We all know reality TV includes set ups and clever editing. But on Bloomberg's "TechStars" reality show last week, Jason Sosa, CEO of interactive billboard startup Immersive, admits to embezzling more than $2K from his company -- an event Sosa tells LAUNCH was liberally edited to show his guilt for viewer entertainment [ Watch it here at 12:50 ].
Sosa says via email that he not only didn't steal the money from the company -- which came from a pot that included TechStars and private-investor funds -- but that his then-teammates and investor knew he was going to use the money to cover a personal financial crisis.
"My family was in Boulder and I needed funds to take care of my obligations to them in order complete the program," Sosa says. "I explained my situation to my teammates prior to taking any money and I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I used the money for its intended purpose, which was to cover expenses to make it through the program. Anyone else in my position would have done the same thing. It’s unfortunate that the TV show cast such a negative spin on what is really a very personal issue."
Sosa says he didn't know the meeting he and his team had with David Cohen, co-founder and CEO of TechStars, and David Tisch, managing director of the New York program, had been taped.
"Some of us in the room that day, including myself were under the impression that the cameras were not rolling and that this was a private conversation," Sosa explains. "My former teammates brought me into the room to discuss certain private issues with the David’s. It wasn’t until Demo Day that I learned from producers that the conversation was recorded and would be used on the show."
Cohen tells LAUNCH via email, "Our companies can use the money any way they'd like -- we don't dictate this. Many of them use the funding we provide to pay themselves and in turn cover personal expenses."
Tisch said that he didn't really want to get involved in this issue but tells LAUNCH that, "In general what you're seeing on the show is about 2 hours from about 750, so way less than 1% of 'real time'. They're obviously trying to show what's interesting to the viewer. It was a complex situation and it generally matches my recollection of a subset of the events."
Although last week's episode indicated that the team moved past Sosa's financial troubles, his co-founders left the company in June.
"We had a fundamental difference of opinion in the direction of the company," Sosa says. "It was mutually agreed that it would be best for everyone involved if they left the company. Our styles and team dynamics simply didn’t mix."
Sosa has since raised $850K and hired Jill Miller, former president of the Digital Signage Group, as EVP of sales and marketing and Justin Holmes, founder of IGA a video game ad network, as Immersive Labs CTO.
Below is Sosa's unedited email to LAUNCH.
Jason Sosa email@example.com to me
Here you go. Please let me know if you have any other questions.
How do you feel your team handled your announcement?
There was no surprise announcement. I want to be crystal clear, I NEVER stole or misappropriated funds from the company EVER. When I moved to NY to participate in techstars, I left a wife and 2 small kids back in Boulder CO. Here’s what happened. One day my wife called and said she had no money for food or gas. I explained the situation to my team mates and with their prior knowledge I used $2,000 to support my family in order to continue on with the program. My investors are well aware of the events, performed extensive due diligence, and have no concerns.
When we were accepted into Techstars we were given $18k for three founders to live in NY for three months. These funds were intended to cover our expenses so we could participate in the program. Given the cost of living in NYC, that barely covered our living expenses. I managed to raise an additional $20k from an investor, and that provided a cushion to sustain us a few months past the program.
How did it feel to have to go through this ordeal while the television cameras were rolling?
Some of us in the room that day, including myself were under the impression that the cameras were not rolling and that this was a private conversation. My former team mates brought me into the room to discuss certain private issues with the David’s. It wasn’t until Demo Day that I learned from producers that the conversation was recorded and would be used on the show. How does it feel? Well, it’s embarrassing to see such a personal moment used in a reality TV show, but I’m most upset that out of a two hour conversation (covering a wide range of issues) that producers chose to use the piece about the supposed embezzlement. The show failed to air any of my comments in my own defense. So given the way it is edited in the show, it appears as if I admit to these accusations.
It was a very difficult time of life. Many things were happening personally for me. As everyone knows, Michigan’s economic conditions are dismal and played a large part in the demise of real estate prices which directly affected our family. During techstars I wasn’t able to see my family for months. They’ve sacrificed so much in order for me to chase my dreams and for that, I’m incredibly grateful.
How have your team members and investors dealt with this situation, is this all in the past or does a decision like this continue to effect you?
So much has changed since that show was taped and we are now happily living and working in NYC. My investors are well aware of things that happened behind the scenes. They support me and have done extensive due diligence. There are no concerns. What you saw on TV was a snap shot in time, compressed and edited for your viewing pleasure, mostly taken out of context.
What would your advice be to another entrepreneur who is in a desperate situation as you were?
If you have a family then you need to have a serious conversation with your wife before you even think about doing something as crazy as starting a company. In the last year we’ve moved 3 times across the country, ran out of cash, stayed with family and sometimes we even slept on the floor. In retrospect, had we known what we had to sacrifice as a family we may never have even started. Many couples that go through what went through don’t make it. The fact that we got this far is a testament to my amazing wife. For 99% of people the best thing to do is to provide for your family and enjoy your life. If you’re in a spot like I was during Techstars, then my suggestion is that you have to basically be Superman. If you really want something than you just have to go for it. Model people who have accomplished extraordinary things, start building real relationships with good people. Work harder, do more faster, and offer to the world as much value as you can. Don’t expect overnight success. Just build everyday more than the day before.
What would you have done differently?
I wouldn’t change a thing. Given the situation there was nothing else I could have done. I was in an elite program working 120+ hours per week on something that inevitably changed the course my life. My family was in Boulder and I needed funds to take care of my obligations to them in order complete the program. I explained my situation to my team mates prior to taking any money and I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I used the money for its intended purpose, which was to cover expenses to make it through the program. Anyone else in my position would have done the same thing. It’s unfortunate that the TV show cast such a negative spin on what is really a very personal issue.
How was Immersive Labs originally formed?
I formed Immersive Labs in Grand Rapids MI back in Jan 2009. I started by creating giant 8-ft computer-vision multi-touch screens with a leading furniture manufacturer. Not being able to build a solid team or raise the seed capital needed to take it to the next level, I took a giant leap of faith and decided to look elsewhere to start over with a fresh start. I found myself couch surfing in Boulder Colorado in May 2010 to attend Boulder Startup Week, an annual event meant to introduce people to the Boulder Startup scene, I absolutely fell in love with the beauty of the mountains, the great tech presence, and most importantly the amazing people in the community. Midway through my trip, I called my wife from downtown Pearl St. I told her that I was skipping my return flight in order to find us an apartment and that she needed to start selling everything we owned. Within 3 weeks we sold 85% of our belongings and moved our family to Boulder. As soon as we landed in Boulder, I began my search for amazing people to bring my vision into reality. I went to every tech meet up, networking event, and boulder open coffee club in order to meet people. I met with successful Techstars alums, investors and interviewed dozens of college students and tech folks of all kinds. I formed some amazing relationships. Less than 6 months later I was preparing to leave my family yet again, this time for 4 months, leaving them in a town we just moved to in order to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with Techstars NY.
What happened to the original team?
My previous team mates are no longer with the company. The dynamics needed for building a successful team just wasn’t there. We had a fundamental difference of opinion in the direction of the company. In June 2011 it was mutually agreed that it would be best for everyone involved if they left the company. Our styles and team dynamics simply didn’t mix. When we first started working together at Techstars we shared a vision that we wanted to bring into reality. Even though things didn’t ultimately work out with us as a team, that vision is now real. The success of this company will be a reflection on all of us and I’m sure that they want to see this company succeed and move forward. In the last 3 months I’ve since rebuilt the team, raised a seed round of $850k, sold my previous startup and I’m now glad to be working with some amazingly talented and supportive people.
Jason Sosa, CEO
CONTACTS & LINKS
Jason Sosa, CEO Immersive
Jill Miller, Immersive Labs EVP sales and Marketing
Justin Holmes, Immersive Labs CTO