BOOM TO BUST I grew up in New York, in Bayside, Queens, in a lower-middle-class family. My parents were both accountants. They were educated, smart, hardworking ... and broke. I realised at a very young age that it's not enough to be educated and hardworking. My parents were risk averse and they worked for other people. Generally we model ourselves on our parents, or we go in the opposite direction. I looked across town and saw all this wealth that seemed so out of reach and I knew that's where I wanted to be. I was always the sort of kid who had a paper route, shovelled driveways after snowstorms, did magic shows for kids at parties - anything to make a buck. After college, I went to dental school for one day and thought, 'What the hell am I doing here? I don't want to be a dentist.' I ended up getting a job as a sales guy for a meat company. I have the innate ability to sell and persuade. I've always had it - the gift of the gab. After a few weeks selling meat, I had broken all the sales records and thought, why should I work for these guys? So I went and bought a big truck and started selling for myself. Then I bought a second truck and started training sales people. Then I bought a third, a fourth, and by the time I was 22, I had 26 trucks on the road and was making a ton of money. But I was also making all the classic mistakes a young entrepreneur makes: overexpanded, undercapitalised, not keeping track of my inventory. I was out of business as fast as I got in.
A MIGHTY ROAR So, then, I'm in New York, bankrupt, but hungry and a born salesman. What do you do? You go to Wall Street. I heard about a kid from the neighbourhood who was never all that smart and they were saying he was making a million bucks a year - in 1986! I didn't have the greatest resume - dental school dropout, recently bankrupt - but I approached a firm and went in there and wowed the guy. Later, he said something very prophetic - he said, either you're going to be the biggest broker in Wall Street history or you're going to end up in jail. A genius of some sort, he turned out to be right on both accounts. I had my foot in the door and I saw the mighty roar of the boardroom and the greed and the fear and all the money being made and I loved it. I was in a training programme for six months and then finally my first day as a broker came, on Monday, October 19, 1987 - Black Monday. I watched in shock and awe as the market went down 508 points and the firm I was with closed down the same day.
THAT SINKING FEELING So I had to take a job trading penny stocks out at this firm in Long Island, because no one was hiring. But again, I became the top salesman in no time. And again, I decided to open my own shop. I started small, but I hit upon a niche that no one had really tried at the time, which was selling mid stocks to the richest investors. The second part of the equation was a very efficient system I came up with for training salespeople how to close. Once I nailed these two principles, the money poured in. In two years I went from a nothing firm to having 1,000 employees. In a few years I was making US$50 million a year just in cash. And like a lot of poor kids who get rich, I started playing out every asinine teenage fantasy I ever had. I made US$650,000 in one trade. I bought a white Ferrari Testarossa. Why? Because Don Johnson had one in Miami Vice. The firm grew and grew, and I spiralled wildly out of control. I was doing massive amounts of cocaine, Quaaludes, Xanax, Paxil, uppers, downers, all arounders. Hookers of all shapes and sizes. Gambling, private jets, yachts and a different sports car every other day. I once went out and bought a 170-foot yacht while I was stoned out of my mind and insisted that the captain sail it out into a major gale. It sank; our entire party had to be rescued at sea by helicopter. You know when you wake up with a headache and wonder what you did last night, but you know it was something stupid? Well, that's the kind of stuff I was waking up to - 170-foot sunken yacht type stuff.
TOMMY & TOM Finally I got sober in 1997, after this insane ride of massive drug addiction, hooker addiction and every other addiction you can imagine. I looked around and thought, 'Oh my god, what have I been doing?' I realised I had made some really miserable decisions, one of which involved putting a lot of money in Switzerland so I didn't have to pay taxes. I hunkered down and just prayed they wouldn't come for me. And for about a year and a half, nothing happened, but then finally the FBI came knocking on my door. And that was it - I spent 22 months in jail. But then, guess who my bunkmate happened to be? Tommy Chong from Cheech & Chong. He was there for selling bongs on the internet. Naturally, there's not much to do in jail, so we would tell each other stories. Tommy has some good ones, but after about three days of rolling on the floor laughing, he told me I had to write a book - he said it would be a best-seller. I gave it a shot, but I found writing impossible. I was about to give up, and then I walked into the prison library and stumbled upon Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. By page one I knew this was how I wanted to write. I got a highlighter and used the book as a textbook, teaching myself how to write in jail. When I got out, I had lost pretty much everything. I had had this unspeakably insane life, and how was I going to reconcile all that with any possible future?