How Kobe Bryant left his mark on the business world
Kobe Bryant will be remembered as a passionate athlete, whose talent and commitment led him to the highest level of achievement in his sport. Beyond basketball, Bryant was also deeply committed to becoming a successful entrepreneur.
Since retiring from the NBA in 2016, Bryant had launched several fast-growing businesses. He co-founded Bryant Stibel, a venture capital firm that invested in companies such as Fortnite-maker Epic Games. His media venture, Granity Studios, created podcasts as well as the popular program Detail for ESPN+ and an Academy Award-winning animated short film.
Bryant’s entrepreneurial efforts were hardly surprising, when you consider the hard-work mentality that defined his professional basketball career. That work went well beyond the court. Bryant served as an important ambassador as interest in the NBA grew around the world. Like any savvy leader, he recognized his audience was global.
Bryant’s business acumen was boosted by his early exposure to the marketing world. As a high-profile endorser, he witnessed at a young age which companies truly understood marketing. “I’ve learned a lot through osmosis,” Bryant told me in a Bloomberg Television interview in 2014.
His experience in creating top-selling shoe brands for Nike Inc. played a key role in shaping his approach to business.
“I’m an executive for my own brand of products. I’ve learned a great deal from Nike,” Bryant told me in an interview for Bloomberg Television in 2013.
“It’s tough for athletes because you’re asked to wear two hats that contradict each other. From an athlete’s perspective, you have to be passionate about your sport and think team first and winning first. But then, when you have to put on the business hat, you get public backlash for being a business person. I think athletes have been reluctant to do business things and make business decisions because of that.”
Certainly though, that did not deter Bryant, who spotted opportunities more lucrative than endorsements. In 2014, he first invested in the sports drink brand BodyArmor — a move that was validated when The Coca-Cola Co. acquired a stake in the business in 2018, valuing BodyArmor at roughly US$200 million.
Bryant also understood the power of authenticity and told me he was always happy to share advice with young players who were struggling to define their NBA identity.
“Be yourself. That’s it. Be you,” Bryant told me. “There’s no gimmick. You don’t have to contrive anything: Who are you? Where are you today? What is your story? And all you’re doing is communicating that story to the public.”
Bryant’s skills in business were partly driven by his constant desire to learn. That sometimes involved calling up celebrities to find out how they became successful.
“I just cold call people and pick their brain about things,” Bryant told me in a Bloomberg Television interview in 2014. “Some of the questions I’ll ask will seem simple and stupid for them. But if I don’t know, I have to ask. I just want to learn more about how they build their business or how they run their companies and how they see the world.”
One example that Bryant shared with me was his meeting with former Apple Inc. designer Jony Ive, who helped create signature products such as the iPhone and iPad.
“I went up to Apple and spent the day there talking with Jony and picking his brain about product — what makes them who they are and why. I’m very curious about that and understanding that. I think once you have something you’re passionate about, you can look at other people or other works of art and draw from that to help you be better at what you do by looking for some common denominators.”
In our interview, Bryant noted Jony Ive was equally interested in Bryant’s approach to playing basketball.
“My response was that it’s much like the way he builds products,” Bryant said. “You start with where you want your game to be. Then, you think about what would make your game most unstoppable — or hard to deal with — and then, you work backwards from there.”