Pitching In

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When you go to a baseball game, you’re going there to relax. When Joe Urbon goes to a baseball game, he’s going there to work. Urbon, a graduate of Kentridge High School and Washington State University, has taken an unlikely path from playing baseball to becoming one of the game’s budding power brokers as agent to some of the bigger names in the game.

Along the way, he has gone from being a player in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, where his career was shortened by a knee injury, to becoming a partner in CAA Baseball, a young but fast-growing wing of CAA Sports, which itself is an offshoot of Creative Artists Agency, which represents some of the biggest names in entertainment.

When Urbon was a player, he had an agent, but he admits, “I had no idea what an agent did, really.”

How, in less than 20 years, has he gone from that to being one of the top agents in the game?

It started with a chance encounter in a physical therapist’s office.

“I was rehabbing my knee [after tearing his right anterior cruciate ligament for the second time] and I got talking to this guy next to me, a pretty cool older guy who was a high-powered attorney in D.C.,” Urbon says. “The job chose me more than I chose it.”

The attorney, Michael Cardozo, suggested that with Urbon’s background in baseball, he might make a good sports agent. Cardozo had done some work with the predecessor of Octagon Sports, which at the time handled the biggest name in sports, Michael Jordan, among others, and Cardozo got Urbon a job interview.

Urbon, now 43, was still an active player at the time (1992), and he wasn’t ready to give up on that career. But he wasn’t an active player for long. He went to spring training that year, realized he was never going to be the player he had been before the knee injury and, after consultation with his fiancée (now wife), Katherine, he became an intern at Octagon.

He had his first client within weeks. Kevin Stocker was the younger brother of a former teammate of Urbon’s with the Phillies. Stocker was about to make it in the big leagues, and he needed an agent.

“When I heard through Stocker’s brother that he didn’t have an agent, I flew out to meet him,” Urbon says. “He was going to interview some others, but after we talked, he hired me on the spot. The next year [1993], he was the starting shortstop in the World Series for the Phillies.”

There were fits and starts, to be sure, but over the course of 19 years, Urbon has gone from novice to expert. Using Washington state as his base, he has steadily built up a client list of 25 big-league players that includes Everett’s Grady Sizemore, an All-Star center fielder with the Cleveland Indians, and Everett’s Travis Snider, an outfielder with the Toronto Blue Jays. Through his relationship with Sizemore, Urbon also signed British Columbia native Jason Bay, a three-time All-Star who signed a four-year deal with the New York Mets in December 2009.

“When you go after a recruit for the first time, you are going in there to give the player and his family a sense of your history and what you can do for them immediately,” Urbon says. “At that point, you are not the agent, you are the adviser. It’s a thin line, and confusing with the NCAA’s rules, but you are there to help the family and the player navigate the waters of the draft.

“By and large, those families just go through this one time, maybe twice at the most. They don’t have the first idea what to expect.”

Sizemore, who was being asked to choose between playing football and baseball for the University of Washington or signing with the Montreal Expos, was one of those athletes.

“Joe was recommended to me through a high school coach,” says Sizemore, who will be 29 in August and is making $7.5 million with Cleveland this season. “I wasn’t really going to go with an adviser; I was really planning on going to college.”

Sizemore recalls that the visit went well. “But when you are 16 or 17, you don’t set your sights beyond a few days.... I think I left in the middle of it all to go to a party. It was more [left to] my parents than me. I trusted my mom and dad, and they trusted Joe.”

More than any other word in the dictionary, trust is the one that rings out in Urbon’s line of work. His clients, who aren’t inclined to wait for a Jerry Maguire-style epiphany, trust that he will do his best for them from the start.

“I can’t ever remember him wanting me to do anything I don’t want to do,” says Jason Bay, who now lives in Kirkland and who, at Urbon’s urging, has done charity benefits, corporate meet-and-greets and personal appearances that will enhance Bay’s brand. “He knows where I draw the line. He might rarely ask me to do something a second time. If he does, I know it’s his way of begging me. And I’ll consider it, because I know he has my best interests at heart.”

For the best agents, those interests are front and center 365 days a year. That means being ready to drop plans at a moment’s notice to get a deal done. Case in point: Christmas Eve 2009. Bay was one of the premier players available in free agency, and the Mets had upped their offer to the point where a deal hung in the balance.

“I remember sitting in the bedroom of my mother’s house [in Auburn] that night when the rest of the family was in the living room,” Urbon says. “It was just one of those things when the pieces all fell together. I was in Washington, Jason was in British Columbia, Omar [Minaya, then the Mets’ general manager] was in Costa Rica and Jeff [Wilpon, the Mets’ chief operating officer] was in his plane either on the ground in Israel or flying over Israel.

“The deal was worked out except for the last-minute details—the payment schedules, no-trade-clause issues, little stuff like that. But when you have a deal like that one [four years, $66 million, with an option for a fifth year at $17 million], even the little details take a lot of time to hammer out.

“Then, Christmas Day we spent at my in-laws’ [in Tacoma], and I was back on the phone again, trying to get it done. It got done, but it’s the kind of thing you can’t really explain at the time. You just go ahead and get it done and apologize later for the time it took. I bought a lot of great Christmas gifts last year, I can tell you that.”

Bay had to give up a substantial portion of his holiday, too, although the payoff was well worth it.

“I know that Joe is not working for me every minute of every day,” says Bay, 32, who was also weighing an offer from the Boston Red Sox. “That is not the way the business works. But when you go through free agency, that changes. And if it means closing the deal on Christmas Day, well, that’s the way it goes. Most of the time when we talk, it’s just a few minutes on baseball and then it’s catching up.

“As a baseball player, the window for playing is very short. That’s why I was looking for a guy like Joe when I went looking for an agent. I didn’t want to be ‘learned’ on. I wanted someone who already knew the ropes of representing players, and Joe does.”

Of course, the trust can’t be one-sided. The men on the opposite side of the baseball equation have to trust you, too. Alex Anthopoulos, general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, says one of the reasons Urbon does well for his clients is that, as a former player, Urbon understands the ball club’s side of things.

“He’s a good communicator and a straight shooter when you deal with him,” says Anthopoulos. “He does a good job for his clients. At the same time, he’s a realist. He knows what clubs can do and what they can’t. When you’re negotiating with him, you can trust what he says.”

Urbon has continued to mine Washington’s baseball fields to the point where, last year, two of the state’s top prospects, Josh Sale and Drew Vettleson, became his clients. Both are outfielders, and both were drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays, champions of the American League East Division last season. (Sale, from Seattle’s Bishop Blanchet High School, was the 17th pick overall in the 2010 draft; Vettleson, from Silverdale’s Central Kitsap High, was the 42nd overall pick.)

Urbon approached both of them the same way, more through their parents and families and a statewide list of baseball contacts than directly. And the goal is always the same.

“There are so many unknowns, and your job is to peel back the layers and prepare them for the process,” Urbon says. “Does it make sense to play pro or go to college? And the answer is not the same for everyone.”

For an agent, the only way to grow the business is to start representing players when they are first ready to sign, but there’s not a lot of money in the early stages. In the case of Toronto’s Snider, there was a $1.7 million signing bonus, but it will be after 2012 before the possibility of salary arbitration kicks in, and free agency looms three years after that. That’s when the real money awaits.

And the money is indeed real. Major League Baseball players will make about $2.8 billion in cumulative salary in 2011, and while there is no cap to the fees agents can charge their clients in baseball—as in pro football and basketball—most players pay between 3 and 5 percent of their salaries to agents.

“In a lot of ways, when you sign a kid like me out of high school when he’s 18, the agent has to be a baby sitter as much as anything,” says Snider, who was the youngest position player in the game when he made it to the big leagues at age 20 in 2008. “When I signed and was away from home for the first time, I was on the phone to Joe every day, sometimes two or three times a day.

“Agents have to know their psychology, especially for a client like me.... And Joe does. He helped me get through a difficult time [when Snider was sent back to the minors after experiencing some success with the Blue Jays].” With Urbon’s help, Snider, who is making $435,800 this year and has paid another visit to the minors, got over it.

In the end, it’s the agent’s job to be more than baby sitter, hand holder, contract negotiator and financial adviser. Finding a player a place to live in a new city isn’t an unusual task for sports agents. Neither is acting as chauffeur and big brother.

And then there’s the issue of generating revenue beyond the player’s contract. That step means arranging autograph shows; hooking the client up with a car dealership; handling shoe, glove and bat contracts; maybe even getting him some local gigs as an advertising pitchman.

“If you want to put it in those terms,” Urbon says, “each player is an account. But they are so much more than that. They are all human. Your job is to do what you can to enable them to succeed.”

And that enables Urbon to succeed.

Three Investors Who Believe in the Innovative Capabilities of Local Entrepreneurs

Three Investors Who Believe in the Innovative Capabilities of Local Entrepreneurs

Meet Matt McIlwain, Nick Hanauer and Dan Levitan.
FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

As much as we’d like to think otherwise, Seattle is not yet a hotbed of venture capital activity. Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff said as much in an interview earlier this year with The Seattle Times. While discussing the healthy state of the region’s tech business, Rascoff observed, “From a technology landscape standpoint, I’m pleased with the vibrancy of the startup community, [but] I still think … Seattle needs more institutional venture capital. The fact that we have really only a handful of venture-capital firms based here is going to hold the region back from fulfilling its potential.”

Still, without capital from local investors, many of the companies that now form the backbone of the Puget Sound economy — from Amazon to Zulily, from Julep to Juno Therapeutics — might not exist, or might exist elsewhere.

So here’s to the venture capitalists who call Seattle home and who find promise and potential profit in betting on companies like Apptio and Avvo. Dato and Drugstore.com (acquired by Walgreen’s). Front Desk and FanNation.com (acquired by Sports Illustrated). Isilon Systems (acquired by EMC) and Insitu (acquired by Boeing). Moz and Modumetal. Redfin and Rover.com. Shippable and Spaceflight Services. Trupanion and Talyst. And plenty more.

On the pages that follow, we feature three prominent members of Seattle’s venture capital community who believe in the region’s ability to create viable, sustainable businesses here. Two have made Forbes magazine’s annual Midas List of the top 100 venture capitalists in the world. The other has become a civic activist dedicated to addressing — and solving — economic inequality.

DAN LEVITAN
Dan Levitan cofounded Maveron with Howard Schultz in 1998. Since then, he has been the key player on many of Maveron’s home runs, including Zulily. In 2014, Forbes magazine named him to its Midas List of the top 100 VCs in the world. Levitan is a graduate of Duke University and has an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School.

Investment you’d characterize as your biggest success.  Zulily and eBay 

Company you passed on and now wish you had invested in. Blue Nile

Most important things to look for in a startup. The entrepreneur and his/her team; the size of the market; and a differentiated product/service

Best location for closing a deal. The CEO’s office

Kinds of companies you’re looking for and why. We specialize in identifying, financing and mentoring highly disruptive and immersive, consumer-facing companies. We love — and invest in — companies that integrate into the lives of consumers and make the world a better place.

The most effective entrepreneur you’ve encountered. Howard Schultz [of Starbucks], because he built one of the most respected brands in the world. 

Top two deal makers. Awesome entrepreneur, insanely driven to succeed

Top two deal breakers. Anything outside of consumer or anything too small

What do you do for fun? I go to Duke basketball games.

What kind of car do you drive? Tesla Model S 

You might not know. Levitan has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Rainier. He found a mentor in Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who taught Levitan the central lesson of Maveron’s consumer-focused success: Always ask, “Do you love your team?” 

NICK HANAUER
Nick Hanauer is an entrepreneur with a broad range of experience across manufacturing, retailing, e-commerce, digital media, advertising, software, aerospace, health care and finance. In 2015, he also founded Civic Ventures, a small group of political “troublemakers” devoted to ideas, policies and actions centering on significant social change. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington.

Investment you’d characterize as your biggest success. For sure, aQuantive. I founded it and funded a big part of it and sold it [to Microsoft] for $6.4 billion. Also, Amazon as a first-round investor.

Company you passed on and now wish you had invested in. Rich Barton asked me to invest in Glassdoor, but I was too lazy to do anything. That was a screw-up.

Most important things to look for in a startup. My first screen is “Nick’s rule of transformational value.” Every great business is predicated on a product or service that creates what I call transformational value — that is, it is either 10 times better or 10 times cheaper or, ideally, both. Second, of course, the quality of the people. Bad people can kill a great idea but great people can evolve a mediocre idea.

Best location for closing a deal. My office.

Kinds of companies you’re looking for and why. My partners and I look for very early-stage-ideas companies. We try to be hard core about them being headquartered locally, but have made exceptions for entrepreneurs we already knew and trusted. We are somewhat agnostic to industry, reasoning that it’s the stuff you have not considered before that may be the biggest opportunity. For example, one of our best and most exciting investments was Insitu [acquired by Boeing for $400 million], and they made drones before anyone knew what drones were. 

The most effective entrepreneur you’ve encountered. It’s hard to beat [Amazon’s] Jeff Bezos. My pal Rich Barton [of Zillow] comes close.  

Top two deal makers. Simplicity and focus

Top two deal breakers. Complexity and confusion

What do you do for fun? What don’t I do for fun? I believe that one of my finest and rarest qualities is my ability to efficiently convert money into fun.

What kind of car do you drive? Tesla Model S P90D

You might not know. Hanauer is a co-author (with Eric Liu) of two best-selling books in the political genre, The True Patriot and The Gardens of Democracy. He has been featured in two documentary films on economic inequality — American Winter and Inequality for All.

MATT MCILWAIN 

Matt McIlwain joined Madrona Venture Group in 2000 and focuses on a broad range of software-driven firms. Current investments include Apptio, Envelop VR and Smartsheet. A graduate of Dartmouth College, he holds an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He was named to the Forbes Midas List in 2008, 2009 and 2011.

Investment you’d characterize as your biggest success. Isilon Systems [acquired by EMC for $2.25 billion]

Company you passed on and now wish you had invested in. Airbnb

Most important things to look for in a startup. Customer-driven problem/need; differentiated and technology-driven solution; compelling founding team that can build a great company

Best location for closing a deal. Coffee shop or a great restaurant

Kinds of companies you’re looking for and why. Virtual reality/augmented reality companies and “application intelligence” companies that leverage machine learning to make apps smarter

The most effective entrepreneur you’ve encountered. Sunny Gupta [of Apptio] is world class at customer focus, attracting great people and product-market fit.

Top two deal makers. Great judgment, passion for the opportunity

Top two deal breakers. Not focusing on the customer’s problem, lack of transparency

What do you do for fun? Travel, play (and watch) sports, discuss policy issues

What kind of car do you drive? 2011 BMW 535i

You might not know. McIlwain came to venture capital investing from an unlikely place: the Genuine Auto Parts Company in Atlanta, Georgia, which owns NAPA Auto Parts. He ended up spending a lot of time with venture capitalists and venture-backed companies that were interested in investing in the sector. He worked with Madrona on some projects and joined the firm in 1999.