How David Tisch Came to Run TechStarsNY

Photo by Venture Studio

Yesterday New York expat Matt Mireles “speared a sacred cow,” in his words, by questioning the credentials of TechStars director David Tisch, whom he has never met. “Why is Techstars NYC run by a non-entrepreneur?,” he tweeted, with a link to Mr. Tisch’s TechStars profile, and tagged the tweet “#confused #BigCoSubsidiariesAreNotStartups.”

We have to admit, we were curious about Mr. Tisch’s credentials too. We didn’t know the story of how Mr. Tisch came to be director of TechStars NY. Turns out it’s a pretty interesting one.

Once upon a time, Mr. Tisch wanted to start an  accelerator in New York. He had this idea after presiding over the incubation of a start-up, Knowmore, within the internet-based directory assistance company KGB. He was also running a private fund, BoxGroup, that’s basically money he and his two brothers have put aside from their eminent, wealthy and well-connected New York family; he was one of the first investors to say yes to GroupMe and also has invested in Boxee and He is arguably responsible for bringing TechStars to New York.

“When I left my last job at KGB, I felt there was a missing piece in this infrastructure in New York,” he said during an interview for the podcast Mixergy. “The start-up scene was really blossoming and there was no structure at the bottom. When I looked there I looked at this accelerator model, I spent about two months studying Y Combinator and TechStars to understand what it is that they’ve done to get to level that they’ve gotten to and to potentially start my own. In two months at work I realized how incredibly hard and successful these two programs were… I just thought like kind of trying to start talking to some people in New York and put something together because the city was missing that piece, and so I didn’t know what it was going to look like but I did some homework to try to figure out what it might take.

“After I looked, I sort of put it away in the back of my mind, and I started working on a start-up of my own, in the sports gaming space… I started to do some more angel investing. I went up to this conference in Boston, Angel Boot camp, which was an awesome collection of people talking about angel investing. I saw David Cohen walking around the room by himself and I walked up to him and said, ‘Hey man, why aren’t you in New York?’ and he said ‘Who are you?’ and we started talking, I gave him a little bit about my background and that conversation ended that day. I went to Boston’s demo day the next day looking at companies and David again was off in a corner by himself as he tends to be. He’s very removed, at times in the best way, he sort of watches over everything which we have slightly different personalities in our energy, I guess, in a social setting. David was standing there and I was like, ‘All right, so really why aren’t you in New York?,’ and he explained ‘We’re looking at couple other cities, New York, L.A. being two of them and we’re looking for someone to run the program.’ He laid out a list of five criteria as to what he’s looking for, and I started rattling off some names of people I thought were qualified to fill that role.

(The five criteria were: a successful start-up, a failed startup, an angel investment, a good network of entrepreneurs, and another Mr. Tisch couldn’t remember. Mr. Tisch was missing a successful exit and the forgettable fifth criterion.)

“At the end I said, ‘I have maybe three of those five things but I’m very interested in this opportunity, but I’m probably underqualified.’ And he said. ‘Well if you’re serious, I’d like to talk about a few people who have brought up your name.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh cool.’ So, I ended up flying out to boulder the next week and I think this is where we really hit it off. Instead of trying to figure out an itinerary or booking an interview I said, ‘How ’bout I just get on a plane, fly to Boulder for four or five days, hang out and see if we like each other.’ He goes, ‘That’s exactly what I would like to do.’

“So, literally I got on a plane, booked a hotel room and just hung out at TechStars in Boulder for five days without any contacts, without any agenda outside of an hour-long interview with Brad Feld and the guys at Foundry Group.”

Mr. Mireles’s tweet that questioned Mr. Tisch’s credentials understandably sparked a retorts from heavyweights Chris Dixon–“David’s one of the good guys”–and Mark Suster–“I’m with Chris on this one”–as well as some smaller but similarly supportive potatoes in the New York tech scene. Chris Paik, venture capital scout and man-about-tech-scene for Thrive Capital, responded, “To question @davetisch is to question @bfeld & @davidcohen. 99% of “veterans” couldn’t hold a candle to what he’s done.” To which Mr. Mireles replied, “I didn’t get where I am by deferring to authority figures. It is perfectly legit to question TechStars’s syndication model.”

A debate ensued on Twitter between defenders of Mr. Tisch and those who supported Mr. Mireles for being skeptical.

(Mr. Mireles, who moved out to the Bay Area a little over a year ago to start a company, SpeakerText, and has attracted a lot of attention for the manifesto he wrote explaining why and subsequent public statements comparing the relative start-up friendliness of the two cities, is not a seasoned founder either. He fought fires, went to journalism school, and worked as an EMT before he decided to become an entrepreneur.)

There is one point of evidence. The New York TechStars program recently hosted its first demo day, which attracted a huge crowd and resulted in rave reviews from prominent investors from all over the country.

The program has also been considered such a success so far internally that TechStars recently added a summer program to supplement the fall session–primarily because Mr. Tisch persuaded him, Mr. Cohen said at the time.

“I did see the tweet and I thought it was kind of silly,” TechStars founder David Cohen said. “David’s a very active angel investor. He’s been involved in over 40 startups as investor, founder, employee. He’s lived with start-ups his whole life and he’s doing it for all the right reasons. He has the community in the New York City ecosystem in his heart and his soul. He knocked it out of the park on his first at-bat.”

Does Mr. Tisch have founder experience, we asked? “I think he started a company or two,” Mr. Cohen said. “I don’t have his bio in front of me.”

A.k.a., who cares? It’s still early to say how successful the New York TechStars program really is–they haven’t gotten blind offers from Yuri Milner yet–but we question the assumption that founder cred is essential or sacred. If the program fails, we’re betting won’t be because it wasn’t run by a founder. Meanwhile, Mr. Mireles appears to be backpedaling on his tweet after TechStars founder Reece Pacheco voiced praise for Mr. Tisch. “When an entrepreneur says to me: ‘Dude, the guy is legit’ about someone, I take it seriously,” Mr. Mireles tweeted.

Disclosure. How David Tisch Came to Run TechStarsNY