Antivirus Software Pioneer Gets Dose of Reality

John McAfee lost most of his $100 million fortune, but says, "I feel freer."

September 1, 2009, 11:31 AM

Sept. 1, 2009— -- John McAfee knows about risk. A mathematician by training, in the late 1980s he developed the antivirus computer software program that has become a household name. In the 1990s he pioneered instant-messaging. In both cases, he grew bored and cashed out. At his peak, he was reportedly worth about $100 million.

"I don't know and that's the honest truth, eventually you have so many resources that a tiny fluctuation in the market can make you worth ten million dollars more in the morning and ten million dollars less in the evening," he explained of his ever-changing net worth.

Like many wealthy Americans, McAfee was hit hard with the simultaneous collapse of real estate, stocks and Wall Street investment banks. But he got whacked more than most, since much of his fortune was tied up in luxury properties.

"Oddly enough, when real estate markets crash, it's the higher end properties that crash the most ... simply because they're not necessities," he said. "My father always said, 'Real estate, you can't lose in real estate' ... you know, oddly enough you can."

Last Saturday, auctioneers worked up bids for his 80-acre retreat in the high desert of Rodeo, N.M. With a private airstrip and hangar, it's a slice of paradise, and it's all up for grabs.

"Everything that you see, from the real estate, the house, the automobiles, artwork, furniture, the entire ball of wax," McAfee told ABC News.

Raising the stakes for McAfee, it's an absolute auction: The highest bid wins, no matter how low it is. "It means if only one person shows up and they bid fifty cents, that's the amount of money I get," he said.

McAfee's net worth dropped from within the ballpark of $100 million to less than $10 million, he told ABC News. But instead of feeling a sense of loss, he says he feels free.

"I feel a sense of freedom," he said. "People think that it's a joy to own things. But it really isn't."

McAfee has sold his private twin-engine plane, beachfront property in Hawaii and a Colorado mansion in the shadow of Pike's Peak. His posh New Mexico getaway is the last property to hit the auction block.

"At one point, I had five houses in five different locations and it's impractical, it's almost insane to have that much real estate," he conceded. "You can only be in one place at a time."

McAfee: 'We Are the Ultimate Consumer Society'

McAfee admits that he got caught up in the culture of consumption.

"We are the ultimate consumer society," he said. "If you succeed within that culture, then you're simply more bonded to it. You feel like, 'Yes, I've got all this money, the ability to get things' ... and so you just do it. People buy yachts, they buy jets, they buy multiple homes."

McAfee himself indulged his whims and passions, spending millions to promote the sport of aero-trekking: tiny motorized kites that enthusiasts fly to explore the remotest corners of the country.

He built an aero-trekking playground in the Rodeo desert, which was auctioned off for $405,000 -- along with the vintage airstream trailers where his aero-trekking friends, known as "the sky gypsies," would stay, as well as his own customized camper, once owned by Howard Hughes.

In this recession, Jim Gall, McAfee's auctioneer say that even the rich have been rapidly downsizing, selling off the luxury items they accumulated in better times.

"We've had corporate aircraft, we've had yachts, we've had fancy cars, Ferraris, we've had lots of jewelry. We've had lots of people saying, 'These are toys that I can live without,'" said Gall, chairman of the Auction Company of America.

McAfee says he expects no sympathy. "Oh, God, I hope they don't have sympathy. I don't have sympathy for my position," he said. "I'm perfectly happy."

In fact, he believes that to a certain extent, the recession has served a useful purpose: "It's brought home a dose of reality," he said. "And sometimes a little pain is necessary to see and understand the true circumstances of your life."

McAfee's Outlook on Money Forever Changed

In McAfee's case, his Rodeo paradise -- on which he's spent millions -- drew only a few modest bids. The home, which included the airstrip and hangar, sold for $525,000 to a couple from the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

"It's a little less than what I paid for the landscaping," he said. "Somebody got a great deal."

McAfee's entire estate -- including the "sky gypsies" complex, a store, furnishings, antique cars, trailers, and a vast collection of art work -- was auctioned off for $1.6 million to different buyers. Even after seeing his possessions that he acquired over a lifetime sold off in just a few hours, McAfee says that he has no regrets.

"I'm happy to get rid of them [possessions]. I have a few pennies in my pocket. I don't have stuff to worry about," he said.

Some of the "stuff" McAfee did not sell -- $2 million worth -- he says he gave away to residents of Hidalgo County in southwestern New Mexico.

"I took a hangar and filled it with classic automobiles and art and furniture and put up notices up all over the county and people came and took what they wanted," he said.

McAfee plans to take his remaining handful of millions and head to Central America, where he's started a new venture to develop natural medicines.

But for someone who's lost nearly $90 million, McAfee seemed remarkably relaxed.

"I feel freer. I have less responsibility and obligations. And I have enough money left to feed myself," he said.

After 65 years, his attitude about money, he says, is forever changed.

"I think most people don't sit down and ask, 'What do I need?" not "What do I want?" Because we all want everything," he explained. "But what do we need? We don't need very much. We really don't ... The things we want and the things we need are two different things."

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