The beautiful game
Malta has created a helpful ecosystem for digital start-ups, Malta-based entrepreneur and co-founder of Oulala Games Benjamin Carlotti says.
What are the advantages of launching a start-up in Malta?
Overall, the odds of a start-up surviving are very low. Therefore, choosing the right location is a strategic decision, as it will have important consequences on the future direction of the business. Sometimes, the financial aspects of a decision like this are obvious. For instance, the break-even point of Oulala would have been three and a half times higher if we had set up the company in France.
There are also some less visible factors that are vital to success. Just to give one example, Maltese people have an amazingly positive vision of the future – most Maltese believe that tomorrow will be better than today. As a start-up, you desperately need to be surrounded by such a positive atmosphere.
For these reasons I believe that Malta offers a lot of benefits for start-ups and I expect to see more start-ups choose Malta as their home.
In the global race between countries to attract start-ups, Malta has been very realistic about the competitive advantages that it could create. Since countries compete fiercely for businesses, Malta must continue to improve and raise awareness about the Digital Malta brand.
We recently attended the Web Summit in Dublin. This is now a global gathering of entrepreneurs and investors and has become a major event in the digital world. It also serves as an interesting example because next year the summit will be held in Lisbon. The Portuguese capital is very keen to be seen as a hub of activity for start-ups, similar to Amsterdam, London and Dublin, and has courted the founders at length to secure the move. This might be the most extreme example, but there is certainly more that Malta could do to make itself more visible to the community.
When I’m abroad, I’m often asked why we chose Malta as our base. I think Malta should use some of the successful local start-ups as leverage to attract other new start-ups from around the world. Digital start-ups like us are the best ambassadors to promote Malta’s ecosystem. I believe that any company that receives government funding to help their launch should be willing to provide a few days every year to help promote Malta as a destination for the next generation of companies.
You launched Oulala in 2012. What growth have you achieved in these past three years?
The success of any business always depends on the team behind it. The only wealth is people and we are very proud of the qualities and skills of the team that we have built. We have managed to adapt a very American concept to our European reality. We have created a very active community of players and we are also building much closer relationships with print and online media and other business partners.
In fact, I’m very proud to officially announce that in the last few days we have signed a partnership with Leicester City. Oulala is now the official fantasy game of the club. This partnership is symbolic to us. With a smaller budget than the biggest clubs, Leicester City has managed to get off to an amazing start this season as they are currently third in the Premier League. We are particularly proud to be the partner of a club that is outperforming everyone’s expectations and we believe that we share many of the same values.
Attracting investment is one of the main challenges for a start-up. How is Oulala Games managing to do this?
Malta has created a helpful ecosystem for digital start-ups where incentives and assistance can be provided by a number of official sources. There is, for instance, assistance from Malta Enterprise, Takeoff business incubator and the Ministry for the Economy, Investment and Small Business.
Unfortunately, the lack of local business investors is currently a major missing piece in the Maltese start-up ecosystem. Malta needs to encourage European venture capitalists and business angels to open branches in Malta to finance local start-ups.
It is important to understand that many investors want to be close to the company that they are funding. In Silicon Valley, many people told me that they only invest in companies that are based within a 30-minute drive from their office. This means that any Maltese companies trying to raise money abroad have to overcome much larger challenges than those in London or California and it is very likely that they will not find the investment that they need.
Another important point is that raising money is very time consuming. During a fundraising process, most founders spend most of their time meeting possible financial partners. Having to go abroad every time you want to meet someone is expensive both in terms of money and time, especially when considering that in the earliest days of a start-up, time is the most precious commodity of most founders.
At Oulala, we had no option but to look abroad for potential investors. We were able to raise the funds required to grow, but we would have saved a lot of time and energy had we been able to do it locally.
The good news – there is always something positive in everything – is that two of our investors fell in love with Malta when they came to meet us. One bought an apartment and the other is moving to Malta permanently.
What is fuelling the daily fantasy sports market’s strong growth?
There are several factors that help explain the growth we see in the market. First of all, it is important to understand that the growth is pulled by strong demand. Younger customers, typically aged between 18 and 45, were raised with video games. As they have become adults, they are looking for different recreational games than that offered traditionally by iGaming. We believe that the future for these two sectors – iGaming and video games – is that they will merge – daily fantasy sports is an important first step in this direction.
Secondly, the big data revolution will have a tremendous impact on sports. Fans are seeing more statistics in the media related to the performance of players and teams and this is just the beginning. As more people understand that statistics enable a greater understanding of the game, fantasy sports will become even more popular.
Which are your biggest markets?
Worldwide, football is massively popular. For instance, Chevrolet signed a sponsorship deal with Manchester United because they wanted to penetrate the Chinese market and studies showed that they were the most powerful brand to do so. Wherever we go, we are told that our game will work amazingly well.
The UK is our most obvious initial market but we will need to maintain a very international mindset to be able to adapt to the needs of our customers.
The data from our website tells us that there are fewer than 15 countries in the world where we have no clients. Just consider that last year a player from Mongolia won our weekly game.
Malta is not a market you operate in. Yet do you still feel that Oulala Games has Maltese roots?
Yes we do. Without Malta’s help, we are not even sure that Oulala would still be around. We are very conscious about that fact and we will never forget it. Wherever we go, we are always actively promoting Malta. We think that it is the least we can do in return.
We are now trying to attract our very young industry to Malta. We think that with our white label solution and the creation of a specific licence for our sector, Malta can quickly become the place to be for a fantasy sports business in Europe.
Last but not least, Malta is not only Oulala’s home, but it is also mine. I arrived in Malta three years ago and felt at home immediately. I cannot think of a better place to live right now.
What are your targets for 2016?
We will continue our marketing and PR campaigns to accelerate our growth and at the end of the football season we seek to raise our Series B funding of around €7 million.
Later this month we will release the white label version of Oulala. For iGaming operators, access to this market is very important since, when a new product arrives – such as poker 15 years ago – the first movers often become the major players in the marketplace.
Fantasy sport is the next big thing arriving in Europe. With Oulala, any operators willing to benefit from this new opportunity will have access to a plug-and-play solution within the next few weeks. To put that another way, we have a lot of work ahead, but we are looking forward to the opportunities that will present themselves to us.