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Rio Ferdinand plays the startup game

BIAS: Rio Ferdinand

BIAS: Rio Ferdinand

Published Dec 7, 2019


INTERNATIONAL - When Rio Ferdinand was in his 20s he had it all –- he was winning championships with Manchester United and acclaim as one of the finest defenders in European soccer. 

But he knew his career could end suddenly. 

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So at the ripe old age of 27 he started planning for his retirement by opening his own restaurant in Manchester.

He can still remember the blowback from the brass at Manchester United who worried that tending an Italian eatery might be a distraction for their star center back.

“When I opened the restaurant I had that question from across the table -– what are you doing, you’re a Man United man, you’re not going to be in the kitchen are you?” Ferdinand recalled in an interview with Bloomberg News. Ultra-confident in his fitness and his game, he didn’t back down.

“I was thinking about my afterlife,” said Ferdinand, now aged 41. So he told his bosses, “If you can give me a job for life, I’ll stop this now.”

Ferdinand’s retirement plan has since expanded far beyond dining. He loves digital innovation and technology plays and is constantly on the lookout for promising investments. He befriended Saul Klein, a founding partner at Localglobe, a London-based angel investor that provides seed funding to startups.

Virtually every Monday, Ferdinand likes to join Klein, a former venture capitalist at Index Ventures, and hear pitches Dragons’ Den style from entrepreneurs. One memorable proposal came from a firm that designed an artificial intelligence system to perform brain surgery. “There’s no need for a doctor to be there,” Ferdinand said. “There is some crazy stuff that comes through.”

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Earlier this year, he agreed to serve as a “brand ambassador” for a London startup called Reliable Surveyors Ltd. The “prop-tech” company, run by Ray Harriot, offers prospective home-buyers an easy way to survey and inspect residences entirely through its app.

Using an alias to avoid attention, Ferdinand himself tapped the firm to size up a recent home purchase and was impressed by the way it translated jargon into plain English and educated customers on the ins and outs of a home purchase. Harriot said the two-year-old company is aimed at first-time home buyers.

“Reliable’s angle is very simple, make the consumer feel at ease, and help through what can be a stressful process” Harriot said.

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Big Number Five

Ferdinand also has a taste for digital media. Years ago, he started an online sport-lifestyle publication called #5 Magazine – a nod to his jersey number – and now it’s morphed into a YouTube channel that streams five-minute segments on everything from interviews with Premier League players and coaches to freestyle tricks by his old teammate Cristiano Ronaldo.

The clips usually draw more than 300,000 views and at one time Ferdinand was hoping #5 could produce custom content for Premier League clubs. “I’m still waiting for them to call,” he said, holding up his mobile with a smile.

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In his prime, Ferdinand was a no-nonsense center back -- standing 6 feet 2 inches tall and in fighting shape, he looks like he could still do some damage on the field. He began his career in 1995 at West Ham United in London’s East End after being scouted by the team’s youth academy, and was transferred to Leeds United, then a leading club, in 2000 for a British record fee of 18 million pounds ($23 million). Two years later, he was sent to Manchester United in a 30 million-pound deal, also a record.

During his 12-year career at Old Trafford, he played a key role in the run that netted six Premier League titles and the Champions League, Europe’s top tournament. He co-anchored the England international squad in 81 appearances and played in two World Cups. And with 10.6 million followers on Twitter, he’s still an influential voice in pro soccer as a match-day analyst for telecasts on BT Group Plc’s sports channels.

City vs United

He remains as immersed in the Premier League’s goings-on as ever. Turning to the news this week that a Silicon Valley private equity firm acquired a 10% stake in Manchester City, Ferdinand guffaws. He can’t believe his old arch-rival could now be worth $4.8 billion. “I don’t think that investment is a true reflection of Man City’s price, if I’m honest,” he said. “If they are worth that much, what is Man United worth?” Manchester United’s shares jumped 11% on Wednesday, giving it a market value of $3.1 billion.

Yet he said he’s wary of taking the next step and following peers such as Frank Lampard, the Chelsea player-turned-manager, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United’s manager, to the touchline. “When I see pictures of Frank and Ole four months ago to where they are now, gray hair and losing hair, yeah, I think management is not something I am interested in at this moment in time,” he said with a laugh.

For Ferdinand, the broadcast booth and his business pursuits will do, at least for now.


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