I live in North Bethesda and ride my bike a little over 9 miles to Potomac, past the outer gates that lead to the road that leads to the Leonsis family home. Ted Leonsis, Revolution LLC growth equity investor, owner of Monumental Sports and Entertainment and former AOL marketing executive is a big fish in our little DC pond by the Potomac. This past March at Startup Grind DC at the atmospheric WeWork, Chinatown, co-working space I heard Ted say:
“I love people-to-people oriented businesses because I believe you can connect through hard work, authenticity, building a sense of community and that you can scale big businesses and have a really good time doing it.”
What else would you expect from the author of The Business of Happiness: 6 Secrets to Extraordinary Success in Life and Work?
The theme for today’s blog is:
Here’s what Brooklyn-born Ted Leonsis and North Potomac raised Jonathan Chen have in common.
Good topic and, I’ll admit, just in time. I had promised Jonathan, CTO of FiscalNote Inc. to write about his well-funded and staffed company’s platform to access, track and analyze real-time federal and state government information before he graduated from the University of Maryland – which he is doing this week. Jonathan will be a commencement speaker at his college graduation, too. We first met when FiscalNote won recognition as one of the DC’s 50 on Fire event, sponsored by In the Capital.
So, without further stretching this connection, here’s what Jonathan Chen and Ted Leonsis have in common:
Conscientious, immigrant parents (from Greece and Taiwan) who made lives and forged out careers in the U.S.
Their mothers contributed significantly to their engagement in education.
Jonathan’s mother encouraged him to apply for a Chinese government sponsored paid internship program for American-born Taiwanese students with the best private companies and government organizations in Taiwan. “It’s competitive. They accept only 300 Chinese-American students, I was surprised I got in,” said Jonathan, who observes that at his excellent Montgomery County high school he learned basic computer science concepts and lacked hands-on skills. But, he did get in and at the National Center for High Performance computing he learned practical experience like how to scale and cloud computing, making websites using legacy code. “It was my first time working in the industry in the real world and it was pretty awesome,” said Jonathan. As part of his internship, he and three other interns were told to make websites and apps and had to figure out how to create them with help from the organization’s experienced employees.
Ted told the Startup Grind crowd that his mother told him to always “do things properly.” Ted learned by his parent’s example to work hard with a business owner’s enthusiasm and attention to details. Instead of cutting corners, he distinguished his lawn-mowing enterprise by researching how to cut lawns and distinguishing his service through the Wembly Cut. When he worked on Paul Tsongas’s successful campaign for congress and later senator in Massachusetts, he says “I worked like crazy to get him elected,” says Ted. “I remember him saying to me: “If you work this hard in a business you start, you’ll be a millionaire before you’re 30 years old. I’ll never forget that.”
They are empathetic, appreciate others and maintain lifelong friendships.
Ted is still friends with his roommate, Jim Shannon, at Georgetown who funded his idea for a Snocoloco snowcone business (with variable pricing, depending on the temperature) the summer of the Bicentennial DC tourist rush. A seminal experience. “I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning,” he said. “We just marketed like crazy and built a nice business.” It even included cutting a deal with the zoo. “Our first OEM deal. We manufactured and delivered 100 snowcones a day.”
He will tell you the name of the man who employed his lawn service to do its distinctive Wembly Cut who later suggested he consider Georgetown and wrote him a letter of recommendation. He deeply feels the impact of the Jesuit priest at Georgetown, Father Durkin, who encouraged him to pursue big ideas with the most modern available technology in 1976: an IBM 360 punchcard mainframe computer in the registrar’s office, a linguistics major and the one guy on the Georgetown campus at that time who knew how to program in fortran and basic.
“The four of us created maybe the first algorithm applied to a non-computer science application,” says Ted, explaining that he was an English major trying to prove that Ernest Hemingway’s lean, Pulitzer-prizewinning book, The Old Man and the Sea, was written much before the author’s less engaging 400-page books like Across the River and into the Trees.
“It was 1976 and Father Durkin said to me ‘I think this is the first time liberal arts and technology have come together,” Ted says, recalling a “goosebumpy moment” reading Steve Jobs’s reported reply to why is Apple the world’s most valuable company? “Apple is the place where liberal arts and technology come together.”
Jonathan collaborated on the prototype for the FiscalNote Prophecy platform with Tim Hwang, CEO, his friend since elementary school and Gerald Yao, CFO, who they both bonded with in middle school. FiscalNote Inc., is a real-time government analysis company that provides a web-based software platform to aggregate and analyze state and local government legislation. It gives companies and organizations the ability to track legislation and prepare for it.
They kept in touch about the project while Jonathan went to University of Maryland (UMD), Gerald to Emory and Tim to Princeton.
Tim handles business development with guidance from Princeton alum advisor, W.S. Shi, Chairman of Elsevier, among others. Tim and Jonathan initially discussed the idea in late March and decided to enter it into a small, brand new pitch competition, The Fishbowl, sponsored by UMD’s computer science department. He explains that they took second place but were told they would have won if they actually had a product to demonstrate. “This validated the idea and told us we should pursue it,” said Jonathan, who describes pursing the next step of applying to accelerators.
The team attended 10-week Plug and Play Startup Camp in Silicon Valley in the summer of 2013, and currently are mentored by Ali Reza, who invested $25,000 and a lot of hands on help and connections for 5% of their company. “He helps us a lot. We have weekly meetings with people he has set us up to meet.” That July Jonathan, Tim and Gerald were reaching out to as many investors as they could and learned the advantage of the warm intro. “We’d cold called as many investors as we could and emailed Mark Cuban. Nothing happened at first, but one of our lawyers knew him, got us a warm introduction and Marc Cuban replied to our note.” And, then there was $1.2 million funding from Mark Cuban alone, which attracted others, such as New Enterprise Associates and First Round Capital, new space, savvy employees and additional advisers.
Most importantly, both Jonathan and Ted value building things that last.
“Our goal is not to sell, but to go big and compete with the big guys in the future,” said Jonathan. “It will take 30 years to get there. We think of ourselves as a Bloomberg terminal for government.”
“It’s not a startup grind,” Ted concludes. “it’s a startup joy.”