Original Article by Melissa Harris – Chicago Tribune.
Moshe Tamssot’s Monks of Invention to gather again in Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest Interactive Festival. Tamssot, CEO of Chicago startup CookItFor.us, arranged after-hours event during technology convention
The South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, is a spring break for nerds. Attendees sit in sessions by day and “hot tub” at wild parties thrown by Internet moguls and corporations by night.
Moshe Tamssot is the CEO of a small Chicago startup called CookItFor.us, which connects chefs with customers who don’t have time to make dinner. At 48, he’s an unlikely up-and-coming impresario at the country’s largest technology convention.
To the best of my knowledge, Chicagoans are throwing three parties at this year’s festival, March 9-13. Venture capital firms Lightbank and New World Ventures, both run by billionaires, are hosting two of them.
And then, there’s Tamssot’s “Monks of Invention Conclave,” a Sunday night event with a pool and a hot tub, but also technology demos and talks. Tamssot recently tweeted: “If someone tries selling you tickets to The Monks of Invention Conclave, say NO! Way in is by applying & being awesome.”
Attendance is capped at 70; it has a 120-person wait list. The cachet comes, in part, from the setting: a Venetian-style home and gardens on a man-made island in Lake Austin. The homeowner and host is Cecilia Neuhaus, whose husband is an ophthalmic plastic surgeon.
Tamssot calls Cecilia the monks’ benefactor and her home the “Innovation Monastery.”
New this year will be a three-day retreat at the “Innovation Ranch,” the Neuhauses’ 120-acre cattle ranch in Elgin, Texas, just outside Austin. The retreat will take place after the festival and for a smaller group of about 16 people, with the goal being in-depth brainstorming and planning. Cecilia covers the room and board.
“I’m a big proponent of this notion of brotherhood,” said Tamssot, who was born in Israel and lived in Canada before moving to Chicago. “We’d call you a brother; it’s not a gender thing. It’s a group of people bonded together to do things for each other beyond the call of duty without expectation of return.”
Although Tamssot’s entrepreneurial retreat may never reach his lofty goal of greed-free innovation, the story of how Tamssot came to know Cecilia Neuhaus is a testament to SXSW serendipity. In 2009, John Tolva, now the city of Chicago’s chief technology officer, invited Tamssot, then a vice president at Kraft, to speak on a panel called “Entrepreneurship in the Belly of the Beast.” It was Tamssot’s first trip to the festival. He knew no one.
He met Cecilia’s daughter, Laura, at the Red Eyed Fly, a bar in downtown Austin. About 12:30 a.m., Laura went to leave, saying her mom was coming to pick her up. Tamssot offered to walk her to her mom’s car. He and Cecilia spoke for a few minutes, and Cecilia began following Tamssot on Facebook and Twitter.
The next year, Tamssot won an award at ORD Camp, a two-day, invite-only event for “the best minds” in the Midwest. Harper Reed, now the chief technology officer for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, also won an award: A Snuggie, a wearable blanket that drapes much like a medieval monk’s clothing. Reed donned the Snuggie, and Tamssot tweeted: “I wish that ORD Camp was an Innovation Monastery and that we were all Monks of Invention.”
Neuhaus read the Tweet in Austin and latched onto the idea. Her own home was constructed based upon 15,000 photos of Venetian monasteries and landmarks. She encouraged Tamssot to return to SXSW, stay at their home and throw a party there.
“This whole conversation was happening at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning via Facebook or Twitter (direct messages),” Cecilia said. “And we kind of got rolling and decided, yes, we would have this gathering. And yes, it was going to happen.”
That first party in 2010 was a test, Tamssot said. “Could we get people to come? Could we get food delivered?” Sixteen people attended. The group grew to 60 the following year. (Tamssot launched Cookitfor.us there.)
“He’s kind of the network guy; I just provide the support and the setting,” Cecilia said. “I guess I’m more of a motherly figure, kind of stabilizing, because he has a pretty intense, wonderful personality, and a heart of gold. After conclaves, he goes downtown and delivers the leftover food to homeless people. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning.”
She said she opens her home to strangers because she admires Tamssot and enjoys meeting some of the interesting people who descend on the city for the convention.
“It is something for me to participate in that’s out of the norm,” Cecilia said. “I don’t live in the tech community. Moshe said that I was honorary because I am creative … and if some idea were to really catch our fancy, my husband and I could be angel investors.”
Tamssot would say the Neuhauses already are.