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‘Some podcast conversations will result in business’: Rich Kleiman on building The Boardroom

Kevin Durant’s business partner and the co-founder of Thirty Five Ventures explains how he is attempting to take sports business to the masses, his approach to podcasting and building a company for the long term.

by Tom Bassam
‘Some podcast conversations will result in business’: Rich Kleiman on building The Boardroom

“I’m having conversations with these people in a way that, in my opinion, is the same as I would outside the office,” says Rich Kleiman, co-founder of Thirty Five Ventures.

The investment company, which manages National Basketball Association (NBA) star Kevin Durant’s business interests, recently launched a podcast network with Cadence 13 for its The Boardroom brand. Kleiman, who hosts the main titular show, is outlining to SportsPro what it is all about. “These people” he is referring to are the likes of Jack Dorsey and David Solomon, the respective chief executives of Twitter and Goldman Sachs, who have already appeared as high-profile guests.

Given the aforementioned names, it is interesting that Kleiman sees The Boardroom Podcast as a business to consumer product, rather than something for the B2B market. The difference, as Kleiman is keen to stress, is that the purpose of The Boardroom is not to pry information from his guests. Instead, he wants to provide fans a window into the high-level discussions he and Durant are engaged in.

He is also quick to point out that The Boardroom brand is not limited to just the podcast network, which also includes Durant’s own The Etc show, but also boasts a video series, a newsletter, events and its social media channels. It was also previously a show on ESPN+, however Kleiman acknowledges that move was a misstep and out of kilter with The Boardroom’s free-to-access content strategy.

The Boardroom is Thirty Five Ventures’ best-known brand, but Kleiman and Durant’s company has a broad range of investments. Those include a stake in the Philadelphia Union Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise, as well as several tech startups and philanthropic endeavours. In an engaging conversation with SportsPro, Kleiman explained what his plans are for The Boardroom and Thirty Five Ventures’ approach to business.

The Boardroom has an interesting position in the market. Is it a B2B or B2C brand?

[The Boardroom] is for sports fans first and foremost, fans of the culture or lifestyle around sport. But also the consumer that is interested in how the money, the business, the movies, the TV shows are made, or in the sports news headlines about, say, LeBron James selling his stake in a franchise of some sort. It’s so they can find all that, and find that in a compelling way.

People that are fans of music, art, fashion, people that are in the world of creating with the NBA or NFL. That’s media companies, that’s technology companies, that’s all of the people that are in the business that surrounds the world of sport. Anyone that’s involved in that can consume it and there’s usually some interest in sports as well.

What was the thinking behind trying to open up the sports business world to the broader consumer?

I realised in the last few years that in order to really dive into the world of sports business, you needed to go to these industry publications, read the fine print and be OK with spending a whole day on things that were really uninteresting to you. Whether it was like the minutiae of a concession deal or ratings – things that are interesting but you have to be a niche consumer to really enjoy that.

With all these athletes starting to embark on these incredible entrepreneurial careers – building investment portfolios and media companies; creating schools or after-school programmes all over the world; with NBA players becoming global ambassadors of business and philanthropy; people like Tom Brady creating businesses that are unique to him – there was so much conversation around it. But I felt like the sports fan that I am, and have been my whole life, would have found myself in this middle ground, not really understanding it fully or not being able to get to it fully and then going to a publication that was a little less compelling or entertaining - more of the industry ones – or just not bothering at all because they were subscription. So it felt like there needed to be a voice that was a little more fun, entertaining and educational that had great access to talent or behind the scenes in the sports business world.

You previously described The Boardroom as the media arm of Thirty Five Ventures. Is that still how you see it?

If you look at the structure of how our business was built there is so much inspiration from how LeBron [James], Mav [Carter] and Rich [Paul] built Uninterrupted, but we created our own conversation and something that was in our style. The access to these people that we have, we’re in these rooms, inquisitive at times, trying to learn these businesses like we did in Silicon Valley, or we are instilling our ideas trying to make something happen. Some of the conversations I have on my podcast will result in business.

Kleiman says that Thirty FIve Ventures has taken a lot of inspiration from what Maverick Carter (pictured) and LeBron James have done with Uninterrupted

With the podcast specifically, what is the play?

[The podcast is about] being able to let people look in on the conversation, or just get a different conversation, with athletes. I had Doc Rivers on and we didn’t even really ask him about the bubble or the Clippers. I just had a great conversation with him about his life and incidents in his life. I think that’s important and necessary, it doesn’t solve every need, it’s still a niche market to some degree, but sports fans are not.

I don’t know if the gap existed for anyone but me. Or even if how I imagined the gap existing was real or big – or it was just something I would have noticed or been inspired by. However, that is sometimes how any idea gets started.

How does The Boardroom Podcast differentiate itself from the likes of a Bill Simmons when he has a big business executive on his show?

Bill Simmons is incredibly successful and he’s an incredible podcaster but I’m not a podcaster, I’m not someone who was schooled in it or grew up in the business as that and aspired to be that.

When the Ringer interview, their podcasts are way more regular, way more about topical current events or way more about trying to find a quote that sheds light on something new. I just want to have conversations that you can leave and just feel good. Someone wrote me a comment the other day saying the podcast ‘makes them feel like the people that they looked up to in these positions are really regular people and why not them, why can’t they be successful, why can’t they find their way into the world they always aspired to be in?’ Sometimes I think people think these conversations [with The Boardroom’s podcast guests] are so daunting or unobtainable, but they’re not. I’m not trying to be polished in these convos, I’ll be the same way I would if go to meet someone out for dinner.

Why did The Boardroom move from being an ESPN+ show to a podcast?

The Boardroom was never just an ESPN show and it’s not just a podcast. I didn’t want to raise money and I didn’t want to create a brand and a platform before it was that, so I felt like the way to create this vision was ‘Ok, let’s have a broadcast partner’. As soon as the show launched, we launched our social media platforms and newsletter and original writing on the website, then ESPN didn’t fit, it didn’t work. They put us behind a paywall but we were giving away so much content for free. We aligned with ESPN on doing things that were a bit more innovative - we did a live conference as Sloan with ESPN.

The [Boardroom] brand was always owned by us and we added the podcast component because it felt right. It felt like it was a necessary vertical to expand upon and something it felt like I could be important on, as opposed to the video which I didn’t necessary feel like being a big part of. I felt like it also fit Kevin, and Kevin is able to now start to create on his own space within the boardroom, but we were always visioning this as its own standalone brand. I hope to do more business with ESPN again but it will never be behind a paywall again because that’s not the vision of the whole company.

What have you learned about building The Boardroom brand since the start of the coronavirus pandemic?

At the beginning of quarantine I started to create content just to create content, to stay on top of everything, and I felt we were off course. Especially when you’re building a business you have to stay so true to what you are, whether it works or not. I course corrected, got myself back on the vision that we had in place. I also learned how I want to incorporate sponsors and brands into the business. I was a bit concerned about how we were going to do it, because I didn’t want to just create branded content – it’s had its time. I don’t think brands have had success in creating original branded content, it feels contrived, it’s very tough. I’ve [now] been able to integrate brands into what we’re doing – I’ve been able to identify what that sweet spot is. There was a certain emphasis on creating our IP, what are the little series or franchises that we could start within The Boardroom, that are going to be very important in growing this. So that’s in the form of the two podcasts we launched, the new graphic series we launched, in the form of the new CEO series we’ll be launching soon, Boardroom University – which is this college programme – all of that came from realising that the most important thing was not the viewership. We’re not ever going to compete and have billions of views but our brand IP grew, our brand equity grew, and that was what I really focused on.

What is Thirty Five Ventures’ broader strategy?

Thirty Five Ventures is the company we built that will house all the business endeavours that Kevin and I want to embark on, as well as the number business of making sure his business in the best place at all times. Making sure that his foundation, his family and his business interests are in line.

Then we went and built things that we could put under this one roof that are exciting and interesting to us, things that we are motivated to want to work on or feel like are important. Right now it’s The Boardroom, or some of these documentaries and scripted series that we’re working on. But we also own a piece of an MLS team and headphone company so maybe in two or three years our focus will be a bit more on those and The Boardroom will have found a partner or things don’t work with The Boardroom. I have to be aware of that and be aware that the company cannot rely on any one brand or asset that we try to build because Kevin and I are trying to build this in a perpetuity. We’re not looking to sell Thirty Five Ventures, we’re looking to work forever and have fun things that we create.

Then we put them under this umbrella and have these creative minds around in media, in brand, in working with our foundation, and helping me with managing Kevin.