SportTechie’s new series features the views and opinions of the athletes who use and are powered by technology. As part of this series, SportTechie chatted with 2008 World Series champion and 2006 NL MVP Ryan Howard at the Ascent Conference in New York City on Oct. 4, and again later on the phone. Howard retired from playing in September and is now a partner at SeventySix Capital and chairman of the VC firm’s Athlete Venture Group.
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MLB all-star Ryan Howard played first base for the Philadelphia Phillies for 13 seasons, before signing short minor league contracts with the Braves and Rockies. In 2008, he helped bring the Phillies their first World Series title in 28 years, and just the second in franchise history. That championship was also the first for Philadelphia sports since the 76ers won the NBA Finals in 1983.
In September, Howard announced his retirement with a moving tribute to his fans titled “Thank you, Philly” on The Players’ Tribune. He covered everything from his first at-bat and his first home run to that World Series win and the birth of his son, Darian. (Howard postponed one of our calls so he could be present for one of his son’s games.) “My career, man, it had some interesting bookends. But in between? During the heart of it all? I’ll tell you what—it was a dream come true,” he wrote.
Long before his retirement, Howard was building a post-baseball career for himself. He had told his agent about his ambitions in business, and was connected to long-time venture capitalist Wayne Kimmel and investor Jon Powell. The three eventually joined forces in the venture capital firm SeventySix Capital. Now Howard serves as a partner in the Philly based VC. He’s the chairman of SeventySix Capital’s new Athlete Venture Group, connecting entrepreneurial athletes with emerging startups.
Planning for Life After Baseball
“I was always very forward thinking and that came from my parents. I knew that one day my career was going to be done. A lot of athletes at that time would wait until they got to that point of where they were finished and then try to figure it out. So I was always very proactive in that sense. I had the conversation with my agent at the time, saying ‘Hey, this is what I’m interested in and trying to do post-career.’ Looking to have that seamless transition so that when I’m done I already know the direction I want to go.”
“It’s hard to find good, genuine people to work with. That’s what I was looking for and that’s what I found with the guys at SeventySix.”
Adversity in Sports and Business
“Coming from the athletic world, there’s a lot of parallels to the business world. My personal story starts back when I was a sophomore in high school. Believe it or not, I was on the varsity team, then got cut and sent down to the sophomore team. My sophomore coach came up to me and he said ‘Look, I know it sucks, I know you’re disappointed, but you can do one of two things. You can either sit there and cry about it, saying your shoulda-woulda-couldas, or focus all your energy on doing what you need to do at this level to get back to the varsity level. So I put all my energy into doing what I needed to do on that level so that when I got called up to the varsity level, my first game on varsity I went four-for-four with two home runs and seven RBIs and we still lost eight to seven.”
“For me, it was being faced with that little bit of adversity, and that’s for any company or entrepreneur that’s out there: you’re going to be faced with adversity. All people see is the end product of the major leagues. What people don’t see is the work that goes into it, the behind-the-scenes. What people don’t see is the jungle right in front of you because all you see is the mountaintops that are the major leagues. What people don’t understand is the jungle is what you have to go through to get to the mountaintop. The similarities in the business world mirror each other.”
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The Keys to Success
“To win, you have to have a good team. You have to have people that are aligned with the thoughts that you want to have, that are going to push you, that are going to make you better, that are going to make your business better and make everybody around you better. That’s how you win championships and that’s how you have a successful business.”
“It’s doing the stuff behind the scenes, it’s making the sacrifices and trying to completely better your business. You don’t want to have any assholes on your team. That’s point blank No. 1: No assholes on your team. You’ve got to have people that are wanting to sacrifice, wanting to work, wanting to build this company or build this enterprise up to where it is a championship [contender].”
“The mindset for me, honestly, is cut and dry. I’m not going to let anybody dictate what my worth is, point blank. You’re going to run into people that say no, you’re going to have doors shut in your face. The first thing is you have to believe in your product, you have to believe in what you’re putting out there. And if someone else doesn’t believe it? Oh well. There’s somebody out there that does and you continue to work until you find that person that does and can help you. In the meantime, it’s continuing to put in, and put in, and put in all the work that you need to give. It’s not being deterred by any means.”
The Part Athletes Can Play
“It dates back to the older days of marketing where they would hand you a product. ‘Here it is! Smile, cheese, and say Hey, buy this product.’ A lot of that has changed. Before, the athlete would get their paychecks, their endorsement check and whatnot, but you didn’t really know what your value was. Now, because of all the social media platforms, you know what your value is. Now you have the Lebrons and the KD, where they can physically see what their value is that they can bring to a company to help grow that company with their multi-millions of followers on different social platforms.”
“The goal of what we’re doing with the Athlete Venture Group is basically take the athlete and help them help businesses. Having a guy like a Ralph Sampson, or having a guy like DeMarco Murray, being able to utilize their social capital, or my social capital, is something that can be very beneficial to all of these different businesses and startups.”
(Photo credit: Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Entrepreneur Role Models
“I’d have to look at Jay-Z. Ten, 15 years ago Jay-Z was just a rapper, now Jay-Z’s one of the biggest moguls in the world. You have to look at Lebron, you have to look at Steph, you have to look at KD and Andre Iguodala. You have to look at what those guys are doing.”
“And before those guys, you’re looking at the Michael Jordans of the world, the Magic Johnsons of the world. And it’s understanding, again, that everybody has those trials and tribulations. Even Michael Jordan, the great Michael Jordan, got cut his sophomore year from his basketball team, but was still able to take that, grow from it, use it, and he is where he is today.”
The Potential of Wearable Devices
“I would have loved to have wearables. As an athlete, you want to be able to to be as efficient with your time as you possibly can. Even if you’re willing to put in the work, you want to work as efficiently as possible. Wearables tell you ‘this is how much you’re doing, you’re putting out more than you need to put out because this chain of muscles isn’t firing so you’re overworking which is thus going to lead to fatigue which is thus going to lead to a potential injury.’ When you have a device that helps you understand your body and where you’re trying to go, you minimize your risk of injury which is going to keep you on the field.”
“When wearables were first coming in, there was this fear about potentially using that data against you in contract negotiations and whatnot. But if you understand that the organization is a business, and thus is looking at potentially investing in you, so they need to know what they’re going to get into, which will help them protect their investment, which will help us all win championships. Thus you have success and they have success … it’s a win-win situation. You’re in this informational age and you’re able to use that data to try to make your team more efficient.”