Porter Stansberry and I have something in common. We're both communicators, writers, journalists. We both get to travel and to ask strangers questions about the things that most matter to them. And we're working in businesses which are remarkably open-access. If you can do it, you'll survive, maybe prosper. If you can't, then you're out, to go do something else. Contacts help, but mostly it's you.
"Copywriting is a business of objective results," he said in his 2002 interview. "Either your copy sells better than the control – or it doesn't. Age, race, sex, education, style – none of it matters. That's not true of many other business endeavors where more subjective factors are typically more important."
There are as few interviews with Stansberry as I've been able to find photographs. Modesty once again? Perhaps not. I reckon he's simply grasped that pictures and words are goods or services, which it's not smart to spread around for free. As Dr Samuel Johnson, the 18th century author of probably the most influential English dictionary, shrewdly noted: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
So, since his public thoughts are sparse, forgive my mining the same vein: the interview of 2002. Because he said something else that feels comfy in my head: the capital-S Secret of his Success.
Writing you rich?
"What I write sells," he told his questioner, "because the main idea behind my package is so exciting that people would buy even if I were a terrible writer. The hard part is doing the research required to find a new 'Big Idea.' You know it when you find it, though. It's huge, it's valuable, and it makes you want to tell other people about it."
Man, is that true. And have I sometimes forgotten it, even at my end of journalism. Take the VaxGen story, where we went head-to head. Look at him, and then look at me. His "Big Idea" was that a vaccine against Aids had been discovered. Mine was that the product was a scam.
Here's a Porter sentence of 2003, as the company's stock price bombed:
I have stunningly good news to report
And now an earlier couple from me, as I interviewed VaxGen's president, who actually admitted a snag with his product:
"The Thai B strain is GPGQAW," I continued. "If you take the B vaccine sequence it's GPGRAF."
Get it? His idea was both bigger and simpler. And I bet he made more from tipping a flop like VXGN than my pay for getting it right.
Better to be simply wrong than meticulously correct. Few salesmen make much from meticulous.
The other thing I've noticed is Stansberry's incredible speed. He just bashes it out. No hesitation. His word-choice may be glib and his structure formulaic. You wouldn't want to read it in bed. But, like Jeffrey Archer novels, you're drawn into the story: Porter's Big Idea underneath.
Like he advised in December 2010:
If you live in an urban area, I recommend making sure you've got somewhere you can go in case there are riots or food and water shortages.
And in November 2012:
This force will carry Obama back to the presidency in 2012. And yet again in 2016.
Even as I write, Chinese armed forces are massing to attack Hawaii.
Actually, I made the last one up. Porter Stansberry didn't say that. You see, I'm learning...
But what he wants is controversy: almost always the critical element for the attention-grabbing big idea. It was Plato who said that the essence of drama is conflict, and conflict is the essence of controversy. No matter that a president can't these days go three terms, the idea is so gripping, you're engaged.
"I know what good copy 'sounds' like, because I have 'heard' it a million times before," he said in his interview. "It's like swimming: You will not find your stroke until you've practiced for years."
How true that is. It's the Masterson method. And it's got Porter into trouble, I can tell you.
It not only landed him in federal courts, which handed down findings of fraud. This was the case of the infamous "Stansberry scam", when the Securities and Exchange Commission successfully prosecuted him for publishing intentionally false information. I've given the gritty detail elsewhere, and won't repeat it. But it's hurt the Stansberry brand. Big time.
Stansberry and I have discussed this, and we agree to disagree. He thinks he was picked on unfairly. Why would the SEC go after a minnow like him, when Wall Street is more clogged with evidence of malfeasance than Park Avenue with dented taxis?
I think the SEC was right (although it hoped to get more) because Mr Stansberry, and many others, needed reminding. The prosecution laid a marker to aid those who trust investment research, and to warn any others who might think the Masterson method can allow ideas to be valued above facts.
Whether in promotions of gold, his take on the oil industry, or his monthly picks of small caps, he's always in search of the grabbing phrase: what Dr Johnson might have called "flights of fancy".
Not that he hides it. I mean, you wouldn't pay 50 cents for market research that forecasts a three-term Obama. But the idea is so preposterous it gets tongues fluttering. I mean, he made it onto MSNBC. And I think that's the answer to the Riddle of Stansberry & Associates. To keep ideas coming, they must get glibber and more improbable.
And for the ordinary investor, studying his company's research claims, the question above others to focus the mind is:
Can Porter Stansberry write you rich?