Louis Saha enjoyed a glittering football career but he was far from an instant success.
A promising teenager, he struggled at first at humble Metz, scored just once in a loan spell at Newcastle United, and dropped down a division to sign for Fulham in the hope of kick-starting his career.
Saha proved a success in south-west London and four years later, aged 25, he finally hit the big time and joined Manchester United. He would go on to win the Champions League, multiple Premier Leagues and play for France at major tournaments.
Saha’s business career has followed a similar pattern since he hung up his boots in 2013.
He began work on AxisStars, a social network to connect sportspeople and athletes with trusted businesses, soon after retirement.
The idea was born out of Saha’s own frustrations at unscrupulous agents, advisers and middle-men who lurk in the sport and entertainment industries.
But the 42-year-old has had to be patient in his mission to disrupt a flawed but deeply ingrained system.
“Sometimes people think you are crazy when you start something,” Saha tells City A.M.
“Then they say ‘there must be some companies doing the same’. Actually that’s not the case.
“There is a lot of ego in this industry and to have a solution for everyone is quite a challenge.
“I had to really go against the status quo. People don’t want to change and it needs a big shake-up.”
Why Saha decided to set up AxisStars
AxisStars uses the slogan “keeping sharks at bay” on its website, a nod to Saha’s own experiences.
“I found out really early that it was very complicated to trust people,” he says.
“There was no answer from the organisations that should be there for you. Clubs, unions and federations have their own agenda.”
Saha changed agents three or four times in his 16-year playing career, which also took in spells at Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Sunderland and Lazio.
He wants AxisStars to empower athletes and entertainers to make informed decisions about how to manage their careers and money.
“Whenever there is business there are people who come to grab the opportunity to say some bullshit and proclaim themself the best,” he says.
“This is the problem. We just want to highlight who is doing best for clients.”
Kate Hamer, Saha’s business partner, says: “Talent are encouraged to focus on their talent and people say they’ll take care of everything else around them.
“But you don’t know what you don’t know, so how can you evaluate if you’re getting a good service? AxisStars fills that gap.”
How AxisStars works for talent and businesses
AxisStars has a simple business model.
Talent – which includes footballers, rugby players, cricketers and other sportspeople and entertainers – can sign up for free.
Businesses, meanwhile, pay an annual fee (£6,000 is the target figure) to be featured on the platform, but are thoroughly vetted by a panel of industry experts before being included.
They include estate agents, vehicle providers, luxury holiday rentals and concierge services.
There are also specialist insurers and mobile phone providers, nutritionists, PAs, wealth managers and lawyers, as well as tools for career management such as educational courses and sponsorship opportunities.
Talent can be hard to reach for businesses, but AxisStars provides a portal that does not necessitate going through an agent.
“It’s an umbrella community for the whole industry which encourages everyone to be much more transparent and conduct business with integrity,” says Hamer.
AxisStars does not take any commission if business is done via the platform. “We feel that gets a bit murky and like the agent world,” she adds.
The app launched in 2019, when Saha and Hamer began to recruit talent and businesses known to them. They now have more than 400 members and the number is growing.
The talent side is 65 per cent football and includes household names such as Andy Cole and Robert Pires but is mostly made up active players.
Roughly half of the membership is UK based, with the majority of the rest in France, while more than a fifth is female.
‘People now see value of investing in integrity’
Saha and Hamer intend to present AxisStars to more clubs and players when Covid-19 restrictions allow.
And they have more plans for the platform, including an investment round on Seedrs which they hope will raise £550,000.
That money has been earmarked for an Android version of the app and to expand their portfolio of experts.
“We’re particularly keen for the stars themselves to invest,” says Hamer. “Then it’ll truly be a community for stars by stars, and they’ll bring in more of their networks as well.”
Profits are a way off – they will first invest any takings in developing the platform further – but Saha is optimistic about the future.
He is pragmatic about the hurdles they have faced so far, but believes wider trends are creating more favourable market conditions for the AxisStars concept.
“The word integrity now has more meaning than a year ago,” Saha says.
“Before the pandemic people were ‘commercial, commercial, commercial’, and now people are looking for purpose. They can see the value in investing in integrity and a more democratised environment.”
Just as Saha the footballer bided his time and got his rewards, Saha the businessman is content to do the same.
“It’s totally normal when you disrupt an industry that people doubt and get frightened by it. But I never faced anyone saying ‘this [AxisStars] is not good’,” he says.
“It’s more about a natural instinct – ‘how can it work with me?’. Knowledge takes time. Providing confidence takes time. It’s frustrating but totally normal.”
For more information on AxisStars follow this link.