Ex-Rams player looks to merge entreprenuers, athletes
Business success for an athlete usually follows a traditional formula. Get in the game, get out your name and then sign up as a spokesman when your playing days are done.
But Brandon Williams has a different vision of how players can convert major league star power into tangible assets – and it doesn’t involve pitching a sports drink or hawking the latest electric razor.
“It’s not just about being able to endorse a product,” said Williams, an ex-Rams wide receiver. “Let’s be on the other side. Let’s be the creators of products.”
“We’re trying to turn endorsements into equity,” he said.
It’s an idea Williams hopes will have big implications both for athletes and the local IT startup scene in St. Louis. That’s why the 28-year-old Hazelwood East graduate is co-founder of the eponymous Brandon Williams Economic Development Corporation, which works to create opportunities off the field for retired professional athletes.
Those opportunities aren’t necessarily the usual variety associated with sports. Williams is looking to the tech sector and hoping to connect players with pioneers in the heady world of e-commercialization.
“We’re not saying ‘don’t look at traditional investments like manufacturing, real estate and things of that nature.’ But the tech space is hot,” he said. “The tech space has very good return. Let’s try to diversify your investment and put yourself in a position to be successful after you leave the league.”
This week is an important one for the year-old enterprise. Williams’ organization will be holding the “Venture Draft,” a two-day series of workshops, receptions and pitch sessions at Saint Louis University which gets underway today. It aims to educate athletes and connect them with venture investors.
At least 18 players, mostly from the NFL, are confirmed for the event, which will begin this afternoon with an athletes-only session to talk about the basics of investing. The opening event will be followed by a “Show Me the Money” panel that will discuss investment trends. Tomorrow’s events will focus on workshops and networking time, concluding with a “Pitch the Player” event.
It’s the inaugural run for the gathering, which will feature a mixture of athletes and venture capital representatives from Silicon Valley to St. Louis. Ten companies will be making pitches, seven of them local. Among the athletes on hand will be former St. Louis Cardinal Kerry Robinson and cornerback Jamar Fletcher, both Hazelwood East alums like Williams. Organizers expect about 150 to attend the event, which costs $300 a person.
“We want to educate athletes about the startup and venture space, what due diligence is, what a term sheet is, how to be a smart investor,” Williams said. “It’s how to transition from the game to the business world.”
Lance McCarthy, the organization’s co-founder, said he knew quickly that Williams was the perfect guy to bridge the gap between sports and entrepreneurship.
“He had a thirst for business and a business acumen,” said McCarthy an economist and investment advisor. “He had the image, the understanding of business and was still young enough to be connected to the game but wanting to push into the business world.”
McCarthy, himself a native of the Gateway City, said he thinks that events like the Venture Draft can really help to build St. Louis’ image, and he feels athletics can be a connecting force in and of itself.
"We always say that every CEO in the country is an ex-jock or a jock junkie,” he said. “How do you monetize it? How do you leverage it? How do you make something like economics more applicable to everyone? I figured sports should be that vehicle.”
It’s also a vehicle for the guys on the field who may not fully realize the potential they have once their career is over.
“The way things are set up now, athletes are taught to play, they play and they are gone,” said McCarthy. “There are not many programs after that and there is so much opportunity for retired athletes. ...You take their network and their discipline and teach them business and you can create a whole new infrastructure for business development.”
Williams, who spent four seasons in the NFL before being sidelined with an injury, said it can be easy for an ex-player to run low on money shortly after playing days end.
“I’ve heard the stories of the guys two years out of the game that may be bankrupt, having financial issues,” he said. “They didn’t understand what was going on.”
Some do invest money but often to open restaurants or other retail establishments that can may combine high risk and low margins. Temporary endorsement contracts can be superficial affairs.
By demystifying the investment world, Williams said his venture can create opportunity for athletes to develop value for themselves, the entrepreneurial scene and the community at large. Ex-jocks don’t just have idle capital. They also have big names that open doors to generate instant buzz and extensive social networks of contacts from the university they attended to the cities they played in.
In short, they are the perfect “brand ambassadors.”
“We want to show startups and small businesses how they can partner with the athlete and make it a win-win for both,” he said. "Instead of just having an endorsement relationship with an athlete, have a long-term relationship that can potentially become huge.”
Williams, also known as a broadcaster and motivational speaker, said he was eager to create an enterprise like BWEDC and has been inspired by the way internet sensations such as Pinterest and Instagram seem to take off overnight.
“I’ve been looking at how companies here do the same thing,” he said. “I’m from this community. I’ve been working diligently with the tech community for the last year and a half so I’m invested in both worlds. I just wanted to bring those worlds together.”
He thinks both have a lot to offer one another.
“Our motto is to never stop playing,” he said. “Just because you hang up the cleats, you can transfer all that knowledge and all that expertise and that network to the business world.”