Kobe Bryant Reinvents Himself as a Venture Capitalist

With investor Jeff Stibel, the retired NBA star has launched a $100 million fund to back companies combining technology, media and data.

Key Speakers At The 2016 Milken Conference

Kobe Bryant, retired Lakers National Basketball Association (NBA) player, smiles during the annual Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on Tuesday, May 3, 2016. The conference gathers attendees to explore solutions to today’s most pressing challenges in financial markets, industry sectors, health, government and education. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Kobe Bryant

Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Even Kobe Bryant couldn’t play basketball forever. After 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, the five-time National Basketball Association champ has pivoted, turning a longtime interest in investing into a full-time job. Bryant recently announced that he’s teamed up with entrepreneur and investor Jeff Stibel to launch a $100 million venture capital fund.

This news generated plenty of buzz in the wake of Bryant’s retirement after the 2015–’16 NBA season: He and Stibel, who are putting up the money themselves, rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on August 22. But the two have been investing together since 2013, when they founded Los Angeles–based Bryant Stibel to fund companies whose products and services marry technology, media and data.

Their first allocation was to Shift, a social advertising platform that Boston-based Brand Networks acquired for $50 million last year. Bryant Stibel has also invested in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding, online legal advice provider LegalZoom.com and Juicero, which claims to offer the first full cold-press juicing system for the home. The firm has made sports-related investments too, most notably in the Players’ Tribune, a media platform that highlights contributions from professional athletes.

Philadelphia native Bryant, 38, entered the NBA straight from high school and spent his entire career with the Lakers. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard, who also won two Olympic gold medals, comes from a basketball family. His father, Joe Bryant, played in the NBA for eight seasons before doing a stint in the Italian professional leagues and coaching worldwide.

Pro athletes like Bryant, who made more than $320 million on the basketball court, according to data provider Spotrac, often back brands and companies they enjoy, or those they think might take off with their endorsement. For example, Michael Jordan has invested in the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and owns restaurants and a car dealership.

Usually, such plays are more like dabbling than a career, with an angel investment here and there, says Aaron Gafni, a partner with law firm Greenberg Glusker’s corporate and emerging-technology and new media groups in LA. In Bryant’s case, though, there’s a sense of diligence and thoughtfulness about investing, Gafni notes. That discipline shows in his decision to run a fund with Stibel, an experienced venture capital partner and vice chair of Dun & Bradstreet, a Short Hills, New Jersey–based business services firm.

Bryant has also made an effort to raise his game. In 2014, while nursing an injury, he sat in on an international marketing class and a finance seminar at Boston College and a business class at the University of Miami. “I’ve been doing business for a while, but I always feel like it’s important to try to further your education,” he told Boston College.

Bryant’s star power won’t hurt either. “With certain consumer-facing companies, his social media presence and notoriety can help with awareness,” attorney Gafni says. “Sometimes it even helps in getting other investors interested in a company. Maybe they just want to be around Kobe.”

The technology world has its own star system, with entrepreneurs looking up to — and seeking to rub shoulders with — their more successful peers. “There’s definitely a celebrity culture around tech and VC,” Gafni says. “They all want to be acknowledged by each other.” Self-made financier Bryant could be a good fit for Silicon Valley, which has mythologized college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg for doing things their way.

Bryant has said that he wants to build lasting businesses. Matching his two decades in the NBA would be an impressive start.

Follow Kaitlin Ugolik on Twitter at @kaitlinugolik.