The End is Near Inc.
Chris Martenson quit corporate America to craft an unusual life of financial readiness — in case the economy really implodes — and now thousands of Internet followers are buying the message. Literally.
In the 1990s he cofounded SF Interactive in San Francisco, one of the first marketing agencies to specialize in the Internet. Now he lived in Montague and worked as a strategic-marketing consultant.
For years, Levins had worried about petroleum shortages, but he’d always pushed aside the fears. Now, under the spell of Martenson’s lecture, he felt a powerful mix of emotions as he considered the prospect of fuel emergencies. "I was scared," he remembers. Yet at the same time, he sensed the makings of a new American brand, a household name. "It’s the biggest business opportunity in human history," he remembers thinking as he listened to Martenson talk.
The way Levins saw it, Martenson had managed to bind together the worldviews of both blue and red states, making the environment and the economy seem like yin and yang, two sides of the same crisis. Instead of arguing about what the government should do or how big it should be, he had imagined a future in which the government was in shambles, useless. By removing government from the picture – and by encouraging people to think about putting on their own oxygen masks first – Martenson had suggested a kind of libertarianism that didn’t seem to be political.
In the days after the lecture, Levins found himself waking up at night, buzzing with ideas about how Martenson could hone his message. "I’m sensitive to how people learn – that’s what brand is," he says. "I was looking at his brand and thinking it could be a lot friendlier, a lot more about hope." By the time the two men met, Levins had devised a flow chart showing the business potential of Martenson’s worldview: Martenson could market himself as a one-man think tank and rent himself out to local governments and financial institutions. Together, Levins and Martenson began the huge job of creating video Web tutorials.
The following summer, the market started to jitter, and gas prices shot up to more than $4 a gallon. Levins was struggling with his own crisis; his mother, who was seriously ill, needed him. Every other week, he shuttled to Cambridge, driving Route 2 in a haze of worry. He agonized about his mother’s condition and also about the crash that Martenson had convinced him might happen. One day, Levins stepped into a Stop & Shop and found an empty shelf where there should have been rice. He took a photo. Soon, he was storing gasoline in 5-gallon tanks in his backyard, as well as buckets of food. He invested his parents’ money in silver and gold.
Martenson, meanwhile, began burning through savings as he transformed his lecture for video. In October 2008, just as the market dropped, he posted the 20th, and final, chapter of Crash Course. Viewers flooded the site. Volunteers began translating the videos into Spanish and French. Bandwidth costs spiked. Martenson had made the "reckless" business decision to put the course out for free, but started selling DVDs for 87 cents each. People ordered them by the hundreds.