An email lands in my inbox asking if I’d like to interview former Everton footballer, Louis Saha, about his new tech startup.
The French striker, who scored the quickest ever goal in an FA cup final while at Everton and won the Champions League with Manchester United, has set up a business called Axis Stars, which sets out to make it easier for players to manage their finances and avoid being conned by corrupt agents.
I respond quickly with an enthusiastic "yes please" and meet him a few weeks later at the Renaissance Hotel above St Pancras railway station in Central London, just a couple of miles from Axis Star's office on Chancery Lane.
When I turn up, Saha, who is based in Paris and is about to return home on the Eurostar, is looking stressed and agitated. He’s just left a bag with a laptop inside in the back of the black cab that dropped him off so he’s on the phone to various people and talking to the hotel staff about how to get it back.
Unsure what to do, I take a seat and talk to his PR person while questioning in my mind if I can still go ahead an interview him.
Fortunately, the honest taxi driver returned and handed the laptop bag in to the hotel, instantly putting a huge beaming smile onto Saha’s face. He orders an espresso and croissant before giving me an intro to his startup.
Players are constantly getting scammed by their agents these days and the market is a lot more corrupt than many people realise, he tells me.
“You ask someone to work for you and to make sure everything is sorted in terms of contract and negotiations and getting the best salary possible. But this is difficult to manage because there is a relationship between the sport director or club and those agents,” he says, adding that the actual footballer is often left out of some of the negotiations.
Saha, who retired from professional football in 2013 after several injury setbacks, has set the company up with the father of one of his child’s friends, Patrice Arnera, who has over 15 years' experience in IT.
“Our kids go to the same school,” explains the 36-year-old father of three. “The wives are getting along and they say: ‘Our husbands are always coming up with ideas so they should meet.’”
A month after meeting, Saha pitched the idea for Axis Stars to Arnera and the business was launched in September last year.
The exclusive platform, which now has over 100 athletes on board, including Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, NBA player Boris Diaw, Olympic champion Mo Farah, and tennis pro Gael Monfils, allows sports professionals to rate the performance of agents and companies they have worked with, making the whole industry more transparent in the same way that TripAdvisor has for the hotel sector. Other footballers who have signed up to the platform include Gary Neville, Florent Malouda and Papiss Cissé.
Saha believes the platform will do well because many footballers are paranoid now as it’s hard to know when those around them actually want to help or when they just want to make money for themselves.
The platform focuses on contract management, covering everything from club contracts to insurance. It also features an online store where exclusive products can be bought by athletes at discounted rates, in addition to an area where they can search for special trips and partnership opportunities.
Businesses that choose to list their services on the site are charged a £250 listing fee, while brands pay considerably more to get their products in front of the professional sports stars through the online shop. Currently there are over 200 businesses listed on the site, including PwC and BDO.
“The pilot phase is now over,” says Saha. “We think the model is working. We just need to make sure the development team is big enough to sustain the big numbers we think are coming.”
It’s understood that Saha came up with the idea for the platform after he himself lost a large amount of money in an unnamed investment scheme.
Saha is now looking for others to invest in Axis Stars, with £4 million being the target figure in mind.
“We invested pretty much everything to make it the way it is right now,” says Saha. “We’re raising funds because it’s really interesting and people are going for it."
But Saha claims he’s reluctant to pester his wealthy footballing friends, as people with business opportunities are always approaching them, he says.
He’s also in the process of boosting the company’s media presence and ramping up the size of the team, adding that he recently recruited the ex-Manchester United marketing director, Mike Farnan, as his new head of marketing.
Other footballers including Cristiano Ronaldo and Andrés Iniesta have linked themselves to tech companies but Saha claims he's putting in more legwork than them.
“I’m not going to say I’m different but I’m sure that if you mention Cristiano Ronaldo or if you mention Michael Owen, they don’t work 25 hours a day,” he says. “I’m behind the tech. I’m not just giving my email address or something. This is completely different. This is not me giving my image to some tech.”
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