IF IT WERE up to Jackson Gariety, he would not be getting his GED this year.
Unfortunately for the 17-year-old computer programmer and high school dropout, the decision to get a high school equivalency certificate was not up to him. For the first quarter of 2014, Gariety's fate will be decided by a collective of strangers, all of whom are stakeholders in the "Community Through Capitalism" experiment known as KmikeyM.
Some backstory: In 2008, then 30-year-old Portland tech worker Mike Merrill put 100,000 shares of himself on the open market, selling shares for $1 apiece and becoming, in the process, the world's first publicly traded human. To date, there are about 550 investors with a piece of Merrill—some stockholders have as many as 300 shares, while others have only one. Merrill maintains his status as the majority stockholder of KmikeyM (an abbreviation of his full name, Kenneth Michael Merrill), but he lets his investors, mostly friends and acquaintances, set the course of his life.
This has included relatively minor decisions, like choosing whether to go vegetarian, as well as huge shifts, like the stakeholders' move last March to have Merrill quit his day job and start a game design firm. Each decision has had an effect on the stock price, which peaked at $20 in June of 2012 when Merrill was focusing primarily on his romantic life, but has slipped to less than $3.
While shares of KmikeyM are currently trading for around $7.50, the trajectory has been pointing downward for the past six months, because as things have settled down in Merrill's life, he's had fewer reasons to engage his investors.
"The last vote I put up was a long time ago," he explains. "And the amazing part was that the stock price went down because of my lack of activity. At first I was bummed, but I realize that this drop means the system is working. People are less invested."
Merrill didn't want to leave his stockholders hanging, so he hit on the elegant solution of, essentially, hiring an interim CEO for KmikeyM.
Unlike an actual corporation, though, Merrill didn't start headhunting or put out a call for résumés. Instead, he stumbled upon the perfect candidate.
Jackson Gariety has accomplished impressive things for someone not yet able to vote. The Portland native contributes regularly to the open-source code-sharing site GitHub, and before he dropped out, helped set up the online home of Grant High School's news magazine.
Two years ago, at the Portland Startup Weekend, Garrity received a best developer award for HashTraffic, an app that connects content in blogs or websites to other sites using hashtags. By early 2013, he had decided to drop out of Grant.
These days, Gariety is living on his own in Southeast Portland, and is gainfully employed by CrowdCompass, a company that develops mobile apps. He's even self-aware enough that he takes an acting class to learn how to, as he puts it, "Get in touch with myself and really learn how to be focused on the present."
In his free time, he works on his next project: Creating a new application that will help developers build websites more quickly and easily, and that will compete will similar frameworks like Ruby on Rails and Django.
Sitting across from Gariety at a coffee shop near his office, I can see the dedication he has to this project all over his person. His hair is a utilitarian buzz cut, his complexion verging on the ghostly. And underneath his eyes are dark circles, evidence of many late nights spent poring over code on his MacBook.
"Yeah, I don't get a lot of sleep," he says. "When I go home, I hang with my roommate, but when he goes to bed, I pull out my laptop and get to work. Sometimes time just flies by."
Gariety and Merrill met last summer as part of the Nike+ Accelerator, a venture to fund startups by providing them capital to develop apps for the Fuelband. "I liked Jackson right away," Merrill says. "I remember he was so much better dressed than everyone else there, which is something I key into pretty quickly in a group setting. I just couldn't tell how old he was. Especially in that environment, you don't assume that this is someone who can't go to the bar with us after."
The two kept in touch after the three-month program ended, with Gariety reaching out to Merrill for guidance about steps to take to further his stake in the tech industry.
"He was asking these big questions as we would sit and have coffee," says Merrill. "I told him, 'It's weird for me to give advice to anyone because I take my advice from this huge group of people. At the same time, it's been slow for me, why don't I loan you this thing to figure this stuff out?' He was into it right away."
Considering how most 17-year-olds react to advice from grownups, it's more than a little unusual for Gariety to implicitly trust the wisdom of a collective of adults. But again, we're not talking about your typical teenager here.
"He has this weird long view of things," says Merrill. "He still has an impatience that I think is normal for being 17, but his ability to think long term puts him at such an advantage over everyone I've known. I joined the Army when I was 17! I should have listened to my peers at that time."
Gariety has already achieved far more than most of his peers without anyone else's input. What he doesn't want to have to bother with are any obstacles or distractions that are going to get in the way of his goals. (Gariety's major life goals are listed on his personal website, jacksongariety.com, along with his completion progress. Move out of parents' house: 100 percent. Give a TEDTalk: 50 percent. Create a new system of government: 1 percent.)
So, much of the appeal of this experiment is to leave the decisions that most of us would sweat over up to a hive mind. "That's certainly a big plus for me, offloading all the anxiety everyone else has to a third party," he says.
How it works is that Gariety places a simple "yes or no" question before these investors and they vote on it. Not relatively insignificant things like what pair of pants to buy, but the big, sometimes life-defining choices. Gariety has committed to go wherever the majority rules.
"It's a very unusual way to live, leaving a big life decision up to a bunch of random people," Gariety says. "It's kind of sad in a lot of ways. But I only have to take it for three months."
The path to this new venture has been a smooth one for Merrill and Gariety, but they both had to put some work in convincing the people with the largest stakes in this: the shareholders and Gariety's parents.
For the former, Merrill took to the online forums on the KmikeyM website, making the case for this shift in investor focus.
"People were a little sketched out," Merrill says. "The responsibility feels a lot more real to guide a 17-year-old than it does a 36-year-old. Sending me on a wrong path is much less dangerous."
Others pointed to the obvious fact that the reason they doled out cash to own shares of Merrill was because they knew him personally, or at least enough to feel like their choices held some weight. As shareholder Thomas King put it on the KmikeyM forums, "I believe this action lacks one of the fundamental aspects of my decision-making process [in regard to] Mike: namely, I don't know enough about Jackson to feel I can vote in his best interests."
Gariety did his best to assuage some of these concerns, opening up a thread on the KmikeyM website to let investors get to know him and answer questions as this experiment goes on. His parents were a little harder to persuade.
"I told my dad, and, at first, I don't think he really got it," Gariety says. "He didn't understand why anybody would do this, and, of course, his gut reaction was to worry. 'Oh, what if they make some horrible decision about my son's life!'"
His father has since come around to this notion, and brushes aside any concerns that Gariety is seeking the counsel of a gaggle of strangers rather than his blood relatives.
"I didn't feel affronted in the least bit," Terry Gariety says. "I was more pleased that he would broaden his circle of influence beyond teens to include entrepreneurs and adults. And I knew he'd be careful in what sort questions he would ask and that whatever the decision would be, he'd do it, even if he didn't want to. Like the GED. He really didn't like that response."
Gariety has resigned himself to the notion of getting a GED, realizing its benefit to his potential future employment as a programmer. Now, he's ready to move on to the next question to put in front of the KmikeyM collective.
"I think the next one will be about my dating life," he says. "I've been going on dates for the last five or six months, and it's gotten almost to the point where I feel like it's a complete waste of time. So I want to know if I should (a) give up because it will happen eventually, and it's not a productive use of my time right now, or (b) since I've come so far, maybe I should use the skills I've acquired and keep going."
Beyond this new query, shareholders and Merrill are starting to let a larger issue sink in: whether Jackson will go public after the first quarter of this year.
"The joke has been that the shareholders will like him and kick me out," says Merrill. "That would be amazing. The other option is that there will be another offering and we'll have my stock and his stock going back and forth on the market. I say, if that's what he wants, good luck. It's up to him. I don't want to get involved."
Check out the KmikeyM experiment at kmikeym.com.