Sunday, 2 May 2010

Happy Anniversary

It's been three thousand, six hundred and fifty-two days, which is 87,648 hours, or two days short of 522 weeks. More traditionally, it's exactly ten years: Tuesday, 2nd May 2000 was the first day I walked, as an employee, through the door of a tiny office in Putney, along from East Putney tube station, to begin the adventure that has been Betfair. It seems incredible to think it.

I'd spent the previous two months reluctantly working my notice in the City, having signed a contract with two enthusiastic Founders on the back of a prototype idea whose execution was eye-poppingly brilliant, and a long-standing desire to get the hell out of a job that didn't suit me. The two Founders, in turn, had spent the same period furiously trying to raise money, and hiring people. Jojo Primrose - the best-named girl outside a Bond film - had agreed to join and started straight away, such that she already had a couple of weeks under her belt; and the picture that has always stuck in my mind of that first morning is of the 6ft 6in Jon Cumberlege, his head almost touching a protruding beam in this tiny and largely empty room, extending a long arm in welcome. He had, it turned out, arrived about ten minutes earlier; but somehow, at the time, he already seemed like an old hand.

The adventure we were embarking on was completely different from anything I ever thought I would do, and despite a naive confidence that we were going to be building a business which we would one day sell for a billion, my expectations were not high that I would be there very long. Partly, that's because Betfair was only meant to be a stepping stone to my goal to be a broadcaster; and partly because this was, after all, the era: I'm not sure anyone in those days had a time horizon longer than about 36 months.

When I went through the five-year mark and realised that nothing I had ever done in my life had lasted as long as that (five years at pre-prep school; five years at prep; five at senior school; five at university; and four-and-a-half at JPMorgan), I was surprised to have stayed for as long as I had. But now here I am, a further five years on: not quite the old man of the company, but probably a little bit wiser than the 29-year old who walked into the converted Edwardian building called Dunkerry House on Upper Richmond Road, opposite a branch of the Tote that we used to joke (as we went to get our lunchtime sandwiches across the road) had no idea what was about to hit it.

Within a fortnight, it wasn't just Jon who didn't seem to fit in the space we had, and we moved to larger premises at 45, Russell Square. There, there was a room on one floor of a townhouse for the contractors who were writing our code, and then two more upstairs for us: one became an office shared by Jojo, Jon and me; and one had Ed, Bert, our first finance director Sean Paterson (who started as a consultant before signing full-time after our launch), and, a few weeks later, our first legal director, David Williams.

Jon, Jojo and I would joke that theirs was the serious room and ours was the fun one, and on regular occasions they would complain that we were doing nothing but giggling, and say that none of them could concentrate because of the noise coming through the wall. Bert would wander through occasionally and say he wanted to change seats because it sounded more of a laugh with us, and we would throw paper balls at him and tell him to go back to the library.

People often ask me what I think was the secret of Betfair's success, and aside from the obvious answer about the brilliance of the product and its execution, my view is that we had the happiest and arguably most fortuitous combination of people, whose various strengths came to the fore at crucial moments. Whether Ed, who did all the hiring (to the extent that Bert would sometimes wonder if any of his own contacts would ever get a look in), realised just what a combination he was putting together, or whether we all fell into it by chance, I honestly don't know. But what is clear to me is that the complimentary skills of that Founder Team was crucial in making the business a success.

My own contribution in the early days was pretty well zero. The key player, in my view, was Jon, whose can-do attitude and set of organisational skills - both the legacy of his army career - were the main driver, I always felt, in making the first year as effective as it was. Jon had energy which I suspect matched the rest of us put together, and his enthusiasm was infectious. So, too, was his sense of irony and his black humour. The day, late in 2001, when those of us who hadn't been working overnight to try to bring the site up from its longest and most painful outage ever got into work to the unhappy news that we were still down, will never be forgotten: with his hands in the air and his body falling forwards in the mock-dramatisation of a man being shot, Jon greeted us with words, "That's it! It's all over! We're totally and utterly f*cked!"

After the first eighteen months or so, Jon's mantle as the most important player was, in my view, passed to David Williams. I've often been credited with the company's public positioning from late 2001 into '02 - principally with the Morning Line appearance from Lingfield which many have kindly said was transformative in our development, and subsequently in the run-up to the Gambling Act 2005 and the various battles that have come since - but the reality is that I was just a mouthpiece: David had all the ideas, nailed all the arguments, and did all the work. When he first arrived on the scene, we didn't get on terribly well (he even fished Ed out for a drink to ask him why the company didn't just fire me, given that I was adding no value: a fair enough shout, frankly), but we ended up a good double-act: I've never been briefed as effectively as I was by him, and to this day I have his voice ringing in my ears whenever I explain anything about the actual mechanics of our system relative to the marketed product. He set the standard which our exceptional legal department has continued to this day: I don't think we have ever made a bad legal hire.

Of course, the caveat I put at the start ("aside from the obvious answer about the brilliance of the product and its execution") is a huge one. It's easy to forget, now, just how ground-breaking it was; and I've lost count of the number of people who tell me that they'd had the idea before, as if it's something that anyone could have come up with, and Bert just happened to luck out.

It may well be true that plenty of people were thinking about it: the idea that you can effectively (although not actually) take out the middleman and therefore deliver better pricing is hardly revolutionary, and five other competing products being released in a six-week period around our own launch prove that it was front and centre of many minds. But they also prove that it's not the idea that matters, but the way it was executed, and that was Bert's genius. His eureka moment has been well-documented, and probably needs no further embellishment from me.

So, too, has Ed's role, and the tale of how the two of them got together. Ed's biggest strength is analysis: in the face of some now serious competition from some of Betfair's current commercial team, he remains the best analyst of a business that I have worked with, and he'd be the first person I'd speak to if I wanted someone to look at a spreadsheet and point out the cell with the error in it. His attention to strategic detail is microscopic and impressive: it's easy to feel stupid and ill-informed in front of it.

Ten years on, none of the members of that Founder Team remain in an executive capacity, other than me. Ed is our non-Executive chairman, of course, and is often around; and Bert is a non-executive director, although that makes him a very rare visitor. But the others have all moved on.

Jojo, who was behind the coffin-carrying launch that I will perhaps blog about next month when we hit our birthday, left in 2003 and is now a full-time mother in Shropshire, actively supporting a number of charitable causes in whatever time her children leave her spare. Sean departed the same year, and has since spent his time between London and Monaco; a business angel.

Jon went in 2004, and briefly helped a start-up called Glasses Direct before embarking on a new career teaching maths at Whitgift School. And after briefly coming down to Australia, to help Ed and me get the business licensed and set up down there, David left in late '04 to go and work with homeless children, first in Mexico and now in Thailand.

Their replacements, today, have taken up their legacy, inasmuch as Betfair continues to be an exciting and vibrant place to work.

Of course, it's a very different place from that first week: we now have a global headcount north of 1800 people.

But as I celebrated my ten-year anniversary on Friday by taking our Events team out for a long and enjoyable lunch to thank them for having done a brilliant job at Cheltenham this year, I was reminded (if indeed I'd ever forgotten) that while it might be different, Betfair is still, because of its people, what it always was: a lot of fun. The Founder Team can be confident that from the bottom of the company up, their legacy is in good hands.

For my part, I go through ten years much as I went through five: surprised, in a way, but still loving the place and the people I work with. It might be a long time since we started the company, but in relative terms, we're really still only just embarking on a journey. There's a long way for Betfair to go yet.


  1. Bon anniversaire, Mark !
    Wish you could have ten more to celebrate.

    Greetings from Paris.

  2. Maybe it's a good idea for the 10th anniversary and because of the new forum that will be installed to give amnesty to the people that were banned eternally from the posting on the forum.
    Eternal bans for good customers who pay as much commission as the next guy, has always struck me as a very hard punishment for what are usually very minor offences.

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  4. I got half way through this and realized I am nine years at my companuy, after never staying for more than five anywhere. I feel old.... thanks Mark!

    Interested to see the next ten years at your company. Let's hope they are as interesting as the last ten.



  5. it was very good last ten years but it's going to be worst for the next decade!
    for the premium charge > hip hip hip hourra!!

    Eric, betfair user not for a long time!