Memoirs of a Minyan: The Genesis of a Dream
The purpose of the journey is the journey itself.
Chapter 14: The Genesis of a Dream
In the months leading into September, I developed a friendship with a woman named Casey Cannon. She reached out through email and I responded, as I always did to those who took the time to write. Our connection was unique from the beginning; she asked the right questions and said the right things.
She was an accomplished player in the entertainment arena, having worked for Industrial Light and Magic with George Lucas before venturing out on her own. Her profile on IMDB featured over 30 films working with the best and the brightest in that industry.
Casey knew Jim and his family well -- in fact, she produced his retirement video, which caught my attention for the high production quality of the work.
During my Labor Day trip to Maui to see my father, Casey suggested I stop in Los Angeles so we could meet. She was directing the opening sequence on Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky and asked me if I wanted a cameo role. Having never been in a feature film, I jumped at the chance.
The split second shot took ten hours to produce, which pushed my flight to the next day and gave us time to vibe. I mused that nobody ever bridged finance and entertainment; and as most people on Wall Street want to be famous and many in Hollywood want Wall Street's money, it seemed liked an intuitive fit.
I introduced the notion of Hoofy and Boo as vehicles of information. While the Wall Street bull and bear played globally, nobody ever put faces or names to them. Animation is a generationally neutral genre that has an audience throughout the societal spectrum.
"If Walt Disney can brand two rodents as cultural icons," I offered, "We can take the Wall Street bull and bear and affect positive change through financial understanding."
When I wasn't trading, my focus shifted from TheStreet.com to the concept of this new platform -- one where metaphorical representations of financial dynamics could live in harmony, away from the pitfalls and pain in the real world. I wanted to build this world and Casey possessed the skills to facilitate my dream.
"How much do you think we can do it for?" I asked her before finally boarding my flight.
"Thirty grand, tops." She replied, which sounded reasonable enough. With experience in tow, Wall Street as a stable foundation and Hollywood in my sights, I headed to Maui to see my father.
"It'll be a place where Hoofy and Boo will gather to debate the merits of the financial markets," I said as I readied to board the plane, "A platform for discussion, a collection of intelligent opinions and a community of respected thought leaders..."
I paused to think and drew a veiled analogy to a quorum necessary for prayer.
"We'll call it Minyanville."
In 2000, I discovered my father was bipolar and later learned my business partner was as well. I lost my grandfather Ruby the following April. As my grieving subsided, I watched two planes slam into the towers down the street.
It was a dark and introspective time; you find what you're made of in those situations.
Minyanville rose like a phoenix from the scorched earth and rescued me from realities I didn't want to face. A breath of life was injected into my lungs; it was an escape, a corridor from a very painful place to a bright, animated world without terror or acrimony or politics or agenda.
I continued to focus on our hedge fund, trying anything and everything to recapture the momentum I once took for granted. Gains were elusive and profits were scarce, the mirror image of the profitable scrimmage we played the previous year.
One day in late November, an hour before the close, my phone rang. It was Jim and it was the first time since I resigned from TheStreet.com that he reached out to me. My emotions were a mixture of excitement, trepidation and caution -- I clearly didn't know what to expect but I was happy to hear from my former friend.
"Hey man!" he began with enthusiasm, "I want you to come on my show tonight."
Jim was beginning his renaissance as a television personality, co-hosting America Now with Larry Kudlow. "I would love to," I explained, "but I'm not feeling all that well." It was the truth -- I was extremely rundown -- but it wouldn't matter.
After several circular repetitions of the same conversation, it was obvious I wasn't going to wiggle out of the spot. "Alright," I said, "I'll be at the CNBC midtown studio at 7:00 PM and we'll get it done."
Following the September 11th purge, equity markets rallied sharply from the abyss, morphing patriotism into bullishness with the steady strength of an unseen hand. At the time, anything but a table-pounding bullish bent was blasphemously unpatriotic.
It would be years before the Plunge Protection Team would be publicly discussed without being called conspiratorial.
While our initial, post-attack strategy was on target, our fund didn't share the performance. We were shaken from our positions during the sharp sell-offs and watched most of the ascent from the sidelines with clenched teeth. Opportunities are made up easier than losses but that lost opportunity rubbed salt in a rather fresh wound.
As the co-hosts bantered about tax stimulus and Street psychology, I played along and played my part. When the camera turned towards me, I represented my thoughts as clearly as I could.
"Fund managers are chasing performance," I said in reference to the rally, "I see it and respect it but I don't believe it's going to last. Bubbles don't end with a V-shaped recovery."
The Morning After
I settled into my turret at 6:00 AM the next morning, powered up my systems and found six emails waiting from Jim. They began early in the morning and I read them in chronological order. The first was innocent enough, something along the lines of "Hey man, thanks for doing the show."
As I scrolled through the correspondence, his stream of consciousness began to shift. He became increasingly agitated and, by the sixth email, outright rude. I read his final email a few times.
"I had you on my show, the least you can do is write a column for TheStreet.com. If you don't want to respond to me, then FINE!"
I didn't know if the invitation to be on his show was a trap. I was at a crossroads -- I wasn't concerned that his internal fires were ablaze but I didn't want to bite his hand; he still had money in the fund and he had our investor's ears.
I told Jeff that I would write a column if it would calm the furor. Maybe it was a legal thing given TheStreet.com told my readers I was coming back -- I don't know and I really didn't care. I wanted to make peace with Cramer and move on with my career.
I agreed to write year-end piece chronicling what was, what is and what would be. It was a strong column; I wanted to represent my voice in a manner consistent with what was built. While I wrote with the intention it would be one and done, it reminded how much I loved to write and how much I missed the forum.
After the column posted, the Editor-in-Chief Dave Morrow called and asked if we could talk. "Sure," I replied, "Swing by tomorrow after the bell."
When he got my office, I left my traders on the desk and ushered Dave to a conference room. Once there, he expressed his regret over what happened, apologized with sincerity and asked me to come back to TheStreet.com.
I told him that I needed a few days. I knew why he was there and it had nothing to do with my best interests. Still, it was something that I wanted; perhaps needed.
I spent some time chewing through his offer and asked for another meeting, this one at a restaurant. There, over a Grey Goose martini, I laid out my thoughts to the top brass of TheStreet.com.
"Why don't we partner on a professional product, one that's geared to the hedge fund audience? I'll provide content, you guys run the back-end and we'll whack up the revenue."
"Great idea!" they exclaimed after conferring, "Let us put our heads together and we'll get back to you in a few days."
Later that week, we again met and they laid their cards on the table. "3% of the gross revenue," they said, "We'll give you 3% of the gross revenue." I'm not sure what I was expecting but I was clearly under-whelmed.
"I don't think so," I answered before realizing I was speaking, "That's not going to work." They asked what it would take to get the deal done and I told them I would need to think about it. I returned to my office where 200 positions awaited and tried to focus on the task at hand.
While I was surprised by their opening offer, I knew that was how the game was played. I spent the rest of the week asking myself difficult questions and weighing past transgressions against my desire to again write. When push came to shove, I was willing to swallow my pride.
I called Dave the next morning and told him that it wasn't about the money and I was willing to move forward -- but I didn't want to target a professional audience and would again write my regular column.
I wanted to write for those who wrote my grandfather letters on his deathbed. I wanted to write for myself and release the hurricane in my heart.
"We can't do that," he suddenly said, "We can't have our best writer on the old site while we're launching a professional product aimed at hedge funds."
I was prepared for many things but I was shocked by that latest twist. "We have nothing left to discuss," I said as I hung up the phone, disgusted at myself for being so vulnerable.
It was a good idea and they knew it.
They were going to launch it with or without me.
Full Steam Ahead
As 2001 ended, my relationship with TheStreet.com died with it. They came back a few times with lucrative offers -- a lofty six figure salary and multiple six-figure stock options -- but the numbers didn't register. I told them that I don't associate with people I didn't trust and knew if I worked with them again, I would only have myself to blame.
Our fund finished the year slightly above the flat line and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief that my performance anxiety had a new shelf life. That was the way it worked on Wall Street -- the registers were cleared at the end of December 31st and everyone started from scratch.
I was emotionally spent after September 11th, battling the market and discovering the ugly truth behind the media landscape. I was also fighting the demon of depression, although I wouldn't realize that for a few more years. Seeing what I saw -- the jumpers, the impact and the fireball -- took a heavy, subconscious toll on me.
The year 2002 was a new beginning and I embraced it with open arms and confidence that I could shoulder the load and shed the baggage. I knew TheStreet.com gave my position in their new product to fund manager Doug Kass. Doug and I were friends and spoke about the offer before he accepted it.
I had bigger fish to fry as I eyed my immediate future. My primary focus was the fund, where I was entering the second year of a two-year deal. The other was Minyanville, which encapsulated my hopes and dreams. It was more of a mission than a business venture; it was entirely personal and very much an escape.
On weekends and during nights, we worked incessantly on building wire frames that would bring Hoofy and Boo to life. I told Casey I would spend $30,000 on the project but that quickly proved conservative. My intention wasn't to build TheStreet.com -- the ambition was much larger than that, perhaps grandiose.
I envisioned a community that bridged Wall Street and Main Street, a world-class platform that educated, entertained and engaged. I wanted to change the world and nothing was going to stop me. Not Jim Cramer, not TheStreet.com and certainly not money.
I had a stash of cash and spared no expense. We enlisted the help of John Bell, who was nominated for an Academy Award for visual effects, to illustrate Hoofy and Boo. Casey worked from her Santa Monica home office and created the Minyanville platform.
Profits at the fund were elusive, due in equal parts to the new market dynamic and our admittedly frazzled psyche. I awoke at 5:00 AM each day and managed the fund with Jeff, Matt and our shaken but steady crew before returning home at night to brainstorm on my newfound passion.
Dinners and weekends with friends had to wait. I worked 20-hour days and locked myself in my apartment, turning off the phone and closing the curtains. I wasn't aware I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
I hid from it in Minyanville, a parallel universe with animated critters.
It sounds strange, I know, but it saved my life.
The mood within Cramer Berkowitz was strained as we attempted to forge ahead. I wasn't privy to conversations between Jeff and Jim but assumed they were tenuous. Jim understood I was creating Minyanville and was entirely displeased.
Cramer needed an enemy to motivate him and would create one if necessary.
I wasn't intimidated, which seemed to bother him, but was aware he had influence with our investors. It took a toll on our staff, particularly after experiencing horrors that nobody should be forced to endure. The freewheeling fun that was the hallmark of our corporate culture was gone in no small part because we were no longer beating the Street.
Our sudden mediocrity wasn't a function of Jim's absence. In fact, I would argue that the firm was more functional without his wild, emotional swings. It was simply a new world and we were in the middle of a confused conduit of emotions, alliances and geopolitical agendas.
Our innocence was gone and our country was preparing for war.
Internally, I readied for the exact same thing.
Click here for the next chapter of memoirs, "The Abyss."
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Todd Harrison is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Minyanville. Prior to his current role, Mr. Harrison was President and head trader at a $400 million dollar New York-based hedge fund. Todd welcomes your comments and/or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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