Unikrn Founder Rahul Sood Has Built a Business That Is All Fun and Games

Rahul Sood bets big as esports explodes in popularity
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
ENTERTAINING BUSINESS: Rahul Sood, co-founder of esports-betting company Unikrn,says he likes the esports business "because it is fun."

This article appears in the October 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

Rahul Sood received his first computer at age 11. He didn’t like how it looked, so he disassembled it. “I used to take things apart all the time. It drove my parents crazy,” he recalls. Decades later, it’s no surprise that Sood has carved a career in technology. He founded his first company, VoodooPC, while in high school in the early 1990s and later sold it to Hewlett-Packard. He worked for Hewlett-Packard until 2010, when he left to join Microsoft as general manager for systems experience in the company’s Interactive Entertainment Business. He created what became Microsoft Ventures, now known as M12, a corporate venture capital subsidiary of Microsoft. In 2014 he co-founded Unikrn, an esports betting and news media company that Sood says “provides a safe and legal place” to bet on esports, which is described as the world of competitive, organized video gaming. It is based in Seattle and Las Vegas. The company has created what it calls the world’s first gaming utility token that allows users to participate in tournaments, bets and online shopping. A study by market research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming found that esports betting in the United States is projected to become a $23 billion industry by 2020.

I’m kind of an anomaly. I’m in my mid 40s and I play games every day. I like this business because it is fun, and I like having fun.

I like to play League of Legends, and I play it quite often.

My son got me into esports. He played competitive video games. He used to bug me: “Why don’t you quit and start another company? He was 15. So I did that, and it became Unikrn.

There’s no better way to heighten the experience of watching a game than by betting on it, because you’ll watch it from beginning to end. I bet on sports all the time.

Many years ago, I started a PC gaming company, Voodoo-PC. It was the first company in the world that built computer systems designed for gaming. During that time, we were heavily involved in that competitive gaming space. Not necessarily esports, but definitely a thing where people would drag their PCs to a community center and play competitive games against each other.

I sold my company to Hewlett-Packard and HP was my first big company experience. It was a shocker. I was losing my mind. One of the people on the HP side said to me, “HP is where you go to die.” Innovation was long gone. They bought us because they wanted to bring innovation back. I lost interest after the first year.

My first “let’s go and do something totally different” was at Microsoft.

When I went to Microsoft, I realized very quickly you’re surrounded by very smart people: 99.9% of people in the room are smarter than you. How do you at a senior level inspire all those smart people? It’s not easy. No. 1, a good leader needs to be empathetic. Obviously, humility is important. How do you learn from people smarter than you? You have to take a subtle approach.

The biggest takeaway I learned was a culture of giving. I was shocked. Microsoft has a culture of giving like no other company. Every year, there’s a giving campaign and you pick your charities. They made it really fun and interesting to give away your money.

Microsoft is amazing, by the way. It’s a fun place to work. I loved it, but because I’m an entrepreneur, I was dying to get out and back into gaming.

When we started Unikrn, I started a skill-betting platform where people could get on video games against each other for money. It was interesting. Basically, you could play Call of Duty against your friends for money.

On our platform you can see spectators bet and watch matches and bet on professional matches. You can bet on virtual matches as well, as well as streaming services, like on Twitch. People who stream themselves on video games, we’re putting odds on them as they play. It’s actually quite fascinating.

Our platform allows us to be on the NBA 2K Esports League. NFL and soccer, too. It’s licensed and regulated.

When you connect Halo or Fortnight or whatever your favorite game is, you can bet against the machine. You’re not betting against someone. You’re betting on yourself against the machine.

We had a partnership with MGM Group last year and were running some events in their casino on a weekly basis, but now we’re working on an online strategy with a couple other casinos. Every casino partner is calling on us.

There are a lot of regulatory hurdles in the online wagering space, clearly. But that being said, Unikrn has really good relationships with gambling regulators. They know the product we’re building.

When I talk to startups to build a brand, most of them think a brand is a logo you put on your T-shirt. That’s not it at all. You have to start with a great product, a great culture. And the most important thing, you have a fan base. You build a community of people who become natural evangelists for your product. And you need a face, a spokesperson, for that brand. A lot of companies miss the last two things.

For me, social media is about being yourself and letting people know who you are, so they have a good idea of who they’re doing business with.

I just couldn’t deal with college. I was doing a mixture of computer science and business, and they were teaching you WordPerfect for DOS, stuff I didn’t need. I hate to say it, but I was far ahead of my professors. I left after a week.

I don’t have a clear exit strategy yet, but it is getting closer. There’s certainly a lot of interest. When we do sell, which will probably happen, I think I’m going to go do something simple again. Maybe do something with animals, like dogs. Or bikes, electric bikes. I just like to do things I care about.

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