BY MATT DAY
Like a lot of people, Russell Wilson had an idea for an app.
Unlike most, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback had Satya Nadella’s cellphone number. He texted the Microsoft chief executive seeking counsel on where to take his idea.
The result of that high-profile referral arrived earlier this month in the form of TraceMe, a sort of news and social-media platform for celebrities. The first and only star at its launch was Wilson, who pitches the site as an opportunity to go behind the scenes in his day-to-day life, training and other ventures.
“The idea of TraceMe is to give them that VIP, up-close-and-personal experience, no matter where we are, where we’re going,” Wilson said in an interview.
Down the line, the aim is to draw more stars to use the service to broadcast content to fans.
Wilson has plenty of support from a list of high-profile investors, including Amazon. com chief Jeff Bezos, who chipped in on a $9 million round of venture-capital funding sealed earlier this year. Other backers include YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley and Joe Tsai, co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.
Nadella’s referrals introduced Wilson to the tightly connected network of Seattle-area startup investors and executives. The venture’s 15 employees are hosted at startup studio Pioneer Square Labs; Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group led the investment round; and Jason LeeKeenan, a former executive at Seattle online retailer Zulily, is chief executive.
LeeKeenan and Pioneer Square Labs’ Greg Gottesman bounced ideas off Wilson during hourslong sessions at the Los Angeles home where the quarterback lives during the offseason.
They came away sensing an opportunity for a media and technology platform that offers greater control and customization of their message and audience than other outlets.
“The celebrities create a tremendous amount of content,” LeeKeenan said.
There is no shortage of ways for the rich and famous to disseminate that content, from photos and videos on Instagram, to Facebook’s potpourri and Twitter’s short blasts of text and video.
Social-media giants not your thing? There are also sleekly produced sites aimed at sports stars, including Derek Jeter’s The Players’ Tribune, or LeBron James’ Uninterrupted.
Matt McIlwain, a managing director with investor Madrona and a TraceMe board member, says there’s room for more.
He likens the opportunities the internet presents for celebrities to broadcast and communicate to fans to the breakup of subscriptions and bundled media. Why subscribe to People magazine, for example, when you could use an app to link up with Wilson and your other fans one at a time, he said.
“The most enthusiastic fans are going to say this is a platform where I can have unique content,” McIlwain said. Referring to Twitter, he says, “There are some things within 140 characters that I as a celebrity can say or do, but that’s not the whole package.”
The venture’s backers are reluctant to discuss how they hope to make money. The first step is to grow the audience and the celebrity users.
For now, the application, at first available only on Apple smartphones and tablets, rides on Wilson’s celebrity, and the efforts of his staff and TraceMe’s teams of editors that package content.
TraceMe’s first batch of videos range from candid-style short videos with Wilson to scripted, short-form, documentary-style videos featuring, for example, his personal trainer and a mindset coach.
Part of the inspiration for the project came during Wilson’s wedding in summer 2016 to singer Ciara. He was surprised, as he traveled near the wedding’s venue in Britain, to encounter fans in a country obsessed with the other football.
The 28-year-old quarterback is an investor in the venture he founded, and its executive chairman. But during football season, he’s not going to have much time to devote to Russell Inc., which includes endorsements from Microsoft, Alaska Air and Nike.
As for TraceMe, the experienced pitchman wasn’t shy about his ambitions during a conference call with the TraceMe management team from his office space in Seattle’s aptly named Russell Investments Center.
“Changing the world, changing the dynamic, in terms of social media (and) connecting to the super fan,” he said. “We’re going to be at the forefront of change and something new.”