Meet Mike Stevens, the ‘regular guy’ who wants to launch a casino

How easy is it to start a casino from scratch?

Mike Stevens’ career to date has been a fairly straight mix of travelling the world and playing poker to try and fund his wanderlust, but now he’s taking on the biggest challenge of his life to date – by starting his very own casino from scratch.

“It’s all moving very quickly. It felt like one moment we were sitting around drinking coffee and dreaming about it, and the next we were sitting in meeting rooms talking with serious investors,” says Stevens, who is in the early stages of setting up his as yet unnamed poker site.

“The progress is great but it’s almost gone too well, to the point where I’m half expecting something bad to happen. I get a bit stressed out sometimes but that has to be expected when starting any business, especially when you care about it so much.”

Stevens got the idea to start a business by mistake. A twist of fate involving his wife’s rejected visa that prevented the couple from staying in the UK, moving from London to Malta and being reunited with an old colleague were all events that, in the end, created fertile ground for the business.

He describes himself as a “strong” poker player and then modestly adds that it is this confidence – not necessarily raw ability – that makes him a good player. He also reflects that the skills he has picked up playing the game helped him to start his casino.

Like success in business, poker relies on a healthy slice of luck; but it also involves judgement, skill and an appetite for taking risks on “probable” outcomes.

So far Stevens has put together a small team of C-level executives and has a three-year plan in place which, he admits, is flexible in case the website doesn’t achieve stratospheric growth immediately. He describes the team as “strong” and has invested time and money finding the right mix of skills and personalities.

“Assembling the team has been the biggest challenge,” he explains. “It took us a long time to find the right head developer, for example, as that is such a key position. Once you find someone talented, who you like and believe will do a good job, it feels great.”

He likens starting a business to playing a game of poker. The best policy is to amass as much information as is humanly possible before making a decision. There is a level of gut instinct too, but guesswork must be kept to a minimum.

“The decision to launch a poker site came after learning the game on Full Tilt Poker while an employee of PokerStars the world’s largest and most successful poker website. Stevens did two stints at the company, latterly managing the Poker Specialist Team in London.”

In between he travelled the world and spent time in places as far-flung as Australia and India, and ultimately married his wife while on the road, having met her on an earlier back-packing adventure in Colombia.

All the time he was playing poker, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always improving his game by studying the theory. His biggest win was a £20,000 pot “before lunch” during a stint back in the UK. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he took the rest of the day off.

“Books and training videos are great to a point, and I’ve spent hundreds of hours on them, but in my opinion, to reach the highest levels of the game you need to really study your opponents. A lot,” he says explaining his approach.

“I keep a spreadsheet of statistics for all my regular opponents with a specific plan to exploit their weaknesses. I’ve spent so many hours updating and perfecting it. If you’re on that spreadsheet I feel sorry for you.”

Stephens left Pokerstars the second time when his wife’s visa was application was rejected by the UK Home Office and he faced the decision to leave the country or live without his wife in the UK. His boss gave him the option to work abroad, but in a tough call he decided to quit.

He says: “It was a very close decision, but partly because I couldn’t keep doing the same job, I decided to leave. By this time I made more money from poker than my salary on a consistent basis, and was almost certain I could make it as a pro. That helped.”

“I’ve had the ambition to start a business playing around in my mind for some time. I just had no idea what that could be. Playing poker has given me a bit more scope in terms of financing and that in turn opened up the possibility of starting my own site.

“I believe that at Pokerstars I learned from the best so it makes sense to start a business in that area. For my money the company was built on integrity and trust, with both its customers and employees, and I’m hoping that is something I can replicate.”

Now living in Malta, Stephens got the impetus to give it a try when a former colleague moved to the island and the two got talking about business ideas. Having halted one start-up before it got off the ground, the pair agreed on starting their website.

“When I think about it, it’s similar to the decision to start playing poker professionally. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, but more importantly I saw a career that could give me more freedom in my choices in life.”

Starting an online casino is no mean feat. You need the liquidity to pay the players, you need to attract enough people and convince them to deposit their hard-earned cash and you need to create a good enough interface that people actually want to play with.

“The marketing will be almost exclusively online to begin with. We have lots of great ideas and an experienced head of marketing who knows exactly how to implement them,” he says, adding that he is lining up a celebrity endorsement that would be a “major coup”.

“There are all kinds of hurdles to overcome, some of which are completely new to me. With every challenge like that I’m just trying to gather as much information as possible before making a decision. Much like in poker.

“I’ve no doubt we’ll get some things wrong but I believe it’s how you react to your mistakes that ultimately defines you, and your business.”

It remains to be seen whether the can get a toehold in an online landscape already flush with megabrands. To use a poker metaphor, Stevens and his co-founders are far from chip leaders, but it doesn’t sound like they’re bluffing either.

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