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Heads-Up With CEO of 9stacks – Sudhir Kamath

Sudhir Kamath
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  • Attreyee K. Ganguly November 24, 2018
  • 6 Minutes Read

In 2017, four bright young men, Sudhir Kamath, Pratik Kumar, Abhinav Nigam and Rishab Mathur ventured into the world of online poker and set up their start-up company – 9stacks. Coming from highly professional backgrounds and possessing deep knowledge of their respective fields, these co-founders have implemented their experience of over 12-15 years into establishing their brand.

And their hard work has paid off! 9stacks raised ₹10 Crores ($1.5 Million) from a group of angel investors in December 2017 and less than a year later, in September 2018 they achieved a milestone by raising ₹28 Crores (approximately $4 Million) in a Series A funding round. And, at the helm of this success is the visionary – Sudhir Kamath, also the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of 9stacks.

Kamath, a man with sharp business acumen is a Computer Science graduate from the Delhi Institute of Technology and an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. He had his first taste of success with the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. He took up several different roles with other companies thereafter, which included Senior Vice President of SUN Group Private Equity and Managing Director of Suntera Energy.

The 39-year-old is well aware of the possibilities that this industry can offer. His accumulated experience over the years and intrinsic understanding of the trade is evidenced by how he plans to utilize funds in areas of marketing, product development, industry consolidation, and other real money games to help steer the company towards a booming future.

In an interview with PokerGuru, Sudhir Kamath talks about the creation of 9stacks, the achievements of the past year and the plans for the future.

 

Hello Mr. Sudhir Kamath, and thank you for speaking with PokerGuru. From being a part of the petroleum industry to your association with McKinsey and now at the helm of management in 9stacks, you have come a long way. What led you to venture into the poker industry?

When my co-founders and I were considering starting 9stacks last year, we felt that the poker market was on the verge of a boom, driven by demographic changes and comfort with online transactions. Thanks to that, poker is one of those rare sectors that has cash flow as well as growth potential. We also had clear ideas on how to take on the companies already in the space, so it wasn’t a complicated decision for us.

 

9stacks has fast grown as one of the biggest market players in the domestic poker industry. You sent the biggest team of players to Las Vegas for participating in WSOP and other tournaments this summer. What have been the key areas that you feel that 9stacks has made successful inroads in, and what was your vision behind them?

We brought various innovations, including our dual-wallet system; transparent policies; and quick cashouts for all players. Most importantly, we’ve tried to have fresh and transparent promotions that offer genuine value as well as excitement to our regular players. After #LFGVegas, many more players have started playing poker seriously. We’ve also been very focused on attracting beginners to our site and retaining them, and those “organic” players are the future for us.

 

Speaking of growth, according to a statement released by your company in December 2017, 9stacks had raised 10 Crores ($1.5 Million) from a group of angel investors. Can you share the details of how this process was put into motion?

A successful angel round requires a high-potential market and a strong management team – clearly our investors felt both were in place. Almost all our angel investors had worked with one of the four of us previously, so the trust factor was already in place. The entire process took less than two months.

 

9stacks has recently raised 28 Crores (approximately $4 Million) in a Series A funding round which is a milestone achievement. What are the key points that 9stacks focused on to accomplish this milestone?

In the first year of operations, our biggest challenge was to establish player’s trust and get known in the market. We experimented with the product and marketing strategies, but always had policies that made the experience safe and reliable for the user. All those helped with the Series A. We are very grateful to Waterbridge Ventures who reposed faith in our team and business plan. We are also very data driven, and Waterbridge has the same mindset so they’re a great partner for us as we grow.

What are your plans for utilizing these funds?

We have four areas we’ll be investing in:

1.Marketing (of course!) – the market is growing very rapidly and we want to take a disproportionate share of that growth. Our players should expect more value for their cash grind as well as tournament play – you’ve already seen the Aussie100 promotion that we’ve launched; and our tournament guarantees are growing rapidly as well. We shall always reward regulars through our StackUp point loyalty program.

2. Product / Team: These two are linked. We are working on various features in our game-play as well as on the analytics side and building out our team to deliver those enhancements. For instance, we offer our players a skills dashboard, which is the first in- depth poker strategy analysis tool to be launched in India. We plan to come out with more such products in the near future.

3. Industry consolidation: The Indian poker space has too many companies right now, many of them poorly capitalized. We are open to opportunities and will proactively seek them out as well.

4. Other real money games: Currently fantasy sports and rummy are larger than poker, and there are other emerging areas. We have some ideas on what we can do outside of poker and will start some experiments in the near future.

 

What is your plan of action to repeat the success of Series A in the Series B funding round especially from the investor’s perspective?

Series A investors look at potential; Series B investors will start by looking at performance. We have our work cut out! There’s no mystery to the process itself.

Please tell us a bit about your future plans, in context to funding? Any target valuation you will be looking for to raise funds in the future?

I’ll answer that question in a few months!

Poker is fast gaining acceptance as a mind sport in India. What changes do you foresee coming in the near future?

Poker still has a distance to go to catch up with other mind sports such as chess, bridge, or scrabble. One part is perception – and as more people try poker, there will be a general demystification of the game for many more people who are in contact with them. The second part is greater regulatory clarity, and as part of the All India Gaming Federation we are working alongside our industry peers on this. We expect the recent Law Commission report to be taken up by the government after the next elections.

We also expect to see many more women playing online poker and are putting in some effort towards that. We are the only online poker site to run weekly poker tournaments exclusively for women players. We have also sponsored women players for live tournaments like DPT, BLT and WPT – in fact, one of our players Chandni Malik (who played online poker for the first time on 9stacks!) finished 17th in one of the WPT events and earned herself a cool Lakh in the process. We need more role models like her.

 

In face of the promising growth that online poker has seen this year, especially with so many new online operators entering the market, how does 9stacks plan to stay relevant in such an increasingly competitive environment?

Eventually, people will choose sites based on product experience, customer service, and value for their time and effort. We have to keep executing well on those if we want to keep increasing our market share.

 

As CEO of 9stacks you have a busy job keeping the company on the edge of competitive performance. What are the recreational activities or hobbies that you indulge in, that help you unwind?

I play scrabble competitively – used to be in the India top 20 at one point but have dropped ranks and rating points since I started 9stacks; not enough time to study / practice!

I also like reading widely and sharing interesting news articles on my Facebook page – do take a look if you’re interested! And last but not the least, I have my kids to keep me on my toes.

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