Back in business: Physiotherapist becomes entrepreneur

Mark Alexander’s physiotherapy degree from La Trobe University opened a world of opportunities, including treating Olympic athletes, launching a product range and appearing on national television.

When physiotherapist Mark Alexander started looking for ways to treat his back pain at home, he had no idea it was the start of a business venture.

The La Trobe alumnus and former lecturer, who was sports physiotherapist for the Australian Olympic Triathlon team from 2002 to 2008, found himself thrust into the world of business after having the idea for his first product BakBalls.

“Not many physiotherapists go into product businesses, so I didn’t really know what was ahead of me,” Mark said.

“It started when I had some back pain – it’s quite common for physios to have bad backs, because you’re lifting patients and as a sports physio I was working on very big athletes, so it’s hard labour,” he says. “I was getting treatment from another physio but I was going home thinking that there should be a product that can replicate the action of the physio’s thumb on your back between visits," he said.

Mark experimented with lying on two golf balls he had stuck together (“it wasn’t really safe”) and a wedge product he found (“too hard and too big”) before deciding to make the product himself.

What followed was two and a half years designing a device with rubber balls separated by the average width of the spine, with a firmness that could be safe but also effective. He travelled abroad to find manufacturers before finding the right one in Melbourne.

Then there was a patent to be lodged, a prototype to perfect, and funding deals to be negotiated.

“It was a lot of work," Mark said. "But I knew it could make a difference to so many people, not just my patients. 80-90% of people will feel back pain at some point in their life, and at-home treatment can help.”

Mark’s business took off with the help of a $100,000 prize through a University of Queensland business competition, which helped pay for manufacturing costs.

Then came a rush of business thanks to an appearance on the television show A Current Affair in 2010 – which led to the sale of over 10,000 of his products in one night. The positive promotion catapulted his new business.

“In the space of three days, I had won $100,000, I was interviewed on ACA which was watched by nearly two million people, and then people actually bought my product. Overnight I had to build a website to keep up with the demand and I was selling products I didn’t even have yet," Mark said.

“It went from ecstasy to a lot of stress – I wondered if I could actually deliver on all of those sales.”

But he did, and he went on to build his business acumen by studying a Masters of Business Administration, before launching a new product, Neckrest, to target neck pain.

Despite the hard work and risk involved, Mark said he encourages other people from outside the business world to develop their ideas.

“Any entrepreneur is lying if they say they know their product will be successful, but it’s just about having a crack,” he said.

“Lots of people have good ideas, but at that point you only have a concept, not a product. You have then have to push through the barriers to see where it can really take you.”

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