Text response times. That’s all you need to look at on Kobe Bryant’s phone to see how much he cares about being a businessman. At all hours of the night, Bryant is texting and listening to the latest returns from one of the companies he’s invested in. He’s putting in hours like he did on the basketball court. The same wiring that made him push his game to the limits has him focusing on board rooms when the rest of the world is sleeping.
“Text at 3 in the morning, and he responds a minute later,” said Mike Repole, founder and chairman at BodyArmor, a sports drink brand that Bryant invested in in 2014. “That’s when I realized he was as psychotic as I was. I don’t think either of us sleep.”
“We are obsessive,” Bryant said. “We wouldn’t want to be doing anything other than what we are doing. That’s where obsession comes in — when you care about something 24 hours a day.”
In 2013, Bryant teamed up with investor Jeff Stibel to partner on investments. Three years later, the two announced a $100 million media, tech and data fund. Bryant says there’s nothing to talk about or celebrate until they cash out of some of the companies they’ve invested in, which include a real estate data and analytics company and a restaurant reservation brand.
But how hands-on Bryant is can be seen with BodyArmor.
Last week, he attended the National Association of Convenience Stores conference in Chicago. Athletes who go to conferences are usually there to take pictures and sign autographs. Bryant will take a picture, but only after he’s briefed on who he’s being introduced to. Then he’ll deliver his take on why this drink is different.
Bryant hasn’t just been along for the ride of BodyArmor’s growth from $3 million in sales in 2012, when he first started talking about a deal, to the nearly $200 million today. He has contributed significantly, whether it be through storytelling, writing or inserting his former athlete’s perspective on a product. He has also been dreaming every day to take a piece of the pie from the stalwarts in the category: Gatorade and Powerade.
And it’s more than that. Bryant’s brain can process only being No. 1 in the space, and he already has a year (2025) for when he hopes BodyArmor tops the sport drink giants.
“I told him from the start: Only one out of 100 brands make it and that we had a 1 percent chance,” Repole said. “What was sick about it was that somehow made him more excited.”
“When I was a kid, I had plenty of people telling me what the odds were for me to make the NBA,” Bryant said. “Worse than these.”
Bryant is a gifted writer and storyteller, and he has more experience with advertising and marketing than most know. For years, while still playing, Bryant was a major partner in California-based ad firm Zambezi, but he chose to keep it quiet.
“The sports industry is very competitive,” Bryant said. “If everyone knew I was part of an agency, I’m not sure we would have got the business that we won.”
In 2009, when Bryant was in the NBA Finals, Zambezi wrote an ad for Dwight Howard and vitaminwater that ran during the games.
“I wrote that s—,” Bryant said.
His “Obsession is Natural” philosophy was turned into a BodyArmor commercial that he wrote and voiced earlier this year. His “Dear Basketball” poem that he penned for the Players Tribune at the start of his last season was turned into an animated short and has been critically acclaimed. He won’t say the word “Oscar” because he doesn’t want to jinx it, but odds are he has already thought of whom he’d thank.
“I got tired of telling people I loved business as much as I did basketball because people would look at me like I had three heads,” Bryant said. “But I do.”
When Repole talks to Bryant about the evolution of bottle caps, he might laugh, but he listens, absorbing how he did when he was learning basketball.
Nike executives have long said that, of any of the athletes they work with on signature shoes, Kobe is the most demanding.
“He’s obviously one of the most intense athletes on the court,” Nike chairman and CEO Mark Parker said Wednesday at the company’s Investor Day. “But off the court, he’s equally as intense. He’s got a million ideas.”
It was Bryant who pushed Nike to change the basketball shoe game in 2008, when the two collaborated on a low top.
Bryant pushed Nike as much as any athlete had. “I’m a pain in the butt to work with sometimes,” he said.
The shoe was a success and helped Nike begin to adjust to a fashion world that was looking for a low-cut basketball sneaker.
“Nike really gets better with athletes that are demanding,” Parker said. “Rising to meet those expectations and exceed them have made us better.”
Being a student of this new game extends to his practice of calling on big names in business, from Oprah to Apple chief design officer Jony Ive, and studying how they work.
“I’ve found at the core of it is a love for what they are doing and also understand that, as leaders, it’s their job to enhance what is around them,” Bryant said. “How they go about doing it, how they motivate and how they challenge is all different, but the end result is the same.”
Bryant’s favorite book is “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho, in which a young boy is promised a future treasure by a soothsayer. In his quest for greater riches, which turns out to disappoint him, he learns more about enriching himself from within.
Bryant’s life now is very much about both finding riches to add to the roughly $500 million he grossed on and off the court during his career and directing his competitive might into business.
“He’s going to be a lot better entrepreneur and at business than he was at basketball,” Repole said. “That’s pretty scary.”
By Darren Rovell