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Elliott Bisnow brings other young entrepreneurs together in Summit Series

By Annie Gowen in Miami
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 4, 2010; C01

The young moguls are arriving, the soaring atrium of the Ritz-Carlton filling up fast.

Guys with shaggy hair and Vans sneakers. Women in wrappy sweaters and faux-leather stilettos. They're toting backpacks and rolling duffels, checking e-mail with the free hand.

Their average age is just 29, but many are already CEOs who have started -- and in some cases, sold -- cutting-edge companies worth millions. The "Guitar Hero" creators are here. So is the guy who sold his online ad company Advertising.com to AOL for a cool $435 million. Soon they'll go off to their rooms or huddle poolside and dream up the Next Big Thing. But now they hug and shake hands, giving the lobby the air of a college reunion.

An intense young man in surfer shorts, his eyes red from lack of sleep, moves among them, greeting everyone like an old pal. His name is Elliott Bisnow. He is 24. Just two years ago he was a University of Wisconsin dropout living at his parents' home in the District. Before that he was an unpopular tennis geek at the preppy Landon School in Bethesda.

Now he is the co-founder of the successful local e-newsletter publishing company Bisnow Media and the founder of this conference, called the Summit Series. Several times a year, Bisnow organizes a gathering for young entrepreneurs in exotic locales like Aspen or South Beach, where they can schmooze, do extreme sports, raise money for charity and hatch ventures.

Last year, the White House Office of Public Engagement thought it would be a good idea to talk to some under-40 CEOs.

They called Bisnow. In days he delivered 35, including Ivanka Trump and the guy who invented Twitter.

"Isn't there a whole atmosphere of inclusiveness here?" Bisnow says enthusiastically, as he pauses from hugs and high-fives. "It's totally the opposite of high school."

How they roll

On a quiet night before the conference, Bisnow sits down to chat in the study of his parents' home in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Northwest. His mixed-breed dog, Jinxie, is nestled at his side. His black-and-white ferret, Kanye, rustles in a cage nearby. Outside, the pool overlooking Rock Creek Park is covered for winter but surrounded in lights like something out of Hollywood.

In the other room, Bisnow's parents, Mark and Margot, are giving a dinner party. Guests are arriving and crystal glints on the table. Both are such experienced Washington hands -- Mark Bisnow, a journalist and ex-public relations man; Margot, a former federal trade commissioner -- they seem unfazed that their son is doing an interview during the party.

"We only have him for 48 hours," Margot Bisnow laments.

He's always coming and going these days, because in January, Bisnow gave up his childhood room and the Dupont Circle offices of Bisnow Media for life on the road. He is now cutting back his role in his family's venture -- Bisnow Media publishes 10 free e-newsletters on everything from real estate to the social scene -- to devote himself to planning Summit Series events full-time. He hired three of his best friends from D.C. to help him, and he and his entourage now live a "fully nomadic lifestyle" in rented apartments all over the world.

They organize the Summit Series using Skype, their laptops and their cellphones. In June, they gathered for a charity event at hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons's two-story penthouse overlooking the former World Trade Center site, with special guest Bill Clinton.

"Elliott has this crazy social ability to connect the people, the coolest people . . . doing awesome stuff," said Jake Strom, 27, who works for TOMS Shoes, a footwear company that gives a pair of new shoes to a child in need for every pair sold.

In his younger days, Bisnow wanted to be a successful entrepreneur, to have the life he saw on the MTV show "Cribs" -- a huge mansion and a "sick" luxury car. Then he began meeting philanthropic-minded CEOs, like TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, 32, and realized he had it all wrong.

"What they think is cool is helping other people, giving them shoes and fresh water," Bisnow says. "It slaps you right across the face."

Bisnow's charitable efforts since then have been exuberant. The event at Simmons's raised $265,000 for Clinton's foundation. Last year, Bisnow hosted an event that raised $200,000 for the United Nations Foundation in a single night. When he and his entourage rented a beach house in Nicaragua, they noticed the street kids didn't have school supplies. They called up Staples, and 200 pounds of supplies -- enough for 40 kids -- arrived in days.

He's living a lifestyle most junior execs still chained to their desks would envy. At 24, could he really have discovered the secret of life?

"That's what my life has come down to," Bisnow says. "How can I have fun for me, be with my friends and my family, and how can I help other people."

His cellphone buzzes. It's posse member Brett Leve, texting to say he's eating dinner at an L.A. restaurant and actor Michael Cera is at the next table.

This is how they roll now.

The right genes

Bisnow's ascent to the mobile tech elite happened so fast even he is surprised.

"Nobody thought I was cool until a year ago," he says. "I wasn't popular in high school. . . . I didn't fit into cliques or sit at the cool table at lunchtime. Same thing in college."

He threw himself into tennis during his unhappy years at Landon. Soon he was a top-ranked junior and earned a tennis scholarship to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. College was a bad fit for his restless nature. Classes bored him. He started a T-shirt company with his bar mitzvah money and lost almost all of it.

"He told me one time, 'There are 50,000 people walking to class and I want to be walking in the opposite direction,' " recalls Anthony David Adams, 28, a New York entrepreneur who was Bisnow's dorm mate.

In 2005, Elliott's father, who had done radio commentaries on the local business scene, started a small electronic newsletter for the Washington real estate community. Mark Bisnow had previously worked in politics and, more recently, as the personal PR man for Michael Saylor. Saylor is the millionaire playboy head of the Dulles firm MicroStrategy, which lost $6 billion in the tech bubble nine years ago.

While still in college, Elliott began selling ads for the newsletter and was astonishingly good at it, his father says. So good, in fact, that when he decided not to return to school in late 2006, his parents acquiesced.

As his father now tells the story, Elliott pushed to move the company beyond its initial pedestrian offering of dry prose into the colorful, photo-heavy newsletters that today pop up in inboxes around the country. They claim 100,000 subscribers and are cozy with their advertisers in a way that would be frowned upon in traditional media. A note luring potential sponsors on the Web site reads: "Bisnow will send a reporter to your office to cover a story in our newsy way highlighting something of interest to our readers that you do. We disclose that you are a sponsor in the piece, but make it interesting so that our readers consume it as they do the rest of our editorial."

Today it's a modestly profitable venture -- annual revenue of $2 million -- with 29 employees and 10 e-newsletters in D.C., New York, Dallas, Houston, Chicago and Boston.

In the first flush of success as chief operating officer of the family company, Bisnow found himself grappling with issues faced by any fledgling business owner: how to do payroll, which insurance to get, how to expand the brand. His father, who had never run a company before, was not much help. Bisnow decided to ask other young CEOs for advice. He got the attention of some of the bigger names by cold-calling with an invite to a free ski trip to Utah where they could all bond. He charged it all on credit cards, looked for sponsors and hoped for the best.

Invite-only events in Mexico and Aspen followed. The Summit Series, now billed on its Web site as "A Mutual Aid Society for Young Entrepreneurs," was born. In Miami, 260 people paid $3,650 a head for three days of networking, skydiving, seminars with titles like "Design as a Disruptive Force," and three mojito-sodden evenings at chic hotels like the W and the Delano.

As the son of someone who once hosted a Tysons Corner networking event called "Schmoozarama," a talent for connecting people seems to be in Bisnow's DNA.

When TOMS Shoes hosted an event in D.C. a few years back, Strom asked for Bisnow's help organizing it and was invited to stay at his family's house. When Strom remarked that Bisnow seemed to know everyone in D.C., Bisnow took him into his bedroom.

"He opened up his sock drawer and there were all these business cards bundled together like dollar bills . . . bricks of cards," Strom recalls. "He said, 'I collected all these in one year going to every single event in D.C. I could find.' "

Yosi Sergant, co-creator of the Obama "Hope" poster campaign who later resigned from the administration after a dust-up with conservatives, was at an Oscars party in D.C. when he met Bisnow. He was impressed and set in motion the White House invite. "It was enthusing just to be around that kind of energy," he said.

Bisnow won't divulge the Summit Series' profits, but the series has become so successful that he felt comfortable in January leaving the day-to-day operations to his father and a CEO, Ryan Begelman, and hitting the road.

He'd picked up a copy of the Timothy Ferriss bestseller "The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich," which preaches a gospel of unplugging and enjoying life. He thought, Hey, we could do that. Ferriss has since become a friend, staying with the entourage as they surfed in Nicaragua and later lecturing in Miami.

Scavenger hunt

In Miami, Bisnow splits the Summit Series participants into teams and sends them on a get-to-know-you scavenger hunt through South Beach. Bisnow and other posse members -- including Jeff Rosenthal, 25, the group's "Chief Community Builder," and Jeremy Schwartz, 26, its "Chief Creative Officer" -- gather in a conference room to monitor the teams' progress via updates they're sending on their iPhones.

The atmosphere is chaotic frat house. Bisnow suggests they order salads for lunch (the boys are off carbs this week). They have a lengthy discussion about when to exhume Adams, who is buried in the sand on the beach as part of the treasure hunt, breathing through a straw.

Nearby, Leve, 25, gives an interview to a local reporter. "At the end of the day, being the most plugged-in 20-somethings on the planet is not a bad position," he is saying.

Bisnow sits with his eyes glued to his MacBook, watching the e-mail come in. "This is cool. Bringing people together," he says without looking up.

Out on the windy street, the CEOs are bonding over silly tasks such as finding golf balls and posing for pictures by a luxury car, according to Eric Kessler, managing director of Arabella Philanthropic Investment Advisors in the District, which oversees about a half-billion dollars in charitable giving for its clients. (At 37, he's a granddaddy in the group.)

By the end of the day, Kessler says, he will have three of the most substantive conversations about growing his business that he has had all year.

"Nobody understands these people -- their needs, their interests, their habits, their distractions -- better than Elliott," Kessler explains. "The guys here with brilliant ideas are already changing the world. . . . Not the next Bill Gates, but close."

Later, Bisnow and his posse give a presentation to the conference called "Curating Life." They're greeted with whoops of approval when they present a slide show of their last year. It unrolls like a dream: There they are surfing in Nicaragua. Crashing velvet ropes in L.A. Shaking fire ants out of their undies in Costa Rica.

Who knows what will happen next? Maybe they'll be like Peter Pan and never grow up, Leve suggests.

Then Bisnow recalls a poignant memory that momentarily stills the testosterone-driven crowd.

"We watched this sunset in Nicaragua and we were all thinking, this is the best sunset ever," he said, a little wistfully. "Then we realized, no, it's not. This is just one moment that will never happen again."

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