I just finished reading Nick Bilton’s “American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road,” which documents the well-known saga of Ross Ulbricht, aka “Dread Pirate Roberts,” and Silk Road, the black-market website that sold illegal drugs and other dangerous items.
In May 2015, 31-year-old Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without parole after being convicted of seven felonies, including trafficking drugs on the internet, narcotics-trafficking conspiracy, running a continuing criminal enterprise, computer hacking, and money laundering.
Although he also was accused of trying to commission and pay for more than one murder, the charge was dropped from the indictment, and prosecutors and attorneys have said they never happened.
The book reads like a novel, and it describes how a young, smart, kind-hearted, and well-educated Ulbricht became the Dread Pirate Roberts, the code name of the man who ran the website, and how multiple law-enforcement agencies chased him down.
Other key players of Silk Road were also captured and jailed, including two law-enforcement agents assigned to help capture Ulbricht.
Although Bilton didn’t interview Ulbricht for the book, he used the enormous catalog of information on the case and interviews with other key sources to get inside Ulbricht’s head.
He paints a picture of a young libertarian idealist who thoroughly convinced himself he was helping society with his criminal startup — and his slide into becoming an outlaw.
And parts of the book made the work of running a criminal enterprise website sound eerily like bootstrapping a tech startup.
Ulbricht created a ‘mission driven’ company and community
Ulbricht adopted the code name Dread Pirate Roberts, according to the book, and wrote long motivational posts to his employees about the mission of Silk Road.
“It’s not the government’s right to tell the people what they can and cannot put in their bodies,” Ulbricht said, according to documents admitted as evidence in the case.
Through posts on the site, Dread Pirate Roberts declared that the mission was to sell drugs so extensively that the government would somehow be forced into legalizing all drugs.
He hired people who believed the same. As Silk Road began to traffic in things way outside of drugs — like guns and body parts — he continually insisted he was doing good work.
“Let the market decide, not the government,” he said, according to the book.
Not all of Ulbricht’s employees fully bought into the goodness of the mission. “They were still, at the end of the day, drug dealers,” one employee told him, according to the book.
Apparently, Ulbricht vehemently disagreed. “We are out to transform human civilization,” he wrote to employees, according to the book.
After his trial, pleading for leniency in the sentencing via a letter, he stood by his beliefs but admitted he regretted some of his actions.
I was left with a feeling that I was reading the mind of someone who was so good at the game of justification and rationalization that he was downright lying to himself about his ideals and his role in the world.
He made early mistakes that ticked off his customers
Ulbricht taught himself to code, and in the ignorance of a newbie, he made big mistakes with security, the book says. As the site became more notorious and financially successful, it became a constant target of hackers’ attacks.
Ulbricht also spent much of his time dealing with customer-service complaints or fights among members of the community, according to the book. A plan to increase revenue by changing the Silk Road price structure, for example, triggered a revolt among the site’s clientele.
That stuff sounds like the kind of problems any young company could have — if you ignore that this wasn’t exactly a company, but a black market.
But Ulbricht made choices most tech CEOs would never consider, paying the ransoms demanded by hackers as if they were a standard cost of doing business, the book describes.
“Friends in the real world would say things to him like, ‘Why don’t you try this business idea or work on this app?’ to which Ross would simply say, ‘Good idea, dude. I’ll think about it,'” the book says. “But, as he told his employees on the site, he just wanted to scream at them, ‘Because I’m running a goddamn multi-million dollar criminal enterprise!!!!'”
And then he began to believe his own hype
Silk Road flourished until it became an estimated $1.2 billion business, the book says, and Ulbricht ‘s net worth was said to have skyrocketed to the tens of millions.
That’s when things started getting ugly.
When the Dread Pirate Roberts believed one of his employees had stolen from him, he was said to have paid $80,000 to have the person killed, according to the book. But the killing was faked, as were others he was accused of ordering and paying for, according to the records of the case.
But he didn’t know it at the time.
“It was as if the act of taking another man’s life, or at least believing he had done so, had given DPR a taste of power and control that he had never felt before,” Bilton wrote. “The leader of the Silk Road had started to become more demanding.”
When Ulbricht was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, there was some outcry that the sentence was too harsh, even though Silk Road was implicated in at least one overdose death of a teen.
But after reading the book, the sentencing seemed less out of line to me. I was left with the impression that running a criminal enterprise website is in some ways strangely similar to running a successful Valley startup, but with a few major differences. Chief among them: You could very well spend the rest of your life in jail.