Ryan Nece brings football, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy together to build a legacy of success

Chris Martinez
June 9, 2020
Ryan Nece brings football, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy together to build a legacy of successRyan Nece brings football, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy together to build a legacy of success
Chris Martinez
June 9, 2020
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Ryan Nece followed in his father Ronnie Lott’s footsteps to become a Super Bowl champion, philanthropist, and venture capital leader. He’s building his legacy as the co-founder and managing partner of Next Play Capital, a VC firm that’s investing in rising startups like Impossible Foods, Rubric, TikTok, Peloton, Flexport, hims, and Nightfall. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions linebacker keeps his athletic network close to his heart when building opportunities, and he takes lessons from the people he’s worked with in football and investing to constantly strive for success. Ryan shared his perspectives with us on what it takes to achieve in Silicon Valley, why giving back is essential for personal and professional growth, and how he manages a demanding, multi-faceted career, plus ways to push back against police brutality and create change.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Given everything that’s happened recently what’s your advice to protesters and those currently fighting for justice? 

I don't have advice but I do have gratitude for all the peaceful protesters efforts. Thank you!

Do you see the VC and tech communities becoming more open to feedback on systemic racism as a result of recent protests? What policies and cultural changes should organizations consider as they seek to improve?

I have faith change will continue to take place in the years to come. I think change first must start at the individual level. I often refer to the Bible verse Matthew 15:18: "But the things that come out of a person's mouth come from the heart, and these defile them." 

Where can we find resources to help black communities impacted by police brutality?

Here is list my friends have put together.

To learn more:

Data on police brutality:

Organizations to donate to:

  • George Floyd Memorial Fund: The official fund for George Floyd will cover funeral and burial expenses, mental and grief counseling, lodging and travel for all court proceedings and additional assistance to the Floyd Family.
  • Ahmaud Arbery Fund: The fund will help Ahmaud Arbery’s mother and her family with financial support after her son was chased and gunned down by two white men in Georgia.
  • You can find a list of funds to help more victims here.
  • The Minneapolis Foundation: If you want to aid in long-term, community-based solutions in Minneapolis specifically to prevent violence, address systemic inequities and reform the criminal justice system, the Minneapolis Foundation has already committed hundreds of thousands of dollars from its Fund for Safe Communities and is subsequently looking for donations.
  • Neighbors United Funding Collective: Organized by the Hamline Midway Coalition in St. Paul, Minnesota, the NUFC is raising money to rebuild storefronts in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods.
  • Northside Funders Group: In partnership with the Minneapolis Foundation, the Northside Funders Group is raising money specifically for businesses that have been affected by demonstrations in North Minneapolis, a predominantly black neighborhood that often doesn’t get the same spotlight as other areas of the city.
  • Midtown Global Market Mend: A cultural center in the heart of Minneapolis home to 45 small businesses, which has also been a center of donations and clean-up efforts, is seeking donations in order to repair the building and rebuild small businesses in the greater community.
  • National Bail Fund Network: A complete directory of over sixty community bail and bond funds across the country that help pay bail for low-income individuals who can’t afford it. This page also takes donations and splits them between 38 community funds across the country.
  • Gas Mask Fund: You can directly support Black youth activists by donating money to help them buy military-grade gas masks to protect against teargas.
  • Reclaim the Block: If you’d like to donate to police-reform efforts in Minneapolis, Reclaim the Block focuses on community-based solutions in lieu of funding the Minneapolis Police Department.
  • Black Visions Collective: A black-led queer and trans-centered organizing network committed to dismantling systems of oppression and violence.
  • Dallas Businesses Thread: A list of funds helping black-owned and POC-owned businesses that were damaged by the riots in Dallas.
  • Migizi Communication: Donate directly to Migizi, a non-profit, Native youth organization that was burned in Minneapolis.
  • Black-Owned Business Thread: A list of black-owned businesses that have been affected by the protests.
  • Northstar Health Collective: A St. Paul-based organization that provides health services and support at protests.
  • NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc: The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund supports racial justice through advocacy, litigation, and education.
  • Communities Against Police Brutality: CUAPB provides assistance to individuals and families dealing with the effects of police brutality. 
  • Colin Kaepernick's - Know Your Rights

Can you recommend any good books you've been reading or podcasts you're listening to?

A book called Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck speaks to me as I’m figuring out how to develop a better mindset of framing things and getting a better perspective of what we think success is in our own life and for others. I just finished Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. That book is about Abraham Lincoln, who is my favorite president. When he became president, his cabinet was filled with his adversaries and men that opposed him as he was running for president, which is something I didn't know until reading this book. But they quickly became his advisors and supporters. The people that in essence hated him for a long time became his biggest advocates and sang his praises later in life. That reminds us of the importance to have different perspectives around the table as leaders and as individuals.

What made you want to invest in Nightfall?

When I had the chance to meet and speak with Isaac, his plan and vision for the company was inspiring. We believe the cloud and cloud data space is a massive market and an area that's constantly under attack. There’s a number of companies in desperate need of the right security tools and resources at the enterprise level. I'm a believer in founders that have unique skill sets and individuals that resemble what it takes to be an elite athlete because that's the world that I come from. We’re looking for a company and a product that we believe in and feel that it has a high demand in a massive market. Those are a couple of things that jumped off the page to us about Nightfall.

Which lessons from playing professional football apply directly to your work in venture capital?

Sometimes you have to do what you don't want to do, to be what you want to be. There were plenty of times as an athlete that I had to run until I was going to throw up. I had to bleed, sweat, exhaust myself to a point where I felt uncomfortable and quite frankly frustrated and humble. It’s important to be okay with pushing myself to those limits. That’s something important for everyone to do. It's hard to push ourselves to a point where we feel so uncomfortable that we want to give up, or to the point where we actually do fail. It's not easy, or comfortable, and it's not for everybody, but I think that when you see founders, executives, and individuals with that type of determination, will, drive, and desire, that usually results in success.

You're obviously a very busy guy, with your work at Next Play Capital, your advisory roles, and your community development work. Can you share how you balance your time and get all these things done?

The challenge is that we’re always thinking about work life balance. I believe that being imbalanced is the right way for me to live, because that means I'm pushing myself and doing the things that I need to do and prioritizing areas that need my focus. At the same time, this means neglecting other things, because I have to give my all when I decide to lean in. When I'm asked to step up as an advisor, my time, energy, and attention will shift in that direction.

My priority and responsibility is my work with my firm Next Play Capital. We do everything we can to make sure all things are taken care of there, and then I can start to shift my time elsewhere, whether it be as an advisor to DocuSign, or the Ryan Nece Foundation, or my other roles with companies that I support and work with. So, I'm always out of balance, but it's a good thing for me and it's how I find ways to remind myself I'm alive.

On top of everything, I'm always working to find time to get quality time with my wife and son.

Ryan Nece
Ryan Nece's success comes from a blend of toughness on the field, compassion in philanthropy, and the smarts to always keep looking for the next big thing (photo courtesy of Ryan Nece)

In professional sports, you're always thinking about being the best and keeping your opponent off balance. But when you're able to embrace being off balance on your own, then you can really start to grow. That's a valuable lesson.

That’s a good perspective to share. I think sometimes we feel guilty that we're leaving something behind or neglecting a responsibility. Climbing the mountain or achieving something comes with sacrifice, especially in professional sports. You're going to constantly be out of balance if you're an achiever and trying to move forward. Anything that's at an equilibrium state or stagnant is not growing. In my football playing days I had a coach who said to me every day, "You have two choices. You have a choice to get better or get worse. And every day you have that choice." That’s where you constantly push yourself.

What led you to start Next Play Capital and how do you involve people from the pro athlete community in your work?

I’m fortunate that my father is NFL Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott. I saw my father have a successful career in the NFL, and saw him transition into a successful career outside of football. I was exposed to the world of tech at a very young age and started investing in the early 2000s. I got hooked. Even though I played in the NFL, I spent my off seasons learning and educating myself while I continued to invest and surround myself with men and women that I felt were the best at what they did. I tried to mimic and learn from them. 

I thought I was going to work in the family business. My father had an investment firm when I retired from football, but he sold the firm the year that same year. I got back into technology when I built a mobile video platform with Jeb Terry, my former teammate and one of my dear friends. Jeb was in business school at the time and asked me for help. It was two guys with an idea that we scrawled on a napkin. We slaved away for four and a half years at building up the platform that we named StraightCast Media, which was acquired by Fox Sports. That was a tremendous opportunity for us to learn and be humbled. 

I played in the NFL, and won a Super Bowl. I feel like I've done some hard things, but running a startup in the early days was by far the hardest thing that I've ever done. From our work running the StraightCast Media startup, our community would come to us and ask for advice on companies they were investing in. 

Many athletes see really poor deal flow and poor opportunities, and often they put money into things that they shouldn't. We wanted to create Next Play Capital to give our pro athlete community the ability to invest and have access to some of the best companies and best funds in the world. A lot of our capital is invested in other funds. I’m fortunate to be a black man running our firm, as one of the only minority firms in Silicon Valley that's both a limited partnership and a general partnership (GP). I take great pride in that, and I’m constantly looking for ways to bridge the gap between those who historically haven't had access and those who have been the gatekeepers. We’re trying to engineer serendipity among those communities and bring people together.

Building out a team has been key to Next Play Capital’s success. Having our COO Eric Valle, CIO John Ailanjian and investor relations and marketing lead Erin Morley with us in this process has aided in our success.

What's it like working alongside your father Ronnie in investing?

He’s the most intense human being I know. His motto in life is exhaust the moment. Think about the last time you just did something to be exhausted. He's trying to do that in every moment. Growing up and being around him constantly meant you have to bring your A game. My father has been around the Valley for a long time. He has a great perspective and understanding of the good, the bad, and the ugly in investing and venture capital and he has seen all different types of cycles. To have that type of wisdom is really helpful over time as things have changed, evolved, and grown.

I'm able to bring a perspective that can be more relevant or newer or fresher at times. I think we compliment each other in that way. And we butt heads at times. We're not always on the same page, but I think we always respect each other. I always respect everything that my father says, even though I may not agree with it.

How do you stay up to date with developments in the VC and tech worlds?

I think of three things when I get that question. One, is the value of the people I surround myself with.

I have a quick question I ask people, "Who's your starting five?" I ask that because you can quickly learn who somebody is by the people they spend the most time with. You can learn about a company the same way.

Tell me who your five best customers are, or your five best investors are. Who are your five best employees? You get a good sense of who a person or company is from that question. I value the relationships and friendships of people in the business who are the very best at what they do. I pick their brains a lot. I'm a very curious person. I probably annoy them, but those connections are really important to me.

Two, I'm constantly reading and trying to stay up to date, both on what I believe that's coming in the future and also learning from the past. I think reading Team of Rivals applies here as something that happened in the past, but also a reminder of principles, tools, and things that are invaluable for success today. 

Three, keeping my ear to the ground with different podcasts and blogs. I read a lot of blogs and newsletters every day to have my finger on the pulse of what's going on. 

Can you recommend any blog or podcast in particular?

It depends on what you have an appetite for. When I think about podcasts, Twenty Minute VC gives a quick glimpse of how VCs and GPs are thinking. Term Sheet is a great newsletter. Dan Primack's blogs and newsletters are really good. Most of the GPs I follow and respect are on Twitter. They're pretty active and share good information. Sometimes I wonder how they have all that free time. 

What advice can you give to aspiring entrepreneurs and investors?

The first piece of advice I can give is to understand how you define suffering. You have to understand what you're willing to suffer for. It's easy to understand what you're playing for, or the goal or aspiration of what the end looks like. We all have dreams, hopes, and ideas that we think we can do and achieve, but sometimes we're not really sure of or honest with what we're willing to suffer for. And when you understand what you're willing to suffer for, then you'll have a better idea of what you're able to achieve. This is an important lesson for founders because starting a company from the beginning, means suffering and facing challenges and obstacles. It's hard to understand it until you go through that fire.

Second, embrace being uncomfortable. The more that you can lean into those environments where you're uncomfortable, the better chances you'll have as a founder. If you have an impressive idea, first off, everybody will to tell you it's a dumb idea or impossible because nobody's ever done it before. With seven billion people on the planet, a lot of people before you have thought about and tried new things. Most great companies and great things that I've seen were ideas that people never thought would come to fruition. Conviction, belief, and dedication to the idea is what drove them to deal with the suffering, to push through and have the fortitude to build something of significance. Keep your head down. Don't listen to the critics. Don't listen to the naysayers. Make the impossible possible.

What is the one thing that will get you to say yes to a startup pitch and how can a company maintain this factor?

I don't know if there's one thing that jumps out that I could say yes to every time. I will say it’s impressive when people are clear, concise, and confident when presenting something that's very complex and there's depth to the pitch and presentation. It makes me pay attention. And when you hear enough pitches over time, you get better at tuning into what you're hearing and seeing, and refining what you're looking for. That will change with the different stages of the company. Some of the most phenomenal founders I've worked with can get lost in the details. They love the mundane processes and intricacies of the company,  and can tell you all the different facets within that business. It’s fascinating when you see founders with that ability.

It's hard to achieve something you've never seen. The first step to achieving anything is seeing it in your mind. The ability for these leaders to see into the future, and see the company and work backwards to understand all the processes, moving parts, and people that they’ll need to make that come to fruition, is an impressive and unique skill set.

Can you tell us about the Ryan Nece Foundation, and your inspiration to give back to the community?

My foundation brings me a lot of joy and fulfillment from supporting and helping others. I've been around some pretty impressive people in my football and investment careers and my journey in a young life, but there is nothing more powerful and rewarding than another human being shaking your hand and saying, "Thank you for helping me. Thank you for changing my life." That gives me goosebumps every time. 

You can help others without having a lot of money or assets. You just need to share something with them, which could be your time and talents. The support is what I believe in. I wrote a curriculum around the power of giving that teaches high school juniors and seniors the principles of what it means to give to and support others.

The foundation is centered around one question that we encourage our students to ask on a daily basis: When's the last time you asked a family member or friend, “How can I help you? How can I support you? What can I do to make your day better?" Young minds are inundated with messages about taking care of self, like “obey your thirst” or “have it your way.” We want to combat that with getting them to think about others. My hope is that long term, the kids in the Power of Giving program become individuals that when they go on to work at great companies, like Nightfall, they also become great citizens in their communities. We want to help them become people who think about giving back, sitting on boards, and helping others.

The more that we can all think about how important it is to see what's going on in somebody else's life, it helps us appreciate what's going on in our own lives. I could talk for hours about the foundation because it means a lot to me and we're proud of the work we’ve done going into year 14. I’m grateful for the work of our staff, board, and supporters we've had over the years.

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