Matt Bencke passed away yesterday. We put the above photo and note up on the Foundry Group site yesterday but I was still processing it and wasn’t ready to blog about it until this morning. His partner and co-founder at Might AI – Daryn Nakhuda – wrote some beautiful words about Matt at In our hearts, always.
You may remember Matt from his incredible article in Wired Magazine titled The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging From A Thread. I added on to this in It Can All Change In A Day.
Matt found out about his cancer on July 28th. The day before he, and everyone else in his world, thought he was in the peak of health. My post was on August 24th. It’s October 20th. I’m struggling to process this time frame.
I measure the closeness of my friendships with a few specific markers. The one that shifts things into another level of intimacy is to spend a few days together with me and Amy. Matt and I had been planning to have him and his wife Amy (who I only know from a distance) come out to Aspen in September and spend a long weekend with us. That obviously didn’t happen and will be a hole that I always have in my life.
Matt – you were awesome and will always be in our hearts and memories.
His autoresponder (typos and all) is one for the books, and like great poetry, worth reading over and over.
My cancer (ccRCC, metastic) has gotten the upper hand and I’ll be
putting all my resources into managing it.
In my stread, please keep these very important messages in place:
* be good to each other
* enjoy evert day
* wanting is suffering
* The journey is still the destination, now more than every
* the trend of purpose is coming like a tidal wave, get out a heard of
it. enjoy the ride. die fulfilled.
* Reframe your thinking of “what your career can do for you,” into
“what can your career do for others,” and wonderful, meaningful work
Jeff Clavier introduced me to Ted in 2006 and we both invested in Ted’s company Dogster. We crossed paths periodically, usually online.
My last email to Ted was a few months ago, where I wrote “Sending you some love this morning” followed by
He responded quickly with:
Every day is hard these days.
Nonetheless, I’m very happy to be alive and keep fighting through.
At some level, it’s all pretty simple.
Enjoy Every Day.
Ted – thank you for the gift of you.
On July 28th, my partner Jason told me that Matt Bencke, the co-founder and CEO of Mighty AI, had suddenly gotten a serious cancer diagnosis. While Jason was on Matt’s board, I had spent plenty of time with him and, as one would expect, was shocked.
I immediately sent Matt a note that said:
I will keep confidential, but I wanted to send you love and good karma. You are a special person. I’ll be thinking good thoughts and sending you positive energy multiple times a day.
I didn’t know what else to do. Later that day, I got a note from Greg Gottesman, a close friend of ours who helped start Mighty AI – with a summary of what was going on.
1. He has a large clot in his right ventricle that needs removed. That is very likely to be open heart surgery. We are being transferred to Swedish Cherry Hill to start that process; surgery is likely tonight but TBD.
2. Initial pathology report does confirm what we knew was the most probable but worst diagnosis – pancreatic tail adenocarcinoma. We know it is Stage 4 because of the metastases to other organs. It is terminal and incurable, but how long he will have will depend on more information and how soon he can recover from open heart surgery and start chemo. MDs right now say could be over a year. We simply don’t know.
A day later, Matt sent me a short note in response that said:
7/28 was a Friday and Amy and I didn’t have anything planned. The evening was a quiet, reflective one. I still remember being empty of words whenever I thought about this. Matt is 45 and in incredible physical shape, so the reminder that this can happen to anyone hung quietly in the air.
On 7/30, I got the following email from Matt.
No need for confidentiality
Your prayers and thoughts mean the world, thank you. This is still surreal. Of course I’m hoping for the best and I’m a stubborn Pittsburgh-born fighter…but the prognosis is clear.
This may sound weird but maybe I can turn this into a silver lining for others. When I’m feeling coherent i could do a webcast or some such
Matt has written an incredible essay that was published in Wired today titled The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging by a Thread. It’s extraordinary. In addition to reflecting the awesomeness of Matt, it goes through the intense few days of discovery, his emotional journey personally and with his family, while weaving in the backdrop of how a CEO, management team, company, and board deal with something like this unfolding in real time.
You know you are in for a powerful story when the lead in is:
“It started while I was on a Hawaiian vacation in May. I thought I’d just tweaked my back lifting a poolside lounge chair. Back home, my back pain became severe, and I started noticing nerve pain in my legs. For eight days I could barely crawl around the house. My wife and two daughters nicknamed me “the worm.” At 45, I’m in pretty good shape—avid cyclist, runner, weightlifter, yoga enthusiast with a resting pulse in the 50s.”
I read the draft of this when Matt first wrote it. Wired changed very little, which is a tribute to them for letting Matt speak in his authentic, unedited, and raw voice. For example, when describing the moment of the initial diagnosis:
“He went on to explain that I had many tumors in my liver, pancreas, and chest. In addition, he explained that I had quite a few blood clots, including in my heart and lungs. “What is ‘many’ tumors?” I asked. He looked defeated, saying they stopped counting after 10. I thought he might cry, and then he started in with some nonsense about how maybe it was all just bad tests, or maybe I had a rare water-borne pest infection. Amy began crying, hard. I went into silent shock and just tried to get this guy to shut up and leave.”
But that was just the start. Lots more transpired over the next day in the hospital. And then …
“On Friday the docs woke me with an urgent problem: They had found a blood clot the size of a Ping-Pong ball in my heart’s right ventricle. If it broke loose, I would die instantly, whether I was in an ER or my basement. To make matters worse, they showed me an image of the clot, and it was precariously wiggling on an already-loose attachment. Each time my heart beat, the ticking time bomb swayed precariously. The clot was too big to suck out with a vacuum, too risky to slice and remove bit-by-bit, and too large to remove from the side by breaking open a few ribs. Nope, removing it was urgent and would require cracking my sternum. Today.”
Time sped up.
“Events were happening at a dizzying pace. Clearly I needed to start making some calls—to resign my role as Mighty AI CEO, to connect with my mom and other immediate family members, to alert more of my closest friends. It was around 9:10 Friday morning. Mighty AI’s weekly operations meeting would be getting started at 10:15, so I had a lot of calls to make.”
I hope I’ve inspired you to go read the whole thing at The Day I Found Out My Life Was Hanging by a Thread. I just went and read it again and it’s one of the best in the moment essays I’ve ever read. GeekWire has a nice add-on piece titled Mighty AI co-founder Matt Bencke diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, vows to ‘beat the odds’ as he hands over CEO reins.
Matt ended his essay with this:
“We are all so fragile. Each day is precious. And the most important parts of our lives are the relationships we invest in. I certainly feel that way, as my friends and family—“Matt’s Army”—have Amy and me awash in love that feels like a mighty waterfall.”
Treasure every moment. Love your fellow human. As Matt says so clearly. “The most important parts of our lives are the relationships we invest in.”
If you know Matt or are part of my extended gang and want to help, Matt’s Army has stepped up to Wage Hope at PurpleStride, the walk to end pancreatic cancer. Join us and donate something. And hug someone today.
Matt – we love you and are rooting for you.
I woke up to an email from a close friend of 25 years that his wife had passed away unexpectedly last night. She’d been fighting cancer for several years, had made progress, then had setbacks, and then made progress again. While I knew them both, I’d spent many hours over the years with my friend, so I immediately felt his sense of loss because I know how central his wife was to his life. I just hugged Amy and sent her out into the world for her day with tears in my eyes the phrase “In the end, entropy always wins.”
Last week, when another close friend died of cancer, Amy said to me “We fight the good fight our whole lives, and then we lose.” It wasn’t meant in a negative way but was an acknowledgment that in the end, we die.
Two other lines that always come to my mind in moments like this are “Life is a process of continuous oxidation” and “Life is a fatal disease.” The second is lodged particularly deep in my brain, as a friend told it to me after his child died at age 21.
While this applies to humans, it applies to everything else. I’ve yet to meet an immortal animal or plant. Many of the Built to Last companies have struggled or failed since Jim Collins wrote his iconic book. Granted, while Rome, which wasn’t built in a day, is still around, the Roman Empire had a finite life.
Companies don’t last forever. Institutions don’t last forever. Physical objects don’t last forever. Our planet won’t last forever. Human civilization won’t last forever.
In the end, entropy always wins. Consider that when you make decisions trying to control the outcome of something.
Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I stayed up late the past two nights reading it while in bed. As I put my Kindle on the bedside table last night I had tears in my eyes.
Paul passed away on March 9, 2015 at age 37. He was a Stanford-trained neurosurgeon and writer. He was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in 2013, though he never smoked. He was married to Lucy (Goddard) Kalanithi who sounds like an amazing woman. When he died he had an infant daughter Cady. His family was extremely close to him.
I know Paul’s brother Jeevan Kalanithi. Jeevan co-founded Sifteo, which we invested in with True Ventures. Sifteo’s products were critically acclaimed but not commercially successful and was acquired by 3D Robotics, which we are also investors in with True Ventures. Jeevan is Chief Product Officer at 3D Robotics and has done an awesome job. And, more importantly, is an amazing person.
So, as I read Paul’s book, while I didn’t know him, I felt like I had a sense of him through knowing Jeevan. I read Paul’s New Yorker Essay My Last Day as a Surgeon which was published after he died. Read it if you want a taste of Paul’s writing, genius, empathy, beauty, and authenticity. Now, imagine an entire book like this. Read his essay Before I Go for another taste. Or try How Long Have I Got Left? which was published in the New York Times a year before he died.
If you haven’t yet bought When Breath Becomes Air, please go do it now. It’s #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for a reason. It might be the most powerful book about being human, being mortal, learning about, confronting, dealing with, and ultimately accepting one’s own mortality. It’s beautifully written – almost poetic in its rhythm – and aggressively real. There is no prognosticating, no rationalizing, no baloney – just real, raw feelings throughout the book.
And it ends suddenly. Paul dies. Unlike so many things that we hear about that are tied up nicely in a bow, life – and death – doesn’t really work this way. And Paul helps us understand this by taking us through his journey.
When I was in my mid 20s, struggling with depression and having paranoid fears about being deathly ill, my therapist recommended I read Norman Cousins book Anatomy of an Illness: As Perceived by the Patient. It changed me fundamentally and shifted my relationship with my own mortality. It didn’t eliminate my depression, but it helped me understand how my viewpoint impacted my physiology, and how important this was in healing.
Paul’s book takes this to a new level. Like Cousins, it’s deeply personal, but by being current, it’s more accessible. And for me, more powerful.
Thank you Paul for writing this book. And thank you to Paul’s family for bringing it into the world.
I woke up to an email today from Aaron Schwartz, founder of Modify. I don’t know Aaron other than our email exchanges but he thanked me for Venture Deals which he said has been very helpful to him. His note went on to say:
A close friend of mine, and one of my best friend’s co-founders just passed away after a 15-month battle with non-smoker’s lung cancer. I thought the below article was incredibly revealing about how meaningful a partner and leader can be for a start-up. If you think it would be useful to other entrepreneurs, I hope you’ll take a moment and share it.
I went on to read Farewell Hansoo, We’ll Miss You, a beautiful tribute by Bhavin Parikh, the CEO and co-founder of Magoosh. At the end, I had tears in my eyes. Hansoo is 35 and just died of cancer, which was discovered a year ago. I have several friends fighting cancer right now and had one die last year and this story really touched me – of the intimacy of the relationship between co-founders, the beauty of spirit of Hansoo, and how rapidly loved ones and partners can be taken from us.
I just made a donation to the The Hansoo Lee Fellowship to support entrepreneurs. The fellowship will provide a stipend and mentorship to help Berkeley-Haas MBA students pursue their venture full-time for their summer internship, as Hansoo did. MBA students will receive a summer stipend of $5 – $10K, Mentorship from Haas alums focused on entrepreneurship, and office space.
On Sunday I’ll be running the Detroit Marathon with a bunch of friends including my partner Jason Mendelson who is running his first marathon. Becky Cooper, our CFO, and Jill Spruiell (Jason’s EA) are also running their first marathon, as is Andrew Tschesnok, the CEO of Organic Motion.
As this is my second marathon in my Random Act of Kindness series, Amy and I are again raising $10,000 for someone on GiveForward. We’ll be matching $5,000 of contributions from this community with a gift from us of $5,000. Our recipient this time in Max Simmons who we refer to as Jedi Max. We don’t know Jedi Max – we just know he’s fighting cancer and is awesome.
Here’s Jedi Max’s story:
Max is a fun-loving, spirited seven year old who has been diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforming or GBM, a type of brain cancer. It is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer. The doctors have already removed most of the tumor, though he still has a long road ahead. He will be receiving chemo and radiation. Max’s treatments are an hour’s drive each direction and he will be receiving them for six weeks, five days a week. His parents, Jay and Scott, are concerned about not meeting the non-medical expenses such as gas, food, and other things that may come up. With how things stand now, Jay may not be able to return to work. Max loves everything Legos and Star Wars. He is doesn’t have a mean bone in his body and wears his heart on his sleeve and his heart is as big as Texas. He is a true Jedi Warrior!
Let’s end Friday on a high note. The recipient of our first Random Act of Kindness in support of my marathons is now cancer free! If you go out this weekend, do a random act of kindness. Buy the meal for a young couple in the same restaurant you are in. Tip 50% instead of whatever you normally tip. Do something unexpected for someone you don’t know.
When you support a family member in need, you’re doing the right thing. The community you are part of is counting on you, and fulfilling your obligation to them is part of being a member of that community.
What happens, though, when you help someone you don’t know? What happens when one community deliberately seeks out someone who needs a leg up and attention and support and reaches out – with no possibility of reciprocity? That feeling is extraordinary, and as I run the 29 marathons I’ve got left to go to make my 50 marathons by age 50 goal, I have been thinking harder about fundraising as part of this experience.
After my close friend Andy Sack was diagnosed with testicular cancer, the impact of a medical emergency really hit home for me. Andy’s fully recovered after surgery and a 62 day chemo regimen – the experience caused me to think a lot about what families go through when a loved one is ill.
During this time, I met Ethan Austin, the co-founder of GiveForward at Lindzonpalooza. I was blown away by what they are doing and decided to team up with them to do 29 random acts of kindness over the next few years.
For each of my upcoming marathons, I’m going to run in support of one of the GiveForward campaigns. Amy and I will kick off the fundraising with a commitment of at least $145,000 ($5,000 per marathon) and encourage our extended community to contribute whatever they can. We may increase this amount in the future ($5,000 will always be our minimum) depending on the total level of contribution (more contributors = bigger contribution from us.) I’m also going to do some random things for the people who contribute on a marathon by marathon basis – look for me to have some fun with this rewarding my community for helping with a random act of kindness.
The people we will support will not be people we know. Rather, they will be people who inspire us and who we want to shine a random act of kindness on. Our fundraising efforts will be a complete surprise to these families, and our hope is that we can create a little unexpected joy for the people we support.
The first random act of kindness is Justin Salcedo from Devine, TX who has testicular cancer. I’ll be running the Missoula Marathon on July 8, 2012 in Missoula, Montana for him. His family friend set up a GiveForward page for him and wrote the following description:
Justin Salcedo is from a small town south of San Antonio, TX. We live in Devine, TX. He is a good athlete, a good son, and a good friend to everyone. Always has a smile on his face. He just recently found out he had testicular cancer. His mother is the one who told me the story of how he found out about his cancer. I have known him for about 17 years. My sister-in-law baby sat him when he was little. My son and Justin were in pre-K together, they were in little league baseball, our local youth basketball league, Middle school athletics and 2 years highschool athletics. So for this news it was a shock to me and I am not his immediate family. It feels like dream…..
The GiveForward campaign is called Kicking Cancer. Our goal is to raise at least $10,000 by May 31st to help out Justin and his family. Let’s do this for Justin and show the world how the power of a community can deliver random acts of kindness.
PS – if you can’t afford to donate, I urge you to share Justin’s GiveForward page on your Facebook wall or give Justin a “virtual hug” by leaving words of encouragement on his page. Neither of these things will cost you a dime but they might mean the world to Justin.
I was going to write something about a new book I’ve just published but I woke up this morning and that felt trivial so I’m going to save it for next week. Instead, I’m going to talk about my day yesterday.
My long time friend (dating back to the mid-1990’s) Andy Sack has testicular cancer. Before I get into things, he’s in the middle of chemo, has a 95%+ cure rate, is open and public about what he’s going through, and has an incredibly positive attitude.
I’ve tried to call or write Andy every day since his diagnosis. I’ve probably done it 80% of the time (I know I’ve missed a few days.) Every day at 5pm my iPhone gives me a reminder to “call Andy Sack.” Most of the time I get his voice mail and leave a message, other times we talk for a few minutes. While I was off the grid last week in Hawaii I sent him a postcard every day. Either way, I get a chance to tell him that I’m thinking of him and give him some additional energy from out in the universe, wherever I am. But this was the first time I’ve been able to get to Seattle to spend time with him.
I took the early flight from Denver to Seattle and we met up at the Kinect Accelerator where the program has just started. We found a room to just sit and talk for about 45 minutes. After a hug and a heart felt welcome, we started talking about how things were going. Our first 15 minutes were filled with lots of tears and emotion as I gave Andy a gift from a few of his friends including me and Amy and we connected physically for the first time since he was diagnosed.
I was curious about the experience he was having and he was very open about chemo, how it impacted him, and what the process was. We talked some about the dynamic of a loved one being sick or hurt since Amy’s had a broken arm for the past few weeks. While the broken arm isn’t in the same category as cancer, it has changed the way I’ve thought about caregiving as it’s the first time I’ve had to be – in Amy’s words “her man servant” – in our relationship. Amy called during this time and when the Imperial March (Amy’s personal ringtone) started playing on my iPhone Andy laughed a good belly laugh. I put Amy on speaker, the three of us had a nice talk, and then we wrapped up and had a TechStars related meeting.
We went to lunch with David Cohen, the CEO of TechStars. We talked about work, but we also talked about life. Andy was total present – he was having a good day physically and emotionally – and it was great to be around. After lunch David got in an Uber and headed to the airport to go back to Boulder; Andy and I walked around the corner to his office and BigDoor’s office (he’s on the board of BigDoor with me, their office is on the first floor, his is on the second.) I said hello to the BigDoor folks, hung out for a while and caught up on email while Andy had a meeting upstairs, and then he drove me to my hotel and we said goodbye for the day.
I had a few more meetings and then ended back up at the Kinect Accelerator for the Mentor Mixer. The program started on Monday and this was the first meeting of all the mentors. I gave a talk about how to be an effective mentor during the introduction to the program and afterward noticed Andy in the back of the room. This was a nice surprise as I didn’t expect to see him again on this trip. We hung out at the mixer a little and then took off to go have another meal together – this time alone. We talked about a few experiences in the distant past and I vividly remembered a dinner in Brookline in the 1990’s with Andy, Alexa (his wife), and Amy. I couldn’t remember the restaurant, but I had the visualization of the entire experience in my head and shared it with him (he remembered it also). We talked more about a wide range of things – some business, some personal – and just enjoyed being together.
I got more than my fair share of his time yesterday. And it was awesome. As I was laying bed at 11pm drifting off to sleep I thought of him some more, some of the ups and downs we’d had together, and how much I treasured him as a friend.
We’ve been through lots of things together. One of the first things he said to me when he saw me was “your support of me through this period eliminated any fears I had lingering about our relationship in the context of any money that I’ve lost for you.” I’ve invested in a number of things that Andy has done dating back to his first company (Abuzz, which was a success and acquired by the NY Times for about a 4.5x of my investment.) But we’ve also had lots of things not work (Bodyshop.com – 0.5x, Judy’s Book – 0.25x.) However, I never, ever have worried about it – my willingness to keep trying and working with great people trumps the specific returns of any individual transaction. And more importantly, my personal friendship and loyalty is built on trust and a long term arc of honesty, not transactional results. While we’ve both screwed up plenty of things along the way and had our share of disagreements, we always resolve them and move forward. I’ve told Andy this several times in the past, but when you face mortality you have a chance to really understand (and express) this.
I wore my Fuck Cancer shirt all day. Several people gave me positive comments on it and one stood out. Near the end of the day, a woman who I didn’t know said “great shirt.” She looked at me with acknowledgement and a real spark of connection occurred. I realized, at that moment, that cancer is a disease that defines many people at a profoundly deep level, especially when they survive it.
On Saturday I’m running a 50 mile race in Sacramento. I’ve been thinking about this all week as I try to get my mind into it. It’s been hard to get real focus on it because I’ve had a busy week and I know that Friday will be my transition day. But as I sit here, the 50 mile run doesn’t seem that hard. Sure – it’ll be a physical and emotional challenge, but it’s not surgery, a 64 day chemo regimen, and the emotional challenge of “beating cancer.”
Life is short. And uncertain. Live it every moment. Andy – thanks for being you and letting me be part of your life.