Back from the Dead

Part One

The love of my life died on July 28th at 4:53am, 2015. Nothing has been the same since. I have kept my head above water, mostly for our little girl, and her mom’s memory.

image by Brooke Kelly — www.brookekelly.com

After months and months of slogging Maggie and I went to the beach for a respite this past September/October. To put our butts in the sand. To feel the wind and the salt and the sea. To see the sky at night, where it is truly dark at the edge of the water…

My gift arrived near the end of 7 weeks at the beach.

There were many conversations with friends, mentors, and my shrink over an intense couple days, and long walks every day with the pups. On one of those walks, after a couple miles, I realized that I came to beach wanting to die. Mourning the 8 years I lost. Mourning the life I lost. Just wanting to put it all back.

The gift was the realization that I wanted to live. To celebrate what I had… more importantly, what I have. I was loved. I am loved. I have nothing to prove. I will be ok, but that had to be a conscious choice.

We all have that choice, each and every day.

The next morning, a butterfly awaited me for coffee and journaling. She sat on my finger, reminding me she was a close to me as I would allow her to be. She has joined me in one form or fashion every day since — weird birds appearing in our feeders, my kookie female old bulls seeing her out of the corner of their eye, you know, the usual stuff... I would change only a few things I’ve done over the last 18 months — are there things I regret? Absolutely. Are the things I wish I had done differently? Sure… But I got the core stuff right.

A couple weeks ago I met with Maggie’s teachers at Montessori, who told me she was ready to move on. That she will be well prepared, highly creative, a leader in her class, and that most importantly, that she understands how to express the grief of the loss of her mother. This week, she was accepted into USN, fulfilling a promise I made to her mom before she passed. Maggie is thriving! And we have a wonderful woman Chanell Coleman, who provides not only practical help, but a powerful female force in Maggie’s life going forward. Chanell’s presence, along with the presence of other powerful women, will allow me to gradually turn my focus back to my life more broadly with Maggie at the center.

A job well done methinks.

So, what the hell happened over the past 6 years?

Post the enforcement of my echo deal with the evil empire Ticketbastard/Live Nation (a story for another day), the wrapping up of my time as Claritas Capital’s Entrepreneur in Residence, and helping operationalize and fund the NEC, Joanna and I high tailed it to our spot on the beach to recharge. There, I went thru the pages of ideas that I’d been generating in the previous 18 months, stacking them into three piles; the “dumb ideas” pile, the “cool ideas” pile and the “big ideas” pile. At the top of that last pile was the idea that would become my next entrepreneurial obsession, FLO.

In April of 2011, I started convening informal gatherings at E-Spaces with the intent of starting an anti-venture firm. After several false starts, and accidentally stumbling on the name FLO (thank you Liz Allen Fey!), we had a crew of smart people, a name, and a list of projects that each of us was working on that we’d bring to the party.

A rollercoaster of change ensued, including the subsequent birth of our beautiful, perfect daughter. While expecting Maggie for nine months, we also knew we should expect our lives to change forever. But nothing could prepare us for the nightmare that was to come…

FLO launched in November of 2011.

Maggie was born on December 1st, 2011.

And on December 6th, 2011 Joanna was given her death sentence.

50/50 chance to live 1 year… aggressive and rare fallopian tube cancer. We were devastated, but determined. Our life together was just starting, we’d overcome so much…we’d overcome this cancer. This would not stop us. I looked Jo in the eyes and told her we’d do this any way she wanted. But I already knew the answer. And staying true to the nature of the warrior woman I married, she said she would fight. And boy did she fight.

image by me

The battle waged on for nearly 4 years. The wounds turned to scars, molding and shaping her along the way. They were evidence of her strength and beauty. In a way, the cancer allowed her to blossom and reach her full potential — becoming her true authentic self. Isn’t it funny how life’s curveballs have amazing unintended consequences? I wouldn’t wish this curveball on anyone… but there is a silver lining in everything - if you look.

During that time, FLO (a company about nothing, under the “smart shit with cool people or cool shit with smart people” biz model) accomplished quite a bit. Conceptualized to start 10–12 companies in 18 months, taking advantage of the expertise of the partners and vast network, utilizing a shared services model that included talent ranging from a rocket scientist (literally — look him up, Bruce Bowman) to designers, coders, accountants, lawyers, industrial designers, brand builders, record company heads — all with transparent, vested interests in the projects, both in terms of time, expertise and money.

And we wanted to have a significant civic impact on the Nashville market.

How right the FLO idea is has yet to be determined. But the early indicators are pointing to success, and FLO’s few outside investors seem pleased with the progress.

Along with creating the fastest growing new company spirits brand in the history of that business, we managed to get 5 additional companies out of the ground. Several of those are going concerns, several are dead, and one was sold back to its ownership group for $1. What remains are positions in companies who’s commercial market values are north of $125MM.

The common theme of most board meetings is “Excuses.” Excuses for missing targets. Again. Excuses for underestimated budget needs. Excuses for yet another pivot… I’ve lost track.

It’s my first day back in action, and luck is on my side. The first board meeting I’m scheduled for is with Kevin. The Made In Network team are killing it, absolutely killing it. They are the clearest example of the original vision of FLO. It’s founders like Kevin that stand as reminders of what real standards are. If not for teams like this one, investors who expect profitable returns would probably be labelled “Investor Jihadists” considering the quickly rising epidemic of Excuse Meetings. Investor is not just a fancy title you get to wear on your name tag at cocktail parties, and while it may seem like a strange concept, some investors actually seek returns.

I take note: Next time you find yourself in an Excuse Meeting, feel free to excuse yourself. Better yet, help kill a dog investment so it cannot compete for what are already scarce capital resources in our market. There is no shame in failure.

At the board meeting Galante, Ed Hardy, and I couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces. Made In is what a promising investment looks like.

Creating bright commercial lights is how we grow the market folks.

Civically, the FLO-lit-the-fuse-that brought-Google-to-town’s total investment in Tennessee is over $600MM to date. And the unintended consequence can be seen all over town, the fucks at AT&T and Comcast are finally upgrading their networks against the market pressure that Fiber created. It’s about time. With all that money Marsha Blackburn (is it finally time to vote her out of office now please?) takes from those entrenched interests, we should already have had the fastest networks in the South.

In the middle of all that, in January of 2014, Jo encouraged me to pursue the creation of a home for the FLOCO’s, now dubbed the INK Building. Along with my two partners, Joe Glaser and John Grady, we purchased the property, hired Manuel Zeitlin to design and the folks at Wellspring Builders, Scott Patton and Steve Batson, to put up the building over the next 12 months.

image by me.

We took a dilapidated 9400 sq ft building in a turn around neighborhood (“you are moving in next to the homeless? aren’t you afraid?” — no. they are just people like you and I) in SoBro into 22,000 sq ft west coast open office space, focused on the entrepreneurs, creators and coders of the Nashville market and beyond. We will make it the epicenter of music and tech in Nashville.

Meanwhile…

During her time sitting in chemo, Joanna met, talked with, and touched a lot of people. She had this ability to make a person feel special when she turned her focus directly on you…it was magical…it was part of what made her such a unicorn. One of the common themes she discovered was how many of those folks were far less fortunate than so many of us. Countless stories, of people driving 12 hours to receive chemo only to turn right around and get back in the car and drive another 12 hours because they couldn’t afford a hotel room. Families being wiped out financially, not by the medical expenses covered by our broken healthcare system, but the things that fall outside of norms, that is of course when the insurance companies are not trying to fuck you over paying what they owe.

So, as usual, she decided to do something about it. It has become the Magnolia Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to the support of patients and their families battling below the belt cancers.

In Q3 of 2014, Joanna’s fight turned more dire. After “beating” cancer once (remission it turns out is a fallacy — you don’t beat cancer, it can go into a dormant state, but it’s always there, lurking) her cancer returned with a vengeance. Joanna and her best friend Jill Pulley had been concerned about a recurrence, and had been looking for clinical trials across the globe. When your oncologist cannot help you any further, you are really dropped off at the curb to fend for yourself to sort out what’s next. Not everyone is equipped with the network resources and financial resources to identify what trials you might qualify for, much less get accepted into, or afford to attend.

image by Brooke Kelly — www.brookekelly.com

Out of a personal need, Joanna and Jill concepted a global platform that would do nearly all of the work that they had done manually, just by inputting your disease factors and hitting “enter”. Post Joanna’s passing, Jill got the idea funded by Vanderbilt and the NIH, and built it. That service can be found here (it’s free btw) and it’s helped well over 100,000 families globally since it’s launch — you can find a link to the service on the Foundation’s site.

And off to NYU in New York we went on a clinical trial adventure. That adventure lasted just about a year.

The End…

In early April 2015 things took a turn for the worse — we were back on the street. We went back into the care of Dr. Marta Crispins at Vanderbilt, who in our opinion was as responsible for keeping Jo alive well beyond the year prognosis she received initially.

Slowly but surely my focus slipped away from work, and became more and more about caring for my family. Something that 10 years ago, I may not have been capable of… but my priorities changed dramatically when I met Joanna. Even more dramatically when Maggie was born.

On Sunday, May 10th (Mother’s Day), Joanna ended up in the ER, with an unbearable headache, the first manifestations of what we would later discover would be the cancer’s jump past the blood brain barrier into her spinal cord and brain, accelerating rapidly.

That Sunday, I called my partner in FLO, and told him the firm was his to run.

Between May and July, we visited the ER 12 times, the 12th landed us in the ICU for nearly two weeks.

On July 28 at 4:50am she drew her last breath. She died at home with the people she loved, and the people who loved her. She died listening to the Plant Krauss record that was a piece of the soundtrack of our relationship. She only gave up fighting a couple days prior. She was so much braver than I would have been.

In September I was forced to come back to work, to finish the INK project. A young man who work for me at the time, Jared, had done the best he could to keep it moving while I was gone, but there was a lot to do, and just now, the building project is complete.

I retreated back to my own world, to care for Maggie, to try to care for me, and just muddle through what I could on a day to day basis, which often times was not a lot.

In late November of 2015, my largest outside investor called me to tell me he could no longer support my choice of my replacement at the head of FLO. He knew coming back was not what I wanted to do, but he also knew I needed to come back.

After surveying the situation, it became obvious to me what needed to be done, which was too skinny the company back to the studs. This is one area I wish I had handled better, I did that at a time when I had no emotion left to give anyone around me. I was numb.

Over the past umpteen months, I have been effectively closing up what we have deemed FLO FUND ONE, buying out a junior partner (who never really understood what he signed up for in the first place), solidifying the asset base we have, closing things that weren’t working, and where we sit now is a tiny little entity that sits and waits for its investments to pay, and occasionally we still get involved in interesting projects.

So if you wondered what FLO did, now you know.

And a new beginning…

Music has saved my life three times (and three is a magic number) — the first time was when I was eleven years old. When Jim Morrison makes more sense that the people you live with…. The second time was after I sold echo. I was despondent, I had been to the top of the world in the music business, and totally missed it.. it wasn’t about music, it was about business.

Music saved me again this time. And our church to music. And musicians. And Jonny, DJ, Ernest, Chris, David, Aaron, Tim, Barefooters, Norah, Glaser, Zonn, Ryan, April, Ryan, Ryan, Nick, Aaron, Mary, Ben, Elodie, Death Cab, Civilian, Oliver, Omri, cmac, Inga, Eddie, George, Lyle, Josh, Perrin, Jason, James, Paul, Craig, Charles, Steve, Ruth, Steve, Tom, Tommy, Stone, Ryan, Ryan, Mike, fuck, there are just too many who showed up when it mattered it’s hard…

Thank you. From the bottom of my heart….

There been a lot of changes in the city over the last five years, some people think the good, others think they’re bad. I come down in the middle. I think the city has a strong roots that need to be preserved, but I also believe it has roots that need to be torn out, if we’re ever to live into our global potential as a community. Forward is the only way, and in considering our way forward, we need a better mix of thinkers in the rooms, young and old. And frankly, more young than old. And more diverse. And more female. Did I mention younger?

Think about Nashville’s market advantages (with the exception ,of course, of our state legislators, who consistently bomb us into the intellectual Stone Age) whether it is our geographical proximity to nearly 80% of the US population in two days drive, or the deep community roots that cannot be simply “spun up” with a bag of money (ask Vegas), the cities deeply rooted publishing industries (music and books), our place in the healthcare ecosystem globally, the burgeoning maker and fashion industries, the amazing food culture, a generally progressive local government… the list goes on and on…

I feel lucky to live here.

Jo’s death brought me several unexpected gifts — the proverbial silver linings. First and foremost is my relationship with Maggie. That little girl saved my skinny ass, and I am a good dad. Family is my first priority today, everyone else can wait. Jo also showed me through her own work of weeding out people who are takers, people who perpetually make things about them, life is too short for that shit, for those people. My tolerance for bullshit sat just above the water line before all of this, it is now submerged and it ain’t coming back. Most importantly, I finally know what I am, a creative. I never thought I deserved that title. It was reserved for unicorns, not for me. And whatever fear I had left about anything is gone.

image by Brooke Kelly — www.brookekelly.com

While I have been working on and off out of need rather than desire, I have essentially been away from the fast moving world of startups for well over a year. Coming back, I take great pride in the strides our community is taking, and simultaneously concerned over some of the things I have discovered… but I’ll take care of that soon enough…

We still have a lot of work to do. A TON. If we want to truly compete on a global scale, we need to think beyond our small minded local market bullshit. We like the smell of our own farts just a tad too much.

Assuming I have another good 30 years left in me, while I do not know exactly what I am going to do, I generally know where I am headed… where my passion lies. I am going to spend the remainder of my time on the planet doing three things. Being the best dad I can comes first. Second is the empowerment of the creative class across all disciplines, all forms of media. The third is teaching.

That work will take many forms, some of which will be obvious, others will continue to be clandestine, all of it will be focused on disruption of legacy power structures. Some of it is already in motion, most of it is yet to come.

More on that in Part Two of the story, coming soon.

If you got all the way to the bottom, thank you, now go do something great!