I'm not sure where to start, so I'll type and see where it takes me. It seems like the most logical place would be...
Run It Once began as a two man operation between myself and my long-time friend, Dan. It started in large part because I wanted to continue teaching poker. Very soon after launching in December of 2012, my passion became split 50/50 between teaching and running the business.
I funded the company, made training videos, and reviewed a demo for every pro we considered hiring. Dan did basically everything else. To say RIO wouldn't be where it is today without Dan would be an understatement.
Dan and I saw several problems in the training market:
- Sites were releasing videos sporadically, and less than once a day on average
- Cancellation buttons were hidden or non-existent
- Email Inboxes were spammed with useless information
- Website quality wasn't representative of the size of the businesses
- Many top pros had stopped making videos
- Membership fees were too low for the content top pros were able to provide
To us, the path was simple: Do things well and charge appropriately for it.
We would release two videos every day, without fail. We would make our website easy to use, and our memberships easy to navigate. We wouldn't spam our customers; we’d try to send only information they’d want. We would seek out the best pros we could find, and most importantly (in my opinion) we would build a company that top pros would be proud to be a part of.
Internally, we told ourselves and anyone working on the project, "If poker training were an airplane, Run It Once would be the first class cabin."
We expected to lose some customers due to pricing higher, and we expected complaints, but we wanted to release a premium product, and we did what we felt was fair (we actually felt it was still under-priced, but we were scared to push it too far).
Our goal was to have the only potential criticism of our product be: "Yes, of course Run It Once is the best, but they're expensive."
We launched Run It Once Training in December of 2012, and we quickly became the market leader - much more quickly than we expected in such a competitive environment.
We received almost no complaints about the price, although that may have been in large part due to the decision to offer a lower tier of membership for much less. Still, for the first couple of years, we actually had more Elite members ($100/mo) than Essential ($10/mo)!
I realize that launching a successful business in a space I'm very familiar with, as a sought-after coach, and with connections to other great coaches, doesn't make me an entrepreneurial expert.
If asked for business wisdom, which I never am, my answer would not be a unique one: Surround yourself with great people - people who are smart, hard-working, passionate, and most importantly, people who you like to spend time with.
The recurring theme at RIO is that we've been incredibly lucky with the people we've brought into the company. We can take some credit, but in large part, we've hired people who seem smart and who we like, and the results have been incredible. I would start listing the names and stories, but I wouldn't know where to stop.
I should take a step back…
I'm realizing now that this is sounding a lot more like a backwards-looking success story than what Run It Once truly is: A business still working towards its success.
While we have been successful in terms of our brand and our revenue, I have made no money from Run It Once.
Firstly, we spend more than any other training site on pros and staff, as well as promotions.
Second, once I recouped my initial investment, we poured 100% of profits back into the business. In fact, this year I've put more than that early investment back into the business, so I'm a net loser even after the startup costs.
What you've seen on the outside is a growing Poker Training site, with new features added here and there, but internally we have been growing at a much faster rate (more on this later).
With growth comes new challenges.
In our early days, Dan and I could personally oversee anything and everything done within the company. We could read all of the support emails. We could make sure customers were being listened to. We could make small changes in the wording of a video description.
As we grew, Dan and I had to hand off some responsibility. We found out in the early days how hard it is to let go of control and trust that things will be done the way we wanted... "the Run It Once way."
Apparently, handing off a task to someone and looking over their shoulder the entire time doesn't help productivity. Who knew!?
Over time, we learned how qualified our team was and how well they had grown to understand our vision. Within our first year, it stopped feeling like me, Dan, and our employees; It felt like a fully integrated team.
We went from a team of two to a team of fifteen over the past four years. This team handles Run It Once Training as well as two other projects yet to be announced.
(Of course, that fifteen doesn't include all of the awesome pros who are also part of the RIO family!)
At each stage of growth, people have been stepping up to the plate to handle more and more responsibility, and they've been able to do so at a pace that allowed them to get used to our way of doing things while we got comfortable with them.
Enter Run It Once Poker:
Four months ago, I announced that Run It Once would be starting a Real Money Poker Site: http://www.runitonce.com/chatter/a-poker-site-should/
We had, of course, begun that project long before then, but we have ramped things up quite a bit since.
In fact, the main reason that I decided to go ahead with the announcement is that we needed to ramp up our hiring efforts. It turns out that most people like to know where they're about to sign on to work!
It was going to get out, and I wanted everyone to hear it from me.
If you were around when we launched Run It Once Training, you might remember that we never said a word prior to launch day. We even had several pros and beta testers instructed to keep it a secret, and somehow they did.
I preferred it that way - no expectations on when or what we would deliver, no hype before people could get their hands on the product, no questions about our soon-to-be-released product that would all be answered automatically at launch.
I was hesitant to announce Run It Once Poker as early as we did, but in hindsight, it was the best thing for us.
The outpouring of support we received was inspiring, both to myself and to the rest of the staff. The questions, concerns, ideas, and comments were very helpful and encouraging.
Unsolicited job applications flew in, and our ability to share our brand name when hiring helped tremendously. We had now gone from around 15 people, early last year, to over 40 (between 10 and 15 still working on our other projects)
All-in-all, it went as well as I could have hoped. So of course, I felt…
Holy shit. Everyone has such high expectations of me!
Everyone thinks RIO Poker is going to have the policies that they think are best yet nobody agrees on which policies those are! Is half of the community going to be disappointed by whatever we do?
The community trusts me, and I'm not in total control! We have teams working on customer support, game integrity, software development, etc., and I'm putting my name on ALL of their work. I haven't even met them!
See, while the original 10-15 team members grew together over time, the RIO Poker staff had practically appeared out of thin air by comparison.
We picked our CEO, who helped us meet and hire our COO.
We chose a CTO from our existing team to move over to RIO Poker, along with a couple of developers. We hired a few more familiar faces, but that's only a handful of the over 30 employees we now have working on RIO Poker.
The team we put in place handled the majority of the hiring from there, and while we put them in place for good reason, it's not the same as having worked with everyone directly.
The responses to my announcement made me realize just how much the poker community trusts and supports us, which was humbling and inspiring. However, coupled with team RIO going from a small family to a big company that I couldn't possibly oversee, it was overwhelming.
I spent a while shouldering the persistent anxiety that came with my (delayed) realization.
They trust me. I can't let other people let them down!
Everything has to be taken care of! Everything needs oversight!
My brain went a thousand miles a minute thinking through every possible scenario where something could go wrong that was out of my control.
I had initially expected to be the "idea man" for Run It Once poker. I'd be very involved, yes, but I would be focusing on the big picture rather than all of the moving parts. That's how it was for RIO Training.
We have a full team in Malta with leaders who know what they're doing. I'll just take part in decisions on policies and innovations and marketing.
I'll prioritize RIO Poker above our other projects but still will spend my time across all of them. In between poker sessions, of course.
After our announcement, I realized that I didn't have enough time to do it all.
I'll skip the topic of how all of this relates to my poker career because it will be another 2000 words. Another day perhaps! For now, the bottom line is that I'm going to focus on Run It Once for the next several months, and poker will have to wait.
The largest hurdle standing between us and our launch date is software development.
While developers already had been working, they can't work on specific features, game types, rules, etc., until they have both a detailed description of how things will work and finalized, approved designs.
The designers can't start working until they've been given direction, and none of the above can happen until decisions are made: policies, game offerings, and several other things.
Our Poker Room Management (PRM) team makes the majority of these decisions, and wow, there are a lot of decisions to make!
After every detail is discussed and agreed upon, each decision gets written up in PRM draft, reviewed and edited many times, then completely re-written in detailed technical terms (by another department), accounting for all areas of the software that may require changes to accommodate the decision. Then, PRM approves or helps edit that write-up, and we finally ship it off to the development team.
Anyways, that was likely incredibly dull, so I'll try to keep the frivolous details to myself from now on.
The point I was attempting to make is: Poker Room Management needed my focus, so that's where I spent my time.
I was on calls five days a week with PRM (with a 9 hour time difference), and I spent most of my days writing, commenting on, and editing many of the drafts mentioned above.
Though we made good progress, the distance was an undeniable obstacle.
I had first planned to wait until our launch date to visit our Malta offices.
After our announcement and my control-related anxieties, I decided that I'd go in December or January, as that was the earliest that it fit with my schedule. After working several 70 hour weeks from a distance, it became clear that I just needed to get there.
I headed to Malta in early November. After a long travel day, I checked into a hotel and spent a day and a half adjusting my sleep schedule.
My first interaction with the whole team was a big group dinner that they planned for my arrival. I had worked with around half of the 15 or so who were able to make it to dinner, though several of them I'd only 'met' via email or video chat.
(I've thrown team numbers out several times now, so to clarify: We had 16 in Malta when I arrived and are now over 20. We currently have another 10 people working remotely.)
It was a big table and just one meal, but I was able to meet everyone, get to know a handful of cool people, and catch up with some old friends.
Remarkably, I remembered everyone's name, which I'm extraordinarily bad at.
Apparently, our HR & Admin Manager (who planned the dinner) was mortified when I passed on the first couple of appetizers and mentioned that I don't love seafood because around half of the (fantastic) meal she had planned was seafood.
I explained many times that it was absolutely fine and that I really enjoyed the meal!
Also... if I didn't enjoy it, that would have been fine too.
That was the first of several experiences where I noticed people treating me, for lack of a better way to phrase it, like I was their boss.
It was new to me!
At Run It Once Training (and our other mystery projects), I never actually played the role of the boss. If any boss-like things had to be done, they fell to Dan.
I've never thought of myself as in charge of anyone. In charge of decisions, definitely, but not in charge of people. I feel like we all just work on projects together, and my role is to do whatever I can think of to make the projects better.
To be clear, this isn't some new-age, anti-structure, company morale thing; It's just me feeling weird viewing things differently.
Going to Work
Our CEO picked me up in a cab for my first day in the office, along with a marketing team member who was staying with him. I ended up moving in with them too.
Most days after that, we'd catch the bus between 8:00 and 8:45, leave the office between 6 and 8, then work from home until 10 or so.
This was new to me too! I've never had a traditional 9-5, much less a 9-9.
As expected, I was exhausted. I'm not sure if my body has just gotten accustomed to too much sleep or if I actually need it, but man, I was struggling. Everyone else was there working their asses off day after day, so I decided not to exercise my option to skip a day or to come in late.
Thankfully, coffee exists, and I did exercise my option to drink a lot of it.
As I mentioned above, most of my focus initially was on Poker Room Management. I had just over two weeks in town to finalize as many decisions as possible. While this was the focus of my own work during the trip, I spent time with all branches of the company.
I got to spend a lot of time with our Marketing team. I watched presentations on many of their ideas, spent afternoons brainstorming with them (fun!), and took part in several meetings between Marketing and other departments.
I worked a lot with our CTO on all things development-related (which is like, everything), and I even got to spend some time helping a developer solve a poker-related coding problem, as he isn't an experienced poker player (yet!).
I spent a bit of time with our Operations team. Most of it was used to educate me on what everybody has been working on and precisely how we would be handling things like customer service, payments, fraud detection, licensing, etc.
I joined in on more types of meetings than I can remember. In fact, after the first few days, about half of my time was spent in meetings.
I even got the chance to sit in on two job interviews, both of which ended in hirings.
We had another two company dinners, which I loved because I got to spend time getting to know people rather than just working with them (which is actually another way to get to know people).
It Hit Me
Here's an excerpt from an email I sent to my family:
“It was a bit surreal for me to meet everyone and work in the office. I've been doing work on this company from the US for a while now, and I knew that we had hired all these people, but I only worked directly with 4-5 of them. Meeting them and going through everyone's background and what they're doing for us, seeing the different teams work together, hearing people talk about how they love working here and how excited they are about the project... it was a very cool feeling.
Many people moved to Malta to take the jobs they have, and those who were already here in Malta also seem really excited about the company. They (almost) all have worked in the industry a long time, but I think the start-up feel and the company culture that we've built is making this job more exciting.”
I sent that email after my very first day in the office.
Over the course of my two and a half weeks, I grew more and more impressed with our team.
I felt so thankful to the leaders we put in place for building this group of talented, passionate, hard-working, cool people that I was eager to work and hang out with... a team that felt like Run It Once, despite growing so quickly and so far away from the original Run It Once team... a team inspired and excited to provide the best platform we can to the poker community.
That anxiety of not being able to oversee every aspect of the business dissipated, and the scary realization that prompted this trip was replaced by a new one:
There are now several dozen exceptional people working at the company that Dan and I dreamt up just over four years ago.
The experience of people treating me like the owner of the company reminded me that I actually am. No matter how I felt about being a boss, I actually do employ all of these people.
I witnessed them working hard and loving the work they were doing. I saw people interview, hoping to be able to work for Run It Once; I saw them join the team. I saw people with years of industry experience working with guys who have been a part of the Run It Once family since the beginning.
It was humbling.
I sat at our final group dinner before leaving town, just looking back and forth across the table filled with old and new faces. I had a mini-life-flashing-before-your-eyes kind of moment.
I thought back to first starting the company, especially my first meetings with the few guys that moved from RIO Training over to our Malta offices. I remembered the growing pains early on, the mistakes we made and learned from, as well as the successes, of course.
We actually had conversations that night about how we met each other, both the old team members and the new; the series of coincidences that led us to that day.
I have had several memorable moments as a professional poker player (and I hope to have many more), but nothing compared to this. No career achievement has ever made me as proud as I felt on this trip.
RIO in 2017
This next year is going to be an adventure. I expect a lot of excitement, frustration, pride; many challenges, long work days and short nights. I will learn even more about running a business and about myself.
I have no illusions about the magnitude of the project we've taken on. We've already faced setbacks and will face many more.
I had hoped to be able to give you all a guaranteed launch date by now, but I can't. Though I’m happy with how things are progressing, our original target of Q1 is likely out of reach.
I will keep you posted as I have more information, but I wanted everyone to know that Run It Once Poker is going strong. We have the right team for this, we're hungry, and we are working tirelessly towards the finish line.
Here's to an exciting 2017! Happy New Year, guys.