Exclusive Interview: CEO of Minyanville Todd Harrison
We’ve all heard urban legends of successful people who became inspired and traded their careers for a life dedicated to helping others. There’s the faceless dot-com whiz who banked in the boom and now directs a savvy nonprofit. Or, more recently, maybe you’ve heard of a mortgage broker or contractor who exited the housing market when things got unethical, and now that person works with Habitat for Humanity. Then, there’s the President of Jim Cramer’s hedge fund who lost his grandfather around 9/11 and redirected his efforts toward financial education: Todd Harrison.
Todd’s reputation preceded him as one of the nicest and brightest guys on Wall Street. Since the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, the same can be said of the Minyanville team and their content: intelligent and positive. Great teams don’t accidentally align, they are forged and vetted under a zeitgeist. While building Minyanville, Todd’s guiding philosophy has been to surround himself by “people who are good at what they do, but better at who they are.” If you believe the good guys always win in the end, then Todd’s fate is sealed.
I had the pleasure of cruising through Todd’s life and snagging a bunch of pithy wisdom along the way. His inspirational adventure is like one part Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, one part Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, and a dash of Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.
Damien Hoffman: Todd, you’ve been known as a great trader, a great writer, and now a great CEO of Minyanville. When did you realize you had the entrepreneurial spirit and that was how you would express yourself creatively and intellectually?
Todd: Very much by accident! I started writing in July of 2000 filling in for Jim Cramer at TheStreet.com. At that time, I had never written anything more than a letter from camp to my mother. My first assignment was to write to fill-in for a single day. After that day I was asked to finish the week. After that week I was told that page-views traffic was exceedingly good, so I was asked to continue by writing The Trading Diary opposite Jim on TheStreet.com.
Jim and I are very different people and have very different styles. So, it was quite interesting to actually move forward in that regard — particularly since I had no training as a writer. I was a trader. I worked my whole career to be a trader. The writing became an extension of my thought processes while trading which helped synthesize my thoughts. I found that to be of great benefit.
Later that year I started talking about my grandfather because he was very sick. I would leave for Florida every Friday at 2 o’clock to hold his hand. I eventually mentioned my experience because I was getting enough emails from people who thought I was a slacker and skipping out every weekend to go enjoy myself. To correct them, I communicated what I was doing and my feelings about my grandfather. The amount of feedback was astounding! We had gotten messages from people I had never known or spoken to. We would print out and read thousands of letters to my grandfather on his deathbed.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, that was the genesis of Minyanville. It was just a very powerful medium that emerged from a very difficult experience. Fast-forwarding to the next year, my grandfather had passed away and then 9/11 hit me right between the eyes. After 9/11 we went out and created a home for Hoofy and Boo [the Minyanville mascots]. Our goal was to effect positive change through financial understanding. And that came from 9/11. It is hard to believe that it’s been 8 years ago already! But our mission has been a labor of love and it’s something I’m very passionate about — luckily, because if there was one less ounce of passion, I don’t know if we would’ve made it through what’s been a very difficult economic environment.
Damien: I recently did an interview with Mike Bellafiore at SMB Capital. He said he remembered you taking time off to be with your grandfather during the wild markets of the dot-com era, and he especially remembered how you were a person of character who reminded readers that the markets will always be there no matter what was happening in your personal life. Can you share more about that time and the importance of remembering that the markets will always be there?
Todd: Absolutely. This is the subject matter of my e-book Memoirs of a Minyan that publishes every Wednesday at Minyanville. I discuss the false idolatry of money, how I was programmed as a child to believe that net worth was very important, and that validation could be found at the bottom of a bank account. That was what I aspired to growing up as I went through college and found my way onto Wall Street. I was just chasing that cash register for the first part of my career at Morgan Stanley, Galleon, and Cramer Berkowitz. When I got to where I wanted to be, I realized there is a very big difference between having fun and being happy. I had a lot of fun, but I wasn’t necessarily happy.
Many times at Minyanville I talk about things in a stream of consciousness. After losing my grandfather and experiencing 9/11, I created Minyanville as a parallel universe void of any pain — a place to where I could escape. I often forget people are on the other side of the screen reading my stream of consciousness.
You can’t say money doesn’t matter because it does. But I can tell you from experience that if you’re looking for validation at the bottom of a bank account, you’re missing the bigger trade. The knee-jerk reaction for a lot of people would be, “Well, that’s easy for you to say because you’ve got money. Once you’ve made your money you can have that perspective.” What a lot of people don’t know, but will ultimately learn as more chapters of Memoirs of a Minyan get published, is I actually made a lot of money. I had those multiple-figure paydays. But I also lost a lot of money. I took my life savings and poured it right back into Minyanville. I got to the point where my advisors told me to shut everything down because I was going to be insolvent. But I had tenacity, perseverance, and a will to succeed. Failure was not an option.
So, I’ve arrived back at a place where I don’t make the type of money I used to — not anywhere close. However, I’m wealthier in many more ways than ever. It has nothing to do with the car I drive or the house in which I live. It has to do with the meaning of life being a life of meaning.
Damien: What made you decide you were done being a trader first and you knew Minyanville was your passion, your life of meaning … that one idea you wanted to jump on and put your life energy into?
Todd: I remember this very clearly. I had a massive Citigroup position — at the time it was still Citicorp. Barron’s, I believe, just came out with a cover story. I had a big short position and the story was positive. I remember waking up in the middle night because I had a dream Citigroup’s building was actually chasing me down the street! I woke up in a cold sweat. I went to the bathroom and splashed water on my face at like 3 or 4 in the morning. I looked in the mirror and thought, “Man, what’s it all about? Am I going to spend my entire life trying to make money? Where is the social utility? What am I going to leave as a legacy? Are they going to put on my gravestone, ‘He had a good feel for the market’?”
I started to watch what was happening after the dot-com crash and how we weren’t allowed to take our medicine called a recession because the Fed gave us drugs for our mass disease. I remember thinking, “This one is not going to end well.” I very much wanted to create positive change through financial understanding. I wanted to use my skill set to help educate other people. There are other things that happened in terms of the platform at TheStreet.com which folks will learn about in upcoming installments of Memoirs of a Minyan. But my main focus was really between the mission of Minyanville and the Ruby Peck Foundation for Children’s Education, which I started after my grandfather passed away.
It’s been a journey laced with serendipity. It has not been easy. But, it has paid off dividends in ways that have nothing to do with dollars, things that are tangible, or in other traditional ways.
Todd: Knock on wood, I take nothing for granted. We continue to grow nicely. We just finished a very solid quarter. Our business model is very unique. Our focus is the entire vertical of finance from ABCs to 401Ks. For children, we have MinyanLand which is approaching our 500,000th child. We are teaching them earning, spending, saving, and giving through a massive multi-player online game. We are building out our content profile throughout that learning ladder, all the way up to adults. The adults learn at UMV: University of Minyanville. I was very humbled in December when we won the Emmy Award for New Approaches to Business & Financial Reporting as a result of Hoofy & Boo.
I’m very proud of the entire team here. We’re up to 27 full-time employees, 40-something writers, and we continue to grow. So, the vision is to expand upon the foundation that has been built.
It’s interesting when people say nice things about Minyanville. I kind of shrug a little bit — not in a flippant way, but a shrug that says I don’t want to hear it because in my eyes Minyanville is not a success, yet. Minyanville is in the top of the 2nd inning in terms of where it is going. I always say if Disney can take two rodents and brand them as cultural icons, we can take the Wall Street Bull & Bear and create positive change through financial understanding. We’re still in our infancy in terms of mind share despite a million plus uniques coming to Minyanville each month.
Damien: I am one of those people who was introduced to your site very early on. I saw when it was just a bunch of hedge fund guys or people on the Street who were privately talking to one another and sharing ideas throughout the course of the trading day. To see what Minyanville has grown to since then is very impressive.
Todd: Thanks! Our team has done a fantastic job. I credit a lot of our success to our editorial motto of “Truth and Trust.” All of our contributors have joined our mission. A number of our Professors have invested in Minyanville. So, it’s actually a very unique model in terms of co-opting the human capital and all working towards a common goal.
A good example of our “Truth and Trust” motto arose during 2005-2006. There was little benefit for Minyanville to talk about how the wheels were going to fall off the wagon and how Wall Street was technically insolvent — including the most powerful firms in the world, whether it’s the Goldmans of the world or what have you. We took a big risk to talk about Citigroup and AIG — about how all these firms are technically insolvent when they were near all-time highs. There were a lot of raised eye brows. People don’t want to read about that stuff when markets are flying high. That’s why I say it was of no benefit to us to do that.
So, the fact that we could do that, and do it in a way that was not acrimonious, shows we had no agenda. We just wanted to communicate what we were seeing, why we were seeing it, and what we were doing. I think that resonated with people in that we communicated with Truth and Trust — without an agenda. I think that nowadays Truth and Trust are both commodities, and we were mining for those very early on.
Damien: I’m a big believer in positive karma, so I love the motto “Truth and Trust.” Smita Sadana, one of the Professors at Minyanville, said you are one of the brightest guys on Wall Street. Who do you think are some of the brightest men or women on Wall Street?
Todd: Smita is a doll. I’m humbled by her comment. I’m just lucky to be surrounded by people who are very smart. So in many ways, I’m sort of a cross between a UHF antenna and Andy Dufresne when he crawled out of that river in Shawshank Redemption. I’m just channeling a lot of the acumen that surrounds me. There are some great people who have had a strong influence on my career. Guys like John Succo who is best of breed in terms of risk management if you look at his track record over the 10 years. Bennet Sedacca, may he rest in peace, was a very sharp cookie when it came to the fixed income side. David Slaine, who was my big brother on Wall Street when I came up, is one of the best tape readers I’ve ever seen. Minyan Peter is extremely smart. Jeffrey Cooper is a great trader.
One of the things we try to do at Minyanville is attract a lot of different lenses with which to view the market. If you look at the market through enough lenses, then you create a prism of decision making. So, there are a lot of smart people. Everyone on the Minyanville website has been vetted. But in terms of my personal experience, I’d have to say probably John Succo and David Slaine were the two guys who really impacted my career the most.
Damien: Since you worked at Cramer Berkowitz, what type of an impact did Jim Cramer have on your career?
Todd: I will always be indebted to Jim for giving me the opportunity to write because I look back at the last 10 years and say if I didn’t have the outlet to write or the healthy catharsis, I probably would’ve spontaneously combusted by now. So, I give Jim all the credit in the world for allowing me to identify that writing was a passion and I’m thankful to him for that.
Damien: Since those people affected you in such a positive way, what type of advice do you have for young people who read this interview and are aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
Todd: I simply say, do what you love! One of the oldest adages, is true: do what you love and the money will come. I was making $5 million dollars a year, was 31 years old and President of a $400 million dollar hedge fund. I was passionate about that for a very long time. That’s probably in large part why I got to where I am. But, from now until the foreseeable future, Wall Street is going to be entirely more austere in terms of pay. If you’re going into it for the money, save yourself the time because it’s not something that is going to be, as a matter of rule rather than the exception, the quick pay day it once was. And that’s probably a healthy thing.
I look back at my path, and I am most proud of the mistakes I made and the hardships I endured. But for those mistakes and hardships — the pain and the hurt — I wouldn’t know I have the depth to absorb what it has taken to get to this point. I’m very thankful for that. Minyanville is a very humble place in terms of what it has taken to get here and the perspective that nothing comes for free.
I once took a lot things for granted. I was never a bad guy, but I had clearly misplaced or skewed priorities in certain regards — particularly when it came to money. It had taken a round trip for me to take a step back and truly appreciate things I once took for granted. So, what I would say to young people — and I’ve had this conversation while speaking at schools over the last year or so — is don’t let the economy deter you. I would offer we are probably halfway through this process of the economy correcting — and it’s going to be a process. But, it’s also a tremendous opportunity!
If you look at something like the Great Depression as a construct of optimism and the franchises that were born out of that time period — whether it’s the Washington Post, Disney, Texas Instruments, Tyson Foods, or Continental Airlines — there were tremendous franchises that rose from the ashes. I think that script is going play out again. The leaders coming out of a crisis are never the same as the ones going in. In the financial field, look at the boutique shops that are starting to gain market and mind share: BTIG, WJB Capital, and other smaller niche operations. You look at the media space, wherein traditional networks are simply channels in the digital world, and you see a lot of media franchises that have burst out of the rubble: The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and even Minyanville with the opportunities we have right now.
So, if I have to drill down my advice into one pithy bottom line, I’d say: Do something you are passionate about. Think outside the box. And understand the greatest opportunities are bred from the most profound obstacles.
Damien: For those who are passionate about several things like you, can you share a typical day in your life? When I try to think about it, you must have a packed schedule trading, running a company, and being a spokesperson!
Todd: I’m very blessed! I get to work with my best friend of 23 years who was the first person I met in my freshman year of college, Kevin Wassong. He is just brilliant in terms of the media space. He was the founder and CEO of the Digital Group at J. Walter Thompson. The whole team we have here at Minyanville is a family. We work our asses off, but we all believe in what we’re working towards.
My days are relatively constant. There are days I’ll do media early in the morning, and those days require me to get up a little earlier. I used to do this thing with Fox Business where they had a camera in my office and I was doing two live shows a day. We stopped that. We’re now working on some other exciting media initiatives in-house.
If I had to use today as a snapshot, sometimes I’ll get up early and try to get to the gym at 6 or 6:30 in the morning. I like to get my mind in a good, healthy mindset early. But, usually I’ll roll into the office around 7am or so, work on my opener, kind of synthesize the world, and then it’s just like the horses leaving the gate at the track as the markets open. It’s like playing Fungo with fifty baseballs at the same time: I’m trying to synthesize all my thoughts into a cohesive stream of consciousness on Minyanville, coordinate with the Professors around the world, work with the team internally, and do what I can to further the mission of The Ruby Peck Foundation.
But during the hours between 8:30am and 4:30pm, it’s all about the markets. I used to be a trader that morphed into a trader that writes. Now I’m more of a writer that trades. I’m trying to get used to the notion of stepping off the trading desk during the day for meetings or business lunches. It still feels very foreign for me. But I’ve always said the definition of professional nirvana is to do what you love with people you respect while serving the greater good. Also, work to live, don’t live to work. On Sunday nights, I can’t wait to get back to the office at Minyanville because I love what I do and the people I work with.
Todd: There are some things that are very exciting — game changers we expect to roll out in the back half of the year. I can’t get into details because my partners would absolutely flip if I did [laughing]. I have a very bad habit of having turrets when it comes to being excited about things. But I will say you can expect to see Minyanville in a lot more places over the next six months. And, as always, the first week of December we look forward to having our Festivas which is our annual gathering of the Minyanville community to benefit The Ruby Peck Foundation for Children’s Education. Between now and then, we’re very excited to build upon the vision and fight the good fight.
Damien: Todd, I wish you the very best with that! I also want to thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to be a part of Minyanville and spending the time with me to do this interview.
Todd: We’re excited to have you! The definition of a Minyanville Professor, or Minyan in general, is a person who is very good at what they do, but better at who they are. So, congratulations on your first article and we look forward to many more mutually beneficial experiences together!