Brian Selander, Entrepreneur In Residence at SeventySix Capital and the speaker at next week’s Suburban Philadelphia Speaker Series presentation on the emergence of eSports, speaks to VISTA Today about growing up in Piscataway, finding his way into journalism and then politics before he graduated high school and working on Senator Bill Bradley’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Selander discusses his transition out of politics into the business world and how a kid who never played sports found himself building a career around athletics and why the emerging billion dollar eSports marketplace appeals to the post.Millennial generation.
Where were you born, Brian?
I was a centennial baby. I was born in 1976, the oldest of two children, in Piscataway, NJ. My father was an Navy vet who volunteered for several Vietnam tours and then worked for the phone company. My mother happily protested that war while in pharmacy school. She remained a progressive foil to my then-conservative dad for years. It was a really loving home but you had to come to the table prepared to back up your opinions.
What memories do you have of growing up in Piscataway?
From a business perspective – getting busted by the Vice Principal in middle school for selling candy for a quarter that we’d buy at Price Club for $.03.
On a personal level, the true gift of the town was its incredible diversity. These days, anyone with an internet connection can learn almost anything about anywhere in the world. Back then, it was a real blessing to grow up and go to a public school where the parents spoke more than 50 languages. The entire community was a melting pot of cultures and perspectives. Every day was a chance to learn and challenge assumptions.
What did your parents do for work and what did you learn from them?
Even though my father never went to college, he carved out a nice life as a middle manager at AT&T. Throughout my youth, the local newspapers had a steady drumbeat of articles announcing AT&T layoffs. Wondering if my father would be able to find a job if he wound up on that layoff list and if we’d be able to keep the house if he was really stuck with me. I keep that feeling with me. Dad proved that as long as you kept selling, you could usually stay a bit ahead, which was a great lesson.
My mom’s mid-career move from pharmacist to high school physics teacher also taught me that it’s never too late to find your passion and purpose.
You recently helped build a digital sports network to a few hundred million fans and followers. Were you an athlete growing up?
As a kid, I played soccer and little league baseball. But it was pretty clear pretty early that I was much better at writing than I’d ever be at basketball and (this is pretty geeky) much more interested in political primaries than the playoffs. The stakes seemed higher. At fifteen years-old, I got a job as a reporter for a Gannett newspaper called The Courier News. So when other kids went to practice after school, my mom would drop me off at the newspaper so I could write articles.
What lessons did you take from that reporting job that stays with you today?
Working at the Courier News was the best training I ever received. I got paid $35 for every published feature article and $10 for a brief, which was a lot of money for a fifteen-year-old kid to be making in the 90’s. While briefs were a lot less prestigious in terms of placement, you could write ten of them in the time it took to research one longer form story and face less competition to get them published. So taking the lower profile route could make you a lot more money. Still a great lesson for entrepreneurs.
Although I was teenager, the editors never wore kid gloves with me. Everything I wrote had to be interesting and compelling enough to make the cut for publication and survive a healthy shredding. Even though the editors could be brutal when I started, I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for making me better. Later in life, whether building campaigns or companies, I had a much clearer sense of how reporters and editors would receive what we were saying.
Did you want to run for office when you were growing up?
In 1993, I got elected as my school’s student representative to the school board. Being a geek, I read the district’s affirmative action policy and noticed the district had no policy against terminating a teacher for being gay. I raised the issue at a school board meeting and suggested the district change its policy to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.
It seemed obvious, but it caused a lot of chaos. A big crowd, including my father, came out to the next meeting to voice their opinion, for and against, my motion. At one point I remember looking up and seeing my father in the audience and wondering to myself what my Vietnam-volunteering, cub scout-leading, motorcycle-riding, bad-ass father was thinking as he watched the scene play out in front of him. Many years later, I learned what my father was thinking. He was thinking, ‘Brian doesn’t actually know I’m gay and is doing this anyway.”
My father came out when I was in college, changed his political orientation in the process and has been much happier ever since.
What kind of music floated your boat back in high school or college?
A mix of classic rock and hip-hop. I really wanted to be a guitar player or freestyle rapper growing up. I wasn’t nearly good enough at either to make a real run at it but learned to have a lifelong love of people who are great at each. Governor Markell let my friend and I duck out of work early one day to go see Jay-Z and Emimen play the first concert ever at the new Yankee Stadium. Some of my happiest memories growing up were going to concerts with my mom.
Where did you go to college?
Rutgers. After helping my friend get elected to the school board to fire our high school principal, a local legislator had asked me to be his press secretary during college, so Rutgers was an amazing place to be able to learn and work. I rounded that out later in life with the Senior Executive Fellows program at Harvard and a Masters at Penn, where I got to co-teach a graduate seminar for years with the amazing Marjorie Margolies.
Did you stay involved in politics after graduating?
When I graduated in 1998, then Senator Bill Bradley donated me to then Governor Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire to assist with her reelection campaign. He liked what I did enough to make me one of the first full-time employees of his presidential campaign in 2000.
Campaigns turn out to be just like start-ups. You work outrageous hours for often next to nothing, have to raise money from complete strangers, need to learn to be compelling quickly, convince everyone you meet to help out and know that there’s bigger and probably better funded competitors who’d love to make you unemployed.
What did you do after college?
So much of life is about being in places where interesting people are making things happen. I probably could have left the legislators office after college and become a lobbyist. But I jumped at Bradley’s offer even though he could only pay me $500 a month to work on that Governor’s race in New Hampshire.
Post-Bradley, my girlfriend (now wife) was finishing her doctorate at Widener so I moved to the Delaware Valley to be with her. I connected with Delaware Governor Tom Carper who was running for US Senate. Luckily, he didn’t have a press secretary for the race. Although I’d never lived in Delaware and was only 23, I figured someone had to step up and fight back on his behalf – why not me? He wound up winning the race and made me his first Communications Director in his Senate office. We spent a few years doing what the rest of the country thinks of as the “Joe Biden Commute” from Delaware to DC. But it will always be the “Tom Carper Commute” to me.
What memories of your time with Senator Carper stick with you most?
Going to Dover Air Force Base after 9/11 and thanking the people working in the morgue for their service in identifying and preparing the remains of the people killed in the Pentagon attack. The soldiers wouldn’t stop working for the visit, so we walked into every room and witnessed their work first-hand. That simple act of gratitude, hearing him say “no one else can come here to say it but please know how much our nation needs and supports you” – meant so much.
A bit later, someone attacked the Hart Office Building with anthrax and we had to evacuate for a few months. Senator Biden’s staff let us move our team into their conference room, where he told us a moving story about how the table in the room had once been the meeting place for Senators opposed to the Civil Rights Acts and how it had to serve as reminder to stay vigilant and push forward.
What do you think Bradley and Carper saw in you to hire you so young?
It’s hard for me to say. Nobody gets through life mistake free. What I do is try not to make mistakes when it matters most. I’ve always been willing to push the status quo to a place of mild discomfort with the knowledge that if I make a mistake, it won’t be the end of the world. I’ve always tried to stay ahead of the curve on events and trends as well.
What took you out of politics and into the business world?
My friend Jack Markell told me that as much as I’d enjoyed politics, I’d be an even better fit as an entrepreneur because the skill sets to succeed in each were very similar. He’d had an amazing career of his own – McKinsey to Nextel (which was a name he coined!) to Comcast before deciding to run for office himself. He was nice enough to recommend me to some other compelling entrepreneurs. One of them was a growing management consulting firm called Silver Oak Solutions run by a genius named John West. After a few months of getting to know John and giving him some advice on ways to move into a new market and close new clients, John brought me on as his Managing Director.
It was a leap of faith on his part, given how many of the people we would hire had places like McKinsey, BCG, AT Kearney or Deloitte on their resume and how new I was to that world. But- it really worked. The firm grew to over $20 million in revenue, over 100 employees, a string of innovation awards and clients across the country who saved hundreds of millions of dollars from our work. We were acquired by the Canadian firm CGI, where I was the National Director of their Spend Management Solutions practice before eventually … going back into politics.
So you went back into politics?
Well, that same friend Jack Markell thought Delaware could really use a Governor with a business background to get through what looked like some really tough times ahead. When he started, he was an impossible underdog against the party favorite but… challenges are meant to be embraced, right? So, we embraced it! He wound up winning by two points and taking office just as the national economy was collapsing. He was an amazing Governor for Delaware. Smart, kind, compassionate, honest and straightforward. He got the state through the crisis and put it on incredible footing moving forward. Being his Chief Strategy Officer the first term was one of the great honors of my life. America needs more public servants like him.
Where does sports fit into all this?
During Jack’s first term, my CEO from Silver Oak John West had the incredible insight that traditional sports media – older guys in desks talking on TV to people sitting on their couches about things like athlete arrests between ads for Viagra– was failing to engage elementary school aged fans. He’d had a hunch that major leagues and major networks would want a new way to engage these fans and brought on as his co-founder Jeff Urban, the former head of sports marketing at Gatorade to build a new network called “The Whistle.” John and Jeff got pro leagues like the NFL and athletes like Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning to invest and had even launched a half hour weekly pilot on NBC Sports.
John seemed to enjoy building companies with me and convinced me that it would be more fun and interesting to spend time with a handful of people in New York building a sports network than any of the other jobs someone might take out of a Governor’s office, so in 2012 I was their first EVP.
One of my favorite former students at Penn Julie Kikla turned out to be a founding member of YouTube Sports. Building a company around all of the amazing digital media influencers like Dude Perfect that she worked with on a daily basis and aging up the target demographic to mobile-first teenagers and early twentysomethings made all the sense in the world. We formally launched Whistle Sports on New Years’ Day in 2014 and scaled to a few hundred million aggregate fans and followers. At one point, Fast Company called us the #3 Most Innovative Company in the World in Video (just under Disney!) and the Consumer Electronics Association named us their startup of the year.
I left in 2017 to become the Entrepreneur in Residence at SeventySix Capital, who happened to be my favorite Whistle investors. They’re really the best in what venture capital can be – relentlessly helpful, always available, a few steps ahead of the curve and fully committed to the success of every “smart and nice” person they back. Wayne Kimmel is an amazing investor. With Kravco and the King of Prussia Mall, Jon Powell is a legendary local developer. With the Phillies, Ryan Howard became a world class competitor. That mix of investor, developer and competitor is pretty unique.
You didn’t play sports when you were in high school. How did you find your way into eSports?
When got to Whistle Sports, I put out a Facebook post asking if any of my friends know of an early-twenty-something that needed an internship. Ben Lindemer answered the call and became our internal evangelist in the eSports space. We focused exclusively on FIFA gamers to start because unlike other video games it was a sport you could play both online and in real life as well. It was a great fit for our model and our demographic. It was also immediately clear that it wasn’t just the future – it was rapidly consuming even more of the present sports and entertainment industry.
Give me a snapshot of the emerging eSports industry, Brian.
eSports is the multi-billion-dollar industrial behemoth that most people over 30 probably don’t know even exists. It fills stadiums, provides incredible content for TV stations, and keeps people glued to platforms like Twitch. It’s not something just teenagers are doing either. There are twenty-, thirty- and fort-year-olds that are participating in the industry.
The industry is changing people’s consumption patterns and is a leading indicator in for the revolution in content, consumption, and community that’s going on across people’s lives
When we were growing up our parents know what shows we were watching, what songs we were listening to on the radio and what games we were playing. It was impossible for our parents to miss that conversation because they heard it on the same TV and radio we had on in front of them. Today is different. It’s entirely possible for a parent to miss those conversations because kids are experiencing their entertainment on their headsets, screens, and consoles.
I remember seeing Shaq on a panel at the Consumer Electronics show comment he didn’t think eSports had real athletes until he tried to play against them. The amount of training and time and focus that goes into becoming one of the best video players in the world is equal in hours and focus on what it takes to become great in any other sport.
How is the emergence of eSports going to impact our lives?
If someone doesn’t mind their world of customers and content getting constantly smaller, then eSports doesn’t need to impact anyone’s life. But anyone in any business working in any way to sell or engage consumers needs to be aware of how consumers are spending their time. It’s tens of billions of dollars in potential revenue, tens of millions of hours of content created and consumed, and
Finally, Brian, what’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
An aide to the late Senator Paul Wellstone told me, “who you are being is as important as what you are doing. Regarding of your role or industry, people want to be around individuals who are inspiring, uplifting and are as committed to achieving a goal as they are.” So I try and live that every day.
The other piece of that advice was what you’re doing is not as important as who you’re doing it with. I want to be around smart, inspiring, interesting people who are tackling a compelling challenge. It doesn’t matter to me what industry or market that challenge is in or whether the odds are in my favor, present me with a team of amazing and smart people and I want to be there. Look at what local people like David Adelman from Campus Apartments and Josh Verne built WorkPaysMe have done while remaining fantastic people to build with and be around. There are so many great innovators around here building great things together. Our region’s potential is limitless.