Playing to win in tech investing: Kelvin Beachum, Jr. shares his lessons on and off the football field

Chris Martinez
May 13, 2020
Playing to win in tech investing: Kelvin Beachum, Jr. shares his lessons on and off the football fieldPlaying to win in tech investing: Kelvin Beachum, Jr. shares his lessons on and off the football field
Chris Martinez
May 13, 2020
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Kelvin Beachum, Jr. built a career out of excelling in roles that are essential to an organization’s success but typically don’t attract the most attention. As a National Football League offensive tackle for the New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, and Jacksonville Jaguars, technology investor, and philanthropist, Kelvin uses skills from across his varied interests and projects to always be better than yesterday. Each of his teams — on the football field, in the classroom, and in the board room — are growing and improving thanks to the time and work he puts into every project. Kelvin sat down with us for a brief conversation on topics like investing in tech companies like Nightfall, which skills can translate from football to business, and the value of investing back into his community. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What stood out about Nightfall to you and made you want to invest in the company?

My reasons for investing in Nightfall were twofold. One, I was looking for cloud-based businesses that address issues in cloud security. Even with huge cloud services, companies like AWS and Google still have some holes that need to be filled. Current businesses will miss the opportunity to solve some friction points between traditional IT and the cloud.

The first thing I asked was, “Where are these cloud-based businesses?” I heard a friend talking about Nightfall as one of those companies, so I started conversations with other people interested in data loss prevention (DLP) technology. Everything came together as a natural fit for me: information security and consumer-related companies, which Nightfall works with a lot. I was looking for ways where I can add value and use my platform to bring awareness to some of the issues with security and cloud-based businesses. I found this in Nightfall, which was Watchtower when I joined as an investor. I've had the chance to learn about the company for some time now. I'm excited to be a part of the journey at Nightfall.

Talk a little bit about your interest areas like enterprise software and AI and what draws you into those interests as an investor.

From an investing standpoint you have generalists who focus on consumer-related businesses, and you have people that focus on more enterprise-related businesses. I've transitioned to investing in enterprise-related businesses because I get a better outcome in the long run. Consumer-based businesses can have great highs and deep lows. Enterprise companies have a very steady return profile and return outcome. As I've started to dive more into enterprise and AI-related companies, I've found more predictable returns.

I’ve seen that once these companies hit certain funding milestones, like their seed round, or series A through C, you see the trajectory start to go up. And for those who don't have that hockey stick that most people look for in the venture world, they still have an opportunity for an acquisition where it's still profitable for the founders and the team, and also profitable for the investors. I enjoy the dynamics of enterprise investing. I'm a very conceptual person. When I think about concepts, I also think about the opportunities to provide the picks and shovels of the pipeline for multiple industries. That's what you’re able to get on the enterprise side.

What's the one thing that will get you to say yes to an investment or advisory opportunity and how can companies ensure that they maintain that factor?

The number one thing for me is maintaining a real relationship with the founders and the team across the board, from the C-suite to marketing, operations, and other departments. Especially as a young investor, not experienced by any means, these relationships are very important to me. I haven't had a ton of returns just yet. This is a learning process for me while I'm currently playing in the NFL. I can't do this full time yet. 

I want to make sure if I'm investing that I still have a rapport and direct relationship with the founding team and the CEO that I'm able to keep throughout the lifecycle of the company. Most of the time I'm getting involved in companies with very small, closely knit teams. Especially with some of the investments I’ve made early on, I’m looking to keep that relationship from the angel or a seed investment stage all the way up through the IPO. I haven't gone through that entire journey just yet. I aspire to build that rapport and credibility through all my investments.

Sometimes the best deals come from relationships with the founders. It’s twofold: the relationship that I have with the founder as I come to understand the business, and the long game as those relationships produce other fruitful relationships.

Kelvin Beachum, Jr. is building an investing career alongside his success in pro football (photo courtesy of Kelvin Beachum, Jr.)

What advice would you give to other pro athletes or anyone who wants to start investing in tech?

I think you need a long game approach. This approach can work in a number of different industries. You can't go into investing in tech and investing in this particular ecosystem thinking it’s a quick flip. If you think that's the case, you'll get chewed up and spit out so fast. The long game approach is about relationships. For me, that goes across many different spectrums, whether it’s in the locker room, on the football field, in a board room, or in a public or private company. The relationships are what drive the value of the company.

The advice I can give to others, including athletes, is to dive in. You have to go all the way in to really understand the business and the people and how they think. For me, this has been fascinating because in the NFL world, I’ve learned how a player thinks. We know what drives the player, their motivations, and the pitfalls. We understand everyone’s stories. We learn to read everyone. Information about us is very public. People write about us and talk about us all the time. So everyone understands an NFL player’s story. It's all very open.

In the private sector, that's not the case. You don't know where people come from: their backgrounds, experiences, failures, pitfalls, and socio-economic environments. In these cases, you have to lean in to get a better understanding of what you're doing and who you're doing it with.

How do you balance all of your work with playing in the NFL, speaking engagements, investing, philanthropy, and finding a balance for your family life and the other things you like to do?

I had a conversation with one of my friends this morning about this very topic. I'm obsessed with time management. I have to be very disciplined and intentional about where I spend my time. My life is very structured, rhythmic, and rigid. People might call me a square sometimes, because I can eat the same meal at the same time every single day for months on end with no problems.

For certain projects, I have a standing call at the same time every single week. During the NFL season our life is very structured. Tuesdays are our only days off, so I have a schedule explicitly for that day. This is how I run my life and manage the different things I have going on. I make time for family by scheduling calls after 12pm on Tuesdays, depending on which coast I’m on. There are certain things I want to do with family and making sure I'm taking care of my body. Those parts of my life need to be nurtured, and I make sure to give my full attention to those things.

In those times, I try my best to live in the moment. Spending time with my kids: walking, hiking, swimming, or whatever. I'm living in that moment. I went to Africa with my wife earlier this year. I didn't even take my phone on the trip. I wanted my time to be devoted and centered on our relationship. 

People are finding the need to be intentional with their time now with Coronavirus. I learned this from being around people who are more successful than I am. I even put my kids on a schedule. They go to bed at the same time every single night like clockwork. My youngest daughter is a one year old. She starts rubbing her eyes around 6:30pm because she knows 7:00pm is bedtime.

It’s important that my family stays disciplined and structured. Right now, there is no structure in this world. The virus has taken that away from us. In some cases this has been hard on people, but setting your own structure allows you to keep focus on what’s important.

How does your experience in professional football translate to your work off the field in tech investing, philanthropy, and public speaking?

My work on the field is hard. We don't get a lot of credit for it. Especially as an offensive lineman. The only time you can hear your name is when you get called for a penalty or you did something bad and somebody got hurt. We’re used to just doing the work and not getting much credit for it. I take that same approach to my other pursuits: speaking, philanthropy, and tech investing. I try to stay low and do the work. At the end of the day, things will work out like they need to. I’ve done this for a number of years.

I don't need all the hoopla. I take pride in just doing the work. My dad, grandfather, grandmother, and mother all did the work, which put me and my siblings all through college. It wasn't a party or a celebration every time they did something they were supposed to do. We're all doing well thanks to it. I feel that this work is my calling and my obligation.

Beachum puts in the work necessary to succeed on and off the field (photo courtesy of Kelvin Beachum, Jr.)

As a very busy person, how do you stay informed and up to speed on tech news and other advancements?

I subscribe to a number of different newsletters, like TechCrunch, PitchBook, Axios, and StrictlyVC. I'm an limited partner in a couple of different funds so I get their updates as well. For example, Howard Marks at Oaktree Capital Management is a great thinker on credit and debt for distressed companies. Sunday afternoons are my time to go through the newsletter updates and investor relations reading. 

There’s an influx of information from many different places. I get some of this news from Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. I’m intentional about where I get the information and what I want to see. When I started getting into tech I subscribed to everything under the sun which flooded my inbox. I’ve learned how to dial it back and follow the newsletters and speakers I want to know. I don't like paying for anything either, so no New York Times or Wall Street Journal. It's the “baller on a budget” mindset. Just because I get paid a lot doesn't mean that I have to spend a lot, just for the sake of spending.

Speaking of the things that you like to read, are you reading any good books about tech or investing?

I'm reading books across a few different industries. One is Pioneering Portfolio Management: An Unconventional Approach to Institutional Investment by David Swensen. It’s all about portfolio construction. I’m diving into looking at the art world with The Art in Painting by Albert C. Barnes. I’m reading up on filmmaking with Making Movies by Sidney Lumet.  

I look for books from different industries to keep my mind sharp, especially during the offseason. I’m using Chess for Kids by Michael Basman to teach chess to my kids. I try to read a few chapters a day between those four books.

Sometimes I can be very impatient. I’m learning how to take a step back and be a rookie again while I learn how to teach somebody else how to do something new.

How do you prioritize tasks and maximize your time to fit in all the things you do?

My family has a shared calendar. We put the things that need to get done as a family on there. Right now, my wife has blocked off a few hours to study for an exam. That’s her time. If I need her, I have to find time on her calendar to schedule something.

It’s about prioritizing what's important. I'm a big believer in scheduling a standing call and working on projects week over week, month over month to build momentum. I sit down with my management team once a week, using a software called Pragli for remote working teams. It allows us to chat and share files, so we can easily collaborate and strategize on what we're doing on the brand and social media sides of my work, like current events in the football world and how I can play a role there. 

I set aside time for calls on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’ve learned to become more efficient with this process as more projects come in. When I was a rookie, these types of conversations were not a part of my daily routine. As my life changed, getting married, having kids, it forced me to be smarter about how I use my time. Nine years into my NFL career, this is now just what I do.

How did you get involved with the Players Coalition Project that's donating $3 million to Black communities impacted by Coronavirus?

The Players Coalition was founded in 2017 by New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins and former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin. I’m one of the founding task force members for the Education and Economic Advancement Pillar. Our goal is to bring together the players who were already doing great things around the NFL. We started this coalition to focus on issues like police brutality in America. Instead of just talking about it, we wanted to provide solutions. 

The athletic community doesn’t always do enough to galvanize and work together. A lot of guys do things in their own cities and communities, but it’s very siloed. It’s rare to see a large group of athletes working together at the same time, all pushing the boat in the same direction. People working in the startup world know how to do that efficiently. But sometimes on the athletes’ side, we don't galvanize enough to go after a particular issue together.

The Players Coalition Advocacy side is focused on pillars of criminal justice, police, and community affairs. Coronavirus has impacted the African American community very hard. Many people are just now becoming exposed to why the virus is so devastating to us. Some communities don't have access to some of the most basic things, like frontline healthcare or clean water. For example, in upstate New York they're throwing away milk. Essential nutrition doesn’t make it to communities of color in central and southern of New York because of these supply issues. These problems have been happening for the last 50 to 100 years. We understand the need and the gaps. 

I sit on the social justice community that collaborates with NFL team owners. We had some funds rolled over from last year, so we injected that capital directly into some of the communities that need it currently. That $3 million is going to grassroots organizations in some of the most affected cities across the nation. We know it's a Band-Aid type solution but we had the money at our disposal, so we had to put it right back into the community.

What’s the basis for your investments and interest in STEM education and development for kids?

My focus is on the kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds much like my own. These communities lack access and utility in the tech and engineering ecosystems, which are essential for building wealth.

My pillars of development work are focused on ending hunger, both domestic and worldwide, and in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and STEAM (STEM plus the arts) education. When I really dug into the STEM/STEAM pillar, I was exposed to the inequities in education and access. We’re looking at the digital divide right there. With Coronavirus, some communities have the tools to help their children thrive, because they have internet access. Many other communities lack the same access, whether a lack of quality internet service or no access at all.

I’m looking for ways to confront these logical and rational issues we face in everyday society. And again, I'm not a person that just talks about the problem. I want to find advantageous solutions that can be done at scale. My time in the NFL took me to cities outside of Texas where I'm from, like Pittsburgh, New York, and Jacksonville, and this has been beneficial for me as a philanthropist and even as a parent. Through my work I’ve learned how important it is to expose your kids to educational resources and help them become proficient in math and science before third grade. This work is a game changer.

That’s why learning about chess as a family is so important for us. I’m trying to help my kids become critical thinkers at a very young age. We read together all the time. I’ll read to my daughter from some of the books I mentioned just to expose her to some of the verbiage that even I don't understand yet. Us spending this time together shows me the value of exposing young people to STEM and STEAM disciplines at an early age.

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