Steve Jbara

Founder of Grand Rapids Gold

Steve Jbara, an entrepreneur whose business interests lie in sports, advertising, finance and technology, believes in himself. Just as significantly, he believes in others.

“Being productive,” he said, “is empowering employees to make decisions.”

So in his various endeavors he has surrounded himself with capable people and given them freedom, given them room.

He is the founder and president of the Grand Rapids Gold (formerly the Drive), the Denver Nuggets’ affiliate in the NBA G-League (formerly the Development League). Steve also serves as CEO of Atomic Honey, a Detroit-based advertising agency, and Chief Strategy Officer of WaitTime, a startup based in the Motor City that has developed artificial intelligence software capable of providing real-time insights into crowd behavior at sporting events.

Additionally, Steve Jbara is the Chief Strategy Officer for Air Company, a CO2 technology firm based in Brooklyn.

His entrepreneurial journey began soon after he graduated in 2010 from Trine University in Angola, Ind. Smitten with the idea of owning a Development League expansion team, he earned an audience with then-NBA commissioner David Stern at his New York City office.

Stern dismissed him within three minutes.

A subsequent meeting with Stern’s lieutenants at the time, Adam Silver and Mark Tatum, went no better for Steve Jbara. But in 2013 he bought a Development League team that had been based in Springfield, Mass., and moved it to Grand Rapids. It began play the following year as an affiliate of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons and immediately turned a profit, something never before seen in the soon-to-be-rechristened G-League.

On his watch, the team also vaulted to No. 1 in the league in merchandise sales while hovering in the top five in sponsorship revenue and gate receipts.

Over time the Pistons began making overtures about moving the Drive to Detroit, but Steve Jbara resisted the move. Instead he forged a deal with the Nuggets, a hybrid arrangement that sees the parent club in charge of basketball operations, while Jbara and his team of investors – an LLC known as the SSJ Group – continue to oversee business operations and community engagement for the team, which was renamed the Gold.
Jbara’s foray into basketball served as a springboard for other business ventures. He started and sold two startups, one in the CO2 recycling space and focused on microbreweries, the other a tech startup focused on peer-influenced shopping. The latter was acquired by Amazon.

In 2019 Steve Jbara launched Atomic Honey, an advertising agency that uses a services-for-equity model to foster startups’ growth. The company has established a national footprint, as it has partnered with 25 companies across the U.S.

Steve Jbara, a native of Kalamazoo, Mich., earned degrees in marketing and computer science from Trine University. He spent the next four years working for the Ford Motor Company.

Steve Jbara currently sits on the Detroit Sports Commission, the Gilmore Car Museum Board, Double-Down Development Board, the NBA’s Team Leadership Committee, The G League’s NBA Broadcast Committee, Endeavor Detroit BOD, Leaders for Kids Board of Directors, Green Door Distillery BOD, Yote BOD. He is a board member at the Special Olympics of MI and Brilliant Detroit.

A licensed helicopter pilot, Steve Jbara uses his aircraft to travel between his various enterprises.

Where did the idea for your career come from?

After struggling early on to select companies in which I might have invested, I settled on a model at Atomic Honey that is not just a traditional ad agency but one that features a services-for-equity system. I was able to invest in my team, and people I trust. Doing that makes our investment into startups and early stage companies very strategic and very focused on sales.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

They’re all a little different. I tend to mix it up. I try and touch three or four of my companies every day, while working, typically, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Then I try and spend one day a week, usually Friday, catching up.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Collaboration is key. I’ve hired really strong people, so when I think of something or need something executed, I can rely on them to deliver or provide feedback on whether it’s feasible or not. Because my time’s split so many different ways, I do rely on many people to bring things to fruition for me.

What’s one trend that excites you?

With Air Company, it’s the focus on green tech and carbon tech.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Being a terrible sleeper. I’m up, usually, quite a bit before people, and those moments in the office before others arrive are by far my most productive times, as are weekends and those times after people leave at night.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I wish I would have paid more attention during college courses like those in speech, accounting and writing. Those skills are so critical, especially if you’re going to do stuff on your own.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

A business owner can be in multiple places at once, even if, as in my case, those businesses are in Grand Rapids, Detroit and Brooklyn. Granted, it takes discipline, organizational skills, a strong staff and a mastery of technology (especially Zoom), but it can be done. Doesn’t hurt to have a helicopter pilot’s license, either.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Communicate. I have a ton of information in my head, and I used to do a really poor job of disseminating that. That’s one thing I have to remind myself – really make sure you’re passing along information, because people can’t really move forward without it.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Being productive in my eyes is empowering employees to make decisions. The worst thing I can do is micro-manage people, so I like to empower them and watch the businesses grow.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Being rejected in the fundraising process and missing deadlines are things that have happened to me repeatedly. You keep going forward, you keep working hard and you keep chipping away at it. It’s a matter of whether you have enough belief in yourself, and what you’re doing.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Not only is it essential for a business owner to cover all of one’s bases, it is essential to find those bases that might have escaped notice. As an example, I was asked the name of our basketball team at our inaugural press conference in 2014, and … I didn’t have one. We settled on one – the Drive – after staging a name-the-team contest, but it was an embarrassment, and testament to the fact that no detail is too small.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

This cost far less than $100, but it would be the dollar or two I spent on a Coors Lite one night in 2012 at Fleming’s, a steakhouse and bar in Birmingham, Mich. Joe Dumars, the former Detroit Pistons player who at that point was the team’s general manager, happened to be there that night, and I gravitated to him, hoping to align on a project, if not a job. We hit it off, and that relationship wound up serving as a stepping stone toward everything that has happened since, basketball-wise.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

It’s our CRM system, Salesforce. All our businesses have different stakeholders, and Salesforce is so cohesive that it allows me to tap into it when needed, to reach every business and contact. Part of my job is connecting people, and growing relationships. That comes back and benefits me down the road.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Startup Boards: Getting the Most out of Your Board of Directors,” by Brad Feld. It’s instructive as to how entrepreneurs should put their board of directors together, and how you can create a winning culture on your board.

What is your favorite quote?

There are two: “You show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser,” and “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.”

Key Learnings:

  • A business leader would do well to empower people to make decisions on their own.
  • Communication skills are critical to success.
  • Sleep is overrated. Much can be accomplished in the wee, small hours of the morning.