Clickfun Casino co-founder and chief technology officer discusses how a series of challenges and false starts helped his business become one of the first companies to see the possibilities of launching an offering on Facebook.
“I was the classic entrepreneurial college dropout,” Clickfun Casino’s Daniel Fiske recalls. “I was recruited out of university before I’d finished my course, at the end of my first year. I started at [gaming technology start-up] Forwardslash’s call centre. Then I moved on to doing a bit of development for them and spent the next seven years working with the business.”
“I think the industry itself was actually quite groundbreaking in terms of what we were doing, though I’m not sure I was entirely cognisant of that back then,” he reflects. Sitting in the boardroom of Clickfun’s software development centre in Cape Town, Fiske is a relaxed and engaging presence, the veteran of a career which saw him drop out of university to join a start-up serving the gambling sector, working his way through the gambling industry with forays into military technology, telecommunications and hospitality sectors. He has moved around and worked in many industries, while always returning to gaming development, each time bringing the new skills he had learned to new businesses, such as Rightshift and in turn, Clickfun.
While his career has seen him move around, he denies that it had anything to do with searching for his true calling – from the start, he says, he knew that his future lay working in gaming. “I think the reason for me moving around was just to be in different industries and to get a broader perspective, but I always came back to gaming in its various forms.”
First forays into social
It was this connection to gaming that saw Fiske pioneer a pay-to-play first person shooter tournament business in 2005, when a phone call from co-founder Spencer McNally saw the pair embark on a new project. “I’d been working in the poker division at Forwardslash and left, as I tended to do, and had been out of the business for about a month, until Spencer called me. He had an idea, and it sounded like a good plan.”
This saw them launch a new venture, in essence overlaying the principles of multi-table poker tournaments on top of first-person shooter games in order to facilitate regular large prize pools. This was a unique approach that had never been tried before, but despite positive player feedback, the business proved to be short-lived.
“The user response was fantastic – it was great and they loved it; players had been dying for it for ages. There were a couple of other companies who hadn’t really got the model right, and the revenue was showing great returns, but we were only live for real money for around three months. We had problems negotiating with first-tier games publishers and setting up commercial deals,” Fiske explains.
This prompted a major overhaul of the business, and pushed them into the social space. Around the time that a certain San Francisco-based business was rebranding and about to launch its flagship farming game, the business that ultimately became Clickfun made its first forays onto Facebook.
“Thinking back to 2007, there wasn’t a site on the internet that wasn’t talking about viral, social and Facebook, and when our original project came to an end we wanted to leverage what we had,” Fiske recalls. “I’d worked in casino before, so it felt right to stick with what we knew, and felt like a natural progression in my career to take something which would expand my technical abilities by working on Facebook, and remain within an industry I knew and understood.”
However, this shift came at a cost, and the company had to downsize in order to stay together, with 20 employees let go and only the core team retained. Despite this setback, the majority of the core team remains with the company, and the atmosphere in the office makes it clear that Fiske and McNally oversee a happy workforce, with a poker table set up in a corner, and a coffee shop which donates its profits to charity.
Fiske remembers with a smile that when the photographs were taken to accompany this piece – taken by a former photojournalist who partially inspired the main character of Paolo Lins’ novel City of God, no less – the staff created a series of humorous Fiske doppelganger memes which were circulated around the office. While the company has recovered and grown to around 50 staff, everyone is on first-name terms, and each person seems to have a close relationship.
But back in 2007, everything still had to be done, though Fiske is keen to stress that they were quick to market with their first offering – a social sports and betting game: “It was pretty quick. We had to move quickly to pay the rent, and had a bit of money left over from our first project in VC funding – they invested that and stretched it as far as they could. They worked on a person-to-person betting game on Facebook called LootBet, but that has now shut down.
“We quickly worked out that it wasn’t a good place to go; you would think that betting would be a natural product for social, but it doesn’t work. You’d assume that people would like to place bets against their friends on Facebook – such as ‘how much is so-and-so going to drink this evening’ – but it turned out they wanted to keep this off social networks as a form of reputation management,” he says.
This necessitated a shift into slots, which again Fiske said did not initially go swimmingly. “We started off with Loot Slots, which we rebranded as DiLiGO Slots due to a trademark infringement claim from a certain UK-based classified listings company. By mid-2011, DiLiGO was doing pretty well, certainly financially, but we realized that we’d overcomplicated it for the users, especially when we saw new companies launch and grow to millions of users pretty quickly,” Fiske begins.
“We hadn’t really approached it to bake in the social mechanisms particularly well, but we left it on Facebook. It’s got small numbers now, but those players come back to play it every day. The ARPU was exceptional and in mid-2011 it was possibly one of the best in the space, but you need those numbers with a million users to really break the bank, so we’re not putting any marketing into it. It has a revenue stream, but Clickfun’s our real focus,” he explains.
Again, Fiske used the company’s latest pivot to learn new lessons and ensure the business could improve. Using the technology behind DiLiGO, they integrated a lot more social and viral features, and Clickfun Casino was born. While Clickfun attracts moderate player numbers, the CTO is keen to highlight the fact that the site continues to make good money, with Clickfun sitting inside the top 60 of Facebook apps by revenue.
“There is a range of monetisation that you can achieve, and we do well. Since we’ve launched there hasn’t been a month where we haven’t increased our ARPU,” Fiske says.
Despite having achieved this success, Clickfun is set to continue to evolve – Fiske says the main motivation behind the business is to create something capable of withstanding any change it is faced with: “We want to build something that we’ll still be involved with in 15 years’ time. We’re going to broaden what we do and really build a sustainable business.”