By Leah Sottile
For almost 10 years, Mike Merrill has sold shares of his very existence. Now he and his 600-plus shareholders are hoping an erotica scheme will boost his sagging stock price.
If you really knew Mike Merrill, you would know that it is very un–Mike Merrill–like to lie bare-chested on the floor with his best friend’s girlfriend—in a skimpy bra and thong—nestled in his arms. But one rainy spring afternoon, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
But listen, it’s totally cool! Because the other thing you would know about Mike Merrill, if you knew him, is that he doesn’t do anything extreme without asking for permission from roughly 615 people, many of whom are like you: They don’t know him either.
Merrill, a slick-dressed, slick-haired, steely-eyed 40-year-old with a firm handshake and a warm smile, is best known to the world as the first publicly traded human being. For the past nine years, the Portland, Oregon resident has allowed perfect strangers to purchase shares of his life, giving them the ability to vote on his major decisions. (Don’t go looking for him in The Wall Street Journal; the shares are available only via Merrill’s website.) The more shares they own of KmikeyM—short for Kenneth Michael Merrill—the more control they have.
Some do actually know him. His father, who once served as a Christian missionary in Africa, owns shares. So do his brothers, Gene and Curt; his girlfriend, Marijke Dixon; and his best friend, Marcus Estes. Most of the hundreds of people who control Merrill don’t know him in real life but are compelled by the idea of buying the right to make someone do what they decide.
The whole thing pisses off a lot of people. “It’s a really complicated form of prostitution,” wrote one Redditor about the project. Another called it slavery.
“‘My shareholders made me do it!’ probably won’t fly in front of a judge after you’re arrested for masturbating in the produce section of your local supermarket,” quipped another.
“Sounds good until you get a divorce and the ex becomes majority shareholder,” wrote one more. “Now kick yourself in the dick until I say when. Now he has to kick his own dick.”
Merrill does control what his shareholders vote on, and in nine years, dick kicking and public exposure haven’t come up. Still, most people who hear about the project ask the same question: Why the fuck would someone do this?
In 2013, Wired chronicled how being publicly traded tanked his romantic relationship and how Merrill left it up to the 16 shareholders he had at the time to decide if he should get a vasectomy. (They decided by a narrow majority that he should not.)
Actor Jason Bateman read about Merrill and optioned the TV and movie rights to his story, likely compelled by the very same “Why the fuck?” question. Matt Lauer, of the Today show, also wondered why the fuck—in eloquent daytime television terms, of course—and invited Merrill to the NBC studio, where he asked him, “Do you worry about disappointing people?”
“I worry about disappointing myself,” Merrill immediately answered.
By capitalist standards, the period following his Today appearance was Merrill’s peak, with shares topping out at $25. If 2013 was his Mount Everest, 2014 was his Mount St. Helens, post-eruption. By early 2015, shares had dipped as low as $2.18. All along, Merrill has touched none of his investors’ money, instead acting like a bank, depositing the funds in an account and holding them for the day the shareholders might cash out. In the meantime? “Every month I pay the IRS,” Merrill says. How much? “A good amount.”
“He loses money,” Dixon, a bookkeeper by trade, flatly tells me.
This winter, Merrill seemed to be at a crossroads with the project. He was staring down his 40th birthday, and though he had once asked shareholders what color to dye his hair and what to watch on Netflix, he just didn’t have as many questions for them as he used to.
And so he proposed something totally new: a Fifty Shades of Grey–inspired book of erotic fan fiction called Publicly Traded, Privately Held, featuring a publicly traded businessman named Kenneth Michelangelo Maximilian whose most carnal moments are decided by voters. His investors loved the sexy Choose Your Own Adventure–style idea, approving it by a 96 percent vote. “He’s using it as an occasion to explore, for lack of a better word, his kinkier persona,” says Estes. “Mike’s a pretty straightforward vanilla dude.” (Vanilla is a word Merrill also uses to describe himself.)
The book serves as a springboard to launch his latest experiment: Weejee, a decision-making engine that will enable others like him to have a crowd of people vote on their life. And it’s also why he’s rolling around on the floor of a cable-access studio with his best friend’s girlfriend, a doe-eyed brunette with long bangs named Cecilia Warbington. Keeping with modern erotica trends, Estes is filming Warbington and Merrill for a steamy, low-budget book trailer.
Estes, a tiny-ponytailed Alabaman in purple sneakers and a gold-glittered sweatshirt, is standing over Merrill and Warbington, the drop-crotch of his sweatpants stretched taut as he straddles the pair.
“Here’s the vibe,” says Estes from behind the lens of a camera. “That hazy, I-just-fucked-a-stranger thing, you know what I’m talking about?” Warbington and Estes giggle. Merrill looks like he’s in hell. Estes shoots Merrill slowly peeling nylons from Warbington’s legs, running his hand across her skin. All the while, Merrill’s face is tight. He looks miserable, guilty—his eyes worried, as if someone here might mistakenly think he enjoys this.
Afterward, at a nearby bar, Merrill knocks back a couple of whiskey shots before ordering a beer and a bowl of brussels sprouts. In a bar filled with grubby hipsters, Merrill, in a gray spring suit, looks as though he stopped in on his way to a wedding. Without Warbington’s legs in his face, he’s the Merrill I’ve been talking to for months: friendly, laughing through his teeth. But even with a little liquor in him, Merrill’s eyes often finish stories and sentences for him—searching, as if to assess whether the person he’s talking to is pleased by what he’s saying. As if Mike is back there in his brain, hiding behind KmikeyM.
I ask him about the erotica project. What if trolls pick up on it and make his character a Scheisse freak? A zoophiliac? Things I haven’t thought of?
“That would be amazing!” he exclaims, swallowing a sip. “Because collectively, that’s what a group of people decided.”
But a few days later, Merrill is less than enthusiastic about crowdsourced decisions. On the morning of his 40th birthday, he puts a shareholder-approval rating up for a vote: A yes vote means “KmikeyM is a ship on the right course,” and a no vote means shareholders “expect some changes.”
“I voted no,” Dixon tells me that night.
In fact, when the voting closes, the shareholders—including both of his brothers and a friend he has known since elementary school—have overwhelmingly voted no. “Let’s be real, your stock price has been static or dwindling,” wrote one shareholder. They demanded more accountability so they know Merrill is doing what they say.
How did it feel to be told his shareholders were unhappy, I ask him a few days later on Slack.
He types back immediately: “It was horrible.”
For months I talked to friends, family, collaborators, perfect strangers and Merrill himself, trying to wrap my head around why in God’s name a person would want other people to control his life.
They told me Merrill is a lifelong contrarian. He’s antiauthority and pro-capitalist. He’s an artist, a game maker, a system breaker, a man with no practical skills but with endless ideas. He’s an Army veteran, an early blogger and an infuriating board-game adversary because he always finds a way to bend the rules.
For years, though, Mike Merrill was a kid living in ice-crusted Coldfoot, Alaska—one of the few towns above the arctic circle reachable by road, a place with a population that, according to recent census data, peaked at 13 people. You might have seen it on Ice Road Truckers.
Winter there meant months of darkness, and summer meant a sun that never set. Merrill and his brothers rode state-owned three-wheelers through the wilderness. They balanced on top of oil pipelines on cross-country skis. Bears prowled the edges of their fenced yard. The boys coaxed moose to eat through their bedroom windows but got mad “when they’d stick their heads in and eat our comic-book collection,” Gene says.
Merrill’s Christian father and mother—who declined to be interviewed for playboy—homeschooled their children and worked as an Alaska state trooper and the head of a rescue squad, respectively. “We were pressed into service,” Gene says. “I was dispatching helicopters to the rescue squad on the shortwave in the fifth grade.”
Before high school, the family moved south to the Kenai Peninsula, where they lived in Soldotna, a city with a population in the thousands. The urge to explore this new place was irresistible, and at night, when the sun was still high in the sky, Gene and Mike sneaked out of the house, basking in their freedom in the ways that only nerds would: riding bikes, eating at an all-night diner, scheming how best to rearrange the marquees of local businesses and making a homemade zine with a friend named Josh Berezin. After graduation, Merrill enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany. For two and a half years he served as a military police officer with ambitions of following in his father’s law enforcement footsteps. But he eventually realized he didn’t want to wield authority; he wanted to test it.
He’s a weirdo—a conceptual business artist playing with signifiers of privilege.
He recalls that when sergeants would demand he “drop and give me 20,” Merrill would perform the push-ups, only to pop up and ask, “Five more for country?” Then, “Three more for our fallen soldiers?” Then, “One more for God?”
But when it came to his job, Merrill says, “I was enforcing the rules as I interpreted them”—which meant never writing a ticket as an MP. He was asked to leave the Army after failing a routine physical fitness test and repeatedly refusing to perform his duties.
In 1998 he joined Berezin in Portland, finding people who, unlike those in the military, admired Merrill’s knack for dissecting rules. He soon met a woman who, for the purposes of this story, has asked to be called “the Professor,” a tenure-track college professor who will ghostwrite Publicly Traded, Privately Held. When she first encountered Merrill, he had blue hair. “I remember him telling me he could do push-ups with me sitting on his back,” she says.
Soon, everyone around him was watching Merrill transform. At punk shows in grimy warehouse spaces around the city, Merrill would “show up in a suit, carrying a briefcase,” the Professor says. He started dying his temples gray, brandished a pipe, wore a smoking jacket. Merrill became known for, if nothing else, consistently overdressing in underdressed Portland. When he co-founded the blogging collective Urban Honking, even Portland reporters observed Merrill’s strange affection for suits, noting in a 2006 article that his “pinstriped suit jackets and jaunty neckties make him the best-dressed” of the site’s founders.
“It’s almost like business cosplay,” says Claire Evans, half of the band Yacht and an early shareholder who met Merrill during Urban Honking’s heyday. He likes spreadsheets and flowcharts and “complicated desk organizers,” she says.
“He’s a weirdo,” she adds. “I think of him as a conceptual business artist playing with these signifiers of privilege and seeing how they can be exploited.”
On November 4, 2003, Merrill keyed an idea into his computer: What if a person sold shares of his life? When he couldn’t stop thinking about it, he realized he should become that person. “I would rather be an investor; I would rather buy into this and have control over someone,” he recalls. “But no one else was going to do it, so I guess I had to.”
“Nine years ago he was a disorganized and filthy person. He didn’t wash his dishes. He didn’t clean the house. He was always late,” the Professor tells me. “He wanted to clean up his act; he wanted to have a career that was meaningful. Eventually he wanted to find a girlfriend.”
Being “a performative businessman,” his best friend Estes says—whether it’s Mike Merrill or KmikeyM or Kenneth Michelangelo Maximilian—“is actually projecting a self that is in command, in control and very orderly and principled and objective-oriented.”
As his business-suit-wearing self, Merrill co-founded a start-up with Estes called Chroma, which raises money for good causes. (Chroma has since laid Merrill off.) But he also dreamed up the idea of placing his personal stamp of approval on websites by offering to tattoo their names on his arm. (He’s done this twice.)
“Is this a game?” I ask him one evening in April. We’re sitting in Merrill’s garage, which he has converted into an office space. The walls are covered in blue and green Post-its listing the ideas he’s working on. (One, Chess Fight, reimagines the game of chess; another, Nookids, is a nootropic-pill subscription program.) He bristles. “It’s not a game, because a game is a safe place. A game is like we’re going to set rules, and within the game space, I can kill you,” he says. “I can’t kill you in real life. It’s not a game in that this is real and there are real consequences.”
He tells me about a time he participated in a local art show in which he erected a corporate trade show booth in a white-box gallery, complete with a vinyl banner and the cardboard cutout that’s here in the corner. He staffed the booth with an aggressive salesman (that would be Estes) peddling shares to gallery-goers.
“So this is art, then?”
“I feel it’s more fully incorporated than that,” he replies. “It doesn’t belong in a gallery. It doesn’t belong to people who only want to talk about art. I guess I look at it more like a game than art.”
“But you said it wasn’t a game,” I say.
“It’s a game—I think it’s a game,” Dixon, Merrill’s girlfriend and shareholder number 160, says to me a few weeks later. We’re sitting in the lobby of a laser-tag arena south of Portland, where Merrill has chosen to host his 40th birthday party. She’s sipping on a travel mug filled with rosé. “Everything’s a game to Mike.”
While Merrill is unflappably friendly, grinning his way through the most uncomfortable questions, Dixon is the opposite: stoic, stern, maybe even a little annoyed about having to keep talking about this weird game happening inside her own life. She’s petite and hauntingly beautiful: long, straight brown hair and sad eyes that, unlike Merrill’s, are unwavering and sure. The couple boasts a pair of unique noses—hers round, his sharp—and it’s hard not to wonder what sort of strange and stunning progeny they’d have. While Merrill often seems eager to please, Dixon is blunt. And when she does smile, she gives you the sense that you’ve earned it.
Dixon says there’s more to Merrill’s game than just having a good time. It’s not a good time, in fact—not for her. And it gives people the idea that Merrill has money, when, she claims, he doesn’t. “I find it totally irritating,” she says. Still, she reminds me, being publicly traded has been part of their relationship since the very beginning.
“He takes it to a place that can be paralyzing,” she says. “He’s not confident in his decision making.”
Dixon says that sometimes she would like to see her boyfriend get punked, faced with a real opponent in this game that everyone is playing with him.
“He fucks with everything,” she says, a little spite and a little wine in her words. “Somebody should fuck with him.”
She points at the crowd that has come to this weird Portland suburb for a grown man’s laser-tag party. Across the room, Merrill leans against a token machine flanked by arcade games. He’s dressed for his 40th birthday in a shirt and slacks and a red necktie, his hair perfectly combed.
“I mean, why are we all here to play laser tag? On a Wednesday?” she says, laughing. “Mike Merrill.”
He fucks with everything. Somebody should fuck with him.
Four years after Merrill went public, Estes, the Professor and Merrill’s ex-girlfriend were among those who voted to approve shareholder control of whom he dated. Berezin, the guy he made zines with in high school, voted no—and lost by a vote of 86 percent to 14 percent.
A year later, Berezin, Evans and the Professor were on the winning side of a vote that approved Merrill’s “general relationship agreement” with Dixon, which includes a clause that dictates that the couple have sex “at minimum three times per week excepting periods of illness, separation and conditions that prevent the enjoyment of sex.” That time, Estes voted no.
By Merrill’s 37th birthday, votes began to come with hot debate—particularly votes that would amend his contract with Dixon. “I am concerned by the provision in this contract that allows the couple to form a legally binding relationship without further shareholder input,” wrote one shareholder. Estes agreed: “I want to continue to assert my support for Mike’s romantic union with shareholder 160. But I also agree with the contention that pre-approval for a life event as significant as marriage deserves its own shareholder vote. I vote nay.”
All of which raises the question: Does he actually do what they say? What if he wore jeans instead of the mandated Brooks Brothers suits? What if he said “Fuck it” and painted his house pink instead of voter-approved black? Or if he had his own plans for his relationship with shareholder 160?
“Then people sell shares and leave,” he says. “They remember and go back and say, ‘You’re not doing the things that you said. This isn’t fun.’ That’s a broken system. They would sell, and the share price would drop. And then no one would want to play anymore.”
I wonder if he’s thinking of the November 2016 vote, when shareholders approved the “Proposal Proposal”—which deemed he could officially ask Dixon to marry him—by 99 percent.
As of the first days of June, he has not asked the question. “It’s pending,” he tells me.
Dixon says Merrill “enjoys his life,” that he’s positive “to a fault,” but that his “happiness is an indicator of a lack of judgment.”
“I don’t want to live a normal life,” he tells me later. “So I’m happy to be poked and prodded away from that by the shareholders.”
But if his shareholders see this as a game, do they also see how seriously Merrill takes it? Sure, a vasectomy vote is a funny, stakes-raising stunt, but would they still want to play if they knew a little more? For instance, that he told his girlfriend at the time that if she wanted him to listen to her, she should buy more shares? That he has told Dixon the same? “My primary loyalty is to my shareholders,” he says. “Either you’re okay with being second or you’re going to have to buy in. It doesn’t work otherwise. It breaks it, and I don’t want to break it.”
One day in early June, Merrill messages me. He’s in Los Angeles to meet with a company that’s pitching a KmikeyM reality show. He and Dixon are “in a not-great spot,” he says. Every time he talks about it, he says, he starts crying.
We don’t talk on the phone because he’s afraid he’ll cry again. But even as we type back and forth, I feel a lump in my throat. In the months I’ve been talking to Merrill, this is the rawest, the most real, the most honest I’ve seen him. Every time I’ve pushed him—for juicy details about wanting to star in an erotic book, to explain why his parents won’t talk to me—he has danced around the details, ending lines of questioning with a friendly, firm businessman’s smile that tells me I will get no further.
“My inability to share feelings and go deep with people is related to both the project and to the problems with us. So the project is more a representation of the issue than the issue itself,” he says. “And in realizing that, I’m trying to open up.”
Everything to Merrill is a project that can be tackled and flowcharted and spreadsheeted. I ask him if maybe that’s the problem—has disappearing into a character made him forget how to be himself?
Nope. And he thinks he can learn even more about himself if he dives deeper into his new erotic persona.
“If I’m able to take on more Michelangelo, then I should be able to relate, to be better, express feelings and be more in touch with my own desires,” he says. “It’s funny to realize that part of my personal relationship problems is that I’ve been hiding in a persona, and then my next project is to create a new one. Soon I’ll have a whole superhero team.”
KmikeyM was the guy who told his girlfriends to buy shares. “KmikeyM doesn’t cry; he opens Excel,” Merrill says.
Michelangelo might be the 40-year-old guy who decides you can take a game too far.
So how the fuck does this end?
With his relationship floundering, Merrill opened up a “100-share bounty” to the shareholders who found him a new job. By late July, he was in L.A., punching the clock and brainstorming ways to pair a tie with shorts. Meanwhile, he’s on the verge of enabling others to have their life decisions voted on via Weejee. He’ll always be the publicly traded man, but he says Weejee will allow other people to get stakeholders to help in their lives too. “That interaction is actually the fun, valuable thing that keeps you going,” he says.
Estes has never doubted that Merrill will probably do this for the rest of his life. “I think this is a weirdly powerful way to expose people to the idea that all this stuff is more fun together,” Estes says. But will other people take their games as far as he will? As he has set it up, Merrill’s game ends only when he dies—at which point a life-insurance policy will distribute all KmikeyM funds equally among shareholders.
So even though he loses money on this project, even though it means people he’ll never meet will guide the course of his life, even though his shareholders will tell him he’s doing a bad job and it puts his relationships in a tailspin and people like me will continue to be bewildered by it all, Merrill is relentlessly committed. To change. To refine. To be a better investment for people who care about him, as well as for people who will never shake his hand.
And the longer he does it, the more he bends the rules of the game he designed—the game of which he and he alone remains the creator and mastermind.
One morning he sends a message to inform me of a potential vote—called “Engineering Conflict”—that would “create an account and put one share in it for every journalist/reporter who writes/has written about KmikeyM to create a conflict of interest. Motivate them to write more flattering stories because they are now invested!”
What the fuck?
“Let’s say I did that to you. It would say ‘There’s your name, there’s your picture,’ ” he explains later, over the phone. “I think it will go up to a vote.”
Now I’m the nervous one.
“Please don’t do that,” I say.
He senses my discomfort, and I can almost hear him smile over the phone. “It’s the kind of way of fucking with the system that I love.”
That’s when I realize: Whatever happens with KmikeyM, or between Merrill and Dixon, this isn’t a sad story. Merrill is no victim. This idea was his. He is in control.
And he will stop at nothing to find himself new playmates.