For most people, beginning a career in government sets a course for a near-life-long commitment to a role in public service, that is unless your name is Marina Ostrovtsova. Now the CEO of BGaming, a burgeoning games supplier born from the success of casino platform and aggregator provider Softswiss, Ostrovtsova’s rise to the position was far from an orthodox one. Casting her mind back 11 years, Ostrovtsova had just graduated from university with her second diploma in hand: one “just wasn’t enough for me,” she reflects. Despite a dedication to go above and beyond in her academic studies, Ostrovtsova admits she “didn’t actually have anything in mind in terms of a career path” at this point. Time for indecision is not a luxury all can afford, so, in need of work, Ostrovtsova soon found herself as a member of the Minsk region Executive Committee in her native Belarus.
BIG RESPONSIBILITY, NO AUTHORITY
Working in the Foreign Economic department, Ostrovtsova admits it "wasn’t a dream job in any way, shape or form.” She is, however, grateful for the “great life experiences” she gathered in this role. “I was able to develop the skills to work in stressful situations, where you have great responsibilities on your shoulders,” she reflects. This was made all the more difficult as, most of the time, Ostrovtsova shouldered this responsibility “without the power or tools to do the things I needed to.” But, thinking positively, she describes this difficult position as “a good schooling experience for me, in terms of where I have now developed in my career.” Some of the key skills Ostrovtsova developed included a reputation for being respectful, writing emails professionally, and, most importantly, being on time – traits that have laid the foundations for Ostrovtsova’s future career. “I learned how to be a problem person, in a good way, always raising queries and pushing for results.”
“I was able to develop the skills to work in stressful situations, where you have great responsibilities on your shoulders”
CROSSING THE IT INTERSECTION
Ever conscious that working in government was not the job she truly desired, Ostrovtsova took a punt, following one of her bosses out of the door to work in the IT sphere and helping them develop a new travel metasearch system for customers in CIS countries. Essentially, this was the creation of a website that does the searching for people looking at the cheapest deals on flights and hotels; Ostrovtsova said she was sure “people had come across” such sites when explaining just exactly what a travel metasearch system was. Joining to help develop the project, she was there for two-and-a-half years, at which point the company was “close to bankruptcy.” Ostrovtsova continued: “We were developing so quickly but spent the majority of our investors’ money. So we faced a situation where the company was no longer able to develop, and it closed its office – most of the employees were then let go, including me.” Although the travel metasearch system is still in operation, Ostrovtsova admits she does not know what state the project is in.
Despite this somewhat sad outcome, there are no hard feelings as far as Ostrovtsova is concerned. And just like her time working in government, there was a lot to be learned here. “Working in the travel industry, I learned a lot about API integration, how to do it and how fast it can go. So, I got some developmental experience when it comes to IT and tech.” As far as the exec was concerned, the important thing was that these experiences could all be “transferred later down the line.”
After being let go, Ostrovtsova needed something else to do. “I always knew from my time at university that I wanted to be involved with something creative. Not that I had any artistic talent or prospects as a designer, but I knew I wanted to work in a creative business,” she recalls. In fact, it seems this was the moment Ostrovtsova was giving her career path the greatest attention – aligning her skills and passions with her employment search. “That’s when I found Softswiss,” she remembers, a smile cracking across her face. It wasn’t to be an easy entry to Softswiss – the company from which BGaming branched out – when Ostrovtsova first approached to become one of its new Account Managers.
Recalling her first interview with Softswiss Founder Ivan Montik, she admits the company “chose not to hire me the first time around.” Persistence pays off, though, and seeing that the company was still in need of an Account Manager three months later, Ostrovtsova plucked up the courage to approach the company once more. “They remembered me, and this time I got lucky and was offered the job,” she reminisces. Whether it was luck or admiration of her persistence, Ostrovtsova’s introduction to Softswiss would mark the start of her ascent to becoming BGaming CEO.
BAPTISM OF FIRE
“I didn’t know anything at all about the gambling industry. When people would talk to me about bonuses, I knew the meaning of the word but had no idea how it was calculated or anything like that.” Admitting that every facet of the industry was new for her, there was no option but “to learn from scratch” for Ostrovtsova. Joining first in 2014 as an Account Manager, she "learned a lot about operators, what they want from game providers, how they work with game providers and the specific, bespoke needs of each client. This isn’t to say all casino platforms are so similar but, in essence, most use the same functionality. The services they provide and how they connect to operators are largely similar across the board. Knowing a lot about an operator’s needs has been very helpful.” Succeeding in driving relationships with clients, Ostrovtsova was soon promoted to Senior Product Manager in 2015.
Now involved with new products being added to the platform, she notes the company was "seeing great results in the popularity of games. So the question was: what if we invested in game development? The company went ahead with it and created an entirely new division called BGaming.” And the company’s CEO was one of the first names on the sheet to join BGaming, becoming its Executive Director in 2018. Now split from Softswiss, BGaming acts as an entirely different business, “with separate plans and goals.” For Ostrovtsova, her migration from Softswiss marked the pinnacle of her efforts to land the job of her dreams. “As I said, I always wanted a creative job, and what’s more creative than leading the company that oversees the development of new games? Of course, when anyone asks what a dream job is, it’s almost impossible to achieve, and this is very, very close to a dream job for me.”
BECOMING QUEEN B
At BGaming since its inception, the main task for Ostrovtsova and the core team was to find the best way to access Softswiss' games engine, processes and portfolio. Despite the solutions available, “transferring that to a games supplier was not quite adequate, it was not quite the tech we needed,” Ostrovtsova observed. To become “a new and fresh face in the market,” BGaming needed to refurbish everything. This meant, first and foremost, creating a new game engine to help it reach the level of its competitors. “We were looking at the likes of Pragmatic Play and NetEnt, and wanted to get onto the same sort of level as the top game developers.”
However, creating a new game engine was but one part of the problem. As Ostrovtsova puts it, “the second was that we actually didn’t have much of a team! We needed to onboard people who were qualified in game development. So, in 2018 we set up the core team, which we still have. Having established our processes, built our roadmap and set aside resources, we were in a much better position moving forward.” This wasn’t the simplest journey, though, as in the early days few resources were available to cover the entire business’ needs. “In 2018, I was not only focusing on planning the business; I was even helping build things around the office with my own two hands. I was coding and helping to develop the website while checking all the different gaming regulations and translating them from English to Russian. We had about 10 people split across 30-40 rows of office space, covering pretty much everything.”
However, establishing a wider team was still imperative for Ostrovtsova, who, in the early days of BGaming as Executive Director, interviewed all applicants personally. Although a marker of her importance within BGaming’s setup – this felt natural for her at the time. “I think I was the choice interviewer because I knew the roles that needed covering and had experience across almost all positions. So I knew the mindset needed in each of our jobs – and it became my responsibility to build the team.” Ostrovtsova was not of the mind to adopt an atypical hiring process either, “which was not just based around experience and professionalism in the role, it was also around whether they were a right fit in the team at BGaming. The last thing we want is the atmosphere around the office to be ruined.” A champion of harmony over all else, Ostrovtsova admits that not everyone employed by BGaming “knows about the industry. I didn’t! But when we get new staff who know about the industry it’s very time efficient and cost-saving for sure.” Despite this acknowledgment, it’s still vital for Ostrovtsova to get the right character profile for each role that needs filling. “Today, we have a team of over 100 people, so I’m not able to interview everyone now, but we still push for like-minded people to get on board. It’s very important that anyone who joins adds value to the company and does not sign up with a single-minded approach.”
Having overseen BGaming’s rise into the larger company it is today, it’s small wonder Ostrovtsova describes the company’s early years between 2018-19 as her “toughest period.” The then Executive Director can now reap the rewards of her hard work, creating the products that represent the BGaming brand and becoming the company’s CEO as of July 2022. For her, failure is actually the most important hallmark of success... “Even if you fail at something, which is sometimes more often than succeeding, it gives you the experience to learn from and build up better for the future.” And Ostrovtsova can’t help but think back on her time when working in government: “What’s also good is that I now have the authority to make bigger decisions, which I didn’t have in my first role in government!”
“I think I was the choice interviewer because I knew the roles that needed covering and had experience across almost all positions. So I knew the mindset needed in each of our jobs – and it became my responsibility to build the team”
Being in her 30s, Ostrovtsova has something many don’t typically expect to find in a CEO – youth. The reaction to this is something she witnesses a lot of too. She says: “People always ask me, ‘oh you? You’re a blonde girl; you don’t look like you should be CEO!' which is quite funny. It just makes me think; ‘If I’m 45 or 50 and not blonde, would it be more suitable for you to accept me as CEO?’ I face stuff like this quite a lot. It’s not something that bothers me at all, but of course, I do need to acknowledge that this stigma exists.”
She continues: “I don’t like the idea of being someone who leads from the front, with the team behind me – no. I want my team to lead from the front, with me behind them giving support, and keeping them aligned with our vision.” Ostrovtsova hates the idea of “going around and telling people what to do.” For her, it’s important to “give the team a lot of freedom and all my trust. This is the best approach to ensure the team can express ideas and be creative.”
There is one core imperative Ostrovtsova now looks to uphold at BGaming, and that’s to make sure she continues to set the vision for the team. “Maintaining a strong vision is also about finding the main drivers that can push the team forward,” according to Ostrovtsova, as well as giving them "the freedom to make mistakes.” In fact, Ostrovtsova even sees it as a positive if someone can make every mistake they possibly can at least once. “The freedom to make mistakes is so important and it’s vital not to micro-manage. I think this just reaffirms my approach to doing things differently, removed, in a way, from what you would expect from a seasoned CEO.”
Looking to the future, translating the unique way in which BGaming operates as a team into the products the company produces is key for Ostrovtsova – crafting bespoke, original game titles for the benefit of its clients and players. Not only would this best define the identity of the BGaming brand, but it would also allow the company to get a step ahead of its competitors. Not that BGaming believes it has any competitors, however, preferring to see rival brands as partners, where collaboration can happen and knowledge can be shared. “Every game provider looks at what everyone else is doing and we may all take inspiration from each other. I don’t see it in a bad way, we all do this. But our current goal now at BGaming is to create new stuff – our own original, unique games not available anywhere else on the market.”
Citing BGaming’s larger ‘partners,’ who create new games from scratch, Ostrovtsova feels this is something BGaming can emulate, despite the fact the company’s presence in the games provider industry hasn’t followed the same path as other big companies. “Most of the [big providers] started as land-based businesses and evolved online,” she said – a different market introduction from BGaming’s own, which came into existence off the back of Softswiss, a purely online organisation. Despite the challenge of having to grow from scratch, Ostrovtsova remains “focused on being an innovator and coming up with something new.” Furthermore, Ostrovtsova has a far more ambitious goal in mind for the long term: “We’d like to be involved in setting the rules and requirements for B2B businesses, in terms of compliance and other legal areas in different jurisdictions.” Achieving this goal would need to see BGaming become one of the most influential providers in the industry, but is something Ostrovtsova will strive for regardless, saying: “If we’re able to reach the level where we could consult someone, it would be a really cool experience.”
WHY I LOVE MY JOB
She explains: “You always hear the same answers – that it’s because so and so has the best team to work with. I’m not saying that BGaming doesn’t have the best team, of course we do! Why would I say otherwise? Yet, for me, it’s all about wanting to see the level of culture we strive to achieve at BGaming and our partners spread across the industry.”
What this means for Ostrovtsova is seeing companies across the industry house “a range of different people, where despite one’s background, everyone learns to work with each other, accept each other and help each other." However, Ostrovtsova admits “it is still an aggressive industry,” but hopes “that every other company can develop a similar culture as our own.” She continues: “Many of the clients we work with always mention the same thing: that we are different. Different in the way we care about each client regardless of whether they’re a key client or not.”
Seeing her team experiment every day is something Ostrovtsova loves, as it underpins her long-held dream of taking the big decisions at a highly creative company. “Huge game providers in general are not very flexible, but we are. We are also open to experiments in terms of game development.” Understanding that teams of game designers are needed to set goals, and developers to produce code and release games, it still delights Ostrovtsova that BGaming has “different departments just for experimenting.” She concludes: “I’m sure every game provider out there conducts such experiments, but we are really focused on them. They cover everything too, from art and music, to how a game is developed and its features. So this constant drive for innovation is why it is super cool to work with BGaming.” Indeed, Ostrovtsova's approach offers our industry a breath of fresh air.