If you're a casual sports fan, the name Dan Gilbert probably evokes visions of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball, LeBron James, and regrettable ranting letters written in Comic Sans. If you're a resident a Detroit — Gilbert's home town and the location of most of his new business — the name may mean something entirely different, bringing about visions of urban reconstruction and hope for the bankrupt Michigan city.
If you're Ilan Zechory and Tom Lehman, founders of Genius (formerly Rap Genius), the name Dan Gilbert probably means all of the above and more. About $40 million of investment money more.
Zechory and Lehman's Genius broke free from the restrictions of simply being a "rap" website sometime in mid-July, opting to expand to all areas of human communication from music to sports to religious texts. Maybe that last example is the reason why the Genius co-founders like to say their site's current iteration was "born from rap's rib". The idea is simple: take the powerful annotation platform they've used for the last five years to unravel and understand lyrics and expand it to include, well, everything. Or, as Tom Lehman put it, "be part of the fabric of the internet."
But internet fabrics rarely materialize without financing, and all of the ideas and readiness in the world can't replace strong monetary backing.
Enter Dan Gilbert.
The Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavs owner is now a heavy backer of Genius, having recently invested $40 million into the annotation website after first meeting Ilan and Tom at the place where most of these types of deals typically start: a Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day football game.
"I'm from Detroit, I was home for Thanksgiving, and my friend got me tickets to a Thanksgiving football game, the Lions game," Zechory recalls. "He knows Dan Gilbert a little bit and recognized Dan's son Nick. So they chatted and he was like, 'Do you wanna meet Dan?' So we went up to Dan's suite during halftime and just got to talking. Dan later invited me to take a tour [around Detroit], so I took the tour and we booked a schedule to sit down and talk about Rap Genius to give him a look under the hood. He was really into it and we hit it off. At that point we were beginning to think about raising some more funding and Dan expressed an interest and we just built a relationship."
Tom Lehman put it a little more succinctly. "It just kind of felt like a destined thing."
But building a relationship with one of the planet's top 500 richest people doesn't truly equal destiny until you factor in The King.
Dan’s original letter when LeBron left…maybe Dan and LeBron could both give their perspective on that.
"I've been a LeBron fan--me and my friends we're all about the same age as LeBron and when we got our driver's licenses when we were 16, we drove down to Toledo to watch LeBron in the playoffs when he was in high school," Zechory remembers. "So I'm just this huge LeBron fan from the beginning and was really sweating LeBron going back to Cleveland because Dan REALLY wanted LeBron to come home. And we wanted Dan to be happy with his life. "
"The LeBron Sports Illustrated article has already been annotated by the Sports Genius community really, really well. We're definitely very interested in having LeBron and Dan Gilbert shed some light on that piece. LeBron could annotate some of those lines and talk more about what Ohio means to him. Who is this Lee Jenkins guy? What was their process? What does it mean 'as told to'?"
Zechory's dreams for a Genius/LeBron James collab don't stop there.
"Dan could give some reactions to how he felt reading this stuff and what their reconciliation was all about. Or even juicier -- let's see when maybe Dan and LeBron are ready -- Dan's original letter that he wrote when LeBron left Cleveland for Miami. It was such a huge cultural moment in basketball history and it would be really interesting to see — once everybody gets comfortable with it and with using the site — Dan and LeBron's perspective on that. That's some of our dreams with LeBron getting involved with the site. I'm real excited just to meet him, honestly."
We're trying to break the Internet, you know?
"We're trying to break the Internet, you know? Even just having LeBron come to the site and do a feature where he tells us about his five or 10 favorite lyrics and says something about why he likes them. Everyone's gonna check out that stuff online. We definitely don't want to assume that just because Dan is our investor and LeBron plays on the Cavs now that LeBron is going to immediately jump on and be down with the site but we just wanna meet him and do what we did with Dan. Sit down and spend a few minutes showing him what the site is about and hope he takes to it and wants to use it himself."
While Ilan excitedly gushes over the Genius/LeBron possibilities, his co-founder Tom Lehman comes across as more subdued. At least in tone.
"We simply want to be that layer of context and understanding on top of everything you read. Genius can be a discussion platform where people can explain where they were coming from when they wrote something. So on the one hand it's a project that's sort of the scale of Wikipedia in terms of breaking down and explaining what's going on in all the world's text. And as crazy as it sounds, our goal is to be bigger than Wikipedia in the sense that Wikipedia is this silo, this amazing silo of information one particular website, but what we wanna be is spread across the entire Internet. So wherever you go, Genius follows you and helps you out."
So much for subdued.
Although, it's tough to blame either for being excited about their company's future. They've secured eight figures worth of funding from a very successful businessman who just happens to be directly connected to the country's number one athlete for an idea with Wiki-sized aspirations. All of which was achieved during a time when Genius was still dodging negative press over an incident involving former partner Mahbod Moghadam.
"You know the controversy is something that we have to be careful about," says Lehman. "We have to be careful of the way we are perceived in public a little more now. In the early days any time anyone would say anything about it we'd cheer. Hearing someone else write about Rap Genius whether it was positive or negative, when no one knows who you, you're just worried about getting on people's lists. But now we have very serious long term goals and we have to take that into account."
But whatever controversy their former partner started, it certainly didn't do much to stop their progress. Big investment money, potential celebrity partnerships, dreams of breaking the Internet while also becoming part of its fabric...what does (rap) Genius do now?
"We're hiring!" exclaims Lehman. "We're hiring a very talented group of people to build something truly great. We have big goals and we want to get together a group of like-minded people and have a knowledge party."
"It's a beautiful thing."