The One Thing Techstars' Anna Barber Looks for in Founders
Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior reporter, covering venture capital. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks. Follow him on Twitter.
Every year, Anna Barber, managing director of Techstars LA, has to sift through around 1,000 applications and meet with hundreds of founding teams in order to select ten to go through the prestigious three month accelerator program that can serve as a crucial launching pad for very young startups.
So what does she look for above all else? Curiosity and a desire to ask hard questions.
"What I really mean by that is the willingness to look at things that you assume to be true and question them," Barber said. "Because the key to building a great business is constantly making tiny adjustments based on new information and sometimes big adjustments. If you lack the courage to question your own assumptions, you're never going to get there."
In addition to running Techstars LA since 2017, Anna Barber is a partner at The Fund, an early stage venture capital fund made up of local founders and operators that expanded to L.A this year. She has also served as a coach and strategic consultant to founders since 2013.
Barber says she wants founders to have a strong point of view, but they have to be willing to quickly shift and adapt as they learn new information.
To find out whether founders are willing to question their own assumptions, Barber asks how they know certain things they have asserted about their pitch are true.
"I get a lot of information from the answer," she said.
Another question Barber likes to ask is if a founder is wildly successful, what will the world look like in the future?
"What's so interesting is whether the founder answers that from the perspective of what they individually will be doing or what will happen with their customers," Barber explained. "The ones that focus on how the world will be different for their customers tell me that they're really deeply thinking about what their customer wants."
In addition to running Techstars LA since 2017, Barber is a partner at The Fund, an early stage fund made up of local founders and operators that expanded to L.A this year. She has also served as a coach and strategic consultant to founders since 2013.
Barber started her career as a corporate lawyer and was a strategy consultant at McKinsey & Company. She shifted to tech during the end of the dot-com bubble in 1999 as an executive at two e-commerce startups that were ahead of their time, Petstore.com and then Rentanything.com.The fourth TechStars LA class started this week and will present at a Demo Day in October. Standouts from the previous three classes include Slingshot Aerospace, Blue Fever, Stackin, Fernish, Liquid, Dash Systems and Finli.
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Their Russian investor was dead.
On a late Tuesday night in early May, the billionaire Russian coal tycoon, Dmitry "Dima" Bosov stopped answering phone calls and messages. When his wife, Katerina, arrived at their mansion in the suburbs of Moscow, she found her 52-year old husband locked in the family's home gym, dead from an apparent gunshot wound to the head.
The owner of multiple Russian coal companies had a penchant for ice hockey, snowboarding and placing big bets on businesses. More than 6,000 miles to the west, Bosov had been trying to build a new foothold in cannabis.
The Genius Fund was run by Ari Stiegler and Gabriel Borden, two twenty-something friends who had lofty ambitions of dominating the cannabis market first in the U.S. and then internationally, with a roughly $164 million bet from Bosov.
Their idea was to create a vertically integrated company that owns its own supply chain, producing, distributing and selling cannabis products more efficiently. It's a model that has proven particularly effective for other cannabis companies like MedMen, Caliva and Natura, which have raised millions in investor funding.
Genius Fund, however, blew the money in less than two years. Company executives ran up five-figure tabs, built lavish offices and manufacturing facilities, hired armed security in their pursuit to build a cannabis empire, an investigation by dot.LA found. In the end, the Russian-funded venture crumbled.
The story is pieced together from interviews with more than 40 former employees and business associates, active and retired county officials, as well as federal and county law enforcement; state court records, arbitration, arrest and corporate records in the U.S. and Canada; other public records in six California counties; Genius Fund corporate records and emails. Some former employees and business associates spoke to dot.LA on condition that their names not be mentioned out of fear of reprisals.
This is the first in dot.LA's "Green Rush" series looking at the rise and fall of cannabis-related startup Genius Fund. Sign up for dot.LA's newsletter to be notified about new stories.
Stiegler and Borden publicly referred to Genius Fund as a private equity fund, but the company functioned more like a family office for their high wealth investor, or a conglomerate that rolled up into one parent entity. They headquartered Genius Fund originally in Venice, California, and later, Culver City.
Genius Fund's expansive structure included more than 50 corporate entities, mostly limited liability companies, spread across farming operations, CBD and THC manufacturing processes, product development, delivery operations and a retail front, according to domestic and international corporate filings. Each of Genius Fund's main operational entities had its own CEO or general manager.
At its peak, the overall business employed more than 300 employees and contractors, corporate records showed.
Genius Fund was one of dozens of new marijuana-related startups that have sprouted up in recent years after California legalized recreational marijuana. Like others chasing the "green rush," Genius Fund wanted to position itself as an early giant in California's marijuana market, which is the world's largest legal pot market, according to 2019 industry reports. It's an industry that has generated nearly $3.1 billion in spending in the Golden State alone.
The company was beset with problems, according to former employees from all levels and areas of the organization who agreed to speak to dot.LA on condition that they not be named in the story out of fear of reprisals.
"Not one person at the top knew what they were doing," said a former employee — a sentiment that was echoed by many of their former colleagues and repeated by the company's now ex-CEO in his more than $3.5 million lawsuit against the company and its Russian oligarch owner filed in April in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in Los Angeles.
Ari Stiegler and Gabriel Borden first met while in college. They reconnected in early 2018 at a crypto-scene party that Borden threw in his family's Santa Monica, California, home. It was kismet in a way.
Business associates described Borden, now 26, as a shy, trusting and empathetic guy. The son of the executive producer and creator of Disney's "High School Musical," Borden had access to his father's Rolodex, according to his associates. Stiegler, now 28, was described by associates as brash and cocky, someone who knew how to talk a big game and sell investors on a vision, even if he may have known little about the industry.
Both were young serial entrepreneurs working out of the heart of Silicon Beach.
Early in their relationship, Stiegler arranged for Borden to be made an advisor for a cryptocurrency exchange company, then called Samsa Technologies Inc., which Stiegler co-founded in 2017 with another friend. Stiegler already had a history of jumping quickly from one business venture to another in search of hitting it big, according to former investors and business partners.
Stiegler spent office hours planning his own side businesses or watching YouTube videos, a former investor in one of Stiegler's earlier ventures, Rob Sciama, said.
Borden was good at nurturing relationships and bringing people to the table. He had always been attracted to business and not afraid of reaching out to industry leaders, including major business executives and VPs, while at Loyola Marymount University. While in school, he helped get InterWallet off the ground. That company would become Van Nuys-based Maya Labs, which provides a self-service kiosk payment solution for the unbanked and underbanked.
Several months after their first meeting, they met with a possible Russian investor, Dmitry Borisovich Bosov, a contact of one of Borden's classmates at Loyola Marymount, to talk about a possible investment opportunity.
Stiegler said in an interview that Bosov wanted "good entrepreneurs in L.A. to run a cannabis company" for him.
"He really liked us and basically said, 'Hey, you guys need to quit your companies and come work for me,'" Stiegler told dot.LA. "It's not every day that someone offers to invest millions of dollars into a company. So we were like, 'OK, yeah, sure we can do this right now'."
Stiegler's colleague, Borden, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
The new opportunity came with the promise of $160 million investment for the cannabis business even though neither he nor Borden had any experience in the industry, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.
With the promise of millions and a hefty chunk to start, the company called Genius Fund was underway.
A screenshot of Genius Fund's website from August 2018 shows the company's leadership team. Top left to bottom right: Ari Stiegler, Gabriel Borden, Danny Abyzov, Andrew Dillard, Andrey Pirumov, Daniel Sarpa and Chris Clifford.
A Ticket to 'Generational Wealth'
The early days of the company were an exciting time. Stiegler served as the company's CEO and CFO, while Borden served as secretary, according to state corporate records. But they referred to themselves as managing partners, according to multiple employees and the company's website. Two Russian executives were also referred to as managing partners at Genius Fund. One was Bosov's friend, Andrey Pirumov, who headed up marketing, and the other was Borden's college classmate, Danny Abyzov, who knew Bosov through his father, Mikhail Abyzov, another Russian oligarch.
Abyzov, the father, once served as a minister in former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's cabinet and was arrested in March 2019 for allegedly embezzling $62 million and depositing the money in foreign banks, per Fox Business News and other media reports. Abyzov pleaded not guilty and Russian state media reports that he remains jailed. His attorney did not reply to an emailed request for comment. Abyzov's duties as a cabinet minister had been to make Russian government transparent and accountable, according to Russian government records.
The son's executive role at Genius Fund ended after his father's arrest, several former employees said.
Friends and business associates said they heard Stiegler say that Genius Fund was his ticket to "generational wealth." He and Borden focused on lining up new hires and possible partners to start work.
Stiegler hired his roommates and frat brothers from the University of Southern California, some of whom he plucked out of jobs as a manager at a pizza joint, a worker in a mailroom, a busboy and bartender, to become analysts or work specialized roles like growing 1,000 acres of hemp, at Genius Fund's various entities, according to their LinkedIn profiles and interviews with former employees. Many made more money than they had ever made in their lives, former employees said in interviews.
From leased cultivation fields to manufacturing facilities for CBD and THC, product lines, even a brand incubator and a retail store, by the fall of 2019, the multi-faceted company operations were mostly up and running.
It was a time of fast growth, with millions in investor funds — as much as $18 to $20 million — wired every few weeks from Bosov's company in Russia, corporate records reviewed by dot.LA show. Russian investors have flocked to the cannabis industry in the U.S. as traditional banks have shied away from it, even though the plant is illegal in their homeland.
Many employees left jobs at well-known brands, including places like MedMen, to work for Genius Fund.
"Everything was optimistic, in a 'things are about to take off' sort of way," said a former employee.
The company's early hires worked out of two live-work apartments in Venice, right by the beach. When Bosov and his wife visited around last spring, one of the apartments — a one-bedroom, one-bath — was so clogged with office furniture and desks it was difficult to move around. Neighbors complained about dozens of people going in and out all day, according to a person with direct knowledge.
Genius Fund's executives had high ambitions and needed bigger digs. Its roughly 35 staffers moved into a new 12,895 square foot, three-story office building with skylights, thermal ash hardwood flooring and floor-to-ceiling windows in Culver City in the spring. The parking lot featured a Tesla supercharging station.
Genius Fund paid $2 million in cash upfront to lease the property, along with two months of rent, at roughly $65,000 per month, according to corporate records and two former employees with direct knowledge of the lease terms.
The Genius Store at 7569 Melrose was the only store the company opened.Photo by Tami Abdollah
The High Life
In the early days, Stiegler and Borden traveled every few weeks to places such as Forte dei Marmi, Italy to meet with their Russian investor and to party on yachts. Stiegler also traveled at Bosov's request to Russia and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, where Bosov frequently stayed.
The two created a high-life culture, regularly flying in private jets, former employees said. To wow an investor, company executives rented a catamaran. Stiegler enjoyed meals out at expensive restaurants, according to two business associates, and donned a pricey Rolex he said Bosov gave him for his birthday.
Genius Fund executives bought both business and non-business items with company funds, including luxury vehicles such as Escalades and Teslas, "daily lunches that would regularly cost in excess of $1,500" and same-day business class one-way tickets "without any business need for such wasteful spending," according to allegations in Genius Fund's ex-CEO Francis Racioppi's whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the company and Bosov.
Stiegler said the $1,500 was for a meal service for employees at the company. He added that he, Borden and Pirumov all had an ownership interest in the company, but Bosov was the majority owner and signed off on all investments and hiring decisions.
"He's the boss, but, like, we're here to, you know, execute his objectives on the ground," Stiegler said. "I was kind of just a fancy employee really."
When someone needed to be picked up at the airport, company officials realized they didn't have a "Genius Mobile." So the company purchased a new black Mercedes Sprinter with customizations that included fancy upholstery with Genius Fund's logo and a flat-screen TV, former employees said.
Genius Fund leadership spent money "recklessly," with one company executive insisting on purchasing desks, computers and monitors for more than 50 potential employees who the company had no immediate plans to hire, according to allegations in the ex-CEO's court documents.
"Bosov was giving a lot of money with very little questions," former executive Evan Kagan said.
The interior of Genuis Fund's Mercedes Sprinter van with custom upholstery.Photo provided by a source who prefers to remain anonymous.
Employees charged personal expenses like spa visits to their company cards, according to former employees with direct knowledge. Another Genius Fund employee used the company-issued credit card to donate $2,800 to the Trump Victory PAC in Massachusetts, according to Federal Election Commission data. Corporate records show a matching charge on a Genius Fund Amex card.
Meanwhile, personal items like surfboards, dozens of voice recorders and a Gita robot, were purchased by Genius Fund for Bosov and shipped or couriered to him in Russia or Italy, the ex-CEO's lawsuit alleges.
"Yes, we bought a Tesla, but it was Dima's personal Tesla and he repaid us for it," Stiegler said. "Yes, we bought him a surfboard for his birthday. But, whatever. It's like a $800 surfboard and he invested a ton of money in the company."
In addition to the Tesla, former employees said, Bosov utilized the company's staff for upkeep and maintenance of the couple's Beverly Hills residence, the lawsuit states. His wife used her Genius Fund American Express card on high-fashion shopping trips at Chanel in Monaco and Luisa Via Roma in Florence, Italy, according to company records.
"Were funds that were sent into the company bank account used for personal things that Dima and his family needed in L.A.? Yes," Stiegler said. "If they needed a car to drive around, we bought him a car. When they went to dinner, they used the company credit card but then they would reimburse the company," he added. "They didn't have anyone to be their helpers in L.A. We were their helpers."
Inside the company, a toxic culture was forming, according to former employees who were there.
Genius Fund hired models and nightclub dancers to dress in skimpy clothing for its exhibits at trade shows, former employees said.
Multiple former business colleagues told dot.LA they heard Stiegler make sexist, demeaning comments about women, for example, stating women aren't as skilled at business as men are. Former employees said they saw Stiegler look women up and down, use them as props to ease business relationships, and make comments about what women wore and their appearance. Former employees also remember hearing that a female executive assistant was upset after Stiegler noted a scheduled hookup with a "hot Swedish" chick on his work calendar. A friend of Stiegler's remembers him bragging and laughing as he recounted the same story.
Stiegler denied those characterizations.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I come from a nice Jewish family, you don't do that, you don't treat employees like that or say rude things."
Former business associates described Stiegler as someone who didn't care what anyone thought, so long as his actions could be justified legally.
By the end of 2019, Genius Fund planned for the cannabis empire to be up and running and already in the black.
The company grew a complicated infrastructure, with roughly 20 active entities, each with its own books, and multiple bank accounts that former employees said never appeared to be used for operations. dot.LA found in public records more than 50 business entities, including one in Canada, that Genius Fund registered or acquired during its less than two years in operation.
Amit Sharma, CEO of FinClusive and former U.S. Treasury official who dealt with money laundering said that generally — not about Genius Fund — having upward of 50 plus different entities seems excessive for a new startup. But, he added, some companies do create sub-entities for potential future spinoffs, mergers or acquisitions of other businesses, and to protect intellectual property or avoid taxation.
Cannabis-related businesses already operate in a strange gray area between federal laws that make marijuana illegal and states that have decriminalized its use, Sharma said. That forces some companies to rely on business practices that may appear shady, but are in fact workarounds. They may have no other choice, he said.
Genius Fund's former CEO Racioppi characterizes the company's story as a "sordid tale of corporate mismanagement, subterfuge, and fraud involving an amalgam of shell companies that self-identify as part of the 'Genius Fund Group,'" in his whistleblower retaliation lawsuit.
Attorneys representing the defendants responded in the case that Racioppi was never terminated and characterized him as a disgruntled CEO who was unwilling to take direction from the new owner. They argue the case should be in arbitration, not in court.
"An employee's frustration that he was not given greater freedom to operate a company as he wished does not constitute breach of an employment contract," the response said, noting that Racioppi had never sent over a resignation notice.
Many former Genius Fund employees said they still don't know what to think of their time with the company. Rumors about the real intentions of Bosov's financial dealings were common, some former employees told dot.LA.
"A lot of us were not sure," a former employee said. "It looks funny, shady, but maybe nothing illegal is actually happening, and maybe, maybe it's just stupidity as well. We were all like, 'Maybe, maybe'."
This is the first in dot.LA's "Green Rush" series looking at the rise and fall of cannabis-related startup, Genius Fund. Sign up for dot.LA's newsletter to be notified about new stories.
Do you have a story that needs to be told? My DMs are open on Twitter @latams. You can also email me at tami(at)dot.la, or ask for my contact on Signal, for more secure and private communications.
Lead art by Candice Navi
ABL Space Systems, a startup building low-cost launch vehicles for small satellites, announced that it raised over $90 million and plans to launch its first orbital mission by the first quarter of next year.
The El Segundo-based company secured $44.5 million in Air Force contracts and another $49 million in private funds led by Ethan Batraski at Venrock with participation from New Science Ventures, Lynett Capital, and Lockheed Martin Ventures.
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The project would be distinct from Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo suborbital space plane program, which is closing in on the start of commercial operations at Spaceport America in New Mexico.