After 89 years on this planet, Len Fassler passed away on Friday.
Len was my Yoda. As a paternal figure, he was a close second to my father. I loved him deeply. And I will miss him every day.
We were introduced in the spring of 1993 by Jim Galvin, CEO of Allcom, which had just been acquired by Len’s company Sage Alerting Systems. Feld Technologies worked with Allcom whenever we needed a network installed for a client. At the time, the state-of-the-art was a wired 10BaseT ethernet network, so Allcom did the wiring, and we did everything else. After Jim’s company was acquired, Len asked him who else he should talk to in the Boston area. Jim introduced us, and that led to lunch near our office in downtown Boston.
Soon after, Len called me and asked if I’d be interested in selling Feld Technologies to Sage Alerting. It took a while for me and my partner Dave Jilk to decide to do it, but we closed the sale in November 1993.
Len and I ended up working together on many things over the past 27 years. I still have the Brooks Brothers striped shirt that Len and his partner Jerry Poch gave me when we signed the documents for Feld Technologies to be bought by Sage Alerting Systems (which changed its name to Sage Technologies and then changed it to AmeriData). When I started making angel investments in 1994, Len invested alongside me in many companies, including NetGenesis, Harmonix, and Oblong. We then co-founded Sage Networks (which changed its name to Interliant) with Raj Bhargava (NetGenesis co-founder) and Steve Maggs (whose company was also acquired by AmeriData.) At Mobius, we invested in Vytek, another company Len co-founded. As an angel, I personally invested in CoreBTS, the company Len co-founded after Vytek was acquired.
There’s an enormous amount of my business history packed in that paragraph. Rather than go through a bunch of things we did together, I want to list some memories that will stay with me until the end of my life.
Len loved to smoke a cigar. I’d never smoked, but for several years, while we were co-chairs of Interliant together, we had a tradition of going for a long walk at the end of the day when we were together. We both smoked a cigar during this walk and talked about whatever had happened during the day and anything unresolved. Len’s cigars were omnipresent – I still remember his Lexus’s smell, which was pleasant because the cigars smelled like Len.
Going for a walk was a foundation of our relationship. Whenever we were in the same office, I knew we had something to figure out if Len came by my desk and said, “Brad, let’s go for a walk.” When we weren’t together, the phone call was the equivalent of a metaphorical walk. He had a remarkable talent for bringing up issues directly yet clearly, and working through them quickly.
Everything I learned about buying a company, selling a company, or doing a deal came from Len. If you’ve ever worked with me in any deal capacity, I’m channeling Len. I learned how to be a board member from Len. I learned how to complete a negotiation, walk away from the table, be empathetic, and be available. He also taught me how to move on when something didn’t work out or go my way.
From 1996 to 2001, I spent a lot of time with Len in New York, where Interliant was headquartered. I stayed in an apartment near Lincoln Center that I shared with the CEO of another company Len was on the board of, or at Len’s house in Harrison, NY. I felt safe in that house, loved by Len and his wife, Bunny, tucked in and comfortable in the upstairs bedroom, and part of their family at the breakfast table in the kitchen. I’m pretty sure I could find my way without Google Maps from the Interliant office in Purchase to Len’s house as well as from Dewey Ballantine’s office in NYC to Len’s house. That house was full of love.
The photo above is from the day before Fitbit went public in June 2015. I had breakfast with Len at the Gramercy Park Hotel, where I was staying. I told him I had the morning off and asked him what he wanted to do. He said he’d never been in Gramercy Park since it was a private park, so we got the key to the park from the concierge and walked around it and talked for an hour. We then wandered around the Baruch College buildings talking some more. We ended that morning with a big hug like we started and ended all of our days together.
I remember clearly a phone call on 12/1/2000 where Len called me from NYC. He told me that Cable & Wireless wasn’t moving forward with the acquisition of Interliant – the deal was all but done. Rather than approving the deal, the C&W board decided to stop all M&A activity given they just found out they would have their first quarterly loss in many years. That night, Len joined about 50 friends at the Greenbriar Inn in Boulder for my surprise 35th birthday party, which Amy had arranged. He had a remarkable ability to take every setback in stride.
I remember his signature. I saw it for the first time on the back of a manila envelope where he jotted down the terms we had just agreed to for Sage Alerting Systems to acquire Feld Technologies. Under the terms, he signed his name. I remember signing document after document with him at Interliant and remember sitting at the Interliant office in Purchase after the IPO roadshow, waiting for the SEC to clear our filing so we could price. We were waiting for one document, after which we’d sign one more thing, and the bankers would price the offering, and we’d go public the next morning. When the fax machine printed ten pages (instead of two) that were additional comments on our SEC filing (that same one that Merrill Lynch had said three weeks earlier “we are good to go on the roadshow – the SEC always clears this on time”), we knew we weren’t pricing that night. Our order book collapsed two days later. We went public two months later, but there was a lot of Scotch drunk the night we got that fax from the SEC. I didn’t get to see Len’s signature next to mine that night.
I loved the way Len put his arm around me. I loved the hug he always gave me. I loved his relationship with his son David, who also became a good friend. I loved how we said “I love you” when we said goodbye in person or on the phone.
Len changed my life. He gave me my second favorite quote, “They Can’t Kill You And They Can’t Eat You” (my dad gave me my first favorite quote, “If You Aren’t Standing On The Edge You Are Taking Up Too Much Space“)
My parents were good friends with Len. Every time I was together with all of them, I was exceedingly happy.
My long publishing relationship with Wiley began with a breakfast meeting that Len arranged with Matthew Kissner, who was a Wiley board member.
If you’ve ever heard me say, “Would you buy it for a dollar?” I learned that from Len. His influence on me formed the basis of my business philosophy, now called #GiveFirst. He was one of the first lawyer-turned-entrepreneurs I worked with, which helped me appreciate the importance of law in business and the importance of business judgment in the law.
The ultimate brilliance of Len was his ability to build deep emotional and enduring relationships. The number of people he influenced and who loved him is extraordinary.
The last time Len and I talked live was in October when he called me to say goodbye. Since then, his daughter Ellen has been my conduit to him, via emails that I’d been sending a few times each week. Ellen read them to Len and then sent me back a note with his response. Ellen, thank you.
On Friday morning, when I heard that Len passed, I immediately reached out to Frank Alfano, Jenny Lawton, Bruce Klein, Steve Maggs, Jerry Poch, Raj Bhargava, and Jerry Lebow. Some of them I talk to regularly. Others, like Bruce, I haven’t talked to in a while. But when Bruce and I got on the phone to talk about Len, it was like we were together the day before, working on something at Dewey Ballantine’s office, with Len at the other end of a long conference room table working on something else at the same time.
Len – I love you. I will miss you and think about you every day. Thank you for the sensational gift you gave me of your friendship. When it’s safe to travel to New York again, know that Frank, Bruce, Jenny, and I will be having dinner at Cellini’s together with a place set for you.
It’s the summer of 2001. The NASDAQ peak is in the rear view mirror. Many Internet companies are struggling. I’m sitting at the breakfast table at Len Fassler’s house in Harrison, New York drinking a cup of coffee and chewing on a bagel.
Len and I co-founded Interliant (originally Sage Networks) with Steve Maggs and Rajat Bhargava in 1996. We took Interliant public in 1999 on the second attempt (the SEC didn’t clear the filing until a week after the end of the first road show, our first of many misfires with Merrill Lynch, who was our lead banker.) At the peak in the spring of 2000 Interliant hit $55 / share and was worth over $3 billion. By breakfast in the summer of 2001, the stock was trading under $1 / share.
I was exhausted. In addition to my role as co-chairman of Interliant (Len was my co-chairman), I was also a partner at Mobius Venture Capital, sitting on over 25 boards, including five non-US companies. I was on three other public company boards, including being co-chairman of MessageMedia with Jerry Poch, who was Len’s partner in their previous company (AmeriData Technologies – which had bought my first company – Feld Technologies – in 1993). I’d known Len and Jerry for almost eight years and was deep in it with each of them in parallel universes, as MessageMedia was also trading at under $1 / share that summer after reaching a high of $15 / share (and a $1.5 billion market cap) in the spring of 2000.
Back to breakfast. I’m chewing on my bagel staring out the kitchen window wondering what new version of a fucked up shit storm I was going to experience during the inevitable long day that would unfold. I no longer remember why I was at Len’s house that day, but I often stayed at his house when I was spending time at Interliant’s headquarters which was in Purchase, NY. I do remember that the coffee was hot.
Len walked in with a bounce in his step like he had every time I saw him. He stopped, looked at me, and said “what’s wrong?”
I looked up at him and said, “I’m tired. I didn’t sleep well last night. I know today is going to suck. I don’t feel like I can catch a break.”
He looked at me, walked over slowly, stood behind me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Suit up. They can’t kill you and they can’t eat you. We’ll get through it.”
He then gave me a hug from behind. He patted me on the chest and went to get a cup of coffee. I sat there silently for a moment, stood up, turned around, and smiled at Len.
“Thanks,” I said, from the bottom of my heart.
This time he gave me a real hug.
That was the moment when everything changed for me. Len had already had an extremely successful business career. His last company – the one he built with Jerry Poch that had acquired my first company – was bought in 1996 by GE Capital for $500 million. He didn’t have to co-found Interliant with me, Steve, and Rajat. He certainly didn’t have to get up every day and go to the office, which by the summer of 2001 was a real business battle on multiple fronts.
But he did. With a smile. Not just for him, but for everyone he worked with.
Since I’d first met Len in the spring of 1993, he was beloved by almost everyone around him. Sure, every now and then someone didn’t fall head over heals for him, but the number of people who would follow him anywhere, do anything for him, and work tirelessly for whatever he was involved in were endless.
I was one of them.
In that moment, I realized why. Ever since I had met Len, he gives more than he gets. The amount of energy he put into me, and his relationship with me, was unexpected by me when he bought Feld Technologies in 1993. I immediately felt a connection to him and his partner Jerry, which is part of what caused me to ultimately agree to sell Feld Technologies to them. As time passed, I felt loyal to Jerry, and learned an enormous amount from him, but I loved Len.
In the summer of 2001, I felt guilty about dragging Len into the mess that had become Interliant. When I’d mention this to him, he’d tell me to let it go – it was his choice to get involved. As the shit got deeper, there was no time to feel guilty as all our energy was aimed at trying to save this company that was clearly failing.
There wasn’t a single day that Len didn’t give it his all. Even after the point at which he knew there was no way he’d see a dime from Interliant. We had both invested money up front along with a huge amount of time and personal credibility into the company. We had each hired friends, bought companies from people we knew (and had gotten to know), and spent late nights doing unnatural acts to get the company to the point where, in 2000, it was doing $50 million of revenue a quarter and seemed to be a very successful Internet business.
One year later we were on a steep downhill slope to a failed business. But Len kept showing up every day and doing everything he knew how to do for all the people still involved. Including me.
As we got in his car to drive to Purchase, with the ever-present smell of cigars that Len smoked on walks and the end of the day, I once again told him thanks. I didn’t realize it yet, but that morning fundamentally shaped the way I would think about the rest of my working life.
They can’t kill you and they can’t eat you.
And, if that’s true, why do you do it? And how do you do it?
I spent the day yesterday at the Disney Accelerator meeting with each of the teams and then had dinner with the CEOs and a lead mentor for each company. While I’m proud of all the Techstars programs, some of what I heard yesterday, especially around mentor engagement in the Disney program was remarkable. Our premise when we started doing branded accelerators with large companies was that we’d get deep mentor involvement from execs at the company we are partnering with. In Disney’s case, the access, exposure, and support of the Disney executives as mentors for the 11 companies in the program has been extraordinary.
As I continue my series on the Techstars Mentor Manifesto, which I’m planning to turn into an book called “Give First” that FG Press will publish early next year, I come to Manifesto Item #6: The Best Mentor Relationships Eventually Become Two-Way.
When I reflect on my best mentors, they are very long term relationships where I hope they’ve now gotten as much from me as I’ve gotten from them. I call this “peer mentoring” and – while it can start as an equal relationship, it’s magical when it evolves from a mentor – mentee relationship.
Following are two examples from my own life.
Len Fassler is one of the most amazing people I’ve had the honor of knowing. Len and his partner Jerry Poch bought my first company in 1993. I still remember the first time I met Len, sitting in a restaurant in downtown Boston, wondering to myself “who is this guy and what does he want?” After Len and Jerry bought my company, the two of them took me under their wing and exposed me to doing deals. In addition to having my company acquired, I worked with them on the diligence team for a number of other acquisitions. They were both incredibly patient with me since I knew nothing about M&A or investments, and when I started making angel investments a few months after my company was acquired, they followed on, invested with me, and invited me into some of the companies they were investing in. After I left AmeriData, my relationship with each of them blossomed, but in different ways. Jerry and I made some VC investments together, but Len and I started several companies together. One of them – Interliant (where we were co-chairman) – was a huge success for a while, reaching a peak market cap of about $3 billion on NASDAQ. The company was decimated by the collapse of the Internet bubble and ultimately went bankrupt. Len and I spent thousands of hours together during this time and the amount I learned from working side by side with him can’t be quantified or categorized. We continued to work on other stuff together after Interliant, and enjoyed some successes that were sweet and satisfying after the ending pain of the Interliant experience.
If someone said I was a vessel for perpetuating and evolving Len’s business approach and personal philosophy to people throughout time and space, I’d accept that.
At the same time, I’ve heard Len say many times that’s he’s learned a huge amount from working with me. I know I am the key reason he no longer wears a tie at work, but the dance and intermingling of our experiences, personal philosophies, joys (highs), miseries (lows), and shared time has shaped both of us. Len’s 82 and I’m 48, so he’s definitely the mentor and I’m the mentee in the relationship. But after over 20 years of working together, we have a deep, intimate, peer relationship.
Charlie Feld is my dad’s brother / my uncle. I referred to him as Uncle Charlie the other day in my post From Punch Cards to Implants. He introduced me to my first company when I was 11 and allowed me to tag along with him for many years into my mid-20s. I sat in executive meetings at DEC and Lotus that I had no business being a part of, learned about EIS’s when I was a teenager, got early access to Compaq portables that hadn’t been released yet, and generally got exposed to how IT and MIS worked in large companies. Charlie started his own company, The Feld Group, in 1992, when my company (Feld Technologies) was five years old. Suddenly, Charlie and I were having peer discussions about our respective consulting businesses. After I sold my company and started investing in companies in 1994, Charlie and I talked regularly about the Internet, which was just emerging as something that large companies should pay attention to. At the same time, Charlie exposed me to what he was doing to re-architect and modernize enormously complex and disastrous legacy systems at places like Delta and Burlington Northern. In addition to helping me understand a number of fundamental things about technology at scale, I got exposed to the complexity of very large organizations, both from the top down and outside in.
In 2000, I invested via Mobius Venture Capital in The Feld Group and joined the board. This took our relationship to a new level. While I was now investor / partner / board member, the intellectual and emotional intimacy of our relationship increased. The Feld Group grew rapidly during this time period until it was acquired in 2004 by EDS. While aspects of my universe during this time were excruciating due to the bursting of the Internet bubble, my experience with Charlie and The Feld Group was grounding and enlightening as it gave me a window into the success and importances of enterprise IT while all the startups around me were melting down.
As with my relationship with Len, I feel that my relationship with Charlie is a peer relationship today. While he’s 25 years older than me, we learn from each other in every interaction. We continue to work closely together – Charlie’s newest book “The Calloway Way” is being published by FG Press and we are going to do some book events together to help both executives and entrepreneurs understand the magic of Wayne Calloway and his management approach.
Each of these relationships are long term ones – Len and I since 1993 and Charlie and I since I was born in 1965. I treasure every moment I have with each of them. Sure – we have conflict, disagreements, and disappointments, but they have been profound in shaping my development as a business person and a human. As mentors, they gave first in every sense of the word. And I hope they feel like I’ve given back at least as much.
My mom and dad have a wonderful gift coming to them this week. Yesterday evening I read The Beautiful Bronx 1920-1950 and The Bronx: It Was Only Yesterday, 1935-1965. Well – I mostly looked at the pictures and read the descriptions of the pictures, as that was the meat of each book, but the intro sections were also very cool.
My parents were each born in the Bronx and lived there until they moved to Blytheville, Arkansas in 1965 for a year. Growing up, my brother Daniel and I visited the Bronx periodically, as that’s where our grandparents lived (until my dad’s parents moved to Ft. Lauderdale) and we often heard tales of their time growing up in the Bronx.
I discovered these books a few weeks ago at my close friend Len Fassler’s house. Len is key mentor of mine who has had a profound influence on me both personally and professionally. I was scanning his bookshelves during a break in the evening and noticed these two books. He noticed me noticing them and told me to borrow them. Instead, I emailed myself their names and bought them later that night on Amazon.
They are beautiful books about a different time in America. The Bronx was growing fast during the time period and was a magical place to live. It was close enough to Manhattan to get to use the New York, NY mailing address, yet far enough away to be its own place. It has huge ethnic diversity that was integrated in many ways, but also organized around the notion of neighborhoods. I recognized some of the street names, neighborhoods, and buildings from conversations with my parents and the few times that I’ve been through the Bronx in recent years. But mostly I just tried to transport myself back to a different time in our country.
I’ve encouraged my dad to write more about his childhood in the Bronx on his blog. He’s written a few, like Punch Ball In Claremont Park, The Bronx (NY) 1945-1953, Jake the Pickle Man, Summer of ’47, and StrikeOuts: A New York City Street Game. But he’s got a ton more in him so I hope these books inspire him.
Mom / Dad – the books are in the mail – you should have them this week!