Founders of India's billion-dollar company share tips for success

TECHNOLOGY
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They launched a fantasy sports company at age 22.  Now worth $8 billion

Harsh Jain says it’s an “open secret” that he doesn’t use his own fantasy sports app – at least for fantasy football.

“I’m still committed to fantasy football in the Fantasy Premier League, which is why we created Dream11.”

Fantasy sports are online games in which players create virtual teams of proxies that track real sports players. They can earn points and win cash prizes based on how these players perform in the real world.

Fantasy football was already very popular in the UK in the early 2000s and Jain caught the virus while attending secondary school there.

After introducing him to his childhood friend Bhavit Sheth, they set out to find a fantasy cricket platform in India. When they didn’t find what they were looking for, they created their own in 2008.

What happens if you get hit by the bus? You’re building scale and systems in a way… not dependent on [a single person] and … having one person make a decision?

Harsh Jain

Co-founder and CEO, Dream Sports

According to Jain, it’s the “pioneer edge” that has taken his company Dream Sports – the parent company of Dream11 – to great heights.

“Once you and your friends are … connected in a network in fantasy sports, for a rival to take you to play there, you need to move all your friends with you,” said Jain, who is also CEO of Dream Sports.

“Since you created your leagues, all your friends are playing against each other.”

Dream Sports is not only India’s first sports tech unicorn – the company also has “nearly 90% market share” in the country’s fantasy sports industry.

The 36-year-olds share three tips on running a successful business.

1. Disconnect

If there’s a “fundamental principle” Jain and Sheth live by as leaders of their company – it’s making sure their business doesn’t depend on either one of them, they told CNBC Make It.

Jain said, “What happens if you get hit by the bus? You’re building scale and systems in a way 🇧🇷 not dependent on [a single person] and… having one person make a decision?”

That’s why the co-founders enforced a “shutdown” week for all Dream Sports employees, including themselves.

Harsh Jain (left) and Bhavit Sheth are the co-founders of Dream Sports, an Indian sports technology company that owns Dream11, the country’s largest fantasy gaming platform.

dream sports

“Once a year, for one week, you are expelled from [company] system … you don’t have Slack, emails and calls,” added Jain.

“Because it helps a lot to have an uninterrupted week and it helps the company to know if we depend on someone.”

Anyone who comes into contact with another employee during the “disengagement” period will be fined about $1,200, Jain added. This has been effective so far, the co-founders said.

“Nobody wants to be that idiot who called someone who was offline,” said Sheth, who is also the director of operations, laughing.

2. Learn from rejection

Jain and Sheth said they were told “no” at least 150 times by venture capital firms when trying to secure early-stage funding 10 years ago.

“We went to all the Indian VCs and they said, ‘This is an American concept. Fantastic sports are not prevalent in India… Why don’t you raise money in the US?'”

But it was just as difficult when Jain tried to raise money in New York and San Francisco.

“All the VCs there told me to go back to India. ‘It’s an Indian company, raise money in India!'” recalled Jain. “Then I realized it was just a polite way of saying no.”

Instead of feeling discouraged, Jain and Sheth gained fuel from the rejections.

Early stage investors are really looking for deeply passionate founders, [and products] with a large market.

Harsh Jain

Co-founder and CEO, Dream Sports

“The bottom line was that from every meeting you can tell why they said no, you can ask them, ‘What is your biggest area of ​​concern?'”

Jain and Sheth said it took them nearly two years before they finally hit the nail on the head.

“Early-stage investors are really looking for deeply passionate founders, [and products] with a big market,” said Jain.

“Early traction, high user retention… and founders [who] will stay there and will not give up. I think that’s what helped us finally get on the pitch.”

Since then, Dream Sports’ vision to connect with India’s millions of sports fans has attracted major investors such as Chinese tech giant Tencent, US investment firm Tiger Global and Hong Kong-based Steadview Capital.

Its latest fundraising round in 2021 reached $840 million, giving the company its $8 billion valuation.

3. Turn off the noise

The life of an entrepreneur is “always sexier on the outside,” said Jain.

This is something childhood friends know all too well – they lost “a few million dollars” in start-up capital when they were just 26 years old.

“Every founder, when you start something, you really believe it’s going to explode, you’re going to change the world… and ours crashed and burned.”

However, even after a successful shift from a free-to-play to “freemium” model in 2012, the challenges have not stopped.

“From 2008 to 2012 it was difficult to find the right business model. From 2012 to 2014 it was difficult to raise money. And from 2015 until now it is difficult to live up to investors’ expectations,” said Jain.

You are always fighting something.

Harsh Jain

CEO and co-founder of Dream Sports

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