From the bleachers, it seems professional basketball players lead a charmed life. The average NBA salary is about $5 million a season, not to mention the brand endorsements, media attention, and influence. But for most NBA players, the fortune doesn't last forever with about 60% of them going broke after leaving the spotlight.
Shaquille O'Neal's story bucks that trend. O’Neal spent 19 years in the league, stacking multi-million dollar contracts, a most valuable player award, and four championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. Known as much for his imposing stature and physical play as his over-the-top, at times goofy behavior, Shaq just may the biggest and most unlikely sports figure in investing, and potentially, the geekiest over seven feet.
The "Diesel" was a pre-IPO investor in Google, Twitter's first verified user, and has equity in Vitamin Water and Muscle Milk. The self-titled "Big Aristotle" owns a string of 24-Hour Fitness clubs, Five Guys restaurants, a jewelry line, a clothing line, nightclubs, and a real estate group.
Recently Shaq teamed with TIP Solutions, a five-year-old Chicago telecom startup, investing and acting as a brand ambassador. The company is launching CallSnap, an Android app that allows call recipients to respond with a photo, image, or custom voice message—basically a tool to respond when you don’t want someone to think you’re ignoring them.
So, what is Shaq’s secret game plan for investing? The Big Entrepreneur opened up to Fast Company.
A lot of athletes who had huge, huge contracts left the league and went broke. What sets you apart?
That was one of my fears. As a youngster it was also what helped motivate me. What I did was always trying to put myself in a position to where I can be a part of something, or to own something. At first I said "okay, before I get older I have to go get my masters." I like to put myself in the position to where I can’t fail. I really, really value partnerships. I think guys give in to something they really have no knowledge of what’s going on against them. I have excellent partners, I’m one of the luckiest individuals in the world.
What’s the Shaq guide to investing? What do you look for?
First thing always is always believe in the product or the project. Most of the times when a guy says "hey give me a million, I’ll turn it into five," that shit never happens like that. A lot of times you have to believe in the product. For example, this company I’m working with, TIP Solutions, their whole thing is about building call management technology for smartphones. For everybody. Because we’ve all be on a call on a cellphone looking for a way to improve people’s mobile communication. When I saw this company I’m like "yeah, everybody would like that."
Can you give some pointers?
I would say be smart, do your due diligence, and if you believe in it, go with it. Don’t let all this money be your main factor. Don’t ever work like that. No. These young companies, these upstarts, if you listen to their pitch, if you listen to their idea, you know what, this could work. I’m innovating (with CallSnap). I can answer my phone, take a picture while I’m doing it, and send it back to a person and say "hey, I’ll call you back in 10 minutes," here’s what I’m doing, that’s brilliant! It’s brill-i-ant. People will love that. That’s why I thought TIP Solutions, this could work. I’ve always needed something like that.
How hands on are you with things?
I’m pretty much a tech guy in my company, so I go out and meet these people and introduce them to my group and then we can always talk business ventures. I’ve always been, I’m always looking for the next tech whatever. I’m always looking in the tech magazines. I’m a geek, you know? And I’m not ashamed to say it. I’m a geek, I’m a nerd. I read a lot. I want to be the first of the next whatever.
What’s the most geeky thing you do?
Most geeky thing I do is learn and master technology. I got my master’s. I know what’s coming out. I know who the competitor of Google Glass is, I know what’s doing what, I know what smartphone does this. I know what app is out there, that’s what I do.
Are you an Apple guy or are you an Android guy?
I’m an Apple guy...I actually have Apple and Android. I got the Samsung phone, I got the iPhone.
Do you have Google Glass?
I don’t advocate it. I’m going to wait.
You were a pre-IPO investor in Google. How did that happen?
A friend of mine was like "hey, they’ve got this thing called Google, it’s going to be called a search engine, you can be able to type whatever you want to look for, it’ll pop up on there," that’s when I took a buy. I said this shit is the future. When it pops it’s going to be brilliant. But, you know I was kind of a nervous investor then so I didn’t really put a lot of money in it. I actually made a lot of money—I wish I would have put more.
How did it make you feel to be the first verified account on Twitter?
I actually found out about Twitter by accident. I was talking to a reporter and he said something nasty about me and he said he read a quote. I said "Yo, don’t you ever misquote me." He said "you said it on Twitter." I said "what the hell is Twitter?"
I went on Twitter and this guy had Shaq everything. Pictures of me, my family, you know? So I said let me see how this shit works. I started the real shit. I said I have some tickets here for a Lakers game, meet me on 24th and Camelback (in Phoenix), and they did. And I said "okay, the only way I use Twitter is not to show off or do things." Sixty percent to make you laugh. Thirty percent to inspire you, and 10 to sell something. If you’re picking up your phone I want you to be able to laugh. Hey, buy this, buy that, every time you pick up your phone, you don’t want to see a commercial. I just try to make you laugh.
Shaq, because you have this goofy personality, do you feel like people are surprised how smart you are in business?
Yes, I think they are. But I try not to think about it. I try to just do the right thing. Because of what happens to most athletes it’s always been my fear so I want to always stay on top of it.
Do you still rap?
No, I don’t.
For fun, or anything, maybe in the shower?
Yeah, yeah, every now and then I do.
But no plans for another album?
Who do you like for the NBA this year? Who’s going to take it?
I’m gonna go with Miami.
And this weekend, what about the Super Bowl?
I’m gonna go with Denver.
You think Richard Sherman is going to get a pick?
Na. [laughs] I’m not sure.