Forward.

{back from the dead part two}

First day of school at USN

This is a long one.

Let’s start where it counts, her. She’s doing really well. USN, 1st grade, new friends, Chinese, reading, singing, writing songs and stories, robots, computers, ballet, and developing a real love for learning. #nashvillecreates

Thank you for asking.

Me?

Getting there, thank you.

I have spent a lot of my life living in the future. These days… not so much. Losing Joanna slowed me down… waaaaay down. Grief is a windy road, with lots of potholes along the way. But I got the thing that mattered right. Her. #maggiegracemontgomery #daddylife #enjoywhatyoubuild #youngbull

She’s thriving. And I survived.

So now what? What to do with the time left? Watching a vibrant life extinguished before my eyes helped me get my priorities straight in a hurry. We all have to face things — tragedy, illness, death, depression, debilitation — in one way or another in our lives, I just never thought it would happen to me. To us. Like it did.

Forward is the only way. No matter what your loss, it will get better, you will recover. Life will go on. A new normal will reveal itself.

the new normal.

For the first two years after her passing, I put my professional life on hold. My focus was our family’s recovery. While that had many fits and starts, and along the way I did some things I wish I could take back (grief does strange things to people) — for the most part I feel good about how we muddled through.

Last year, I walked into a meeting and found myself sitting across from a smart, beautiful woman. Note to self. With an exclamation point!

Miranda is from a small town in Kentucky (the closest Walmart is in Maysville). The only child of a blue collar family, she, like me, headed to Nashville with very little in her pocket and the desire to make something of herself. Two degrees later (Vanderbilt Divinity and UT Law), she’s done just that. After school, she went to work at Stites & Harbison under the tutelage of Julian Bibb, established a reputation as a #baller transactional lawyer, and eventually accepted a position with UBS Investment Bank as a global finance lawyer. Since college, she has always found some way to engage her passion of working with young people. A number of years ago she began mentoring a young man (via Big Brothers Big Sisters), and her advocacy on his behalf within the school system ultimately compelled her to get involved in public education.

Nashville has one of the most dysfunctional school boards in the nation (just do some poking around on Twitter), and our kids and community are suffering for it. Miranda ran for a post on that board and fell victim, along with several others, to political assassination (politics is a full contact sport). In the aftermath of that run, she decided to return to private practice and joined an amazing woman-led law firm that represents my business interests.

She was working with me on a pro-bono project (see m:PWR below), and we found ourselves having dinner one evening discussing the project. I suspected she was as attracted to me as I was to her, and decided to go for broke. The worst she could say was no, right? She didn’t.

www.brookekellyphotography.com

But being a responsible lawyer, she indicated that this was problematic from an ethics perspective and that I would have to speak to the firm immediately. That’s a story for another time, quite hilarious really. And the partner who represents me gave us the all clear to date, quipping “Well, this is so interesting, perhaps she can control you — I like this idea.” She has since been very successful in educating me on my white male privilege, but fuck is still my favorite word.

Earlier this year, around our 1 year anniversary, I asked her to marry me. I am unsure how I could get this lucky twice, but I did. Clean living, I guess. Maggie has taken to calling her “Mom,” and while Miranda is not her birth mother, she has earned the title. Along with unconditional love, she has brought a consistency to the family that we are all better for. Being with a widower is a challenge (much less being with me generally), not to mention one with a young, redheaded fireball. But I’ve never seen her walk away from a challenge. I am a #luckyman

the INK Building — homeless shelter, what homeless shelter?

designed by mzarch.com | built by wellspringbuilders.com

In early 2014 Jo went into remission, and because we were some combination of nuts and overly optimistic, in the midst of everything else going on, we decided to pursue the purchase of the old Bowers Printing Company. Located at 613 Ewing Avenue, in the heart of SoBro in Nashville.

The original vision was for INK to house all of the FLO Co’s we were building, and to become a gathering place for the community around technology, innovation, forward thinking, and creative empowerment. Inspired by my time on the West Coast at Google, Apple, etc., and by NYC revitalization efforts like DUMBO, INK is a purple cow in the Nashville market. Large swaths of collaborative space, unlimited Frothy Monkey coffee, my grandfather’s pool table from his 1960’s billiard hall, 1 gig fiber connectivity, events space, and all the tools that allow the folks who work there to focus on what’s important: creativity — and the work.

welcome to the 11th floor

There were more than a fair share of doubters on our location. Everyone would say to me, “You know the homeless shelter is right next door, right?” To which I would answer, “You know they are just people, right? Have you been to NYC? There are shelters every 30 blocks.” That reaction got me toying with the idea of creating a homeless accelerator program (more on that at a later time) — and I am happy to report since we moved into our digs, there have been only two small incidents in nearly three years… turns out the homeless are just people too.

As referenced above, the original vision for FLO was never fully realized, and now INK houses a variety of companies and startups — including FLO’s Made In Network — as well as Frothy Monkey’s roasting operation, along with a newly expanded co-working space and the new banking platform, Ruby. We have hosted weddings, parties, off-site retreats, networking events, live music, photoshoots, and have been a movie location for a half dozen films. I have been told by more than one person that our little platform is their favorite place in Nashville to work out of when they visit from out of town. My favorite compliment ever came from a friend in from out of town for meetings. He called me on his way to the airport and exclaimed, “I had the most important meeting of my trip at INK, totally by accident!” #creativecollisions

What many suggested early was a fool’s errand has turned out to be a great investment for both myself and my partners (Joe Glaser and John Grady) in the project. That area of SoBro, along with the rest of the Nashville real estate market, is on fire.

INK is being sold to the Austin based Prime.

FLO — the grand experiment.

In April of 2015, I walked away from the company I founded to care for my family. We accomplished a lot in a very short period of time, under what would be considered less than ideal circumstances.

Launched in November of 2011, a month later (December 1st) Maggie arrived, and 5 days later, Joanna was given a year to live. It never occurred to either of us that she wouldn’t beat cancer, so off we went with the BHAG of launching 12 companies in 18 months. In retrospect, that goal was pure insanity. We got 7 out of the ground, 3 were epic failures, 4 remain and are cruising along.

We got a lot right. We got a lot wrong (a lot). We learned a ton.

In that four years, we successfully recruited Google to the market (their investment in Tennessee tops $1B dollars to date), launched the fastest growing new company in the history of the spirits business, Blue Chair Bay Rum, and launched or invested in another half dozen companies, of which several have achieved solid results thus far.

My personal favorite is the Made In Network, which we co-founded and provided first dollars in. Now serving well over 250M video streams a month, it recently took on $1M of strategic capital, giving away single digits of equity in exchange for the dollars to move the company to the next level.

Kevin Grosch has proved my simple investing thesis, which I learned from our sole investor in echo: it’s always a bet on the guy or the girl, period. Timing, second. 65–70% of the equation. Plan and financing, distant runners up. More about the Made In Network can be found in their sizzle reel.

At the end of 2015, I returned briefly to right size FLO’s efforts (a painful and in some cases relationship shattering exercise) and to situate the company to take advantage of the value it had created over its short lifespan. FLO exists until its remaining investments mature and exit. While the grand experiment is not over, things look pretty darn good for our shareholders as of this writing. Stay tuned.

m:PWR | aminorinreality.com

photos by Paul Schatzkin | www.cohesionarts.com

In September of 2013, I began teaching at MTSU. I was actively recruited by multiple major universities in Tennessee, but chose MTSU for two simple reasons.

First, I am these kids. The underdogs, the sons and daughters of most normal, lower to middle class Americans. There’s nothing wrong with a silver spoon, but those kids don’t need any more help than they already have.

Second, the “powers that be,” most notably my direct boss Beverly Keel — whose support has been paramount in giving me the opportunity to experiment with this platform — were operating under a mandate for change, which meant I could teach whatever I wanted as long as it was impactful.

The students, or as I like to call them, the customers, said it best:

“When I signed up for fall semester classes, I didn’t spend much time mulling over which electives to take. As a senior, my objective was simple: figure out a convenient class schedule. ‘Sure, this one sounds interesting.’ Click. Done.

One of the classes I was lucky enough to click on was The New Music Business.

It’s December now, and I’m still not sure I can put to words what I’ve experienced in the past four months. Mark Montgomery and his team greeted me first day of class with a quick “you’re in”, and that was it. I had crash-landed on another planet. Metadata, Grammy winners, fake Texas billionaires, pitch decks, podcasts, Spinal Tap. There are no spoilers in this movie review.

To fully understand what The New Music Business has to offer, you just have to butter the popcorn and take a seat. But one thing is for certain: you will come out the other side a different human being. One with a more clairvoyant understanding of your purpose within this thing called the music industry. And who knows? Maybe you’ll have a job opportunity to prove it.”

— Cameron, class of 2017

Like everything else, I felt compelled to brand the class. The inaugural class dubbed us “Barefoot Wednesdays” — a name that hung around for the first couple semesters. We tried a ton of ideas in terms of curriculum and content, including actually starting companies (a great teaching mechanism — even in the failure of those ideas). I had the kids name it to give them a sense of ownership and to teach the brand lesson. There was, and still is, a lot of experimenting with format. We treat class like a startup.

Our latest iteration is different for several reasons. F. Reid Shippen has joined as my co-conspirator (driven by a desire to create “the class he wanted when he was at MTSU”), along with Ernest Chapman and Miranda Christy. We moved the class to Nashville, which among other benefits, allows us to recruit a better group of speakers. We’ve also developed a “three layer cake” approach. One part traditional syllabus, one part practical, and one part inspiration. The syllabus piece is standard. The practical part is very simple; real work, real timelines, real skills, real accountability. The inspiration component is all about bringing in real-world, top-of-their-game professionals into direct, honest and open interaction with the students. We’ve hosted everyone from Beth Laird of Creative Nation to Dierks Bentley to Ashley Capps of AC Entertainment/Bonnaroo to Chris Lacy of Warner Records… and many, many more!

Oh, and we did a rebrand, renaming the class:

m:PWR | aminorinreality.com

The class created the new brand, built the website, and is now running the marketing and promotion of the platform. We have been building a great content library and have just launched a podcast which can be found here.

The next phase of the work is designing a continuum that spans a longer engagement with the students that starts earlier in their education. If done correctly, a combination of the state’s Tennessee Promise program — combined with a newly designed continuum — equals smarter kids, with sharper skills, and a four year degree… for $8,000. We have set the big hairy audacious goal to build an abstract model that can be implemented statewide. We cannot in good conscience continue to educate our kids against an outdated set of modes and saddle them with debt to boot. We owe them more than that.

what the kids say about our work.

Education is the cornerstone of creating productive, informed human beings. This is work I will do until my time on this dirt ball is done. If you are interested in participating, I’d love to have you join in this work. We’ve got plenty for you to do… #nashvillecreates #aminorinreality

so, what’s next?

Over the past year or so, I have been quietly back to work. As Maggie settles in to her educational continuum, I can turn my focus back to my professional life, with some new life experiences to add to my quiver of skills.

The simple premise of FLO was smart shit with cool people or cool shit with smart people. I will continue to use that simple approach as things get rolling. I have gotten a bit more particular about who, and working on what. I will also continue with my simple approach to investing. Betting on the guy or girl and the timing of the deal, regardless of vertical.

Education, economic development in Tennessee (both civically and for personal gain), empowering the creative class, startups, and working with major corporations outsourcing their innovation are the big buckets of work going forward.

The new vehicle for that work will be a platform called IDDO. We’re going to keep the details under wraps for another month or so, but I am very excited about what we’re cooking and who we’re cooking it with.

Along with corporate innovation, I am working with a handful of new startups, including notblacklabs, Ruby, Swarm, RetuneMedia, em2.io, and SafeSurv, as well as continuing to serve on the Board of the Made In Network and the WO Smith School of Music.

I am looking for another handful of deals to get involved in. If you’ve got a big idea, and simply cannot be denied, head over and fill out the form at hellomarko.com and we’ll be in touch!

I would never wish what’s happened to me since December 5, 2011 on anyone, even my worst enemy. I understand how that kind of trauma can knock people off the horse, and consider myself lucky to be getting back on. I’m a different man in a few key ways, but I have a renewed commitment to being a catalyst for change in the world.

My family will continue to come first, period. Maggie’s great, Miranda is a gift from the universe, and I’m gonna be fine… thanks for asking.

Forward.