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Let’s begin with something about yourself. Our readers enjoy reading top technocrats’ version about themselves.
Technology has always been among my top interests. I got my first PC at school after taking the decision to sell my piano, and I knew it was the right decision. I tried to get as much out of it as possible and started learning the basics of programming on my own which then led me to studying Information Technology at the Belarussian State University. However, I found business just as fascinating as high tech, so I decided to combine both. I studied management and finance and got a Masters Degree in Economics. That was followed by several years of corporate management in a bank, certain experience in oil trading, and a leading position in a large mass media project. And then I was fit for starting something on my own, something which involved IT.
When I look back at those years and at all the jobs I did I realize that none of that was done in vain. These were small steps towards my present self: business owner and company CEO, but also investor in various sectors beyond IT and fin tech. Making a successful business opens up many opportunities and brings you to many interesting people with their ideas and projects, and you have enough experience to evaluate their chance for success. I invest into projects which are especially close to my heart and which I know have social importance, and then I enjoy seeing them grow. I have also reached the point where I can afford to support non-commercial projects and I’m thankful to have this opportunity to participate in social projects and charity.
What were the circumstances under which you entered the gaming sector?
I founded SoftSwiss in 2009 and, as many other IT companies in Belarus, we started with outsourcing. We developed custom software for different industries. In my home country, the number of talented software engineers is bigger than anywhere else, so we managed to create a really strong team and set up the right processes to deliver great projects to the clients, and at some point, I realized that we had got enough experience to do our own thing. So we launched our first product-online auction software, which further developed into a separate business and became the basis for our current fintech direction. And then we thought about gaming, although none of us had any prior experience with it. We knew it required complex technology, and we knew we had enough technical skills and expertise, so we took that risk. What we didn’t know was how many things you need to grasp beyond the technology. Gaming is all about regulation, jurisdictions and banks, and good software is just a small part. I’m glad I didn’t quite realize it at the moment I entered gaming, as it could have made me hesitant. But business is all about taking risks and overcoming challenges, so we learnt by doing and got to grips with every small aspect of working in the sector.
How has been the journey so far for SoftSwiss? It would be great if you can share some fascinating stories or anecdotes.
As I said, the journey involved some ups and downs, and a lot of bottlenecks to overcome. When you start a new thing, you are not an expert in it despite all the theoretical knowledge you got at the university. But you need to position yourself as an expert because you need to gain trust. When you just start your company and need to employ people, especially programmers, you need to give them the sense of confidence that the company will survive in the highly competitive market. But it’s even harder with the clients. All of them want to see your previous experience, examples of working businesses, client references, – everything you don’t have with your brand new product. I remember myself on the ICE Gaming Show in London back in 2013, with a small stand shared with a partner, presenting our online gaming platform for the first time to the public and trying to get my first contract. I knew the software was good, but there was no single online casino using it which I could show, so I just showed a demo and told about other products we already had. People were coming to our stand and asking questions I couldn’t always answer because I lacked that experience, but I tried to guess and promised to investigate further. I pretended to be an expert until our first client took the risk to work with the young company and try the new software. If you don’t know something, pretend you do, but pretend responsibly.
One of the memories that matter a lot to me is the interview that I gave to Vitaly Buterin, the famous co-founder of Ethereum. It was back in 2013, long before he invented the breakthrough technology. Vitaly was working as a journalist for an online magazine and I was telling him about my vision of the future of cryptocurrencies. Ethereum wasn’t part of that vision, Buterin wasn’t the most well-known name in the crypto world, and SoftSwiss didn’t have 600 employees. Things have changed!
How is the business going for SoftSwiss? Could you share some stats with us which would demonstrate SoftSwiss achievements over the years?
Since 2009, my business has been developing in different directions and has grown into a group of companies employing over 600 people. The online casino platform supports over 300 websites with 4B EUR bets processed monthly. SoftSwiss game aggregator with 11 000 games from 70 providers in its portfolio has recently met the 150 mln EUR GGR goal. Our proprietary games brand already has over 60 exclusive games. Our software is licensed by 7 jurisdictions. We are already working with India, Japan and South Korea and are now entering the African continent. We were the first company to implement Bitcoin payments in the online casino platform and remain the leader in crypto payment processing. I’m proud of these achievements we’ve made in a bit more that 10 years.
How do you keep the company and workforce improving constantly? Tell us about the methodologies that you implement to ensure consistent growth.
We apply the agile methodology in company management as it has proved to be the most effective one in running a large orgranization. Quick decision making, flexibility and scalability, as well as mutual respect and open communication are the principles our employees learn first.
SoftSwiss consists of autonomous teams which have their own business goals, develop strategy on how to reach them and share the responsibility. This way, decisions are taken much faster on each company level and that contributes to speedier progress.
Human capital is our biggest value and that’s what I focus on. You can’t do business alone, it’s all about teamwork. At the very beginning, I was lucky to have people beside me who shared my vision and my life principles, we looked in the same direction and trusted one another in key decisions. This core team is still with me after all the years, but of course many new people have joined. I can’t talk to each and every employee to make sure we are on the same page, but I tried to transmit my personal values into our corporate culture, so everyone knows what global objectives our company has and how we reach them.
What are the core values do you think a gaming business should have? We understand you have been a strong advocate of freedom of opinion and democratic rights.
Gaming business is not much different from other businesses in terms of its values. You just need to describe these values clearly, make sure they are shared by people who work with you and be consistent with them. A company is part of the society, and freedom of opinion and democratic rights are just as important here as in the society as a whole. People want and need to be heard, it’s crucial in terms of progress and has a great impact on the organizational climate. Every initiative which aims at improving something within a company and establishing a more effective working process is welcome.
As for other important values, these are high quality of our products and top client service. Quality is more important than quantity or quick delivery. Our clients’ interests are our top priority because we are in the same boat and their success is our success. We’d rather have one client and grow big together than many clients who come and go. Moreover, here at SoftSwiss we care a lot about the security of our solutions – we tend to work really hard to make sure we provide our clients with the most reliable technology out there.
Now on to Crypto currency. It has had a roller-coaster ride over the last decade. Do you foresee a consistent and robust growth for crypto currencies and their use in businesses?
I’ve been advocating the value of crypro currencies since 2013 when we first decided to use them in our online casino platform. With the numerous ups and downs that Bitcoin has faced since then, I’ve never doubted about its future. During the drastic meltdown we experienced in 2018, when it fell down 75% from its biggest value, many people started questioning Bitcoin efficiency and security and many start ups suffered from this loss of public trust. But the fall-winter 2020 showed the crisis was over: Bitcoin keeps beating its own records, large businesses are quickly jumping in and the reputation is being restored. I’m pretty sure that the trend will be stable and that cryptocurrencies will take the world economy to a completely new level. It will be a new level of property and assets: Money 3.0, Properties 3.0, Assets 3.0.
What is your take on the allegations of scams and frauds that come up from time to time? Can it be curtailed completely or is it something we all have to live on with?
There have always been unscrupulous people trying to find loopholes in new technologies and use them in their interests. Cryptocurrency is not an exception. However, it’s wrong to judge the effectiveness or moral aspects of the technology based on a couple of reports on fraud. According to my personal observations, there are about 97% of good people and 3% of bad people on the earth. We can’t stop the profiteers’ attempts but we can use common sense and technology to protect ourselves and minimize fraud.
What do you think are the significant advantages that cryptocurrencies possess for the gaming industry, in comparison with the traditional currencies, as things stand now?
Cryptocurrencies are very important for online business, and online gaming in particular, because they save operators a lot of time and money. With Bitcoin, you have really low commissions compared to what you pay to the acquiring banks for processing the fiat currency transactions. No other bank or payment system can offer worldwide coverage, only Bitcoin can, so you can expand your geographic reach and target much larger territories. Cryptocurrency casinos are much faster to launch and easier to operate, as you don‘t have to negotiate with the payment system providers. Players are also at advantage enjoying instant cashouts whereas bank payout transfers may take up to several days. Finally, it’s all become more transparent with the possibility to apply the “provably fair” technology and check the game fairness.
You have been actively pushing for the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in gaming software. Could you share your experience of using AI and ML for detecting frauds?
AI and ML have long been used for anti-fraud policies in finance and other industries and have now come to online gaming bringing its fight against casino fraudsters to a completely new level. It helps detect unscrupulous players who use various probability algorithms to make bigger wins. Our software uses AI mechanisms to analyze such behaviour and figure out suspicious actions. The system reports such cases to the casino manager and automatically blocks cash-outs until it’s all cleared up. The mechanism can even recognize players’ fake documents.
That’s about protecting the operator, but it’s not the only advantage AI brings into online gaming. It’s also about protecting the players and bringing the responsible gaming concept to life. The AI algorithms we implement within our software detect problematic player’s behavior and reveal possible gambling addiction. In this case, players can get real time help.
Also, how far do you think AI and ML can reliably be used for predicting player behavior and designing CRM initiatives?
Predicting players’ behaviour in order to provide more effective client management is the key goal of AI and ML. What we already do within our software is LTV prediction which analyzes a player’s actions and makes certain changes in live mode to make the game more exciting and motivate this particular player to stay longer. In other words, each client is approached individually and gets customized content, bonuses and free spins. That really works: the lifetime value of a player has already increased by 7- 10%.
AI will inevitably penetrate all aspects of online gaming, from fraud protection to UX personalization and customer support. I believe that in five years online casinos will be operated completely by AI and the day-to-day work which is now done by the operator’s employees will be done automatically. Smart customer care assistants have already won over the silly bots and manage to resolve players’ issues in a much faster way, leaving players happy. So, I believe we are talking about 100% replacement in the near future.
Final question. Time for prediction. We are probably into the new wave of Covid-19 outbreak. How do you see the pandemic going to affect the gaming industry? What’s your bet?
Covid-19 has been impacting all spheres of life and business, making all sorts of activities only possible online. Of course we can speak about the skyrocketing growth of online gaming during the pandemic. With very few entertainment options remaining during the numerous lockdowns and very limited options on how you can spend your free time and money, more people are turning to digital gaming activities. However, it’s just a temporary effect. We all hope that the pandemic will be over soon, no matter if it stops the boost of our industry. It’s important that we all go back to our normal.