The Truth About Owning Nothing and Controlling Everything

The Truth About Owning Nothing and Controlling Everything

“Own Nothing, and Control Everything.” If you follow popular entrepreneur influencers on social media, you’ve probably encountered this phrase. It refers to the idea that, as a business owner,  the best way to preserve your wealth is through the use of business structures that remove you as the legal owner of your assets while still allowing you to maintain control of and benefit from them. 

So, is this an effective strategy for creating and preserving wealth? Or is it too good to be true? 

This article will explore the origin behind this saying, whether there is any wisdom to it, and who should consider it. 

The Origins of “Own Nothing, but Control Everything”

The saying “own nothing, but control everything” is taken from a quote that is often attributed to John D. Rockefeller. Allegedly, when he was on his deathbed, he whispered to his son “the secret to success is to own nothing but control everything.” 

There is no doubt that the connection between this quote and the Rockefeller family has boosted its popularity. But did John Rockefeller even utter it? Or did someone attach it to his legacy in an attempt to add an air of mystique to the phrase?

From what I can tell, there’s no conclusive evidence pointing one way or the other. John Rockefeller passed away in 1937 and had one son, John Rockefeller Jr. If the origin story of this saying is to be believed, one would assume there would be an interview or book where the younger Rockefeller discusses the moment his father uttered these famous words and the impression that they had upon him. But no such authoritative source exists. 

Of course, the absence of evidence, is not the evidence of absence. However, I’m more apt to believe the origin story behind this quote is more urban legend than cold hard fact. 

Regardless, what really matters for everyday entrepreneurs is the quote’s content. So, is own nothing, but control everything solid advice? 

 

Breaking Down the Strategy

Again, the term own everything, but control nothing refers to the concept of preserving wealth by using different legal entities to remove yourself as the record owner of your assets, while still maintaining control over them. For wealthy business owners, this strategy has two benefits. 

First, when executed properly it can protect your assets from lawsuits. Generally speaking, one individual or legal entity is not liable for the debts and liabilities of a separate individual or legal entity. With that knowledge in mind, wealthy entrepreneurs often structure ownership of their businesses and cash-flow positive assets through a series of LLCs and parent corporations, that are ultimately owned by a trust.

The LLCs and corporations provide a layer of liability protection. Meanwhile, the trust adds a layer of anonymity since the trustee is on the public record as the legal owner of the business or assets. Therefore, even if someone wanted to come after the wealthy entrepreneur’s businesses or assets, they’d have a difficult time figuring out exactly what they owned. 

For wealthy entrepreneurs, the other benefit of this strategy is that it offers significant tax savings. Think about it. The highest tax bracket for individuals in the US is 37%. Meanwhile corporations are subject to a 21% income tax. So if you’re a top earning entrepreneur, there’s a clear incentive to channel your income and expense through a corporate entity to the furthest possible extent. 

Additionally corporations can take advantage of a wider range of tax credits and deductions than individuals. And on top of that, because they have legal personhood, corporations can have a different domicile (i.e., home country) from its owner. Which, in some cases, can allow entrepreneurs to avoid a large amount of tax obligations. 

 

The Legal and Financial Implications

While owning nothing, but controlling everything is proven to be an effective strategy for the super rich, it’s not as cost effective for the rest of us. 

Executing this strategy effectively requires professional assistance. All of those separate entities need to keep separate books, file separate tax forms, and maintain separate compliance documentation. One simple mistake can render the entire strategy useless. So if you don’t have the funds to pay a lawyer and a CPA $600/hr or more, it’s going to be difficult to utilize this strategy. 

Furthermore, if you’re aren’t in a top income bracket, you won’t be able to take full advantage of the tax benefits that make this strategy so enticing.

Meanwhile, The other thing that the YouTube gurus leave out, is that when you don’t own something, you don’t have full control over it. So if you tell the trustee or your board of directors to take a certain action, there’s always a chance they could choose to ignore your directions. And even if their actions are in direct violation of the trust agreement or corporate bylaws, you’ll have to take them to court to stop them. 

 

Alternatives to Giving Up Ownership

As growth minded entrepreneurs, we have to consider the potential costs and benefits of every decision. “Own nothing but control everything” refers to a strategy that can provide asset protection to business owners. But if you aren’t running a million dollar business, it may not be worth the cost.

So what other strategies should growth minded entrepreneurs consider to protect their assets from potential lawsuits? 

First is having the right insurance policy. Everyone knows how insurance works, and it is the simplest way for business owners to protect themselves from all kinds of risks. And with companies like Next and Simply Business offering online quotes, it’s easier than ever to learn about and purchase a commercial policy. 

Second are your contracts. Contracts allow business owners to clarify the legal rights of both parties in a business relationship. Savvy entrepreneurs use them to minimize and shift risk using key clauses that speak to issues like indemnification, limitations on liability, and assumption of risk. 

Next, establishing a business entity is another simple step to protecting your assets as a business owner. When set up as a separate legal entity (like an LLC or a corporation) your business is insulated from your personal debts and vice-a-versa. But keep in mind, this insulation is not absolute. 

Finally, every entrepreneur should surround themselves with a team of individuals who are more knowledgeable than themselves. In business, if you’re unaware, you’re unprepared. So you need people who can fill in the gaps in your knowledge and help you address risks that you didn’t even know existed.

 

Conclusion

In the end, “own nothing, but control everything” is an effective strategy for wealth preservation. However, like any strategy, it’s not right for every entrepreneur. The wealthier you are, the more likely it is that this strategy would work to your benefit due to the costs associated with implementing it and the tax benefits that are more relevant to wealthy individuals. 

In the end, having the right professionals in your corner is essential to choosing the right strategy for growing and preserving your wealth. Set up a discovery call to learn more about how MZA Legal can help you establish the proper foundation for success.