On a fall Tuesday afternoon in 2010, Phillip Buchanon used his day off to head to a movie theatre in Reston, Virginia, to watch The Social Network. Buchanon, a then nine-year NFL veteran playing cornerback for the Washington Redskins, knew his football career was approaching its end. He was hoping the dramatized story about Facebook's origins could teach him about the intriguing tech industry that was booming on the other side of the country.
Buchanon went in scouting his next venture, but by the time the film ended, he was left questioning all his career choices. As the film pushes in on the face of Jesse Eisenberg, the actor playing Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, one of the final captions before credits start rolling says Facebook "is currently valued at 25 billion dollars."
"Facebook was worth more than 25 NFL teams. I was just blown away by that," Buchanon said. "And that's when I knew that I was in the wrong industry."
Six years later--and with Facebook now worth an additional $300 billion--Buchanon is stepping onto the Silicon Valley gridiron. Since his playing days, Buchanon has transitioned into a businessman, and he entered 2016 with the plan to forge a technology career. The 17th overall pick of the first round of the 2002 NFL draft dreams of one day being mentioned in the same breath as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg.
"Don't get it wrong. It was an honor to be drafted in the first round, but to be mentioned among those tech names, that would be life," Buchanon said. "That would be my highest peak."
Buchanon is far from being the first athlete to try his hand at the world of tech. Fellow NFL player Martellus Bennett of the Patriots this summer released his own children's app. NBA MVP Stephen Curry released an emoji app a few weeks ago. Celebrities like Justin Bieber have also cashed in on the app craze, and tops among them is Kim Kardashian, who this month landed on the cover of Forbes as a "mobile mogul."
But unlike these other stars, Buchanon hasn't simply lent out his name. He's learned how to code and has led the development of two apps--one of which, New Money Bash, was released Saturday.
"In my mind, I feel like we have a game changer," Buchanon said, adding moments later that he is hoping to find a technical partner as well as a mentor who can show him the way. "I'm willing to work with anybody who wants to work with me and can help me grow."
But for the former pro athlete with ambitions of being a tech star, there is a long way to go, said Ryan Nece, a former NFL teammate of Buchanon's who has himself gone into the industry.
"The challenge of running a startup is the simple fact that it feels like you're literally running on a treadmill at the highest speed that treadmill can go, at the highest incline that treadmill can go, and you can't get off," said Nece, managing partner at Next Play Capital, which has investments in top-tier VC funds and made investments in companies such as FanDuel, NextVR, and Walker & Company. "If you can figure out how to stay on that treadmill, man, it is so rewarding."
A charismatic guy, Buchanon has short, neatly trimmed hair and a wide smile that shines as brightly as his two diamond earrings. He doesn't look like a tech geek--he's yet to trade in his Louis Vuitton duffle bag for a nerdy laptop backpack--but having spent $80,000 to bootstrap his project, he's as invested in his apps as any other entrepreneur.
"He's gone further than most have gone. He's already done so many things that very few people have the opportunity to do," Nece said. "Now it's, 'How does he continue to build? How does he continue to earn trust? How does he continue to earn respect?'"
In his heyday, the slim cornerback was blessed with the speed to chase down anybody, the quickness to intercept quarterbacks, and the strength to knock down opponents. These traits lead him to an NCAA national championship with his Miami Hurricanes and helped him earn more than $20 million playing for the Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Detroit Lions, and the Redskins.
What many fans fail to realize is the mind Buchanon was also gifted.
The 35-year-old has many interests in life--in high school he played every sport he could try out for, and at home, he'd watch every movie and read every comic book he came across--but his chief interest is simply listening to his mind wander.
He applied his mind to business after accumulating a scary amount of debt. He never went broke, as many pro athletes do, but he had enough outstanding loans that if he had defaulted, he could've fallen "at least half a million dollars in the hole," he said. That forced Buchanon to get smart about his finances, but it also triggered a newfound interest for entrepreneurship.
The former No. 31 now balances numerous businesses. His biggest success is a book he wrote about financial literacy, titled New Money: Staying Rich, that recounted his comeback from severe debt. Buchanon's ventures also include real estate projects, writing a graphic novel and numerous comic books, making a twerking board game, and creating several children's books, in both English and Spanish.
Buchanon could simply give his money over to investors, but athletes like him are alpha males--they want to be the one in charge because they're the ultimate competitors, Nece said. "Phillip believes in himself, and he believes that he can be more than just an athlete," Nece said. "There's a chip on his shoulder to go out and prove that."
It's one of his first projects that still stings him. After leaving football in 2011, Buchanon blew more than $150,000 trying to launch an app called Tappish. Like Hot or Not, Tappish would let users compare two photos, videos, or audios and share them. Buchanon paid a team of developers to create Tappish, but the project never matched his vision, took too long to develop, and upon its release, failed to gain traction.
"It was just bad programmers, bad direction, bad on my part. I just wasn't ready. I didn't understand the game, and I really didn't know what I was doing," Buchanon said. "I was mad about how much money I spent."
Buchanon moved on by focusing on his other ideas, but his restless mind's tech longings could only be ignored for so long. After randomly meeting a couple of students who were learning to code, Buchanon's interest in tech was rekindled.
After his six-figure debacle, Buchanon was hesitant. He didn't want to repeat his mistakes, so he decided that this time he would prepare for tech the way he always prepared for football: He went to training camp. Or coding boot camp, to be precise. If Buchanon was going to successfully build an app, he needed to learn about coding.
In October, Buchanon enrolled himself and a buddy--"two minds are better than one," he said--into Ironhack, an eight-week-long web development school in Miami. Once the big man on campus, Buchanon at Ironhack was just another wannabe techie getting a rude awakening to the world of coding. "I'm upset and pissed," Buchanon wrote in his iPhone after day one. "Did I waste my money?"
"It was a really big shock for him because we're hands off," said Alia Poonawala, Ironhack's admissions director. "We push you straight into coding, so you're actually making a lot of mistakes."
But if there is one thing Buchanon is proud of, it's his discipline. Once he sets his mind on something, he tunes everything out--even his loved ones. To get through Ironhack, he kept his focus, Poonawala said.
"There was a point, he told me, where after spending nearly $200,000, he felt like, 'I am completely illiterate in something that I have so many ideas in, in an area that is the future, and in an area where if I want to continue building things then I need to be able to speak the language,'" Poonawala said. "That's what drove him."
After coming home from dinner one night after class, he and his friends were looking for something to do but didn't know what was going on around town. Buchanon, who'd been using dating apps, came up with the perfect solution: Tinder for parties.
"What if you could swipe your way to these exclusive private yacht parties?" he thought to himself. "I said, 'Man, instead of people missing out, now you can just go on an app and invite yourself.'"
By the end of the course, Buchanon had coded the first version of his idea, which he named Vite. He recognized that to compete with Silicon Valley techies, many of whom have been coding for as long as he had been running around on football fields, eight weeks of learning was not enough. Buchanon enrolled himself and a friend into a second program, focused on iOS development, at Wyncode Academy.
At the boot camp, which began in January, Buchanon also began building a development team, sharpening his business skills, and fine-tuning Vite's elevator pitch.
"I think about Phillip and the elite level he's played at in sports, and for him to come into a program like this, to learn coding and to reinvent himself," said Johanna Mikkola, co-founder of Wyncode. "It takes a lot of dedication and courage to do that, because you've already reached such great heights."
Buchanon admits that for him coding is still a slow and intense process, but after seeing how the tech sausage is made, he gained the knowledge necessary to bring the apps in his head onto his smartphone.
Vite was released in beta earlier this year. The idea of the app is to log on and swipe left on events you aren't interested in and swipe right on those that you are. If the event organizers swipe right on you, too, you get an invite.
The athlete-turned-entrepreneur's latest app, New Money Bash, is a game in the style of Candy Crush that's designed to teach users about financial literacy. Buchanon's thesis is that by gamifying financial lessons and putting them in a smartphone app, he'll reach more people than he did with his book.
"If I have an idea, I would rather do an app, because it's so much easier for thousands, millions, or billions of users to actually reach it," he said. "It's at their fingertips."
Beta versions of both of Buchanon's apps are available now on the Apple App Store. Both apps will be officially launched and arrive on Android sometime in the fall. Buchanon is now shifting his attention toward making sure the apps grow. He needs users to fill Vite with parties and help him find the bugs in both apps before investors will come knocking. For the former football star, this is just the first step of many toward becoming the tech mogul he hopes to be.
"I kind of look at myself as an empire," Buchanon said. "It just hasn't been established totally yet."