Start your own hedge fund
How hard could it be? Our reporter went to a hedge fund startup and business development conference to find out.
By Marcia Vickers, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- I'm thinking of starting a hedge fund. Let's be clear: I'm in it for the money.

Look at Steve Cohen, who runs $7 billion SAC Capital. He owns a 14-acre estate in backcountry Greenwich, Conn., with a skating rink, a spa, and lots of art, including a $12 million shark in formaldehyde.

Moore Capital's Louis Bacon owns his own island off the Hamptons. My plan: I'd give my billions to charity after I bought a pair of Jimmy Choos. Okay, a lot of pairs. And some dinners at Jean-Georges. And a ranch in Montana.

So I landed in late June at the Fourth Annual New York Hedge Fund Startup and Business Development Forum, sponsored by a financial trade magazine. The ad for the forum read: "Save months of time on your setting-up process by meeting everyone you need to in just two days."

The conference culminated in "speed networking" - hedgie hopefuls like me would get three minutes of actual face time with scores of rich investors clamoring to throw money our way. Sort of like speed dating, but without the Cosmopolitans.

When I arrived at the conference, there were about 150 people - mostly men -milling around Gotham Hall, a gilded event space near Manhattan's Penn Station, with a 50-foot-high stained-glass ceiling. Some attendees wore suits, others polos and khakis. A few looked as though they actually had a shot at success.

One guy had a Metallica T-shirt. I wore a slinky black dress and heels because, hey, what better way to promote my soon-to-start hedge fund, No-Risk Blowout Capital, at a testosterone-teeming event like this? In booths circling the main floor were 15 hedge fund service providers. Two offered "one-stop solutions" for opening offshore funds in the Caymans and Bermuda; there were back-office outsourcers and law and accounting firms.

The conference had been booked full for weeks, according to Sally, a tall, blond, British conference organizer. "We've turned away dozens," she said. "They've been devastated!"

Could this be indicative of a hedge fund bubble? Last year 1,000 or so funds went belly-up. But around 2,100 new ones started, bringing the grand total to over 8,000, up from 600 ten years ago. (At presstime there were 6,010 Taco Bells in the U.S. Just FYI.) One curmudgeon by the coffee urn muttered that it reminded him of 1990s-era day-trading seminars. Booya to you, mister!

At the keynote address a woman who runs a supposedly killer fund called Velvet Asset Management welcomed us, then later said we probably wouldn't make it unless we had at least $20 million under management to start.

The reason: We'd be living off fees on assets for the first couple of years until we turned a profit. (That was with the standard formula: charging 1% or 2% on assets, 20% on profits.) Why rain on our parade, lady?

"That sucks," said Brian, a college kid from Salt Lake City. "We have $1 million in commitments and thought that was a rockin' start." He'd been thinking about leaving school to focus on the fund. I had "commitments" of around $50,000 from Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase - that is, from some credit card convenience checks.

Turns out our keynote speaker wasn't just being peevish. To run No-Risk Blowout Capital "like a real business" (which everyone said was a must ... yada, yada, yada), I learned, there were five necessities.

The bare necessities

First, I needed a lawyer to create investor contracts and such, at a charge of $400 an hour, or about $30,000 a year. Other gotta-haves are an auditor ($30,000 a year) and an accountant (ditto).

A back-office outsourcer to handle stuff like shareholder communications runs as much as $75,000 a year - though a conference exhibitor that uses workers in India was peddling itself for about half that.

I also needed to trade through a brokerage. One exhibitor uses Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs as clearing agents. ("If you use us, you can use Bear and Goldman's names on your marketing material. It really makes you look legit," the salesman told me.)

Then there was the optional compliance consultant ($15,000-ish), who ostensibly would keep the regs away. We're talking $200,000 just to get going!

Ah, but that's why there are funds of funds - hedge funds that invest solely in other funds - aching to provide seed money to folks just like me! They'd supply me with $20 million as long as I handed over half my annual fees and profits. Bill, a former Merrill Lynch broker who'd spent the past two years "sailing around the world, just diggin' life," said the terms seemed onerous: "They'll own you, man!"

Of course, I could also raise money from rich investors. All I needed was a fabulous track record, which, it turns out, could be arranged. A woman who had worked for a company that sets up hedge funds in the Caymans - Ms. Caymans, I'll call her - gave me this simple yet invaluable tip: Hire an auditor to reset your NAV (net asset value) after you've had a good quarter. Ms. Caymans said, "If you're trading your own money to start, no one will know." Pity that option isn't available for heart-transplant specialists.

Next I was off power-schmoozing with the not yet rich and famous. I first noticed Claudette, six feet tall in stiletto heels and sporting fire-truck-red lipstick and a five-alarm personality. Word spread she had "$50 million to invest from clients in the Middle East."

Then there was Henry. He ran an astrology mutual fund. If, say, the moon was eclipsing Uranus, I'm guessing that might mean switching from stocks to pork bellies. He was going to use the same strategy for his hedge fund, which would- - duh! - be easier to market than a boring mutual fund.

Hanging out by the doughnuts were two guys, both in their late 20s, who had cut their teeth at the same bucket shop on Long Island years ago along with "93 guys doing ropes of cocaine" under the tutelage of a Mob guy with "a missing pointer finger." They fondly recalled phone sales scripts they used in pump-and-dump schemes, e.g., "Your mind is like a parachute - it only works when it's open!" They were both starting "black box" funds.

Then I chatted with Mark, a gung-ho kid in his early 20s who was starting a "complex derivatives fund" with "a friend from MIT." He says that after reading George Soros's book The Alchemy of Finance, "I was hooked on trading!" He then admits he hasn't traded anything. Ever.

Finally, the main event: speed networking - with about 50 investors who "would likely be there," according to conference organizers. The strict rule: Investors, armed with our info, were to approach us if interested. Not the other way around.

We took our places under big numbers tacked to the wall. I was 22. Next to me was Steve, a former analyst who was launching a bank-stock fund and who was visibly sweating.

During the first hour, three investors trickled in. Steve and I stood at attention with frozen smiles. None came our way. During the next hour about six more showed up. The mysterious Claudette saw some good action, but most of us - nothing.

Awkward? Only the weak feel awkward. "Do what you love, and the money will follow," the life coaches say. But I, hedgie, know better. Follow the money, and you'll love what you do. For sure.

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