Editor's Note: “Memoirs of a Minyan” is a first-person account that follows Minyanville founder Todd Harrison as he weaves his way through Wall Street and beyond. This e-Book will publish each Wednesday over 18 weeks. Click here to read previous Memoirs chapters.Chapter 17: The Phoenix
I began 2004 the way I started every year of my career, trying to learn from the past and morph mistakes into lessons. I told myself I would give Minyanville 12 months to turn it into a business, or it would leave a legacy as an expensive hobby that chewed through millions of dollars.
We built a stable of writers, human capital that was very good at what they did but better at who they were. They included such respected professionals as Tony Dwyer, Scott Reamer, Kevin Depew, and John Succo. Each shared their insights and acumen with “Minyans” around the world and didn’t do it for the money; they wrote because they believed in our mission of affecting positive change through financial understanding.
In the summer of 2004, we hosted Minyans in the Mountains in Crested Butte, Colo.
, the first of many gatherings. The intention was to bring our online community to life, put faces to names and create an engaging forum for financial intelligence. Minyans flocked to the mountains, including my best friend and college roommate, Kevin Wassong.
After standing on the periphery since the inception, Kevin wanted to experience Minyanville first hand. He was a steady sounding board as I forged a path into an entirely new industry, serving both as a friend and offering advice on how to position a next generation digital media platform.
If anyone knew that space, it was “Fish.” After college, Kevin headed to Hollywood to pursue his creative ambitions before returning to New York. He launched the digital group at J. Walter Thompson in 1998, became CEO and built it into a top-10 interactive services company. Kevin was responsible for a lot of firsts. He brought Sotheby's first auction online and Merrill Lynch into the digital advertising space.
To him, Minyanville was the “big idea” that could connect generations and transcend media platforms. He arrived early to help tend to the last-minute details and prepare gift bags for the guests.
That was Kevin. He never cared about my money or the summer homes; he was never the “bigger, better thing” guy.
As we roasted S'mores at the Saturday night bonfire, I allowed myself a rare moment of satisfaction. After three years of heavy lifting, Minyanville arrived at a place of collective consciousness despite a motivated agenda and dwindling funds; the fledgling community was proof positive that our vision was indeed vibrant.
As we watched the sunset over the mountains and laughter filled the air, I turned to Kevin and shared a smile. That’s when I knew he saw it too. Of Mice and Men
They say if you told an entrepreneur how much work it would take for his or her dream to succeed, they would never start the business in the first place. While I’ve never regretted Minyanville, the labor of love was a labor indeed and entirely more challenging than I would have ever imagined.
Kevin and I met at an Applebee’s near his home in Larchmont following the summer of 2004. There, over beers and burgers, we scribbled the “wagon wheel” business model on the back of the check. The central hub was Minyanville and the “spokes” were ancillary business lines, including advertising, subscriptions, licensing, events, video games, entertainment and merchandising.
When I landed a meeting with Stan Gold -- Roy Disney’s business partner -- in California to see if we could get him to invest, I asked Kevin to help put together a presentation. We were told we had 30 minutes of Stan’s time. But 3½ hours into the presentation, we continued to pound the table with passion and purpose. “You don’t see it Stan,” I said in a hurried voice, pleading with him to see what we saw, “If Walt Disney can take two rodents and create cultural icons, we can take the Wall Street bull and bear and affect positive change through financial understanding
Stan sat back in his seat at the far end of the conference room table and chomped on his cigar. “You sure have chutzpah,” he said as he weighed our words. “Why don’t you circle back when the company is more mature?”
While we didn’t “get the order,” something shifted within Kevin during that presentation. By the time we got back to New York, we decided to raise money to give Minyanville an honest shot. There was an incredible energy between us but I knew we were racing against the bottom of my bank account.
The final months of 2004 were a furious push to pull together a private placement memorandum. We huddled with lawyers, met with accountants and presented to potential investors. I swallowed the bills and looked through the costs, choosing instead to channel every ounce of effort into fulfilling our mission.
With the holidays bearing down, it was almost time to reset the clocks. Time was running out. Mexicali Blues
The final push of 2004 took a considerable toll and I operated on adrenalin, tenacity and faith. The excitement of mapping a tangible plan commingled with the fear of an unspoken reality as we hosted our Minyanville holiday party at Rosa Mexicana in New York.
I was in many ways going through the motions of a confident leader. My body was there and my instincts acute, but I was operating on fumes. The work was excessive, even by my standards. My heart hurt, my muscles ached and my head throbbed. I remember splashing water on my face in the bathroom and whispering, “This can’t be healthy” before feigning a smile and returning as the host.
I was scheduled to go to a spa near Tucson the morning after our party, as I desperately needed to unplug from the unbearable marathon that was my life. It felt as if I was running from something for so long and at such a furious pace, I didn’t know another way to operate.
I still wasn’t aware I suffered from depression following the events of Sept. 11, but the signs were clear with the benefit of hindsight. After 14 years of forging a professional identity, my success was no longer measured by conventional metrics. Deep down, the thought of spending a week alone scared the hell out of me.
Traders are conditioned to expect success and loathe losses and that process was ingrained in my psyche when I began Minyanville. I preached the importance of balance and the necessity of perspective, yet my words dripped with hypocrisy. My tank was empty and I knew it.
My grandfather taught me to never run scared, and I repeated that to myself as I nursed a wicked hangover on the way to the airport. My dream had a shot at survival, but the future was anything but certain. Journeys and Purposes
In my search for success, I ignored that the purpose of the journey is the journey itself. I forgot that by the time you arrive at where think you want to be, the experience will have already ended.
I misplaced the truth that we define our reality more than our reality defines us.
I was trapped by self-imposed expectations and continually reset the bar so it was always out of reach, the fatal flaw of any classic over-achiever. I thought that allowing myself to feel was a weakness if it competed for my attention. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew I was vulnerable as I made my way to the desert.
Upon arrival, I immediately participated in activities. The grounds were littered with couples and groups, but I kept to myself and did my own thing. Mountain biking, weight lifting, horseback riding -- I did anything and everything to occupy my mind and delay the inevitable introspection.
From the moment I opened my eyes to my last thought each night, I wrestled with who I was, how I lived and what my purpose was. My mind raced a million miles per minute; by the time I started dissecting one thought, a new one arrived. My head spun for days as they viciously collided and competed for attention.
I paced my room trying to make sense of the emotional crosscurrents before walking to the patio that overlooked the foothills in the far distance.
Without realizing it, I hopped the ledge and began to walk. Desert Storm
There are instances in each of our lives defined by a moment of clarity and I can count them on one hand.
I remember jogging in the islands after my Morgan Stanley promotion, standing atop a cliff overlooking the clear, blue water. There also was relaxing in Maui the week before Sept. 11, watching the sunset on the horizon and making peace with my father. And there was that day in the desert on a random Tuesday afternoon. I was so engrossed in thought that I don't remember when or why I started walking. An hour or so later, there I was in the middle of nowhere and very alone as I tried to find answers to questions I didn’t know.
As I looked to the sky and spoke to my grandfather, trying to sort through the disparate aspects of my existence, tears formed in my eyes. Minutes later, I began to sob uncontrollably. I couldn’t remember the last time I cried but it was surely measured in years, not months.
Sept. 11. Losing Ruby. Leaving a high-profile perch atop a lucrative hedge fund. Battles with established media based purely on principle. Chewing through most of my life savings. Ruby
The thoughts sped quicker and quicker as I stood in the empty desert. I turned around to make sure I knew where I was; I wasn’t quite sure I did. I was confused, angry, sad, lonely, bitter and empty all at the same time.
Without warning, the skies opened up and cried alongside me; rain pounded down with intense pressure. I felt sorry for myself, heaped misery upon misery and absorbed as much pain as possible, feeling as if I somehow deserved the wrath of nature.
“Perfect,” I said out loud in an act of defiance, “Bring it!”
I looked down, around and back at my two feet placed firmly in the desert sand and suddenly realized I was in a safe place. It was then that I connected with the person I lost years earlier and found the friend who was missing since Sept. 11.
I let the rain consume me, raising my arms in the air as my head fell back. I felt a smile creep upon my face.
As I let go of the pain and strain of my internal burdens, a ray of sunlight peeked through the clouds and kissed me on the cheek. I was certain it was my grandfather, putting his hand on my shoulder, telling me to think positive, that “this too shall pass.” To this day, nobody will convince me otherwise.
I’ve always been spiritual but that was different. It was a sign.
Something very powerful shifted within that day. When I walked into the desert, I operated from a position of finality. At 35, I saw who I was, what I made, where I had been and whom I was with. There was comfort in being able to define my experiences but that safety came with the cost of containment.
By the time I arrived back in my room, there was a tangible sense of release, as if I shed the weight of the world, left it in the desert and arrived at a new beginning. Rather than obsessing about what was, I felt extremely blessed to have an opportunity to shape what could be.
I didn’t have much money, my future was uncertain and there were real risks in my master plan.
But what did I feel? Gratitude. Immense, complete, absolving gratitude.
It was then I understood that the greatest opportunities are born from the most profound obstacles, and the greatest wisdom is bred as a function of pain.
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