Notes From The East: The 2016 Benzinga Awards

Most of you know that it takes a Herculean effort to get me out of California. If someone’s not dying or getting married – often hard to tell the difference – the chances of seeing me east of Vegas are low.

So you know when I tell you I just got back from three days in the Big Apple, there must have been a good reason for the trip. That reason was the 2016 Benzinga Fintech Awards which I attended with members of the SparkFin team.

Though it was a quick trip, it was jam packed full of good people and great experiences. Since I had 5+ hours on the plane to killl, I thought I’d fill you in on some of the highlights of my journey to the not-too-far East.

Here they are, in no particular order.

*Note: Forgive the unusually high number of links in this post, but there was just so much goodness on this trip that I want to recognize. Pretty cool gangsta talk, huh?*

The Event

I’ve been to a lot of industry events. Some suck (think Money Show), but the vast majority fall into a category best described as “meh.” Few are great.

The Benzinga Awards were great.

It’s hard to define why it was such a good show. The location certainly didn’t hurt. As a fan of epic views, the sweeping 180-degree view of the Hudson that presented itself upon entering the venue set a perfect tone.

The food helped. The open bar (really) helped. The insanely evil dessert trays, including a mini-chocolate glazed donut with custard inside it for Christ sake, were a plus. But most of all, it was the attendee list that set this event apart.

Jason Raznick, the CEO of Benzinga, or J-raz as I call him, is one of those rare people whose gravitational pull attracts quality folks into his orbit. Fill up a room with those type of people, and you create a vibe that is nothing short of alchemy.

The MC (Brown)

Statistically speaking, there’s probably the same percentage of A-holes in the financial industry as in any other. However, those in ours are so extreme that at times it seems like we’re over-allocated.

Which is why I like seeing the good guys win, like my pal Josh Brown, he of CNBC’s Fast Money, Ritholtz Wealth Management, and more quality blog posts than any non-genetically modified human should be able to produce.

Watching Josh MC the award ceremony was the highlight of the night. His display of caustic wit – edgy, but always in good fun – was a sight to behold. Here’s just a taste;

After a brief intermission in which a professional mentalist amazed the crowd with feats of cognition I’m still trying to figure out, Josh casually walked back to the podium, paused for a beat, turned, and pointing towards the aforementioned performer who was still packing up his props, yelled….


Pure JB.

Whether hucking Benzinga balls to the crowd, busting the balls of attendees, or suggesting that NAMBLA was an event sponsor (they weren’t this year), Josh took the event to another level.

On a personal note, Josh was any early supporter of this blog and continues to inspire me with his fearless point of view. Catching up with him is always a treat and I’m glad to call him a friend.

The Peeps

I’m the poster boy for anti-social behavior. If it was up to me, I’d live in a cave, far from the prying eyes of humanity. But I look forward to my rare trips to NYC because I know I’ll see a lot of friends – those I’ve met before – and those I’ve only known online.

Here are just a few of the ones I ran into;

Phil Pearlman – The doctor. My Yoda. The guy you can thank (or blame) for this blog even being here. Phil has a manic Zen quality that I love. The energy he exudes compels, not repels. Deep down I believe I’m his goyim kindred spirit, and it’s always a pleasure to see him in person.

Michael Batnick – A key part of the Ritholtz clan serving as Director of Research, Michael’s blog posts at The Irrelevant Investor are must reads. Smart, deep, and deceptively funny, I was finally glad to press the flesh on a guy who’s work I’ve long admired.

Joe Fahmy – When I was breaking into the online financial community, Joe was one of the first guys to reach out to me. He is such a solid guy, who has a deeper knowledge of the market than most “pros” I know. It doesn’t matter if it’s Cali, NYC, or Vegas, whenever I see Joe Fahmy, my day (or night) gets a little bit better.

The Brothers SwanAndy and Landon may be imposing figures physically, but everything about them is down to earth. Their company, LikeFolio, was one of the standout winners of the night and they celebrated in true Kentucky fashion by sipping – and sharing – a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle, a premium bourbon that retails for $1000 (a price Andy made certain everyone knew they did not pay).

Nicole Sherrod – My pal Sean McLaughlin once tweeted to Nicole that he had an issue with an alert function on the TD Ameritrade platform. He wanted to know if she could “run it up the flagpole” and get his issue resolved. She replied, “I am the flagpole!” Smart, funny, and classy, the things she has done with the trading platform at TD are amazing. Full disclosure, I’m not biased because I write for TD Ameritrade, I write for TD Ameritrade because I am biased.

The Gardening Tips

Watching JC Parets and SparkFin CEO Jason Pang discuss gardening tips during the ‘networking session” was a thing to behold. (You had to be there).

Look for JC’s “Tomato Talk” newsletter coming to soon to Marketfy.

The Source

Three years in fintech is like 100 years in the real world. I don’t even know what eight years would equate to, but that is how long StockTwits has been around.

Once housed in non-consecutive units of a Coronado strip mall – with a massage parlor and nail salon in between – StockTwits is now headquartered where it should be, in the Flatiron District of NYC, complete with a view of the Empire State Building.

The SparkFin Team and I spent Monday morning in their offices, and it made me reflect on how far the company has come, and how early they were to the fintech game. Justin, Dave, Pierce, Sean in Colorado, the king of content, Stefan, in Boston, and the whole team have truly built the closest thing fintech has to an institution.

This fact was not lost on the presenters and attendees at the Benzinga awards who repeatedly invoked that company’s name throughout the night as not only a first mover, but one of the primary champions and supporters of the fintech space.

The Original Disruptors

Times Square may be the worst kind of tourist trap, but for me it also houses my own Mecca, the NASDAQ Marketsite.

For those of us who came of trading age in the 80’s and 90’s, NASDAQ were the original fintech disruptors – before the terms “fintech” and “disruptors” existed.

With an eye to the future and a focus on technology, they were the underdogs in the fight against the staid and stodgy old exchanges of my grandparent’s generation. They were my exchange.

30 years, and who knows how many trillions of dollars in transactions later, it wouldn’t be surprising to find them now fat, happy, and content to rest on their hard-won laurels. That is not the case. They still are my, and a whole new generation’s exchange.

Brandon Tepper, Senior Director at NASDAQ, took the SparkFin Team on a backstage tour of the facilities and introduced us to their team. Not only is their technology still cutting edge, but the team is bright, intuitive, and free from any of the clichés and tropes that are commonplace among those who work for venerable financial institutions.

NASADQ is now!

Watching Artic Cat (ACAT) launch their IPO live from the NASDAQ studios reminded me that a public offering is simultaneously the culmination of years of hard work by management and employees (past), as well as a new chapter in a company’s history, tied into a shared vision with the investing public (future).

For a boy from the mean streets of Huntington Beach who used up his allowance buying newspapers with day old stock quotes, this is was a dream come true.

The City

There is no place on earth like New York City. It fascinates me every time I go there.

From the never-ending construction, to the countless amount of people I see just hanging out on the street at 2:00am, to the evidence of New Yorker’s most human of traits – the need to cultivate even a square foot of greenery in a sea of concrete and steel.

With tight quarters, narrow streets, and constant traffic, I don’t know how anything ever gets done in this town. But it does. The city functions, and does so with an energy and a pulse like no other.

Riding through the streets I can’t wait to see what shop, what art gallery, park, restaurant, bar, or bodega lay around the next corner.

New York makes me curious. It’s the highest compliment I can give to a city.

The Nosh

It’s a cliché’ to say that the best food in the world is in NYC. From the Kogi trucks to Troi Mec, even the most respected food critics will tell you that Los Angeles is currently the golden boy in the world of cuisine.

But no matter which way the trendy foodie winds blow, there are timeless staples that can only be done to proletarian perfection in the cities from where their fame first sprung.

Just as Cali has its In n’ Out and Chicago its eponymous dog, NYC has its standard bearers as well.

Like the bagel. The one I ate at a non-descript deli was perfection, served with a cream cheese that had the consistency of paste, but sat in my stomach like air. They say it has to do with the water in NYC. I thought the Hudson was polluted, but if polluted water makes bagel like that, so be it.

Or the meatballs I had at The Meatball Shop, drenched in a tomato sauce so tasty, I wanted to drink it after the dipping bread regrettably ran out.

I tried a pepperoni square at the legendary Prince Street Pizza. I loved it, but loved more the fact that they didn’t give a shit about how they displayed the celebrity photos adorning their brick walls.

But the culinary highlight of my trip was the 1:00am, random corner pizza joint serving traditional New York style slices. It had the right amount of grease and a crust that folded but didn’t crack.

Heaven in triangular form.

It’s hard to believe that of the millions of Italian immigrants who passed through Ellis Island at the turn of the last century, not one master pizza maker made it out to Lotusland, because I admit…. there is nobody in California that makes New York style like they do in NYC.

(And if there is, somebody clue me in, please).

The Journey

I can’t say enough good stuff about Virgin America. If they would only get rid of the crappiest Wi-Fi in the sky, Gogo ($GOGO), the experience would be perfection. I’d short the shit out of that stock if it wasn’t already down 66% from its highs.

I’m not an elitist, but I am 6’4”. If you can upgrade to First Class, do it. If you can’t, pay for it. It’s worth it, and the only way a 5 ½ hour flight can be described as “pleasurable.”

The End

No matter how great the journey, the highlight is always coming home to the seven and ten-year-old waiting for me. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and if that means that your heart overruns with joy when you hold them in your arms after being away, then yeah, I agree.

No amount of Facetime or Skype can soothe the ache in my heart when I am apart from them. This time, it was particularly bad as I had to leave on the day of my youngest’s birthday.

I fully expect to be the winner of the “Worst Dad of the Year Award,” though I’ll only be awarding it in my own mind. Boy Lund is not yet the sentimental type and a (hard earned) Xbox will surely ease any pain he experienced by my temporary absence.

I will be back again next year to the Benzinga awards and wholeheartedly recommend anybody who works in the fintech industry – or even the fin, minus the tech, industry – attend. However, I will ask my friend J-raz to change the date. One week earlier or later will do the trick, because, hey, you only turn eight once.

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