Snapshot of a Rising Young Star(Street): Startup Lessons from Jeremy Levine

3/31/11Follow @gthuang

Entrepreneurs get younger every day.

Jeremy Levine was born one month after the ball rolled through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs on that fateful night in Shea Stadium, 1986. Levine probably doesn’t remember the painful 1-15 Patriots of 1990 either. He says his first sports memory was watching the great Larry Bird with his dad. And his best memory was Adam Vinatieri kicking the Raiders out of the Snow Bowl in January 2002.

If you’re a Boston sports fan, you know that kick (actually there were two, a 45-yarder to force overtime, and a short kick to win it) changed sports history in these parts. In the decade that followed, the Patriots won three Super Bowls, the Red Sox won two World Series, and the Celtics returned to prominence with a championship of their own.

Why am I telling you this in a publication about tech innovation? Because Levine, 24, has turned his passion for all things sports into an innovative company. It’s what drives him and his startup, Cambridge, MA-based StarStreet, an online market for sports fans to buy and sell “shares” of their favorite players. StarStreet graduated from the TechStars Boston mentorship program last year, and has raised an undisclosed amount of financing from SV Angel, Jarr Capital, and angel investors including Don McLagan, Andrew Blachman, and Ben Littauer.

StarStreet has gotten its share of national press, so I won’t rehash its story or why it’s different from previous attempts at alternative stock markets. Suffice to say the company is still small (two full-timers), but it has more than 400 traders as customers and is looking to ramp up for the upcoming NFL football season (assuming there is a season—tricky because of the potential lockout). StarStreet’s markets, where people invest real money, are currently active in March Madness basketball teams, NBA players, and major league baseball players. The company takes a 4 percent cut of every stock sale.

What might be more interesting is Levine’s personal story, and what he embodies. He is one of a new breed of young tech guns around Boston. Fan Bi of Blank Label, Michael Raybman of WaySavvy, and Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR also come to mind; all are in their early 20s. Sure, these guys are distressingly young to be running companies (40 feels like the new 50 to me), but it’s refreshing to see a new generation of Web entrepreneurs coming into their own and trying to change the world.

OK, that’s a long windup to tell you about some simple takeaways from Levine. First of all, like most entrepreneurs, he’s just wired differently. From a young age, he dreamed of being general manager of a major sports team (preferably in Boston). He also wanted to create the digital equivalent of baseball cards. Throw in the huge market for fantasy sports and online entertainment, and you have the genesis of StarStreet.

Levine graduated from Syracuse University in 2009 with a degree in entrepreneurship. But the most useful thing he ever did in class was read startup blogs, he says. In other words, it’s questionable whether you can really teach entrepreneurship to college kids in a classroom. Levine says he was idealistic enough to think all he had to do was e-mail venture capitalists and wait for his check to come in.

When he moved back to Cambridge in the summer of 2009 (he’s a native), he says he was “rejected from every incubator.” He realized he needed to learn as much as possible about startups, as quickly as possible. So he went to every tech event he could and got better at networking. He learned the ropes of social media. He started building a group of informal advisors and mentors. (He’d probably agree with recent advice from Seattle entrepreneur Bob Crimmins on that front.)

Mostly, he was tenacious. “No matter what happened, I was not giving up,” he says.

His three pieces of advice for entrepreneurs who are in a similar spot: One, “make sure you learn as much as you can as fast as you can.” Two, “hustle like crazy, try everything, and don’t quit.” Three, if you can, “stop whatever you’re doing and learn to code.”

Levine made it into the second class of TechStars Boston, but he still didn’t have the fundraising mojo. He says he talked to about 200 investors, and went approximately oh-fer-200. The problem was he didn’t know exactly what he wanted, in terms of how much money or from whom. It was only in the past few months that he took a more confident, assured approach—figuring out what the company needed, saying, “This is what’s going to happen,” and drumming up commitments from five out of the top seven investors he wanted. (Having revenues and a more proven business model certainly helped too.)

The plan from here is to scale up to thousands of traders, he says, and eventually more. StarStreet could own the back-end infrastructure for sports stock markets, he says, assuming they really take off. As for exploring other types of stock markets, Levine says, “We’ll get sports right and go from there.”

Levine is committed to “building the best team in Boston.” So here’s one case of a young, local Internet startup that’s not in any danger of moving to New York. There are way too many Yankees and Jets fans there, he agrees (with me).

Nice to see the younger generation upholding some old Boston traditions.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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