As tennis fans gather for the U.S. Open this month at Flushing Meadows, N.Y., all eyes will be on the Williams sisters. Many are curious to see if Venus can bounce back after her second consecutive Wimbledon loss to sister Serena. But regardless of the Open's outcome, the 23-year-old seems to have realized there is life after tennis. In late 2002 she started V Starr Interiors, an interior design business in Jupiter, Fla. The idea is that when Williams retires from the game -- and she hasn't said when that might be -- she will devote herself full-time to the firm.
Williams joins a long line of male pro athletes who started companies to leverage their wealth, name recognition, and connections. Magic Johnson owns movie theaters. Joe Montana is one of several football greats who, together, run a venture capital firm. And Roger Staubach and John Stallworth founded Inc. 500 companies.
But though a company can provide an athlete with long-term financial security, starting a business is always a risk. So far, Williams seems to be doing okay. V Starr has six active accounts and projected gross sales nearing $1 million by year's end, says Williams's partner, Bonnie Nathan. (Williams found Nathan, who has 25 years of interior design experience, through an Internet job posting.) And the market seems promising. Census figures show that the number of single homes approved for construction in Florida for 2002 increased by nearly 32% since 1998.
But will deep-pocketed clients trust Williams with their living rooms? Though Venus is a fashion plate, Nathan says V Starr will not push a specific aesthetic and will instead "design for our clients." But Ed Rice of Interbrand, a San Francisco branding firm, notes that even if Venus has a knack for design clients will first think of athleticism when they think of her. "What does the Venus brand bring to an interior design firm?" he asks. "Awareness alone isn't enough." Gail Green, CEO of Green & Company Inc., a Manhattan design firm, suggests that Williams acquaint herself with the smart set. Design is "all about keeping up with the Joneses" and "word of mouth," she notes. "I would suggest to her to establish a set of connections and work those connections," Green says.
Nathan for one, promises that Williams is up to the task. Venus has studied fashion design at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, and is working toward an interior decorating license. And even when she's on her pro tour globetrot, Williams checks in -- particularly to ask about the budget. Because Williams wants to keep her overhead low, Nathan adds, the firm has only two full-time employees and two student interns. "Granted, because of her celebrity, we have access to things some people don't have access to," Nathan explains, "but we need to stay grounded."