The Corner Office: Rich Paul, Founder & CEO of Klutch Sports Group
Words: Julian Mitchell
Images: Joshua Teplitz
Images: Joshua Teplitz
Some of the most successful people in the game refused to follow the rules to make it happen, they did it their own way. Welcome to the Corner Office.
"You can be the next Barack, LeBron, or Rich Paul.”
Regardless of talent, it takes a team to reach the top. Without assembling a skilled collective of hustlers committed to a shared vision, even the most promising trailblazers with perceivably limitless potential will eventually plateau. From navigating the business, balancing a personal life and mapping out an actionable plan for the future -- it's often the people behind the scenes who hold the keys that unlock the next level of your career.
For Klutch Sports Founder and CEO Rich Paul, being guided by an entrepreneurial instinct and attitude of service instilled by his parents made standing in the shadows of top-tier talent a seamless transition. Stepping into the business without a proven background or prior experience, Paul has since grown his sports agency into a multi-million dollar powerhouse. With a client roster that includes professional basketball giants like LeBron James, John Wall and Ben Simmons, the Ohio native has earned a reputation as one of the most trusted and respected agents in the game. Known for moving in silence, Paul continues raising the bar by attracting lottery picks, sealing high-profile endorsements and brokering blockbuster contracts.
I spoke with Rich Paul about breaking into the business, managing professional basketball’s biggest names and the importance of always playing your position.
Take us back to the those early aspirations - What was your focus before you found your path to breaking into the business?
Rich Paul: I was always someone who could adapt to my surroundings and understand the environment I was in. I had a business sense and hustle that I inherited from my parents. My thought process was try hard and never settle. When someone said I couldn't, I always believed I could. I had a vision, even when I was selling throwback jerseys in my neighborhood.
Talk a little bit about selling throwbacks, was that your first self-owned business?
Rich Paul: I was into fashion and always trying to get a leg up on my friends, it was a competition. When I found throwback jerseys that no one else had, there was a crazy response from everyone. I thought, “How can I turn this into a business?” and that was it.
So you've always had an entrepreneurial spirit. You mentioned inheriting that hustle from your parents. What are some of the core values you took from them that you still carry today?
Rich Paul: I was taught to have principals, be accountable and have integrity. Growing up, it was about respect and being a man of your word. That’s my style as an agent, it reflects in how I do business. It’s simply me sitting down with the client, giving them my word, and following through.
Humility seems to be a guiding principle in your life. If you're in a high-profile business or have a high-profile job some people believe that humility can minimize your impact. What is the power or the benefit of being humble and having humility in the business?
Rich Paul: It's very powerful, but I don’t wake up everyday thinking about how humble I need to be or whether I have to have humility. Having that balance and understanding is what helps me more than anything.
"I always try to encourage people to believe in themselves. I’m a unicorn in the sports agent business. Young, African-American, and didn't go to a prestigious business school. To make it, I tell people to not only dream big, but achieve big."
How has your vision of that evolved from when you first stepped in the business and started to where you are now?
Rich Paul: Its evolved tremendously, because when the average fan goes to the game, he's watching the game. It's fan participation, it's the "Kiss Cam" on the Jumbotron—“Oh, look, there's such-and-such checking into the game.” When I go to the game, it's totally different because I'm there to both support and represent.
What were some of the notable challenges you faced getting your business off the ground and really establishing yourself early on?
Rich Paul: The biggest challenge is being a young black man. There's also the challenge of the naysayers who say, “He hasn't done this” or “He can't negotiate that”. That's a part of the business. So you can either do one of two things. You can buy into that or you can continue to push. And that was my thing. I don't really get into what somebody has to say or doesn't have to say. All you can do is continue to push. Nobody envisioned me getting to this point. People think this is easy but it's very difficult to be a basketball agent.
Outside of being young and black and having naysayers, you also had a huge learning curve, I'm sure, by getting into the business and learning as you went.
Rich Paul: One of the key things was realizing the areas I needed help in. You're only going to be as strong as your team and people have to understand that. You don't do it by yourself, just like you don't play by yourself. Everybody’s important, from your assistant all the way up to your general manager.
It's like you guys are a unit and everybody does their thing and everybody has something valuable to bring to the table. What’s the benefit of the value of playing your part and building that team?
Rich Paul: It’s really valuable when you know your role. If you play on a basketball team and are very talented, but don't know your role, your value to that team may not be fulfilled. Now, let’s take that same principal and apply it to my business. Let’s imagine that player has an agent that either doesn't understand the player’s role or just doesn’t know it. How can the agent help position the player to have a strong value, if he has no clue what that player’s role is? It's impossible. You can't do it.
What does the Klutch acronym stand for? What is the Klutch philosophy and how has it manifested itself in your career so far?
Rich Paul: Klutch stands for Knowledge, Longevity, Understanding, Trust, Commitment, and Honesty. You have to have all those things to be successful in life and in the game of basketball. So for me, I look at things different. Just because you're the number one pick don't mean I'm going to recruit you. You may be the next 150 million-dollar guy but that doesn't mean you're going to be the right guy for Klutch. I'm not recruiting any and everybody. That's not what my business is about. That's not why I got into the business.
What are your keys to having a successful and scalable business? What have been the keys for you specifically?
Rich Paul: In my business, you not only have to be a student of the game of basketball, you have to be a student of the business of the basketball. Knowing what you don't know is very important. Being true to self is very important. And always doing what's best for the athlete, even if it's not what's best for the company.
My success is measured by the success of my clients as people. A prime example, one of my clients came from a single parent home, had no understanding of life and didn’t even know if he was a professional basketball player or not. Now he has structure, he’s financially stable, married and has a family of his own. That's success to me.
That feels like the opposite motive of how people would approach a business that does $738 million in deals and represents 15 of the top athletes. Is having that unique perspective and personal connection a key to your success?
Rich Paul: I always try to encourage people to believe in themselves. I’m a unicorn in the sports agent business. Young, African-American, and didn't go to a prestigious business school. To make it, I tell people to not only dream big, but achieve big. I was blessed to take the leap at the right time and had success. Complacency is the cousin of satisfaction and I’m never satisfied. I’m more motivated now than ever before.
What was that defining moment for you when you knew “Okay, I got this, I can do this, I can build something successful that can last”. What was the moment or the period that you knew you were in your pocket?
Rich Paul: You get defining moments—they're all not based on making money. It really started with stepping out and starting my own business. I was confident I could do it. Most people who want to get into this business don't take that initial step. From recruiting a number one pick to acquiring a number one pick takes professionalism. You have to handle the process with dignity and integrity.
How have you remained hungry and focused, even experiencing different things? What's kept you inspired?
Rich Paul: Well, this is something I love to do. I love the game of basketball, I love the families of the players that I'm blessed to represent. I love being able to help my guys. I love the people I work with. I have never been the type to care about the shine that comes with success. If you notice, I don't have Instagram, I'm not active on social media.
"Everyone's out here trying to please somebody else. For what? For a couple laughs or a pat on the back? What's that going to do? You can't eat that. You can't eat likes."
In such a competitive industry where everybody is fighting to land the top stars --- What makes Klutch Sports unique and sets your approach apart from other agencies?
Rich Paul: I won’t give away the Klutch Sports secret sauce. I will say that over time I’ve learned you can only represent those that allow you to represent them. It’s not a buy and sell thing with me. It’s more of communication and understanding of what’s important then and them truly believing that I’m the best guy to help them reach their goals. If not, then they sign elsewhere. I don’t take it personal, it’s business.
Describe the qualities you seek or admire in a prospect and what makes your current client roster special?
Rich Paul: The main quality is character, followed by a genuine love for the game. I’ve been blessed to work with some amazing young men and I enjoy it everyday. Regardless of their rank, it’s the person and their beliefs and goals that motivate me to represent them. What they exude, and how hard they are willing to work to achieve it. There’s never a time when I’m not trying to help them get better, both on and off the floor and my guys know that. They respect me for that and the appreciation goes both ways.
The trust and respect you've established with players goes beyond the basketball court -- How important is caring about the personal well-being of athletes and their families?
Rich Paul: Caring about the actual person is what’s most important. The game isn’t the end all be all. They are men first and I respect them as such. The bond is so strong, because they can feel that. I was raised that way. Respect was always held highest in my neighborhood and in my home so I carry it with me. In this role you become a part of the family in many ways.
Being an agent requires interfacing with many different types of people at all levels -- How important are relationships and what is your formula for building lasting connections?
Rich Paul: Talent is what’s most important in the league but strong relationships allow talent to shine. I value the relationships I’ve been able to build over the past 16 years in this business. I also understand that talent is important, the owners and GM’s can love you to death but in the end they are trying to improve their respective teams. Either you can help them or you can’t.
You mentioned how hard it is for people to take that risk to bet on themselves, and I feel like a lot of people do that because they get intimidated by a business or what they don't know or just fear. So what would be your words to them, from your experience, when they want to take a leap when they have something they're passionate about but haven't done it?
Rich Paul: You gotta shoot your shot to make the shot. If you don't shoot, how can you make it? That's what people don't realize. You're living in a world where people will discourage you from taking a leap. How many times in the tech world do people invest in an idea and it never works? But then the one that does work hits. But imagine you didn't invest in the first nine things that didn't work, so how could you invest in the ten that did? If the opportunity calls for me, I’m stepping out and making the call, even if it’s a major move. You can't put a number on an opportunity. And if you fail, so what? So what? If they talk about you, so what? Name one person in this world they're not talking about.
How important is it for people to understand that staying in your lane, trusting your time, paying your dues, just finding your own definition of success is valuable?
Rich Paul: Well, the value comes in knowing who you are as a person. Most people don't really know who they are. And you know why? Because they're so busy trying to please someone else. You can't know who you are trying to please somebody else. You have to please you. If that means being a mechanic, if that means being a brain surgeon, if that means being a freelance artist or writer, whatever the case may be, please yourself first. Everyone's out here trying to please somebody else. For what? For a couple laughs or a pat on the back? What's that going to do? You can't eat that. You can't eat likes.
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