The Real TechStars of New York

Tisch Out of Water: David Tisch Navigates Startupland and Comes Out a TechStar

Overcoming the hurdles of privilege with the New York tech world's new crown prince.
38 david tisch Tisch Out of Water: David Tisch Navigates Startupland and Comes Out a TechStar

(via We Are NY Tech)

On a warm October afternoon, before the weather turned, Betabeat was following David Tisch’s lead up and down University Place in search of an empty-ish coffee shop. Mr. Tisch, the bright-eyed, foul-mouthed managing director of TechStars New York, an incubator for young startups, shuffled along in his standard get-up: jeans, a hoodie, and a backwards baseball hat. His unruly black hair flipped out from underneath.

It’s a fitting uniform for Mr. Tisch, who in person can come across much like the founders he invests in. The grandson of self-made billionaire Laurence Tisch, his speech is peppered with the words “fuck” and “cool,” he burrows his fists in his hoodie, and, once we find a place to sit, jostles the glasses on the table when he crosses and uncrosses his long legs. “I’m pretty shy in groups. I don’t like big crowds. So being on TV is weird for me,” he said, referring to the Bloomberg TV cameras that followed him around for months to document the TechStars New York’s inaugural class.

Just 48 hours earlier, clean-shaven and in shirtsleeves this time, Mr. Tisch stood in front of the Cedar Lake auditorium in Chelsea, rearranging the paper nametags on reserved seats like an anxious dinner party host, albeit to maximize the free flow of funding rather than conversation.

By the time he introduced Mayor Bloomberg to the packed house of more than 500, including the haut monde of investors and entrepreneurs who make up TechStars’ list of mentors and backers, Mr. Tisch had a hard time wiping off his grin.

“David, thank you. Good morning, it’s good to be here at Demo Day!” the Mayor said, before glancing at the iPad-cum-teleprompter he placed on the podium. “I also wanted to welcome all the VCs and angel investors who have flown in here from around the country. I think you’re proof positive that the TechStars is going to change this world and certainly change America and this city.”

Two years ago, Mr. Tisch, would have been lucky to get a ticket to such an affair, much less license to arrange the wedding table. While his last name may be synonymous with New York industry, aside from a handful of angel investments, Mr. Tisch was a relative unknown in tech circles before his appointment at TechStars.

“He seemed to sort of fly in and take over this avuncular role, but I don’t really know what qualified him to do that,” said one New York entrepreneur familiar with the TechStars program. “Besides the obvious family history, I have no idea what he did before.”

That kind of sentiment might explain why Mr. Tisch, who had a few fitful attempts to launch a startup after graduating from NYU law school in 2006, attacks his current role like a man with something to prove.

Since launching last October, TechStars, a program originally founded in Boulder in 2006, has fast become part of the Silicon Alley firmament. On the heels of its success, Mr. Tisch’s tenure, which was initially greeted with a tweet questioning his entrepreneurship chops, last month yielded a spot on Mayor Bloomberg’s first-ever Council on Tech.

Mr. Tisch even boasts the ultimate status symbol: a satirical Twitter account, this one run by two VC employees and an entrepreneur. After the pitches had finished,  @fakedavetisch, which comes out to play every Demo Day, tweeted, “And that’s our show! Come find me in the check-writing area later. I’ll be the one offering you money without knowing your name.”

It was a joke without real fangs. A year ago one might have heard established investors grumble under their breadth about angel investing as the new rich kid vanity project and bringing in dilettantes with the last name Pritzker, Kushner or Tisch to round out a deal. (Josh Kushner, part-owner of Observer Media Group, also does seed stage tech investing through Thrive Capital. Adam Pritzker is a co-founder of General Assembly.)

Nowadays New York’s clubby class of venture capitalists and angels, who have access to the best deals and cooperate on financing rounds, seem to have closed ranks around Mr. Tisch. Such was the open landscape for seed stage funding when Mr. Tisch arrived on the scene where hustle, good instincts, and a passion for the culture can earn you industry cred.

“I mean it’s like everyone’s brand new and from five minutes ago and they’re doing cool stuff and Dave’s doing cool stuff,” said Ben Lerer, co-founder of Thrillist whose firm, Lerer Ventures was launched in 2010, and invests in TechStars New York. “Dave’s an investor in Lerer Ventures. We invested in him, he invested in us. It’s like aaaall in the family.”

And just in time, as the bubble around seed stage investment in New York is beginning to deflate. “The first people to recognize that there is an opportunity are the ones that are seeing success. Period,” added Mr. Lerer. “If you’re just realizing now that New York tech is interesting, you’re a little late to the game.”

Follow Nitasha Tiku on Twitter or via RSS. ntiku@observer.com