If you looked at the desk positioned at the front of a cool but modest ground level suite belonging to a startup on Manhattan’s East Side, your first assumption might be that it looks out of place. It’s out of place mostly because, somewhere along the lines of corporate office culture evolution, the tenets of contemporary startup culture became mainstream for their nobility: In short, startups, or most of them, anyway, are loathe to adopt workplace symbols of corporate hierarchy, instead taking pride in Messianic cues: The CEO, in this world, could one day be assigned to make the coffee or deliver the mail. Or something.
That would all seem very right and a rational way to think on any other morning, in any other office. But not here. Because sitting behind the desk is Tiki Barber, the retired and oft maligned former star running back of the New York Giants. He stood up from his desk when we walked in and unexpectedly, but completely normally, introduced himself as “Tiki Barber.”
Because Barber’s throne at this startup is one of he and his partners’ own making, it is also one that could make or break a new venture. He is undeniably the face of Thuzio, a web start-up which recruits current and former athletes and pairs them with clients for “experiences”: coaching opportunities, corporate luncheons — or just about anything consumers can think of. You could, for instance, hire Barber to come bowling with you and your friends. You could shoot hoops with Darryl Dawkins.
Tiki is 37, looks 27 and carries himself with the same self-importance once repulsive to teammates and endearing to the suits at NBC who, when he was still in his playing prime, offered him almost as much money as he made playing football to, among other things, dance the cha cha.
Thuzio’s other principals are Matthew Higgins, CEO Glenn Laumeister and Chairman Mark Gerson. We requested an interview with Gerson but Thuzio’s publicist informed us he’d gotten “pulled into” something. And then he had to take off for a lunch. We never spoke.
“Tiki Barber is simply a brilliant entrepreneur,” Gerson said through the publicist. “He has a profound understanding of how to deploy technology to fulfill customer demands, a remarkable ability to help people and companies to harness disparate strengths to form productive relationships, extraordinary creativity, true kindness and deep generosity of spirit. All of this makes him a terrific partner — and a great business builder for Thuzio.”
During the course of the 40-minute interview about the new venture, Barber offered heady, unsolicited anecdotes from the worlds of physics (I had to get smarter about running the ball), the blues (Eric Clapton’s hero was Buddy Guy … everyone has his or her heroes) and a visit to the New York Philharmonic (an enthused cellist reminded him that everyone has something their good at that makes them feel good) to help explain where he is in life, and where he thinks his new business venture can go.
Are Barber’s worldly tastes and displays of superior intellect silly affectations or the measure of a man who’s long yearned to be defined by more than just football? The appreciation he hopes consumers come away with as Thuzio clients indicates it’s a war he’s no longer interested in waging.