The man who sold shares of himself

What drove a man to give 633 investors complete control over his major life decisions?

November 21, 2017
Note: This post is part of Niches Make Riches, a 4-part series in which we talk to people who made money in strange, unconventional ways. This week, we caught up with Mike Merrill, a man who sold shares of himself to investors and let them control his life. Subscribe to The Hustle to get next week’s straight to your inbox.

BBack in 2008, 30 year-old Mike Merrill was at a career crossroads. So, he did what any other aspiring entrepreneur would do: he divided himself into 100k shares at $1 apiece and let people on the internet buy a stake in his life.

Since then, he’s sold off 10,991 shares of himself to 663 investors all across the world.

These shareholders — most of whom are complete strangers — get voting power on every major decision Merrill makes: whether or not to get a vasectomy, how much sleep he should get each night, and even who he should date.

He only releases shares in small batches, and allows the market to determine his worth. Over the course of 9 years, one share of Mike Merrill has fluctuated in price from 99 cents to $18, based on demand.

Some early investors (including his own brother) chose to cash out big, while others have been in it for the long haul. In return, Merrill gets his own “personal board of advisors” to help him more decisively wade through life’s decisions.

But what’s life like as a “publicly-traded” human? And in an era of digital individualism, why would someone willingly auction off his own agency?

The tale begins in the middle of nowhere…

Or, to be exact, Coldfoot, Alaska — population: 10.

Merrill spent his youth gallivanting around the vast icefields of the tiny Yukon-Koyukuk town, where truckstops and moose were the coming attractions. He was homeschooled by his Christian missionary-turned-state trooper father and rescue squad mother, and, after completing his studies, decided to join the military.

Mike Merrill in the flesh

The self-proclaimed “anti-authoritarian” endured a strict, regimented lifestyle for 3 years, until he disobeyed the rules, and was discharged.

He has a “little identity crisis,” and eventually followed one of his buddies down to Portland, Oregon and “fumbled” his way into the software world, working various non-technical odd jobs.

Then, one night in 2008, dissatisfied with his choices in life, an idea struck: What if I let other people control my life?

So, he decided to “IPO” himself

The first thing Merrill had to do was determine his worth as a human.

“At time I had a day job,” he recalls. “So I calculated my worth based on my free time — nights and weekends — and I figured that time, for the rest of my life, was probably around $100k.”

Merrill ultimately decided to divvy himself up into 100k shares at $1 each. Like an actual corporation, he set out to “drum up demand.”

Merrill at work on his master plan

On January 26, 2008, he had his initial public offering — and in the first 10 days, 12 of his friends purchased 929 shares. Though he retained 99.1% of himself, he made his own shares non-voting, and ceded 100% decision-making power to his new investors.

To keep shareholders informed, he built a website — KmikeyM.com — that contained a platform where people could vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on the projects he should pursue.

At first, the topics Merrill put up for vote were trivial things, like whether or not he should invest $79.63 in a Rwandan chicken farming business (approved, with flying colors). But things escalated very quickly.

Should I get a vasectomy?

By the tail end of his first year on the market, Merrill made plans to move in with his then-girlfriend of 5 years — but when his shareholders caught wind of the decision, they were furious.

“I was getting emails from people saying, ‘We should have a say in such things — it’s going to impact your life!’” he says. “I thought, okay, that’s probably a fair point. And from then on, I let them vote on things in my private life too.”

First up on the table: whether or not Merrill should get a vasectomy — a procedure that would’ve permanently prevented him from having children (or, in the eyes of shareholders, “adding an economic burden” to their investment).
His shareholders narrowly voted the procedure down, 45% ‘Yes’ to 55% ‘No.’

“I thought, ‘Cool, I’m in the clear!” recalls Merrill. “I guess I won’t have to have anything sharp near my nether regions now.”

In the ensuing months, Merrill put a variety of major lifestyle choices up for vote: whether or not to adopt a polyphasic sleep schedule (Approved), become a registered republican (Approved), or convert to a vegetarian (Approved).

An assortment of major life decisions Merrill put up for vote.

When Merrill started putting more dramatic decisions on the chopping block, he started to attract more buyers.

One afternoon in 2009, his story wound up on Hacker News, a popular discussion board run by tech accelerator, Y Combinator, where it caught the eye of a 40 year-old software engineering director from San Francisco named Gordon Shephard. The man was so intrigued that he bought $6.4k worth of shares in Merrill from other investors, driving the share price up to $11.75

As demand spiked, Merrill’s own brother — an early investor who’d bought at $1 per share — decided to cash out, walking away with enough profit to buy a new dishwasher for his kitchen.

Driven by letting investors in on the more intimate aspects of his life, Merrill then decide to take things a step further.

Who should I date?

When Merrill’s relationship dissipated in 2012, he once again turned to his shareholders for advice — this time, in the romance department.

“Under normal circumstances, no one is going to complain when someone is buying flowers or going out to dinner and a movie,” he wrote in an investor letter. “But as a publicly traded person with a responsibility of productivity to the shareholders, we live under special circumstances. A relationship is likely to affect both [my] productivity and [my] output.”

In a resolution titled “Shareholder Control of Romantic Relationships,” Merrill asked his investors if they’d like to take over control of his dating process. It passed with an 86% vote.

Merrill gives his investors an update

“We’ve all been in a situation where your friend starts dating someone and you’re super opposed to it, but can’t really say anything,” says Merrill. “Friends can’t really give you objective advice — but shareholders? Maybe.”

Merrill went on a variety of dates, updating investors via a private forum at each juncture and ceding to their feedback. After numerous dates, Merrill began to fall for a 28 year-old assistant named Marijke Dixon — and after securing his shareholders’ approval, he offered her a three-month “relationship contract.”

As their relationship progressed, Dixon progressively acquired shares in Merrill in an (unsuccessful) attempt to gain a controlling voting power.

But these antics began to catch the eye of the press: in 2013, Merrill’s story made the rounds in Wired and The Atlantic, and ended up on the Today Show. This attracted a massive wave of new investors to KmikeyM.com.

In the span of a month, Merrill’s shareholders grew from “around 120” to over 500. And before he knew it, his share price had skyrocketed to $18, giving him a $1.2m market cap.

Suddenly, complete strangers were vying for control over his life.

Stranger things

The flood of new shareholders dramatically changed the way Merrill thought about his experiment.

“At first, people wanted to invest in Mike Merrill,” he says, “Then, people became more interested in the concept and the novelty than my life. It was a weird, alienating feeling, but also exciting — it was starting to take on a life of its own.”

With a mix of strangers and friends (his original investors), Merrill realized he had to mitigate the possibility of “insider trading:” his friends, who he hung out with on a daily basis, knew more about his life than other investors. To compensate, he began publically posting more updates and information about his life.

Today, Merrill’s “leaderboard” (top investors by number of shares and amount of money invested) is heavily populated by strangers

But he started to realize that strangers probably made better investors, anyway: “I found them to be more objective,” he says. “When people know you too well, they vote for what they think you want, which isn’t necessarily what’s in your best interest.”

This hypothesis proved to be true when his new shareholders unanimously voted for Merrill to leave his desk job of 10 years to strike out on his own and take a calculated risk.

“They push me to do things I probably otherwise wouldn’t do,” he says. “And that’s an empowering feeling.”

Merrill’s market

Today, Merrill boasts 663 investors all across the world, who collectively own 10,991 shares.

Like all markets, Merrill’s share price is contingent upon demand, and demand usually fluctuates in tandem with hype, press, and publicity. In recent years, those things have stagnated, and his shares — once as high as $18 — fell as low as $2.18.

Today, his share price sits squarely at $4.75, still a solid return for his earliest $1 investors.

Merrill’s share price has fluctuated greatly over time

Merrill, on the other hand, has not profited from his endeavor. Over the course of his 9 year experiment, he’s kept the money from his share sales in a bank account, untouched. (“He loses money,” ceded his partner in an interview with Playboy).

Between February 2008 and present day, he’s put up 117 resolutions for vote, 68% of which were approved. The questions he poses to investors — once brash and high-stakes — have since dwindled in number and scope, but he still finds value in the platform.

“I have a powerful decision-making engine of people who can give me feedback or advice about anything,” he says. “Honestly, who wouldn’t want that?”



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