When Anjana Reddy, the 26-year-old founder of Collectabillia, an online portal that sells authentic sports memorabilia and merchandise, met Lionel Messi in Barcelona last month, she was stumped by his eye for minutiae. The Bangalore-based entrepreneur had shown him a range of mobile phone cases that her company had designed for his eponymous brand, Messi. He noticed he was sporting a stubble in one of them and asked for the image to be replaced with a clean-shaven one. “None of us had even noticed the faint stubble. But, he believed that the picture would clash with his role as the global brand ambassador of Gillette. And, no, Photoshop was not an option,” Reddy laughs. The meeting had a happy ending, though. Not only did Messi love the cases, he also signed a dream deal, giving Reddy exclusive rights to manufacture and retail Messi-inspired mobile phone, tablet and laptop covers, across 40 countries.

But, then, Reddy, a former national-level badminton player with a postgraduate degree in finance, is no stranger to big deals. When she came up with a business idea that would connect Indian cricketers with their fans, she decided to start right at the top. “Sachin Tendulkar was the first person we pitched to. We told him he had built an outstanding brand over a career spanning 24 years. We wanted to take it to the one billion people who loved him,” says Reddy, whose family also owns the media house, Deccan Chronicle.

Launched in December 2011, Collectabillia functions as part auction house and part sports merchandising platform, featuring stars such as Tiger Woods, Pelé, Wayne Rooney, Roger Federer, Vishwanathan Anand, Virat Kohli, Michael Schumacher, Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza. Buyers can opt for affordable, digitally signed merchandise (t-shirts, mugs, mini bats, caps), or bid for historic collectibles that have been used, worn or wielded by their favourite sports star. On sale are rackets signed by Rafael Nadal, shoes worn by Messi, autographed jerseys from IPL teams and memorabilia like a limited edition cricket bat commemorating Tendulkar’s 100th hundred, which sold for Rs 3 lakh.

Now, funded by venture capital firm Accel Partners (an early investor in Facebook), the start-up has forged partnerships with leading retailers such as Amazon, Flipkart and eBay. While fans in the country are still not keen buyers of official celebrity merchandise (a market that is globally valued at about $5 million) and small-time sellers of fake products still dominate the scene, they are increasingly warming up to Collectabillia’s cricket-centric merchandise.

If all this sounds pat and glamorous, Reddy will have you know that the patient and plodding behind-the-scenes legwork to get the big names is anything but. She follows a two-pronged approach that involves signing on celebrities directly such as Messi, Tendulkar and Kohli, or working with their agents, as is the case with Cristiano Ronaldo and Federer.

Tendulkar and Accel Partners have lent a fair amount of credibility to the brand, but what truly opens doors is Reddy’s moxie to work her contacts and networks to the hilt. “When we asked Messi’s team for global rights, they were initially reluctant. They were wondering if I had the bandwidth to distribute worldwide, if I would run out of funds, or if I would mess up the Messi brand image. But, once they looked at our designs and knew we could protect his IP rights, they were happy to collaborate,” she says. She also believes that the golden rule when working with A-listers is getting the right people to make the introductions. “Backdoor routes never work. It’s important who connects you with the celebrity. Vijay Amritraj introduced me to Federer’s team and the people at IMG [that represents the top tier of tennis], which worked way better than me trying to work my way in.”

One of the most envied parts of Reddy’s job is working with the heroes she idolises. “It felt weird in the beginning. But, after a while, you get used to it. From Rajnikant to Tendulkar, it’s incredible how down to earth and humble most of the them are,” she says. Amritraj tops her list of charismatic sports celebrities. “We hung out at the Wimbledon last year and he went out of his way to show me around, introduce me to people and pamper me,” she says. “We were walking into the IMG office and Nadal, who was leaving, came up and gave him a warm hug. That was nice to see.”