Kobe Bryant, Business Partner Lift Veil on Investment Strategy

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Kobe BryantKobe Bryant has been no stranger to China, where he spends big to sponsor youth sports and education programs.

His well-documented efforts led an investor in a Chinese online education startup to reach out to him earlier this year. Two months ago, the basketball legend crossed the Pacific to meet with the company, Vipkid, which aims to give Chinese children a virtual North American elementary school experience.

Bryant said it took only five minutes of listening to decide he wanted to invest.

“Their platform is changing things,” Bryant said in an interview Monday. “It’s a no-brainer for me. We have to look for companies adding value to society, helping kids learn and grow whether through education, nutrition.”

The Vipkid investment marked one of the latest deals the former Los Angeles Lakers guard has completed with business partner Jeff Stibel. Their Los Angeles venture capital fund, Bryant Stibel, has poured tens of millions of dollars into 15 tech and media companies over the last four years.

The pair opened up about their investment strategy for the first time Monday, announcing that they pooled together $100 million of their own money for startup deals. They’ve written mostly multimillion dollar checks, Stibel said, declining to say how much cash remains.

“If we had it our way, we wouldn’t have gone public,” he said.

They finally did Monday, prompted in part by an invitation from the New York Stock Exchange to ring Monday’s opening bell as well as Bryant’s retirement from basketball earlier this year.

Bryant said he first got into the tech world to learn about people and companies. But it became clear his advice and cash could help the businesses. With the Players Tribune, an online media company that focuses on first-person stories, Bryant’s guidance at board meetings led to a refocused mission to go deeper and behind the scenes.

“It’s about understanding what’s the purpose of its existence,” he said. “If readers are reading a piece, are they internalizing information and looking at themselves in the mirror, and saying, ‘This is what I can learn from this for my life?’”

He plans to bring similar thinking to more companies.

“You think about your product, and what’s the common denominator with you as the founder, and how does that link to human nature?” he said. “Then the story becomes something bigger than the founder. It becomes part of human nature.”

At the stock exchange Monday, Bryant chatted for 20 minutes with Vipkid founder and Chief Executive Cindy Wenjuan Mi about just such issues.

“There’s a lot more to come with that,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to tell beautiful stories.”

The storytelling and branding expertise Bryant accumulated as one of the National Basketball Association’s most well-known players is crucial for companies, Stibel said.

“It sets the tone, tenor and direction for people” internally and externally, he said.

Bryant acknowledges he’s no expert on the tech industry, but there are areas where he’s been prescient, including Asia.

“He’s been going to China since many of us realized it would be an economic powerhouse,” Stibel said.

Younger players — seeking something more fulfilling than standard endorsement deals — have turned to Bryant to get involved or for advice on starting their own ventures, he said.

So far, Bryant Stibel is not seeking outside investors in their fund.

Other NBA players, including Carmelo Anthony, and former NBA Commissioner David Stern have also become heavy tech investors, though focusing more on sports-related companies. Stibel said he and Bryant don’t compare themselves to the others but look forward to partnering with them.

Bryant Stibel’s investments include mobile game publisher Scopely, legal services startup LegalZoom, sales software developers Datanyze and RingDNA, restaurant booking app Reserve, motion detection software maker FocusMotion, real estate software developer House Canary, juicer maker Juicero, meal-sharing app Dysh, Chinese online education startup Vipkid and one unannounced startup.

Two companies the firm invested in have already been acquired: Custom Ink bought fundraising service Represent and Brand Networks acquired marketing software developer Shift. The pair also invested in Chinese online shopping giant Alibaba before it went public.

Stibel, who had been chief executive of credit ratings firm Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. until a merger last year, has several investments on his own, including in pet-sitting app DogVacay and members-only airline Surf Air.

(Source: TNS)