Brand in the Making
What makes James Prosek's business plan so different from yours is that he's not just going into business for himself. He's going into business as himself
It's 11 on a drizzly Wednesday morning in May, but James Prosek has yet to leave the comfort of his father's immaculate two-story Cape in Easton, Conn. Right now, the groggy 23-year-old is busy spooning Product 19 from a cereal bowl. He's in no hurry, given his short to-do list for the day: return half a dozen phone calls, make a quick trip to Mail Boxes Etc. and a photo lab, and then confirm an early-evening appearance, which constitutes his only solid obligation.
Before nightfall, Prosek may take on a couple of hours of writing--or maybe he'll hole up in his sister's old bedroom, where the half-finished portrait he's been working on rests beside his white-dinner-plate palette on a card table. It could be he'll do neither, choosing instead to begin mapping his next travel adventure. He'll soon add the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan to the roster of places he's already explored: Turkey, France, Mongolia, Austria, and New Zealand, to name but a few. So frequently does he travel, in fact, that he actually had to have extra pages affixed to his passport.
Only two years out of Yale University, Prosek could very well be like some of his fellow graduates, working at an investment bank or a young Web venture in New York City's Silicon Alley, casting for Internet riches.
But Prosek favors the more prosaic kind of casting--the kind that involves wearing waders and a fishing vest--and it has paid off handsomely for him. As a 20-year-old undergraduate, he parlayed his passion for fishing into an encyclopedic coffee-table book, Trout: An Illustrated History, which to date has sold more than 60,000 copies. His paintings of the angling world--watercolors that are precise, colorful, and beguiling--now fetch as much as $6,000 apiece at galleries in Santa Fe, N. Mex., and Santa Monica, Calif. Since 1996 he has published two more books; the most recent, The Complete Angler, was dubbed "eloquent and life affirming" by Harold Bloom, the best-selling author and eminent literary critic who supervised Prosek's senior thesis at Yale. His other notable fans include Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, and Tom Brokaw, who fished with Prosek in tow in front of NBC news cameras.
When he's not hobnobbing with the glitterati or reeling in trout near the headwaters of the Euphrates, Prosek sticks close to his father's house, where he's in the process of turning a passion into a profession. The guts of his trout obsession--sketches, snapshots, and sourcebooks--are spread out over beds, stacked on ancient exercise equipment, and scattered along the floor. Various notes are thumbtacked to the wall above his pillow. Tax files rest on a wooden picnic bench in the basement. The front porch doubles as a fulfillment center: eight boxes of Prosek's latest volume wait to be shipped to a store called Just Good Books, in Belgrade, Mont.
What does all that add up to? Last year, Prosek says, he earned close to $220,000--enough for the local arm of Merrill Lynch to solicit management of his portfolio. Yet with all due respect to the financial planners' expertise, no one has more keenly monitored Prosek's upward mobility than his sister, Jennifer, 30, a successful entrepreneur in her own right. As part owner of Jacobs & Prosek, a $1.5-million public-relations firm based in Stamford, Conn., Jennifer is especially savvy about the multimillion-dollar opportunities to be garnered from her brother's fame in the literary, art, and fishing worlds. And she spends much of her free time dreaming up ways her brother can generate ever-greater revenues. Her primary motivation? To help him preserve the creative, unharried life to which he is accustomed. Indeed, after watching James Prosek spend midday padding around the house, it's hard to argue with his older sister's assessment that he has "truly beaten the system."
Up till now, anyway.
Because in the next few months Prosek will leave his father's nest to move nearby, to three acres of property that includes not only a house, but also a one-room schoolhouse, which Prosek will use as a studio. He and Jennifer paid $550,000 for the property and houses. Jennifer came up with the idea of James's move, not as a way to reclaim her old bedroom, but rather as a key step in implementing James's own business plan.
That's right; James Prosek, who says, "My foremost objective is to be recognized as a relatively serious author and painter," is launching a company. According to the 67-page plan, the fledgling entity's goal is to post revenues of "close to $3 million by 2003," with $1.5 million in profits. Strictly speaking, Prosek has never held a job. But the organizational chart names him as president and creative director as well as product manager for books and fine art; in addition, he'll be reporting to a board of directors. When fully implemented, the plan even anticipates that the company will have two employees.