In his first interview as Strive Gaming CEO, Max Meltzer speaks exclusively to Gambling Insider about his short-term and long-term goals in the role, reflects on his time at Kambi and evaluates industry M&A.
Given recent industry developments and where the sector is headed, there is lot to discuss...
What are your immediate plans as Strive Gaming CEO?
I think it’s the time to sit down and evaluate how far the business has come even in the short time it’s been operational. There is quite a sizeable team already in place, so I’d just like to evaluate how the pipeline has been going, and what impacts what’s happening in the industry are going to have on our business. I think we need to have a proper management session; that’s what I’m sitting down to do in the first week. We’ll have a very strict agenda of looking across everything from budget setting, to forecasting, to recruitment planning – per different scenarios. We’ll look a lot at the technical vision, the product vision, how that is impacted by the deliveries that are impending, because Strive has certainly hit the ground running.
So there’s quite an in-depth review and assessment of where we are, and just making sure everyone’s comfortable with the future. I’ll have an evaluation of roles and responsibilities of everyone, and the expansion we continue to undergo in the US, Europe and UK in terms of recruitment. But I’m super excited to get going.
How does it feel stepping into the shoes of a CEO who is the leading representative of the company?
Seven years ago, although we started nine years ago, I actually was the director of my own business called Simply Sport Management. It wasn’t in this industry; it was a sports agency. But I’m fully experienced in running small businesses and growing them into successful, profitable businesses in a leadership role. Back then, I was doing football transfer deals for players like Carlos Bocanegra. So it’s a very different scenario I’m in today but this, for me, is by far a more exciting journey and an incredible time to be in the iGaming space – particularly as it pertains to North America. I can now contribute in a way that I perhaps wouldn’t be able to do if I was not in a CEO role; that includes trying to develop an organisation that can attract talent but also giving them a sense of wellbeing and growth that you perhaps can’t achieve at other businesses.
I hear a lot about the way people want to address mental health and childcare support. This is key on my agenda, not just to create a successful technology firm, but also one that is contributing to the growth of where I think businesses in the modern day need to go. So I look forward to the challenge of making that successful tech business at the same time as trying to make an impact with my own personal traits, with how we should be engaging people and staff.
Given the directorial experience you’ve mentioned, are there any lessons you picked up back then that will be helpful now?
I think the industry is super fast paced. The North American market is in such a state of learning, at the same time as becoming such a huge market for the industry in general. That’s a weird scenario when you’ve got a number one market that’s right at the beginning of that learning curve of technologies. The learnings I’ve gleaned from my previous role and elsewhere are that you have to be humble in what you do, because you’re working with the tribal nations, who you have to give a lot of respect to and learn from. You can’t just bundle yourself into the US with a European product and think you can tell people what to do.
I think you need to spend a lot of time understanding the marketplace and ensure you have a product that adapts to the needs of operators, which change. Once they’re learning, what they’ve bought at the beginning is not what their mindset’s going to be a year or two later. You need to ensure what you’re offering is capable of being of interest to them in the long term. That’s something every B2B supplier will be noticing in particular about the North American market. They need to be aware of that in their strategic approach because I certainly am.
It’s Kristian Nylén, the CEO of Kambi, who recommended that if there was a next step for me in the iGaming space, it was going to be as a CEO
If you were granted one wish for Strive Gaming – anything in the world but just one wish – what would it be?
It’s an amazing question, Tim! If I’m just talking about Strive Gaming, it’s about having enough capital for investment and revenues for us to achieve all the product innovation we are setting out. If we just get the opportunity to ensure we have the strong revenues, the right capital investment, you’re going to see some really wonderful product innovations. So that would be my one wish, to ensure we have a really healthy way for a long time to come.
Where do you see Strive Gaming’s ideal market position within five years, considering the myriad of suppliers in competition currently?
We’ve got a target I will impose once I’ve started, of being the number one B2B iGaming platform in North America by 2023. That’s the target and then it’s about sustaining that, growing as other states regulate and Canada opens up. California looks like it will be live in some way, Texas may well be live. If you’re ready in 2023 for when California potentially goes online, that’s when we want to be up there as the number one iGaming platform. Damian Xuereb, my business partner, has been phenomenal and he is pleased we got the business model correct in our initial planning. And our technology has had heavy due diligence from several top operators in our space. For them to give the recognition that it is the best technologically set up iGaming platform for the US themselves, gives me all the confidence we will be in that number one position.
Now I just have to balance that position of not being too arrogant and making sure we deliver on what we say, and achieve that target. But I really have no doubts on what we have and where we’re at, because the market knowledge we have within Strive – and the way that contributes to the product’s development – from a new base, and a way of actually being able to roll out across multiple states, I can only see that we are best positioned. I understand there are a lot of other companies entering this space, but it’s really difficult without deeply understanding the operator needs at the highest level.
Plenty to look forward to... but for this next question can you reflect a little, and look back on your time at Kambi?
I’ve only got the most amazing things to say about Kambi as an organisation. Some great stories, great experiences of my initial journeys into the US. Kambi was just one of these environments where you could be yourself, you were allowed to grow and become leaders. I can only recommend Kambi as a business; I was delighted with the success I was able to bring but it’s a two-way street: you have to be given the opportunity and technology to be a market leader – like we’re talking about with Strive now. That’s the situation we had with the sportsbook at Kambi. It’s Kristian Nylén, the CEO of Kambi, who recommended that if there was a next step for me in the iGaming space, it was going to be as a CEO. Here I am with Strive, I wasn’t going to wait for that situation at Kambi.
For me, what Kambi enabled you to do is to see how a B2B technology business sets up in an iGaming space to be a premium service and ensure it can be a market leader that serves the top-tier customers. That’s regardless of what decisions the top-tier customer wants next – the technology fundamentally can make these companies market leaders. And you start to learn about what market leaders really need in their day-to-day operations; what their strategic viewpoints are. You learn so much about the North American ecosystem. Kambi taught me that but I also brought a lot of things to Kambi that I believe will leave them in a fantastic place to be successful going forward commercially.
We’ve got a target I will impose once I’ve started, of being the number one B2B iGaming platform in North America by 2023. That’s the target and then it’s about sustaining that, growing as other states regulate and Canada opens up
What is your take on recent M&A deals in the industry – Scientific Games/Lightning Box, DraftKings/Golden Nugget Online Gaming, Penn National/theScore – and is Strive open to M&A itself in the future?
This M&A activity is certainly fuelling everyone’s conversations. It’s been great to hear. As it relates to Strive, it’s incredible to see the amount of interest in us from an M&A activity perspective so early on. It’s definitely interesting – but we’re not rushing into anything because there’s so much to be considered. First of all, we’re in a position where we’ll be announcing new customers soon. We want to deliver to those customers and we can talk about M&A activity and investments as a next step to move us forward. But we’re not in any situation to require any capital at this point; we’re just spending a lot of time looking at how to build out our Canadian and US infrastructure, and employing top people that can serve our customers.
On generalised M&A activity, it’s incredible to see what people do. I certainly think there is, with some deals, a clear misunderstanding of the technological capabilities of organisations that are being potentially acquired. That doesn’t rule out that there are other values – that’s the thing with M&A, you don’t know the details and minutia of deals themselves. Even if both businesses are listed, you don’t really get the full details of how these deals break down, so it’s difficult to truly judge their value.
But I do believe in North America, in particular, there is a product learning curve that needs to happen, to properly evaluate whether one piece of technology is better than the other. A lot of companies in the US would say they do recognise this as a problem. When there’s such a rush to do M&A activity, there may well be some value disparity from what may be the realistic value. I think that’s a key problem but it’s one that will be overcome. People need to spend more time understanding what really makes products good when evaluating the value of tech.