NBA All-Star Baron Davis discusses investing in tech
CES Ambassador. Marketing entrepreneur. NBA All-Star. Baron Davis has been a leader across a vast range of industries – and excelled at every one. He sat down with Samsung NEXT’s Ryan Lawler to discuss his views on digital storytelling, investing in tech and cultural diversity. Through his unique experience, he’s cultivated a positive perspective that is as inspirational as it is insightful.
Ryan Lawler: You were on my fantasy team back in 2006, 2007. I won that year, so thank you.
Baron Davis: Good, good. Hope I had something to do with it.
Ryan: Definitely. You are a CES ambassador.
Ryan: What does that mean? What are you doing here at CES this year?
Baron: For me, I’ve never been here. I’m here to listen, learn, network, connect, and really just find out what CES has to offer from every vertical, from VR, AR, the things that I’m interested in content, platforms, marketing, creative, looking at some of these robots and self-driving cars. I think for me to be just more of a sponge this year and try and absorb as much as possible.
Ryan: That’s cool. This is day one. Have you been walking the floor, seen anything cool?
Baron: I’ve been walking the floor, but my team is always pushing me out of rooms. I’ve been getting lucky. I’ve been losing them. I saw this robot company out of France. They were cool. Lyft had a super cool experience with the self-driving car. Just pillaging around. It’s so much, and it’s so overwhelming. It’d be nice to have a little direction day one, you know?
Ryan: Right. That’s awesome. I feel like you were way ahead of the curve in terms of making the jump from someone who’s an athlete, celebrity, to investing and being an entrepreneur. I’m wondering how that started off, when you got interested in technology, and what that first looked like.
Baron: For me, it was always being an entrepreneur. When I played in the NBA, I was my own agent. I did all my own marketing, investing. When I got to San Francisco, I started to hang out with people who were building platforms and looking at technology in a problem solving way. For me, I started a company called IBeatYou.com way before the iPhone. It was a social media site for competition. You could compete with your friends, best dressed, how many free throws, things like that. When I was in San Francisco, I really got the bug to start. I didn’t want to invest in the companies. I was crazy enough to want to start my own. I think that it led me down this path of loving technology and loving the way that people can connect on platforms and how you can build tools that the whole world has access to.
Ryan: Right. Just being in San Francisco, I live in San Francisco, you can’t escape it. Tech is everywhere, right?
Baron: Yeah, yeah, it is, it is. It’s the number one industry to me in San Francisco besides sports, but music comes secondary. Everything else is secondary to tech.
Ryan: In preparation for this, and obviously when I was told that it was a possibility for you to join, I checked out your website, Baron Davis Enterprises. You’ve got a lot going on. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about all these different projects that you’ve got happening?
Baron: For me, two years ago I started a creative agency, a creative agency that also has production capabilities. I’d always made documentaries, I’d always made film and TV shows, but I really wanted to be first to market with content. We started to build on our creative collective. Instead of building it as an agency, building it with executives, creators, people who could package talent, start investing in brands and looking at brands and how can we basically add lighter fluid to a brand or a company in today’s day and age, and understanding social, digital, word of mouth, how all those play in effect when you’re promoting a company, marketing a brand. That’s what my company is now. We create IP, we take the IP to market, we sell that IP in all kind of media forms, and then we also take brands and we work with brands and create not just a commercial or a viral campaign, but we create story because we feel that if you really drill down on story, the storytelling will continue to live on.
Ryan: Right. One of those projects is Black Santa. Tell me a little bit about that. How did that get started? What are you hoping to do with that?
Baron: For me, I started Black Santa four years ago. I wanted to find a way into entertainment where I could have a voice and I could have a company that told stories for my audience. At the same time I was having a kid, and that’s all my kid does is watch YouTube, and Baby Bums, and things like that. I was like, “You know what? This is the best way to actually reach the youth.” If we want to have conversations about diversity, inclusion, social issues, that we can tie them together in what I would consider to be my new Mickey Mouse.
Going about it, building Black Santa from scratch, and start to build out the world and other characters that come about the land, each year was really figuring out how to take a figure, take a cartoon, take an image and stick it in society and have people start to have a conversation about it. Then to pull it back, and then to create the product, which is the movie, the music, and things like that. This year we did short form animation and music, a Christmas album. Then this upcoming year we’ll have a long form TV movie and an album, and then 2019 working on the animated feature.
Ryan: This is all about giving, right, and bringing that together. What are you hoping to gain from that standpoint?
Baron: For me, from a company standpoint, you can make money and you can do good. The opportunity for us to make a bigger difference in the world, there’s a lot of bureaucracy into how do we help these kids that underprivileged? How do we translate these messages of positivity and encouragement to kids who grow up with PTSD and societies that drive anxiety? How do we come in, and how do we build a culture, a community, a movement based off of these tools of positivity and inclusion, of blessing people, understanding what a blessing is, and being humble, and taking that and stuffing that into these cartoon characters, and having them be fun, music-driven, and educational.
Ryan: I think one of the really cool things about what you’re doing is you have this combination of sports, lifestyle, and culture. That’s another thing that you’re working on. It used to be that all those things were separate. Athletes were athletes, and entertainers were entertainers, and then people building technology were just building technology. Now all those worlds are converging. I’m wondering how you came to be at that intersection of all those things.
Baron: I think for me, I always looked at it like I was always interested. When I played high school basketball in LA, the school that I went to was a school for arts and science. It wasn’t a sports school. Everybody at the school that was popular or the “best jock” was a scientist, or an actress, or a girl that was performing on Broadway in her senior year in high school. People had set the bar so high from an art and science perspective. For me, those were my friends. As I got in the NBA, they were at my games. They had the same interests, just a different level of interest and respect for what I was doing, and then vice versa.
For me, I became a sponge in that world, quietly. I never really thought that was going to make it to the NBA, so I always had to have a plan B, plan C. I think storytelling and the film industry made so much sense to me, and then being able to grow, and learn, and go to San Francisco, and understand the power of technology. I think for me, it was innocently and ignorantly I was able to figure out how they all coexist together.
Ryan: Right. You just didn’t feel like there were boundaries because you were always surrounded by all those things.
Baron: Yeah, and also you hear people tell athletes, “You can’t,” you know what I mean? “You can’t speak out. You’re not a creator. You’re just an athlete.” For me, because I was my own agent, I couldn’t just be an athlete. I had to masquerade myself as different things in order to best represent myself as a player. I think that’s how I was able to grow and learn so much stuff as far as in these various industries.
Ryan: Right. We talked a lot about what you’re doing as an entrepreneur, but you also invest. You invest as an LP or a family office. You also make direct investments in startups. What are you looking for, and how are you finding these companies?
Baron: I would say we look at about 50 companies a year. We probably wind up investing in maybe five to eight. For me, it’s about the product, the entrepreneur, the vision, and then the team behind it, who’s powering this company outside of the CEO. What’s his personality? What’s his team? Who are the people? How do they communicate? What is their relationship? For me, I think in my experience, we do this thing called brand or company DNA where we basically dive into your company and try and figure out everything that’s right, everything that’s wrong, get a better understanding for the people involved because all of that makes sense in success. Using basketball, and the team mentality, and the general manager, and being the coach, and understanding how important it is for communication and execution everyday, you know what I mean, we actually take that fabric and put it into the entrepreneur when we’re looking at companies.
Ryan: Okay. Are there particular areas that you’re interested in or that you’re looking to invest? It sounds like a lot of it’s multimedia.
Baron: Yeah, multimedia products, merch companies, brands. This year we’re looking at VR company, AR company, what else? It’s just a lot. I can get excited about anything. My team does a good job of keeping me in a cage in places like this because I’ll run wild.
Ryan: That also speaks to what’s your value add as an investor. Entrepreneurs have a lot of different places they can get money from. What do you bring to the table? How can you help? How can you advise?
Baron: Before I even talk to the entrepreneur, I always say, “We can always give you money, you know what I mean, but it’s what we bring to the table as far as being able to master creative with our team of designers, artists, musicians.” We dive into a collective of creativity that we can add from a business strategy, go to market strategy, marketing strategy, how do you get this product in the right hands to the right people, in front of the right festivals and things like that. Another thing we do well is we package. We master connect. If I’m excited about a company but it doesn’t make sense for my brand, but I do like the company, it may make sense for a Kevin Durant or someone like that. We’re always in the vein of connecting the entrepreneur and the company to the right people. If I get excited about the company, usually I’m excited because I know three, or four, or five people that that’s in their wheelhouse. We have investors that back us. We have other family offices that co-invest with us under the notion that we are this agency of connection, of creativity, and of content.
Ryan: We talked about why you’re personally interested in technology, but it feels like you’re not alone. You were way ahead of some of these other folks, but now it’s the cool thing to do for an entertainer to invest in a startup or for an athlete to invest in a startup. Why do you think that is?
Baron: I just think that the industry has expanded and just made it easier for people to have more access to the tools to build things. Entrepreneurs are not just coming from San Francisco, or New York, or LA, or Austin. People are coming from all over the world, all over the US. Now they have the same tools and they have the same access. Even for athletes, you don’t have to be in a primary market anymore. You’ve just got to know the right people and use your brand and use social media as an opportunity to find the company that best suits who you are.
Ryan: When we talked about certain technologies, you mentioned AR and VR. What’s interesting to you about those things?
Baron: I think AR, from just a gamification standpoint, looking at that in sports, in media, and for us as a Black Santa company, it’s to be able to project our characters in the world and communicate with the world in this realized, unrealized experience. It allows us to now be able to play with our fans, play with our audience, and to drive sales, coupons, things like that, giveaways. I think the gamification of AR is crazy.
Ryan: Do you look at digital health at all because I feel like there’s been a lot advances in sports science and for athletes. I’m wondering I you have any view there.
Baron: I definitely think that, one, I remember I hurt my knee in 1997. I had a torn ACL. Everybody thought that my career was going to be over because technology had not caught up. Now you’ve got guys coming back from ACL injuries in six to eight weeks. I think that from VR, AR experience, that it should help medicine. It should influence medicine. It should be able to influence our daily life as far as how we’re attracting our data or how we’re looking at products that fit to our body and the damage it can do. I just really think that where technology is going, especially in that space, it’s really interesting for me because I already live in a fantasy world because I write kids books and things like that. To be able to bring that fantasy into some sort of reality is what I get most excited about.
Ryan: Got you. Outside of that, what sort of technologies are you excited about outside of AR, VR?
Baron: I would say gaming. This whole eSports thing is really interesting to me, being able to create these worlds, to create these worlds and have these worlds exist. It’s looking at that as a sport now, and probably it will wind up being one of the biggest sports in the world. That’s exciting for me. I also think that I’m into cameras. I’ve been taking a lot of pictures and things like that. Cameras, 3D cameras, looking at things like that when you’re looking at film and TV, things like that, how are you going to find the advantage and the edge to be able to shoot and deliver content in a different space?
Ryan: Got you. Looking out over the next year, you mentioned some of your plans for Black Santa. What else have you got going on in 2018?
Baron: 2018, we’re going to launch SLIC, which is called Sports Lifestyle in Culture, which is a studio for athletes, influencers, celebrities, actors, and artists to be able to be in an artist first studio. What we will be doing is we’re for the artists, we’re for the athletes. We want the athletes to be 360-degree athletes, but the verticals that we’ll focus on, digital premium, short form documentaries, short form TV series, things like that, and it’ll be directed, produced, or have some type of involvement from the people in the culture.
Ryan: Okay. You have a conference forum thing that you’re doing as well?
Baron: Yeah, and I’m also launching BIG, Business Inside the Game, which is a traveling power summit. NBA All Star weekend is going to be our first official BIG event. It’s called Business Inside the Game, and it’s a forum, a summit that allows athletes, entrepreneurs to connect and basically not sit in the audience but actually sit on the stage and talk about their wins, talk about their successes. I’m around a lot of successful NBA guys, a lot of successful athletes, a lot of successful entrepreneurs, and talent. They never get an opportunity to sit on stages like this and talk about their business and their companies. That’s the whole gist of BIG. It’s connecting them to the VCs, connecting them to the entrepreneurs, the CFOs and CEOs so we can build a community for the athletes, for the entertainment person, that they can really have a shot at winning in technology in this space.
Ryan: All right, cool. If somebody wanted to get involved or somebody wanted to be a part of that, how do they get in touch with you or your team?
Baron: I think it’s barondavis.com. I’m not sure. I’ve got so many. You can visit us at blacksanta.com. I’m on Instagram at @iambarondavis, Twitter, @barondavis, LinkedIn, Baron Davis. I’m on LinkedIn a lot lately. I like having conversations with people on LinkedIn. I think it’s pretty cool. Those are the ways I’m easily reached.
Ryan: I think that’s actually how we connected.
Baron: See, it worked.
Ryan: All right, cool. Baron, thanks for joining us.
Baron: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Ryan: Good luck with 2018. You’ve got a lot going on. Wish you all the best with it.
Baron: Thank you, I appreciate it. Thanks.