Startup Life/Opinion/

Louis Saha: In business and football, there’s no such thing as overnight success

Startups and footballers need more than skills and knowledge to succeed, they need a long-term strategy.

Credit: Louis Saha
Louis Saha

By Louis Saha

Last month marked the seventh anniversary of adding AxisStars, the company I founded, to my LinkedIn profile. I’ve always been passionate about this venture, so I can get frustrated that it’s taken longer to get it off the ground than I’d hoped. But I have to remind myself that in business, just as in football, there is no such thing as an overnight success. 

We all know of similar stories in football. Jamie Vardy for example, worked his way up through non-league sides to eventually win the Premier League with Leicester and play for his country. Even the players following the more ‘conventional’ route to the Premier League have put more hours and work into their training than fans may ever understand. Look at someone like Harry Kane — he was at Spurs when I was there, and I trained with him. Even at that stage I didn’t recognise all the qualities that we see in him today. 

Ronaldo is one of the greatest players that I have ever had the fortune to play with. His natural talent is unbelievable, but he doesn’t take it for granted. One time after training with Manchester United, I stayed behind and joined in with the solo drills he tagged onto the end of every session. I thought I was going to die! He has made so many sacrifices for his craft and totally deserves to at the top even today.

Hard work is not enough for success

In a previous instalment of this column, I recited the astonishing statistic that only 0.012% of footballers make it to the Premier League. And between the ages of 13-16, 76% of players in the youth system drop out. It’s very similar to the startup world, where companies have a 0.00006% chance of becoming the next unicorn. Hard work is clearly not enough to achieve long-term success. 

First, for anything that is worth achieving you need a mid- to long-term strategy, for which knowledge is key.

For anything that is worth achieving you need a mid- to long-term strategy.

Idriss Aberkane is a fantastic speaker on this topic and has three rules in his ‘economy of knowledge’, but it’s his third rule — that knowledge exchanges are not instantaneous — that really resonates with me. In other words, you can’t just transfer a load of knowledge and have it work straight away. Learning takes time. 

The tricky thing with learning is that we often don’t know what we don’t know. It can be hard to see objectively what skills you are missing or when things are going to click for you. Being able to kick a ball is not enough to make a successful career in football. You need mental perseverance, physical ability, luck and more. It’s the same for a startup — just having a fantastic idea won’t be enough to get it off the ground. 

That’s why mentors — people who have been there and done it before — are so important. It’s much quicker to learn from other people’s mistakes in addition to your own. Unlike startup founders, professional players have the benefit of not having to develop their skills in isolation. There’s a whole team of visionary experts at football clubs, from youth teams to academies and upwards, looking at players to predict how successful they can be. These people can look at players aged 10 and understand what they need to develop physically and mentally. These experts don’t just have to assess people on an individual level but also how they can fit into a team.

Having patience and a long-term strategy is also relevant in the debate around the recent European Super League breakaway attempt. The owners of the Premier League clubs are learning that it’s not as simple as just buying a club for millions of pounds and then watching the profit roll in. They were perhaps not aware of the intricacies and complexity of this industry, a sport with more than 100 years of history and fan stories across Europe. I’m not sure they appreciated that they have multiple ‘customers’ — fans, managers, players, sponsors, federations all exerting demands on the clubs.

In any business, you need to be able to juggle your objectives with the needs of your audience.

Startups and football

It’s the same when you’re launching a startup. You need to be sure that there is a strong enough need; that your potential customers can easily understand what you are doing and the benefits for them. The industry has to be ready to embrace your innovation too. You need to speak to your customers to truly know and understand them.

Even when you’ve learned the skills, launched the business or you’re playing professional football, success isn’t guaranteed. You have to continue to evolve & develop using data to understand your strengths and weaknesses — and those of your competitors — and build your team to win. These insights will inform your long-term strategy. In football, the players all wear GPS vests to track individual performance data. Analysts review team performance, playback clips to show where improvements can be made and analyse match footage from the competition ahead of their next match. 

AxisStars may have taken longer to build than I was hoping when I first had the idea, but we’re still going. I’ve had my share of setbacks along the way, but they have only served to teach me and to improve the overall proposition. We are now in a much stronger position, and the industry is also in a different place. The need is even more obvious. I believe that you can’t achieve anything great without experiencing failure. A winning mentality will only get you part of the way, then it’s down to hard work and perseverance, in business and in football.

Louis Saha is founder and CEO of AxisStars, a platform that connects athletes and entertainers to industry professionals. He was a professional footballer for teams like Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.

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