It feels like an age ago that we launched Betfair and it’s hard to remember everything that happened back then - it’s a shame that I didn’t start blogging earlier. I still have a few memories from the early days that make me smile.
When we launched the website we were operating out of a converted house in Russell Square - I think there were 22 people in the company at day 1. The developers were on the second floor, the management were on the third and the operations team were on the fourth. I had my own private office on the fourth floor, though it barely qualified as such. It was little bigger than a broom cupboard and it was so hot in the summer that I could hardly concentrate on anything, but it was where I wanted to be.
At this time I took the view that the betting functionality of the site was my property - the aesthetic aspects of the betting pages were debated amongst the wider team and there were PR type discussions around what data we should publish, but on the whole I was guarded about the site and I probably treated input as interference no matter how well intentioned. The one exception was the front page, which had been agreed to belong to our then marketing director, Jojo Primrose.
The first version of the website was very simple compared to today’s site, but it was effective. We elected for an uncluttered design with plenty of white space and no photographs. A feature of the front page was a table listing how much had been traded on the site in the previous seven days - we traded £32k in the first week and the numbers went up from there. It was a great talking point in the office and it showed the wider world that we were doing proper business on the site. Another feature was a blank text box in the middle of the front page which we could type a daily message in to keep the site fresh. I loved that little box and I’d spend hours trying to think up interesting and fun messages for the next day.
I’ve only managed to find one of my efforts from those early days. We launched the site on June 9 2000, and we were soon into Wimbledon - Henman was knocked out in the fourth round and I wrote the following as the tournament went into the quarter finals;
So Tim is out and it’s a BLACK day for Brits everywhere, but there’s no need to hang yourself from a RAFTER or stick your head in AGASSI oven. There is still plenty to GAMBILL on in the Betfair markets !
There was one player from each semi final in the text, and clicking on the names took the user straight to the relevant market page. I don’t know if the box was an effective marketing tool but it kept me amused for a while searching for ways to fill it.
The Open followed Wimbledon, and Tiger Woods was just starting to make his mark on the game. The day before the golf started we had some prospective investors into the office, and Ed gave them a demo of the site functionality. I generally tried to keep away from investor meetings, but Ed asked me to come down and introduce myself. Woods was 9/4 to win the Open - Ed thought that this was a false price and he explained that Betfair gave punters the opportunity to take advantage of such hype. To illustrate this he logged in to his account and offered £50 at 4.5 - I wandered into the adjoining office, logged in and immediately took the bet. I could hear Ed next door - “Wow! Look at that! My bets been taken already!”. Woods was on fire and won by eight strokes, which was a particular pleasure.
In the months that followed we revamped the site several times, and made changes to the front page. My favourite text box was axed, as was the ‘total traded’ feature - it was decided that the numbers had become too big and we should try and stay under the radar (I didn’t agree but I probably had a more ‘in your face’ attitude to the business than the rest of the team and it was probably the right decision). A new feature was introduced - the Betfair forum - which I think was Jojo’s idea. It was a clunky effort at first, but it worked and quickly became busy. We created an account with the username ‘Betfair’ so that we could answer questions directly, and after a while I pretty much made this my own, going in to the forum regularly to talk to customers.
The Betfair forum account was a revelation for me, as for the first time I was talking directly to our customers. Most of it was good stuff, but I was quite firm in my views and from time to time I would get into arguments over policy, and this was a concern to the others. On one occasion I got into a lengthy argument that may have been about reduction factors in racing - I couldn’t extract myself from it. I wandered into the management room just as Jojo was raging to Ed - “bloody Bert is winding up the users in the forum again…”. She looked round and saw me - I turned and walked back to my office. I was so upset that I didn’t talk to her for two weeks - it was the only blip in what was otherwise a great working relationship.
Shortly after this Ed sent an email around saying that the staff should not go into the forum any more and it should be left to the customers. I didn’t object - the bigger the forum had become the more difficult it had been to communicate effectively through it. Jojo wanted to promote more activity in the forum, and a few weeks later we launched a small competition offering a prize for the best forum post in the next month. It provided me with one last opportunity for a bit of creative writing.
I’ve always fancied myself as a creative writer and I have a competitive side to my personality - I instinctively wanted to have a go at the competition despite the agreement not to enter the forum. Unfortunately the juices weren’t flowing and they hadn’t for a while - it was very intense working at Betfair in those early days and I couldn’t relax. As it happened I had 2 hours of root canal treatment booked in at the dentist that week - I got my inspiration while I was drugged up in the dentist’s chair.
Tiger Woods had been a phenomenon in the past year having won the last four majors and the TPC. Golf betting on Betfair had really taken off, and betting on Woods was the biggest game in town - the backers were making fortunes and the layers had been caned. I created an anonymous account with the username ‘Nobby’ - my post read as follows;
A star is BJORN
The Tiger is here to stay and it’s time to face the facts; He has no CINK in his ARMOUR, and unless someone ELS emerges to challenge his dominance he should be backed at any PRICE.
So SINGH if you’re glad to BEGAY,
if you’ve lost all your bottle to lay, HAY,
SINGH if you don’t want to play
your bank account’s better that WAY
A little politically incorrect perhaps, but hopefully not the wrong side of the line. I’ve forgotten so much about those times, but little things like this have stuck in my mind.