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.
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.”
Being 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.”
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.”
“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.