Harsh Jain says it’s an “open secret” that he doesn’t use his own fantasy sports app — at least for fantasy football.
“I’m still committed to fantasy football in the Fantasy Premier League, which is why we created Dream11.”
Fantasy sports are online games where players create virtual teams of proxies that follow real sports players. They can earn points and win cash prizes based on the actual performance of these players.
Fantasy football was already very popular in the UK in the early 2000s and Jain caught the bug while studying in high school there.
After introducing him to his childhood friend Bhavit Sheth, they set out to find a platform for fantasy cricket in India. When they didn’t find what they were looking for, in 2008 they created their own.
According to Jain, it’s the “first mover advantage” that has taken their company Dream Sports — the parent company of Dream11 — to great heights.
“When you and your friends … are connected through one network in fantasy sports, for a rival to force you to play there, you have to move all your friends with you,” said Jain, who is also the CEO of Dream Sports.
“Because you have leagues set up, all your friends are playing against each other.”
Dream Sports isn’t just India’s first sports tech unicorn – the company also reportedly holds “almost 90% market share” in the country’s fantasy sports industry.
The 36-year-olds share three tips on how to run a successful company.
1. Switch off
If there’s one “fundamental principle” Jain and Sheth live by as leaders of their company — it’s making sure their business doesn’t depend on either of them, they told CNBC Make It.
Jain said, “What happens if you get hit by a bus? Do you build scales and systems in some way … does not depend on [a single person] and … for one person to make a decision?”
Because of this, the co-founders imposed a week of “unplugging” time for every Dream Sports employee, including themselves.
“Once a year, for a week, you’re thrown out of [company] system … you don’t have Slack, email and calls,” Jain added.
“Because it helps a lot to have that week of uninterrupted time, and it helps the business know if we’re depending on somebody.”
Anyone who approaches another employee during the “shutdown” time must pay a fine of about $1,200, Jain added. It’s been effective so far, the co-founders said.
“No one wants to be that jerk who called someone who was on shutdown,” Sheth, who is also chief operating officer, said with a laugh.
2. Learn from rejection
Jain and Sheth said they heard “no” at least 150 times from venture capital firms when they were trying to secure early-stage funding 10 years ago.
“We went to all the Indian VCs, and they said, ‘This is an American concept. Fantasy sports are not prevalent in India… Why don’t you raise money in the US?’
But it was equally difficult when Jain tried to raise money in New York and San Francisco.
“All the VCs told me to come back to India. ‘It’s an Indian company, raise money in India!’, Jain recalled. “Then I realized it was just a polite way of saying no.”
Instead of feeling discouraged, Jain and Sheth were fueled by rejection.
“The exception was that from every meeting you can find out why they said no, you can ask them, ‘What is your biggest concern?’
Jain and Sheth said it took them almost two years before they finally succeeded.
“Early-stage investors are actually looking for deeply passionate founders, [and products] with a large market,” Jain said.
“Early attraction, high retention of users… and founders [who] he will stay in and not give up. I think that helped us finally break the ground.”
Dream Sports’ vision of connecting with millions of Indian sports fans has since attracted big name investors such as Chinese tech giant Tencent, US investment firm Tiger Global and Hong Kong-based Steadview Capital.
Its latest fundraising round in 2021 brought in $840 million, giving the company an $8 billion valuation.
3. Turn off the noise
The life of an entrepreneur is “always sexier on the outside,” Jain said.
It’s something the childhood friends know all too well — they lost “a couple of million dollars” in startup capital when they were just 26 years old.
“Every founder, when you start something, you really believe that this is going to blow up, that you’re going to change the world… and ours crashed and burned.”
However, even after the successful pivot from the free-to-play model to the “freemium” model in 2012, the challenges did not end.
“From 2008 to 2012, it was difficult to find the right business model. From 2012 to 2014, it was difficult to raise money. And 2015 has been tough so far in meeting investor expectations,” Jain said.