York Family VC Fund Uses 49ers Insights to Bolster Moonshot Startups

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In a region filled with venture capitalists crowing about their latest unicorn, Brano Perkovich is a notable exception. Since 2014 the San Francisco bay area investor has quietly grown his firm’s investments more than four-fold by backing a handful of startups a year. That few have heard of him is more remarkable, because he’s done it on behalf of the city’s highest-profile business: the 49ers.

“Jed [York] and his family, when we committed to this [we agreed] this is not a quick-in and quick-out,” Perkovich said in a video call from his office across the street from Levi’s Stadium. “You need to have a dedicated effort sustained over a period of years… you may not even know how well you’re doing for years.” Perkovich, 47, is giving his first detailed interview some eight years after starting, because it’s clear the family office, named Aurum Partners, is paying off for the 49ers and the startups they back. The current active fund Perkovich is heading is enjoying a 90% internal rate of return just 18 months after launch, on top of years of outperformance from earlier funds.

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Perkovich has helmed Aurum since Jed York suggested the team should embrace being in Silicon Valley. The pair had become friends in their 30s, when Perkovich was working as an investment banker. York’s suggestion was well-timed. Perkovich was seeking to move beyond hustling tech M&A for large international banks while the 49ers, as part of conceiving Levi’s Stadium, which opened in 2017, found itself developing new technologies to craft the fan experience the Yorks envisioned. The best-known of these is VenueNext, a mobile commerce and point-of-sale tech provider that began as an internal 49ers group and later was established as a stand-alone company with additional outside investors. Aurum exited VenueNext last year on its $72 million sale to Shift4.

In the years since starting VenueNext, Aurum has invested in about 40 companies—usually six to eight a year—including FanDuel, now owned by Flutter, high school esports platform PlayVS and ticket sales software provider Vivenu. While the investment fund started with the thesis that sports and entertainment hold a disproportionate influence on the consumer world at large, Perkovich doesn’t limit the fund to any sector, stage or investment size.

“We are not a thematic investor,” he said. “The concept of sports tech has come into the psyche of the investment community a few years back—it’s very sexy. Our insight has been: There are a lot of interesting opportunities in sports and technology, but in terms of venture-like returns, companies and solutions that are focused solely on professional sports can be big, but finite.”

Indeed, looking for those moon-shot opportunities beyond sports has paid off for Aurum. Though the 49ers decline to disclose some financials, Perkovich allows that the fund’s capital has grown to about four-and-a-half times the original size seeded by York. By comparison, the S&P 500 has just about doubled since 2014. Perkovich, who evaluates investments with York and vice president of 49ers Enterprises’ Collin Meador, typically allocates about $250,000 in the early stage A or B funding rounds and adding on in later rounds.

The returns on such early-stage investments usually take some time to develop, but they can be substantial. For instance, Aurum participated in the $7.25 million Series A round of shoemaker Allbirds in 2016. The New Zealand-founded business went public last year at a $3 billion valuation. Perkovich also bought into Gusto, a cloud-based payroll service, in its 2015 round, which valued the business at $500 million. Gusto’s August 2021 fundraise valued the business at $9.5 billion. Similarly, the 49ers entered Squire, a barbershop tech outfit, in a Series B in 2015. Squire is currently valued at $750 million. Aurum still owns its stakes in Gusto and Squire.

With its Silicon Valley fanbase, the 49ers could probably could get by just writing checks to the many VC season ticket holders who approach the team with ideas. But “it’s very difficult and very dangerous to be a tourist in this industry,” Perkovich said. Instead, Aurum likes to hunt out opportunities beyond the VC-heavy regions of northern California, New York and Boston.

In part, that’s because Perkovich has an affinity for outsiders, since he originally was one himself, a Serbian-born refugee from the region’s early `90s war. Looking further afield also locates businesses that could benefit more from the 49ers’ unique capabilities. “The game of football is always going to be at the core of what the organization is,” Perkovich said. “But we’re a consumer brand, and as such you can take a much broader view around the value you can bring to the companies you’re talking to.”

For example, Aurum portfolio companies have used the chaos of Levi’s Stadium gameday to stress-test ideas around vehicle sharing and autonomous driving. Other entrepreneurs appreciate being able to use team officials as a sounding board for insights and strategy.

“I wouldn’t call a passive investor bad money by any stretch, but some investors do go above and beyond, like the 49ers and Brano,” Aaron Hawkey, the founder and CEO of BallerTV, said in a phone call. BallerTV broadcasts hundreds of thousands of youth and high school volleyball and basketball games annually—and has the development choices to match. “He helps on the biz dev side—he knows everybody in the space—and the same with market intelligence, he’s always the guy I call.” Hawkey credits Perkovich for introducing him to Bessemer Trust, which invested in a later BallerTV fundraising round. “When someone introduces you to your next big round of funding—that’s a big deal!”

Looking ahead, Perkovich sees the current VC bull market likely coming to a close, given the sector tends to lag the sentiment of the public markets by a few months. That coming slump, reflecting recent stock market bearishness, is part of the natural cycle and should open up opportunities to back businesses that will be the winners in the next startup boom. In particular, the way young fans seek out and consume sports content seems full of promise. “It’s exciting and it’s somewhat scary to think about what the world could look like….What does that do to team sports in general?” he said, citing VR, metaverse and daily fantasy as disruptive to the old fandom model.

Perkovich doesn’t claim to know the answers, but has investments in some companies that one day could. “This is a family office, so by definition it’s multi-generational," Perkovich said. "This allows us to take a bit of a longer view on investments and be much more patient. Inside the Silicon Valley community I think we’re pretty well-known as somebody who is really good to work with and can also make a difference.”

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