“Welcome to the world of Hardo & Co, an illustrious European Investment Bank,” the email begins.
I have never heard of Hardo & Co. An internet search yields no relevant results.
“Hardo has written an elaborate and equal parts luxurious and intelligent illustration book about investment banking — and would rather think this book to be exactly your cup of tea,” the email continues.
A review copy arrives, sent internationally but with a handwritten address. The book is an expensive-looking hardback in faux crocodile skin with gold lettering. It comes with a pair of white gloves for handling, bringing to mind a rare painting being put up for auction.
The book’s thick pages carry dense, ‘Where’s Wally/Waldo?’-style illustrations depicting a barely fictional world of Manhattan finance. They are interspersed with essays chronicling a day-in-the-life of a fictional banker, Hardo. It begins in the office and ends with Hardo placing drunken crypto trades in the back of an Uber.
If anything, I am more confused. What is this book? Who wrote it? And why?
“I always was intrigued by the finance space and when I was 11 or 12 I was trading stocks myself,” says the voice down the phone. “We would have the Financial Times at home in Amsterdam, which was quite rare.”
I am speaking with “Hardo”, the mysterious Dutchman behind the book. This is not his real name. He is choosing to remain anonymous for fear of hurting his career. He works in the “private equity deal space” in Amsterdam but won’t say much more.
The mystery author fears his book (full title: ‘Advanced Valuation Techniques - A modern outlook on complexity and guidance for navigating future financial crises’) might put noses out of joint. Essays throughout the book detail a world obsessed with status, money, and power. Hardo & Co promises “the highest of financial rewards for nothing but the small cost of some youth and some soul.” Rivals include “Government Sachs”, “JP Morgue”, and “Douche Bank”.
“People work 80 to 100 hours a week in probably the prime of their youth,” the author says. “I would like some people to really question what they are doing, why they’re doing it, and if it’s really the right place for them?”
Still, he describes the book as a “the biggest celebratory critique and a critical celebration of the space.”
“Where this is really playing from is the overall sense of self-deprecating humour that is very prevalent in this overall industry,” he says. “It’s satire basically.”
Just like ‘Where’s Wally/Waldo?’ readers are treated to elaborate illustrations and must hunt for people and objects within them. Example settings include the Hardo & Co. trading floor, a dense Excel spreadsheet, and a finance theme park, which features a Lehman Brothers haunted house.
On each page, the reader must find: Hardo (“Has to deal with being young this late in the cycle”); Hardress (“Told KKR and CVC to call next cycle - again”); the MD (“Blackberry, still misses the pager”); and Warren (“Only experiences happiness when dividends roll in”). There are also “hidden off-balance sheet” items to hunt on each page, such as bitcoin, gold AMEX cards, and expensive wine.
‘The Gucci belt and the big deal sleds’
The author was inspired by “finmemes” on Instagram — accounts like @notyourfathersbroker, @finance_gods, and @levered.lloyd that create parody memes for the world of finance.
“Just over a year ago they started calling themselves Hardos,” the author says.
The term refers to “the try hard banker — say the back office American banker who still wants to have the Gucci belt and the big deal sleds. But also, at the same time, it’s the name for a banker who says: ‘You know what, if it’s not going to be a $2bn deal at least, with at least 7x leverage, don’t even call me.’”
The term ‘Hardo’ reminded the Dutchman of the American picture book “Where’s Waldo?”, which set his mind racing. In his book, it’s left up to the reader to decide which of the two types of ‘Hardo’ his main character is: the Master of the Universe deal king or the try hard dreaming of making it big.
The illustrations make Hardo “Instagram-first,” the author says, and there is already an account, @where_is_hardo, which is the only way to buy the book.
But there are more high-brow influences. The Dutchman grew up devouring the the books of Paul Erdman, the American banker-turned-author who invented the “financial thriller”. Best selling author Michael Lewis is another hero. Lewis’ 1989 memoir Liar’s Poker chronicled his time working in the bond market during the boom years of the 1980s. It was an instant hit and catapulted him to fame.
“I want to be an author,” the Dutchman says. “I have my ideas. [Elon Musk] knew he was going to do four cars, starting with Model S, then 3, then X and Y. This is my Book H. A, R, D, and O are to follow.”
‘It’s go hard or go home’
For now though, the book is a “labour of love”. It was written over a year in the wee hours of the morning before the Dutchman’s day job and he has spent a “shitload” on its printing. There is a limited run of 500, each hand bound in Germany.
“Finance and luxury go hand in hand,” the author says simply.
A note accompanying my review copy said the Dutchman hopes the book will appear on the Christmas lists of investment bankers. He hopes it will be his entrée into the world of financial publishing.
He and his wife have flown to New York — Hardo’s home — for a launch event this Saturday in partnership with the Netherlands Club of New York. Prints from the book on aluminium will hang on the venue’s walls and Heineken is doing the open bar. He hopes to draw 250 of Manhattan’s Masters of the Universe.
“It’s literally go hard or go home,” the author says. “I’ve booked non-refundable tickets to New York and we go from there.”
Oscar Williams-Grut is Yahoo Finance UK’s City correspondent. He covers banking, fintech, and finance for Yahoo Finance UK. Follow him on Twitter at @OscarWGrut.