-year elementary school teacher. About three months into the job, after the kids had left for the day, a sales agent poked her head into my classroom. She asked if I "cared" about my financial future. She went on to sing the virtues of something called a tax sheltered annuity. I had no idea what she was talking about. I politely listened and said I would get in touch if I was interested. I never got in touch. Over the years I began to self-educate myself about investing in general, and the 403(b) in particular. I learned that investing fees mattered, and I learned that teachers were getting ripped off in their 403(b) plans.
Diapers, Dads & Domains
In 1999, fellow educator John Moore and I began to kick around the idea about launching a website. Internet fever was in the air. Ground breaking companies like amazon.com, CISCO, and pets.com (!) were media darlings. Tech companies, along with the NASDAQ Composite Index were soaring to record valuations. John and I both had young daughters, we were both in education, and we were both self educating ourselves about investing. We quickly dispensed with the idea of running diapers.com. That domain name was taken. What else could we do? Dads raising daughters? John and I spent a lot of time together with our kids. At the nearby park, it would often be us, our kids, and nannies watching other people's kids. Our wives, who were doing the actual heavy child-rearing lifting, would not have appreciated a site glorifying the child raising prowess of two dads who talked sports and investing while their young kids ran amok at the park. Then we hit on the idea to launch a site to help teachers with their 403(b). A quick internet search (via AltaVista!) about the 403(b) yielded results about the year 403 BC and little else. When you thought about it made a lot of sense: the plan was ancient (it predated the 401(k) by 20 years) and if felt like it was designed in 403 BC. The best news? No one else was running a 403(b) education site. We had a found a niche.
What's in a Name?
So what to call this new entity focused on helping teachers better understand the 403(b)? I am embarrassed to admit this but we actually started with the name: teacherfinancialeducationcenter.com. I am pretty sure we even bought that domain name. Yikes. As we talked it over, John thought the name should have 403b in it. Almost as soon as he said that, it hit me: 403bwise! We want teachers to "be wise" about their 403(b). Our name may well be part of any secret sauce the site has.
So sometime in March 2000, we finally pushed that "publish" button. Almost immediately, thanks to the site, we met Los Angeles teacher and 403(b) advocate Steve Schullo. He introduced us to a reporter from U.S. News and World Report who mentioned 403bwise in a July 2000 story. This led to a nice traffic bump. Not long afterwards I was interviewed on NPR which grew the audience even more. It also led to TIAA-CREF becoming a sponsor. Later that year I penned a story for one of our favorite investing sites Motley Fool which led to a then one-day visitorship record. So six months into its existence, 403bwise was off and running. I like to think we have been pushing buttons ever since.
When I was working on the launch of 403bwise, my wife of 10 years, Julie, was battling breast cancer. Teaching and working on the site were my only respites from the horrors of her treatment. Twelve months after being diagnosed with breast cancer, my beautiful, amazing wife, and mother of our then two-year-old daughter, Lily, succumbed to breast cancer. Following her death I could feel myself questioning it all. I pressed on for two reasons: Lily and 403bwise.
The website has given me so much. By 2001 I had met and begun what has become a life-long friendship and professional partnership with Scott Dauenhauer, CFP. Later that year I began dating Mandy, a friend of my late wife Julie’s and mine from our time in Washington, DC in the mid 1990s. Mandy and I would later marry. As friends of 403bwise know, Mandy is a web designer extraordinarie. Penny Wang, then of Money Magazine, nominated me for a "Money Heroes" award for helping teachers. In the fall of 2016, Tara Siegel Bernard and Ron Lieber of The New York Times mentioned 403bwise in their series on the K-12 403(b). To our great fortune, Tim Ranzetta, co-founder of Next Gen Personal Finance saw those articles. He reached out to Scott and me, and thanks to his generous support 403bwise.com became 403bwise.org and I now have the privilege of running the site full time. There have been so many others along the way: Brian Cressey, Bruce Corcoran, Barbara Healy, Sandy Keaton and the countless number of teachers who inspire us every day. Co-founder John Moore left the operation in 2005. He has been battling some very serious medical issues lately. I love you, John, and cannot thank you enough for helping launch this amazing community.
403bwise.com circa March 2000