CoachUp Founder Backs New Startup to Connect Veterans and Sports
Coming off the Memorial Day holiday, here’s an interesting new company in town. It’s called Athletes of Valor, and it’s trying to provide support for U.S. servicemen and women who are transitioning back to civilian life and want to play college sports.
It may sound like a niche market. But over the next four years, a million-plus veterans are expected to exit the military, and if they enlisted from high school, they still have full NCAA eligibility, says Alex Stone, the startup’s founder and CEO. What’s more, he says, some two-thirds of veterans have played high school sports.
Stone is one of them. He grew up on the North Shore of Massachusetts, played football and hockey, and enlisted in the Marine Corps as a junior in high school. He served in the Marines from 2004 to 2008, spending two years in Iraq and rising to sergeant (he calls himself a “grunt”).
Then he returned to civilian life and took a job as a salesman and product manager at Wellpower Sports, traveling New England largely by himself. “When I separated, I felt a little lost,” Stone says. “Solitude wasn’t good for me. I needed to be with a team.”
After three years, Stone hooked up with Under Armour, the sports apparel company, and moved to Baltimore as a product manager. That’s when he crossed paths with Jordan Fliegel.
Fliegel is best known around Boston as the co-founder and former CEO of CoachUp, an online startup that connects athletes with private coaches. (He was a college and pro basketball player, so he knows the sports world.) CoachUp formed a partnership with Under Armour, and Fliegel became friends with Stone. In addition to knowing sports and business, they had something else in common: both had relatives who served in the military, specifically in World War II.
When Fliegel left CoachUp at the end of 2015—the company had brought in a new CEO earlier that year—he turned his attention to Athletes of Valor, which Stone had just founded. Fliegel became the startup’s lead investor and chairman. He says Athletes of Valor has also raised seed money from venture firm Accomplice and other investors, and that the round is “not quite closed.”
Here’s what they’re building: an online marketplace to connect servicemen and women with college-sports coaches and, eventually, corporate partners. Veterans looking to attend college can create profiles (while they’re serving) that include high school transcripts, sports accolades, and videos. Coaches can use the site as a recruiting platform to attract veterans (who have relevant life experience and leadership skills) to their programs. And the plan is also to provide internship opportunities and job training with companies when it comes time to graduate.
“It’s a personal mission—it’s something that just should exist,” Fliegel says. “A technology platform and network-based solution could really change the game.”
Fliegel brings plenty of lessons from CoachUp, starting with how to build a two-sided marketplace with search and messaging features. But he says Athletes of Valor “will be less transactional” and will try not to charge veterans. Instead, he says, the company will pursue deals with colleges and athletic directors using an annual subscription model, in addition to corporate sponsorships.
Stone, for his part, brings relationships with military leaders and veterans, and a deep understanding of the challenges that servicemen and women face when transitioning to civilian careers. “I’m personally obligated to go help them,” he says.
Thanks to his tour of duty, Stone also has a perspective on life that should serve him well as a young CEO (he’s 30). “I take things a little lighter. At the end of the day, there’s problems and solutions, and stressing out about them isn’t going to change it—they’ll still be there,” he says.
Stone is in the process of moving back to Boston from Baltimore, and his startup will work out of office space at Accomplice in Cambridge, MA, starting next month.