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December 11, 2010

A Tribute to Courage, Entrepreneurship, Grace

Synergistic Mgt - Doctoroff

My father-in-law, Michael Doctoroff, passed away last week of ALS.  It's been a sad series of days in the Bussgang household and we are just beginning to recover and transition back into the real world.  I am finding that when you lose a loved one, it's hard to make the switch back into our frenetic, exciting, optimistic start-up world.  But, we are doing our best and I thought a memorial blog post would be somewhat cathartic.

My father-in-law was a remarkable man.  He was the middle child in a household with three boys, surrounded on both sides by over-achieving Harvard graduates (one became a judge, the other a successful doctor - the dream of every Jewish mother!).  Yet, he charted his own path.  Although on paper he had a marvelous career (corporate executive, professor, author of a management book - pictured above), in truth he never found his true professional calling until 16 years ago, at the age of 60, when he founded Trainers Warehouse out of his basement.

Don't let anyone ever tell you that you are too old to be an entrepreneur, too old to take the risk of starting your own venture.  My father-in-law worked alone and didn't take salary for years and years, eventually building the company into a multi-million dollar leader in the corporate training supplies market.   He raised no outside money, located the office 5 minutes from his house and employed his daughter - now president of the company - and wife as well as tens of others.  Even while battling ALS, he came to work every day to design creative products for trainers to bring fun and fulfillment into the workplace. 

Despite his entrepreneurial success, his career did not define him.  His relationships with his family and friends are what made him most remarkable.  He had an amazing relationship over the course of a 50-year marriage with his wife.  Their love for each other through his battle with the disease has been inspiring to observe.  He had three lovely daughters (my wife being one of them!) who have happy marriages and functional families as well (coincidentally, each of the three daughters married a college classmate).  And he was able to foster great relationships with each of his three son-in-laws - finding special ways to connect with each of us, despite our diverse interests (an entrepreneur-turned-VC, a scientist and an author).  I think it is the mark of a great man (in this case, in partnership with a great woman) who can create such a functional set of relationships across their entire family. Fostering close friendships was also paramount to his existence.  No less than five people came up to me at the funeral to tell me he was their best friend in the world.

In his final months, my father-in-law taught me a lot about grace and courage.  ALS is a horrible disease, slowly weakening your body while your mind remains sharp.  He was funny, irreverent and attentive to those around him to the end.  I don't think I'll ever forget the night he came over our house for dinner, a week before his death, when he drew a bone on his handheld white board (he could no longer speak) and motioned to my dog to see if he could get him to chase after it.  At Thanksgiving, he had his three year old grand-nephew chasing his wheelchair around trying to beat him in tic-tac-toe.

I feel blessed to have had him in my life.


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Jeff, thanks for sharing this story -- and the story on the company's web site -- with us. He sounds like a remarkable man.

Loved reading this, Jeff. As a fellow son-in-law of Mike's, I can confirm that he was a special guy who was true to himself -- iconoclastic, mischievous, boyish, funny, smart, creative, caring, loyal, supportive -- to the very end. He was an inspiration and a friend to me as well, and I will miss him. (He would have loved that you included a shot of Synergistic Management, too!)

Yah - amazing what you can dig up on the Web! Thanks, Billy.

Jeff, a great tribute. You and your family are in my heart.

Nice tribute. I don't think it's a coincidence that this scientist (remember, he was a scientist first), author and entrepreneur has 3 sons-in-law who are a scientist, an author and an entrepreneur. Looks like each of his daughters decided to pursue a different aspect of their remarkable father.

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And his career through those three venues
matches precisely the same sequence of his three daughters. A funny connection,

From: TypePad

Great to see someone who can embrace life's toughest moments to try to understand the lessons that one great person can embody. Also wonderful to remind people that there is no single right way to live a life. There are early bloomers and late bloomers. You don't often read about the 'perennials' who provide new and better blooms year after year.
I am always amazed that VCs by default ding people for having age, wisdom and experience on their side.
Take care. Take time.

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Thanks, Michael.  There’s a lot of wisdom
in your comment – and being open-minded to take the time to learn the value of someone’s
skills and experiences is a big one for me.

Hi Mr. Bussgang

I'm new to your blog and new to the whole VC arena, first off my heart goes out to you and your family during this particular time. I empathize with you, knowing loss (my mom battled cancer) just recently. It is a tough road for the whole family and it's in times like these you will learn things about yourself that will amaze you. Be patient with yourself in the process and those close to you experiencing the same thing. There will be a grace discovered if you hang in there.

About your book "Mastering the VC game..." I just pulled it off the shelf Friday (17th) and skimmed through a few pages and have been encouraged by what I see thus far. An easy read it seems and I plan to pick it up, but I have a feeling that I will have many more questions as I walk through it. Just wanted to drop that on you. Thanks for your work... keep it up.

Thanks for your kind note, Frank. Happy holidays. 

Great tribute Jeff. Your father in-law sounds like an amazing guy. When I've lost people close to me in the past I always try and spend some time reflecting on what I have learned from them, and how I can emulate the good that they've done! As a fellow entrepreneur, father, & husband your post has given me a few things to remember this holiday season! Thanks!

Just reading this now and I'm very sorry for your family's loss. It sounds as though he was an inspiring man and certainly a figure that every son-in-law would cherish. Happy Holidays to you and Lynda and your family and best wishes for continued inspiration in 2011.


Great post, he lived the "trifecta" of life. Family, business and community. Very few people can pull it off, strong role model for others.

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Thanks, Steve.  He was awesome and will be
sorely missed.

Thats a powerful story, Jeff, thank you for sharing it.

Sincerest condolences to you and your family at his difficult time.

The Troiano Family

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