The five-years between 1997 and 2002 were a financial and emotional roller coaster for me - a true rags-to-riches-to-rags journey of self-discovery. Almost overnight, my life was transformed from that of a typical undergraduate to that of a celebrated Austin-area dot-com guru and millionaire. I fell from this gilded perch as the Internet industry's long winter of discontent began. I finally hit rock bottom in August 2002, when I briefly found myself homeless.
My journey began when I discovered the Wall Street Journal in my high school economics class. During college, I successfully interviewed for a Merrill Lynch internship. Initially, being around those serious business people was intimidating, but I was determined to make the most of the opportunity. I worked about twenty hours per week, in addition to my regular coursework. At first, I disliked cold calling strangers, but success required learning how to make a decent sales pitch and think on my feet. I absorbed as much as I could during my 18-month experience at Merrill.
At Merrill, someone mentioned a little-known company called Yahoo. After researching the company, I bet everything that I had on Yahoo. This was the single smartest (or luckiest) decision of my life. Soon, I personally owned a seven-figure brokerage account, ultimately representing a thirty-fold investment return). After the initial excitement from having instant wealth wore off, it did not take long to get bored with the idea of investing in other people's companies. I became overconfident as a result of my great stock market success. Inspired by the phenomenal success of Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos and Dell's Michael Dell, I wanted to start my own company. I headed to Austin's fledgling Silicon Hills and the University of Texas in 1998.
At the peak of the tech bubble, Austin was an exciting place to live. I found myself entertaining celebrities like singer Willie Nelson and NFL all-star Rickie Williams at a party I hosted. Eventually, I began taking such extraordinary events for granted, and developed unrealistic expectations. In early 2000, I co-founded a dot-com with a couple of friends. We started Harlequin Records.com with the goal of becoming the best online music label in Texas. We invested our own money to cover initial startup costs, with the idea that we could later seek venture capital financing. However, our timing could not have been worse. By the end of 2000, NASDAQ's prospects had already turned bearish. In early 2001, the venture capital industry was in recession, and our company was in trouble. I had already lost a lot of money in the market. My situation worsened when I finally heard from my old mentor at Merrill Lynch - it was a margin call. In order to pay off my debts, I gave up my new Corvette, condo, and the remaining Lexus.
A week before 9/11, we had raised a large portion of the necessary investment capital. However, it was clear that the economy would remain weak for some time. Our investors ultimately withdrew their financial support. The absence of capital forced us to shut down the company in June of 2002. Suddenly, I found myself without a job, and with no immediate means of supporting myself. I had hit rock bottom. Completely broke, I lived in the cab of an old Ford truck for almost a month. My one-man party at the "Ford Mansion" came to an abrupt end when I broke a leg in an accident. I subsequently moved back into my mom's middle-class suburban neighborhood.
Whoever coined the phrase "It's hell to be poor" was right on the money. After living through so much volatility, I was ready for a change of pace. It was finally time to get on with life. By December, I was considering pursuing a legal education, and gradually began working toward that goal. I spent much of 2003 contemplating my future, involving myself with a few local causes, and taking on occasional IT or financial risk-management consulting jobs to make ends meet. June 2004 brought a full-time job (and a bunch of lengthy out-of-town assignments) with a Dell subsidiary.
The past few years have been an exciting and challenging journey of self-discovery. A relative of mine quips that I have experienced enough of life's ups and downs to compose ten BB King albums. Indeed, my experiences have given me the rare opportunity to look at the world from dramatically different socioeconomic perspectives. Losing all my money also forced me to reconsider how I measured my self-worth. Initially, losing everything was a rude awakening. In the past, I had often judged others and myself principally by material accomplishments. Ultimately, these experiences forced me to fundamentally redefine who I was and my value system. In retrospect, being reminded of what is really important has taught me of the meaning of integrity. There's an old saying about how any experience that doesn't kill you will make you a stronger person. In addition to making me stronger, I would like to think these experiences helped me become a better person.
I hope these insights and experiences will one day allow me to become a better lawyer than I otherwise would have been. In addition to these insights, my professional background offers a technical and practical perspective on information technology-related matters. My entrepreneurial experience, when combined with a legal education, will uniquely position me on the forefront of new legal challenges posed by the ever-changing world of technology.
I would benefit greatly from being part of the incoming class at The University of ____ Law School. Legal education has a self-discovery aspect, and this intellectual journey will further develop my character. I hope to attend law school outside of Texas (don't send to UT!). In the context of pursuing a top-tier legal education, living in the ____ area would be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Additionally, sharing my unique experiences will stimulate my classmates' minds at____. For these reasons, I would appreciate the opportunity to attend your law school.
How We Got "J. R. Ewing" to Invest in our Dot-com
This essay details part of my experience as Chairman and Co-CEO of a briefly successful dot-com company. Upon reflection, I think it also illustrates an interesting encounter between the contrasting cultures of traditional and modern Texas.
While living in Austin, I came across one of the most interesting people I have ever met. Ted Smith was a 40-year-old University of Texas law graduate who sports a 24-inch beard (imagine ZZ Top with an I.Q. Of 180). We eventually co-founded a dot-com in early 2000. Together with Will Dyer, we invested enough money to cover startup costs. Harlequin Records.com was founded with the goal of becoming the best online music label in Texas. We also began designing innovative file sharing technology that would erode MP3 files if users failed to pay a licensing fee for downloading songs. Another important goal was to secure our first round of venture capital financing in 2001. Unfortunately, the venture capital industry was in recession by that time. As the recession deepened, Harlequin began experiencing financial difficulties. A margin call from Merrill Lynch left me personally broke. I gave up my Corvette, condo, and remaining Lexus in order to pay off debts. If not for a relative's used low rider truck, I would not have had access to an automobile. 2001 was shaping up to be a bad year. In order for our fledgling company to survive, we desperately needed to secure a seven-figure cash infusion.
Unable to find company financing through more traditional means, we began to network intensely and meet investors through alternate channels. Will, a Dallas native, began looking for investors in the city. Ted tutored the Bush twins while their dad was governor, so he networked through the Austin political crowd. A native Houstonian, I spent a lot of time flying home to attend Texas Exes' functions and to schmooze some investment banker friends downtown. We had the perfect plan and impeccable credentials, but our timing could not have been worse.
As we unsuccessfully searched for investors, Harlequin's financial situation continued to deteriorate. One evening after work, Ted and I met for a drink at one of the live jazz clubs on Austin's 6th Street. We were in the bar complaining about our company's woes when a middle-aged man walked up to us and introduced himself as David Gardner. He had overheard bits of our conversation and was interested in learning more about our company. Ted and I glanced at each other, and then looked back at the man standing before us. Not knowing how intoxicated he was, we nevertheless gave him the pitch of our lives. By the end of the evening, David hinted that he had a good feeling about our situation.
Initially, we had no idea whether or not David was sincere. After all, we had never met him before. With his soft, round profile, wire frame glasses, and receding hairline, David looked more like a software programmer than…