It’s the first thing any aspiring startup founder is told: the odds of a new business succeeding are low. The failure rate of any U.S. company after five years is over 50 percent and over 70 percent after 10 years. A venture-backed tech startup sees even more disappointing statistics, with failure rates ranging from 75 to 90 percent within the first two years, depending on the study you cite.
Dontari Poe is fully aware of those statistics — but he’s used to beating the odds himself. That’s part of the reason that the 27-year-old NFL defensive tackle, currently with the Carolina Panthers and formerly the Atlanta Falcons, joined the increasing ranks of entertainment figures participating as an angel investor in technology startups.
“For one thing, the odds of hitting a unicorn are about the same as making it to the NFL out of college. Like 1 percent. That means it’s a numbers game,” Poe says. “You have to be prepared to lose some, just like games.”
His activity started when he noticed other athletes getting in on the tech space.
“I see all the NBA guys doing it…” Poe says. “Tech is everywhere. It is in all our lives. You got to get in the game with it to understand it.”
His investments have primarily been in companies that tackle problems in the social sector: for example, Silicon Valley-based Lab Sensor Solutions develops ‘mobile sensor as a service’ devices to track lab samples, while New York-based DailyPay is a fintech company that helps workers who live paycheck-to-paycheck by allowing them to receive earnings before their regularly scheduled payday.
“For me, you have to make a profit and do good by people,” says Poe, who comes from a modest background in his hometown of Memphis, TN, where he was raised by a single mother. He like to work closely with the companies he invests in, as he sees the entire startup process as a team effort, “like football.”
“I look for the passion, experience, hustle and humbleness,” Poe says on what he looks for in a startup team. “Startups are hard. You need a lot to go right. That means you need help. If you can’t ask for help, you’re going to fail.”
Poe’s background has inspired efforts beyond financial investing, as well: in 2016 he launched a program for his non-profit, Poe Man’s Dream, focused on connecting underserved youth to the startup world.
During ‘Poe Man’s Challenge’, startup founders preparing for a pitch event (for which Poe was one of the judges, along with other athlete investors) were required to mentor those youth prior to the pitch. The students were then given the opportunity to pitch the entrepreneurs, with the winner receiving a scholarship.
The winner of the Challenge, water quality startup Sutro, also received an additional investment from Poe. The San Fransisco company makes sensors that monitor the chemical levels in swimming pools to ensure safe levels.
Though his investments thus far have been far from home, Poe is also focused on improving the statistics of his hometown. While Memphis does have a burgeoning entrepreneurial scene, figures that came out earlier this year showed that the metro area is the poorest large metro in the country — and may be getting poorer.
To work on improving that, this summer Poe Man’s Dream hosted a three-day camp for Memphis’s middle and high school students to learn from local entrepreneurs. The students engaged in activities like creating pitch decks and presentations based on real tech startups. The winning student team took home a $500 prize.
“The camp exposes them to a different way of thinking. Like, I could do that,” says Poe. Part of the problem, he says, is that Memphis’s youth don’t often see successful entrepreneurs that “look like them.”
It’s something Eric Mathews, CEO of Memphis-based startup accelerator StartCo, spoke to in an interview with Hypepotamus.
“Memphis is a majority/minority city and women have been underrepresented in these technology fields, so that’s something that we’ve focused on deliberately early on,” Mathews said.
Poe agrees. “That’s important. If you see someone that looks like you doing it, then you think ‘hey, I could do that.’ It’s all about exposure to different things.”
Poe is continuing to engage with local organizations like StartCo to understand more about the city’s startup scene and see where his efforts could be most helpful.
“I’m hopeful that with some more exposure, Memphis will be a place for more startups,” he says.
“We’re going to do more in the future. Exposure and network are what it’s about. Stay turned for more.”