Deconstructing Robert Kiyosaki

This week, The Simple Dollar is deconstructing five top personal finance and investing pundits and asking the big questions about their track record and their message.

Update: Based on the strong feedback on this piece, I wrote a lengthy review of Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad which highlights some of the issues discussed below.

Robert KiyosakiIf you’ve been reading this series this week, you’ve probably noticed a gradual change in tone: I was quite positive about Jim Cramer and Dave Ramsey, pretty positive about Suze Orman, and then yesterday gave a middling review to David Bach. In other words, I started off with the people I had the most confidence in and moved in the direction of people I had less confidence in.

Today, I’m going to write about the one personal finance guru that I actually feel is fraudulent. Even worse, his advice has some very serious flaws to it that can lead people down a very dangerous path. Today, I’m going to discuss the author of one of the most well known personal finance books ever, Rich Dad, Poor Dad: Robert Kiyosaki. It won’t be pretty.

Kiyosaki’s Background

It is very difficult to find a clear, reliable background on Robert Kiyosaki, but here’s what’s easily verifiable about him. He was involved in several business deals (most notably, nylon Velcro wallets) in the 1970s and 1980s which fell apart, leaving him bankrupt in the mid-1980s. In this timeframe, he became heavily involved with Amway, a multi-level marketing system, and began to cultivate relationships with many of the “top” members. In 1985, Kiyosaki founded Cashflow Technologies, a company that was designed to pitch a series of books and other educational materials that eventually evolved into Rich Dad, Poor Dad.

By the mid-1990s, Kiyosaki had self-printed Rich Dad, Poor Dad and it was starting to appear in wide distribution among members of the Amway/Quixtar organization, as individuals higher in the pyramid would recommend it to people further down the chain looking to get ahead. Kiyosaki took these “sales” numbers to major publishing houses and before you know it, Rich Dad showed up on shelves everywhere and spawned an army of similarly-packaged books, board games, and so on.

Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad Message

Kiyosaki’s philosophy mostly revolves around generating passive income through investments and continuing to build up these investments until their passive income can support you. In other words, you should seek out and buy investments that can generate income for you. Kiyosaki believes that financial leverage is absolutely vital, and he also eschews education, saying that formal education is primarily for those seeking to be employees or self-employed individuals, who he identifies as people who will never be “rich.”

He often diagrams his philosophy by dividing people into four groups:
Employees, who work for someone else
Self-employed, who are their own bosses
Business owners, who own a “system” of making money
Investors, who invest money to receive a larger payout

Obviously, with this philosophy, employees and the self-employed will never get ahead. Also, note that Kiyosaki refers to a business as a “system,” which I’ll refer back to in a bit.

My Take on Kiyosaki

I’m going to have to be careful here lest this devolve into a complete hatchet job, so here goes.

Robert Kiyosaki’s business ideas were formed as a result of a number of business failures and one success. The singular success came about as a result of leveraging a product through a pre-existing pyramid marketing organization. Thus, Kiyosaki’s perspective on success revolves around merely leveraging others into making money for you. If you believe that making money is merely leveraging people and things, you are going to fail.

Here’s why: Network marketing, which is how Kiyosaki found success, is basically just a form of franchising that has a very low cost of entry. The problem with it is that the only people who are rewarded are effective salesmen. People who get involved in network marketing are quite simply hoping to turn a quick buck without having to invest the time and money to grow a business and also don’t have the initial capital to start a true franchise or an independent business of their own. Are these people you would look to for financial advice?

As a result, Kiyosaki basically ignores the concept of risk. In Kiyosaki’s world, there is no risk, or at least it’s not a big enough factor to ever worry about. His books encourage people to start working for themselves, but the individuals who would be attracted to Kiyosaki’s work are individuals who generally don’t have the backbone, the salesmanship, the acumen, or the pre-existing network to make such plans work. People who start their own businesses are taking on a significant amount of risk, and to ignore that risk in your advice is simply giving terrible advice.

In no way am I saying that going into business for yourself is a bad choice, but it is a choice that merits some careful planning and analysis and realization of the risks involved. In Kiyosaki’s world, risk is for losers, yet until he came across a preexisting network that he could utilize, he failed time and time again to start his own business. In other words, Kiyosaki’s own background shows the huge flaws in the advice he gives.

Do you want to know the straw that broke the camel’s back for me? Kiyosaki changes fundamental parts of his story to fit the situation. For example, he claimed for years that Rich Dad was real in order to get Rich Dad, Poor Dad accepted as nonfiction, but in the February 2003 issue of SmartMoney magazine, Kiyosaki said “Is Harry Potter real? Why don’t you let Rich Dad be a myth, like Harry Potter?” In other words, the entire premise under which Rich Dad, Poor Dad was sold was a complete fabrication.

Kiyosaki misrepresents the facts and gives advice that directly contradicts both common sense and his own background.

The bottom line:

Robert Kiyosaki’s “knowledge” is highly flawed and his material has all of the integrity of James Frey. He completely undervalues risk, which is the trap that so many failed businesses and bankrupt individuals fall into. He’s the one financial guru whose work I don’t trust based on the author’s name alone.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.