How I Made Half a Million Dollars During Residency and Almost Killed My Career

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My note: The first interview in my new series, TRUE DOCTOR STORIES. Here’s a physician who realized early on that he wanted more than the daily grind and how he was able to shape his career to make that happen.

Dr. Will Kirby is a well-known board certified dermatologist and television personality best known for his appearances on “Big Brother,” “Dr. 90210,” and “The Doctors.” Besides running a successful medical practice, he has still found the time to be involved in multiple passive income-producing ventures.

So how did you make half a million dollars during residency?

In 2001, I was fortunate to win a reality show on CBS called ‘Big Brother’ with a prize of $500,000. At first blush you might think that was a windfall for a 27 year-old physician who had just completed internship but after paying my California state taxes and my federal taxes (which wiped out half the funds) and paying off student loans, I walked away with less than $100k.

That was still a wonderful payday for three months worth of work… but it wasn’t the life changing opportunity I had originally hoped.

Why did you even decide to do the show?

I knew my skill set – I was very comfortable in my own skin, I had opinions I wanted to share and, most importantly, I thought I could use the show to promote my own brand. And I was also dead broke! I hoped that by becoming well known and achieving some level of fame I could parlay that into financial success.

What did Big Brother do for your medical career?

Well, candidly, Big Brother hurt my medical career. At least initially.

After the show I was stigmatized as a “cheesy reality TV personality who happened to be a doctor” as opposed to being seen as a respected “physician who just happened to have won a cheesy reality TV show” – there is a huge difference in those two concepts. But that was a blessing in disguise because it required me to take my medical career much more seriously and to place an emphasis on the highest of academic standards.

Since I felt I had to overcome the negative aspects of reality TV fame, I buckled down, landed a dermatology residency, became the chief resident, eventually became an associate clinical professor of dermatology, and wrote a number of textbook chapters and articles that have been published in prominent dermatological journals. I now serve as part of the editorial advisory board of some of these same journals.

Now I’m regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the clinical applications of dermatological lasers. I’m the National Medical Director for LaserAway, the largest and most experienced aesthetic dermatology group on the West Coast. And I’m a recognized skin care brand spokesman.

Did my reality television career help me obtain that? Not directly. But it put a chip on my shoulder and made me work harder. The irony of life is that you can be the best in the world in one field, like competitive reality television gameshows, and be a nobody in another field, like healthcare. So I rolled up my sleeves and decided to be the best in both.

What has developing your personal brand done for you?

Because of it, I’ve actually been on more than 40 television shows including The Young and The Restless, Chelsea Lately, Regis and Kelly, The Real Housewives of Orange County, Robot Chicken, The Talk, etc. I’ve even won The Price is Right.

But the single show that helped my career most was “Dr. 90210”. It was corny and not necessarily an artist project that I take great pride in. But that exposure not only drove quality patients to my practice but also opened the door to professional relationships including a five year QVC partnership where I served as the on-air spokesman for Johnson and Johnson’s ‘Neutrogena Dermatologics’. I’ve also been a spokesman for Kimberly Clark’s ‘Truist’ skin care line and Unilever’s ‘Dove Men + Care’.

So to answer your question, developing my personal brand bought my house!

What does your typical work week look like?

I now only see patients one day a week but I supervise and train allied health professionals (RNs, PAs, NPs) daily. I also speak for laser manufacturers and skin care companies. All this together with my other investments allows me to live the lifestyle that I want. See, many doctors think money equals success. That’s 100% incorrect. Freedom equals success. So I spend a good deal of time with family and travel when I want to. Let’s put it this way: My hands aren’t calloused – I’m not out digging ditches!

What else have you been involved in since and why continue to do them?

I think what has changed most for me in the last few years from a professional standpoint is not my work ethic, that has always been strong, but more the way I approach cultivating my long term livelihood.

As an aesthetic dermatologist, I was procedurally focused and I found myself performing the same treatments over and over with no end in sight. But that just became rote and there was no artistry, no imagination and no exit strategy – I’d just be doing the same thing my whole life if I didn’t make a change, or at least an alteration to how I made an income. I didn’t want my tombstone to read, “Dr. Will Kirby: Pumped a ton of Botox”.

So I simply made a decision to no longer wake up five days a week and spend my professional time standing on my feet and performing a menial task any longer.

One thing I’m proud of is that with no formal real-estate background whatsoever I jumped in with both feet first and purchased a small, five unit residential building. It was shockingly easy. You can buy a small property with less paperwork than signing up for a yoga class!

Naturally I can’t speak for anyone else but one year out on this project and I’m thrilled I made the decision to get into the real estate game. It sounds simple and it is: The rent collected from the tenants pay the mortgage off and I make a little extra each month while the building appreciates in value over time. It’s also rewarding emotionally; There is some very stray, primal satisfaction in owning a building. Like a viking and his castle.

Can I stop working from the income generated from this single building? Nope. Not even close. But it’s a start and if I get a few under my belt I’m highly confident that I’ll be able to build the foundation for eventual complete financial freedom.

Any ventures you’re willing to share with us that didn’t do so well?

Where would I even start!?! I’ve failed as an investor in a women’s clothing line, in a chicken wing restaurant, in a party bus (with a live DJ and a stripper pole inside) and in an upscale bowling alley. I even was once a co-owner of a company that had stuffed animal Teddy bears that came in giant coffee cans. I even got slaughtered funding a Bruce Willis movie a few years ago.

Did I like losing all that money? Hell no! But you have to take big swings and make it fun at the same time!

What pieces of advice do you have for physicians who are considering pursuing other sources of income?

1) The first key to financial freedom is: Stop spending money on dumb personal shit.  The year I bought my house, I did not make one single personal purchase – I lived like a pauper and my underwear had holes in it. I see residents graduate and immediately buy an expensive car. That’s dumb. It won’t make you happy and it won’t ever be a source of passive income in the future. I drove, and still do, a used Ford.

2) The things you own are the things that own you: If you buy something or invest in a project make sure you are 100% comfortable if it disappears overnight. Don’t be a mental slave to your investments.

3) You can’t live in a stock: Invest in a nice home in a nice neighborhood because you’ll enjoy it AND you’ll eventually make a profit on it. The most substantial investments I have made have been in real estate. Car investment = dumb. House investment = smart.

4) When you do invest, invest in things that excite you: I’ve failed as an investor in projects and I’ve succeeded as an investor in projects and the one thing in common that they all have in common is that they were fun!

5) Swing big! When you finally recognize that you are ready to invest in a passive income project, swing big. I’d rather strike out three times and then hit a home run than get a couple of singles. See, If you lose money it is going to annoy you whether the amount you lose is $5 or $50,000. Point being, it hurts no matter how little the amount you lose is. BUT if you gain money, a little won’t enhance your life much at all  – it takes massive gains on a significant project be a game changer! Example: I’m an early investor in a tech company called Strike Social – they excite me! If they fail I can stomach the loss but if they succeed then I’m off to the races!

6) Pay it forward – always look out to help that person in your circle who comes to you for advice. I’ve had medical students rotate with me and years later they become my colleague on a lucrative project. Treat everyone well because you never know when the janitor will become CEO!

7) Get social. It’s the future. Humans are social creatures and like it or not, social media defines our personal and professional relationships these days. Join Instagram and Twitter (and SnapChat and FaceBook?) and use them. The connections you make will eventually prove useful as social media relationships lead to learning about passive income opportunities. And don’t let negative comments on social media bother you in the slightest. You have your own life path and haters gonna hate!

8) The most important thing to remember is that money won’t make you happy. Sure you need to meet one sort of minimum criteria regarding the funds you need to survive but having excess won’t result in one iota of happiness. So the investment you make need to be fun and emotionally satisfiying. Or what is the point, right?

9) So many doctors I know work so hard “for their kids.” This makes zero sense. Remember: The average doctor isn’t wealthy because he or she is smart – the average doctor is wealthy because he or she works really hard. Money is a low hanging fruit and only the myopic continuously grab at it.

See, your kids don’t want more money when you die in the future – they want your attention today! Plus, how many people do we all know that come from wealthy families with absentee parents that ended up being spoiled, rotten, horrible individuals? Money is a curse in many ways while experiences and relationships are a blessing.

So my advice to physician friends is to invest in passive income projects today, right now, without delay so they can cut their office hours tomorrow. Want to provide for your kid’s future? Spend time with them. You’ll appreciate it and so will they. You know what I’m leaving my kids when I die? NOTHING. Well, nothing but memories of a present father and diverse life experiences that I hope will help shape them into becoming happy, healthy individuals. So I’m leaving them everything.

10) Protect your personal brand and your reputation at all cost because doing so will lead to great benefits in business. Anyone who strikes a deal with me knows that I’m honest, ethical and hard working because I know that it only takes one slight deviation to ruin years of hard work in the reputation department.

See, reputation permeates throughout your whole being and nothing is more valuable from a business perspective than knowing that you always do the right thing. To quote the great philosopher, Jay-Z, “I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Interesting interview but I think you’re underestimating the “life-changing opportunity” that your $500k payday from Big Brother was.

    The fact that you were able to pay your student loans off with the winnings and still net $100k is huge; having my student loans wiped away today and then given a check for $100k would absolutely be life-changing.

    I’m guessing the fact that you never really had to deal with the student loan payments for any extended period of time (I’m assuming this, since you seemed to be fresh out of med school when you won BB) functioned to insulate you from the realities of making those payments.

    Not attacking you personally or trying to diminish anything you’ve done, just observing.

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