American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road Drugs Empire

By Nick Bilton, May 2, 2017, Portfolio / Portfolio Books, 352 pages. Hardcover, $27. E-read edit-on, $14.

The tale of the small startup business that grows into a major company is a part of our American psyche. In the early 1900s, it took several years for companies like Ford, General Motors, or U.S. Steel to grow into large corporations. In the past 10 years, the internet has accelerated this rapid scaling up process. Today’s headlines are filled with Silicon Valley “unicorns” that use innovation and fortunate timing to become billion-dollar companies in a few months.

“American Kingpin” by Nick Bilton is the story of an entrepreneur who built one such business and quickly grew it into more than just a $1.2 billion company selling illegal drugs online. Bilton is a former New York Times newspaper reporter who left the changing world of media to do what he does best – write books. As he did in “Hatching Twitter,” a book which profiled the early years of Twitter, Bilton took years of painstaking research and firsthand interviews in “American Kingpin” to get a true behind-the-scenes perspective.

The book’s main character is a former Eagle Scout named Ross Ulbricht. The story picks up with Ulbricht in his mid-20s, mostly interested in Libertarian politics, computer coding, and occasional drug use. The idea of college never quite takes with Ulbricht and he makes his way back to his hometown of Austin, Texas to take stock in himself. For all of his promise, talent, and aspirations, he realizes that he has fallen behind the career paths of his contemporaries.

Ulbricht thinks up an idea to solve two problems: Making quick cash by selling his home-grown psychedelic mushrooms and doing something that may finally bring fulfillment and significance to his life. After a thorough think-through of his business concept, Ulbricht starts a website on the deep web, which is invisible to search engines, to sell his home-grown mushrooms. The website, named The Black Road, languishes at first, but is soon discovered by other users, dealers, and bloggers who are ready to anonymously sell their wares to customers worldwide through the protected site and the encrypted payment system Bitcoin.

As Ulbricht’s concept gains traction more quickly than he imagined, the site is renamed Silk Road and Ulbricht uses the handle “Dread Pirate Roberts” (yes, from the movie “Princess Bride”) to protect his identity. As Silk Road balloons, it takes on millions in revenue through selling not just illegal drugs, but also firearms, and even body parts. The site is also linked to providing drugs to more vulnerable customers who suffer from overdoses, addiction, and death.

Agents from several U.S. government agencies work independently at first to try to identify the real or fictional mastermind behind Silk Road. How they drop their turf wars and come together to compare notes is an interesting subplot. Meanwhile, Ulbricht has to run to escape arrest. He is challenged to maintain his personal life as Ross Ulbricht to his family and friends while playing the mob boss role of a Dread Pirate Roberts in private.

“American Kingpin” is a real life story that reads more like a John Grisham novel than a business book. In the end we learn there is a difference between becoming a Silicon Valley billionaire and someone that does it illegally. It’s called a life sentence.

Chris Wendel is a business services consultant with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution based in Marquette, Mich. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at cwendel@northerninitiatives.org.

 

 

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