The Gordon Gekko of Fyre Festival

When Oliver Stone made the movie Wall Street in 1987 he was using the story to show how corrupt the banking system had become.

The Gordon Gekko character, played brilliantly by Michael Douglas, was created as an over-the-top, egomaniacal, greed-filled villain to showcase what’s wrong with the financial world.

Stone has since admitted in interviews how shocked he was that Gekko was received more favorably than he intended. He was using Gekko as a parody but instead of turning people off, it actually increased people’s interest in finance.

Stanley Wieser, a co-writer of the movies had this to say on the topic:

As the years have gone by, it’s heartening to see how popular the film has remained. But what I find strange and oddly disturbing is that Gordon Gekko has been mythologized and elevated from the role of villain to that of hero.

I thought about this as I watched not one, but two documentaries this week about the now infamous Fyre Festival.1

These docs are both filled with unbelievable stories about fraud, deceit, clueless influencers, poor planning, Ja Rule, FEMA tents passing as villas, people being taken advantage of, and a guy named Andy who was willing to risk it all to get some bottled water for a failed music festival.

Lots of people are focusing on those silly millennials who were duped in this scam but I don’t really blame them. It’s easy to mock the naive youngsters but there are plenty of old rich people who’ve been conned out of far more money than this for far worse reasons.

There’s also a social media angle to this story which shows how strong the fear of missing out can be on these platforms. But to be honest, the original ads for Fyre Festival did look amazing (mark my words — someone will do a Fyre Fest 2 in the coming years and it will probably be a blast for young people).

I came away fascinated with the main culprit of this fraud, Billy McFarland. McFarland was described by friends and co-workers as a “visionary”, “the smartest person I know”, and able to “convince anyone of anything.”

He was obviously a great salesman. But beyond that, he was a hustler, an unbelievable fund-raiser, and someone with aspirations that far outweighed his ability to deliver on his promises. McFarland had wonderful-sounding ideas but zero ability to actually follow-through on them.

One of my worries, when I see a movie like this blow up as much as it did, is that young people take the wrong lessons.

I’m afraid young people look at someone like McFarland and think, “I could do that. I could raise money from people by simply being a great salesperson but I would actually deliver on my promises. I’ll just fake it til I make but I’ll eventually follow through on my promises.”

It’s the Elizabeth Holmes syndrome.

Holmes so desperately wanted to be a tech billionaire and visionary that she basically just decided to act like one. She dressed just like Steve Jobs, changed the inflection in her voice, made promises she couldn’t possibly fulfill, told some outlandish stories, raised a bunch of money based on an idea without the ability to back up that idea, treated her employees like crap, and created a massive fraud called Theranos.

Then there’s Jho Low of Billion Dollar Whale fame, who tricked Hollywood elites, the Malaysian government (including the prime minister), and a bunch of rich investors into believing he was a billionaire through a series of elaborate parties, tabloid stories, lies, and deception.

There’s an old saying that history doesn’t rhyme but it does retweet.3

I hope these tales of influencers gone wild, fraudulent music festivals, and financial scams don’t turn into another case of Gordon Gekko.

I hope young people read the books and watch the documentaries about these tales and realize the only thing that matters is execution. These fraudsters shouldn’t be respected for getting so far with their scams.

Dressing like a billionaire won’t help you execute on your ideas.

Getting up at four in the morning to meditate won’t assure your business will get off the ground.

Reading a bunch of fortune cookie advice on social media won’t make you a better entrepreneur.

Dropping out of college just like Mark Zuckerberg won’t make it any easier to run a successful business.

Reading the biography of Steve Jobs won’t make you a better manager.

Calling yourself an influencer doesn’t automatically give you true influence over others.

It has to be earned.

One of my favorite scenes from the Netflix Fyre doc was when they were just days away from the festival date and one of the workers told the founders of Fyre about all of the problems piling up.

There wasn’t enough housing for all the tickets they promised. The food situation was unsolved. The venue was a disaster. They were running out of money. The workers frantically setting up the festival were convinced they’d never be able to pull off their Billy’s grandiose idea.

The response to these worries was, “I’m not a problem person. I’m a solutions person.”

This is a great line if you are an actual solutions person. But the people running the Fyre Festival most certainly were not solutions people. They were soundbite people.

And soundbites don’t get you much more than likes and retweets on social media.

Stories, vision, ideas, advertising, and branding can all be helpful up to a point. But it doesn’t matter how great you are at selling a story or a brand if you never deliver on your promises.

Further Reading:
Putting in the Reps

1I like the Netflix doc better than the Hulu doc if you have to pick one.

2When he gets out of prison Billy McFarland will probably try to set up a venture capital or hedge fund and some people will probably give him their money because that’s what people do.

3Okay that’s a new saying but I’m sick of seeing the old one used over and over again.

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