Mike Merrill Is a Publicly Traded Person

Thirty-five-year-old Kenneth Mike Merrill, resident of Portland, Oregon, is a publicly traded person. Just as a person might say their parents want the best for them and are invested in their future, Merrill’s parents are literally invested. As are...

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Jun 28 2012, 5:53pm

Thirty-five-year-old Kenneth Mike Merrill, resident of Portland, Oregon, is a publicly traded person.

Just as a person might say their parents want the best for them and are invested in their future, Merrill's parents are literally invested. As are co-workers, ex-girlfriends, and his community of friends and collaborators. And a handful of strangers.

Merrill, an office manager, entrepreneur, and sometime artist, has been his own personal stock market since early-2008. On his website, KmikeyM.com, people can buy shares and then advise him on questions about his personal and professional life, fund his ideas, and have a say in which kind of restructuring he undertakes .

Essentially, each shareholder has decided to buy into Merrill ’s life and help him make better choices that will then hopefully up the stock price, allowing them to make money should they ever decide to cash out.

Thanks to his shareholders — currently there are 160 — Merrill is now a pescetarian and, involuntarily, a registered Republican; he has tattooed the words "Panic Inc" (the Apple software company where he works) on his left shoulder; he even dodged a vasectomy by just one vote.

"I want people to invest in me if they truly want the best for me," Merrill says. "Invite me out for a coffee, Google me, get to know me. Then decide if you want to invest or not."

He even dodged a vasectomy by just one vote.

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This is what a cursory Google search for Mike Merrill reveals: he has been involved in an eclectic range of West Coast Internet-y ventures, including but not limited to co-founding MacBook sleeve company Manila Mac, co-hosting the Bright Future of Tobacco podcast curating arts and culture digest Urbanhonking, along with Jona Bechtolt of electronic-pop band YACHT. In the early 2000s, he was a pioneer on the Gaming Open Market, an online currency trading system that exchanges virtual money at a profit, and a distant ancestor of the KmikeyM idea.

Merrill found more direct inspiration in the business model of Etoy.Corporation. In 2005, the online art company launched a project turning their art group into a privately held company with shareholders. Merrill liked the idea, but he recognized a flaw.

"Etoy didn’t have a market, just a company with shares that one couldn't sell," he says. "So I thought, 'someone should do this, but allow buying and selling.'"

But the idea didn't go anywhere. Three years passed, and Merrill began devoting his spare time to another project: creating a humorous online video series.

Around that time, alt-weekly The Portland Mercury began its first charity auction, and one of the prizes was a one-night date with the newspaper's entire female staff. Merrill's idea was to win the auction, and invite the party back home where — unbeknownst to the ladies — a camera crew and a "handsome bachelor" would greet the girls and coax them into doing contests, then eliminate each one by one. "I was pretty into reality TV for a while," he admits.

Merrill's scheme required a sizeable chunk of change, so he recruited a bunch of friends to pool money in order to pull off the plan. Unfortunately, another person with more money and less interesting ambitions won the big date.

"But this made me think: If my friends trust me on this one weird random project, then they probably just trust me. So why not have them give me that money for my next big project, and trust I’ll spend it wisely?" Merrill says. "I took those lemons and made lemonade."

The project began in 2008 largely through trial and error, and involved several hours of stock market research. Merrill leaned heavily on his large social network to help him spread the word, and hired a developer to take on the complicated task of coding the site (he paid the developer half in cash and half in shares).

While Merrill serves as CEO, he now has a team of programmers to construct KmikeyM's virtual, fully functional stock market where people buy and sell into and out of shares from other holders. (Trade history is graphed on the website http://www.kmikeym.com/trades.)

Since its inception, stock prices have raised from $1 to $8.75 a share; however, this price has muted volume of trades. Currently, offers are very high. The cheapest one can buy a share is $40 for two shares or $146.35 for 15. Because KmikeyM doesn't exist in an actual market like the NASDAQ, there aren't enough buyers to purchase all shares if he held an IPO. Thus, Merrill holds a majority of shares, which remain non-voting until he sells them in one of his bi-annual online auctions. (The latest auction of 2000 new shares runs until the end of June.)

When Shareholder Questions come up, stockowners vote on significant choices in his life. The more shares one has, the more weight one's vote casts. (Each shareholder is allotted one vote, which is multiplied by the number of shares they own.)

While Merrill invests much of his personal income into the upkeep of KmikeyM, all investor money is siphoned into both projects and other administrative minutiae such as accounting and web-hosting costs. But as the KmikeyM economy grows, a growing stock price serves as the barometer for success. As Merrill puts it, "The higher the stock price, the more viable the worth of my projects."

Nacholympics 2008

While several shareholders have sold their shares at a profit, for many investors KmikeyM isn't about making a return on one's investment. It has more to do with playing God.

At the annual Shareholder Question forum, shareholders vote on questions pertaining to Merrill's life, ideas either brought up by Merrill himself or proposed to Merrill by shareholders at random.

Shareholder questions occur sporadically and range radically — from "joining a local nonprofit, nonpartisan education and research based civic organization dedicated to community service, public affairs, and leadership development" to "attempting a polyphasic sleep schedule (30 minute naps every six hours) " to "growing a mustache that will eventually curl on the ends in the style of an ‘Old-Timey Gentlemen’ during Quarter Four of 2008."

_ KmikeyM isn't about making a return on one's investment. It has more to do with playing God._

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Transparency with his shareholders remains one of Merrill's primary objectives. While he doesn't feel a need for a board of directors, he also doesn't feel a need for a formal shareholder report due to his consistent interaction with shareholders via his blog, Twitter, Facebook, mailing list, Tumblr, etc. "I’m open to presenting everything to the public that doesn’t violate the privacy of someone else," he says.

One of Merrill's first and ongoing shareholders is childhood friend Josh Berezin, a political consultant for Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations. Berezin has been a shareholder since the beginning. "I care about the decisions that come out of the project, but I've also lobbied others to ensure certain outcomes because that’s even more fun and influential," Berezin says. As for the cost, "it’s no more expensive than any other frivolous thing people put their time and money into."

Despite having ultimate say in several life-plot moments, shareholders voiced early on that they felt entitled to greater control over Merrill's personal endeavors — the kind that eclipsed mere memberships and moustaches.

For example, after moving in with his girlfriend (Shareholder Number 7) in 2008, Merrill came under criticism for not putting such a major life decision up for shareholder vote. That's when Merrill turned to his community and asked if they felt it would be in his best interest to undergo a vasectomy, a decision he had discussed with his girlfriend and one that he was struggling with internally.

"For me, it was more like, 'Here is a thing I am thinking about. Is this the right thing to do?'," Merrill says.

Although his shareholders ultimately voted 'nay,' Merrill claims he would've gone through with the procedure had the vote gone differently.

Putting love and its delicate choices in the hands of others might seem problematical — even foolish — for many. For Merrill, it makes perfect sense. Last year, he began plotting "the Romance Project" after breaking up with his aforementioned girlfriend of ten years. (She remains Shareholder Number 7.)

"Post break up I started to think, 'Okay, I’m interested in dating again.' It got me thinking about who I would date — and the methods we use for determining who we date," Merrill says. "I think the most important indicator of who you should be dating should come from your friends. Collectively, they can guide me to the right person."

The Romance Project went live earlier this month, allowing shareholders to advise him if he should start an OkCupid account, or indicate their approval or disapproval of his dates. Shareholders are also allowed to ask questions about each potential candidate.

And what if he falls for a girl, but his shareholders feel she isn't the one and attempt a veto?

"I can fight that. I can learn more about the person. I can explain to the shareholders why I care about this person," Merrill says. If his shareholders urge him to stay with someone whom he just doesn't like?

"I can appreciate the humor of that scenario," Merrill says. "I am a registered Republican after all."

Despite Merrill's devil-may-care outlook, his story raises many uncertainties and concerns from friends and strangers alike. Questions of sincerity, validation, fear of choice, and free will arise constantly.

Merrill finds himself defending capitalism a lot, too.

"Sometimes if someone is a math-head or programmer or whatever, they get it — and some artist friends see it as an interesting fundraising model," Merrill says. "But people don’t generally like the idea of applying an economic model to personal things."

Merrill's appreciation for economic models has also made him an avid conventional investor in other people's projects. He claims to own shares in a number of companies including Apple, Facebook, Martha Stewart Omnipedia, JC Penney, and World Wrestling Entertainment. The profit-oriented system is flawed, he says, but inherent. He says that he invested in BP following the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "That investment was pretty fucked up," he says. "But it was also clear that the dip in stock price was going to quickly rebound."

And post-crash market skepticism has hardly dissuaded Merrill. In fact, he hopes others will follow in his footsteps and become publicly traded persons as well. To future human stock markets, his biggest piece of advice should sound familiar to any CEO with a company on the NASDAQ: "Be ready to be honest in a way that is not always very comfortable."

"I can’t imagine he would put so much work and thought into this project if it wasn’t driven by something deep," Berezin says. "I hope it’s fulfilling that function for him."

Whatever the case, Merrill's dedication to KmikeyM is undeniable. He sees being a publicly traded person as a life-long pursuit — so much so he signed a $100,000 life insurance policy earlier this year that would pay out all investors based upon their percentage ownership of outstanding shares in case he were to suddenly die.

"In a sort of wisdom-of-the-crowd-funded sense, I have an incredibly invested audience," Merrill says. "The only ethical way to end KmikeyM would be to buy everyone out."

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