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How two college friends got Serena Williams and Usain Bolt to back their business – CNBC

Alex Rose and Sam Browne were quick off the mark to attract investment from tennis star Serena Williams and Olympic champion Usain Bolt for their sports booking platform Let’s Do This. 

This despite the fact that neither of them had a background in tech, unlike many start-up founders in the space. 

Usually the story goes that a technology company was “founded by two computer scientists, who write the code themselves and live off noodles for months, and Sam and I are not computer scientists,” Rose told CNBC in a video interview. 

Rose, 31, and Browne, 29, set up Let’s Do This in July 2017. They say that it’s the world’s largest marketplace for mass-participation sports, with 15,000 events, such as marathons and triathlons, listed on the platform. 

It’s quite a feat for a company that has only been around for just over four years, particularly considering the fact that the coronavirus pandemic brought group sporting events to a standstill. 

The company really started to take off after the two co-founders, along with six members of their team, moved to Palo Alto, California, in 2018 to take part in the prestigious Y Combinator start-up accelerator program. Y Combinator has been the launching pad for big-name technology companies like Airbnb and Reddit. 

While in California, they reached out to Pete Flint, who is general partner for venture capital firm NFX. He is perhaps most well-known for being the co-founder of online real estate marketplace Trulia, which was bought by its competitor Zillow in 2015. 

NFX then led a $5 million seed funding round in Let’s Do This in Aug. 2018. Williams and Bolt also invested in the seed funding round.  

Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, who is married to tennis legend Williams, got in touch with the founders during the Y Combinator program. At the time, Rose said he and Browne couldn’t believe they had been contacted by “one of the most famous, well-connected alumni of the program.” 

So Rose and Browne then asked for an introduction to Williams, who had launched her own VC firm, Serena Ventures, in 2014. 

As for getting Bolt on board, Browne went to the Olympic gold-medalist’s bar opening in London and persuaded him to have dinner so the entrepreneur could pitch Let’s Do This. 

“So, yeah, a real example of sort of hustling your way into the right investor meeting,” Rose said. 

Since Rose and Browne set up Let’s Do This, the company has raised just over $31 million. 

‘Naivety and overconfidence’

Rose and Browne knew each other from childhood. They became good friends while studying at one of the U.K.’s top colleges, the University of Cambridge, where Rose studied chemical engineering and management, while Browne did a degree in theology, philosophy and psychology. 

Both were actively involved in college sports. In fact, Browne went on to co-found adventure travel company IGO Adventures, where he was working when they set up Let’s Do This. Rose was working as an associate at management consultancy Oliver Wyman at the time. 

The idea for Let’s Do This emerged from a conversation the pair had at the pub about how difficult it was to find and sign up for races. So they set up their one-stop platform to tackle that problem. 

Rose admitted that they probably set about launching the business with a “combination of naivety and overconfidence.” 

In hindsight, he said that “if we knew the things we know now about the obstacles that you have to overcome to start a business, I wonder whether we would have would have quit our jobs to do it.” 

However, he also said that the launch of the business came at a time when he knew he “really hated” the job he was in, so the obstacles to starting a company didn’t seem so “terrifying, when the alternative was continuing with a job that I’d kind of fallen out of love with.” 

Prior to taking part in the Y Combinator program, Rose and Browne raised £150,000 ($205,248) from a network of angel investors, who were mostly amateur athletes, that they had come into contact with through friends, in order to cover the initial start-up costs. Angel investors are typically high-net-worth individuals who back start-ups. 

The entrepreneurs soon realized, however, that this money wouldn’t be enough to cover the costs of hiring the software engineers that they needed to actually build the platform. So they raised a further £1 million, mostly from the same group of investors. 

However, Rose said they had to talk to a lot people before they found investors who were interested. 

“But if you can find a problem that people are passionate about, then there are always people who are willing to back exciting ideas,” he added.