ART OF SPORT & BRYANT STIBEL
Building a Brand
It all started when serial entrepreneur Brian Lee met up with his friend Matthias Metternich one afternoon to play basketball. It was supposed to be a casual shootaround, but little did they know that when they left their sunscreen behind, they’d be led down a rabbit hole of discovery that would eventually inspire them to co-found the unisex, direct-to-consumer body-care brand, Art of Sport – with the help of Bryant Stibel.
Lee and Metternich, who were collectively trying to be wiser about their skin-care regimen at the time, started scouring the aisles at a store near the basketball court for the right product. That’s when it struck them. “None of these were actually ‘Sport’ brands,” recalls Metternich. Despite using the term rather freely for marketing purposes, all the formulas were the same. Together they had an “aha moment,” reveals Metternich, when he and Lee realized “there wasn’t actually a brand, like Nike – true to sport, developing high-performance products with real integrity and efficacy.”
A series of significant events then unfolded between Lee and Metternich around executing their vision. As Metternich remembers, “We were deeply immersed in the idea of replicating the Nike’s of the world, ‘How do we surround ourselves with the best athletes?’ and ‘How do we get athletes from the beginning and from the ground up, developing and fine-tuning these products to meet their needs?’”
Brian Lee was always close friends with Jeff Stibel, so once the brainstorm began around the type of athlete they wanted, “there was really only one name on our wish list in terms of first exploring the business: Kobe Bryant.” Metternich remembers thinking, “His legacy is unmatched – he’s one of the greatest athletes of all-time. What he put his body through, his convictions, his priorities in the game of sport and in the game of life, are all world-class caliber and very unique.”
Kobe’s established “legacy of building brands” was also of paramount interest to Lee and Metternich, who notes that “When Kobe puts his stamp of approval on something and really gets behind you as a partner, the world of sports and everyone across the spectrum of the sports industry takes note and you’re suddenly validated in a way that most startups just don’t experience until much further on.”
But it wasn’t just the allure of Kobe’s legacy in these regards that drew Metternich and Lee in. “When you’ve got someone like Kobe and you’re building a sports brand, having him say ‘I’ll just call Serena’ or ‘I’ll just call… any of the top athletes in the world that are in his Rolodex is just unbelievable. Huge for building a brand,” confesses Metternich. The halo that almost immediately drew in the likes of other top sports figures such as World Champion surfer Sage Erickson, MLB star and World Series champion, Javier Baez and seven-time NBA all-star/MVP, James Harden, amongst other notable athletes.
Beyond the networking component, Metternich is also quick to add that Bryant Stibel only puts their reputation at risk when there’s trust and belief in the product. “But when they do that, there are effects that go above and beyond any investor that I’ve ever taken money from,” declares Metternich. “That’s been huge for us… I can’t remember the last time my venture capitalists inspired my customers to go buy the product. That’s a rarity unto itself.”
Dreaming Big with Bryant Stibel
That’s when a conversation began around how to strategically build the best company possible. In that vein, Brian Lee suggested a quick drive up to Malibu to meet with Jeff Stibel. Given Lee’s history with Jeff and his team in other entrepreneurial ventures like LegalZoom and The Honest Company, the thought seemed like a relative no-brainer. “You really just need to meet Jeff and hear him out to see what he has to say. He’s a smart guy, so whether we work with them or not, I’d love to just get his opinion,” Metternich recalls Lee saying of the fateful drive to the beach.
Soon thereafter, Lee and Metternich arrived in Malibu bearing early samples of the product and started a conversation with Jeff, Pete and the gang that quickly evolved into a game plan.
“There was a lot of positive feedback about this as an industry and how this opportunity is something that doesn’t come around that often because it really plays to their sweet spot,” recalls Metternich of those early conversations. It was “less of a discussion about the viability of the thesis and more a discussion about the execution into its ultimate manifestation… a much more collaborative and constructive conversation versus somebody just sitting there and asking you questions or basically throwing out a thousand reasons for why it won’t work.”
Metternich sums up the inspiration gained from those initial brainstorms. “Having entrepreneurs talking with entrepreneurs about how this brand becomes a giant in the space was a rewarding discussion. My first impression of Jeff, Pete and the gang was that this team chimes in with entrepreneurs because they understand the exercise of dreaming.”
Taking Flight with Kobe
Having been through so many marketing initiatives and brand launches at Nike over his 20-year playing career, Metternich immediately recognized that Kobe’s proven track record made him “one of the best creative partners out there because he knows the experience of carrying through an idea onto the field and then living it as an athlete.”
It was a partnership component that Metternich deemed invaluable from the start.
“When you work with Kobe, it isn’t just a brand strategist in a room coming up with a cool concept or tagline. When he partners with a brand, he embodies all the language, visuals, excitement and dreams that so many other folks thrive off or feed on.” This involvement manifested itself in everything from talks about fragrance to branding to packaging design.
But perhaps there’s no better example than the day Metternich showed up to Kobe’s office with a box filled with vials from the Art of Sport fragrance houses.
Metternich recites the following story about Kobe’s level of involvement. “He smelled those oils and applied them to his skin and had really strong opinions about what those evoked for him. Then, in choosing language and packaging design, he helped name all of the fragrances and suggested color schemes for them.” Kobe’s meticulous nature, in full effect. “I was really impressed with how active he was in the feedback phase, when he took all of those samples with him and truly tested each of these products. He wanted to have more and more samples, so I could tell he was burning through all the products and actually really trying them in his routine. He was even giving samples to friends and starting to collect as many opinions as possible. So, in our next meeting with him, he had done his own due diligence on the opportunity and could speak quite fluently about what the products were doing for his skin.”
“Kobe’s really acted end-to-end, a rare thing for anyone to do. He’s a very strategic thinker and incredibly creative – not just at a high level, but he really gets lost in the minutia,” Metternich divulges of Kobe’s dedication to Art of Sport. “As an operator and entrepreneur myself, I really only get value from folks who operate at that level and think at that level because otherwise it’s just another idea, a loose opinion. To have somebody who really gets into the weeds with you and thinks about why we’re doing certain things, justifying it down to the letter, has probably been the most exciting and rewarding part of my relationship with Kobe.”
A Natural Fit in More Ways Than One
At all levels of the game, one of the key tenets for the Art of Sport team has been to “look to the natural world for the most powerful botanicals we can source,” explains Metternich. In an attempt to create “better-for-you-products that perform” in a world that’s increasingly aware of the potentially toxic effects of certain over-the-counter products, one goal for Art of Sport has been to capitalize on the trend toward using natural ingredients vs. suboptimal chemicals – to target people who “think beyond what they’re buying every day and consider exactly what they put on their skin.” In this regard, Art of Sport inhabits what Metternich calls that “much bigger middle lane, taking the best from both worlds.” It’s done to fill a need and to give great care to create products that “really perform, really last, and do what they say they do.”
Once the team got all the partners in place and the science and formula down, Lee and Metternich started to define all the other facets of the business, from selecting office furniture to informing company culture – an area that Metternich says Bryant Stibel has influenced by example. “Their team dynamic is simply awesome, and they are hugely collaborative as a result. I’ve attended multiple networking events and social experiences that they’ve hosted, and you’ll always find the partners talking about a whole wide spectrum of ideas. That exchange of thought is a very valuable proposition and it mirrors in some ways what Brian and I have always wanted to build, which is that kind of discourse and commitment getting there together as a team. The puzzle pieces of our teams coming together have always fit really well for us because we are very aligned on culture.”
As for Metternich’s partnership with Lee, he calls him a “true co-founder in the sense that we’re constantly talking about new ideas, things we’re concerned about, and ways we can improve.” But together, they’ve gotten the dance down in the most complementary of fashions. “One of us can always be dreaming out into the future while the other is realizing those dreams in the present and we can alternate those roles.”
Working Together as a Team
Since Art of Sport’s launch in fall 2018, Lee and Metternich have continued to work with Bryant Stibel on creating the most enduring company possible. Not a new thing, at least for Lee, who had experience in this area given their combined efforts in the past. “I think Bryant Stibel brings a lot of value when it comes to operational excellence. They can look into a financial model, into your profit and loss statement, and really home in on what will make your company better, and what areas to focus on,” offers Lee. “They did this for LegalZoom to great success; they helped me with The Honest Company when I had some questions in regard to strategic direction; and now, today, at Art of Sport, they’ve been fantastic partners when it comes to understanding what areas to focus on in ecommerce versus offline retail versus branding.”
Sentiments that have been echoed by other partners of Bryant Stibel such as LegalZoom CEO, John Suh, Honest Company CEO Nick Vlahos, ringDNA founder Howard Brown and The Search Agency CEO, David Hughes.
Metternich credits Bryant Stibel as a whole for being “incredibly good at understanding the game we’re in,” and gives a special nod to Bryant Stibel Founding Partner Pete Delgrosso, for being “enormously helpful” in the development of Art of Sport in terms of overall positivity, networking in the sports and venture capital industries, and connecting them to value-oriented opportunities and product extensions.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about the team.
“Bryant Stibel knew very quickly this was a brand, and brands take time to mature and require a lot of dedication and focus. You can’t short-change the creativity and can’t short-change the integrity or the authenticity of it,” explains Metternich. “It needs to be done extremely deliberately and with an intuitive read on the industry. Working with Bryant Stibel has been a really good combination of hands-on, but also hands-off, and they know how to play that just naturally.”
Metternich credits Bryant Stibel’s entrepreneurial DNA as a key factor. “As a result of understanding how to build brands, Bryant Stibel knows how to avoid wasting time on conversations that are not creating value and instead focus their time on stuff that will move the needle through the business. Bryant Stibel has a lot of immediate, practical, and firsthand knowledge that provides value across multiple parts of the business.”
Scaling Art of Sport to Its Zenith
Given all it took to start-up the business – the initial meetings, the partnerships, the fragrance smelling – Metternich has been blown away by the reception of Art of Sport since launching on Amazon and their own website. “It’s been a rocket ship for us. It actually caught us ‘out’ – the growth was that fast.” After reflecting on the pros and cons of growing fast in the business of physical goods, they’ve been focused on doubling down to improve their backend faster – a solution that will help them achieve their ultimate goal of powering “every locker room and every gym bag in every bathroom in the country.” Regarding his ultimate ambition, Metternich says, “That goal to me is a barometer of success and everything until that point is just another day of work.”
As for what the partnership holds for the future, Metternich shares that his “main hope is to build this company into its full manifestation together – the dream we all shared and had when we started working together.” All part of a blueprint the team defined at the outset.
“We’re all swimming in the same direction and doing it really fast and really lean with very high integrity,” says Metternich before summing up Bryant Stibel’s value in a few words.
“They’re Robinson Crusoe meets Tony Stark. They’re committed. They’re passionate. And they’re relentlessly curious about where the world is going and where we are going in it.”