Online entrepreneur Ruslan Kogan is brash, driven and the richest Australian under 30 - and he says he's only just begun.
'I'm the best poker player in the world,'' he says, twice, looking me in the eyes and not blinking. Ruslan Kogan is sitting in a comfy chair in his corner office on an industrial street in South Melbourne, wearing a baseball cap, straight face and dark stubble. A replica Statue of Liberty stands behind him in the shade.
Hell, this office is like a shrine to great deeds. Framed prints of Hoover Dam, the Manhattan skyline and a bronzed Atlas, holding up the heavens outside Rockefeller Centre, are on the walls. On a wood bookshelf are 10 copies of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged with uncracked spines, and Who's Who in Australia 2010-11.
Kogan's own entry is marked with a pink sticky note. So who is he? The richest Australian under 30, with an estimated wealth of $62 million from selling cheap televisions and computers online. He's the housing commission kid made good. The eponymous company he started in his parents' garage six years ago is now the country's biggest online consumer electronics retailer, with an expected turnover of $150 million this year (up from about $22 million in 2011).
Here's a guy - only 29 and still dropping off his washing to his grandmother's - bragging about increasing profits sixfold while Harvey Norman, David Jones and Myer have slumped about 20 per cent apiece.
Kogan has his sights set on being Australia's biggest technology retailer ''in the next three to five years''. Would you settle for second best, I ask. He squirms. ''Second-biggest retailer! Nah, what's the point of that! That's like you're working really hard and trying to do something just to not even be the best at it.''
He's riding the big wave of consumers online, baiting established retailers such as Gerry Harvey as overpriced and out of touch. Once upon a time, Harvey was the brash young retailer selling vacuum cleaners door to door. Kogan, he has said previously, is a ''con'', selling ''unbranded shit'' - but he doesn't want to give his young rival any more free publicity. ''Ruslan Kogan is a problem for me,'' he tells me on the phone. ''I have nothing to say on Ruslan Kogan … If you use my name in this story don't call me again.''
''Failureisnotanoption'' is Kogan's wireless network name. For Kogan, that means everything from running his business to running at the gym. ''I will sometimes be in the gym with a mate and he will come up to me and say, 'Mate, I don't want to be calling an ambulance, look at you'. And I'll be like, 'No, my goal is 10 kilometres at a speed of 12km/h. You might have to carry me out of here but I am going to finish that.'''
Why not just stop running? I ask. ''Because that wasn't the goal. I can't even imagine getting off,'' he says.
Google ''Ruslan Kogan'' and ''poker'' and you find he once rose as high as eighth in a No Limit Holdem competition at Crown Casino, winning the grand sum of $363. But that's not a patch on how well he reckons he plays the game.
Perhaps it's unfailing self-belief or bluff or both, but he's the Muhammad Ali of modesty. ''I make the best bolognese in the world, without challenge,'' he says, when our conversation turns to cooking. Swiss tennis great Roger Federer used to be his favourite tennis player, until he started losing. In the course of three interviews, Kogan name-checks himself favourably with Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, Henry Ford, Kerry Packer, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs.
Perched atop the bookshelf in his office is a 1984 Apple Macintosh computer from Harvard University. It's part of Kogan's ''tech museum'', highlights of which include several Nokia 5110 mobile phones in boxes.
Jobs was a visionary, he says. ''He was also an excellent showman and marketer, which is why everyone knows about Steve Jobs and everyone knows about the achievements of Steve Jobs.''
There is a touch of the showman about Kogan, too, driven in part by the desire for people to know his name (''Ruslan'' translates as ''Russian warrior'', he says). He pitches himself as the consumer's champion but boasts a BMW Z4 convertible and black Hummer. He dresses in IT chic - baggy shorts, T-shirt and trainers - and walks like an automaton, arms swinging by his sides. The name Kogan is printed on A4 paper and stuck to the front door of the office with sticky tape - this for a company that boasts close to 10,000 customers a day.
Being the best is something Kogan has worked hard at from a young age. At nine he built his first computer. At 10 he found his first job: collecting stray golf balls from the course near his family's housing commission flat in Elsternwick and selling them for 50¢ each. By 11 he was washing cars at weekends and was, he says, ''financially self-sufficient''.
''He was the pimp of the schoolyard,'' says David Shafer, his classmate at Melbourne High School and now executive director of Kogan. ''He was a bit of a prankster, a bit of a loudmouth, got into a lot of trouble. He was a bit of a hustler, he always had a bit of a side business going on.''
The young Ruslan sounds a little like Charlie Bucket before he found the golden ticket in a bar of Wonka's Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight. ''My parents got to Australia in 1989 with $90 in their pocket. My dad would literally go from learning English in the morning to driving a taxi, then to doing pizza rounds, then to delivering pamphlets in the street. My mum would clean at one cafe, then another, then be a waitress at another,'' he says.
''All through growing up, whenever we would be in a supermarket I would grab this candy or that and the answer was always, 'No, we can't afford it'. I realised from a pretty early age that if I actually want something I am going to have to go get it myself.''
Kogan was six when his parents, Alex and Irene, left Belarus with him and younger sister Svetlana. The family soon settled in a two-bedroom housing commission flat in Elsternwick. I ask Kogan to show me around his old digs. ''Ah, the rags-to-riches story,'' he says, smiling.
The four-storey commission blocks are what you might expect: rubbish scattered next to a line of garbage bins, dreary curtains drawn over dirty windows. Kogan points up to his old home on the first floor, where he lived from age seven to 15. ''It feels eerie,'' he says. ''The windows haven't changed, the blinds haven't changed.''
His bedroom looked over rusted clothes lines. Now he lives in a corner apartment 18 storeys above St Kilda Road, with a view over Albert Park Lake, the city and bay. His rent is ''a bit over'' $1000 a week. He also owns an apartment on the building's 10th floor.
''When I lived in this place I didn't know any better; this was life, this was how it goes,'' he says, looking around the council blocks. ''I guess to develop the hunger, to want to move up in life, you might have to start somewhere like this.''
Kogan's parents now live in a neat, single-storey building on a quiet street in Elsternwick. They moved there after leaving the housing commission, and rebuilt it in 2006. When the building was delayed they appointed Kogan, then 23, as project manager. ''It was two months behind schedule and my parents were getting really worried because of the money. So I came in, sacked everyone and started from scratch,'' he says. ''I used online tools to find new tradesmen, had contracts drawn up with the right incentive structures and penalties if things were late.
''I took the project from being two months behind schedule and over budget to being three months ahead of schedule and under budget.''
I am here to talk to his mother, Irene, but when I arrive Kogan pulls up wearing a blue ''Just Do It'' T-shirt. We sit at the dining table and eat teaspoons of Irene's home-made plum jam over tea. ''He loved technology from a very young age. The first money we save we buy a computer for him. He loved it,'' she says. (Kogan, who says he has a photographic memory, recalls it was an IBM 386.)
Irene shows me her son's old school reports, which describe a boy who was inventive and naturally inquisitive, but a troublemaker. ''I don't like authority because I think it numbs your brain,'' he says.
He proudly prescribes to the radical libertarianism of Russian-American writer Ayn Rand, recently described in The Guardian as the ''ugliest philosopher the postwar world has produced''.
''Rand's is the philosophy of the psychopath, a misanthropic fantasy of cruelty, revenge and greed,'' it said. The wealthy of her world are depicted like Atlas ''holding up a world beset by spongers''. The only moral course is pure self-interest, with no role for government beyond police, courts and the armed forces.
It is curious Kogan, a product of public education, supports such a philosophy. I email him The Guardian article for comment but he refuses to read beyond the first three sentences, saying the author either doesn't understand Rand or is misquoting her. Rand's philosophy is ''based on the principle of individual rights for all people - rich or poor'', he says.
He compares himself to Rand's character Howard Roark, an aspiring, uncompromising architect from her 1943 novel The Fountainhead. Roark, he says, ''was basically 20 years ahead of the curve, so everybody would talk him down … So I see a lot of parallels in that.'' I ask him what he thinks of Rand's 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. ''I haven't finished it yet, but I know the whole drift,'' he says.
Kogan reckons he tried about 20 businesses - including web design and mobile phone repairs - before starting his namesake company in 2006. He left his job as a management consultant at Accenture on a Wednesday and was up and running by Sunday, financing his first order of TVs through presales and loans from friends.
The family dining table was once a makeshift packing area. Goods were stored in the garage and later stacked by the front door for delivery. It's a simple but profitable business model: Kogan buys electronic parts from suppliers around the world and builds products cheaply in a Chinese factory, before selling them online in Australia and Britain. Savings, he says, come from cutting out bricks-and-mortar costs as well as middlemen such as exporters, agents, manufacturers and distributors.
Online spending surged about 26 per cent over the year to the end of February, while year-on-year growth for bricks-and-mortar retailers was 1.7 per cent, according to National Australia Bank.
Many old-school retailers have viewed the internet with suspicion. Last month, David Jones chief Paul Zahra admitted the company had been too slow to move online and was playing catch-up.
''We aim to be Australia's largest retailer within the next three to five years. Largest retailer, full stop,'' Kogan says in our first interview. Later he corrects himself, saying he had meant the ''largest technology retailer''. Even that is a tough ask: Kogan's $22 million turnover last financial year pales against the multimillion-dollar sales figures for JB Hi-Fi and Harvey Norman.
Kogan products compare favourably on price but poorly in terms of quality, says Choice spokeswoman Ingrid Just. ''Kogan, you could say, is a pretty innovative model, it's just that when it comes to our tests and how his products compare to others in the market it has never been in our 'what to buy' list.''
But people like cheap stuff - so many people, in fact, that Kogan could retire now. ''[But] the money to me doesn't represent what you can buy, it represents what you have achieved,'' he says. ''So I love the challenge, it's what makes me happy: my goal is happiness.''
So what makes him happiest? He wriggles in his chair, thinking. ''Being healthy makes me happy, achieving goals, seeing people use technology makes me happy. It's not the money that drives it, it's the challenge, it's the game. I'm halfway through a poker tournament, I can't just throw my chips in and walk away.''
Kogan's operations manager, Dan Beahan, is a former professional poker player who met his boss at a late-night game in St Kilda. ''He normally didn't come in until 10 or 11 at night, play a few hands madly just to get his little fix and then out the door,'' Beahan says.
''He thinks he was great, I think he was terrible,'' he adds, laughing. ''He would sometimes move all in and not even look at his cards, you know, say, 'Come on, boys, take me on'.''
When I mention this to Kogan he insists he takes only calculated bets, in business and play. ''Your aim in the poker game is for others to think one of two things: either that you're stupid and a bad player, or that you're erratic. So I want the good players to think, 'Yeah, I've got a full house but is he holding four of a kind?' My aim is to make myself as unreadable as possible,'' he says.
''If the goal was money I wouldn't be here today. Rather than cashing out and saying I'm done, I've got it all reinvested in the next hand of blackjack. I'm going for double or nothing, and I am going to do double or nothing again after that because it's the part of the business that is driving me.''