I Emailed All 30 NBA Owners, Asking Them to Meet With Me. Here's What Happened.

I sent out an email to every single NBA owner, asking if they'd be open to meeting with me. What happened next literally changed the trajectory of my life.

(This article was initially featured on Entrepreneur.com on October 27, 2022)

I love everything about the game of basketball. I love the art, skill, and competition of the game, as well as the history and the impact it's had on our society. But what I love most is the business behind the game of basketball. 

When I was a kid growing up in Wisconsin, I didn’t want to be an NBA player. I didn’t have the skill or athleticism to compete at an elite level, and I barely made my High School team. In fact, I got cut the first year I tried out as a Sophomore. And as further evidence, one Summer, our travel team played in a tournament in Chicago where we suited up against future NBA lottery pick, Shaun Livingston. We lost 72 - 34. That was when I knew I was destined to get a marketing degree.

It’s been a dream of mine to help build an NBA franchise. So in the Summer of 2012, I sent out an email to every single NBA owner, asking if they’d be open to meet. What happened next literally changed the trajectory of my life.

How to connect with a billionaire

Getting in touch with billionaire NBA owners may seem like an impossible task; However, it’s very much possible with just a little bit of effort. Each owner has a primary business. I found each owner’s contact info by finding that business operation and constructing the email alias to get in touch. Upon building out the list, I crafted personal emails to each regarding their business venture and how I might be able to help provide value to their core business in exchange for their most valuable asset, their time.

I sent 30 emails, and I heard back from 3. Whether you’re trying to get connected with NBA owners, world renowned researchers, or the President of the US, the blueprint remains the same. These are my recommendations on how to connect and build meaningful relationships with some of the most influential people in your field.

Be very clear about what you’re asking of them, and make the asks succinct and reasonable.

Successful multi-billionaires are really busy and inundated with calls, messages, pings, and decisions they need to make every day. In order to get their attention and their input, you need to strip away the flowery language and the twenty page novel, and clearly articulate the reason you’re contacting them and your ask in no more than 140 characters. In that direct message, make sure that your ask is something they can reasonably act on or redirect that doesn’t take up any more of their time, energy, or focus.

This was my approach with Vivek Ranadive, owner of the Sacramento Kings. Vivek Ranadive is an entrepreneur, the founder of TIBCO, and previously a partial owner in the Warriors before taking over the Sacramento Kings. Vivek is also the founder of Bow Capital, an early stage venture firm that invests in technology companies.

My message to Vivek was direct. I felt that Bow Capital was a good firm fit for Disco, and given Vivek’s background as a B2B SaaS founder, I wanted Vivek to join our board of strategic advisors. Vivek agreed to an initial fifteen minute intro call, and we both hit it off. Following my first call with Vivek, he was able to easily facilitate and pass on an introduction to two of his lead investors and now my good friends. Although Bow Capital never formally invested in Disco (we were too early for Bow Capital at the time), I have been able to make introductions and exchange ideas and perspectives on spaces with the team at Bow that have been mutually beneficial for both of us.

Be very clear about how you can help them, and do the research to understand what matters to them.

Most incredibly successful people have important or challenging problems they’re setting out to solve each day. Whether you know it or believe it, you likely have something to offer to help that person accomplish their objective.

Enter Joe Lacob, owner of the Golden State Warriors. Joe Lacob is known as one of the most progressive and innovative NBA owners in the league. Prior to owning the Warriors, Joe was a partial owner of the Boston Celtics, and before that, a General Partner at Kleiner Perkins where he led investments in several successful technology ventures across various stages and verticals.

My message to Joe was simple. “I want to help the digital arm of the Golden State Warriors to enhance the fan experience.” Through my time at retail analytics platform, Nomi, I had built a wide network of event based partners that could help. Joe responded and mentioned that he didn’t have the space to connect directly; However, he did put me in touch with his son, Kirk, to exchange ideas. Through my time with Kirk and his friends, I learned about several community and philanthropic areas the Warriors care about. Through these relationships, I’ve also been able to foster a greater network of impact and contribute, invest, and volunteer toward causes that are impacting the community of San Francisco.

Be authentic and genuinely interested in the person you’re connecting with.

The healthiest relationships are formed on shared interests and a genuine connection. If you’re able to uncover shared interests and establish a personal connection, your success rate will be much higher.

As a die-hard Milwaukee Bucks fan (shared interest), I knew I needed to connect with Marc Lasry, owner of the Milwaukee Bucks (genuine connection). My reason for reaching out to Marc was really clear. I wanted Marc to be a personal mentor. 

I was on the Subway from Brooklyn heading to Manhattan when I got the response from Marc. “I’d love to meet. Let’s set up a time.” I almost dropped my phone in the station tracks at 7th Avenue in Park Slope. By day, Marc runs one of the most successful hedge funds in New York, Avenue Capital. In Marc’s office is a giant Superman comic book portrait that hangs behind his desk. On the ledge of his window overlooking 5th Avenue are pictures with his kids, the Clinton family, and mounds of Bucks memorabilia. 

That morning, we shared an omelette in his office. I asked Marc, “how the hell did you do all of this?” Marc responded, “a lot of people in this building are way smarter than I am. That’s why we’re so damn good”. That authenticity is what makes him great. 

Every time I’m in New York, Marc has made the time for me. He has provided guidance that influenced Disco’s marketing strategy and direction. When Kayla and I were expecting our first child, Marc shared relationship advice with me and insight into the delicate balance that goes into running a business while prioritising family (and how hard that can be). 

Aside from talking business, Marc just loves the game of basketball. In fact, when I first met him in 2013, he said this to me. “You know our rookie, Giannis? That guy is going to be the real deal. I’m telling you. The league doesn’t see it coming, but he’s going to take over.” 

We’re all human

People see the wealth, the press, and the political agendas that inform their opinions about leaders like Joe, Vivek, and Marc. What we often don’t see is the human element of what makes these leaders great. And that’s just what they are, humans.

I’m grateful for the guidance and perspective these guys have brought to my life and for the time they’ve spent with me as a first time founder. I really hope I can pay them back at some point.

A couple of closing thoughts. 

  • When contacting really successful people, show a genuine interest and curiosity in the businesses they’re building and have a very clear reason and ask.
  • From said interest and curiosity, offer to provide value and actually be helpful. There’s always a means for anyone in any position to be helpful. 
  • Remember that no one is unreachable. The best leaders and individuals want to give back and invest in the founders and teams that will impact future generations.

Justin Vandehey

Entrepreneur & Podcaster

Justin Vandehey leads partnerships and business development for Culture Amp, the industry leader in employee engagement solutions. Culture Amp acquired the company he cofounded, Disco, which Justin grew from $0 to seven figures in ARR (and profitable).