Why growing a company is strikingly similar to playing poker
I love poker; the opportunity, the pressure, the quick decision making, the money management, the calculation of pot odds and ROI, the execution of a strategy for setting up a hand against a specific opponent, the blending of mathematics, probability and human psychology. The excitement of flopping the nuts, or rivering a full house, but more importantly being humble in victory and gracious in defeat. Running a business is very similar, maximising your opportunities and minimising your exposure, ensuring you can control as much as possible which is achieved by owning your own ecosystem and platform and bringing the core operations in-house.
Preparing and controlling those key elements is crucial to success; the money, the processes, the culture and vision of the company. As the business scales and opportunities arise, this brings the inevitable: growth. It’s often a scary word, with connotations of facelessness, greed and detachment from the company’s startup and friendly roots, into a corporate animal full of red tape and meetings. But I don’t agree that growth has to be the end of agility, the end of the family feeling within a company, nor the end of innovation — I believe our growth must be built on these core foundations, and as a company, we need to all work extra hard to maintain and champion those values.
To me being fast, innovative and disruptive is crucial, and it’s what puts us ahead of the competition. Growth does of course have an effect on speed to market and this is something that irks me. There are so many opportunities waiting which many (mostly lethargic) businesses in the industry seem to be oblivious to, given they are only focused on next quarter’s numbers. But with rapid growth comes the need to do things the right way, to have a very solid senior management team in place who live and breathe the company values, whose responsibility it is to manage this growth and ensure we deliver the customer the best possible experience.
“To me being fast, innovative and disruptive is crucial, and it’s what puts us ahead of the competition.”
How do we keep the same level of excitement as we grow rapidly? Intriguingly, Robert Boyle explains it best. In his now (in)famous chemistry equation, as the gas chamber grows, the atoms inside it become less excited (read: slow down), and thus the only way to keep them moving at the same or faster speed is to increase their excitement. And that, putting it simply, is how we keep growing and keep motivated.
But importantly, the customer has always been and will remain our absolute focus at all times. They are at the very centre of everything we do, and I don’t mean that in a cheesy ‘marketing speak’ way, I mean it as a fact! To quote Jeff Bezos from his 1998 shareholder letter:
We intend to build the world’s most customer-centric company. We hold as axiomatic that customers are perceptive and smart, and that brand image follows reality and not the other way around. Our customers tell us that they choose Amazon.com and tell their friends about us because of the selection, ease-of-use, low prices, and service that we deliver.
But there is no rest for the weary. I constantly remind our employees to be afraid, to wake up every morning terrified. Not of our competition, but of our customers. Our customers have made our business what it is, they are the ones with whom we have a relationship, and they are the ones to whom we owe a great obligation. And we consider them to be loyal to us — right up until the second that someone else offers them a better service.
We must be committed to constant improvement, experimentation, and innovation in every initiative. We love to be pioneers, it’s in the DNA of the company, and it’s a good thing, too, because we’ll need that pioneering spirit to succeed. We’re proud of the differentiation we’ve built through constant innovation and relentless focus on customer experience.”
The challenge with growth and scaling is, getting buy-in from every new and existing employee, and helping them live the vision that, “this is the way it’s done at the Coingaming Group, in a fun, fast and fair way.”
Every innovation we pioneer, every improvement we make, every minute we shave off withdrawal times makes not just me, but the whole company happy, because it makes the customer happy and satisfied with our service provided. It makes the whole experience pleasant for them, it lets them know they are at the centre of our universe; they are why we exist and how we will survive and scale. More pertinently, we need to ensure every one of our customers wears our name with pride. It gives my team and I a sense of purpose; an accomplishment to see new logos added to our hall of honour with every passing month.
Scaling as a company also brings with it a personal challenge. I started out with a vision of how I wanted things to be, and with a small team around me it was relatively easy to build and reinforce this vision into reality. With 20 employees, we had an intimate relationship with each other, we all knew each other’s likes and dislikes, favourite foods, extra curricular activities and holiday destinations. With 200 employees, boy oh boy, how much harder this becomes! For the leadership team and me, we have a one-to-many relationship with employees. However, employees have a one-to-one relationship with us, and to maintain that family feeling — which allows us to push for rapid innovation — requires a huge amount of work from us as executives.
As the company grows it becomes impossible to do it all by yourself, especially after years of round-the-clock shifts and the headaches that come with getting things just right. With scale there has now been a mental shift from a single entrepreneurial business, to a group of entrepreneurial businesses with a host of leaders, all bound by a common vision. I feel my role now is to not provide the answers to our leaders, rather my role is to assist and advise in an open and transparent environment.
This is a significant shift away from a traditional command and control hierarchy, to a new model, which we’ve come up with. We call it the 3-doughnut model:
1) The top doughnut represents our product and brand teams, which are ultimately consumer facing and define the experience the user has with any of our brands. They are completely responsible for their brand development, following the full product lifecycle, from UI/UX, prototyping, development, feature building, A/B testing, localisation and machine learning to improve the personalisation of the gaming experience.
2) The middle doughnut represents our internal teams, which are service providers to the product/brand teams. This includes functions like accounting, dev-ops, marketing, BI, VIP, support and country management. Milton Friedman would be proud to watch how our internal free market economy works when discussing priorities, I simply ask which product would like to pay more for the service to go up the priority chain.
Both doughnuts have full p/l control for their product or service, so they are able to buy and sell services throughout the group.
3) The bottom doughnut is the management team, or the advisory team as I like to call it. We are not there to call the shots or micromanage how the products or service teams manage their work flow, but to ensure there is a common vision and strategic outlook where the group must be in 6/12/36 months.
“To scale, I must put trust in my team to take responsibility and deliver, but in return I expect open and clear dialogues with rational and logical thinking working towards our strategic long term goals.”
Obviously, there are some close similarities to the Amazon model, and there’s an easy explanation. I’m in awe of the way Amazon Web Services were able to scale up inside the Amazon group; they now account for over 10% of Amazon’s global revenues. It is inspirational to be able to emulate such a business model in our ecosystem and I know we have the right team to make it happen.
To scale, I must put trust in my team to take responsibility and deliver, but in return I expect open and clear dialogues with rational and logical thinking working towards our strategic long term goals. So, yes there is a whole amount of ‘direct’ control lost, but in doing so, what you gain from your growing team in talent, drive and enthusiasm is priceless. One of the hardest things as a startup CEO is letting go of the ‘pixel based’ decision-making and putting that all-important trust in your people. However, when you do it, it’s a great feeling to see them taking it forward with a shared vision.
The Coingaming Group is building something truly special here, together. We are building an amazing technical ecosystem, with one of the most forward-thinking elixir / erlang solutions in the industry. We are continually iterating and developing all our internal services and functions and creating efficiency and automation in all aspects, so our human expertise simply guides the machine learning, rather than undertaking manual processes. Everything we plan, build or develop, must have the customer’s best interests in mind always, and while profits are obviously a consideration for the group, they are certainly not the driving force — customers are. If we create something amazing, make it fun, operate it fairly and in a fast way, which then exceeds customer expectations, money will take care of itself.
I aim to give my leaders the space to grow and develop their talents, which is why we run a biannual management development program for 14 up-and-coming leaders. Together, we want everyone in the company to feel that they can approach us with ideas and furthermore share in the success of the company. Last year we launched our own venture capital fund, and whilst we’ve successfully invested into 9 external companies in 2017, we also have six internal incubation projects, which were pitched by no other than the members of the company from hackathons. They will be supported and nurtured through their evolution with the full resources of the company behind it, giving them every chance to be a product or brand in their own right.
This isn’t about the money, it never has been, and I solemnly promise that it will never be. Money does not make great businesses, only indebted ones. This is about empowerment of the leaders in the company, and in turn, empowerment and trust of their teams. It gives me no greater pleasure than to see completely engaged staff with smiles on faces within the office, knowing that we’re giving them the opportunity to provide for their families, buy themselves a house and have a meaningful, enjoyable and satisfying work environment. We want to breed leaders and teams who treat their product or service like a business — taking full responsibility, whilst providing a very strong supporting framework around them.
We’re a family at Coingaming, and the bigger that family gets, the stronger we become as a company. We just need to stay close-knit, hold that vision and we’ll conquer the world together. I am very proud to have such a team behind me and I know that they are the right team to make this vision happen.
This is how we plan to scale our company, and it is — and will continue to be — a very fun journey!