Prepare to roll out the red carpet! The iGaming industry is gearing up for one of its most glamorous nights of the year, the star-studded 7th Annual iGaming IDOL Awards.
Taking place on Thursday 30 November, the InterContinental Arena in Malta is destined to shimmer under the spotlight as top professionals and companies gather to celebrate excellence.
This year, the awards are grander than ever. With 19 individual categories, nine company accolades, and a remarkable panel of 57 esteemed judges, there’s no shortage of talent to be recognised.
We are proud to be able to reveal the top five finalists for each category below:
Every nominee and category represents the crème de la crème of the iGaming industry, making it a must-attend event for industry insiders.
Following the awards, attendees will be whisked away to Hugo’s Hotel for the House of Dom Perignon after-party. Promised to be an affair of opulence and entertainment, the celebration will kick off at midnight, ensuring that the night’s energy continues all the way to 2am.
A big shout out to our headline sponsor this year, Yolo Group, for their steadfast support.
Also, a tip of the hat to our Audit Partner, BDO, which meticulously audited the judging days, and to Expedition42 for conducting the surveys that will decide this year’s Employer of the Year.
But it’s not all about glitz and glamour; there’s heart and soul too. The iGaming IDOL Awards has always been a platform that believes in giving back.
This year, in partnership with White Label Casinos and Phil Pearson, 5% of the awards table sales will be donated to MSPCA—Malta’s Society for the Protection and Care of Animals.
The ambition? To raise a whopping €100,000 to champion the cause of abandoned and neglected animals in Malta. To sweeten the pot, a special charity raffle will be held during the awards night, giving attendees the chance to win while supporting a noble cause.
So, dust off your finest attire and get ready to mingle with the industry’s best, all while supporting a heartwarming cause. It’s not just an awards night; it’s a celebration of talent, achievement, and community spirit. See you there!
Yolo Group has recently undertaken a major restructuring of its business operations while simultaneously bolstering its leadership team.
This strategic overhaul involves the creation of three key divisions: Yolo Entertainment, Yolo Platform and Yolo Investments.
Yolo Entertainment encompasses various B2C brands, such as Bitcasino, Sportsbet.io, and livecasino.io, along with collaborative ventures and other related businesses.
Yolo Platform represents the technological backbone of the group, serving both B2B clients and internal brands. It includes the Hub88 content aggregator, which plays a critical role in Yolo’s technology ecosystem.
Yolo Investments, on the other hand, serves as Yolo’s venture capital arm, managing assets exceeding €500m. This division maintains a diversified portfolio, with investments spanning the gaming and fintech sectors.
Yolo Group CEO Maarja Pärt (pictured) commented: “This restructure is a crucial step to ensure that our growth is managed consistently across the diverse range of brands, products and services we’ve built up over almost a decade.”
The new leadership team
As part of the restructure, Yolo Group has announced the appointment of Matthew D’Emanuele to the new position of CEO of Yolo Entertainment.
D’Emanuele previously served as CEO of B2B software provider Eastrock Group and director of operations at Gaming Innovation Group.
Elsewhere, Jose Micallef steps up to Yolo Platform CEO from his previous role as managing director of Bombay Online.
Meanwhile, Joe McCallum will move to the Yolo Group supervisory board. He initially joined the Tallinn-based company in 2017 when it was still known as Coingaming Group.
Before that, McCallum had a six-year tenure at William Hill, where he served in roles including head of customer assurance and sportsbook business lead.
“I’d like to congratulate Matthew, Jose and Joe on their promotions and new positions,” continued Pärt.
“These structural changes signal a significant shift in the Yolo Group mindset, with all our business verticals becoming autonomous.
“With each functioning as a separate business and supporting our wider mission, we’ll be even better placed to keep our customers at the centre of the universe.”
Established in 2014 as a primarily B2B platform provider, Yolo Group has since expanded its presence to include offices in Estonia, Malta, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, and Guernsey.
The company has experienced rapid growth, now boasting a workforce of over 1,000 employees representing more than 60 nationalities.
For the latest edition of Breakfast with NEXT, Sonja Lindenberg caught up with Bombay Online managing director Jose’ Micallef in Tallinn, Estonia.
Fifteen years ago, the world bore witness to one of the largest commercial collapses in history.
Lehman Brothers, a financial behemoth and titan of Wall Street, declared bankruptcy on 15 September 2008.
With a staggering debt of $613bn, this cataclysmic event not only left thousands of employees jobless, but also thrust the recession-ridden economy into a devastating downward spiral.
The consequences of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy had far-reaching effects on the banking industry, contributing to the broader financial crisis that followed.
In the midst of this turmoil, Jose’ Micallef, then self-employed trading oil futures from his home in Malta, faced a stark reality: he had lost everything overnight.
Micallef took a position at the Malta-based B3W Group, initially as a business development manager in 2009 before rising to the position of general manager in 2015.
His journey eventually led him to roles at NetEnt, Derivco and Pariplay.
In 2021, an introduction to Yolo Group set the stage for Micallef’s current role as the managing director of Bombay Online, which includes live dealer specialist Bombay Live, as well as Bombay RNG Games and content aggregator Hub88.
“I loved working in the industry from day one, and since I came from a fast-paced background, I found a lot of similarities,” he remarks.
Presently, he leads a team of 400 professionals working in various locations. Micallef is based in Tallinn, Estonia, but he’s often on the move. “That suits me perfectly, as I’m someone who thrives on change and can’t remain in a single place for more than eight to 10 weeks.”
The evolution of Bombay Live
Launched in 2020, Bombay Live aspires to be the epitome of the next-generation high-roller live dealer, offering games now accessible in 18 different UI languages.
“We initially embarked on this venture with our first studio right here in Tallinn. Subsequently, we expanded to Kyiv, Ukraine, but unfortunately had to close it down due to the conflict.
“However, last year marked a turning point as we successfully opened two studios, one in Argentina and another in Krakow, Poland.”
He also highlights Bombay’s technological advancements: “Over the past year, we’ve made significant strides in enhancing our technology, resulting in a robust and stable product.
“We are planning to unveil new games and even introduce popular game shows in the near future.”
When asked about the possibility of challenging live casino leader Evolution, Micallef responds with humility: “We wouldn’t even dream of competing with Evolution.”
Nonetheless, he adds, Bombay Live has found its very own niche, catering specifically to VIP players.
The ecosystem advantage
“Differentiation is a pivotal element,” underscores Micallef.
As with all companies in the Yolo Group family, Bombay enjoys the unique advantage of being able to access the thriving ecosystem established by the company.
“The industry continues to change and evolve, which means we need to make sure that our platforms, systems and processes are scalable.
“We carry out rigorous testing, and the advantage lies in the fact that most of our resources are in-house, including our own online casinos. Before introducing a feature to the wider market, we often engage operators in the testing phase.
“Their feedback is invaluable, and we persist with testing until it reaches a stage of readiness for release. This collaborative approach is a fundamental strength,” he explains.
Yolo Group, led by founder Tim Heath and Group CEO Maarja Pärt, has grand ambitions for its Bombay brand.
The company is currently undergoing extensive renovations on an old hotel in Tallinn’s historic old town, transforming it into an exclusive private members’ casino, including a hotel and several restaurants, aimed at high rollers. The opening is scheduled for spring 2024.
One might assume that financial constraints are not a concern for the group.
Micallef clarifies: “We don’t operate under the illusion that money is unlimited. That’s not the case. When we were smaller, there may have been more flexibility. We could act swiftly and had better visibility of our funds. However, as the group has grown, we’ve adopted a more structured approach.
“We generate project ideas, assess their scope, and develop a solid business case. Our focus is always on the value a project will bring to our business and our customers. It’s not a matter of someone coming up with an idea, and us hastily rushing into it.”
Blank cheque scenario
Nonetheless, Micallef acknowledges that within the group, they frequently adopt a concept akin to the “blank cheque scenario”.
When embarking on a new project, they ponder: “How would we approach this if resources were limitless?”
“This mindset serves as a means to eliminate all boundaries and restrictions, especially when striving to create the most impeccable products for future projects,” he says.
However, Micallef clarifies that this approach doesn’t imply a lack of accountability. They meticulously calculate the required man-hours, delivery timelines, and other essential factors.
“The goal,” Micallef notes, “is always to create great customer service.
“What matters most in the gaming industry is how the money flows from the player to the operator and to the suppliers. So there are all these transactions ongoing every second, and it’s also high volume.
“Therefore, you need to create swift systems for fast deposits, fast withdrawals, and provide good customer service.”
He points to banking services through Yolo Group’s HubWallet. It facilitates B2B transactions between operators and aggregator Hub88.
“With the HubWallet, transactions are cost-effective as we leverage cryptocurrencies. Additionally, we have plans to introduce fiat currencies in the future,” Micallef highlights.
He possesses a distinctive industry perspective, having the ability to speak from the vantage points of an operator, aggregator, and game developer.
“Players are seeking something special. There’s a plethora of content in this highly competitive, saturated market. Game studios are emerging from every corner, and operators and players are becoming more selective.
“Some studios release a game or two every week,” he remarks, highlighting the impact on the shelf life of games, which has dwindled from around 40 to 50 days to approximately 14 to 15 days before peaking.
“I believe that someone will soon crack the code and create more personalised games, where players may even have some ownership,” he predicts.
Life in Tallinn
His greatest challenge, Micallef points out, is managing a team with diverse backgrounds and nationalities.
Bombay prides itself on its diverse workforce, with individuals hailing from a multitude of countries and encompassing various professional and cultural backgrounds.
The challenges, therefore, are predominantly centred around people-related issues and bridging the gaps between cultural perspectives.
Micallef himself eagerly accepted the opportunity to relocate from Malta to Estonia, emphasising the allure of the city and its natural surroundings.
Nonetheless, there’s one element from Malta he longs for: “I do miss the Mediterranean Sea,” he says.
The sea has always held a special place in Micallef’s heart. In 2018, he engaged in ocean conservation through “My Ocean Road.”
“I’ve always had a deep passion for diving,” he explains. “So, I travelled to Mexico and participated in coral reef restoration. I joined a group of volunteers.
“We literally lived on a beach for several months. We embarked on two daily dives and operated a coral clinic for their rehabilitation.”
Micallef said they were isolated from the modern world, devoid of electricity or familiar conveniences.
“We ate what the land provided. It was tough at times, but it was a great experience, and if the ocean dies, we die,” he says.
Ecosystems in all forms
In every endeavor, Micallef’s journey reflects the interconnectedness of ecosystems, both in the natural world he cherishes and the corporate landscape he operates in.
Though he misses the sea from his homeland, he is keen to ensure that Bombay makes waves in the iGaming industry.
Caleta Gaming, a fast-growing Brazilian games provider, attended the exclusive Yolo Partners Event 2023, hosted by Yolo Group. The event is reserved for Yolo Investments portfolio companies, as well as the Group’s partners.
Caleta Gaming co-founders Paulo Nova and Fabiola Jaeger both attended the prestigious gathering.
Yolo Investments is a prominent venture capital firm focusing on the rapidly growing iGaming and fintech sectors, boasting an extensive portfolio of over 100 investments.
Yolo Investments featured Caleta Gaming as one of the spotlight investments from its portfolio.
Julian Buhagiar, general partner at Yolo Investments, said: “We’re thrilled with the progress Caleta has made over the past 12 months, and it’s fantastic to host Fabiola and Paulo.
“Caleta has an unparalleled understanding of Latin America’s online casino market, and is now beginning to expand into other markets. Yolo Investments will be supporting them every step of the way.”
Fabiola Jaeger, co-founder and CEO of Caleta Gaming, added: “I couldn’t be happier. Our team has being working tirelessly to reach this milestone. Though we are already in a phase of expansion, we feel like we are just at the beginning of our journey.
“Our goals are ambitious, and I have no doubt we will achieve them with our exceptional team. Thank you, Yolo, for such amazing support!”
As Caleta Gaming continues to set new standards in the online casino space, the company remains committed to pushing the boundaries of creativity and innovation, offering players an exceptional gaming experience worldwide.
Yolo Group and Yolo Investments founder Tim Heath believes the regulatory situation in European gambling is stifling innovation and damaging the player experience.
Heath – who was an early adopter of Bitcoin and founded brands including Bitcasino.io and Sportsbet.io – took part in the opening panel of iGaming NEXT Valletta 23.
During the session, he delivered several industry-focused predictions for the coming year alongside happyhour.io co-founding partner Robin Reed.
The panel was moderated by iGaming NEXT MD Pierre Lindh, who asked Heath what he thought about increasingly strict gambling regulations being implemented across most European countries, from the Netherlands and Belgium to the UK and Ireland.
When faced with the hypothetical scenario of entering a European market with one million dollars of investment and a golden idea for an iGaming start-up, Heath was stumped.
“There are not many pre-regulated markets left in Europe at all,” he said. “There is Finland, kind of Norway, and not really anywhere else.
“I want to be able to come into a market as a small business with a million dollars and bring a grand idea into fruition and then grow that economy.
“But the regulations are so difficult. You need three forms of compliance just to stop yourself from being fined. How does that encourage innovation or growth?”
Operators in regulated markets have been forced to invest heavily in compliance for the best part of five years now.
Those that fall foul of compliance are faced with enforcement action and financial penalties.
For example, William Hill was hit with a £19.2m settlement by the UK Gambling Commission earlier this year, a record settlement in one of the continent’s most stringent markets.
On the mainland, the Netherlands Gaming Authority (KSA) has dished out major fines this year for the likes of Videoslots (€10m) for accepting Dutch players without a licence and for multiple companies including bet365 (€400k) for a breach of marketing restrictions.
“My job [as an operator] is to make the customer happy,” Heath continued. “If my customers are happy, I’m going to be alright for the long run.
“Regulation is not there to engage and promote and encourage new businesses coming through and I just don’t know where I would go in Europe at the moment.”
As well as increased compliance and safer gambling costs, Heath said the cost of working with both affiliates and payment service providers is much higher in mature markets, with some commanding “ridiculous fees” and commission of up to 10%.
“Guess where that [cost] comes off?” he asked. “It comes off the player experience.
“You run your book at 92% because you’ve got to pay for compliance, KYC, payments processing, and then you’re having to pay players in Germany and Austria.”
Heath was referring to the expensive upturn in historical player claims from markets such as Germany and Austria prior to local regulation.
On this topic, Malta has moved to protect MGA licensees with a controversial new law designed to block overseas prosecution.
Adding a final word on the situation in Europe, Heath said: “You are almost just having to defend yourself as opposed to focusing on the single focus of the customer experience.”
iGaming NEXT, a leading trade media and events company for the online gambling industry, has raised a seven-figure investment round to accelerate future growth and expansion.
The funding round was spearheaded by xace.io, an esteemed payments processing service, marking a significant milestone in iGaming NEXT’s expansion.
Xace founder and CEO David Hodkinson said: “We are thrilled to be investing in this exceptional company.
“The dedication and work ethic demonstrated by the iGaming NEXT team is truly remarkable and evident through their growth to date.
“We have no doubt they’re destined for great things, and we are delighted to be involved in their journey,” he added.
Alongside xace.io, new investors such as the M&A advisory firm RB Capital, the reputable fund happyhour.io and NeoGames president Tsachi Maimon made substantial contributions.
“It has become increasingly evident over the last few years that iGaming NEXT is positioned to become the next big media powerhouse within the iGaming industry,” said Maimon.
“Despite growing rapidly, they have always maintained an integrity-first approach, and I have always been excited to be a part of their events and media initiatives from day one.
“Now, I am proud to be a part of the team and the journey itself,” he added.
In addition, existing investors YOLO Group and PressEnter Group executive chairman Lahcene Merzoug reaffirmed their commitment to the iGaming NEXT mission by actively participating in the latest funding round.
This continued support signals vibrant prospects for the future, with iGaming NEXT Valletta 23 destined to kick off this week.
This fresh influx of capital will be channelled towards further expanding the reach of the iGaming NEXT product portfolio and brand.
The objective is to reinforce its position as the leading trade media publication in the iGaming industry, a sector noted for its dynamic and rapidly evolving landscape.
The company has its sights set on building a major media conglomerate within the iGaming industry and beyond.
Pierre Lindh, managing director of iGaming NEXT, said: “We’re extremely grateful for the faith our investors, both existing and new, have placed in us.
“This investment will not only help us to maintain our position in the industry but will also empower us to break new ground.
“We’re thrilled about the opportunities this presents and can’t wait to shape the future of media in the iGaming industry,” he added.
With the industry constantly transforming, iGaming NEXT has been dedicated to providing timely, accurate and influential content since its inception.
“We are excited to be backing a platform that is committed to journalistic excellence, innovation, and integrity at its core,” said happyhour.io co-founding partner Daniel Bradtke.
“This commitment is reflected not just in the high-quality, reliable information they offer, but also in the world-class events they organise.
“These events have proven themselves to be invaluable in connecting key players, fostering collaborations, and inspiring advancements within the iGaming industry,” he added.
The investment process was managed by RB Capital, the final confirmed investor for this round.
“It has been a pleasure to see the rise and rise of iGaming NEXT; we’ve been part of the fabric since their early days, and it is so proud to validate how far Pierre and the team have come” concluded Julian Buhagiar, co-founder of RB Capital.
Sports betting operators from around the globe have joined forces to create the Brazilian Institute of Responsible Gaming (IBJR).
The group said it will work towards the aim of promoting a fair and sustainable market for sports betting in Brazil.
Who’s involved in the IBJR?
Founding members of the association include bet365, Betsson, Betway, Entain, Flutter Entertainment, KTO Group, Netbet Group, Rei do Pitaco and Yolo Group, who collectively operate in more than 100 countries.
Leading the group as its president is André Gelfi, currently the managing partner for Brazil at Betsson Group.
IBJR President André Gelfi: “No other country has enjoyed such a favourable environment for the construction of a successful regulation that can be an example for the world. The government can use aspects of countries that have successfully regulated and adapt them to the local reality.”
Gelfi is an experienced professional in the online gambling sector, having previously worked as the MD for Brazil at Codere for more than 15 years, as well as heading up Brazil-focused Codere spin-off brand, Suaposta, as its managing partner between 2018 and 2019.
Regulated Brazilian betting finally becoming a reality
The Brazilian government is set to introduce regulated sports betting later in 2023, after a long and protracted legislative process stretching back several years.
Last week, the country’s finance minister Fernando Haddad promised to finally regulate the sector, in order to generate additional tax revenue currently being lost to offshore operators.
Fixed-odds sports betting was legalised in the country in 2018, but until now, no formal regulatory regime has been forthcoming.
The IBJR said it is eager to collaborate with the public and private sector to ensure that the industry is integrated harmoniously into the Brazilian economy, while creating a safe regulatory environment for customers and financing the public sector.
IBJR President Gelfi’s comments
“The IBJR’s mission is to collaborate with all sectors of society that want to learn more about the industry and understand how it can be harmoniously integrated into the Brazilian economy, as it has in other countries,” said Gelfi.
“We want to help build a safe regulatory environment for customers, while financing the public sector and creating a sustainable operating environment for companies.”
The IBJR intends to lean on the experience of its founding companies in regulated markets to define appropriate guidelines for responsible gambling in Brazil, he added.
“The issue of responsibility appears in the name of the institute precisely because this is the main motivation for all operators involved in markets that have successful regulation.
“In these places, sports betting is seen as a source of entertainment that helps preserve the integrity of sport. And it is clear that the sector’s sensitive aspects, such as compulsive gambling and money laundering, must be addressed in a forceful, logical, and responsible manner,” added Gelfi.
Time to play catch-up
Meanwhile Rafael Marcondes, the IBJR’s legal director, stressed the importance of moving forward with regulation, citing positive results in the US where regulation has progressed rapidly and led to the collection of large tax contributions.
Brazil has fallen behind its international peers in this sense, Marcondes added, “allowing the proliferation of companies that are not committed to responsible gaming, which jeopardises the credibility of the market without providing minimum guarantees to consumers.”
IBJR legal director Rafael Marcondes: “Brazil has fallen behind, allowing the proliferation of companies that are not committed to responsible gaming, which jeopardises the credibility of the market without providing minimum guarantees to consumers.”
The IBJR added that while it considers Brazil’s continental size to be a challenge for regulation, it should not be seen as a constraint.
The Institute said it is eager to contribute technical solutions based on its founding members’ experiences and global expertise, and that “clear and demanding compliance rules will be fundamental for the development of the local market”.
Gelfi concluded: “No other country has enjoyed such a favourable environment for the construction of a successful regulation that can be an example for the world. The government can use aspects of countries that have successfully regulated and adapt them to the local reality.”
The US financial industry has suffered a major scare, with not one, not two, but three banks shutting their doors in the span of just one week. iGaming NEXT has summarised the key developments and the blame game that followed.
The most significant of the three closures was Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), which collapsed Friday morning following a shocking 48 hours of a bank run and capital crisis.
On Wednesday, the company’s surprise announcement that it needed to raise $2.25bn to address balance sheet issues triggered a downward spiral.
By Thursday, customers had withdrawn a staggering $42bn in deposits, according to a California regulatory filing, further exacerbating the situation.
The closure of the tech lender was then ordered by California regulators, who placed it under the control of the US Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.
With this, SVB became the second-largest financial institution failure in US history, second only to Washington Mutual, which collapsed during the 2008 financial crisis.
Meanwhile, New York state financial regulators shut down crypto-focused Signature Bank on Sunday (12 March) due to concerns about its potential impact on the US economy as a “systemic risk”.
Adding to the upheaval, Silvergate Bank, which had also specialised in cryptocurrencies, announced on Wednesday (8 March) that it would voluntarily wind down its operations, after crypto market plunge sparked a depositor exodus.
What caused the collapse?
There are different opinions on what caused the ultimate collapse of the banks, and there is quite a bit of finger pointing going on.
One of the significant reasons behind SVB’s downfall was the bank’s decision to invest billions of dollars in long-term bonds, expecting that interest rates would remain stable.
However, the US Federal Reserve Bank’s decision to increase interest rates resulted in the devaluation of these bonds, forcing SVB to sell them at a loss to bolster its capital position.
A Forbes article highlighted that the scale of bank failures in terms of total assets for 2023 was now similar in size to 2008 at the peak of the financial crisis.
However, in 2008, a higher number of individual banks failed compared to the current situation.
Tim Heath, founder of Yolo Group and Yolo Investments, told iGaming NEXT that the current scenario resembled 2008 and that “crypto is just another asset class that will be collateral damage”.
“There have been systematic risks in the banking industry for decades,” he said.
He cited fractional reserve banking as an example, stating that this system only works if customers do not withdraw their deposits.
Heath added: “These three banks were not shuttered because they were crypto banks. They were shuttered because their duration mismatch in assets versus liabilities meant they could not survive the impending run in the short term.”
He acknowledged that the failsafe system worked as designed, but it should not have reached this point.
Social media response
The SVB collapse has sparked a debate among members of the VC community, with some investors attributing the bank run to social media panic.
Brad Svrluga, co-founder and general partner at Primary Venture Partners, commented on LinkedIn that while “SVB made significant mistakes”, the “hysterical urging” by some VCs to withdraw deposits on social media ultimately triggered a run on deposits that led to the collapse.
Meanwhile, amid reports about start-ups that had funds frozen in the bank and struggling to to pay their staff, some members of the VC community offered support to affected companies.
Lloyd Danzig, managing partner at Sharp Alpha Advisors, wrote: “If you are a post-revenue sports, gaming, or entertainment startup impacted by the Silicon Valley Bank failure, we remain resolutely bullish on our thesis and are looking to be supportive. Please reach out directly if you are experiencing financing challenges.”
Emanuel Pearlman, chairman, board member, and advisor at MidCap Financial Investment Corp, also encouraged early-stage sports betting and iGaming companies in need of immediate capital to get in touch.
Mitigating the impact
The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, along with the two other banks, has sent shockwaves through the financial world, raising concerns about the stability of the banking sector and the potential impact on tech start-ups and other businesses.
In an effort to avoid a financial crisis, the US government announced on Sunday night that all SVB depositors would have access to their money on Monday morning.
This unprecedented intervention was intended to provide relief to those affected by the bank’s collapse.
According to Danzig, the real-money gaming industry found itself especially vulnerable to the SVB failure because of difficulties that companies in the space often have finding suitable banking partners.
“Although founders are breathing a sigh of relief this morning, those utilising regional banks are still attempting to set up new accounts elsewhere in order to be more robustly insured against any fallout or future issues,” Danzig told iGaming NEXT.
He added that the broader start-up ecosystem is still trying to adjust this week, “with many waiting to see how the fallout will impact operations and fundraising activities going forward”.
Meanwhile, HSBC has announced today (13 March) that it has acquired the UK arm of SVB for a nominal fee of one pound, a move aimed at mitigating the impact of the biggest bank collapse since the financial crisis on UK tech start-ups.
This was received as welcome news by a battered cryptocurrency sector.
On Monday morning, Bitcoin reached $22,560.20, up by almost 10% and its highest level in 10 days, while Ether also surged about 10% to $1,614.89, based on CoinDesk data.
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.”
Earlier this month I was in London for ICE 2023. As usual, it was packed to the hilt. The scale of the event is testament to the burgeoning gaming industry.
But given the broader macro-climate, was it all just smoke and mirrors? Or are we a real canary in the coal mine?
Halfway through Q1 of 2023, one would be forgiven for thinking that the macro-climate and the access to funding and capital looks ominous for everyone. The borrowing costs set by the US Federal Reserve are a good barometer for global trends across the investing sector.
In November, the US Fed increased the target range for the federal funds rate by 0.75% to 3.75%-4%. Across the world, the cost of capital has continued to rise rapidly to combat high inflation. This impacts the spending and investment decisions made by all households and businesses.
Over the last year, we have seen the SPAC market largely fizzle out, reducing the likelihood of large-scale M&A unless the acquiring business has significant cash on the balance sheet.
When opportunity presents itself
For VCs however, the outlook looks more optimistic — especially in the gaming space when viewed as a portal into web3. While outside money for regulated gaming ventures is becoming more difficult to source, some investors certainly have dry powder ready to deploy when the time is right.
What does that mean in practice? Firstly, all parties are waiting for valuations to come back down to more realistic levels. For more speculative or early-stage companies or those chasing growth markets like the US and Asia, there’s been a significant decline in fast-moving investors, and probably for the good.
Two years ago, most VCs were imbued with a severe fear of missing out. Today, they are looking for fewer, more targeted opportunities, with most re-trenching to what suits “their fit”. But this is no different to other industries, including software firms who are used to easier money.
Yolo Investments general partner Tim Heath: “This downturn is healthy in the sense that the fundamentals were being ignored for too long. I am optimistic that the strong will survive and thrive.”
However at Yolo we’re confident there is an opportunity gap in this sector at the Seed to Series A level, to provide active growth capital to ventures with a proven business model who would benefit from a long-term partner to provide ecosystem support.
We especially think that firms able to bundle their gaming and entertainment offer into broader web3 services, such as banking and education, have a greater chance of success in this market. Jambo, an African web3 and fintech firm in whose recent $30m Series A round we participated, is a great example.
The company will use the funding to hire the engineers needed to build a web3 super app that will enable Africans to trade crypto, buy and sell NFTs, experience play-to-earn crypto games, bank themselves and access educational web3 applications.
Companies like this, bringing real value to growth markets, will not just survive the crypto and VC winters — overhyped though these seasons are — but thrive into the long-term.
End of the road
On the healthy side, I think a lot of the products and companies that are genuinely overhyped have seen their day over the past year, and we’re not likely to see more of them.
Without naming names, these are companies that used to raise easy money only to go on to become the fiftieth entrant to saturated markets — probably only attaining 2–3% market share. Their kind won’t be seeing the light of day again for a long period of time.
The strong use cases on the other hand will only get stronger. Social gaming, for example, has an extraordinary ability to leverage the network effects of traditional social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and will only get more competitive in 2023.
I fundamentally believe in the long-term value proposition of the gaming sector. Games provide a form of escapism, immediate gratification, engaging content, and can provide a crucial portal into life changing applications in education and payments.
This downturn is healthy in the sense that the fundamentals were being ignored for too long. I am optimistic that the strong will survive and thrive, and we will be a more successful industry for it.
In short, there is a wealth of talent out there building innovative products so it would be wrong to say they are all overhyped. Like life, sourcing funding is often a matter of luck and good timing.
Some products might be great solutions in their own right — but their true value won’t be appreciated by investors intent on developing ecosystems that don’t cater to their unique place in the market.
The message is — don’t give up. For those who can stay the course through 2023, great things might still come to those who wait. See you all at ICE 2024.
This post first appeared on Medium.com.
Tim Heath draws upon two decades of experience within the iGaming and emerging technologies sectors as GP of Yolo Investments. An early adopter of Bitcoin in 2013, he was founder and CEO of the Yolo Group (formerly the Coingaming Group) until 2020. The group operates leading crypto gaming brands Bitcasino and Sportsbet.io, with the latter securing high-profile sponsorships with Premier League clubs Arsenal and Southampton.