Tea with the HT: Not your average boot-strappers! Louis Saha and Patrice Arnera, co-founders of elite sports networking platform Axis Stars

Louis SahaA5

Louis Saha and Patrice Arnera, co-founders of Axis Stars, as sketched by Hackney artist Thomas Moore

Louis Saha, the ex-Manchester United and France footballer, one of the finest goal-scorers of his generation, is embarking on a new career; as an entrepreneur.

Together with business partner Patrice Arnera, Louis is launching an exclusive and secure networking platform for elite sportspeople, Axis Stars, which allows players to connect with one another through a secure, members only platform, receive offers from selected luxury brands, and discuss sponsorship deals and other commercial opportunities with trusted agents, ex-pros and sports governance bodies.

The HT was lucky to be granted an audience with Louis and Patrice at the Café Royal on Regent Street, and decided to make the occasion just a little bit more hipster by inviting up and coming local artist Thomas Moore, who will be exhibiting soon at the canal-side Proud Archivist Bar and Restaurant in Haggerston, to come along and sketch these two intrepid entrepreneurs.

It’s fair to say many start-ups in London are sinking under the sheer weight of good, bad, well-meaning or frankly misplaced advice that can be found just about everywhere you look; on the web, in the coffee shops of Shoreditch, down at the Cereal Killer Café over a bowl of Coco pops, and on the stages of start-up conferences in all corners of the world.

You might think a footballer who has probably been paid some astronomical wages at some point in his career (and Louis won the Champions League with Manchester United, the world’s richest club) may not need to worry too much about lean methodology or bootstrapping, or that a man who would have played the 2006 World Cup Final, (the one famous for Zidane’s outrageous headbutt on Marco Materazzi), had it not been for suspension, doesn’t have to work as hard as most to get himself and his partner in front of an influential VC.

But shame on you for thinking that, because business is business, and every entrepreneur has it tough. There’s no easy route to the top, no short cuts on the extra mile, as they say. In business, inequality is a perception, a self-fulfilling prophecy, but rarely a constant. Luck changes sides as often as a footballer changes his hairdo. If fortune favours the brave, however, then Louis and Patrice’s story so far is certainly worth listening to. Like most great founders, they are humble, surprisingly relaxed, down to earth, and determined to make their mark with a product nobody has ever tried before.

axis stars screenshot

Brand of brothers

“Footballers are aware from a very early age that they are a brand”, says Louis; “it’s in their mind all the time, so they find that part of starting a business quite easy. It’s the social jump that’s tough, there’s less protection, the industry is no longer built around you like it is in football. You have to start building your reputation all over again, which means being really honest, understanding the mechanics of what you are trying to do, in our case the platform, working hard, making sacrifices and doing what you have to do to create and preserve the brand.”

Is it the same for all sportspeople? “No. Guys like (tennis players) Gael Monfils, and Marcos Baghdatis who have joined Axis Stars have been running a business since they were kids. They are the chairman and top sales guy running a team of masseurs, physios, coaches, sponsorship guys. They grow up very quickly, they’re natural entrepreneurs. Footballers are almost forced to behave like children at times; it helps them relax, stay sharp and deliver on the pitch. It’s what people want to see.”

But there must have been some great managerial role models at Manchester United? “I looked up to managers like Sir Alex Ferguson (Manchester United manager for 26 years and serial trophy winner) because they knew so much; they handle the medical side, look after the players, plan the games, it’s really complex. But does that naturally make them great traders, lawyers, business people? Not always. The best coaches raise you as citizens as well as football players, they teach you about man management. It all helps you to understand how to manage in business, particularly with the press, who try to kill you and twist your words.”

Louis’ approach is open minded: “I like getting to grips with the IT, with the technology, I see similarities with the sports business, but players aren’t cattle, or objects, pints of milk; clearly there’s a difference”.

“Were there any future businessmen or stand out leaders in the ranks at Man United?” I ask Louis. “Gary Neville (Manchester United stalwart turned TV pundit); he was picky about everything, he even knew the weight of the ball, things like that, and he never stopped asking questions.” Patrice Evra, maybe? (former France captain who led a player mutiny at 2010 World Cup), “it’s hard for me to say because I know him really well” We settle on the definition: “Leader of men. He was like that at United and now he’s doing it at Juventus, too.”

avis stars logoBeing an entrepreneur

“Does working in a cash rich environment make it easier to run a business?” I ask. “We still have to manage our expenses very carefully, lifestyle and business are entirely separate from one another”, says Patrice, who provides the technical and security expertise, having worked with some of the world’s top IT security brands, and chosen to partner with Salesforce.com and Apptus. “The money goes on people and software, and protecting our asset, which is the platform”. Players apply to be admitted to the network by sending in a photo of themselves together with the set of forms and credentials specified as entrance criteria.

Do they meet each player face to face? “No there are too many applicants, from all over the world, it wouldn’t be practical. We do deal with players on a case by case basis, and so far we haven’t had to deal with any instances of fraudulent players, although there have been attempts, which have been easy to see through. We’re obviously trying to be very careful while we bed the software and security in. We don’t want to take more players on than we can handle at this stage, we’re sticking with the on-boarding schedule we laid out in the business plan.”

“But in some ways the offering has already being used differently to how we imagined. Once you are on the platform, it can be like a dating agency”; Tinder for luxury brands? “Yes!” Louis laughs, before adding, “this company is trustworthy, and that’s very important, it can also work like a committee, reviewing the deals. The business model is very wide.”

“Everybody is aware of the potential of the product”, says Patrice, in response to my question about whether Axis Stars can find its niche amongst so many agents, sports management companies and hangers on that tend to clutter up the professional sportsman’s world, and mind? “If we ever feel like we’re losing control we can ask people to help us, or for advice, but we believe what we’re doing is good for sport. Change can be scary, but sometimes it’s necessary.”

Axis Stars marketing to date has had a strong focus on the platform’s ability to protect younger players from the bad investments and deals hawked by underhand agents. Louis admits he lost money himself in his career this way, but believes he is better for the experience. “It was good for me because it has inspired me to create Axis Stars”, he explains, “you can help stop those kind of people getting through the door.”

Who sits outside the platform and who is invited in has been an issue that Louis and Patrice have had to manage very carefully. Patrice explains the difficulty in asking a “big 4” accountancy to act as an auditor for Axis Stars, because it precludes them from joining the network or becoming one of Axis Star’s commercial partners. “We’ve had to become an ethics committee”, he says, but we’re looking at a way of working which effectively says to companies, the more you help us improve the quality of the product we are offering, the more chance you have of being invited inside Axis Stars.”

Louis and Patrice

“You can love your wife and still have an argument!” Louis and Patrice on being business partners

Fund raising

Some of the names already on board and rumoured to be joining is impressive. Mikael Silvestre, Djibril Cisse, Didier Drogba, NBA stars Boris Diaw, Ronny Turiaf and Nicolas Batum, FA agent Jenifer Mendelevich. Given the wealth of some of the stars joining Axis Stars, the fund raising target of £4m that Louis and Patrice are trying to raise seems a little modest, and wouldn’t it be easier to raise from the sports world rather than the traditional start-ups VC / Angel investor route?

“We don’t want to involve our clients on the fundraising side”, says Louis, “trust in the platform is the investment we want from sportsmen, and we’ll sit down with VCs and investors like anybody else. What we’re doing, trying to achieve, is a first, it’s never been done before. It makes the product a harder sell.”

“We’re being slightly more aggressive in the way we are trying to close this second round of funding, says Patrice, the problem with the amount we’re trying to raise is that the figure is too high for the angel investors, but not high enough for the VCs.” Ah, the funding gap. The curse of tech start-ups and entrepreneurs everywhere. It doesn’t matter who you know, it seems, raising Series A funding is the hardest thing to do in London currently. But what about in Paris, or France? “It’s tricky. If you try to start a company in France people think you must be a tyrant”, jokes Louis. “It’s not a particularly stable fund raising environment, both men seem to agree.

So finally, how has their friendship / business relationship been tested since they went into business together? “We were introduced to each other by our wives, our children went to the same school”, they explain enthusiastically; we have a lot of empathy towards each other, it’s not been a case of arguing about who works harder, or seeing who has the biggest ego, or who comes out on top.”

mikael silvestre

Axis stars is endorsed by Mikael Silvestre, amongst others

“You can love your wife but still have an argument”, points out Patrice, who Louis says is just ahead in the hard work stakes, working closely with the team of 7 people in Paris and spending long hours perfecting the IT infrastructure. I ask Louis if it is ever hard to relate to a team who might never have known what it is like to have had a talent like his. I’ve heard it said that great football players make poor managers because they don’t know how to work with people who aren’t on the same wavelength.

“I’m a big believer that in life you must keep learning; I know I have lots to learn, I don’t have any special skills when it comes to business”, he replies modestly, “I’m always looking at how to improve. Like Cristiano (Ronaldo), who I used to play with at United. Wow, the hardest working guy I ever met! A genius, and a machine, but I loved his arrogance, he just wanted to be the best he could be and he would make all the sacrifices.”

He’s done ok financially too, I venture, do you think he might be joining Axis Stars? “It might not be down to him”, is the reply. Sounds like Cristiano could definitely do with some Axis Stars love.

 

Redefining Beauty: McQueen Retrospective at the V&A

by Abi Buller

Alexander McQueen

Both nationally and internationally, the recent emergence of the V&A’s Alexander McQueen retrospective has been a much anticipated affair for Art and Fashion lovers. Following on from New York’s 2011 MOMA tribute to the British designer’s legacy, the V&A welcomes a vast collection of the designer’s work, which spans over two decades of his career.

Who wants to be a billionaire! Enterprise Connect at King’s College London presents Mara Group and Foundation founder Ashish J. Thakkar and Craig Donaldson, CEO Metro Bank; on scalability and work ethics!

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Enterprise Connect is an initiative run by Kings College London which helps aspiring start-up founders learn from one another, and hear from some of the finest, high-profile, entrepreneurial minds, those whose businesses have hit the big time. What are they like? They are gluttons for punishment, it turns out; perfectionists who just want more! Last week’s panel was a mix of those taking their first steps, and 2 founders who have, in no small way, made history, but whose journeys in many respects are only just beginning.

When it’s time to utter those 4 little words, think Render Positive!

render positiveThere comes a time in every business person’s life, no matter how good the product, no matter how strong the market, when they have to go to an advertising agency and say: “please: make them like me!”

This is the least enjoyable part of working with a marketing agency. And it’s not something you want to have to say more than once, so bearing that in mind it’s very important that you choose to work with the right one. And once that part is over, if you have chosen well, you can start to enjoy yourself.

So why choose Render Positive? Because Channel 4 did, and described them as “a truly professional and inspiring outfit to work with”? Because Symantec and Sofa Workshop think that “their ideas “have a fantastic success rate” and “they offer intelligent responses to our requests”? Because they persuaded one of the greatest living ad-men, Rory Sutherland, to spend an hour on their sofa and asked him brilliant questions? Nope. Here’s why:

How to run a fantastic Tech City start-up: the tenets of “Flubilosophy”

flubit4Define start-up? A 27 year old co-founder; a 25 year old COO; a pool table; a table tennis tournament; kayaking. International travel. Presentations at dawn? There is no template, but it’s tempting to think that Flubit, the demand driven marketplace which guarantees to create a better offer for any goods bought online via a network of more than 1,000 suppliers, is what a “trendy” Dave Cameron meant when he pitched us Tech City back in 2010; and Flubit stepped up and helped to make it happen, in the process raising over £9 million of seed & Series A and B funding. So what does success looks like? It looks like hard work and togetherness, but it’s kind of fun, too. In a nutshell, work hard, play hard, take equity; get involved! The HT took a closer look at what a start-up looks like from the inside; by observing some of the basic tenets of “Flubilosophy”.

Game, set and watch! The Apple smartwatch has it all, tradition and battery life aside, and will probably become ubiquitous

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This much we know: Apple is about to blow the smartwatch market wide open. With the same impeccable timing that saw them announce a new record for weekly billings on their app store ($0.5bn) and a record breaking 2014 for iOS app developers ($25 billion in revenues) during a damp squib of a Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which they declined to attend, Apple has been dropping ice cubes down the vest of this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona by announcing that the Apple Watch will be officially released to the general public on March 9th. Mobile is so 2014!

The inspiring story of a start-up founder who turned the memory of a painful shopping trip into an omnichannel sales and delivery solution

By Wednesday, March 11, 2015 0 No tags Permalink 0

minime1Like many successful entrepreneurs before him, Dino Demetriou’s decision to found a start-up was born out of frustration that there wasn’t a better way of doing things.

Finding himself lost in one of Dubai’s vast shopping malls for the umpteenth time one morning, Dino gave up his shopping expedition and headed to the airport to catch his flight home. Having been thwarted once already, in the departure lounge he once again found himself surrounded by high end stores and products; Dino was ready to spend but short on time, as most passengers usually are. But with limited room on the plane, and no easy way to arrange overseas delivery, in the end he decided to keep his money in his pocket; at the same time the businessman in him sensed an opportunity.

Top speed pitching at Google Campus with the Hipsters, Hackers & Hustlers; here are (most bits of) the pitches!

By Wednesday, March 11, 2015 6 No tags Permalink 0

They say lightning never strikes twice, but this was the 18th consecutive time it had struck Google Campus on the 2nd Tuesday of the month!

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Is there a more electric, creatively charged night in Old London Town than this one? The Hipsters, Hackers & Hustlers team have been putting on storming co-founder dating nights for entrepreneurs at Google Campus for the best part of 18 months, and last night was another belter.

Comb founders and top fashion blogger demonstrate how to build your brand using social media!

By Friday, March 6, 2015 1 No tags Permalink 0

fashion bloggingOn Wednesday night at the London School of Fashion Haggerston Times was treated to a master-class in how budding fashion bloggers or PR peeps can use social media to drive more traffic to their sites, and build a personal brand using the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and how to interpret the results of their efforts using techie stuff like Google Analytics, and bitly.

Fancy a Dark Date? This one woman show will delight you, just don’t order the stake!

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Monday evening. Soho. Raining. Tower Street. Dark Dates, anyone? Zoe Cunningham, member of the Techerati by day, performer and presenter by night, and director Peta Lily put on an excellent adaptation of Tracey Sinclair’s novel at the Tristan Bates Theatre, which looks and, appropriately feels like the inside of a coffin. Good start.

The future is mobile! KPMG, alongside UKTI, are sending the best of British mobile start-ups to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona

kpmg mobileKPMG are collaborating with UKTI and helping to exploit the phenomenal recent growth in the mobile applications space, by sending 8 of the most promising UK based mobile start-ups to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona; the initiative began with over 60 applicants, whittled down to a shortlist of 20 companies, with 8 finalists eventually making it through to compete for the title of Best British Mobile start-up. The winner will be decided, after a final pitch in Barcelona, by a panel of 3 judges; the startups will also be showcased to as many as 11,000 KPMG employees.

The Haggerston Times Podcast #5

If content is King, then call us Kong! The Haggerston Times Podcast is back after an extended winter break, with regular panelists Robin Rathore of newly launched Bamboo Auctions and David Hardman, co-founder of Launch 22,  joined this week by Investor and all round Techie evangelist Ben Wynne Simmons, and Douglas Bell, founder of start-up Epic, and President of The London Innovators Network.

You will find Tech City at a crossroads, not a roundabout

  tech city 3Last week Haggerston Times came across a report from 2012 entitled “A Tale of Tech City: The Future of Inner East London’s Digital Economy”. The report was released by not for profit think tank Centre for London, in association with the British Venture Capital Association, British Telecommunications Plc, London & Partners and the Federation of Small Businesses, and put together by Dr Max Nathan, a research fellow at LSE’s Spatial Economics Research Centre, urbanist and writer Emma Vandore, and Rob Whitehead, deputy director of research at the Centre for London.

Want to change what the web is talking about for less than 10 pounds? Be a smart “tibber”!

tibditOk, so we are living in the age of austerity. We were warned about it! The bankers got greedy and the rest is history, or at least the rest of us were history as far as the bankers were concerned! The public sector shrunk, wages went down, prices up, and the worst of it is the politicians tell us to expect more of the same!

You don’t need a coder to build a mobile app for your business, you need a GoodBarber!

good barberThe future is mobile. It’s been said so many times in the last few years that we have almost become immune to the fact that it’s true! Increasingly we get the information that we need to help us live our lives to the full from our mobile home screens. This is happening more and more with business apps too. Whatever industry you are working in, the likelihood is that it’s “going mobile”. So welcome to the future! Now let me ask you 3 questions:

TheJobPost is helping recruitment be more tech, but it’s all in the best possible taste, and recruiters get to keep all their commissions

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Recently an awful lot of industries are seemingly very happy to be “disrupted”; prefix them with the word tech, build an app, collect some big data, and hey presto you’ve got yourself a FinTech, FashTech, SportsTech or HealthTech start-up! But HRTech? Me neither.

Tip TV founders to launch Intelligent Crowd, a TV show for discerning Crowdfunders

Ever wanted to begin crowdlogo_strapline__bigfund investing, but didn’t know how to find the heroes amongst the zeroes? Maybe you should spend an hour in the company of Shane Smith, the driver behind Intelligent Crowd TV. Not only does he have an expert’s knowledge of how equity crowdfunding really works, his latest venture is making it easier for the rest of us to make better informed decisions about which projects are truly deserving of our cash.

Hello World launches Indiegogo campaign to bring solar powered digital education hubs to 2 million children by 2019

projects for all 1When Dr. Sugata Mitra left a computer connected to the internet in a hole in the wall in a New Delhi slum in 1999, he wasn’t quite sure what the results might be. He had done so in order to test his belief that, even in the absence of a formal education system, children would still demonstrate a thirst for learning and a desire to educate themselves. To all intents and purposes he was proved right.