When Dan Smyth dropped out of Durham University – on the home stretch of a computer science degree – to become a full-time poker player, it’s no surprise to learn his family were a little worried.
But his gamble - if you’ll pardon the pun - most definitely paid off.
Without taking that leap of faith at the age of 21 Dan may not have been able to build up one of the North East’s fastest growing software businesses in Bede Gaming - at least not as swiftly.
“If you can win at poker you can do anything, I think. It’s just a game of life, and it’s the ultimate game of bluff,” he said.
Launched just over two years ago, Newcastle-based Bede now hosts more than 20 casino and bingo websites to countries across two continents, employs 110 people, and within weeks – possibly days – hopes it will be named as the technology supplier for a major industry player in a deal that could take the firm’s growth plans to a whole new level.
Not bad going for a university drop-out.
“I was actually at university for three and a half years, but I was playing a lot of poker – I was probably going to get a drinking man’s degree,” he said.
“At the time I lost interest. Before I knew it I wasn’t at university any more and I was playing an awful lot online and then I started playing real poker.
“I moved to London, met lots and lots of interesting poker playing people and just before I was 22 I was in Vegas for the World Series.
“Everyday I’d be playing poker. When I first started I was playing online against American people – it wasn’t that big in the UK at the time – so I wouldn’t start playing until 10 or 11 at night and go right through to the same time the following day.”
Dan says he wasn’t a top player and it certainly wasn’t glamorous – he was simply playing steady cash games to earn a reasonably steady cash flow of around £40,000 a year, tax free.
When he was 24, still in Shepherd’s Bush in London, Dan was growing tired of the lifestyle and was keen to develop a firm of his own, back home in the North East.
A friend put him in touch with an investor – Joe Saumarez Smith, who remains Dan’s main investor to this day – who was keen to hear his business ideas.
Within four weeks he’d left the Big Smoke to return North with £375,000 to set up his initial online bingo business.
The first office was miniscule compared to today’s operation, which is set over several floors in one big Gosforth building – it was a bare basic unit in Benwell, Newcastle, a quarter of the size of the firm’s current boardroom.
Crown Bingo, which has since been renamed NMS, went live online in December 2005 and was one of the very first bingo sites to be on TV, and it grew quickly. Deals with Endemol and other industry leaders followed as well as expansion into Danish and Swedish markets.
Online gaming exploded as internet speed increased and broadband became more widely used, and within the industry firms grew through acquisition, suddenly leaving only a few big hitters which heavily influenced the industry.
It soon became apparent that to compete with the big names, he would need to have his own software firm – a move which would ironically tap into the time he spent on the unfinished computer science degree.
Other firms were still trying to work out where mobiles and tablets fit into their strategy, so Dan’s business model was already ahead of its time.
He said “There were big opportunities in gaming, to target companies that were using software designed before the mobile phone even existed.”
So two years ago, alongside the existing bingo firm, Bede Gaming was established in another business partnership with Joe Saumarez Smith.
And so far business has been extremely good.
“It’s been excellent, we’ve grown rapidly, said Dan. “I’ve hired about 75 people in the last 18 months, set up an office in Bulgaria with 23 or 24 people and we have an office in central London too.
“Eastern Europe invested heavily in tech 10 years ago and there are lots of universities and colleges churning out clever tech people, so it’s easy to find people quickly with excellent experience.
“People think it’s because of cost but it’s really not. It’s as expensive to employ someone in Bulgaria, fly them across and back three or four times a year but we’ve got a skills shortage in the North East which people don’t like to acknowledge all the time.
“When I need to recruit I wish I could have done it all in the North East but it wouldn’t have happened as quickly if I did.”
Bede’s unique software, which can be applied to anything and is fully mobile, tablet, desktop compatible, is now putting the firm on the same footing as global giants worth billions of pounds in competing for contracts.
Dan is determined to entice in the brightest young minds to make sure the firm continues to grow.
At the moment, the North East staff are spread across two offices, but will soon come under roof.
Dan’s not one for traditional Board and management hierarchies, so the firm is structured in a similar way to many of the US tech titans like Facebook and Google and a handful of North firms, with architects and scrum masters overseeing small teams, to encourage them – and ultimately the business – to flourish.
“Lots of firms my size would have project management layers everywhere, where everything goes through coordinators and project managers and all of that type of thing,” said Dan.
“We don’t have that type of thing. We empower teams to have vision and build products and remove all the unnecessary process. There aren’t that many opportunities for graduates like this in the North East.
“When we win a contract and people use our platform, we don’t sell it – it’s all ongoing revenue so the more clients we get, the bigger we get, the more we grow.
“We’ve got lots of small support teams and if you’re a new starter you will write and release code within your first week.
“There aren’t many companies that has such a rapid release cycle. But we have small autonomous teams where you can have an impact straight away.
“We want people to innovate, we don’t want people to be scared and we don’t want people to have fear of failure.”
Dan firmly believes Bede has some of the best IT minds in the region and his firm doesn’t fear or feel the skills shortage as keenly as others,.
It’s a young workforce too – aside from the apprentices the majority of staff members are 18 or 19, with a number of seniors in their thirties.
And there’s not a suit in sight, as you’d expect in a creative environment.
“We give people really interest projects to work on, using all the latest technology to work on. No one likes to go in using software that’s coming to end of life, they want to use the latest thing,” Dan said.
“Everyone gets a mobile phone and a tablet, and gets to use the latest and best hardware available.
“It costs a little bit more but it’s worth it because it all works quicker. You add that up over the course of the year and it pays for itself.
“We’re trying to build a chilled atmosphere here – I hope that doesn’t make me sound like David Brent – but we want to be the best employer in North East, even if that involves every cheesy team-building exercise known to man.”
The list of perks rolls on. Every Friday caterers are brought in to cater to the whole business and around £1,000 of Tesco food – generally soft drinks and snacks – is delivered every week. If you work past 6.30pm you can call for a free takeaway - a good incentive to work late.
The firm also supports a “10% Time”, which encourages staff to spend 10% of their working time to contribute to community technology projects, helping them to get to top of their game.
And that’s before the big move into the new offices at a three-storey office at Great Park, due to take place in January.
Bede is taking over one storey, which is two-and-a-half times larger than the Gosforth offices, but has the rights to all three floors.
“We’re building it so when that new grads or IT guys walk in they’ll think ‘wow this is where I want to work’,” he said.
Designers are currently working on the layout, which will include a free canteen, a live wall with bespoke plants to crawl around the walls and plenty of nooks and crannies, for the small teams to develop their own work space. A permanent link up with the Bulgarian office in Sofia will be set up and there’ll also be an auditorium with room for 120 people for presentations.
It’s all part of the plan to futureproof Bede Gaming for many years to come, which also includes plans for an in-office shop selling branded Bede Gaming thermal takeaway muds, USB sticks and even a clothing range currently being worked on by a fashion designer friend.
“We’re going to invite students in from all the universities to come in and work with our guys and promote the business that way,” said Dan
“I don’t want to call it an IT incubator but it will have that sort of feel with lots of start-up teams.”
Bede Gaming’s year one turnover of £500,000 has more than trebled since the business was established, and Dan has been involved in negotiations for the best part of 16 months on the firm’s first potential deal with a Tier One client.
At present the company handles deposits of £3.5m to £4m a month, but this one potential deal could see one client do 15 times that.
Dan also plans to expand into Spain and Bede is currently in a big pitch with a Canadian lottery for the regulated market in Spain – and he’s currently pitching in North America and in Canada too.
He’s certainly developing ideas and plans on a consistent basis – so just how far can he see Bede going?
“I’ve always been ambitious and I’ve always thought if we try to do something and do it well that we would succeed and keep growing. I can’t see it slowing,” he said.
“I can see us winning more clients and expanding our software team in the North East fairly rapidly over the next two to three years.
“In terms of where we’re going there’s no reason why we can’t be a multi-million, half billion pound company or why we can’t fulfil those ambitions. There are lots of companies building software but not that many doing it how we do it.”
What car do you drive?
What’s your favourite restaurant?
House of Tides
Who or what makes you laugh?
Any Graham Fellows character
What’s your favourite book?
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
What was the last album you bought?
Cold Fact by ‘Sugarman’ Rodriguez
What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Session guitarist for REM or crooner on the Vegas strip
If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
“Good evening your lordship”
What’s your greatest fear?
REM splitting up... oh.
What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
To work on the business and not in it
And the worst?
Invest in greyhound racing
What’s your poison?
Hendricks (when I get the chance)
What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
I read a lot of tech and business books and articles and haven’t bought a newspaper in years
How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
£2.20 an hour spinning pizzas on Gosforth High Street
How do you keep fit?
Does darts count? Otherwise golf and a shamefully underused gym membership
What’s your most irritating habit?
Turning everything into a competition
What’s your biggest extravagance?
I’ve had a few online shopping disasters – like a giant cushion that barely fit in my living room
Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire?
Anyone who isn’t afraid to fail or land flat on their face and Buzz Lightyear.
Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Kevin Keegan for a trip down memory lane, Rob Brydon and Elvis for the entertainment. Michel Roux Jr for the analysis.
How would you like to be remembered?
As someone who built a great company and had a great time doing it