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.