Hacking Reference Checking 

We all acknowledge the critical nature of thorough reference checking as it relates to hiring or investing in someone. However, given that most people are reticent to offer a negative reference, most of us struggle with extracting the type of valuable feedback we’re seeking in order to make better decisions. 

Many years ago, a mentor of mine shared a hack for reference checking that I still use today. For me, it still delivers more signal than any other method I’ve come across. Here’s how it works:

Dear Samantha,

I’ve discovered that you worked with Daniel Jones at DKR a few years ago. I’m evaluating an investment in Daniel’s new startup and I’d be grateful if you’d be willing to share some insight with me about your experience working with him. However to be respectful of your time, I’m only asking you to follow up and reply to this email if your experience with him was exceptional. 

Thank you, Mark

We all want to hire or invest in exceptional people. Well, anyone who’s had a terrific experience working with someone will be happy to reply to an email like this, right? Mediocre or less though and they’d probably rather go to the dentist. As you can see, this method allows people to gracefully opt out of those uncomfortable calls while at the same time, delivering the signal you’re looking for. The most important aspect of this approach though is to send at least 10 emails like this, even more if possible. The more data points, the better.

I’m always thrilled when I get a bunch of responses with people telling me that they’d be more than happy to tell me how great someone is and how I’d be foolish not to work with them. On the other hand, a handful of non-responses is a sure sign that I’ve got some more diligence to do. 

Give it a try and let me know how it goes. I’d also love to hear about any other methods people use to make better human capital decisions. 

Posted in Angel Investing, Startups, TechStars | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Music Never Stopped

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” – Plato


Back in 2011, I walked into Topspin Media’s office for the first time and this bearded dude in a faded brown tee shirt popped out of his chair, and with a big smile stuck out his hand and said “Hey, I’m Bob, you must be Mark.” So began a special friendship which culminated in our announcement yesterday of Techstars Music and I couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome Bob Moczydlowsky to the Techstars family as Managing Director of this incredibly exciting new program.

So first thing’s first. Music as a business? Let’s face it, it’s been a difficult industry for startups to succeed in. Actually, it’s been brutal. I learned that as an investor in Topspin where Bob, Ian and an insanely passionate and talented group of people created a company that was genuinely disrupting how artists connect with their fans. Yet we lost money in that investment. Simply put, the dynamics of the industry have historically made it difficult for startups to scale.

So why are we placing a bet on a rock pile where so many pick axes have been broken? Well, let’s start with the fact that more people listen to music every day than log into Facebook. Music is unlike anything else, it’s the cultural scaffolding that unites people from all walks of life. It completely transcends socioeconomics and touches every human being in a deeply unique and personal way. However, from a business perspective, the music industry is underinvested in for good reason. Less than 2% of mobile ecosystem dollars goes to the music industry and yet the average mobile user consumes close to an hour of content every day. There’s opportunity there!

We recognize that it’s going to be hard, but for the first time in history, we’ve been able to bring some of the most important players in the ecosystem together to collaborate and we’re willing to take a stand and say hey, this is important and we’re going to do this. There’s new technologies and business models emerging, as well as new delivery & consumption paradigms which lead us to believe the industry is at a tipping point.

We’ve wanted to do a music accelerator for a long time, but believed that the key to doing it well would be a consortium model where the most important players in the ecosystem were deeply engaged. That’s a tall task given the historic dynamics in the industry and there’s only a few people that could pull something like that off. Bob’s one of them. He’s universally liked and respected in the industry and that’s rare. He’s also grinded away in startups himself so he has a deep and genuine empathy for founders – perhaps the single most crucial characteristic we look for in our Managing Directors. More than anything though, like all of us, Bob never stopped being a fan. Take a moment and watch his brilliant TED Talk, Think Like A Fan.

Most importantly, there’s no way we could possibly attempt this without the leadership and forward thinking of our partners in this endeavor. I’m blown away that Warner Music Group, Sony Music, QPrime Management, Silva Artist Management, Era of the Engineer, Harmonix Music Systems, SONOS & Bill Silva Entertainment all came together to partner with us. It’s really hard to get your head around the breadth and depth of mentorship & access these startups are going to get.

There will be a lot more information in the coming weeks. LA is the perfect place for us to do this and we’re seriously stoked to launch another program in one of the most important and fast-growing startup communities in the world. Techstars is absolutely #LongLA. For startup founders who would like more information about the program or how to apply, please contact music@techstars.com.

Finally, if you’re wondering why there’s a big Stealie on top of this post, that’s simple. I’m a deadhead from way back and I’ve been waiting a long time to use one in a post. Seems like the perfect moment.

There’s a band out on the highway
They’re high-stepping into town
It’s a rainbow full of sound
It’s fireworks, calliopes and clowns
Everybody’s dancing…





Posted in Music, Startups, Venture Capital | Tagged , | 2 Comments

The Toughest Person I Know

Two years ago, our dear friend (and my incredible assistant) Denise shared that she had been diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. It had metastasized to other organs and she would have to undergo very aggressive treatments immediately. We were all stunned. Everyone except Denise that is. She took it in stride and simply wouldn’t entertain the notion that cancer was going to win. She educated herself, converted to a completely plant-based diet and set out to whip cancer’s ass.

The fact that she was declared in remission by her doctors 8 months later was nothing short of miraculous, except to Denise. She never believed for a second that she wasn’t going to beat it. She also never asked for a day off during the entire episode. Determined to keep her mind active and busy, she’d stroll in for chemo with her laptop under her arm and keep my partners and my world’s humming along as if she was battling a head cold. Never once in the last two years have I ever heard Denise complain for a second about this card she’s been dealt. She’s inspired all of us with her toughness and attitude and sunny disposition every single day.

This past winter, the cancer reappeared in her liver and the doctors decided to treat with radiation which culminated in another declaration of remission. Unfortunately, Denise’s latest scans have shown small growth on some of the tumors in her liver, which once again, she will tackle with a second full round of chemo. She begins an aggressive treatment plan beginning next Friday, August 26th. The plan calls for treatment infusions every two weeks for six months.

Those close to Denise have have been incredible with support for her but we’ve decided to reach out to our friends to be there for her in the same way she’s always been there for us. Pam’s cousin Julene, herself a cancer survivor, has set up a gofundme page here to help Denise with some expenses to pay for things like housecleaning, dog care and other things so she can focus 100% of her effort on beating this once and for all. If you know Denise or simply want to help an amazing woman get through her battle, I know that every penny will help.

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This Is What The Apocalypse Looks Like?

Back in Q1, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone advising startups that the world, as they knew it, was coming to an end. Venture dollars flowing to startups had decreased from $16B in Q3 ’15 to $12B in Q4 and VCs were telling anyone who would listen that nuclear winter was in sight and funding would be drying up. The media just ate it up. Take a look at just a tiny sample of headlines from early Q1.


Imagine my surprise when I opened PWC’s VC Q2 Money Tree report on Friday (ok, I’ll admit that I wasn’t surprised at all). Take a look at the chart from their report below. Not exactly the apocalypse everyone was predicting, right? To be fair, while dollars have increased again, the number of deals fell by about 5% (suggesting that larger dollars were going into some later stage companies).

Q2 16

I wrote a post about all this in February and my advice to founders remains the same as it always is. Raise more than you think you need. Price your rounds to avoid the pain of stacked notes. Watch your expenses. But whatever you do, don’t pay attention to what anybody’s saying about the macro because they’re all full of shit.

Will the funding environment get worse for startups? Yes, of course it will. Eventually. Bill Gurley’s been telling us we’re in a bubble for years now. He will undoubtedly eventually be right. But there’s also logic supporting the notion that an entire generation of globally important companies will be born and go public by the time he is. We’ve now had ten quarters in a row of over $10B of venture capital flowing into the system. Venture Capital firms raised more money in 2014 than ever before in history and then they raised even more in 2015! All of those firms have a mandate to put that capital to work which means VC dollars will continue to flow liberally to startups at least for the next 3-4 years.

My $.02? I think we’re in the greatest tech innovative cycle in history and capital will continue to be available to fuel it. Technology is solving more problems for more people in more ways around the globe than ever before. I see it when I travel to our 24 Techstars accelerator programs and the hundreds of events we put on for entrepreneurs around the world in over 130 countries. Barring a global economic collapse (which certainly does seem like better than a zero percent chance given the events of 2016 and the potential fallout from our Presidential election this November), I think we’ll continue to see a healthy environment for startups for years to come.





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