Detroit Entrepreneur’s PlayVs is First E-Sports League for High Schools
As a kid in the 1990s, Delane Parnell spent his formative years around Detroit’s 7 Mile and Burgess neighborhood in a home with no Internet. Today, he’s the founder and CEO of a hot Los Angeles-based e-sports startup—and responsible for raising the largest Series A investment round of any African-American tech founder.
Parnell is the co-founder of PlayVs, a company that is building the country’s first e-sports league for high school students. Earlier this month, PlayVs announced it had raised a $15 million Series A round led by New Enterprise Associates, with participation from Science, Crosscut Ventures, Cross Culture Ventures, Twitch co-founder Kevin Lim, and a smattering of funds associated with professional athletes and rappers, including Nas and Baron Davis.
But before we get into the enormous potential of PlayVs, we should first look at how Parnell found his way to the tech world. He got his start the same way many entrepreneurs do: by mowing lawns around his neighborhood.
“My goal in life then was, how do I make as much money as possible?” he recalls. “The biggest and most impactful turning point was when I was 13 and my mom got me and my brother jobs. Then the summer job became a full-time job.”
While his brother’s job was with the now-defunct Meat Town grocery store, Parnell went to work at a wireless shop. The shop’s owner took Parnell under his wing and mentored him, teaching him how to run a business along with leadership and management skills. Parnell was also hired to be a mystery shopper. “It was probably the first time they had to pick a kid up so he could get to work,” he jokes. “I wanted to buy a wireless store, so I saved every penny.”
It didn’t take long before Parnell did just that, eventually adding two more stores to his empire. He was 17 years old.
Despite that early success, Parnell began pursuing a second business venture. His mom introduced him to the owner of a car rental business who wanted to grow his venture. Parnell threw himself into the work, carving out a new revenue stream from fellow high school students who wanted to rent cars for proms and other big events. “We grew the business, changed the name, and now there are 16 locations across metro Detroit,” he says.
At 19, Parnell left the car rental business. This was in 2012, when Detroit’s revitalization was just getting started. He was inspired by his success with brick-and-mortar entrepreneurship, but as an avid gamer and gadget geek, he wanted to explore techier opportunities.
Parnell soon attended a local TedX conference, which inspired him to begin hosting an event series that brought top tech leaders, such as Reddit co-founder Alex Ohanian and the Foundry Group’s Brad Feld, to the Motor City to share their secrets to startup success. “It was the first time a lot of these guys had been to Detroit,” Parnell says.
The first event in that speaker series was held at Bamboo Detroit before it was officially a co-working space; he remembers Bamboo’s organizers needing to go out and buy chairs from Ikea in order to provide seating for attendees. He became a regular at Bamboo and grew his network exponentially.
During those early days of Detroit’s emergence onto the national tech scene, Parnell says it could be especially tough to get a critical mass of people investing in and creating tech startups. There was still a lot of doubt that Detroit was even capable of recovery and growth. “A lot of people needed [Quicken Loans chairman] Dan Gilbert’s help to do anything,” he says of that era. “Nobody wanted to pay.”
That led some in Detroit’s startup community to reach out to Parnell for help connecting with Y Combinator, Techstars, and other nationally known startup incubators. Parnell figured his extensive network could be a business asset. “I realized I needed to monetize that and do it full-time,” he says. “So Brad Feld suggested I get involved in venture capital,” he says.