How a tech sportwear startup went from turning down Shark Tank to the 1st Australian company kitting out an EFL team

On The Go founder Mick Spencer in the Sheffield Wednesday dressing rooms before their first home game of the season. Source: Supplied
  • Mick Spencer launched his tech sportswear business in 2012 selling gear to local teams from the back of a 35-year-old hatchback
  • His Canberra-based startup scored a white label deal to supply 70,000 units to English Football League side Sheffield Wednesday just a few months ago
  • Last year Spencer was the first pitch on Shark Tank and offered $600,000. He said yes, then no

When Sheffield Wednesday ran onto the ground for last weekend’s game in the 2017 English Football League, a new Australian fan was especially pleased with how good the side looked.

The Owls beat Fulham 1-0 in a great start for the club’s 150th anniversary, while Mick Spencer acracked the premier league a year after the 26-year-old Canberra entrepreneur was offered a record $600,000 deal on Shark Tank, which ultimately he turned down.

Spencer’s custom sports apparel e-commerce company On The Go (OTG) is manufacturing more than 70,000 units for SWFC and its fans in a massive white label deal with England’s third oldest professional club. OTG will supply Sheffield Wednesday’s full technical apparel and merchandise, on and off field, with brand ELEV8. The 70,000 unit range includes players’ head-to-toe gear, training, travel, fan retail merchandise, and outfits for officials and staff.

The unveiling of the new kit is a big part of English football’s rituals, but at the start of the season the Owls were struggling with suppliers for a three-jersey kit and only managed to reveal the first two home and away designs just three weeks before kick-off. They’d shifted to a new manufacturer who tried to crank up the price and the search continued with the clock ticking to the start of the season.

Just as speed is a key part of success on the field, Spencer’s ability to move quickly landed him the chance to become the first Australian company to supply an English football team. Like many tech-based businesses disrupting traditional retail, On The Go gives full control customisation to its clients and can fill orders from five pieces to 100,000 globally in between one and five weeks.

“They had gone down the path of a new supplier, who had left them in the lurch at the last minute, and they were a matter of weeks away from the first games,” Spencer told Business Insider.

“We were introduced through a customer and colleague, who is involved with pro sports teams around the world, with the likes of Force India F1 Team, Manchester United, ACT Brumbies, and other high profile clubs and clients.

“A phone call lead to product specifications, sampling and agreements, all in the space of two weeks of being introduced. This process took other suppliers months.”

A Who’s Who of sport

In the six years since Spencer launched OTG, the company has already built up an impressive client base spanning an extraordinary 10,000 teams, clubs and groups, most notably Hockey Australia, the AFL, NRL Academy and Cricket NSW. The business is now close to kitting one million people in 10 countries.

Spencer signed a five-year multi-million dollar exclusive contract with Hockey Australia, to kit out the Australian representative teams – the Kookaburras and Hockeyroos – as well as indoor and Masters teams plus staff and officials.

The 2017 home and away uniforms for Sheffield Wednesday, which were only revealed on August 2. Source: SWFC

His trip to the UK on the weekend was a dream come true.

“When I first walked into the player’s locker room and saw all of our jerseys, shorts, socks, compression and training gear racked neatly, it was so exciting,” he says.

“Just five years ago when OTG was making items for local teams out the back of a 1988 Ford Laser, to get an interstate team ordering from us was exciting. To look at what the team is achieving now with making items for a professional league team, it is an awesome feeling. And it is testament to how far we have come in a short time.”

Spencer was invited to a boardroom dinner and the chairman’s box by the chairman and COO.

“To see a stadium light up for the first home game was sensational. I was sitting next to greats like Howard Wilkinson, former player, manager and chairman of Sheffield Wednesday FC, and Gordon Strachan, manager of the Scotland football team and former Manchester United and Leeds United player. It was awesome.”

Mick Spencer working on the Sheffield Wednesday designs. Picture: Tina Nikolovski

Disrupting the uniform

Spencer says the SWFC deal is hopefully the start of bigger things in football and attributes part of the company’s success to its online software, which gives users more than 500,000 variations on products across 150 items from styles to colours, names, numbers, and logos.

“Our industry has not shifted a lot in the past 10-20 years, yet the consumer, athlete and fan has,” Spencer says. “This requires companies to have a more flexible and nimble supply chain, speed of delivery and high levels of customization, so that when teams have huge requirements, and they need it fast, it can be done without hiccups.

“This is what has been lacking in our industry from grassroots to high performance. OTG was founded on the mission of building a backbone that enables high levels of personalisation, no matter the size of order or where the customer is. Teams and clubs now do not have three or six months to wait for orders, they get their athlete feedback, sponsor notifications and requirements in just a matter of weeks.”

Mick Spencer at Sheffield Wednesday’s home ground. Source: supplied

With Sheffield Wednesday crowd-sourcing its kit design from fans, OTG was a perfect fit for the club.

“We want to get to know the football market more, and also ensure the fans and athletes are happy with the end product. If a strong relationship continues, we will aim to foster that into a multi-year agreement,” Spencer says of the EFL deal.

And he’s now set his sights closer to home.

“We want to bring the lessons of working with the best back to our own home turf, and we are looking to work with A League and football teams more in Australia, as well as the UK, US, Canada and Europe. It has also opened up plenty more domestic opportunities that we wouldn’t have had, from being the ‘young company’ on the block,” he says.

“Reputation is everything in this market, and ours is building strongly, fast, across all sports; not just football, as we are expanding in hockey, cricket, rugby, basketball and many more.”

Managing growth

OTG already had 130% revenue growth in FY17. And production numbers have soared thanks to the SWFC deal, with July’s 80,000 units produced the entire FY16 production The company has contract manufacturers in Melbourne, China and Pakistan.

So how does Spencer cope with having to scale that quickly and keep a high performance client list happy?

“Team is everything. As you grow as a founder, you realise that you are only one part of the team, not the whole team,” he says.

“It’s very important to identify where you are great, and where you are far from great, and then establish a team around you with people who absolutely dominate in the areas that you are weak in. The founder must communicate constantly, to the customers, the team, the manufacturers, the partners, hand over at the right time, and delegation is absolutely critical.

“I ensure that communication is up front with new customers, so they understand our business well, who does what, and who will be responsible for which part. We build very strict program plans to run to, and ensure we run are agile in our plans so that we can deliver the promise and help the customer as much as possible.

“Now we’ve done more and more of these we learn each time, which means we can take our lessons from one, and move to the other.”

More than a year on from being the guy who turned down $600,000 Shark Tank “sharks” Janine Allis, Steve Baxter and Andrew Banks, Spencer doesn’t have any regrets.

He went on the show seeking $300,000 for a 10% stake in the business, and the trio ended up offering $200,000 for 10% each, but in the end, the deal didn’t stack up for Spencer.

“There was an agreement done on air, but the terms of the agreement changed after the show, so we walked away,” he said.

Instead he raised a few hundred thousand in seed funding, and at the end of the year, is looking to hold a Series A round.

That’s how you kick goals off the field for the people kicking them on one.

The numbers and client base at On The Go,

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