Why NBA All-Star Damian Lillard’s first startup investment was this sneaker marketplace

Investing

Balancing professional basketball and entrepreneurship, Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard says he only puts his money where his values are. For his first startup investment, he chose Kicks Crew, a Hong Kong and New York City-based e-commerce company backed by billionaire Richard Li that emphasises “community.”
Ross Yip, left, Kicks Crew cofounder and COO; Damian Lillard, point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers. Image: CATHERINE WANG FOR FORBES ASIA

Accidentally buying counterfeit sneakers online drove Damian Lillard, a self-professed “sneakers guy” and staunch critic of “fakes,” halfway across the world to Hong Kong.

“I’ve had my own shopping experiences with shoes, and just knowing how it goes, knowing how often things go wrong…it’s not all about just trying to ‘make the dollar,’” says Lillard, 32, in an interview from his suite at Hong Kong’s high-end Rosewood hotel. “It’s about the customer service, where integrity is involved, and character is involved.”

This year, Lillard was the 25th-highest-paid athlete in the world, with pre-tax earnings of $58.6 million from the past 12 months. Across eleven seasons, the seven-time NBA all-star and Portland Trail Blazers point guard earned roughly $329 million, per Forbes estimates – by 2027, upon the expiration of his extended contract with the Blazers, he will have earned over $450 million. Off the court, Lillard’s signature shoe line with Adidas remains the athletic gear company’s top NBA sellers, now in its eighth year.

Portland Trail Blazers v Los Angeles Lakers

Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers points to his wrist – referencing his catchphrase, “Dame Time” – after scoring in the closing seconds of a basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Prioritizing “character” has shaped his business ventures, says Lillard, nicknamed Dame. In December 2021, he cofounded Move, an insole startup targeting heel and midfoot stability, which he struggled with as a young athlete. Backed by fellow NBA athletes Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford, Move claims its sales of $40 insoles reached $100,000 in its first month of operations.

Lillard’s first and only startup investment to date is Kicks Crew, an e-commerce platform for athletic footwear and apparel dually headquartered in Hong Kong and New York City. Last November, he invested an undisclosed amount in Kicks Crew’s $6.2 million Series A funding round. Led by Gobi Partners – which manages the Alibaba Entrepreneurs Fund – Hong Kong billionaire Richard Li’s Pacific Century Group and Complex China, the round brought the startup’s total funding to $7.2 million.

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Cofounded by Hong Kong native Johnny Mak and Ross Adrian Yip, a former business development director at Los Angeles-based online sneaker marketplace GOAT Group, Kicks Crew began in 2008 but pivoted to e-commerce at the start of the global pandemic. To date, Kicks Crew offers 400,000 styles of sneakers, with brands spanning sportswear staples like Nike and Adidas to luxury brands like Fendi and Louis Vuitton. Customers can also browse styles through Kicks Crew’s app, available on the Apple App store and the Google Play store, where it has over 10,000 downloads. Kicks Crew declined to disclose its latest revenue and website traffic.

“Customers have many places to choose where they want to shop from,” says Yip, who serves as COO at Kicks Crew. “If you can align your interests and your values to things that people care about, that would be a multiplier for the business.”

The NBA athlete’s partnership with the e-commerce company came about through one of startup’s investors, Hong Kong-based DL Securities. Joseph Lang, CEO of DL Securities, introduced Yip to the head of Lillard’s agency, Eric Goodwin of Goodwin Sports Management. From there, Yip and Lillard hit it off. In Lillard’s own words, his values include being relatable, “being authentic and being connected,” which resonated with Yip. “He’s had an influence on me personally, too,” the COO adds. “When I think about my challenges as a founder…there’s so much trial and error, but something that Dame is known for is consistency and being accountable.”

Kicks Crew, Damian Lillard and members of Cantopop boy band Mirror

From left to right: Edan Lui, member of Mirror; Ross Adrian Yip, cofounder and COO of Kicks Crew; Damian Lillard, point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers; Johnny Mak; Keung To, member of Mirror; Stanley Yau, member of Mirror.

Courtesy of Kicks Crew

For Lillard, Kicks Crew’s partnership has been a way for him to connect “on a real level” with people in Asia. In mid-June, the California native visited Hong Kong for the second time since he started at the NBA in 2012; his first visit to Hong Kong took place in 2017, as part of an Adidas Asia tour. With Kicks Crew, Lillard coached high school students in gyms across lower-income areas of Kowloon, and played against three members of Mirror, a local Cantopop supergroup. To Lillard, these events aren’t publicity stunts, they’re genuine ways of building community: “I want people to feel a part of something, and I want them to feel connected to something that’s not just transactional,” he says.

Aside from events, the business terms of Lillard’s partnership with Kicks Crew are up in the air. The collaboration is “pretty fluid,” says Yip, and Lillard will remain in the game to “steer the potential of the company.” This includes a greater emphasis on ensuring product authenticity, an issue plaguing the online sneaker market. Footwear remains one of the top categories of counterfeit consumer goods globally, according to a 2021 report from OECD; last year, counterfeit goods cost the global economy over $500 billion a year, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Quality control at Kicks Crew

Quality control processes at Kicks Crew.

Courtesy of Kicks Crew

To safeguard the legitimacy of its shoes and other apparel, Kicks Crew relies on a B2B2C, or business-to-business-to-consumer, marketplace model: authorized retailers list their inventory on Kicks Crew, which the startup then markets to customers around the world. With most of its 70 full-time staff based in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the startup works with retailers based in China, Europe, Japan, Korea and the United States. Kicks Crew claims to use radio frequency ID (RFID) tags to help customers check details of their purchases. Looking ahead, the startup plans to integrate AI for personalized suggestions and expand in the United States, where it says its main competitor is auction site and e-commerce giant eBay.

Lillard’s entrance into the realm of startup investment mirrors that of his NBA peers. Los Angeles Clippers guard Russell Westbrook, the world’s 14th-highest-paid athlete, has put his earnings towards the consumer technology industry through an eponymous venture capital firm, Russell Westbrook Enterprises. Devin Booker, a guard for the Phoenix Suns and honoree of the 2022 Forbes 30 under 30 list, picked up stakes in seven startups after signing a five-year, $158 million contract extension with the Phoenix Suns in 2018.

Still, Lillard hasn’t broadcast grand ambitions. Whether he’s investing in startups or rapping as Dame D.O.L.L.A, his musical persona under which he’s released four albums, the Portland Trail Blazers star says he’s content with not doing “crazy numbers.” He remains one of the few present-day athletes in the NBA that has never changed teams.

“My career was built on forming that community of people that appreciate and respect what I do and how I do it,” Lillard says. “My role [at Kicks Crew] is being a part of creating that type of community, and then just growing it from there.”

This story was first published on Forbes.com and all figures are in USD.

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