The Money Report April 2013

How One Man Turned Himself Into a Publicly Owned Company

Mike Merrill puts the "I" in IPO.
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Kevin van Aelst

Mike Merrill was thinking of pumping up his workout regimen with mixed-martial-arts classes and boxing lessons. The scheme would involve seven and a half hours a week at various gyms—a big commitment. So he put the matter before his 160 shareholders. They, after all, had previously determined that he would not get a vasectomy, that he would register as a Republican, and that he and the woman he’d been dating could enter into a three-month “Relationship Agreement.”

From microfinance to crowd-funding, tools that rely on the support of large groups have grown familiar, bordering on overexposed. Merrill’s approach to harvesting the power of the marketplace, however, is singular: he has essentially sold shares in his own life. Which raises two questions: Why on Earth would somebody offer others the right to vote on his basic life decisions? And, even more inexplicably, why would anybody pay for that right?

Let’s start with the sell-side analysis. Merrill, who is 35, works for a software company in Portland, Oregon, and describes himself as a “nights-and-weekends artist.” He’s long dabbled in creative side projects—a blog network called Urban Honking, an online video series called Ultimate Blogger, various real-world stunts with names like Guerrilla Happy Hour and Whiskey Friends. But he insists that making a market of himself isn’t merely another of his performances. His investors, he says, really are making him “better at being me.”

Merrill wasn’t thinking about getting “better at being me” when, back in 2008, he started his one-man stock exchange, called KmikeyM (Merrill’s full name is Kenneth Michael Merrill). His initial idea, instead, was a little like an open-ended version of the crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter—but instead of backing one project, contributors would, in exchange for their financial investment in his creative career, get a say in which ideas he pursued, and how. Merrill points to the European digital-art collective Etoy as his inspiration: in 2005, that group sold “shares” to underwrite its activities. Merrill envisioned doing something similar, but with a market component that would allow backers to cash out; “investors” wouldn’t receive any dividends on profits, but they could theoretically make money if successful projects stoked demand for owning a piece of KmikeyM.

The idea of crowd-sourcing personal decisions did not occur to Merrill until after he disclosed to shareholders (via a dedicated site where he files regular reports) that he had moved in with his then-girlfriend. One shareholder promptly complained that the decision, which could easily impact Merrill’s creative output, constituted a unilateral management maneuver that put investor capital at risk. Where was the accountability? Merrill was so interested in this critique that he put before shareholders another decision he’d wrestled with: whether to have a vasectomy (no: 55 percent). KmikeyM’s emphasis soon shifted from creative choices to personal ones. “That’s the stuff people have responded more to,” Merrill told me.

Now for the buy side: Who are these people, and what do they want? Most of the first 1,300 or so “shares” were bought by or granted to Merrill’s friends—coders, artists, musicians, and so on, including Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans, co-founders of the band YACHT. Evans confessed to some original uncertainty about the nature of the undertaking. “You never know how serious he is,” she said. But it also made sense. For one thing, she said, “Mike tends to like the idea of his life as a creative project.” He has long expressed an intense interest in rules and systems (example: he wears only Brooks Brothers clothing), and an admiration for the benefits of financial and capitalist structures. Evans told me that, as KmikeyM has developed, she’s come to appreciate the power of the crowd’s advice. She maintained that because the value of shares rises and falls purely on the basis of demand, KmikeyM investors have an interest in making decisions that keep Merrill productive. “The economic side of it motivates people not to be flippant with their votes.”

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Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News and a contributor to Design Observer. He is a co-editor of the anthology Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things.

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