Footy stars turned startup founders: Four ex-AFL players kicking goals off the oval

Pickstar co-founders James Begley and Matthew Pavlich. Source: Supplied.

Pickstar co-founders James Begley and Matthew Pavlich. Source: Supplied.

AFL Grand Final day is very nearly upon us, and while come Saturday all eyes will be on the oval at the MCG, at StartupSmart we’re celebrating players’ achievements off the ground as well.

There’s a surprising number of current and former AFL stars running small businesses in Australia, whether operating bars and clubs, selling snazzy swim shorts or importing fixie bikes. But, there’s also action in the startup space.

Former Melbourne Football Club player Joel MacDonald founded the ultimately ill-fated GetSwift with teammates James Strauss and Rohan Bail, and while that may not have ended well, it hasn’t stopped fellow players throwing their hats into the startup ring.

So, who are the founders who have swapped footy practice for life as a founder?

James Begley and Matthew Pavlich, PickStar

James Begley, co-founder of corporate talent booking platform PickStar describes himself as a “mid-range washed up hack footballer”. But he did have a six-year professional AFL career, playing for the St Kilda Saints between 1999 and 2002 and the Adelaide Crows between 2003 and 2005, before he retired from the game due to injuries.

His co-founder Matthew Pavlich is a legend of the Fremantle Football Club, having kicked 700 goals in his 16-year career at the club. He has also served as president of the AFL Players’ Association.

Now, however, the pair have hung up their boots and are focusing on their startup venture. They secured $1 million from undisclosed investors just last month to grow the platform and make corporate booking opportunities more accessible for footy players and fans alike.

“It’s all about volume of talent and opportunities flying through the system,” Begley told StartupSmart at the time.

“Our technology becomes our shopfront, and we need to invest significantly,” he added.


Gavl co-founder Joel Smith. Source: Supplied.

Joel Smith, Gavl

Former Hawthorn star Joel Smith retired in 2007 after a 13-year career. In 2015, he launched real estate startup Gavl, which live-streams property auctions to allow participation from prospective buyers across the world.

Alongside co-founders Leith Donalson and Michael Artup, Smith secured $1.8 million in funding for the startup in October last year, from Flight Centre co-founder Geoff Harris.

At the time of the raise Smith told StartupSmart Gavl fills a gap in the market.

“All Australians love real estate and at any given time just about all of us are dreaming of a new house,” he said.

“It’s going to sound strange, but I see playing in a sports team and running a business as very similar; it’s all about getting the right people in your team, the right culture and the right game plan,” he added.

James Podsiadly

The Wellbeing Challenge founder James Podsiadly.

James Podsiadly, The Wellbeing Challenge

James ‘J-Pod’ Podsiadly played for Geelong Football Club between 2010 and 2013, including playing in the 2011 Grand Final when the team beat Collingwood to take home the premiership cup. He then played for the Adelaide Crows for two years, before retiring in 2015.

In 2016, Podsiadly launched The Wellbeing Challenge, a corporate wellness platform to make it easier for small- and medium-sized businesses to help employees manage personal wellbeing.

The app encourages employees to work on aspects of their lives outside of work, such as exercise, nutrition, sleep and even personal finances, identifying strengths and weaknesses and personalising daily challenges.

“What we saw was the majority of wellbeing programs rolled out in workplaces weren’t holistic,” Podsiadly told StartupSmart in 2016.

“They tended to be exercise focused, or nutrition focused. But the research we’ve done and seen is the number one and two reasons that people have stress in their lives are personal finances and relationships. So when we talk about rolling out a wellbeing program, nutrition, exercise and sleep has to be part of that but it needs to be holistic,” he added.

AFL Fergus Watts

Bastion Collective founder Fergus Watts.

Fergus Watts, Bastion Collective

Fergus Watts’ AFL career lasted just two years, during which time he played for Adelaide and St Kilda. And, while in an Exclusive Insight blog he describes his career as a failure, he also says it was “the best thing that ever happened to me”.

Watts went on to found marketing company Bastion Collective when he was just 23, and as of March 2016, the company had offices in London, Shanghai and Los Angeles, and had an annual revenue of $20 million.

In March last year, Watts introduced unlimited annual leave for Bastion Collective staff, in a bid to improve their overall wellbeing.

Speaking to StartupSmart in 2016, Watts said his sporting background prepared him for failure in business.

“Failing becomes an easier proposition after that because you’ve done it in a reasonably public platform,” he said.

“Being able to have a go at a business and take a risk is the biggest thing my football career taught me.

“Failure is okay and it does happen time and time again. But it’s about being able to adapt from that and keep moving forward.”

Any we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments.

NOW READ: Startups should be more like sports teams: Atlassian and AFLW reveal how team sports contribute to workplace success

NOW READ: How former rugby star Sean Garlick created Garlo’s Pies, a $15 million family business


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3 years ago

Don’t forget Ted Richards, ex-Sydney Swans player who is now a director at robo investment service, Six Park!

3 years ago

Patrick Dangerfield is the co-founder of Fit For Footy

Con Frantzeskos
3 years ago

Nick Stone, former Collingwood and Hawthorn player, Bluestone Lane Coffee in the US.

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