4 Minutes Read
In many ways, the life of a poker entrepreneur is similar to that of his target audience, the poker player. Discipline, bankroll management, and the passion for constant improvement are crucial to survival for both. And they both share a strong symbiotic relationship, with each dependent on the other!
The question that comes to mind is that why do some ventures fail while others flourish. The answer could be a variety of reasons, but fundamentally it’s a failure on one or more of the three key principles mentioned above, at least in my opinion.
I started by penning down some thoughts that were rambling in my mind for a long time because the subject of this feature is a poker startup – Poker Dangal. Poker Dangal is an online startup that, like many others, started recently.
Currently in its second year of operations, Poker Dangal, unlike many of its peers has been successful in setting up a strong base that has helped it position itself as a long-term player. While many other online sites of the same vintage have come and gone, Dangal continues to grow – steadily!
We got a chance to speak with one of the co-founders of Poker Dangal, Karan Gandhi (cover image), who heads the firm’s Business Development vertical. Working alongside the other co-founders who all hold vital positions in the management, Gandhi has a crucial role to play in the firm’s growth story given the fact that he is the only one in the administration with technical knowhow of the game.
In a no-holds-barred interview, Gandhi gives us more than a glimpse into the making of Poker Dangal and what drives the team behind the venture to consistently work towards delivering a safe, trusted and competitive platform for online poker.
Hi Karan, thank you for speaking with PokerGuru. Tell us about Poker Dangal`s journey so far detailing some of the highs and lows since inception?
We have been operational since the last 20 months, and it has been an exciting ride for us. As newcomers in the industry, our aim is to improve the offerings for the poker community. At the same time, we want to raise the standards of service and user experience for poker players. We have achieved many firsts in the industry and are continuously learning and unlearning every day. From acquiring PokerMet to launching 5 Card PLO to successfully running Dangal Value Series, it has been a great learning curve for us. Our endeavour has always been ‘Customer First,’ and there is no bigger high than a satisfied customer for us. The poker community has been really kind to us, and we really appreciate their love and support.
Kindly tell us about the other co-founders and the core team at Poker Dangal. How did you all come together for this project?
We are 4 co-founders in the company – Varun Mahna, Varun Puri, Shashwat Jain and me. Both the Varun’s are batch-mates from their engineering days, and it was their idea and drive to start this business. Shashwat is our data guy and heads our Operations while also managing the tech. I happened to be the only one in the group with a functional knowledge of how to play poker, and that’s how it all started for us. The team is a mix of IITians, BITSians, and XLRI graduates, so we know what we want to drive in terms of our customer experience and value proposition.
Please tell us about the backgrounds and roles of each of the co-founders.
As I told you, the team is a mix of XLIers, IITians, and BITSians. Varun Mahna is an MBA from XLRI and an engineer from BITS-Pilani. He is an avid poker lover and the biggest fish you will see. He handles all the front end of our business. Varun Puri is an entrepreneur himself, and this is his second venture. He is responsible for handling all the backend of the business. Shashwat is an IIT alum and was earlier heading the analytics for Box 8. He heads our operations and manages our technology. I am a graduate from Delhi University and head of Business Development at the firm.
We are curious to know more about your in-house poker client and the challenges developing it. How difficult is it to be working on improving the platform while some competitors have software from international providers?
Well, the heart and soul of this business is the product, and it is the most complicated piece of the puzzle as well. When we started, the product was very raw and have, over 20 months made many changes. We treat customer feedback very seriously and have tried to accommodate their suggestions in our client. This is a continuous process and a long journey for us to compete with international platforms, and we are upbeat and bullish about going toe to toe with them. Shashwat deserves a lot of credit for bringing us on par with most of the clients available in the market.
How has the response from the poker community been in these last 20 months? With increased competition and established brands fast capturing market share, what will be Poker Dangal’s strategy to survive and sustain?
The community has been very receptive to our venture and has showered us with a lot of love and trust. In our initial days, a lot of users had given us feedback and had stopped playing with us. We took this very seriously, and I am very proud to say that most of these users are now our regular players and we have managed to deliver on their expectations. The market is very competitive, and I think it’s an excellent time for the community in general as they have many options to choose from. Competition brings out the best in our team, and we are geared up for the challenge ahead. We believe our understanding of consumer behaviour and our operational excellence will keep us in good stead and help us in our growth journey.
How much of your clientele are you expecting to poach from competitors and how much of it you are looking to create as new players?
We don’t want to use the word poaching as it comes with a negative connotation. We are happy to serve all the players to the best of our abilities. More players need to jump on the online poker bandwagon for the entire industry. Maintaining a player’s trust is the key for the industry to survive, and hence, new players are very crucial to the ecosystem.
Poker Dangal recently launched 5-card PLO. Are there more new innovations in the pipeline?
Constant product innovation is the key to customer delight, and we will make sure to keep evolving and innovating. Be it from new variants to our policies, we will try to improve with each passing day. We will soon come up with more variants, a better UI experience and bigger, better promotions.
In hindsight, would you say that the acquisition of defunct site PokerMet helped Poker Dangal?
Definitely, it has. As a member of this community, I can understand when someone’s money gets stuck with an operator. PokerMet was struggling because of many reasons, and we wanted to help the players who were facing the consequences of this struggle. The positive vibes and image we got post the acquisition have been invaluable.
What has been your vision behind introducing Dangal Value Series? Do you think such high frequency of high guaranteed tournaments is feasible to sustain, especially when so much of the liquidity is being taken out via TDS and rake?
The Value Series came to be because of the feedback we got from the community. A lot of players suggested that they couldn`t participate in tourneys with higher buy-ins because of liquidity issues. We wanted to give these users an experience to play in high GTD series at a lower buy-in, and hence, we introduced DVS. It has been a hit with the players, and we have consistently increased our GTDs to make it more interesting for the users. It is a challenge to keep meeting these high GTDs as the buy-in to GTD ratios are really high. However, we feel it is an excellent way to add more players to our platform.
There has been much debate about the high rake being charged by domestic poker sites as compared to the international counterparts. What are your views on the rake charged by you and even your competitors in India, and is it feasible to lower it?
Comparing Indian operators to International operators is unfair and not a like for like comparison. The international market is very mature with the traffic running in millions for the big players. The promotions/offers on these platforms are very basic as they don’t have to worry about traffic. In India, however, we are in a very nascent stage of our journey. To attract more players to online poker, we have to promise and deliver the moon. The promotions run on a very high give back and hence to sustain, we have to charge a particular rake. Most of this is given back to the users to support them. As the traffic grows, I am sure this will change.
VC funds and even PE investors have shown a keen interest in the gaming sector. Is PokerDangal exploring options to raise funds anytime soon?
We have been approached by some players who want to invest in our team and be part of the journey. All I can say right now is that we are focussing on our growth and we shall see how this turns out.
What do you think are the key issues plaguing the Indian poker Industry today, and how do you at Poker Dangal aim to resolve them?
The first and foremost is the issue of trust, and the onus is on the operators to work towards this. The poker industry, I feel, has to be represented so decision making can be done for the benefit of the community. A forum/association is essential, and we would be happy to participate in such an initiative. Legal proceedings involving the poker segment must be tackled head-on, and all stakeholders of the poker industry have to fight this battle together for the industry to survive.
What’s your take on the current online poker scene in the country?
It is in a very nascent stage, and there is going to be a growth story associated with this sector in the next decade. However, it is not all rosy as there are some tough roadblocks that need to be tackled tactfully. A few bad apples can spoil the entire cart, and we have to protect the community from such experiences for the poker scene to thrive.
Where do you see Poker Dangal down the line in 3 years? Do you plan to venture into other skill games apart from poker, like rummy and fantasy sports?
Three years is a long time, and we would want to see ourselves as one of the leading operators in the country. More games are definitely part of the plan, and we will reveal more about them in due course of time. It is an exciting point in our journey, and the onus is on the team to deliver to the goals and standards which we have set for ourselves. We seek the love and blessings of the community and hope to rock in the future!