Rich Kleiman has always been fascinated with business.
Growing up on the Upper West Side in New York City, a curious Kleiman would venture into Baronets on 83rd and Broadway, finding the stationary store’s proprietors to be “the most incredible people ever” because they ran the store, had access to the cash register, set the culture and were part of the neighborhood. Kleiman was equally intrigued by the hordes of people rushing to and from office buildings with briefcases in tow as he explored the Concrete Jungle in the 1980s.
An inspired Kleiman sought to replicate that energy as best he could by selling his GI Joes, wrestling figures, baseball cards and stickers on the street. He would also wait outside the Park N’ Lock near Madison Square Garden after New York Knicks games to get his game program signed, which he’d then sell.
When he wasn’t selling toys on the street, Kleiman, 8 or 9 at the time, advocated on behalf of his friends to their parents through his “business” Lawya-Kid.
“I think New York has inspired almost everything I do and how I am,” Kleiman says from his corner office in Chelsea at Thirty Five Ventures, the media and investment empire he co-founded with Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant. “I love New York City. I think people who love New York City get it when you say it.
“I think it was two things—it was that hustle and bustle, but it was also a little bit of when you grow up in New York City, you can see every kind of person and part of life in one drive uptown and it kind of made me focus on what it was like to have money and what it was like to not have money.”
KD & Me
Kleiman first met Durant shortly after his 2007 Rookie of the Year campaign when the lean Longhorn wasted little time introducing himself to the NBA.
The 19-year-old, who was selected No. 2 overall in the 2007 NBA Draft out of the University of Texas, averaged 20.3 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game and 2.4 assists per game for the Seattle Supersonics en route to being named NBA Rookie of the Year. Durant joined Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James as the only teenagers in league history to average at least 20 points per game for a season.
“From the moment I met Rich,” Durant says, “it was clear to me that he really understood the basketball world, really understood the business world, and also was just a very real and genuine person.”
“We were 10 years apart or whatever it was, but we just clicked,” Kleiman says. “I really know basketball and had such respect for him. He loves talking basketball and the same things I loved. We weren’t talking business back then and we just kept in touch through the years.”
Today, Durant and Kleiman do more than keep in touch—they invest, they create, they produce, they launch, and most importantly, they succeed.
Launched in 2016, Thirty Five Ventures has evolved into a multi-faceted sports, media and entertainment company.
Thirty Five Ventures has invested in more than 75 early stage companies across fintech, cryptocurrency, health and wellness and media including Dapper Labs, Coinbase, Postmates, Robinhood, SeatGeek, Whoop and Therabody.
Kleiman said initially Thirty Five Ventures was writing smaller checks for earlier stage companies, and because of that, they were seeing a broad landscape of businesses. As they began investing larger sums in subsequent fundraising rounds, the focus narrowed. The plan is to raise an investment vehicle and “start to write bigger checks than we have.”
The two also launched Boardroom, the venture’s sports business media network that includes a robust editorial team, podcasts—season two of Durant’s “The Etcs” and Kleiman’s “The Boardroom: Out of Office” will debut later this month—three newsletters, social content, trading cards and collectibles—Boardroom recently partnered with Dapper Labs—and video content. Boardroom content garners 90 million impressions per month and 6 million video views per month.
The company’s third pillar is centered around media production. Thirty Five Ventures produced Basketball County: In the Water (Showtime), the Oscar-winning Two Distant Strangers (Netflix), and the upcoming series Swagger, which debuts on October 29 on Apple TV+.
“It’s an incredible feeling to walk into our offices and see how big our team has grown, how much we’ve been able to do with Boardroom, and how much success we’ve been able to have in the investing space and beyond,” says Durant, the third-highest paid player in the NBA for 2021-22 according to Forbes. “To be able to achieve all of this with someone who has always had my best interests in mind and to know that we’re continuing to grow this together and are really still in the early days of that journey is a special thing.”
The two continue to remain in sync—proud and appreciative of what they’ve accomplished, but equally, if not more motivated and excited about what the future holds.
“I wish maybe I felt like ‘Oh, look what I’ve started to build here,’ but I really still feel like that kid selling toys, to be honest,” Kleiman says. “I’m really so excited about what’s in front of us. That stuff where I start to visualize what I can do in the future and how much opportunity there is, I just love that feeling. If it feels like there’s so much more we can do and there’s so much more in front of us, I just get so motivated by that feeling.
“It’s not ‘I have to pinch myself,’ it’s ‘Oh man, this is exactly what I wanted to do.’”
Excited about what 2022 and beyond will bring, opportunity has always inspired Kleiman.
A lover of sports, Kleiman spent countless hours cheering on his favorite New York franchises, especially the Rangers, Knicks and St. John’s University at The Garden. He can still recall his first Knicks game watching Marvin Webster, Ken Bannister, Louis Orr, Rory Sparrow and Darrell Walker on the ’84 squad. He idolized Mark Jackson, a Brooklyn-born point guard who not only starred for St. John’s, but also Kleiman’s beloved Knicks.
Kleiman didn’t just watch basketball, he played it too—in school, in the park, wherever he could. In high school, he showcased his skills at the Eastern Invitational Basketball Clinic in the hopes of garnering attention at the next level.
“I thought I crushed it,” he says. “Like I really thought I crushed it.”
When he surveyed the results the next day, Kleiman was crushed. He couldn’t find his name anywhere on the team roster; instead he was replaced by someone named Tom Kilman. He pleaded and begged coaches for the remainder of camp that he was Rich Kleiman and not Tom Kilman but to no avail.
“By the end of that camp, as good as I played, I knew I wasn’t going anywhere because these guys thought I’m Tom Kilman,” Kleiman says with a laugh.
Discouraged but not defeated, Kleiman still sought to continue his basketball career at the collegiate level. Cornell University told him he didn’t have the grades. A friend bound for Lafayette College petitioned for Kleiman to join him, but the coach felt otherwise.
“Going to college and playing basketball was a real dream because when I was growing up everyone played college basketball,” Kleiman says. “I figured if I could play college basketball, who knows from there, but I knew I wasn’t playing in the NBA.”
Instead, Kleiman ended up at Boston University. His motivation, at least for college basketball and institutionalized learning, was all but gone; he dropped out without recording a single credit.
Wanting to give it the old college try again, Kleiman attended Boston College night school the following year, but rather than paying attention in class, he sat in the back reconciling numbers from the bookie operation he was running.
Kleiman had struggled to focus in school since his parents’ divorce when he was in eighth grade. He wasn’t a bad student, but lacked the focus and structure to remain on top of his studies. Plus, anyway, the real world outside kept calling his name.
After two years in Boston, he returned to the Big Apple, living with his brother rather than his mother—“I couldn’t go live with my mom because it was just way too tumultuous,” he says. Kleiman reconnected with his friends who gave him the self confidence he lost in college, but for the next two years he wandered. He worked at restaurants, but wanted to greet customers as owner, not host. He and a friend lived in an old-age community in Boca Raton, Florida, for a year, enjoying life on the beach with frequent trips down the coast to Miami.
By the time he returned to New York City, some of his friends were graduating college. Future Acorns CEO Noah Kerner and future Stocktwits CEO Rishi Khanna had an idea for a hip-hop website, onelevel.com, at the time of the dot-com boom. For 18 months they raised a few million dollars, secured an office space and Kleiman helped put together a board of advisors consisting of Robert De Niro, Q-Tip and Heavy D—“the most random group of people I was able to connect to,” he says.
While the site ultimately faltered, Kleiman was able to pivot again, landing a role as music supervisor at TV/film production company Radical Media in 2000.
“I had just taken the momentum of this startup my friends came to me with and now I was somebody that felt like I had just finished college and was ready to enter the world,” he says.
Utilizing the discipline and focus he gained firsthand in the real world coupled with his innate curiosity and hustle, Kleiman furthered his foray into the music industry. Not only did Kleiman and Radical Media help give young independent producers, artists and bands their first big breaks, but many were so appreciative, they asked Kleiman if he’d manage them. Here he’d again learn on the fly, asking about or researching things like ASCAP, BMI and publishing licenses.
He met DJ/producer Mark Ronson and became his manager; Ronson later telling The New York Times, “Rich has a spark and people are drawn to him.” The two built a studio in Soho that welcomed stars including Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, J. Cole and Wale.
It was around this time Kleiman met Jay-Z, who recently recorded a concert at Madison Square Garden following the release of The Black Album (2003). The show, which was meant to be the rapper’s final performance, was turned into Fade to Black, a documentary released the following year that Kleiman helped produce.
“He was the coolest person I had ever met,” Kleiman says. “He was calm but powerful. It was everything rolled into one—like the greatest basketball player, mobster, businessman and rapper.”
Buoyed by singles “99 Problems,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” and “Change Clothes,” The Black Album debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, selling 463,000 copies in its first week. The album went triple platinum and Jay-Z’s retirement didn’t last long, returning to recording in 2006.
Two years later, the man born Shawn Carter launched entertainment company Roc Nation with the intent of signing artists and succeeding his previous label, Roc-A-Fella Records.
“As much as I loved everything Mark and I had built and as much as I had loved everything I was doing at Radical Media and being an entrepreneur and trying to do this on my own, I was 26 years old and was like, ‘I’m going with him. Wherever he is,’” Kleiman says.
Kleiman joined Roc Nation shortly thereafter managing artists, DJs and producers including Mark Ronson, Wale, Meek Mill, Solange and D Nice.
But he still yearned for more. There were times his confidence faltered and he questioned if music was for him. It wasn’t until the launch of Roc Nation Sports in 2013 where Kleiman felt he finally found his calling.
“The fact that they let me go into sports from music and refocus my career while I was still there was incredible,” he says. “There’s probably no other places at 35 years old that I could have went from managing musicians and having a good career—by no means was I a top manager in the business—but when I was able to move into sports, it really was that experience, confidence and knowing what I was doing, so I knew exactly what I needed to do the rest of my life.”
As vice-president of the sports agency, Kleiman worked with athletes like Victor Cruz, CC Sabathia, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Robinson Cano.
Durant signed with Roc Nation that summer. Kleiman was with the NBA All-Star as much as he could be, whether he was plying his trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder or Golden State Warriors. He became a constant presence—serving as a reliable manager and friend. He spent two weeks each month in the Pacific Northwest during Durant’s three-year tenure with the Warriors, which included consecutive NBA Championships in 2017-18.
“We knew pretty quickly into it that Kevin had the potential to do what was becoming the blueprint—what Jay-Z did, what LeBron (James) was doing—which was you build enterprise all around you,” Kleiman says.
Leaning back in his chair, Kleiman reflects on his career and journey to this point. Never satisfied, the 44-year-old father of two admits he doesn’t have many regrets. In fact, it was this series of events that not only made him stronger, but helped guide him to where he is today.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it propelled Rich Kleiman to the heights he dreamt of as a kid selling toys on the streets of New York City.
“I’m enamored by people who have mastered their craft and people who work,” he says. “It goes back to what I loved as a kid—if you ran the store, I really respected that. When you can meet people like the best rapper, the best basketball player, one of the greatest musicians of our generation, I was just enamored by their skillset because I couldn’t do that.
“I didn’t have that kind of skill set, but I had the ability to be complementary and to really respect what that was. I enjoy being next to those people. It inspires me. I love the energy that’s around it and I found what my lane was in it.”