News & Politics

The Unsinkable Mark Bisnow

Can a former political operator, author, lawyer, tech evangelist, and radio host make it as an e-media mogul?

Lifestyle editor Leslie Milk ( worked with Bisnow when he chaired the Washington Business Hall of Fame, an annual event The Washingtonian cosponsors.

Mark Bisnow has embarked on a fifth career—this time as an Internet media tycoon.

Bisnow has started a handful of free online newsletters with a twist—instead of dry-as-dust information about an industry, Bisnow on Business newsletters offer interviews that are irreverent as well as informational.

“I want to build the Starbucks of electronic newsletters,” Bisnow says. “There is a huge appetite for personality profiles.”

He has conducted most of the interviews for eight newsletters himself. He’s also been in charge of advertising and circulation. And he just finished two years as a weekly columnist for the Washington Business Journal.

It was too much even for Bisnow, known for his energy. He has handed off some of the interviews to freelancers and hired someone to do ad sales. But he’s still going to four or five events a week, taking the pictures for his column, and running charity events for favorite causes. The lanky, wonkish Bisnow makes the Energizer Bunny look lazy.

bisnow grew up in los angeles and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Stanford by age 20. After a year at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, he came here to try his hand at real-world politics. He got a job as an assistant to an assistant to Senator Hubert Humphrey, writing speeches and answering mail in the senator’s name. One of the letters he answered came from an unknown academic named Zbigniew Brzezinski.

“It was thrilling for a young kid,” he says. “That feeling has never really changed. I continue to see new dimensions to Washington. That’s why I’m still here.”

Enthusiasm for politics led him to approach then–Illinois congressman John Anderson to volunteer for Anderson’s presidential campaign. “Much of the time, I was the campaign,” Bisnow says. “Then Anderson became an overnight cult hero.”

Bisnow wrote a book about the campaign. It was one of two Bisnow books that earned good reviews but few readers. Then he “retooled for the ’80s” at Harvard Law School for career number three. By this time he had married Margot Machol, a fellow Hill aide. He commuted to Harvard while Machol moved into the Reagan administration as chief of staff to the Council of Economic Advisers and later a member of the Federal Trade Commission.

bisnow loved law school but hated the practice of law. He went back to the Hill, had a flirtation with the airline industry, then caught the attention of MicroStrategy founder Michael Saylor.

“MicroStrategy was like the Anderson campaign,” Bisnow says. He went out to preach the gospel of technology, bringing busloads of senators to Reston to introduce them to the brave new world of the Internet.

For one brief, shining moment, Bisnow was rich beyond his wildest dreams—on paper. Then MicroStrategy stock crashed. “I lost $100 million overnight,” he says calmly. He never thought about changing his lifestyle; he and Machol had planned to start a foundation with the windfall.

Bisnow and Machol aren’t interested in the social scene. For 21 years, they’ve lived in the same house in DC’s Forest Hills. Their two sons are anything but wonk-wannabes. Elliott is a junior and a varsity tennis player at the University of Wisconsin. Austin will be a freshman football player at the University of Colorado this fall.

Bisnow does lots of lunches where the business and political elite meet, but given his choice, he’d rather eat Tex-Mex at Cactus Cantina or red-sauce Italian at Maggiano’s. “I grew up eating spaghetti, not froufrou food,” he says.

On to career number four: Bisnow as radio host. The business community was still a mystery to much of Washington. Bisnow recruited sponsors and interviewed leaders. “Bisnow on Business” had a brief run on WTOP, then WMET. When WMET’s format changed, Bisnow massaged the idea into online newsletters—career number five.

“Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, I’ve popped up in a lot of places,” Bisnow says. “I’m just intellectually curious.”

Bisnow figures career five might be good for about ten years.