I was in Pittsburgh for an old law school classmate’s wedding on the second weekend in September of 2001. I had intended to unplug entirely and just enjoy the occasion. I wasn’t even going to bring my laptop because it was such a hassle to get email back then — you had to do the modem handshake and all that nonsense — but I changed my mind. And I was glad I did.
I had been planning to meet Peter Marber, who was a board member in my first venture, toward the end of the following week. I needed his consent on a board matter. But he emailed to say he was heading overseas before our scheduled meeting, so the only time we could get together would be Tuesday morning for breakfast.
My original plan for that day was to attend a financial technology conference at Windows on the World, atop the World Trade Center. I still remember my reply to Peter, which I saved to my files:
Let’s see, which offers a better view, Windows on the World or breakfast opposite you? Hahaha. I’ll see you Tuesday morning.
Now, the truth is that I probably wouldn’t have gone to the conference until sometime Tuesday afternoon. Still, my change of plans soon took on a chilling significance. Peter and I met in Columbus Circle, and, for a long time, I kept a photo of our receipt from that breakfast. The time stamp read 8:48 a.m. — two minutes after the first plane hit.
After breakfast, I tried to take the subway downtown, but service was suspended. I hopped out at Penn Station to walk over to our floor at 1 Park Avenue. I ran into my best friend from childhood, Chris Lavalle. At Fifth Avenue, we both looked up toward downtown and saw the massive smoke plume. At that point, life was suspended. The day was profoundly, shockingly surreal. Like many New Yorkers, I learned by that afternoon that I had lost friends in the attack.
An island of survivors
All New Yorkers felt a sense of displacement after 9/11. For some, the displacement was literal. I had friends who worked at a company called Tradition Securities and Derivatives. They weren’t located at the World Trade Center, but they lost their office nearby on Greenwich Street when the building was condemned. And they couldn’t go just anywhere because the esoteric rules of financial dealings required traders to work the phones and yell out the price that they could get for their clients while somebody else scrawled the numbers on a whiteboard. For a while, Tradition tried to make it work using hotel rooms and Nextel walkie-talkies, but that was far from ideal.
As it happened, I had just sold part of my company and we had unused office space at 1 Park Avenue, so we let Tradition set up a trading desk on our floor.
To be honest, we didn’t realize what we were getting into. When traders get an order, there is an eruption like a bar fight has broken out. People start screaming at the top of their lungs at each other, barking orders, because they get paid a commission based on how much volume they place. They’re all fighting to get their volumes in at the right price for their clients.
And you know what? Nobody minded. Nobody.
One day Tradition CEO Emil Assentato came by and offered to pay the rent for the entire floor because he knew how disruptive his business was for the rest of us. And, of course, he was grateful to us for having given them a home. Our whole board agreed: Not only would Tradition not have to pay for the whole floor, they wouldn’t have to pay for anything. But Emil insisted on paying a small per-desk stipend. Everybody on that floor had lost a lot of friends when those towers came down. And even though they were in a highly competitive business, they all moved around within that business and had formed deep bonds with their colleagues and friends at all the different firms. It was a tough thing to watch them go through, so any small contribution we could make during the recovery was an easy call.
In the process of honoring the friends that we had all lost, we made new friendships — friendships that were tempered with something very powerful. Much later when I announced I was going to go back to the operating side and launching this company, two or three of the friends I made in that post-9/11 period told me, “I’m in now. Tell me what you’re doing.”
They pre-committed to investing in the seed round before they even knew what we were trying to do here. That’s the kind of loyalty and belief in other people that stemmed from a relationship built on trust and tough times.
To someone who has never been through an experience like that, it might be hard to understand how it affects you. But you never forget — not only those who died but also those who lived through it with you.
One of those people is Peter Marber. We always reconnect on 9/11, no matter where we are. This year, we will meet for breakfast again. And we will remember.