Breakfast with NEXT: Maarja Pärt on Yolo’s path from six friends to 1000-strong super group
When Maarja Pärt first joined Yolo Group, the business was home to just half a dozen employees.
Today, under her leadership as CEO, the crypto-focused iGaming group boasts some 1,000 team members, known as Yoloers, across 11 different locations around the globe.
Pärt sat down with iGaming NEXT editor Conor Mulheir to talk about her professional journey, and why Yolo Group is never afraid of a step into the unknown.
Dipping a toe into iGaming
Pärt joined Yolo in the company’s early days, and at the very beginning of her own career.
“I originally came to work together with our founder, Tim Heath, as a part of my university internship,” she explains.
“It was never meant to be a lifelong cooperation, it was just a way for me to get to know an industry that I had no idea about. And, as a student at university, it was a good opportunity for me to scale my career.”
Pärt entered the business in a customer support function, before putting herself forward to take care of the company’s finances due to her academic background in business administration and financial management.
“Considering that I had a passion for numbers, and I knew my debits and credits from accounting really well, I proposed to Tim that I should start looking after the company finances.”
“We didn’t have a proper table for meetings, so we used a poker table for our weekly Friday meeting, which usually then turned into a poker night.”
Fast forward a little further into Yolo’s growth trajectory, and Pärt found herself tackling an ever-increasing list of responsibilities.
“If I had to give a title to my role at that time, I’d say I was a customer support agent, VIP manager, head of HR, events organiser, accountant, CFO, probably COO, not to mention a personal psychologist… you name it,” she jokes.
The diversified role brought about its own challenges, naturally, “but those were the milestones that made me who I am today,” Pärt insists.
Indeed, her entry into the company in its fledgling days played no small role in shaping Pärt’s career trajectory.
In the early days, the fact they were a team of just six made it feel like a group of friends had come together to work on a shared passion project. It’s an experience that shapes her approach to management to this day.
“Even our office was very dark and very small,” says Pärt. “We didn’t have a proper table for meetings, so we used a poker table for our weekly Friday meeting, which usually then turned into a poker night. So it was just us having fun together.”
A new era for Yolo
Soon, the hard work began to pay off, and Yolo’s six-person team found itself expanding in unexpected ways.
“In the very early days, we were focused on poker first and foremost, but then the industry changed a lot, a few companies went bust, and we started to outgrow the poker affiliation industry.
“We always took the approach that we wanted to own our technology in-house, to create our own ecosystem, and so we then decided to start running our own operations.”
The Yolo team remained focused on that goal, but there was no shortage of challenges to overcome. The company had already built a platform with multiple providers, as well as a payment solutions service.
While it’s hard today to imagine a Yolo Group without crypto, the business was still using only fiat currency at that time, and was reliant on some third-party services as a result.
“In 2013, our project basically got burned by a third-party provider, and we were left to clean up the mess,” recounts Pärt, a period she remembers vividly.
“We had to deal with all of the angry customers. Although I wasn’t in customer support anymore, the entire team all jumped on live chat.”
“It was probably one of the most hectic, most turbulent times in my personal life as well as professionally, because we had to deal with all of the angry customers. Although I wasn’t in customer support anymore, the entire team all jumped on live chat and were dealing with customers.
“The customers don’t care if something has happened with your third-party provider, and we were left without reconciliation, so we actually had to pay customers back, out of pocket.”
With operations collapsing around them, the Yolo team was thrust into a sink or swim situation.
“It was really interesting,” Pärt says, “because you would expect that the team would have fallen apart, but in fact we didn’t have any resignations whatsoever.
“I know this sounds rather cliche, but it is the hard times that define you.”
This rang true for Yolo, which made the decision from that point on to control all core functions within the business.
“That was when we decided to start building up our own ecosystem within the industry,” Pärt says.
Diving into crypto
What happened next would come to define the future of Yolo Group as the firm turned its focus to the then-obscure business of cryptocurrency.
“I remember there was one day at the office, and we literally didn’t know what we were going to do next,” Pärt recalls. “We didn’t have any upcoming projects, and then our CTO and co-founder Reio Piller came to the office and he was like: ‘guys, have you heard of Bitcoin?’”
At that point, a single Bitcoin was worth just €100, a far cry from its valuation today of more than €20,000.
Still, Pärt struggled to see where the currency’s value came from at first. “As a financier, I thought ‘oh my god, what is this? Some intangible token – how can it be worth so much money?’”
“But actually, we were exploring something that was completely new. There were no accounting standards or anything, no practical use cases. It was a very niche direction to take.
“As a team and as individuals, we were in a place where we had nothing to lose,” Pärt suggests.
The technology also presented Pärt and Yolo Group with the opportunity to define their own future, one without many of the limitations they’d faced when working in the poker business.
“We were just poker affiliates, but we acted like we wanted to conquer the entire world.”
Today, Yolo’s do-or-die investment of time and resources into crypto is of course paying dividends. The group operates some of the gambling sector’s best-known crypto gambling brands, including Bitcasino.io and Sportsbet.io.
High profile sponsorship deals (Sportsbet.io is the official betting partner of Arsenal FC and the principal sponsor of Southampton FC, for example) go to show just how far the group has come since its days of relative obscurity.
And indeed, the company’s success can be traced back to its team’s willingness to take a risk on a mostly unknown technology, far away from the eyes of the mainstream.
“It’s incredible to think back on how we all believed that we could do something bigger with this. It’s bizarre to think about it now, given that we were such a small team.
“Simply put, we were just poker affiliates, but we acted like we wanted to conquer the entire world.”
With a large and growing presence right across the globe, it’s fair to say Pärt’s team has done a decent job of following through on that desire.
Management mindset and goals
Now, Pärt’s role as CEO sees her take responsibility right across Yolo’s business segments, demanding determination and flexibility as the company continues rapidly to evolve.
Still, she will never forget what the group was like in its early days; a small and close-knit team, pursuing its goals with unbridled passion and constant collaboration.
“As a leader today, one of the most important points for me has been to stay true to the core values,” Pärt says of her management mindset.
Her key focus is ensuring that the ambitions of those original six employees – the friends that came together to work on projects around a poker table in a small and dimly lit office – can live on across an organisation of thousands of people.
“It’s extremely difficult at times, when you’re running a business of 1,000 employees, to ensure that you actually stay true to the things that made you a success.”
“It’s extremely difficult at times, when you’re running a business of 1,000 employees, to ensure that you actually stay true to the things that made you a success,” she says.
Ultimately, Pärt suggests that keeping passion alive comes down to an almost obsessive focus on the company’s end users.
While there are several projects in the works to enhance those customer experiences even further – including the construction of a luxury land-based casino in Tallinn’s Old Town – Pärt is reluctant to gaze too far into the future, and for good reason.
“I always laugh when someone asks about five or 10-year plans, because when I think back to five or 10 years ago, I could never have imagined that we’d be where we are today,” she summarises.
“The unknown is the exciting part of the journey. What matters most is your mentality and the approach that you take.”