Vinit Bharara and Marc Lore, best friends whose paths first crossed in a fifth-grade classroom at Ranney School in Tinton Falls, are often introduced alongside the startups they’re known for.
There’s the one they did together: Diapers.com, which was acquired by Amazon. … The one Lore later took on himself: Jet.com, snatched by Walmart. … And Bharara’s own: podcasting platform Cafe Studios, sold to Vox Media.
But, when they’re together, Bharara said, what they reminisce about is their original venture together. Although the Pit, as it was called, doesn’t match the name recognition of the others, they’ve come to believe it was their best idea yet. They’re so convinced of it that, 20 years later, they’re retrying their first entrepreneurial pitch — starting, once more, in New Jersey.
The business is called Mojo, a New York-based startup launching this week only in the Garden State. Bharara, Mojo’s CEO, and Lore are part of a founding team that also includes former New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez and former Walmart.com executive Bart Stein.
It’s billed as a sports stock market that lets fans invest in an athlete’s on-field performance over their career as one would with a company’s stock. Bharara said the concept harks back to what he and Lore looked to introduce in the late ’90s.
“We were die-hard sports fans in New Jersey,” Bharara said. “We thought, what if the everyday sports fan — who is really passionate and feels like they can predict who’s going to do better than whom — had a platform to use their sports knowledge to their advantage?”
With nothing in the market like it, the idea was ahead of its time. … A little too ahead of its time.
“Back then, there was no regulatory framework,” he said. “So, our counsel said, ‘If you are successful, you risk creating an illegal enterprise, because this can be considered online gambling.'”
The compromise they made was to use sports trading card proxies for the athletes. The business was successful enough to be purchased in 2001 by major trading card company Topps.
But Bharara’s and Lore’s leadoff startup business was something they continued thinking about. And, as the laws in New Jersey and other states shifted on online gambling recently, they saw an opportunity to revisit it.
They started by pooling $10 million in seed financing around 2020, and, within the next two years, raised more than $100 million in capital from both institutional and angel investors.
“The idea of a sports stock market is still something that hasn’t been tried before, in our opinion, in the way we wanted to,” he said. “Firstly, we wanted a stock that has real value. So, when someone gets those shares in a Lebron James, they’re entitled to a guaranteed payoff based on the full career of the player at retirement.”
Bharara specified that, with Mojo’s platform, the athlete “stocks” have an active price at any given time and can always be sold ahead of a player’s retirement. It’s a liquid asset, as he described it, that will operate in many ways just like a stock would.
“For that, you also need regulatory oversight,” he said. “There are people who will be depositing thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars, and they should feel comfortable doing so — with confidence that their money is safe and there’s protections for them.”
The Mojo team, a roster that has grown to 90, was advised to seek regulatory approval under wagering laws.
“And we thought New Jersey was the best state to start doing that in,” Bharara said.
Ahead of its official launch Monday, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement granted Mojo a license to begin operating throughout the state.
The company is already planning to expand to another nine states, based on market access agreements with gaming businesses such as Caesars Entertainment. The company could announce an expansion within the next six months.
“We have a big vision for this,” Bharara said. “We’d like to be in every state where online wagering is legal.”
The test run in New Jersey might just be getting underway now, but Bharara is already feeling confident about Mojo scoring points with fans.
Part of that is remembering the electricity that existed around the concept when he and Lore were still in their rookie season as entrepreneurs.
“We saw a lot of traction back then, based on this same idea,” he said. “But you have to go out and prove it, and that’s what we intend to do.”