I came through the Sunderland FC academy and was then offered a deal with Hibernian FC. I had a great time in the Scottish Premier Football League with a lot of young players. I went on to play for clubs in The SPL, League One, Italy and Spain. However there are so many ups and down of pro football that you don’t see reflected in the media – for example I was living on one and two-year contracts most of the time, so life was so stressful and uncertain. I also had a number of early injuries: I broke my leg at 18, and later in my career whilst at Yeovil Town in League One, I tore my patella tendon in my second training session. I approached the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) for advice on my next steps, and when all was said and done I decided to look at other avenues outside of sport.
I partnered with an ex-GB rower who’d also gone through injury, and we looked at going into property development. We explored heritage assets in the North-East and saw an opportunity in developing them into premium living space. We started with an old members’ club that we made into luxury flats. We were fortunate to win a couple of awards for that project which springboarded us into the next few projects, but it was definitely the confidence of youth biting off more than we could chew!
After a few years navigating the stress of banks, development finance repayments, the delays and uncertainty which is part of parcel of property developments, I finished with this world and partnered with my brother Ruari who was advising on growth strategy for early-stage companies. He’d work with them to plot their route from Seed funding to meaningful growth, so he knew a lot about investing in early-stage businesses. And that started my interest in angel investing. I started helping a number of athletes do the same, which led to a collective we launched during the pandemic, and a fund called The Players Fund that we are launching in August.
Everyone thinks of an athlete as someone you pay to do an Instagram post, but we realise that athletes provide a lot more. In the first instance, athletes can provide access via their networks whether it’s to opportunities or individuals. Furthermore, association with an athlete can provide advocacy and credibility to an early-stage company – we call it ’the irrational lure of exceptionalism’, people follow athlete decisions.
A lot of our athletes know everyone from club owners and associations to other athletes to entrepreneurs and marketing specialists. In one sense, a pro athlete is a walking black book of elite individuals, they can add a huge amount of value to these early-stage businesses. And they’re one phone call away.
There’s a secondary piece to this: you have to create an environment that creates engagement. It’s not like, you’ve got loads of contacts, let us have them. It’s about ensuring that athletes feel engaged in the growth process with the founders and with early-stage businesses so that they feel they want to help – and that’s the nuance that we’re trying to achieve.
I often liken the founder journey to that of an athlete. You’re taking a completely unknown path, you’re investing everything, you’re facing sleepless nights and cash-flow issues. In my own football career, I didn’t know what was happening next season or the following season; similarly an entrepreneur can’t plot the business’s growth with much confidence. In the UK (and we’re about twenty years behind the US) there’s not much interaction between the early-stage venture ecosystem and the elite athlete community. At 4CAST and subsequently The Players Fund we’re trying to bridge that gap and ensure that when they get in the room together, and talk about the pain points on both sides, either party can say: I can help you fix that. I can help you either develop a product or be an advocate for your business. There’s are many similarities which aren’t apparent to the outside world.
Our entrepreneurial collective, 4CAST has three departments – media, gaming and investments. Over time a lot of athlete shareholders found they enjoyed the growth journey and meeting entrepreneurs. Through 4CAST we have invested together and supported a number of early stage companies as a collective. The organic evolution of our athlete investor journey has been the launch of The Players Fund – the UK’s first athlete led VC Fund where we are trying to democratise athlete investing, and become the trusted firm that athletes can go to for access and exposure to venture capital.
What areas of the consumer landscape can an athlete add the most value? Sports and human performance, media and media distribution for example entertainment or streaming platforms. We also see a lot of opportunity within the emerging trend of digital communities and fan engagement.