Dana Vachon channeled his corporate angst into a commentary on greed, excess, and the sometimes-misguided American Dream. It landed him a book deal.
Do you ever daydream about leaving work and never coming back? Want to start happy hour on your lunch hour? Feel like a fat fraud at Le Cirque? Entrepreneurs take heart. In Mergers & Acquisitions, the Wall Street satire by JPMorgan analyst-turned-blogger-turned-novelist Dana Vachon, these fantasies and so much more (socialite dominatrix, anyone?) become strange reality. And for those of you who said goodbye to corporate America long ago, the book will serve as an unsubtle reminder of what you are -- to your delight -- missing out on.
Vachon, 28, had a lucky break (knew the right people) and managed to get his just-for-fun blog linked on the New York magazine website in 2003. That quickly garnered the attention of a literary agent, and soon after a reported $650,000 two-book advance with Penguin imprint Riverhead. He's one enterprising Westchester-bred, Duke-educated fella. And in spite of the disdain these facts have raised in some financial and literary circles alike -- Vachon knows how to write. His first novel is a ruthlessly aware, sometimes hilarious account of a world that, to paraphrase Merger’s protagonist Tommy Quinn, "you hate to love."
Inc. reporter Sarah Goldstein spoke with Vachon by phone on April 6, the day after the book hit stores. Despite a relapsed cold ("too many cocktails after last night's reading"), Vachon managed to power through, sharing his thoughts on corporate excess, starting a blog, and the ancient pyramids of Wall Street.
Your book has been compared to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. If business in the '80s was characterized by greed and excess, how would you describe it now?
Business is always going to be defined by the profit motive and the profit motive's definition is always going to make use of "greed" or a word like it -- the pursuit of self-interest. The '80s was all about ridiculous excess. The opulence just got to the point where it was absurd and it couldn't go on. We're in a similar place right now. My book is very much about that. A moment like this can only destroy itself, but the end of the cycle is as compelling as the cycle itself.
When did you realize that you could turn your blog into a viable enterprise?
My blog had something like 250 hits a day, so it wasn't a real cash engine. In fact, I think I lost money on the blog because it was tied to my nocturnal doings, which were invariably expensive. What the blog did do was that it helped me meet David Kuhn, my literary agent, and that was amazing because the odds of sitting at your desk at JPMorgan and meeting a literary agent are just not great.
How did you generate enough buzz to gain his attention?
I started blogging in 2003 and the blogosphere was a lot less crowded back then. JPMorgan had a brunch and I sat next to [Gawker.com founding editor and DealBreaker.com founder] Elizabeth Spiers who is so brilliant and so far ahead of it. I had just been published in the American Conservative and I was so happy and she was like "Listen jackass, this blog thing is the way of the future," so I thought, all right, I'll try this. And literally, she linked to my blog from the New York magazine website, and two weeks later, I was out having drinks with David.
It's a classic early-mover advantage, which is just a great economic principle and invariably true. A few links in 2003 was enough to create readership. But now, if you don't have ADD, you will eventually, because there's just so much media.
You’ve complained about being "very unhappy" during your time at the bank. What did you like about investment banking?
I thought the culture was fascinating. When I worked at the original JPMorgan, I thought it was so cool to be in this American institution. Remember when you were six years old and you took American history and it was like, 'The world was created in 1750 and then America came along…'? I feel like you always have a little bit of this child's view. I'm always in awe of America. To work in this truly ancient American institution -- I mean you don't get more ancient than JPMorgan.
I walked in there almost as a historian. I really loved the David McCullough books and William Manchester books. It was this America that existed only in my mind, but it still felt so cool to be inside a place like that and to be poking around. It was like walking around one of the pyramids that hadn't been looted. And then the Chase merger happened and it was looted.
That's a pretty romantic way to look at the merger of two corporate entities.
It was the destruction of a corporate culture. I always pictured Bill Harrison [former Chase CEO and architect of the merger] as Hamlet and Jamie Dimon [who succeeded Harrison] as Fortinbras. Chase is just a commercial bank, that's what they are. They want to pass themselves off as an investment bank because you get better multiples, but they're not. JPMorgan had created this culture -- they really cared about their clients, they took good care of their employees. But these consolidations are the story of our time. At the end of the day, it's JPMorgan's fault that JPMorgan is no longer around.
Despite the American dream of self-sufficiency, of being your own boss, why do people continue to be so fascinated by Wall Street?
It's the American DeBeers. I don't know if it will stay this way, but America has a monopoly on the capital market. For the first time ever, the European equity markets have more value than ours. That's a major problem. Wall Street is a great American jewel. It's the goose that lays the golden eggs. Most enterprises at some point have to come to New York and pay a ridiculous fee to get what they need. It's the tollbooth and it's the most heavily trafficked highway. It let's you fight stupid wars. It lets you send things to Mars. It lets you do all these super-sized American feats that define us for better or worse. It's totally ridiculous. It's crazy.