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The Decade-Long Struggle Behind Dream11’s ‘Overnight Success’

The Decade-Long Struggle Behind Dream11’s ‘Overnight Success’

Dream11 is on the verge of becoming the first India-based gaming unicorn

The gaming startup doubled its headcount last year, received $100 Mn in funding

Cofounder Bhavit Sheth says Dream11 has rewritten its entire code

Ranging from spider cams, cheer leaders, snikometers and LED bails, the game of Cricket has become a larger  spectacle in the last ten years than it has ever been in its long history. With the advent of shorter formats of the game, year-long cricketing seasons and the rising of popularity of women’s cricket, the game’s reach among players and the fans is now unprecedented.

Last decade also saw the rise of fantasy sports in India. In a country where cricket is considered as a religion by millions of people, choosing virtual team of real cricket players and scoring points depending on how those players performed in real life matches naturally became a huge draw.

According to KPMG, the online gaming industry in India is expected to generate a revenue of INR 11,900 Cr by financial year 2023 and the app that combined fantasy gaming with cricket to catalyse this growth was Dream11.

Dream11 users pay an entry fee to participate in paid contests and the company makes its money by charging a platform fee from the total pool collected.  It took the company three years to hit  its first million gamers mark but after that crossed 3 Mn users  in less than two months in 2016.

Today, Dream11 boasts of 50 Mn users and sports-related websites regularly cover the corresponding  fantasy game predictions as they would cover actual cricket matches. The company closed a mammoth $100 Mn round of funding in September last year and is close to becoming India’s first gaming unicorn, according to Inc42 DataLabs. The success has not only brought in a slew of copycat apps but also earned it the moniker of “overnight success”.

Few know that the company was launched almost 11 years back in 2008.

No wonder, its cofounder and COO, Bhavit Sheth, is fond of saying that “It takes 10 years to build an overnight success.”

On Sunday, 26th February last month, India lost its second T20 cricket match to Australia and irrespective of the result what was again at display was the millions of online streamers in India watching the game on home grown streaming platform Hotstar. It was yet another example of the growing digital narrative of a sport that is considered as a religion by millions of people in the second most populated country in the world.

On the following Monday, Inc42 met with Dream11 cofounder Bhavit Sheth at his office. Sheth’s office floor has wall-to-wall grass carpeting that mimics a cricket pitch, just in case there was even a minuscule chance of people not knowing what Dream11 is all about.

So what’s new at Dream11?

Nothing except everything, according to Sheth. With the upcoming IPL season, and ICC cricket world cup in May this year, the company is aiming to get to 100 mn users by the end of 2019.

“We have almost rewritten our entire code,” said Sheth, talking about tech under the hood which users may not see. The project of upgrading Dream11’s features and its ability to handle millions of users without any disruption, has been a long term process (more than two years) which is still in the WIP (work in progress) mode.

Here are the excerpts from the conversation-

Inc42: Looking back at 2018, what are some the major initiatives that Dream11 undertook?

Bhavit Sheth: From the hiring perspective, we have doubled our headcount to 200. But we still try to stay nimble and try to follow the WhatsApp model rather than the Amazon or Google model and try to keep to the minimum number people required to build out the platform.

We had one single system which used to run everything on our platform and we called it the ‘black box’ but that always left us exposed to a situation where if one system failed or malfunctioned, the entire platform would suffer.

Now, we have every single thing in the app segmented and run on different systems like creating teams, choosing the match, schedules, and payments.

We have broken features down in such a way that if one system goes down, the app is still functioning.  

Inc42: How has this separation been made possible?

Bhavit Sheth: We have almost rewritten our entire code and that’s why I say that this has been a long-term project started almost two years back and it’s not yet complete but we are 80% there.

It was challenge to implement these changes as we had to make sure the app is functioning perfectly while at the same time working and switching over to the new system. Last IPL we had 30%-40 % of the new services live.

Dream11 itself is now 11 years-old and people still think we are an overnight success. One of the lines we like saying is that it takes 10 years to build an overnight success.

Inc42: We are well placed to now talk about the IPL, what are you expectations and the mood in the meetings?

Bhavit Sheth: We are looking at growing from 50 Mn to 100 Mn users by the end of the year and everyone is focussed on that.

Inc42: From a viewership point of view, what is the difference between a World Cup match versus IPL?

Bhavit Sheth: An ODI match generates slightly less interest when compared to T20. Indian ODI match days are heavy traffic but for the rest of the matches it’s not the same especially if a minnow team is playing some other minnow team, unlike in the IPL where every team has got stars and is strong.

We had one million concurrent users in the last IPL and this year we are expecting to handle 2 Mn-3 Mn concurrency.

Inc42: What’s it like in the office when there is an important game or tournament going on, do you get any sleep at all?

Bhavit Sheth: Some of us do, some of us don’t (laughs). The thing is most of the preparation happens before game day and we plan for a series or tournament as a whole rather than for individual matches but of course there are exceptions ( think India-Pakistan for example)  

On the game day, we are just on the watch to ensure that there are no blips. One of our room becomes a war room where all our stats are put on the big screen and our guys are constantly monitoring all the metrics and if they see any metric that is slightly off, they will investigate and if something goes wrong we try and instantly fix it. This is a big day for the tech and customer success guys.

IPL is that time of the year where our office is open 24×7, and one of the learnings from last time is that everyone should be comfortable in office. We take care of their food, near-stadium accommodation, in-house recreational options, physiotherapist, and even have a masseuse visit our office regularly.

Inc42: Have you looked at e-gaming?

Bhavit Sheth: Not as of now, we don’t want to defocus and anyways if we reach 100 Mn user base, we can better leverage our position and take a decision about egaming.

Inc42: How do you ensure that the data integration is happening efficiently so that it gives actionable insights?

Bhavit Sheth: I believe we have not done enough justice to the data.

One of the things we implemented with the help of insights gotten from our data is when we introduced a loyalty program for some of our users who have been playing repeatedly on the platform. A user, after playing a certain number of games, unlocked certain bonuses and rewards like match tickets.

Also when it came to payments, we found that it used to take between one to two days for the money to hit user bank accounts, but now through IMPS we can do it instantly. Our top users got early access to that system.

We are constantly on the lookout for data scientists, it’s one of the toughest roles to fill.

We recently got Professor from Columbia University, Vishal Misra, and Devavrat Shah, who is a professor at MIT, as advisors. This long term association will help us in solving complex data science problems for our business. They have been doing a lot of work on data and cricket. Professor Misra was actually one of the co-founders of ESPNCricinfo.

Inc42: In terms of number of users, is there more penetration among the different tier cities?

Bhavit Sheth: Combined users from Tier 2, Tier 3 and Tier 4 are much more higher than Tier 1 because when we grew from 300K to 10 Mn and so on, the last few growth spurts have come from the lower tier cities like Lucknow, Kanpur, Amritsar, Chandigarh, Jaipur etc.

Inc42: How did you persist with your vision, even when things didn’t seem to be working out, what would you tell others in a similar position?

Bhavit Sheth: Firstly, what is important is to understand whether there is a need for product at all.  Even when we didn’t have scale for years, we always looked at unit economics and if the business is working out from the point of view of unit economics.

A lot of people talk about your product market fit and all that but how do you know if your product actually fits? Go down to the individual user and try to understand her better and it goes without saying that persistence is very important.

We reached out to over 100 plus VC, PEs, before we got our first investment. Even today we ensure that our unit economics are being maintained. It’s fine to give bonuses and perks but if those things didn’t happen will your business still survive?

Inc42: What would it mean to become India’s first gaming unicorn, what emotions go through your mind?

Bhavit Sheth: If this ever happens, it would substantiate that we are on the right track to achieve our goal of providing the best sports gaming experience to our users. We will keep doing what we do best, keep our focus and continue to deliver the best service we can to our +5 Cr users.

[Dream11 was part of the 2018 edition of the coveted list of India’s most innovative startups — 42Next by Inc42.]