In January of last year, Ronan Ryan and Brad Katsuyama got a dinner invitation that would change their lives. The call came from a client who wanted to introduce the pair to Michael Lewis, the best-selling author of Moneyball and Liar's Poker. Ryan and Katsuyama were former traders at the Royal Bank of Canada who had left the firm in 2012 to launch their own trading start-up, IEX Group, which focused on creating a more level playing field for investors by shutting down certain high-frequency trading tactics. Lewis, the client said, was working on a story about a former Goldman Sachs trader who was convicted of stealing computer code from the firm, and he wanted to borrow their expertise to flesh out his story.
At dinner, Lewis listened intently as Ryan and Katsuyama described the ins and outs of their work in high-frequency trading. After dinner, he asked them: Would they be willing to chat some more?
A year later, Ryan and Katsuyama are the stars of Flash Boys, Lewis's new book about the world of high-speed trading. They've joined other Lewis protagonists like Wall Street analyst Meredith Whitney, NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher, and Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, all of whom saw their profiles skyrocket after being featured in a Lewis bestseller.
Intelligencer spoke with Ryan, the chief strategy officer of IEX, about what it's like to be in a Michael Lewis book, who's calling, and what it's like to wear makeup.
What was your reaction when Michael Lewis asked if he could interview you?
We were probably 15 people at that time, we’d just raised our first round of funding. And, you know, market structure is not that fucking interesting to laymen. But as a start-up, if Michael Lewis wants to write about you, I'm guessing 100 out of 100 would say yes to that. So it wasn't a real discussion.
How much time did he spend with you and Brad?
He probably stayed for five hours that day, and then he said he'd be back for a few weeks later. When he came back, we spent the day with him. He wanted to see our operations – see some of the data centers in New Jersey. And then he came back and sat with our team in May. He came by and spent a couple of days in our offices. And that's when he told us, "I think there’s a book in this."
At the time, we didn’t know we were opening ourselves up to a book. We’d been profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and we really thought this was going to be an article in Vanity Fair. A book is the holy grail!
Had you read his other books?
I had read Liar's Poker and The Big Short. We’re in a very complex market. People like to say, Oh, you just buy and sell stocks, but there’s a lot more to it. There’s no one out there who could take such a mundane and complicated world and simplify it like Michael could.
Did he give you any warnings? Like, By the way, this is going to be crazy?
He didn't really have to, to be honest. I can remember when I read The Big Short and I knew some of the traders in it. Those guys became — and trust me, I'm a humble guy — they sort of became mini-celebrities in the industry. I knew it would be pretty crazy.
It’s been nuts. We’re getting a lot of positive calls.
Who's been calling? People who want to invest in IEX? Friends from back home?
Oh God, it's everyone. We’re getting a surprising amount of people who want to invest in IEX. We’ve had people who want to list their companies on IEX. It's been incredibly humbling. And not just emails – like, people are picking up the phone and leaving voice messages to thank us for what we're doing. One lady said, "I've got money in a shoebox, how do I invest that?"
I ran track in college. I had three guys I ran track with in college, 18 years ago, call me. I hadn't heard from them since.
Sunday night's 60 Minutes was your first time on TV. What was that like?
I was a little nervous. When the basketball game [that aired before 60 Minutes on CBS] looked like it was going into overtime, I was on my hands and knees with my elbows on the coffee table going, "Miss, miss, miss!" When the 60 Minutes clock started ticking, I looked at my wife. I was terrified.
We didn’t do any media training, but it was a friendly experience. We got to wear makeup for the first time in our lives.
This must be a huge day for your business. When's the party?
[Laughs] We celebrated on October 25, when we went live. We’ll likely take the team out for drinks, but there’s no back-slapping. We’re still a start-up.
We call it Act One, right? Because normally, Michael’s written about stories that have already ended. Our story’s very different. We launched five and a half months ago. We need to do a lot more to truly be relevant and effect change.
What's the most memorable call you've gotten so far today?
We had a voice message from a guy from Kentucky, strong accent, he was a vet. He was thanking us for doing right on Wall Street.
It’s funny, you have all this excitement with the television, your wives are telling you you're so great, and your parents are proud of you, and you come here at 6:30 in the morning and some guy from Kentucky got off his ass, dialed a phone, and left a voice message saying something like that. You’re like, Holy shit, you’re really touching Americans. There were chills. We played it over the speaker. I was really amazed.