How One Man Turned Himself Into a Publicly Owned Company

Mike Merrill puts the "I" in IPO.

By Rob Walker

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.”

As Merrill’s experiment began to attract attention from tech and art blogs, he issued a second offering of 2,000 new shares (via an online auction with a $1-per-share price floor). The upshot is that now outright strangers are involved in the voting, among them Douglas Stewart, a Web developer in Edmonton, Alberta, who has never even spoken to Merrill. Interested in both crowd-funding (he’s backed dozens of Kickstarter projects) and online mechanisms for betting on election outcomes and the like, he bought his first KmikeyM shares in August 2011. Stewart has since amassed 290 shares, making him the fifth-largest stakeholder in Merrill’s life. (He’s paid an average share price of $6.96; shares on this obviously thin market have traded as high as $20, and more recently at about $8.) He seems largely drawn to the idea that this may be a more efficient, and entertaining, version of what humans attempt to do all the time—seek objective advice—with the twist that the advice-givers have a financial incentive. “It’s one person being more serious about his own existence, in a way,” Stewart suggested.

Ultimately, the cohabitation that Merrill entered into without shareholder consent did not last, and its failure indirectly resulted in perhaps the most instructive, and attention-getting, KmikeyM venture so far: the Romance Project. As he reentered the dating market last year, Merrill filed reports to his shareholders, seeking guidance on how to proceed. The corporate persona he adopts in his shareholder communiqués seemed particularly absurd in this context: “A relationship is likely to affect both the productivity and the output of KmikeyM … Shareholders should have some control over the selection or approval of any possible romantic partner(s).” “Seriously,” Merrill told me, in a more conversational tone, “we all have that friend who dates the wrong person.” Here was the perfect scenario to see if a market mechanism offered a better way.

Merrill’s most promising dates were with Marijke Dixon, who had just started working at a private-investment firm, and whom he met through mutual friends. “I sort of didn’t realize what I was getting into,” Dixon told me, recalling their first date (hedge-fund chatter over a lunch of oysters). Initially, the idea of strangers reading about and voting on an unfolding relationship sounded like a “nightmare.” But then she realized that being able to read Merrill’s date reports to shareholders was “like having the ultimate upper hand.” She ended up collaborating with him on their relationship contract—an extraordinary eight-page document setting parameters for everything from flossing to television viewing to frequency of “sexual relations.”

The Romance Project convinced Merrill that his ask-the-crowd model could be adjusted to work on a more targeted scale. And so the latest KmikeyM project (just approved by shareholders) is the development of Fully Fashioned, a “web-based fashion consultancy” that will use crowd-sourcing to rate what users wear each day. “Purchasing decisions,” Merrill writes, “can then be based on the fundamental elements (e.g. brands, colors, patterns) best suited for the individual.”

Merrill, who is planning a third share auction for later this year, maintains that having investors “holding me accountable” has genuinely improved his life. Take his (expensive, time-consuming) extreme fitness scheme, which the shareholders dinged, deeming it, Merrill explains, “just weird.” “I think that’s an effective no,” he told me. “That’s useful.” He also points to a series of votes about his diet that eventually led him to pescatarianism. As for Merrill’s relationship with Dixon, happily, the couple just renewed its contract for another three months, with overwhelming shareholder approval.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/putting-the-i-in-ipo/309255/