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The Unofficial Millionaire

The man behind Unofficial Squaw, High Fives, and the Push has kept a low profile, until now
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Patrick Rivelli stands around 5 foot 7 with round spectacles and a full head of brown hair peppered with gray. He is prone to wearing khaki slacks and loafers. A quiet, unassuming man with a gentle handshake, Rivelli looks like he’d be more at home walking the halls of an Ivy League university or a Silicon Valley start-up than hanging out with a bunch of skier dudes in Squaw Valley. But don’t be fooled by Rivelli’s mild-mannered personality or his techie appearance. Not only is he an avid athlete, but in a matter of three years Rivelli has helped to create three powerhouses in the Tahoe winter sports community — Unofficial Networks, the High Fives Foundation, and the Push expedition to the South Pole. Without his money, guidance, and connections, all of these organizations would either not exist or not be what they are today.

So why would a 47-year-old biotechnology developer, entrepreneur, and millionaire from Palo Alto choose to lavish hundreds of thousands of dollars on a bunch of ski bums? The answer is two-fold: Rivelli is a born risk-taker and consummate learner who is constantly seeking out new challenges and endeavors that will stimulate him. But mostly, he just loves to ski.

The first thing to understand about Rivelli is that he is no dummy. A graduate of Harvard University and MIT Sloan School of Management, Rivelli’s first job after business school was at Bain Capital, a private equity firm in Boston, Mass., under the leadership of Mitt Romney. (Yes, that Mitt.) After growing bored with venture capitalism, Rivelli moved to the Bay Area where he started and sold a series of companies that developed medical devices, including the first intracranial stent and the first biodegradable coronary stent (he holds the patent for those and seven other inventions), for brain aneurysms and vascular disease. Today, he is the CEO of Bioabsorbable Therapeutics Inc. in Menlo Park.

The second thing to know about Rivelli is his passion for skiing. Born in New Jersey, Rivelli moved to New York with his family when he was 4. He learned to ski in his family’s driveway before they started making weekend trips to their local ski hill, Belleayre Mountain. He got into ski racing, but at age 14 his family packed up and left the East Coast for San Diego, a move Rivelli called 'a mixed blessing.'

'It meant I couldn’t ski every weekend, but when I got to ski, it was at places like Tahoe and Mammoth,' he said. 'I never realized there were mountains like this before.'

Unofficial Squaw

It was while skiing at Squaw Valley during the 2007–08 season that Rivelli saw an Unofficial Squaw sticker on a lift tower at Granite Chief. He checked out the website, and instantly became a fan.

'The ski industry didn’t serve skiers much,' he said. 'Their websites always said ‘powder and packed powder.’ And because the magazines’ advertisers were ski resorts, there was never any truth … I found Unofficial really invaluable to having the best possible experience.'

But during the following season, Rivelli noticed that Unofficial founder Tim Konrad had stopped posting. Konrad, who had been posting daily for the last three years, was running out of energy and money, and had decided to move back to New York to help his brother with his budding website, gCaptain (think Unofficial for the maritime industry). So Rivelli did what any millionaire skier would do — he sent Konrad an email asking to meet.

'I said ‘I think you’re on to something,’' Rivelli recalled. 'There is a way to turn it into a viable business.’'

Rivelli proposed that the two become equal partners in Unofficial, with Rivelli as CEO. He gave Konrad $100,000 to cover his debts and get the website back up. But it took a while for Unofficial to find its footing. At first, the pair tried to sell branded clothing online, but that failed. Then they tried to steer Unofficial in the direction of becoming a movie company, like Matchstick Productions or TGR. Unofficial sponsored athletes, and Rivelli even bought a $4 million house in Squaw Valley to serve as a boarding house for athletes and an office. It was during this time that the movie 'G.N.A.R' and web movie 'Skiing the Seven Continents' were made. Travel for the 'Seven Continents,' which took athletes to France, Morocco, Africa, and Japan, among other places, was funded entirely by Rivelli, who spent 'hundreds of thousands of dollars.' Although the movies were popular, they were a money pit.

'That was our lost year,' said Rivelli, who later sold the house. 'We got ourselves off track. No more films. Now we are back to Tim’s original, core idea.'

Konrad’s original idea was to provide a local’s perspective on the conditions and happenings at Squaw. This can sometimes put the website at odds with Squaw Valley Ski Corp, especially CEO Andy Wirth, like when Unofficial started writing about the Squaw-Alpine merger months before it was announced and was accused of spreading rumors. But Rivelli defends Unofficial’s unorthodox reporting.

'We are not a newspaper, so we are willing to go with rumors. We never make stuff up, there’s always a kernel of truth,' he said. 'We are not picking fights on purpose. We love Squaw. We live here. We could live in other towns. I think it’s a service to get the real truth out there.'

Unofficial, which has three full-time employees including Konrad, is now concentrating on two goals. Total world domination is the first. The website has already expanded to 11 ski areas, including two abroad in Japan and South America. Secondly, Rivelli and Konrad are focused on making the website financially viable through ad sales.

'We are almost to the point where ad revenue supports the budget,' said Rivelli, who has financed budget shortfalls in the past. 'We finally hit on a good formula that works.'

So after more than three years and countless dollars, why is Rivelli toughing it out with Unofficial? In his 20 years of starting up new businesses, Rivelli has learned the fine art of patience.

'I’m used to it from the medical devices world,' he said. 'Even if you think you have a great idea, sometimes you fail. In the event you are successful, it generally takes you five years until you wind up getting a pay-off. I’m comfortable with it. That’s the way business is.'

It’s exactly that attitude that Konrad says has been more beneficial to the company than Rivelli’s willingness to open his wallet.

'Patrick likes big ideas,' said Konrad. 'He chooses to spend money on building things that other people don’t feel comfortable with. That’s why he’s so successful. He doesn’t see obstacles; he sees opportunities.'

High Fives Foundation

It was through Unofficial and the then treasurer of High Fives, Jeff Pratt, that Rivelli met Roy Tuscany, who was just starting the Truckee-based foundation, which helps seriously injured winter sports athletes with recovery. Rivelli made a 'good' donation (over $20,000, according to Tuscany), and eventually Tuscany asked him to be on the board. Just as Unofficial presented the knowledge-hungry Rivelli with the opportunity to learn about a new industry — the web — High Fives was a chance for him to become skilled in the world of charity organizations.

'I loved what he [Tuscany] was doing,' Rivelli said. 'I’d never been involved with a nonprofit. I was curious. Just like the web business, I thought it would be fun to learn about nonprofits and how different they are from for-profit businesses.'

In High Fives’ second year, Rivelli gave another donation of more than $20,000 and has helped fund the administrative side of the organization, which includes an office space and three full-time employees. Tuscany said that Rivelli’s help has been invaluable to High Fives.

'It would never have grown as fast as it has, it wouldn’t have had the impact and manpower, and it wouldn’t be able to operate at this financial level without Patrick,' Tuscany said.

In its three years, High Fives has grown exponentially, from raising $23,000 in its first year to $370,000 last year, a 16-fold increase. In 2011, High Fives gave out $148,000 in grants to 19 athletes, up from 15 athletes in 2010. It was named nonprofit of the year by Powder Magazine and the Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce.

'Patrick is essential in numerous ways, not just financial,' Tuscany said. 'He has opened up a lot of doors for us for positive branding and marketing.'

The question on a lot of people’s minds is — what does Rivelli get out of this? Why give so much money to a nonprofit in ski country?

'I’ve been a lifelong passionate skier,' Rivelli said. 'It’s a way to give back to the sport I love and that has given me a lot.'

The Push and Mike Wilson
In 2011, Tuscany and Doug Stoup, polar guide and founder of Ice Axe Expeditions, came up with the idea of having Tuscany — who is himself recovering from a spinal cord injury suffered while skiing — ski to the South Pole and making a documentary about it. The two approached Rivelli about funding the project. Although hesitant at first, he agreed.

'I thought it would do great things for High Fives,' said Rivelli, who ended up becoming the project’s executive producer. 'It was the kind of thing where the whole project would have ground to a halt unless several things happened, like putting a deposit down with the company that runs the expeditions.'

A deposit would secure each member of the Push team’s flight to Antarctica and back. With seven people, including film crew, on the expedition, this was no small amount.

Although Tuscany ended up dropping out of the project to concentrate on his role at High Fives, another High Fives athlete, Grant Korgan, took his place. The project was called 'The Push' because Korgan would 'push' himself in a sit-ski 75 miles to the pole. The expedition, which wrapped up in January, was successful.

'My gratitude to Patrick, as executive producer, is through the roof,' said Korgan, whose recovery was aided by training every day for the nine months leading up to the trip.

Rivelli is now concentrating on getting a movie deal about the Push. So far, he has a five-episode agreement with NBC Universal Sports and is in the process of talking with other TV networks and cable channels. He has high hopes for the film.
'In my wildest dreams, I would love to see it win an award for best documentary, like ‘Murderball’ or ‘Hoop Dreams,’' he said. 'Murderball' is a 2005 film about wheelchair rugby. It was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary.

Any profits from a TV show or movie about the Push will go back to High Fives; Rivelli only wants to get reimbursed.

'I think it will be a money-making proposition, and a way for High Fives to get some more income,' he said.

Rivelli’s backing of 'The Push' is not his only foray into the TV and film business, his third new business venture after entering the world of websites and nonprofits. He is also the executive producer of a TV show starring Mike Wilson, a Tahoe-based pro skier known for his massive backflips. The show, tentatively titled 'Mission Beyond,' follows Wilson around the world as he attempts crazy feats, like BASE-jumping the world’s tallest waterfall in Venezuela. Rivelli paid for all the travel and production of the show’s trailer.

With his brother Doug, a money manager in Connecticut, Rivelli is also developing a reality competition show about street performers called 'Street Stars.'

'I like to be busy,' Rivelli says.

Ya think?

The Future

Rivelli is trying to transition out of the medical devices field, and is looking to his Tahoe projects to enable him to live in the mountains full time. Despite his recent successes in Tahoe, he doesn’t see himself as a King Midas, where everything he touches turns to gold, nor does he view himself as an angel, as Tuscany calls him, who makes ski bums’ dreams come true.
'I didn’t set out to make a big impact. It’s all coincidence and happenstance,' Rivelli said. 'I don’t have any strategy or plan. When opportunities present themselves to meet interesting people doing interesting things, you dip your toe in and the next thing you know you are up to your waist, then you are up to your head.'

~ Read more of this interview here. Comment on this story below.

 
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Reader comments so far...

Aimee (not verified)
"YES! Dreams can come true with a great idea, work, and big thinking, wise investors willing to risk capitol. Awesome, cheers to you Patrick. Of course we all wish we could make it without flow, but...... $$$ helps make dreams reality. aimeehad.com"

Patrick Mcintosh (not verified)
What cool concepts for venture capital expansion and growth. They are about helping people with their passions and dreams and growing them.

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September 14, 2017