Former NFL safety Ryan Mundy has achieved some impressive feats. He won the 2009 Super Bowl as a rookie while playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he went on to play in the league for seven more seasons. As retirement loomed on the horizon, he began plotting his next career step, a smart move given 78 percent of NFL players encounter financial hardship within two years of their retirement.
Refusing to fall prey to that statistic, Mundy enrolled in an MBA program at The University of Miami (FL) during his final year in the league and completed the program in 2016. After graduation, he dove headfirst into angel investing, devouring advice from seasoned investors to avoid making unwise investments.
Now, he’s Managing Director at Techlete Ventures, a VC firm he founded that’s dedicated to growing technological innovation in the sports, health and lifestyle, digital and media, and cryptocurrency and blockchain spaces.
Here’s Mundy’s take on what to look for when investing in startups, how to invest wisely, and a few words on how he developed the grit to succeed in professional football and angel investing.
You’re from Pittsburgh, and you were drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers for your first year in the NFL in 2008. How did it feel to win the 2009 Super Bowl as a rookie and while playing for your hometown team?
That was incredible. I really couldn’t dream that up or write that in a movie script. In no way, shape, or form, not in my wildest dreams, did I have any idea that I would win the Super Bowl my first year in the NFL in my hometown. That’s like the trifecta. In front of my family and friends and all those who helped support me my entire life to get me to the NFL, to achieve the crown jewel of the NFL, right out of the gate, that was just incredible.
I now hope to relive that feeling through successful investments.
My life has been risky, and what I did for a living was very risky, and looking at the odds of making it to the NFL, those are venture-like odds.
You spent eight years playing football as a safety in the NFL, so becoming an angel investor was quite a transition! What inspired your interest in startups and investing, and when did you have that 'aha' moment?
I always looked at myself as more than just an athlete. I landed on venture capital because I’d seen guys like Kobe Bryant, Jeff Curry, and Kevin Durant garnering headlines about being tech investors. And tech seemed very interesting. It seemed new, it seemed fun, and I was always intellectually curious and wanted to be on the cutting edge of something. So from there I just went on this journey of asking questions and connecting with folks.
At the outset, I decided that I wanted to be an entrepreneur investor. Very risky, yes, but I think it was something that I needed to push myself to do so I wouldn’t have that proverbial safety net, which I thought was really important.
My life has been risky, and what I did for a living was very risky, and looking at the odds of making it to the NFL, those are venture-like odds. My appetite for risk I think was fueled by my life journey and allowed me to take such a risk, to become an entrepreneur and an investor.
There’s obviously a lot to learn when first investing in startups, especially if you want to do so wisely and generate returns. How’d you get up to speed?
Google. I kid you not. That’s exactly what I did. I knew information would help me move along and mitigate risks was education. And, going back to being intellectually curious, I wanted to make sure I knew what the heck I was getting into and I knew how it worked. And, in addition to that, I had an understanding of what the diversity and inclusion landscape looked like, and how that narrative has come to the forefront in the last few years. I wanted to know who looked like me in the space. So, going back to Google, one of the first topics I Googled was “African American venture capitalists.”
I leveraged my background right out of the gate. When I was Googling, if I came across some people I thought I could learn from, I’d just shoot them a cold LinkedIn message, shoot them a cold email message, or a cold tweet. I realized was that my response rate was close to 90%. And it helped that I was putting Ryan Mundy Chicago Bears in the subject line, but I was doing whatever I had to do to get a meet.
As far as getting more folks of color on the other side of the table and investing, we need to start educating, creating resources and different opportunities to create seats at the table.
On that note, statistics from 2016 show founders of color received less than 1% of $70B of capital invested in startups in contrast to their white counterparts. How do you think we can start leveling the playing field?
I think we need to have more seats on the other side of the table, meaning investors of color—I think that would go a long way. Just because, in simple terms, if someone doesn’t understand or can’t relate to your background, or can’t understand the problem you’re solving or see through your paradigm, then that significantly reduces the likelihood that they’ll fund your company. And there’s likely a lot of bias associated with that. I think that is a very important step.
When I was Googling I found out that becoming an investor is a very opaque thing—there’s no manual or a lot of resources out there that say “Hey, this is how you become a venture investor.” But there are tons of resources out there for entrepreneurs and events and stuff like that. So I think as far as getting more folks of color on the other side of the table, we need to start educating, creating resources, and different opportunities to create seats at the table for minority capital allocators.
Given the extensive—and likely daunting—learning curve you weathered becoming an investor, how did you remain persistent, focused, and conquer any fears or hesitations?
There have been quite a few moments where I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out, and quite a few moments where I thought maybe I should go get a job. I think I found that investing resembles a lot of what I used to do, and just thinking about that transition, I realized it’s all about the learning curve. I had to take a step back and tap into the intrinsics that allowed me to be a successful professional athlete.
Some of those characteristics were things like grit, determination, focus, and discipline, hard work, leadership—just a laundry list of adjectives. And regardless of what I do, this is who I am, and I have this skill set. Now I need to take this skill set and put it into an entirely different context. And that context now is looking at term sheets. That context is evaluating companies. That context was understanding how convertible notes work. It’s also about learning about blockchain and cryptocurrency, understanding those technologies. So I’ve taken that intrinsic skillset I have and just transferred it into a different context. That helped me tremendously through the tough times and continues to help to this day.
Making it to the NFL takes a tremendous amount of discipline, along with physical, mental, and emotional fortitude. Did you have any experiences in that instilled you with these qualities?
There were a few situations in my athletic career that really tested me. I got injured during my rookie season in the NFL, and it caused me to miss the entire training camp, and ultimately I got released my rookie year at the start of the season. I was back home living with my parents for the first six weeks of the season. The team said that they would bring me back as soon as they could, but, you know, the NFL is a business, and I was a young guy and I didn’t know how this thing worked. So I was literally just kind of hanging in the balance and recovering and just trusting and believing that was I ready. I knew that when that phone call came I had to be ready.
There are micro-examples like literally getting knocked down or just making a mistake on the field in front of hundreds of thousands of people, sometimes millions of people when including TV audiences, it gives you a different paradigm about life.
Is there a particular technology that interests you, one that you are more prone to investing in, and why?
At the top of the year, I decided to primarily focus my efforts on cryptocurrency, tokenization, and blockchain. I’ve been familiar with bitcoin for some time, but it was really around this time of the year last year when I started to take it seriously and really learn about the technology. I never thought I would be a tech type of guy, but as I began to learn about the technology it began to resonate with me and I became really excited about it.
You know, when you first mention blockchain to people, they say it’s complicated, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily true—I don’t know if someone has spent the time or made the effort to really learn about it. And when I started to see what was going on in the market, I decided I at least needed to put some effort in to learn about it to decide for myself if it’s too complicated for me or not. And once I started to put some effort into it and started to learn, I realized that, for one reason or another, I was getting it and understanding it, and from there I just decided to continue to ride that momentum.
As you say, most people, when they think about blockchain, often say “I don’t get it, and I’m not going to try.” You decided to push through that barrier. Why?
That’s the thing. Half the battle is showing up. And that’s not specifically speaking about crypto or technology, that’s just life in general. So I was always one who kept that in mind, and I really just wanted to surround myself with people who had experience with the technology, who were talking about it, who were sharing ideas in collaborative environments. So I went to every relevant crypto conference or meet-up across the country I could find. And no one looked like me in those rooms, no one had a background like me, coming from the NFL, but I knew that I had to attend those events to learn as much as I possibly could about crypto and blockchain. And that’s actually how I met Kendrick Nguyen from Republic—at a crypto event in LA. And we’ve established a great connection and continue to stay in touch.
Sports can benefit from new emerging technologies to increase fan engagement, and, from a blockchain and crypto perspective, the overall ethos is that we need to increase adoption in that ecosystem.
What technology or trends interest you the most in the blockchain and crypto space?
I’m interested in the marriage between sports and blockchain technology, and I’ve been white hot on the trail for sports applications within blockchain applications, or tokenized opportunities, and I think there are multiple benefits with that. For a long time, I think sports has been overlooked by technologists and investors.
Sports can benefit from new emerging technologies to increase fan engagement, and, from a blockchain and crypto perspective, the overall ethos is that we need to increase adoption in that ecosystem and participation.
Multiple digital collectible companies that are powered by the Ethereum blockchain are emerging to improve the fan experience with innovative products. Additionally, there are some other opportunities with fractional ownership for professional sports leagues that I’m looking at. With the latest legislation that came down almost a month ago regarding legalization for sports gambling on a federal level, I think this will result in interesting opportunities as well.
What are three qualities you look for in a startup before you invest?
Well, there are two, and they kind of go hand-in-hand—integrity and reliability. Without integrity, doing what you say you’re going to do, and being reliable enough to actually execute on that, then really nothing else matters. You can be the smartest person in the world, you can be the most skilled, whether its coding or sales or business development or management, whatever it is, if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do, if you’re not reliable, then nothing else matters.
What would you say to anyone who has an interest in becoming an angel investor? What tips would you give them?
Keep an open mind, and develop an insatiable desire to learn; be on the hunt for information in terms of what’s going on in the world so that you can see trends and can see where things are going in the future because investing is not necessarily about what’s going on right now. You need to take the paradigm of what’s going on right now to think of what’s going to be going on five years from now.
We recognize that learning how to angel invest is opaque and that there aren’t many resources. Republic is all about democratizing access to information, not just investing. What’s your take on mentorship?
I think it’s critically important when you start to think about the pipeline of what investors look like and how we can increase participation on both sides of the table. As I’ve said, there is no manual out there for angel investing. One of my biggest mentors is YouTube. There are tons of interviews from successful investors and business personalities on there. I’m sure people can find things to invest in, but there’s a lot of low quality out there, so not only to save yourself time but also to save yourself a headache and heartache, mentorship is important.