Over the course of a glittering football career, Matt McKay led the Brisbane Roar to their first ever A-League championship and premiership, took the field for the Socceroos at the 2014 FIFA World Cup and two AFC Asian Cups, and plied his trade with high-flying international clubs – but these days, he’s scoring goals with his booming baby playmat eCommerce business.
McKay, the latest guest speaker at the Brisbane Business Hub’s On The Couch With program, says he and his wife and co-founder Amanda were inspired to start their successful eCommerce business, Freddy & Co, while his football career was in its final stretch in the A-League.
“Freddy & Co really started when our son Freddy was born in 2016,” he says. “We had him on a playmat from when he was six weeks old, and we saw how much fun he had, and how it helped him develop his crawling. But the problem was that we just didn’t like the playmat designs that were on the market.”
Matt and Amanda found that the bright, cartoonish colours of Freddy’s playmats dominated their living space, and thought that there had to be a more stylish solution. They were also surprised to learn that there are no real safety standards for baby playmats in Australia, and that not all of the brands claiming to sell non-toxic mats have the testing to back it up.
That’s how they came up with Freddy & Co’s unique, non-toxic playmats, which are tested to more stringent European and American standards. But the true innovation of Freddy & Co’s playmats is that they’re double-sided, with educational and kid-friendly designs on one side, and more subdued and decor-friendly designs on the other.
“That’s our point of difference from other playmat companies,” Matt explains. “You can flip the mats over from the kid side to the adult side, which gives you that bit of versatility.”
Freddy has since been joined by a younger brother, Patrick, and a baby sister, Ruby. But as far as Matt and Amanda are concerned, theirs is a family of six.
“Freddy & Co is definitely our fourth child,” Matt laughs. “It’s our baby now. We took a big leap, and we used a lot of capital to start the business and grow the business, but we’re delighted with how it’s expanded through some difficult times. We love it.”
The transition game
Whereas many athletes find themselves at a loose end when they finish their sporting careers, Matt was able to throw himself straight into building Freddy & Co. Even so, he found the transition from top-flight footballer to neophyte entrepreneur challenging.
“I found it really difficult to transition from the sporting world to the ‘real world’, and the business world,” he says. “When you stop being a footballer, and the wage stops, it’s really scary. No matter what you’ve got behind you, when you don’t see that money coming into your account anymore, it is scary.
“But every footballer, when they finish up, is going to find different things that they want to do. I’m very grateful that my wife had this idea and got me into it, and that I had a bit of time over the last few years of my playing career to work into my role at Freddy & Co. And we’re very fortunate in the sense that we work really well together – we each have our own aspects of the business that we look after, but we help each other to learn new things, and we work well as a team.
“I find that if we’re both happy and our kids are happy, that helps the business grow.”
While professional football and the world of baby playmats may not seem to have much in common, Matt says the lessons he learned throughout his football career helped him build the resilience required to run a business.
“You have moments throughout any career where you question why you’re doing it,” he says. “In football, I had some great moments, but I had some really poor moments, too. You find ways of getting through it. I’m a fairly positive guy – if I had a bad day, I’d look at what I was going to do differently the next day to get out of the rut.
“We all have ruts, and we all have different challenges we face. When I had a run of poor form in football, my way of digging myself out of it was to train even harder, and when I got into a game, I’d make the shortest pass I could see, the easiest pass I could see, and work my way back into the game.
“So many players try to force the issue if they’re having a poor game. They try to make a miracle pass, or take a shot from a spot they’re never going to score from. What’s the point of that? Work your way in, help your team, know your role. And if I was having a bad day, I’d make sure my opponent didn’t have a good day, either.
“In a business context, that means that if something’s gone wrong, I’ve got to find the solution the next day. And if that solution doesn’t work, I’ve got to keep at it and find a different way of doing it. That’s the joy of being a business owner.
“And of course, being part of a successful football team is similar to being part of a successful business in that it’s a team environment, and you’re supporting each other and challenging each other. That’s what’s really helped us.”
Matt has found that his soccer stardom has had practical advantages in the business world, too.
“My international experience has helped Freddy & Co,” he says. “Particularly my time playing club football in China. I had two stints at Changchun Yatai in the Chinese Super League, and that helped me when I flew over and met with our manufacturer. I haven’t learned the language, but I understand the customs, and I was able to go out with them and learn about their processes and make sure the quality control was there.
“It helped give us that trust, and trust is the key to your relationship with everyone in your supply chain.
“Oh, and I needed guys to help us unload containers early on, so I got the Brisbane Roar players to come and help us unload them. So that was a good link between sport and business, I guess!”
No substitute for innovation
Of course, you don’t have to be a former international football star to run your own business. In fact, Matt says there’s a much simpler prerequisite for success.
“To build a profitable eCommerce business, you need a good idea,” he says. “And there are heaps of good ideas out there, but your idea has to be marketable and it has to be saleable. You know, we make baby products, and there are always going to be babies out there.
“If you’re selling a product, get heaps of samples before you settle on a manufacturer, because if you don’t have a really good product, you’ll be in strife. Australians have high expectations for their products, and they want them to last a long time, so your manufacturer has to be able to deliver quality products consistently.
“If you think you’ve got a good idea, I recommend you get out there and have a go, and try to find that niche you can fill that will work for the Australian market.”
While the On The Couch With event was Matt’s first visit to the Brisbane Business Hub, he says he’ll be back – and he recommends other Brisbane businesses looking to grow and scale up should do the same.
“The Brisbane Business Hub is great,” he says. “This was my first time here, but I’ll definitely come back to see other presenters. It’s a great initiative to have people come in here and share their knowledge and experience. And I’m sure there are going to be people here that are much more experienced than me, so I’m looking forward to hearing from them in the future.
“The Hub is helping businesses grow, and that’s what it’s all about. We want to see everyone be successful, and we don’t want to see anyone fail. We want everyone to learn, and the Hub provides that opportunity.”
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