Art of Sport
When accomplished entrepreneur Matthias Metternich and good friend/serial entrepreneur Brian Lee met up for a quick basketball game, they found unexpected inspiration for their performance-driven body care brand, Art of Sport, when seeking skincare from a true sports brand. Since that serendipitous shootaround, the ‘aha’ moment has led to Metternich working collaboratively as CEO alongside co-founder Brian Lee with venture capital partner Bryant Stibel to bring the forward-thinking skincare brand direct to consumers and modern-day athletes, in hopes of realizing the shared dream they all had when they first started working together.
Co-Founder, Art of Sport
Q: Can you give us some background on how Art of Sport came to be?
A: My name is Matthias Metternich and I am the Co-Founder and CEO of Art of Sport. Art of Sport came to be when my Co-Founder Brian Lee and I were basically meeting up to play basketball. Basically, we both forgot sunscreen and we were both trying to be a lot wiser with our skin-care regimen. We went to the CVS across the street and walked in to find these sunscreens that all said “Sport” on them. So we were going to buy one or the other and couldn’t figure out which one was better. They all said the same thing and all of the formulas were the same, and it kind of struck us that none of these were actually “Sport” brands, so what makes them “Sport”? So when we didn’t see anything in the formulas, we had an “aha” moment where we just felt “Hang on a second” – there isn’t actually a brand that, like Nike, that is committed to developing the products that you wear, or Gatorade that is committed to what you put in your body, there isn’t a brand that is true to sport that is developing high-performance products with real integrity and efficacy. So we felt that there was a white space and when we walked the rest of the store and we came across the body wash aisle, the deodorant aisle, the soap aisle and so on, we saw “Sport” products everywhere, but it was the same deal – the were using it as a marketing method, but not in the way a true sports brand would approach it.
Q: How did you first come to meet Kobe and how did he get involved as a founding partner?
A: Obviously Brian built The Honest Company and has sort of a pedigree of developing consumer products with well-known entities. But also Brian is an old acquaintance of Jeff’s – they’ve known each other for probably upwards of a decade if I’m not mistaken. While I was noodling on “How do you build a sports brand?” and “How do you build a roster of products that all speak to the athlete?”, we were deeply immersed in the idea of, like 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?” When we went through that sort of exploration of what kind of athletes would we like to bring into the mix, Kobe was the immediate and most obvious person that would be the best partner to us. His legacy is unmatched – he is 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 of world-class caliber and very unique.
He has also been someone that has built amazing brands too. His legacy of building brands and products with Nike was obviously unbelievable. He has a lot of hands-on experience both creative and otherwise to where we felt that we’d really benefit from that level of partnership having someone of that caliber speaking on all those different levels. So on our wish list there was really only one name in terms of first exploring the business, before we treaded too far down the trail of engaging a full roster of athletes.
Q: How did Kobe’s attention and knowledge of branding help you guys from the get-go?
A: Kobe has been playing sports for such a long time and also has been through the ringer on a variety of marketing initiatives with Nike and other brands. His understanding of branding and building a brand makes 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. When you work with Kobe, it isn’t like just a brand strategist in a room coming up with a cool concept or cool tagline. You know, when he partners with a brand, he embodies all of the language, all of the visuals, all of the excitement and all of the dreams that you know so many other folks thrive off of or feed from. With brands he’s partnered with before and with Art of Sport, Kobe has really acted end-to-end, which is a very rare thing for anyone to do. He’s a very strategic thinker and he’s incredibly creative – not just at a high level but really sort of gets lost in the minutia. As an operator and as an 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, it’s just a loose opinion. To have somebody who really gets into the into the weeds with you and thinks about why we’re doing certain things and justifying it down to the letter has probably been the most exciting and has been most rewarding part of my relationship with Kobe.
Q: Kobe has always talked about doing things with the meticulous nature and executing to perfection. Was he involved creatively with some of the packaging and how that went to market ultimately?
A: High level it began with: where does his brand sit in a world that’s becoming more about memes and more about short attention spans? It’s like, what does timeless mean and what does “Sport” mean? How do you create something that is visually arresting and exciting without reaching to sort of temporary distractions? So really when you start building a brand, you want to put in place these immovable timeless tenets that are the rules governing the business. Kobe really contributed to that.
We then got further down the trail into literal discussions about fragrance. Fragrance is certainly the first impression and one of the most important impressions in the deodorant business and the body wash business. I came down to Kobe’s office with a box that had a ton of different vials from our fragrance houses that were in development. 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 named all of the fragrances and suggested color schemes for them. I was really impressed with how active he was in the feedback phase, when he then took all of those samples with him and truly tested each of these products. He wanted to have more and 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.
Q: How has Kobe maybe tapped into the networking side of things and how have other athletes gotten involved?
A: 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. That’s huge for building a brand, that’s number one. Number two is 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 suddenly are validated in a way that most startups just don’t experience until much further on down the trail. Now mind you, he only does that when he’s willing to put his reputation at risk because there is trust there. But when he does do that, there are effects that go above and beyond any investor that I’ve ever taken money from. That’s been huge for us. And that’s just the sports world. When it comes to our consumers and when it comes to that kid who’s striving to be the best they can and reach their full potential, Kobe’s support has those kinds of ramifications with one of their heroes actively involved in backing this idea into fruition. Again, I can’t remember the last time my venture capitalists inspired my customers to go buy the product. You know that’s a rarity in unto itself.
Q: How did you first come to meet the Bryant Stibel team outside of Kobe?
A: I drove up to Malibu with Brian Lee and Brian was like, “You know you really just need to meet Jeff and hear him out and see what he has to say. He’s a smart guy, so whether we work with them or not I would just love to get his opinion.” We drove up and we brought some early samples with us. I described my vision for the business to Jeff and Jeff had some immediate thoughts about the products. 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. They’re always on the lookout for things that really fit the fairway they want to play down, so we discussed not the initial rollout, but sort of the big picture and how does this come to life. We got into I think less a discussion about the viability of the thesis and more a discussion about the execution into its ultimate manifestation. So that’s 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. That holistic view for entrepreneurs in general is the lifeblood of how Bryant Stibel thinks. Having entrepreneurs talking with entrepreneurs about how this brand becomes a giant in the space is a much more rewarding discussion. That was my first impression of Jeff and Pete and the gang was just that this whole team chimes with entrepreneurs because they understand the exercise of dreaming.
Q: How has Art of Sport grown since your launch?
A: We’ve been pretty blown away by the reception. We launched on Amazon and on our own website. Amazon in some ways because we knew that that’s really where we’d get put through the ringer because if you don’t succeed on Amazon, why would you succeed on any other marketplace? A lot of startups are very guarded about just trying to get people to come to their own website and create that dot.com experience. But if you can’t succeed on your own two feet based on the product integrity and the pricing quality in a marketplace like Amazon, then you probably don’t have a reason to build a business.
So we put it on Amazon and it’s been a rocket ship for us. It actually caught us out, the growth was that fast. We’re dealing in physical goods, so we have to always be ahead of the curve when it comes to placing orders with our factories because lead times can take a long time. For example, if you’ve under-forecasted, that’s a three-month mistake. We’ve definitely learned there are pros and cons to growing fast, but we’ve been focused on doubling down and improving our backend to scale faster – which is a good problem to have. Our goal is to power every locker room and every gym bag in every bathroom in the country. In my mind, I will only achieve business success when we’re selling tens of millions of units a year and we as a brand have transcended the bathroom to basically live on beyond me as a co-founder to be sort of like the Nike of its class. That goal to me is a barometer of success and everything until that point is just another day of work.
Q: Where would you say Bryant Stibel has created the most value for your business at this point?
A: I think what they’ve been incredibly good at is understanding the game that we’re in. What you’ll find is there are a lot of backers that won’t be that familiar with the game they’re playing. They’ll have sort of indicative or general kind of rules of engagement that they’ve learned about or they’ve heard through the grapevine; for example, say an investor is getting into the suitcase business and the extent of the investor’s operating knowledge is that Away is a hot startup so that means we should put money in. But with Bryant Stibel, they very quickly knew that this was a brand, and brands take time to mature and they require a lot of dedication and focus. You can’t short-change the creativity and you can’t short-change the integrity or the authenticity of it. It needs to be done extremely deliberately. This is something that you can’t cut corners on and you can’t be cheap about it because that’s what consumers are seeing and smelling. In our case, literally smelling. If it’s a cheap fragrance or if it’s a cheap product base it won’t perform. As a result of understanding how to build brands, Bryant Stibel also 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. In that respect, it’s understanding omni-channel, understanding how to get momentum in different channels, and understanding how to leverage celebrities and other athletes that are not directly affiliated (but still obviously have one of the best proxies in the world with Kobe) so they can roll out that logic across all of our influencers as we think of ways to activate them. Obviously, they have sports in their DNA and they understand sport culture. With Body Armor, Kobe had a front row seat on how to build out that beverage brand and how do you bring that to life through sampling and through events. Bryant Stibel has a lot of immediate, practical, and firsthand knowledge that provides value on across multiple parts of the business, not just sort of branding and growth.
Q: How else has the Bryant Stibel team been helpful to you in terms of creating value?
A: My more or less day-to-day contact is Pete, and Pete has been enormously helpful. He’s a power fan of what we’re doing, and I feed off of his positivity. It’s in this collaboration that he will throw out opportunities that are really interesting. Sometimes the opportunities can even seem out of left field but turn out to be really valuable and right down the fairway. Pete has also been traditionally useful in terms of contacts for us in the sports industry and venture capital. He’s also thrown out product ideas or product extension opportunities and other partnerships that could be useful to us. We have found a really great rhythm where Pete’s hugely value-oriented but also just intuitively knows when it’s useful to throw something our way versus when it’s useful to throw something our way and follow up on that and chase us to encourage us to get to the finish line. It’s been a really good combination of hands-on but also hands-off, and they know how to play that just naturally. The last thing you want to have is someone who doesn’t have all of this knowledge and doesn’t have this intuitive read on your industry because they will end up badgering you and taking too much of your time. The entrepreneur game is exhaustive as it is, so you want is to make sure you’ve got pilots in the cockpit who all know how to navigate their way to the landing strip almost without having to talk.
Q: What has it been like to work with Brian Lee directly on Art of Sport?
A: Brian Lee is a true co-founder in the sense that we’re constantly talking about new ideas and things that we’re concerned about, and ways that we can approve. We spend time together on everything from the culture we want to build in the company to talking about office furniture to products we want extend into and everything in between. It’s been great because we complement each other really well. Brian has had the good fortune of building some very big and impressive companies, so he can sometimes be operating at 10,000 feet and then I can be on the ground defining exactly what it is that we’re doing and how that gets executed to where we can meet in the middle, then go back into our respective layers. That has made this a really good partnership from my perspective. We can kind of alternate those roles where one of us can always be dreaming out into the future while the other is realizing those dreams in the present. Brian has an unbelievable network and great history of success. When you’re talking to folks or partners who say, “Well you’ve never done this before” or “You guys are brand new. You just launched six months ago. How come you think you are going to be so big?”, it doesn’t hurt to have players in the room that have built billion plus companies to say, “We’re playing our playbook and we know how to do this.” It’s been a great rollercoaster and fortunately everyone on it knows what we are doing.
Q: Are there any important lessons Art of Sport learned through Brian Lee’s time at The Honest Company?
A: The Honest Company is obviously a business that built itself off the back of trust. They produced over 2000 skews at one point, so they had a huge assortment of products and they were developing everything from clinical products like OTC products to diapers and body wipes. As a result, Brian really gained that knowledge of how you formulate great products. It wasn’t like we were stumbling our way through the dark trying to figure out how we could sell to a major retailer like Wal-Mart. We knew how to make sure that everything in the supply chain was buttoned down and dialed in to avoid some of the challenges that we saw with Art of Sport.
Q: Has Bryant Stibel influenced the culture at Art of Sport?
A: Yes, they have definitely influenced our culture. The Bryant Stibel culture is expressed through the people in the business every day and how they work and how they interact with each other. 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 that kind of commitment to team and getting there together. The puzzle pieces of our teams coming together have always fit really well for us because we are very aligned on culture. Maybe this speaks to the sport arena, but our culture also takes a positive spin on healthy competition, which is something that we’re excited about for the future. We were kind of reared in a world of being underdogs where we want to build something and we want to take on big problems. So if that’s how you approach your work and your life, then you’re never playing a slow game, you’re playing it in a full sprint. That’s been awesome for us too. It’s all about the team and fostering dialogue and making it safe to take risks. We’re all swimming in the same direction and we’re doing it really fast and really lean with very high integrity. When approaching the product, that’s been awesome to have the environment to not have to deal with those learning curves.
Q: How is Art of Sport most unique and what have you learned while building these products?
A: Art of Sport lives in a very unique lane. We’re about “better-for-you products that perform.” What you’ll find is there’s a world of kind of “natural” products (many of which aren’t actually all-natural) that start with the idea of let’s be as close to natural as we can be and then look further on down the trail to figure out if their products can work, if they can last, and if they can actually perform under pressure. In “natural” sunscreens and deodorants, you’ll find that in some cases you’ll apply deodorant and an hour later you smell like B.O. So, there’s a long way to go before natural products actually can perform. I’m not sure they can ever get there based on some of the science behind it, but I love what that trend has done. It has basically inspired people to think beyond what they’re just buying every day and consider what exactly they put on their skin. So that’s been phenomenal.
On the other end of the spectrum you’ve got products that for the most part perform better but may be chock full of questionable chemicals. So, Art of Sport inhabits that much bigger middle lane, which is about taking the best from both worlds. One of our tenets is “look to the natural world for the most powerful botanicals that we can source.” Let’s include those natural botanicals in our product and make sure that they are efficacious and provide a benefit to your skin when applied. But then we’re also saying let’s make sure that these products really perform, they really last, and they do what they say they do. Because you have to trust what you’re putting on your skin. One thing we did early on was take a second look at the chemicals being used in the foundation of the skin care products currently in market. In doing that, we’ve omitted a lot of chemicals that are pretty routine in other brands that we that we think are either suboptimal or not healthy.
So, we’ve paired those two worlds of natural and effective into a world where we can look at a better-for-you anti-dandruff shampoo or antiperspirant deodorant stick and look at sunscreens that are part chemical but also part mineral to create products that actually perform for the athlete. The great thing about that middle lane is that nobody is in it. So, we’re excited because that effective world in some ways approximates almost 99 percent of where the market is today with 1 percent being the all-natural players. We also feel we’re doing this level of thinking and this level of product integrity at very accessible price points, so everything is below 10 dollars which is also pretty unique in the skin care space.
Q: What is your hope for the partnership with Bryant Stibel moving forward?
A: I would love to scale Art of Sport to its Zenith, to its ultimate size, scale, and impact. My hope is that we get to do that together in the same way we do it now, without things getting complicated or having too many layers of bureaucracy and without getting bored. My main hope is to build this company into its full manifestation together. It is the dream that we all shared and had when we started working together.
Q: What words or attributes do you associate with the Bryant Stibel team?
A: Handsome. Dashing (Jeff). 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.