Just before Labor Day weekend, TechStars cofounder David Cohen published an anonymous email from a concerned cofounder about his or her hellish experience with an unnamed "accelerator"—one of those boot camps that takes equity in a young startup in exchange for a small amount of capital and the promise to whip it into shape—as well as its utterly deranged managing director.
The managing director didn't just direct her wrath at the anonymous emailer, but also at another founder in the program, who happened to be the emailer's roommate:
She blows up at him via text message hurling personal insults, calling him a quitter saying things like “This is why your cofounder quit” and “you’re in my program, I’m not in yours”. The fact is she promised his cofounder, who was at the time of application a full-time [name of a profession], that she’d help them raise at least $100K easily and she knew that was the amount needed for his cofounder to quit her [same profession] job. Everyone also knew the date that she had to accept or decline her contract for that year. The date passed and they’d raised $0. He called her delusional and wished her the best with her “program.” Trying to get out ahead of the situation, she publishes “all” of the messages between she and I and emails them to the team. She denied that she’d kicked him out despite there being a ton of proof in her messages to us. I’m a lot of things, but a liar isn’t one of them and I didn’t take kindly to her suggesting that I was. I search the document for a mentions of [the mentor mentioned earlier] and other incidents, knowing there is no way she’d include the vile things she said in a public forum. I searched and it didn’t come up. I searched my logs and pulled up, in real-time 3 dates that were removed from her log. I offered to go on but she made up an excuse for why she lied and changed the logs and quickly changed the subject. Her team remained oddly silent.
Cohen redacted the name of the institution as well as the cofounder who registered the complaint. Cohen also "changed the gender of certain people," but commenters on Cohen's blog and Hacker News were quick to oblige.
Socratic Labs and its managing director Heather Gilchrist also share many other details referenced in the email. Both were focused on a single vertical (education), located in a coworking space rather than an office (in Socratic's case, The Alley in Midtown), and both used the same highfalutin terminology to describe the first batch of startups (inaugural/alpha "cohort"). Both accelerators were also missing two startups come Demo Day.
The cofounder who emailed Cohen mentions moving to New York in order to join this accelerator and that his or her startup had graduated from another unrelated accelerator—before joining the no good, very bad one. By process of elimination from the portfolio of startups Socratic Labs announced when it launched to the ones that made it to Demo Day that points to Learnmetrics, which matriculated from the Brandery in Cincinnati under the name Ontract. That would make other screwed-over startup Edventory.
Then there was this since-deleted tweet from Gilchrist directed at Cohen and the cryptic quote that followed:
"You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you." —Eric Hoffer— Heather Gilchrist (@heatherg) September 2, 2013
I reached out to Gilchrist over four hours ago and have yet to hear back. I also reached out to Socratic Labs, some of its current and former employees, Learnmetrics, Edventory, David Cohen, and representatives for The Alley and will update the post when I hear back.
However, I did get a response from Paul Cianciolo, a vice president of FirstMark Capital, who is listed prominently as a mentor on Socratic Labs' profile on AngelList. Cianciolo couldn't confirm that it was Socratic Labs, but he said his involvement as a mentor was minimal:
Wow, that’s the first that I’ve seen/read that article from David Cohen.
Either fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t have enough depth of
experience with the Socratic Labs program to be able to tell whether it is
the subject of the article or not. My involvement with Socratic Labs
included (at the request of the MD and program managers) stopping by one
afternoon during the middle of the program to walk several of the
participating companies through an info session on how to create and
prepare pitch decks for VC meetings, in addition to my attending the final
demo day at the end of the program.
Another "mentor" whose avatar appears on their AngelList profile told Valleywag, "It's weird that I'm being listed as I never attended anything. FWIW Heather Gilchrist who I grabbed dinner with at one point about 6 months before she launched was an absolutely terrible communicator."
Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams also noted Socratic Labs strange mentor page, which features seven and a half rows of blank silhouettes.
Hopefully "don't even worry about your website" isn't the type of advice they're dispensing to startups. But from sounds of the anonymous email, it was actually much, much worse. Take, for example, this late night gChat sesh:
We were still committed to making the best of a bad situation when I got a gchat from the MD at 3am while working from home. She seemed irate (if not completely irrational) and started accusing me of “not participating” and verbatim stated that I needed to decide if we were a [previous accelerator] company or a company in her accelerator. She threatened to kick me out if I didn’t consult with her on every piece of my company’s strategy. I told her I was happy to listen and take feedback but I completely disagreed with her accusations and ultimatum, mostly because there had been nothing to participate in outside of what I’d done to try to help. I also told her it’s hard to trust her opinions because we’d seen nothing but back-tracking, fluff, and empty promises. Example: She walked into the room and announced that [some famous mentor] was coming in to speak to the teams. One of her team members read the email in full and pulls her aside to tell her that the email actually said he’s open for paid speaking engagements and anyone can get him if they have the budget for it. She never mentioned it again.
Socratic Labs wasn't the only accelerator caught in the crossfire. At the bottom of Cohen's blog post advising due diligence, a commenter named Jessica Darko offered a lengthy explanation of why she won't be applying to TechStars again. Maybe people in glass accelerators shouldn't throw shade.
Update: Gilchrist just sent the following email. Although she didn't respond to directly to my questions about whether Socratic Labs was the accelerator in the article, or about her deleted tweet, she did say the post gave her "a good chuckle."
Hey Nitasha, My team and I definitely got a good chuckle out of your article. Just should be clear that the mentor page you linked to was an old draft that was not live linked on our site. If you want to talk to mentors, feel free to reach out to anyone on our AngelList profile, where they've all confirmed their participation. I know you already have. Keep fighting the good fight! Happy Tuesday.
Both of the mentors I quoted earlier, one of whom had zero involvement with Socratic Labs and one who only stopped by for an afternoon prior Demo Day, were listed on the accelerator's AngelList profile.
Update 9/4: On EdSurge today, Gilchrist confirmed that the email to David Cohen was referring to Socratic Labs. She also wrote an op-ed for the site. She has yet to refute any of the allegations regarding her behavior as managing director.
To contact the author of this post, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Image via SocraticLabs.com]