Keeping the football elite safe – Interview

Nov 26, 2014

The story of Italian migrants who brought their culture, skills and penchant for excellence around the world is well known. It’s a narrative that continues even today with many young Italians bring their entrepreneurial spirit to foreign countries and realising their full potential. Claudio Storelli is one such bright spark who, at only 15 left his home country and moved to the United States as an exchange student who didn’t speak English.

Armed with a strong Italian accent and the desire to learn, by the age of 20 he had graduated from Stanford University with honours, writing an award-winning thesis with a Nobel Prize Award-winner. The high-achieving Claudio went on to found the protective soccer apparel company Storelli Sports with fellow McKinsey alumnus Dr. Jing Liang, PhD with great success. The adoption of some of the world’s top football players of Storelli Sports’ protective gear has seen worldwide media interest in Claudio’s activities and he has been featured on the Financial Times for his achievements in the high-tech financial services space, as well as Sports Illustrated, Forbes, Yahoo! Sports and the Daily Mail.

You’re from Milan but you live in New York, what do you miss about home?

The women, of course! I am referring to my mom and grandmothers. They are the pillars around whom my entire family revolves, and I miss the ability to be with them on a whim. There is just nothing like hanging out with the entire family at home. Also, I miss Milan’s geographical location. In a couple of hours by car you can be on the Alps skiing, at the beach in Cinque Terre, at a Tuscan wine-tasting or in Venice surrounded by Japanese tourists taking pictures of pigeons. And if you make it to an airport all of Europe and Northern Africa is just around the corner. Gotta love that.

How has living in the United States enabled your entrepreneurial activities? How is it different to Italy in this respect?

It’s easy for many Europeans to stereotype and criticize Americans for being overweight, have the fashion sense of Homer Simpson and the knowledge of geography of a 6 year old… but having spent half of my life in North America, I love the US and love working with Americans.

Let me elaborate. Americans are born in a culture that rewards self-made men / women. After all, America was built by people who left everything and moved to an unknown new place where they had to literally start from zero. This led to the creation of a political / educational system that encourages people to “create themselves”, to actively seek independence, and pursue their dream. The “American Dream” is not a fictional concept- it is the idea that a person should work to create the life he/she desires. Unlike Italians, Americans leave their parents’ home after high school. They go through a selection process that places them at the best college they can get into, and they move thousands of miles away from home. After that, they compete for the best jobs and move to whatever city offers the best opportunities. Meritocracy is embraced, and entrepreneurs are admired. Young smart graduates don’t brag about which 9-5 cushy job they landed: they chat about their next big start-up idea.

This is one of the starkest differences from Italy. If you ask the average Italian teenager who their hero is, the answer is likely to be a sports or movie / music / arts star. And successful entrepreneurs, the “rich” who made their wealth with their own hands, are often looked at with scepticism and criticized as if being successful were cause for personal shame. On the other hand, a recent study showed that when young Americans (“Generation Z”) are asked who their idol is, they point to people like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. All self-made men, creators, entrepreneurs. The admiration is not due to the wealth they have accumulated- it is not the money that generates admiration- but how they have achieved it, with their own hands. I find myself at home in that type of culture, and hence I really enjoy working with Americans.

Are there any advantages in business to being Italian?

Oh yeah. Many. Think about it: for all the bad things that people may say about the Italian system (corruption, inefficiency, bunga bunga parties, you name it), EVERYONE LOVES ITALY (with the exception of Germans when it comes to soccer…still upset about the 2006 World Cup…but get over it our ze German friends, you won this last one!). Have you ever met anyone who said: “I went to Italy, it was really….meh, disappointing…” No way. When I mention Italy- invariably, even when speaking to very senior business people- their eyes light up and they proceed to tell you just how much they love the architecture, the geography, the people, the food, the wine, the fashion. I mean, we are the land of Dolce & Gabbana, Ferrari, Venice, Rome, Florence, pizza, pasta, gelato…and the people tend to be very friendly and fun. We Italians are “casinisti” from birth, by age 10 we are all professional flirters, and- let’s admit it- are all blessed with incredible good looks.

This is to say that when you introduce yourself as an Italian at a business meeting, you will elicit a genuine smile in the person you are meeting: the most friendly, fertile overture you could ask for, setting you off on the right foot. And just like when that hot girl at a bar looks at you and smiles (if my girlfriend asks, this never happens to me!), it’s now up to you to move in and engage.

Your Storelli soccer protection gear hones in on a gap in the market. How did you come up with the idea for it?

The goal of Storelli is- through innovative protective gear- to make players fearless, enabling to achieve those moments of athletic thrills that the sport is meant to deliver. Why is fear Storelli’s enemy? Across every area of everyone’s life, fear is one of the biggest inhibitors. It stops us from taking risks we really want to and should take (like going on that shark diving trip, or starting our own business), destroying our focus and the quality of our experiences. Take flying as an example. If you step on a plane and are afraid of flying, you will spend the entire time clinching your seat, sweating and freaking out at every little bump. On the other hand, if you overcome your fear, you can spend the same flight smiling, drinking cheap champagne (with mandatory pinky finger sticking out) and enjoying bad movies. The risk inherent in the flight is the same in both scenarios- but your psychological approach to the experience determine whether it is negative / stressful or positive / fun.

When it comes to sports, physical injuries and the fear / anxiety due to the risk of injury are the equivalent of the fear of flying, except they ruin one of the activities we all love most: playing (if you are like me, playing soccer / sports is one of the highlights of life). The founders of Storelli experienced these injuries and worries as players, and decided that something had to be done. So starting with soccer we studied all the injuries that affect soccer players, and decided to create innovative apparel that is extremely effective at reducing the risk of those injuries. With two positive by-products: 1) Your confidence increases, and you’ll have more fun while playing (the soccer equivalent of drinking champagne with your pinky sticking out); and 2) You’ll look freakin’ cool while doing so, because we are Italians and we can’t help but coming up with awesome looking gear that makes you look and feel like Batman (the Christian Bale version, not the cheesy 80s TV series version).

Are there any players in Serie A who wear Storelli? Which other top players wear Storelli?

Yes, several professional players and clubs in both Serie A, English Premier League and MLS use Storelli. Unfortunately, because we do not pay them to wear the gear (in fact, they pay us!), we are not allowed to announce their names publicly… but rest assured you will see more of our gear on top players in the upcoming year. After all, if you played the sport constantly, wouldn’t you want to do whatever you can to reduce the risk of getting hurt and increase the chance of ass kicking? That’s what Storelli does for players of all levels.

What’s next for Storelli?

What you see today is nothing but a small piece of what Storelli will become over the next few years. We didn’t get into this business to be a niche player with a good idea: we plan on becoming the first example of next-generation sports brand. Ultimately, it’s about reliably delivering excellent products, constantly bringing new innovations to the field, and fostering the culture of the brand that make people love it for what it stands for. So you will see us come out with products that embed wearable technologies never seen before, enter new sports to help our customers in activities outside of soccer, and establish creative, strategic relationships that will elevate the visibility of our brand both in North America and Europe. I am so excited about what’s to come that I can hardly sleep at night. I used to hide my smart phone to avoid being bothered by emails late at night…now I hide it because I am so excited to get things done that if I didn’t I’d never get sleep!

What makes the Storelli team special?

We are more of a brotherhood than a company. We are all athletes and adventure-seekers. For example, our next company retreat is likely to be a survival course in the desert of Utah. And when he is not jumping off cliffs and gliding, our Design Director races an old Porsche competitively that he put together with his own hands. We complement each other in both skill set and approach to life and work (e.g., some are introverts, some extroverts). We all share a deep passion for what we do, unbreakable optimism and love for life. Constructive disagreement is not only encouraged, it’s mandated. Whether you are a veteran or the newest hire, if you work at Storelli you have a duty to express your views and disagree with anyone. It’s disagreement that never lets us settle for mediocrity. We are humble, hungry and fearless.

You played ‘soccer’ at a high level didn’t you?

I was not one of those gifted players that could dribble like Messi and score like Ronaldo. My speed and touch is more comparable to Andre the Giant’s. But I was a crazy little kid with infinite energy and the strange passion for diving around at every chance. So I became a goalie, grew quickly to be the tallest kid in my class (thanks mom for all those injections! They made me tall, strong and gave me the best beard a 9 year old has ever had!) and turned out to be quite good as a goalkeeper. By the age of 14 I was playing in an Under-21 competitive team, and by the age of 16 I was playing at the collegiate level in the United States, participating even in a televised NCAA Division 1 national championship (to this day, the highlight of my humble soccer career). I doubt I will ever be remembered for my soccer skills, but soccer taught me a lot about life and spirit of sacrifice, and it’s thanks to soccer that I got the idea for Storelli. Takeaway: even if you’re as athletic and gracious as Andre the Giant, don’t give up.

Can you explain the Italian passion for football?

Soccer is “the beautiful game” and for whatever historical reason for the past 150 years it’s been Italy’s omnipresent sport. Every major Italian newspaper and TV station spends a lot of time discussing the sport, so as a kid growing up in Italy you can’t help but developing a love for the game. Furthermore, in the courtyards it becomes the sport you use to play and compete with your friends. So the majority of Italian men grow up to be a soccer players (skills vary widely, but it’s rare to find someone who never played soccer in Italy) and admirers of the game… it is what we think about when the word “sport” is mentioned and a huge source of national pride (or dismal, depending on how our national team does). For me, life without soccer would be as meaningless as life without Nutella.

What would your advice to other Italians with dreams of setting up their own business be?

Find a topic you are passionate about. You are going to spend too much time thinking about it not to love it with the same passion you love pizza and wine. Do not obsess too much about finding the “perfect” idea- there is no such thing. Realistically, the idea is going to evolve and change dramatically as you spend time on it, because you will learn a lot and be forced to adjust Stop thinking and talking about it.

Get started. My fellow Italian compatriots- it’s pretty clear that the industrial fabric that carried our country forward from the 1950s to now is not going to support us much longer. We cannot rest on what our parents and grandparents have built- we MUST INNOVATE, we MUST REINVENT what we contribute to the world. This is possible only if we- me, you, our friends- put our ingenuity to work and CREATE NEW BUSINESSES. As a country, we have the brains and the guts to do it. More importantly, we have no other choice.
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