Meet the Man Who Sold His Fate to Investors at $1 a Share

On January 26, 2008, a 30-year-old part-time entrepreneur named Mike Merrill decided to sell himself on the open market. He divided himself into 100,000 shares and set an initial public offering price of $1 a share. Each share would earn a potential return on profits he made outside of his day job as a customer service rep at a small Portland, Oregon, software company. Over the next 10 days, 12 of his friends and acquaintances bought 929 shares, and Merrill ended up with a handful of extra cash. He kept the remaining 99.1 percent of himself but promised that his shares would be nonvoting: He’d let his new stockholders decide what he should do with his life.

Every year, tech-industry entrepreneurs make a similar decision. Taking on investors is usually one of the first steps in Silicon Valley’s well-established path to outrageous fortune. Merrill wasn’t running a startup per se, but he had plenty of great ideas and ambitions—videogames he wanted to develop, a data backup service he wanted to launch, a whiskey-tasting society he hoped to form. He needed venture capital, but as an ordinary guy, he had limited access to capital markets. That didn’t hold him back. He simply relied on the support of the motley group of programmers, bloggers, and baristas he knew in Portland. It was Silicon Valley–style finance, writ small.

But, like many entrepreneurs before him, Merrill soon learned the downside to taking on outside funding. In the ensuing months and years, 128 people bought shares of Merrill, and he fell victim to competing shareholder interests, stock price manipu­lation, and investors looking for short-term gains at the expense of his long-term well-being. He was overwhelmed by paperwork and blindsided by takeover interest. He found himself beholden to his shareholders in ways he had never imagined, ruining personal relationships along the way. Through it all, Merrill clung stubbornly to the belief that since an IPO had worked for Google and Amazon, it should work for an individual too.

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