NBA All-Star Turned VC Reveals How to Get Him to Invest in Your Startup

With the NBA playoffs upon us, who better than former NBA star and playoff performer Baron Davis for NextShark to interview? 
After a two-year stint playing at UCLA, Davis was drafted as the third overall pick by the Charlotte Hornets in 1999. Over the course of his 15-year professional basketball career, Davis made two NBA All-Star teams, the All-NBA Third Team, was the NBA leader in steals twice and won a gold medal playing for the USA Basketball team at the 2001 Goodwill Games.
Davis is now also a venture capitalist and a documentarian. “The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce,” a documentary on the pro-am basketball Drew League, was both produced and directed by Davis, who has several other Hollywood producing credits under his name as well.
Last year, Davis began investing in startups and became a VC at Plus Capital, a firm based in Los Angeles.
We sat down with Baron Davis for an exclusive interview about how he managed his money after getting his first big NBA check, his work with young entrepreneurs and whether he’s really thinking about making a comeback to the NBA.
Professional athletes historically have a hard time managing money. How were you able to do it?

[…] When I went to college, I thought that I was gonna be an accountant because I knew I was gonna come into a lot of money, and I needed to know how to count it all and do what I needed to do with it. And I slowly realized that that was not the job for me. All the classes and internships that I took were all business-based to help me better understand my financial situation as it pertained to the NBA, endorsements and the things that I wanted to do.

I think the best advice that I’ve ever gotten is, “A fool and his money will soon part.” So since I’m a fool, I keep my money over there [laughter], and I just be a fool over here and pay for my foolishness. I use my budget to pay for my foolishness, so money and a fool will soon part. That’s probably the best advice I’ve ever gotten. So for me, it’s just watching and learning from other people, and then a lot of times you don’t become successful until you have a lot of unsuccessful things happen. So for me it was just trial and error — just stickin’ to it, stickin’ to it — and always knowing that at any moment my career could be over, and then I have all this work and nothing to show for it. So I never wanted to be that.

Did you have any dreams of buying something specific before becoming rich?

No, my struggle has always been with giving back. I remember when I first got my money, I didn’t know what to do with it because for me I already had everything. When you are growing up and you are 19 years old, and you’re coming into a lot of money, everyone around you starts to change because they expect you to have so many different things, and they look at you as a provider now, more so than someone who is a kid, so the responsibilities becomes greater.

And for me, I wanted to do something good for people. If my money can help people change who they were or help someone start from here and get to here — just to accelerate people’s career — because I thought that that would be the better joy for me is for me to look up and say, oh wow, I’ve influenced a lot of people or helped a lot of people become successful through investing time and money in them.

Why are you involved in so many different projects?

When I was young, I pretty much represented myself for a long time, so I was able to see a lot of opportunities and see a lot of deals because I didn’t really have an agent kinda fielding or an agency infrastructure to field all the requests or business deals and different things like that. So I’ve learned to really value taste and to hone in what I naturally love and what I naturally love to do. I’ve taken that and become not only like a VC but being able to connect the right people so that it makes sense. I think that’s always been a strength, is to find the good and the great qualities in the people, and that’s let me and my business savvy be able to kinda initiate deals and partner the right people together to do so.

How did you get into venture capital?

A while ago, when I was a young NBA player and I was looking to kinda market myself outside of just the traditional marketing spectrum for athletes where it’s just about an endorsement deal. I felt like I had had money from my contract, so I wanted to invest in someone and spend sweat equity and time learning businesses and different things like that.

And I run across Vitaminwater when I was young, and that became a first opportunity for me to really kind of invest in a brand that was young and upcoming and also a brand that was going to reinvest in a lot of the things that I wanted to do. And I think from that, it kinda inspired me to continue down that path of wanting to alway help companies or alway find new companies.

The short story of it is, I met Adam Lilling in Plus and really vetted them and saw what they had to offer as far as for an athlete, a celebrity, in the infrastructure that I built for myself. They were able to understand that and articulate that to other companies and also be a translating voice into opportunities and different strengths that my side was able to bring to the table, and also being able to vet good companies. So it’s just like, now it’s time to expand your bandwidth, partner with somebody who has strength and integrity in the business, and so that’s how I landed at Plus.

After so much wealth and fame, how do you keep yourself grounded?

It was my grandmother. My grandmother always told me to stay humble and that you are not really measured on how much money you have — it’s what’s in your heart and how people react to you. All those lessons that she taught me, it just always translated. So for me growing up, I aimed to please her and the things that she taught me, so if I was making straight A’s with her, then I knew I would be OK in the world.

And so now, when success comes, you have to have great humility in order to understand all the aspects that come with success — also with unsuccessful things. When you are looking at business or games or different things, you can learn something. You can learn more from a loss than you can with a win — but you can also learn a lot from winning. When you are humble enough, you’re able to kinda look at that and receive it from a different scope. For me, I don’t take myself too seriously. I’d rather crack jokes and do this than be serious.

How do you choose the types of entrepreneurs you want to work with?

I meet with a lot of CEOs and young entrepreneurs because that’s kind of what I’m attracted to, these young people who are like myself trying to expand their brands and their companies and really are passionate about the things that they are doing. I think that basketball taught me how to really listen and learn and understand people and understand what their gifts and their qualities are — their emotional IQ and what’s in the DNA of this person, what are their qualities, what are their skills, what is the talent that they possess, and then what is their leadership skill. I think that basketball and sports allow us to really have a stronghold on leadership because we have to see that every single day. I think that the same thing works in businesses. You have a strong leader, you’re gonna have a company that’s gonna pretty much do well. If it’s not a great company, they are gonna survive because of the leadership. And I think that’s the DNA of success, is having great leaders, and great leaders are good listeners and people that allow for great things to happen.

Do you notice any common struggles that a lot of young entrepreneurs have?

A lot of things that I see is that the ideas are always grand, but the implementation is never properly stepped out. It’s just like, hey, here’s this castle on the top of the hill, and we only need two steps to get there [laughter], when actually you need a thousand, and you have to take your time. I would say that’s the thing that I see the most, is patience, and also the idea is grander and the attention is on the idea and not on the actual steps in the way that they process it. And then two, I would say … paper players. It’s a lot like sports. It’s like you look at a team, and you are like, oh my god, they are gonna kick ass because this guy is averaging this and this and this, and then you figure out that it’s not the right chemistry. So it’s the same thing in business — you can have people with incredible backgrounds, but you also have to have them have the right chemistry with everybody else on your team in order for it to be successful.

Is it true that you want to come back to the NBA?

I definitely plan on making a comeback. It’s probably the longest comeback ever, but for me I’m just getting better, and it’s a slow process. But basketball is something that I love, I love to do, I play for free. I play for free now. So an opportunity to just be able get back and take the journey and climb back into the NBA would be incredible, so I’m just slowly chopping wood and taking those steps until I get there.

It seems like money isn’t a motivating factor, right?

Yeah, I need the journey and the experience, and I feel like my basketball chapter is not closed yet until I actually do what I need to do to close that chapter.

What do you need to do?

Get back on the court. Get back on that NBA court and get in that game and look up and say, OK, alright, I’m here, and I’m walking on the court on my own terms, and I’m walking off the court.

Follow Baron Davis on Facebook and Twitter. Check out his new documentary “The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce.”
Photography by Melly Lee
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