In this findthegaps episode, Max Parekura talks about how Koda Sports has come to fruition from what began as a desire to remain involved in the New Zealand sporting industry along with the identification of the ability to improve the current sports management offering. Max discusses how Koda Sports helps professional sportspeople use their sporting careers as gateways for life opportunities.

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Grant: So we have been talking for the best part of several months now, and I wanted to talk to you in person and on record to really share what an incredible journey you’ve been on already and I’ve been privileged to be part of it in a small way. The reason I think it’s incredible is because you are really taking on a big industry that doesn’t want to be taken on. So do you want to give us a quick elevator pitch on what Koda is all about and then we’ll get into the details of what you have been up to.

Max:  Okay, so basically we’re a sports management agency or sports talent identification agency. We work primarily with Rugby at the moment, because that’s where I have the most expertise in and I have played Rugby all my life. The way the model usually works in New Zealand is that there’s a few big agents and they take on hundreds of players at a time. We’re looking for more of an active management approach where we take on 30/40/50 players per agent. We look after them more than just on the field and off the field, help them with finances, we run a series of workshops and help them succeed post-career, as well as during their rugby career.

Grant: So, we’ll get into kind of the way you’re changing the model in a bit, but I really wanted to go back to the start. A couple of young guys, both top sportspeople. Kai is playing Rugby in Japan at the moment. Plus you’re studying, plus you’ve got a job etc. etc., so you’re doing that hustling thing. So, what was it that made you do something? Because nowadays everyone thinks they should be starting a business, they should be disrupting the world and stuff like that. But to me, and why I really fell in love with what you guys are doing and offered to support in any way I could was that you seem to be developing a business that really meant something to you, which I believe helps you achieve more if it’s actually meaningful. So, what was it that originally got you to say “well, hold on, we can actually make a difference”.

Max: Yeah, so I have been playing Rugby my whole life. I started when I was 4, and I’m 21 now. Over the last couple of years, it really had to take a back seat for me. I’ve had two shoulder reconstructions in the past 3 years, so I haven’t played for two seasons now and just thinking about it, it was always my dream to be a professional rugby player. Surgery after surgery, it looks further and further away, and I was studying Law at the same time. I’d love to stay involved in any way possible, whether that be coaching or being a ref or that fun office side of being an agent. Lots of my mates have gone on to be professional rugby players, and there’s just this general consensus where they have to have an agent, they need advice on their contracts and that sort of stuff. And a lot of them just weren’t happy with how things are being done. I follow American sports loads – I love American sports, NBA and NFL. Agents over there take on 2 or 3 players, and obviously, the contracts over there are multi-million dollar contracts, but they manage their investments, they manage basically their entire lives just so that a player can play sports to the best of their ability. I was just thinking to myself why in New Zealand when we’re the best in the world at rugby, why are we so far behind in terms of management and helping guys be successful: post career as well as helping them off the field.

Grant: So, did you go out to disrupt the market or was it just something that you felt that you wanted to be part of? Because to me, I always use the word, when we catch up, that you’re disrupting, because you are, you’re fundamentally disrupting the status quo, which is lovely. But you’re doing it with just a different sense of meaning, you know, you could look at it, like the whole Jerry Maguire thing was just laughing about it going ‘yeah there’s probably plenty of money to be made’. But it seems to me, as I’ve watched your journey throughout the last 10 months or so, that you’re actually genuinely helping people – if they’re not going to be an All Black it’s kind of okay but they could spend several years in Japan, study, create businesses or play in Spain. It seems like you’re reframing what a professional rugby player can be, if you’re not going to be All Black or South African National player or whatever, you’ve redefined what success looks like, is that kind of part of the vision?

Max: Yeah, we never really set out to disrupt the market – that was never my goal. Initially, I never looked at it and said: “we can come in here and get our foot in the door and do this”. Over the last seven or eight months we’ve been taking it quite seriously. The market disruptions just come almost hand in hand with what we have been doing. We look at it is using Rugby as a gateway to life opportunities, whether it’s, you’re going to be an All Black (there’s only 30 of them per year, and every young boy in New Zealand playing Rugby wants to be an All Black when they grow up). If you’re not going to be an All black, and with how professional sports is nowadays it gets harder and harder, why not use Rugby to maybe go to the States and get a full scholarship for either University over the year and come out with a degree. Or go to Spain or Portugal, have lots of barbecues, drink lots of beer and have a lot of fun with it as well. Or go to Japan, make some money and experience a different culture. And a lot of NZ rugby guys are going over there and meet Japanese wives and now have families over there they just love it. It is more a holistic approach to where Rugby can get you in life, rather than “I’m either an All Black or I should retire”, build or study or whatever that is.

Grant: So like anything, you’ve kind of not fallen into it, you knew what you were trying to solve, but the impact of what you’re trying to solve is growing by the day, literally. Going from the idea to making it happen, what did that look like, was it over a beer? Was it just “we’re going to give this a crack”? I remember early days speaking to your dad and your dad saying “ok, guys it’s a great idea, but how you’re going to make money?” How did you and Kai decide “right, let’s give this a nudge”.

Max: When I left school, I had no idea what I wanted to do, and Lord just sort of like fell into place for me. When I just went and actually spent a day, at one of the agencies, and I just loved what they were doing. I love that they were representing Dan Carter and Richie Macaw and I loved the idea of it. And since then it’s always been in the back of my head, if can’t play sport, being an agent would be awesome. Talking to a lot of my mates, the opportunity just sort of seemed to be there. Me and Kai sat together at the library at Uni one day, and we just thought well, why not? Why don’t we just have a think about it, and then see what happens? About a week later we realised that actually we’re passionate about this, we love it. Why not?

Grant: We were talking about this earlier, what I love about what you’re doing is that you found something that you care about. You can actually have an impact on other human beings lives. And it’s a business, and it looks to be a long term really viable, really smart business. So when it comes to the starting, what kind of plan did you have? Did you have a plan?

Max: No plan. I read online and Googled how to make a business plan. We downloaded a document and looking back on it, it is terrible. Its 70 pages of ‘business plan’, it’s horrific.

Grant: Do you apply any of that now?

Max: No, absolutely none of it, we don’t even look at it anymore. You don’t need that much. We were sort of always at that place where it was an idea. We knew it had some validity. And then we just didn’t really know where to go from there. I think it was when we had a chat with you the first time is when the idea of doing some strategic planning and actually setting your KPIs out and knowing where you want to be in a month, two months, six months. That’s probably the first time we actually started developing a plan rather than just having ideas floating around 24/7.

Grant: I remember that meeting, I was so thrilled by your vision, but what was particularly interesting to me and afterwards is that you actually took the information and applied it really quickly, which is one of people’s biggest challenges. They read all the books and drink the Kool-Aid, and then they don’t do anything. It seems like between Kai and yourself you are driven to actually apply what you learn really quickly. By doing that you are getting results I would say relatively quickly, and you’re only several months in. So how do you turn the knowledge that you gained into actions, what are those learnings you’re having so far? You are so early in the journey, but you’re moving so quickly at the same time, there’s got to be a reason for that.

Max: I think for us the idea of never letting a day going to waste was a big one. Even if it’s making small progress, it’s still better than nothing. Every time we learn, especially when we’re having our sessions with you and there’s so much knowledge going through so quickly, we feel like we need to do all this before we forget it. The next couple of days, we’d sit down and spend full days doing it, because we would write things down but then a week later we would think “what did we mean by that”. It’s almost like doing Uni or a school project, when you’re trying to do it an hour at a time, week by week. You never know where you left off from, you never know where your mind was thinking. So we thought if we come up with an idea and we think it’s good, we need to sit down and we need to smash it out to see whether it’s viable.

Grant: So you’re playing the “get it done quick”, accept that it might not work, and move forward rather than too much theory more execution?

Max: We’re both really practical people. We would rather sit down, work away for a few hours and if we look back at it and say “well maybe it wasn’t there”, then we start to tinker with it and go again. Rather than spend hours and hours thinking about maybe the best way to do it, maybe we could do this instead. We’re very much just a do-first-think-later kind of approach which obviously isn’t really the best in some cases.

Grant: So like a Ready, Fire, Aim basically?

Max: Yeah, but for us, it’s worked, we sort of think on the spot, flow through it quickly and its sort of worked for us so far.

Grant: Are you both comfortable with the idea that it won’t all work, are you comfortable with failing, but as long as you’re moving forward, failure is part of the process?

Max: Whenever we fail we learn something, and then, the more times we fail in a short space of time, the more we learn, the quicker we learn, and we know how not to do things later. We would rather spend one hour doing something practically realising that wouldn’t work than spend 10 hours planning theory and never knowing whether it’s going to work.

Grant: How has that evolved over the last several months as we’ve been talking from your point of view? How has your learning and application changed? It seems like a lot of those things are bedding in now so you are able to start making more strategic decisions, well you are being forced to, you are being provided opportunities that maybe 6/7 months ago you couldn’t imagine would be available.

Max: It’s really cliché, we had to almost learn how to learn in business first. People like yourself could have thrown us as much knowledge as you wanted seven months – a year ago and we could have said we know what we’re doing, but we actually don’t know the fundamental principles of what you’re trying to get across. And over the course of failure and learning now when we look at things we sort of have that base knowledge level where we’re informed enough to, hopefully, make smarter decisions than what we were able to a year ago in that sense. I think with the speed of which things have come at us, we’ve just had no choice but to think quickly and think on our feet and make a decision whether it was right or wrong.

Grant: And bear in mind, you are in two different countries, two different time zones, Kai is developing his rugby career and you’re developing your law career. So tell me about some of the fears that have come along? You’ve had some different things happening, you’ve disrupted some people’s points of view, you’ve eaten some other people’s lunches, not through any kind of negative activity, but you brought something really different to the table – you’ve repackaged and that’s creating a new conversation in several countries. What are some of the things you’ve come up against in that time that you’re kind of gone “oh crap”. What does this look like? How do we get through this?

Max: I think the big benefit for us is, or positive and negative, is that we are both 21, we are young, and we’ve played rugby at a high and relativity high level up until this point. We understand what the needs and wants of the players are. So when we’re talking to a player we know how we’ve been feeling in that situation. You’re talking to a coach or when your injured and things aren’t really going to go your way. So a big positive for us is we can really relate, and I think guys find it easy to talk to us if they are having issues. It’s just really easy to come across obviously professionally but as a mate, rather than just someone in a suit that you don’t really want to talk to about things because you don’t know them. I think the ability for us to develop relationships with players really quickly has been such a big factor for us in our success.

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Grant: So, if you look at it from a business model point of view, you’ve got pros and cons in that you’re really customer intimate, you’re giving true value which is actually one of the things that has possibly been missing. But then that also presents a challenge, and just been discussing what next year looks like, how do you, you know that cliché of scaling that value? Are you exploring technology as well as part of this?

Max: Yeah, looking at an app even like going back to your last point, when my LinkedIn profile, the first year I’ve ever really used it. My Profile photo was me with a dog, and I was looking at it and, you can see when people view your profile sometimes, and it was clubs viewing my profile, and I was like “oh Jesus”. So we were sitting there sending emails out and all these guys were viewing my profile for the next 15 minutes, so I chucked a quick suit on, took a new photo and changed it there on the spot. It’s just the ability to think quickly learn, learn from your mistakes.

Grant: It’s just the marginal gains isn’t it, because it’s the perception that if you’re a young lad with his dog they don’t know what they’re doing, but you’re doing it from the point of customer side. You’ve been a customer, like Kai ia playing with potential clients of yours. He’s doing the most unbelievable market research, and if you think about it, he’s really understanding it. Do you think that’s part of what your successes so far is really understanding what you’re trying to solve and who you’re trying to solve it for?

Max: Yeah, I think so, definitely. Being able to talk to players and ask “right, in a perfect world what would you want?”, and it could be something as simple as a pair of boots to a phone call saying congratulations if I they play a really good game. Just the real small simple things, which obviously varies from player to player. But having the ability to talk to these guys and get an understanding of maybe what’s missing or what the hole in the industry is has definitely given us a leg up and the ability to try and fill the hole and fix what not necessarily has been going wrong, but what’s been, in our eyes missing the last couple years.

Grant: Well they say, fundamentally most business cases are not create something new but solve something that’s already there, like you say whether it’s broken or not is opinion rather than fact. But you’ve just gone well hold on this product and process could actually be improved and everyone wins. So, now you understand what your product is, and that’s going to evolve as you do more. What stage are you coming into now so you’ve done a huge amount of learning this year. We won’t share what you’re actually up to today, but the next 12 months, because of the momentum, what lessons and what processes do you think you’re going to have to put in place in the next 12 months to keep learning and to reduce the risk of failure? What does that look like, because we’re kind of talking about, year two is completely different business to year 1.

Max: I think the biggest things we’ve learned that will translate easily from year one to year two is time management and organisational skills. Real cliché, not interesting answers, unfortunately, but just being able to stay on top of deadlines, stay on top when we need to talk to people overseas or New Zealand, and when we are going to get responses back is the biggest thing for us. It’s the ability to continue learning, because I’m not going to sit here and pretend that after six months of doing business I know all the answers and I know what’s going on with anything because, very much still a drop in the ocean in terms of that, but just the ability to take the learnings that we’ve had, and strategically plan, whether it’s a session with you, in here and planed out some 1/3/5 years goals, and the ability to look back on that one year goal, as it evolves, and not be afraid to change that mix and match things, and just continue to stay focused and not lose our vision if success keeps coming quickly.

Grant: And a lot of those are the basic business fundamentals which often other things change business. So you’re both 21, you’ve got your lives ahead of you, and you don’t have a lot of baggage like older business people do or someone starting later. What do you think is the biggest things that you and Kai as humans have to be aware of moving forward? What core soft skills do you think you’re going to have to develop and grow to keep you on the right path, because you are young in your lives, but also you are young in business there will be some hurdles there?

Max: Something that’s been super beneficial for us is that this is relatively risk-free for us at the moment. We don’t have families to support, we don’t have people relying on us to provide income or anything like that so we can take our time. Over the first year we were in no rush to quickly scale and do things that are un-manageable. I think it’s been really big for our success, to be able to take things as they come naturally and not try and force growth, when it’s not there. I think if we tried to force growth and changed our product over the course of this year, we probably wouldn’t be sitting here having this conversation now. I think just having the ability to take our time because we are young and move with the processes and not try and rush things, not try to incubate the whole business and rush it through in 4 years and pull it out the other side, but grow and learn as we go along and move with the processes. In terms of soft skills, I think the biggest thing for me has definitely been the ability to be confident talking to people, which sounds dumb, but 21 years old and you’re turning up and talking to guys that are ex All Blacks or have played at world cups and are running teams and you’re sending them an email and they’ve never heard from you before its nerve-wracking hitting send for the first time, and having the ability to be confident with that if you have a phone call, have your confidence across the phone because if they can’t tell that I’m 21 then perfect.

Grant: Yeah, fake it till you make it.

Max: It works best for us. Fake it till you make it is what we have been living by really, it’s like we just try and pretend we know what we’re doing at all times.

Grant: But you fundamentally do know what you’re doing. I think you’re having a natural sense of “we’re young, and we haven’t done this before, but it’s no less valuable actually not having any of the rules you’re going “well, if we don’t know the rules are therefore we can create new rules”, as you’re coming from a place of building a purposeful business. You’re not just creating yet another apple or yet another something or rather you’re actually having an effect on these lives. Was it your recent story of saying, you recently spoke to player on Monday who was on the plane to Japan on Saturday, and for a young person, that’s incredible. So you clearly do know what you’re doing. That’s amazing and that’s why I really love your journey of tenacity of not only learning and the passion for learning, but actually making stuff happen. There’s no surprise that your application of ideas into action is really where you’re at. When we talk in a year’s time I’m sure we will because it’s a fascinating journey, what would success look like in 12 months?

Max: I think for us at the moment, success in a year’s time, It won’t be numerically tangible, for us, I think it will be If we have a group of players, we’ve got three or four at the moment and talking to a few others, but if we have 10-15 players who all buy into our vision and want to be the best version of themselves on and off the field whether they have contracts in the UK or weather there off contract in NZ, and really want to better themselves both personally and professionally in a rugby or non-rugby sense. I think that would define success for us. If we even have minimal growth, if we have 6 or 7 players, but we continue with our vision and continue to build a brand that supports their players and does a lot of the things that modern day agencies don’t, I think that would be what it is for us.

Grant: Amazing. Biggest learning of the year?

Max: How to negotiate contracts.

Grant: I’ve been privileged to be along this journey so far and thanks for sharing. I think what you’re sharing, even people like me who’ve been in business 10 years can learn a lot from. Thanks for sharing, your sharing with us some of the gaps that you’re finding and look forward to watching your journey continue.

Max: Hey, thanks very much for having me.

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