Teammates Once More
NBA player Steph Curry and Stanford GSB student Bryant Barr begin a new chapter of their relationship: business partners.
We all know at least one person from our past life who has “made it” and found success or fame that eclipses our own. We’re reminded of their accomplishments in small but insidious ways: 30 Under 30 articles sprinkled throughout newsfeeds, gossip chats with old friends, or in my case, Sunday nights at 10pm when former college classmate Allison Williams reprises her role as Marni on HBO’s Girls. Each time, it’s an irritating reminder that someone who started at the same place as you has gotten much further, much faster.
Now, imagine that person is your former college basketball teammate who exceeded everyone’s expectations and made it to the NBA. He’s not some role player riding the bench, but the reigning league MVP of the defending world champions. He trounces every competitor with no regard for their dignity, and plays the game like he’s on cheat mode in NBA 2K. Oh, and I forgot to mention that he’s likable beyond belief — wholesome, humble, good-natured — and as a result he’s become the most marketable athlete in all of sports. What started out as a sporadic highlight on SportsCenter is now a constant deluge of artifacts of his celebrity — memes upon memes of his young daughter, Instagram videos of him and his wife dancing with the First Lady, and bars of Drake songs dedicated in his honor. He has ascended to a throne of omnipresence within pop-culture.
For Bryant Barr, a second year MBA at the GSB, the scenario above is no hypothetical, it’s a reality. His “person” is Steph Curry, a former teammate at Davidson and the current golden child of the NBA. But unlike Allison and me, Barr and Curry aren’t distant acquaintances who haven’t spoken in years, they’re best friends. Curry was the best man at Barr’s wedding and Barr is the godparent of his kid — even their wives are best friends.
And now, they’re adding another title to their relationship: business partners.
This is a story about two friends who met during a recruiting trip 11 years ago, came of age on the basketball court, followed their own separate paths — one to corporate America and the other to the NBA — and are now getting another shot at making magic together again, this time as co-founders of a startup. This is not a story about what it feels like to watch your friend succeed while you get left behind, or forever envy their life and wish it were yours. This is a story about what it means to step out of someone’s shadow and claim your own identity, and maybe start a killer business in the process.
Barr and Curry’s friendship began with a suggestion by the Davidson coaching staff that the two room together freshman year. They were both laid-back and quiet, and came from stable, suburban households; Barr was raised in Maine and Curry in North Carolina. Chief among what bonded the two was their faith and a commitment to live a life guided by Christian principles. Curry says, “We have so many similarities on how we view the world, starting with our faith. It’s been huge to have someone I can be accountable with. At any point of the day I can call Bryant and he can give me the best advice when it comes to decisions I need to make in life because he’s seeing things through the same lens that I am.”
At first glance, you realize these two were never your stereotypical young college athletes. They didn’t spend college collecting sexual conquests; both started dating their current wives early in their college careers. They didn’t roll with a large, boisterous entourage either; Barr describes Curry as “quiet and reserved,” never the type to move with a large crowd around him. Instead, the two found refuge in each other, and quickly moved from teammates to roommates to best friends. “I’m the goofier one and he’s the planner,” Curry explains. “He’s the rational one, always on the nose and on the minute. I’m the kind of roll with the punches, move on the fly type of guy. We’ve always balanced each other out.”
Then came Davidson’s storybook March Madness run in 2008, where they beat college basketball goliaths Wisconsin, Gonzaga and Georgetown on their way to an appearance in the Elite Eight. Curry was the star of the tournament, averaging 26 points in a breakout performance on the national stage. The next year, he left Davidson and entered the 2009 draft where he was picked up by the Golden State Warriors. Barr toyed with the idea of playing overseas but ultimately decided that staying stateside was the best option for him and his fiancée Brittany, who were engaged by his senior year.
When I imagine this pivotal moment, I can’t help but project a sadness — and even regret — onto Barr. Here you have two guys who met as high school seniors with similar dreams and love for the game. They become thick as thieves on and off the court, go through this magical Cinderella run during the NCAA championships and accomplish what nobody expected them to. But at the end of the day, only one of them gets to take the next step in that journey. As I tell myself this story I can’t help but wonder: how can Barr not be jealous of Curry’s success?
“If you pointed me out to someone and said that’s Steph’s best friend, and they didn’t know anything else about me then I could understand how they might expect me to envy Steph,” says Barr. “If someone sat down and got to know me they would see that I’m 100% content with where I am. I knew early on basketball wasn’t going to be how I made my career. I’m loving what I do now, and I wake up on a daily basis and get to do things that give me joy and energy, and I’m happy knowing that Steph gets to do the same thing.” Brittany adds, “Both of them truly believe that God gave them different gifts and talents, and they’re excited to see the other person use them.”
It’s easy to call B.S. if you don’t believe that Barr can be happy for Curry without coveting his success. But I do believe it and here’s why: at the outset, the idea that either of them would play professionally seemed delusional. They were at Davidson, a mid-major that could barely get a primetime slot on ESPN let alone attention from the pros. Barr was a (self-admitted) awkward, lanky white guy and Curry was this undersized guard with a solid shot. Perhaps because the idea of them making it was so unrealistic that when Curry did, it was the perfect fairytale, and when Barr didn’t, nobody — not even him — could find fault in his decision to give up the game.
After graduation, Barr moved into the polar opposite of professions from Curry, joining financial firm Mercer as an actuarial analyst, running complex statistical models on pension plans. “Steph has never had to work a job at a desk, and so I remember when he was in town to play the Bulls and he wanted to come see the office that I worked in,” Barr recalls. “He made me take a picture of him sitting at my cubicle, picking up the phone like he’s answering a call because it was so foreign and different to him.”
Despite living two very different lifestyles, they remained close. As Curry started making waves in the league, Barr went through a career transformation of his own by leaving Mercer to do Brand Management at Nike, and subsequently beginning an MBA program at Stanford in 2014. His decision to attend Stanford gave him not only a business education, but also a gateway to team up with Curry as partners in their new start-up, Slyce.
Slyce is a social network that aims to change the way “influencers” — athletes, celebrities, entertainers — interact with their fans. Famous people like Curry log onto Slyce and do things very similar to what they do on other social networks, like post a picture or host a fan Q&A. The difference is that Slyce claims to filter out the noise and help influencers focus on the most valuable opportunities to connect with their biggest fans.
The idea for Slyce came from Barr’s observation of how important social media was in building Curry’s brand. “If you’re a sports fan you like to follow athletes. If one of them did engage with you, the first thing you wanted to do was tell your friends and brag about it,” he says. “Seventy-five percent of people said they would be more likely to engage, follow and interact with that athlete in the future. We realized that one piece of engagement creates a more hooked fan going forward.” After surveying 20 NBA players and hundreds of fans, he was confident it was an opportunity worth pursuing. Curry agreed and joined Slyce as co-founder and Chief Insights Officer. “There’s a huge need for athletes to know who their fans are, and how they can interact with them more efficiently given how busy their schedules are,” he explains. “We want to take out all of the noise that’s on Twitter and Instagram and help them control their brand.”
Every new business has a mountain of skepticism to climb and Slyce is no different. They’re attempting to create a social network that has SalesForce and Google Analytics-like tools wrapped into one. They want to effectively serve fans, celebrities and marketers at the same time, and their competitors range from well-developed social platforms like Instagram to traditional talent agencies. But there’s another brand of skepticism that arises when one co-founder is one of the most popular professional athletes on the planet and the other is his best friend: Is this a case of a sidekick using his famous best friend to get ahead, or a legitimate business?
Barr is used to facing that skepticism, having received it from both strangers as well as people around Curry in recent years. He says, “I’m not really worried about breaking that perception because I don’t care what people think. Some guys who are close with athletes have an expectation that they’ll be taken care of. I have zero expectations. I told Steph early on, if this is not something you believe in, I should know about it because you’re the demo that we’re going after. I don’t want you to promote something you don’t believe in. It needs to be mutually beneficial.”
Curry believes Barr is as qualified as anyone to work in the space given his time at Nike and Stanford. He said, “It’s not a fair question. If you look at his resume at what he’s been able to do since Davidson, none of that involved me. He’s been very successful at carving out his niche. Yeah, this idea is directly involving me and my platform, but once you talk to him and hear the passion behind it, you see that he’s not riding anyone’s coattails.”
Others may believe that Barr is capable of starting a business, but doubt that Slyce would get any attention if Curry weren’t involved. Barr has an answer for this brand of skepticism too. “Obviously Steph adds a ton of value to the company. If you don’t have access to talent you’ll fail, and he eliminates that fear because anyone will pick up his call. But my expectation is that I need to make believers out of people, and I would have to do it with or without him. If we’re creating a bad experience, it doesn’t matter if we have Steph, Lebron, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant on our team, people aren’t going to use it.”
While Barr seems at ease defending himself against these questions, it’s tough to believe that anyone can let that level of skepticism just roll off him. It has to add up, to become a series of tiny, continuous nicks that eventually combine to cut deep. The people around him insist that it doesn’t, and that he’s always been an independent person who couldn’t care less about what people thought of him. But as you dig deeper, it’s impossible not to sense exasperation at the thought of being discounted simply because he’s friends with the it-guy of the moment. So forgive me when I say I don’t believe Barr when he says he doesn’t listen to it at all; in fact, the skepticism seems to be his biggest cheerleader, motivator and coach. Instead of letting that doubt taint his relationship with Curry, it seems that he’s used it as fuel to silence the naysayers throughout this process.
We don’t usually count white dudes with degrees from Stanford and professional athletes as underdogs, but there is something as charming as it is audacious about what Curry and Barr are doing with Slyce. Today’s dream may be different from the one at Davidson but they’ve found a way to reunite as teammates again, ten years later. “In the simplest way, it’s the ultimate friendship,” Barr says. “When he wins I win, and I believe when I win he feels like he wins.” Let’s see if they can win together one more time.