RENTON, Wash. — Doug Baldwin is a businessman now, but his body still thinks he’s a football player.
The former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver is more than three-and-a-half years removed from his last NFL snap and nearly as far into his new career in the tech and investment fields. As is the case with many former retired players, the passage of time has done little to reset an internal clock that, as training camp approaches every summer, tells him it’s go time.
“My body’s been conditioned to do this for over 24 years,” Baldwin, 33, told ESPN. “Your body just doesn’t stop when you say stop. It’s not just the physical part of it. It’s the mental and emotional part of it.”
Without football to expend that tension, Baldwin struggled when his eight-year NFL career ended following the 2018 season. It didn’t help that his body was a wreck, requiring four surgeries after he played through a host of injuries in his final year. He wrestled with the retirement decision and even tried to stay in shape after his surgeries, just in case.
Baldwin made a name for himself as a Super Bowl champion, a two-time Pro Bowler and the third-leading receiver in franchise history, as he caught 493 passes for 6,563 yards and 49 touchdowns. And he made his money — roughly $40 million in gross on-field earnings, per Spotrac. He had also just become a father, with the first of his three children arriving that spring.
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Retiring was the right decision, but it was hard.
“I’m not a doctor, but I would say for the first eight months after retiring, I was in a clinical depression,” Baldwin said. “I know I was. You can’t tell me otherwise. I was hurting.”
He’s in a much better place now. And a much different one.
Baldwin is the founder and CEO of a venture capital firm called Vault 89 Ventures. The investment vehicle has a nod to Baldwin’s jersey number in its name and a mouthful of a mission statement that, in his words, boils down to this: “Money is not the goal for us. We believe that if we do things from an empathic lens and we do it to impact people’s lives for the better, the financial part of it will come.”
Baldwin is also the CEO of Ventrk, a Bellevue, Washington, startup focused on health and fitness. Its primary offering is TheraCentric, a physical therapy app designed to streamline home exercise programs and maximize patient engagement. TheraCentric has grown to more than 1,000 active users, mostly from local physical therapy clinics. Earlier this summer, Ventrk spun out of Intellectual Ventures, a private equity firm that had been incubating it with mentorship and funding.
It is no coincidence Baldwin’s current role has something in common with another project he has supported since before his retirement: a community/health center for underserved youth that, after delays in construction due to COVID-19, is slated to be completed in March. A masked-up Baldwin also appeared in a 2021 PSA for Washington Listens, a support program for those dealing with pandemic-related mental health issues.
“I’m not going to do something if I don’t believe in it, if I’m not passionate about it,” he said. “These things seem to always align in that space because essentially what I’m trying to do, I’m trying to create a better health and well-being mindset in society. But it’s birthed out of me trying to be as healthy as I possibly can coming out of the NFL.”
VENTRK’S NEW OFFICE in downtown Renton is a short drive from Seahawks headquarters and The Family First Community Center. It’s a second-story space shared by roughly two dozen workers, including the Ventrk team and several other companies connected to Vault 89. It’s directly above the flagship store of a local Black-owned coffee chain called Boona Boona, Vault’s first investment.
The office vibe is vibrant but laid back, with casual attire and a noticeable lack of corporate touches. Baldwin’s attire one day in July during a morning meeting consisted of a hooded sweatshirt, athletic shorts and Jordans.
CBO Jarid Adams and CTO Sam Bender are both from Seattle but never followed the Seahawks, so the Ventrk co-founders had no idea who Baldwin was when Intellectual Ventures brought him on board. It led to a confusing moment at a team-building dinner, when Adams couldn’t figure out why other diners were staring and why restaurant employees kept giving their table special attention.
“I think that’s really helped us have disagreements and agree on things,” Adams said, “just because I see him as an everyday person that’s working within the company.”
Adams appreciates Baldwin’s open-mindedness and level-headedness and guesses the latter comes from years of handling pressure on the pro football stage.
“If something’s going on and we’re kind of freaking out internally, he just has a very calm attitude about it all,” Adams said. “He’s like, ‘We’ll figure it out. Keep going.’ Whereas Sam and I are like, ‘What the hell? There’s a fire, how are we going to handle it?’ He’s very calm when it comes to that. My biggest thing when it comes to leadership is supporting people and trusting them in their area of expertise, and I think he does a really good job of that.”
During his Seahawks days, Baldwin was the offense’s counterweight to the Legion of Boom’s ruthlessness, an intense competitor who would regularly spar in practice with cornerback Richard Sherman — his best friend dating to their days together at Stanford.
The business world now gives him his competitive fix.
“I know what a championship-winning culture feels like; it’s people all engaging with each other,” he said. “… We butt heads constantly. But it’s a good relationship because it’s not about being right … or proving the other person wrong. It’s like, ‘How do we built the best empathetic platform for these patients and for these PTs?’ We disagree on things, but it gets us closer to that answer, and that’s the culture I’m trying to build.
“It’s the same thing when the DBs and receivers were going at each other all the time. It’s not that we hated each other. It’s like, ‘Nah, I’m making you better’ and I loved that, and I’ve missed that. But I’m also competitive … I don’t give a f— about anything but winning. So if I can take that and put it in a service vehicle and a business that gives me the landscape to compete in, it’s a win-win for me. So that’s why I’m here.”
IN A WAY, Baldwin has come full circle.
Shortly before becoming the first undrafted rookie since the 1970 merger to lead his team in receiving, Baldwin was exploring another career. With signings disallowed during the 2011 NFL lockout that summer, Baldwin interviewed with Dropbox and other Bay Area companies, preparing for a life in the business world.
When he retired, it came calling.
Jerome Hewlett, formerly part of the leadership team at Intellectual Ventures, was not a Seahawks fan but became a Baldwin supporter late in his career. Watching him on the field and in postgame interviews, Hewlett saw a smart player with a team-first attitude — and maybe the potential to lead a company.
The recruitment effort began quickly. Hewlett reached out to a mutual acquaintance with the Seahawks, invited the recently retired receiver to spend some time with him in the field and then began laying what Baldwin now calls “a year-and-a-half trap.”
Hewlett was serving as Ventrk’s interim CEO and wanted Baldwin to take over the role but knew he couldn’t ask him right away. Baldwin had to build the confidence in himself, Hewlett figured, and had to be sure Hewlett wasn’t trying to capitalize on his fame and use him as a fundraising figurehead. So he brought Baldwin on as an advisor and had him sit in on every decision and move the company made.
“And as the months progressed,” Hewlett said, “I would be making less and less decisions and he would be making more and more recommendations, to the point it was like, ‘You know, you should really be CEO because I’m not as good as you.'”
It took some cajoling before Baldwin became Ventrk’s CEO in September 2021. He was reluctant when Hewlett finally proposed it.
“You say you want people to recognize you as a business person, as a human, not just as a football player — but yet you’re going to walk away from this opportunity?” he asked Baldwin. “I played to his ego, but not the sports ego. It’s the business ego.”
VENTRK’S SPINOUT from Intellectual Ventures gives Baldwin, Bender and Adams more decision-making freedom. But it also meant Baldwin had to secure a lead investor — and deal with rejection until he found one. Getting a meeting was one thing, but getting money wasn’t as easy.
“That was really hard for me,” he said, “getting all those nos.”
Baldwin took it as another challenge, overhauling an initial sales pitch that Hewlett jokingly calls “s—” because it was too stiff. A few months later, Baldwin got his first bite.
Then came the big one. Earlier this week, HBSI Capital announced the finalization of a $1 million investment in Ventrk.
“The industry sees him as a business person,” Hewlett said of Baldwin, “or else they wouldn’t have given him the money.”