Online sports betting is a new $150 bln gold rush in the United States. It is predicted that the country will have 24+ states with legalized online sports betting in 2020. A lot of guys who were running their gambling related sites since the 90s and early 2000s (American Casino Guide) knew this time would come and were waiting for the right offer (Vegas Insider). Others have just started building their dreams and looking for investors (Bettors Insider).
Gary Gillies, 38, is one of the successful few, an entrepreneur who managed to build and sell his sports betting tips and affiliate site SBAT to the top gambling affiliate company Catena Media for an upfront payment of €3.2 mln, with an additional maximum earn-out of €10.5 mln over a period of two years.
I talked to Gary to find out how he managed to do what many of igaming entrepreneurs (especially now in the USA) are dreaming about and learn why he continues building gambling affiliate websites instead of living on an island sipping cocktails.
In 2011 you were working for an IT company fixing PCs, how come you suddenly decided to build a free betting tips website?
Someone asked me to build them a gambling affiliate website. In doing so I have got to see how much they made monthly from there and I thought I could do that and do that better. So I started looking around to understand what works. We started sharing betting tips on the social platforms to see if the concept can actually work and we realized it did after six weeks or so. It worked really well back then for five years in the United Kingdom, obviously now it won’t work that well due to new regulations and compliance.
At the time we were offering free betting tips. The current version is what Catena has changed it to because of the compliance in the UK.
Did you look for a domain with a built DA already? How did you end up getting an SBAT domain and what does it mean?
Originally I’d agreed to buy fbet (free bets and tips), but then the guy realized that my company was called f bet and he raised the price for the domain fourfold. So I quickly went on to see if the sbat (stats bets and tips) was available. That was available and we bought it for 2500 GBP and changed the company’s name.
Were you alone doing all this or friends came along?
I started talking to people in social media and quickly built up a team of people from around the UK to produce content and the work on the site (they still work for Catena now). I could not do it alone as you should have tips 24/7 on multiple pages.
How much did you spend on the project and where did you get money from?
It was my own savings (initial investment) from my salary I got from my previous job.
I spent around 200k GBP until the business became sustainable after 6 months and it was paying the bills and further development. After one and a half year it was in profit and growing.
We reached out to the bookmakers – the first affiliate partner was bet365, and we went for revshare.
How long were you working on the site until you got an offer from Catena Media?
I’d say two-and-a-half to three years. I had no interest and I did not even think about selling it. Someone contacted me who I knew and said that Catena might be interested in buying the company. We arranged a meeting in 2017 and from there everything went very quickly.
Who suggested the price?
Catena did and negotiations began.
Did you increase the initial price suggested?
Yes, I did.
What about the two-year earn-out period – they would not purchase without you agreeing on it, right?
Yes, they insisted on it and I did not know how to react to that. Because of my entrepreneurial spirit I was not sure how I would fit into a corporative environment.
You had to invest (€2mln) in Catena’s stock and show 150-200% growth of SBAT.COM. Did you manage to grow the brand and did you actually earn on that investment?
We did for a while until the compliance stuff in the UK showed up, we had to adapt and change the way we did things. Yes, I got return on investment anyway.
How did it affect your own team’s culture and the way things were done before?
To be honest, it is where I struggled. When you run your own business you are a decision maker, you try new things when you want and how you want. Freedom is important to a go-ahead entrepreneurial person.
In a big company where you want to get something done you have to have several meetings about that, maybe six weeks down the line you will get more questions and the process from “I wanna try something and do it tomorrow” to months of discussions. When the moment is finally there to execute, the opportunity might be missed.
Did Catena offer you to stay after your earn-out period?
I was a part of the management for 18 months and I chose to leave. It did not suit the way I used to work in regards to the decision-making process. Even if you are in a managerial position you still cannot start your project the next day and have to go through the approval process. I have been offered jobs since in some big companies and at the moment I am happy to work from my house where I built an office, more family time, less stress.
Do you think free betting tips model would work now in the U.S. in 2020?
I believe in the U.S. it will work, again the compliance will come to play a role in the future, there will be a lot of questions, but at the moment to go after what we did in the UK.
What would you invest in the US gambling: hundreds of small keyword-focused sites or brand sites?
I would go for brand investment, the keyword stuff is going to get messy as more states open. If you are a small affiliate and looking to make enough sign-ups for a living, then the long-tail keywords focus can be very profitable.
If you want to make a big sale down the line then you’d need to have at least 200 thousand monthly in revenue – that’s what big companies are looking for now.
What would you recommend to the independent entrepreneurs trying to build their own gambling brand?
The biggest thing is to understand the niche better than anyone else around you. Catena, Better Collective, XL Media, they have more money than you, me, all these guys put together. They are doing their job from nine to five, while I am constantly working on understanding my niche. The key is to understand your industry better than these big companies. For example, if I am going to run a site about New Jersey betting, then I want to know everything about how they bet, what the bet, every single angle of what’s going on there.
When you spend someone else’s money you don’t care, while when you spend your own – it is different. If you care enough about it and you are willing to learn and work you can outsmart these big companies. If you are relaxed and thinking that you just make a website and then you sell it, you’re probably going to fai.
Put emphasis on the quality of the content, keyword research and links will still be important going forward.
One of the main fears young entrepreneurs the U.S. share is how do you pitch to investors without disclosing all details about your business and concept?
Yes, you want to take the investment, but at the same time you have got to keep it so no one else knows. You have to find people you trust. If I had a unique idea after I have been through the industry now, I know who I would take this idea to and who I would never take it to. I believe in the idea anyone can help anyone. I am trying to avoid the kind of people who are trying to take someone else’s piece of pie. Try to surround yourself with people with the same mentality. It takes a while.
I talked to affiliates around the world and got messages from people I have never spoken to before, sometimes they are fishing for your ideas. Money does crazy things to some people, when they see an opportunity to make money, they go for everything.
Does it pay to be a nice guy in the industry?
It all comes down to the person, how you feel about the industry and the world. You have to be open and ready that if someone attacks you, you will get burned. You learn as you go. I still make mistakes and try new things.
The gambling industry has lots of bullies, so be aware.
What are you doing now?
I set up several sites around the world, also in the UK. I am doing what I was doing before. I have an interest from big companies about how to get involved, so seems I managed to get on the radars again quite quickly.
So, you didn’t want to just relax and forget about the industry?
So many people told me I was lucky the first time. Now I am doing it again to prove a point that if you work hard enough in the industry, there is an opportunity for every one if you manage to find your niche.
I have acquired a couple of sites (10k GBP average per site) and turned them into my websites. I also built my own CMS to run my small nice portfolio for each country I am going to target, hoping to get 15-20 by the end of the year. In the UK I run bonuscode.co.uk, it just started to rank. I’d love to have a company and share profit among the staff.