Todd Masonis sold his Silicon Valley startup to Comcast in 2008 for a reported $150 million and then took some time to travel, letting his sweet tooth lead him across Europe. After visiting a small, family-run chocolate factory in rural France, he was inspired to follow his sugary bliss, tinkering with chocolate-making in a friend’s garage and eventually opening Dandelion Chocolate, an artisanal confectionery and factory in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood. Martin Starr has never been a Bay Area techie, but he plays one on TV. After following his own bliss as a child actor—his big break as a teenager was on the beloved short-lived series Freaks and Geeks—Martin now stars in the HBO hit Silicon Valley, a fictionalized version of Todd’s former world. In The Thread below, the two meet for the first time and find common ground in their very different professions.
“I hope you don't mind that I melted all four bars together and dipped marshmallows in the warm chocolate bath.” —Martin Starr
I'm just going to rip off the Band-Aid here: I've never seen your show. I think it's because I spent all those years in the real Silicon Valley. Will it be like watching a home movie of myself in my 20s? Because that was a fun time, but I'm not sure I want to rewatch it. What's your take? Do you think your Silicon Valley is like the real Silicon Valley? Talk soon!
P.S. Did you get the chocolate bars yet?
Hello, Todd. Pleased to e-meet you.
I don't have anything to compare Silicon Valley to other than my oftentimes extremely awkward interactions with real folks working in tech. But they have told me that the show feels true to life, a huge compliment.
I wasn’t familiar with your background, but I did a little research on the interwebs and the broad strokes of your life are very intriguing to me—your tech business sale and postsale exploits, the world travel that led to a deep falling in love with chocolate. What a glorious adventure! I'm on board if you're planning another one of those trips. Schedule cleared. You're welcome. New friends, fast friends. I'm curious how your love of chocolate developed. I imagine you sitting with a sweet old French lady who pours you both homemade coffee well into the night as deep discussions of your life's passions guide her to beautifully romanticized stories of chocolate and a simpler time of confectionery. That night you dream of wearing a chocolate crown and cape as you look out on your chocolate kingdom. Cut to: you reading this email sitting on a throne melting beneath your warm-blooded buttocks. How accurate is my imagination?
P.S. I haven't received your package yet, but I look forward to it. Especially the s'mores! I'm a sucker for marshmallow and chocolate.
Haha—I try to avoid the chocolate–derriere connection, for the obviously risky implications, but I actually read last week about a company in Japan that plans to scent all of their sewage removal trucks with a chocolate flavor. I'm worried they are going to ruin the smell of chocolate for everyone.
It's kind of my hobby to scope out every dessert possible whenever I travel. On one trip to France I got to visit a very old, family-run chocolate factory. Sadly I didn't meet any life-changing old ladies there, but it did influence me. Then, after being super-fortunate in tech and selling my company, I had time to kind of experiment and tinker, so my friend Cameron and I took over a buddy’s garage and started roasting up cocoa beans. It was just a quirky hobby at first, but friends and family started buying our chocolate, and we started selling it at local (underground) markets. At the first market, where we sold out, people told us they hadn't tasted chocolate like ours before—we knew we were onto something.
It's a really exciting time for chocolate—what happened to microbrew and coffee is happening to chocolate right now. When we started, there were probably only a dozen or so chocolate makers in the U.S. Now there are about 150, and virtually all of that happened in the past five years. Chocolate can have more flavor complexity than wine or coffee, and we're all about celebrating that.
If you want to try the s'more, or chocolate cake, or hot chocolate, you'll have to stop by our factory + cafe in San Francisco. Do you guys shoot around here? As for trips, we are always bean-sourcing around the world. If you want to tag along to visit a farm, just let me know. There will probably be mosquitoes.
How did you get your big break? I know you were on Freaks and Geeks, which I have learned is a mortal sin not to have watched. I have no idea how Hollywood works. Please educate me!
What is happening in Japan?! Ew! Poop and chocolate in the worst kind of lovemaking session inside your nose? Unacceptable! So many children will end up associating chocolate with diarrhea. I'm genuinely saddened by this.
Yes, Freaks and Geeks was my big break. Otherwise I probably would've developed a deeper well of patience and become a veterinarian. I don't tend to be long-winded (I don't know whether that term is applicable via email, but fuck it) about myself. If you have specific questions or curiosities I would be happy to answer any of them!
Now, I understand having a love of chocolate, but is it rewarding creatively? Do you feel joy coming up with new concoctions or finding new beans with wholly new flavor complexities? I need to try these s'mores you make! NEED! Extra marsh and extra mallow, please! We tend to shoot at least a day or two up there each season. We'll have to meet up. Just two guys getting together after casually talking chocolates via email. No biggie.
Honestly I just love chocolate. I had my genes analyzed on 23andMe and I actually have the sweet tooth gene and can survive on more sugar than the average person. I'm not going to lie, though—running a chocolate company is hard work: Machines break, trips are canceled because Ebola breaks out, our beans get held up by the FARC rebels … you get the idea.
But with all of the challenges of creating good chocolate and building a company that can scale, the most rewarding thing is that it's almost like selling happiness. People smile when they visit the factory. Working in tech had its highs and lows, but it was rare that our product would delight people. The next big step, the one that keeps us up at night, is how to make more chocolate yet stay true to who we are. It’s something we think, worry, and talk about every day at the factory.
With Dandelion and my startup before it, there was always this magical moment when I knew we were onto something, but no one else knew it … that’s probably one of my most favorite feelings in the world. Has that translated to when you’re working on a show? And I'm assuming that people recognize you now somewhat often. Do you like that? Find it annoying? Get a lot of fan mail? How do you connect with your audience?
Seems you've overcome a lot to make your product, and now that you're having success a new set of challenges arise. Not an unfamiliar theme for me at the moment. I would imagine that the great divide in business is intention. Is a great product the ultimate goal? And people coming into your shop smiling. Or is financial success the goal, with quality of product secondary? I’ve made decisions not to pursue uninspiring opportunities where all that was offered was financial gain. It's certainly a much harder decision when you're broke. There have been exceptions, but mostly I’ve found the solely financial decision to be substantially less rewarding.
I was born in Los Angeles and started acting early, so it was a slow process to Freaks and Geeks at 16. I'm still close with a lot of those people, and I remember we felt we had something special, but the decision guy at the network didn't understand or relate to our show, so we were destined to be canceled. It was just a matter of time and the creators knew it, which is probably why the series plays out a little like an 18-part movie.
In general, I'd say there's something different about the way this business works and that feeling of pride in your work, because quality doesn't always translate into success. While HBO has been incredibly supportive of Silicon Valley, that is not the norm.
Fame is a by-product of what I love and not a goal. I appreciate it as a sign of the success we're having with Silicon Valley, but anonymity is a lovely thing I didn't value till it started to fade. Though honestly the only place that fandom is overwhelming is in SF and other large tech communities.
I started a Twitter account to allow for that direct connection with people, and I would respond to every single tweet, until a couple bad apples spoiled the batch. During Freaks and Geeks I got fan mail, and I felt weird about that for some reason and never responded to any. To be fair, there were some odd letters from prison inmates that appropriately made me uncomfortable. So perhaps that is what educated my feelings about fame to begin with. Who knows. Now I try to make a positive experience out of any interaction.
Are you recognized around the streets of SF as the King Chocolatier?
Ha, luckily I don't get noticed much. Your story about the decision man ready to cancel your project at any moment kills me! It must be incredibly disheartening to work on something passionately but have to answer to the whims of an executive. The TV "market" itself seems brutal enough with its own ebbs and challenges.
I can relate to doing things for the right reasons. At Dandelion, profit is not our singular goal—in fact it registers around number three. We view our mission as making some of the world's best chocolate, having some of the best experiences of chocolate in the world, and then making money so it's also sustainable. I mean, we need to continue to exist as a business. But there are much easier ways to make money than a small-batch chocolate factory (especially in Silicon Valley), so it really didn't start out with a pure profit motive.
I have one more burning question: Creativity is at the heart of what we both do. I could code 24 hours a day, but with design or writing, after four or five hours the well dries up. I'm curious how your creativity flows. Do you feel like you wake up each day with just three or four good performing hours and your goal is to optimize that time? When you get an outside interruption—a lunch order or a phone call—is it frustrating or refreshing to take a break?
Your chocolate arrived today! I hope you don't mind that I melted all four bars together and dipped marshmallows in the warm chocolate bath. Kidding. But it's tempting. I tried a bar with beans from Venezuela. It was terrific! I also tried one of the cacao beans. I don’t think eating them straight is quite for me. I'll probably look up some recipes, since I love cooking. Sorry I didn't send you a signed headshot to frame and put above one of the toilets in your home.
So, acting. I'd say the part that requires discipline is preparation. Once you're there working it's usually a breeze, fun and rewarding. Especially with comedy. It's crazy that I get paid to do it. Fucking nuts, really! And I absolutely have off days, where I feel like everything I touch turns to shit. Pure unfunny shit. But that's part of being human, at least for me. I've been doing this so long that none of those pessimistic thoughts slow me down.
Yes, sometimes lunch comes at the absolute wrong time. For example, right when you're finding your groove in a scene. And everybody's energy is completely different when you get back from a meal. It can change the way a scene feels pretty dramatically.
What size jacket do you wear? You won't get the reference, but maybe you'll like the one we featured on Silicon Valley last season anyway? Eh, probably not, but you can make that decision when you try it on.
Two final easy questions: What's the most creative aspect of running your business? And what's the most rewarding?
Glad the chocolate arrived safely! I'd try a square of each back-to-back to compare the flavors. All of our 70 percent bars have only two ingredients, beans and sugar, so any differences you taste can be attributed just to the beans. Roasted beans are definitely not for everyone. Young children are especially funny to watch—even when you warn them about the bitterness, you can tell they are secretly hoping it tastes like chocolate cake. I'd definitely recommend having a glass of water ready. Or pull off the shells and bake them in banana bread or put them in a salad as a nut substitute.
It's awesome that you love what you do and have mastered your craft. I guess with chocolate (and code) you have time to reflect, refactor, and redo … no pressure to be "on" at a moment's notice and have others depend on your immediate mood and performance. The closest parallel would be the chocolate-tempering step, which has some quick skill involved, but if you mess up you can melt the bars and start over.
Hmm, most creative aspect? When I got into chocolate, a lot of tech people said I'd get bored. And sure, the process can be repetitive, but that perspective is shortsighted. There is so much creativity that goes into solving problems as an entrepreneur, regardless of the industry. Every day, something breaks, we have to design a new process, we brainstorm to make our packaging more exquisite, tweak the design of our café. I have a nearly infinite list. Little by little, we chip away at it and then we add even more to it. Now that we've whetted our appetite on design it's sort of ruined me—I can't go into a restaurant or a building and look at the corners, coat hooks, lighting fixtures, counters, etc., without trying to decipher why the architects and builders made their decisions.
The reward is a sustainable business with a product that makes people happy, where you can cultivate an amazing team that enjoys their work. That's pretty magical. I'm motivated by craftsmanship and excellence—there's so much joy in a job well done.
I should probably let you get back to your work—it's been fun to chat with about your world, your life, and your process. I wish you a ton of continued success (and that you come visit!). I will definitely take you up on that jacket … I'm going to binge-watch Silicon Valley right now!
And it's been a pleasure getting to know you a little bit in these exchanges. Let me know if you think Silicon Valley embodies the spirit of your youth.
I tried the chocolates side by side, such different flavors from each. The Trinidad is my favorite. Learning a lot about chocolate. If learning were this fun when I was in school I would've retained a whole heck of a lot more.
I'm excited to see your chocolate kingdom in person one day and try some s'mores! Feel free to come visit our set in L.A. Maybe you'll catch us on a day when lunch breaks up a big scene. Exciting! But not as exciting as chocolate! 🍫🍫🍫🍫🍫