Over the years, Rummy had been a weekend activity for Ramesh Desai (name changed for security reasons) settled in Gujarat. He had to wait till the weekend to play the popular card game with his friends but the desire was to play daily. Today his weekend passion for the game has evolved; no more does he wait for his offline friends, instead he perfects his moves with online friends on RummyCircle – a leading online rummy playing portal for real money in India with over two million registered players.
Ramesh was first told about RummyCircle by a Google ad and since then he has been a regular member not just playing games but also wining tournaments. He now wishes to have a life long relationship with the portal. It isn’t just Ramesh, a click on the testimonials section and one can find players boasting about their trophies and the fun to be part of RummyCircle.
RummyCircle was earlier known as Play Games24x7, co-founded by Trivikraman Thampy (CEO) and Bhavin Pandya (COO) in late 2008. Today the platform, with the backing of Tiger Global, has evolved to India’s best and largest online Rummy site. The company has 3 offices across India with 160 employees.
Giving a snapshot of the phenomenal growth of RummyCircle’s evolution over the years, Sachin Uppal presented the below screen grab at a recent talk at Sokrati’s office in Pune.
Sachin, the Marketing Director at RummyCircle.com in his hour long talk spoke about “How a data driven approach to manage digital business leads to better results” backing it up with multiple real life case studies from his seven year work experience at the online skill-based gaming site.
Thanks to Sokrati’s Facebook page, I was informed just in the nick of time that he was in town. After a quick round of calls and Twitter DM’s he was happy to give me an hour. My interest to have a conversation with him was due to the fact that he belongs to a very small breed of data-driven marketers.
After a quick exchange of pleasantries, we started talking over a cup of coffee about the most important thing behind a campaign whether it is digital or non-digital. “The most important thing is to understand the why. Every single time you do that, you have found the reason why something has worked or not worked and if that was the reason then you can predict it and you can repeat it which becomes scalable,” Sachin said.
Citing an example of a Facebook campaign, he recollected that right after joining the startup he had no clue about the target audience since skill based real money games were non-existent in India.To start with the team began picking certain geographies, age-groups while referring to the database about the existing players who were coming and playing. With this information the team found out what demographics would work out.
Similarly the team had no clue what communication would work and would not. The methodology used again was to run thorough tests and find out whats working. “We have always carried out structured experiments and tested various things over the years to get our product perfect.”
Early days and desire to be a marketer
Sachin has been a marketer throughout his life with a strong belief in data. Born into a Punjabi family settled in Delhi, Sachin did his engineering following his parents advice. In a years time he understood that he wassn’t meant for engineering so the rest of his college life mostly focused on participating in college fests. “During this time I basically was building my soft skills.”
After passing engineering, the saving grace for Sachin was MBA since his heart was not in technology even though he had scored well. But MBA didn’t happen, after failing twice to clear the CAT, he decided to get into a job and that brought him to the IT world with Wipro Technologies. However, Sachin’s golden opportunity came when he joined National Instruments in 2005 which was a technology company where he joined as a marketing fresher. “This is where I learnt what marketing is, thanks to my mentor I got to know how to market.”
In 2007 Sachin got the first taste of digital marketing while working in Naseba – a Monaco based company with an office in Dubai. “This was a pure sales driven company and my role was to set up an inbound marketing operations for the CXO audience.”
With all things going right, Sachin had this desire to startup something. The desire came true when Thampy offered him to join his startup, then known as Play Games24x7. “He wanted me to join as a Marketing Director to build a plan from acquiring customers to scaling it up to a million users, thereby generating revenues.”
The offer was tempting for Sachin since it was a startup, in the gaming world powered with digital but the bad part was that there wasn’t much information over the Internet for such a business. “It was very high risk but I took it up. When I joined, the startup was set up in a small house in Borivali, Mumbai and thus began the journey which still keeps me excited after seven years.”
Joining RummyCircle and investing in Email and SEO marketing
In 2008, Sachin came back to India to join the startup which at that point looked more like a cyber cafe. With cash being a concern, the initial marketing efforts concentrated on SEO and email marketing. The initial idea was to target people who at some point might have played Rummy for real money. “Play Rummy for cash was our initial communication to get such users on board and it worked really well. This campaign focused on search, little bit of display campaign and Facebook.”
From 2008-2009, the advertising campaigns focused on SEO and email marketing.
Giving a background of these campaigns Sachin shared how they decided on what channels are working for them and how much money they should pump in these campaigns.”We looked at the cost of acquiring a user, retention rate of a user on a month on month basis and average revenue per user to predict the lifetime of a customer and his value. Once we did this we were in a commanding position to decide our advertising budgets and that gave a lot of control to drive our advertising campaigns. It brought us predictability and scale up those channels that worked for us.”
This was also the time when Sachin had to face challenges in convincing Google and Facebook that RummyCircle is a skill based game and doesn’t endorse gambling techniques. However, it wasn’t easy it took more than six months to convince both Google and Facebook. “After a long painful due diligence process with the US and India teams, we were able to convince both Facebook and Google that it is a skill based game legal in India.” Further he informed, “Later to that it had been a smooth run for our advertising campaigns. Today we are one of the top advertisers in the digital space in India.”
The other challenge came up in 2009 when the startup was looking for investments. RummyCircle needed a big boost in numbers and revenue without increasing the costs so that it could get investors interested, was the message from the CEO for Sachin.
Data being the best buddy to fall back on, he found out the cheapest source of acquisition – the Friend Referral program that allowed users to make Rs 500 after he/she referred a friend who joined the portal. The idea was to scale it and to remove the manual addition of email ids, email importer was brought in which was gamified in such a way that every time a friend was unchecked the total money that could have been made would go down. This simple hack gave RummyCircle a 400% jump in paid conversions over a period of three months. “This led to a big spike in our numbers, revenues and one of the reasons which got our investor Tiger Global interested in our product and business model.”
Marketing initiatives post funding
Post the Tiger Global funding which happened in early 2011, Sachin decided to stabilize the digital properties of RummyCircle and once the visitor to paid conversion looked good, the idea was to go ahead for a large scale campaign on television. Things didn’t go the way as planned and the company had to stop the campaign. Post that it was decided to concentrate on existing channels and deeply analyze the traffic. “This exercise of understanding our campaigns was very fruitful and we decided to invest on YouTube for our TVC campaign that didn’t work earlier,” he added.
One of the most successful campaigns on YouTube for RummyCircle has been the testimonial campaign followed by the video campaigns which again changed the growth trajectory – paid customers improved by 30%, reduced cost per acquisition by 16% and increased the life time value of the customer by 10%. “We are yet to get a grasp on how YouTube advertising really works as it is much harder to track when compared to other forms of digital advertising. Our learning process is going on.”
“This how we have scaled up our business in the last seven years and in 2014 we have scaled up our business 2X in a short time span of six months.”
Mobile – one word for 2015 marketing plan
Going further in 2015, Sachin has one word for his marketing plan i.e. Mobile. “Not just mobile connections, data connections are spiking up which clearly tells that there is a complete new audience who is consuming content on the go and existing audiences are more open to mobile now than laptops or desktops.”
While the future is mobile, RummyCircle has some decent challenges in this space too. One of the reasons why the company has still not launched apps is because of the fractured internet connectivity in the country. “In a real money game if you lose because of data connectivity then users will blame RummyCircle and not the operator for the connectivity.”
The other problem is that app stores like the Android or iOS have rejected real money game apps. For these reasons RummyCircle decided to go the unconventional browser approach. “We have built the same gaming experience minus the app on the browser itself with HTML5 technology. The service has certain limitations but it still gives the real money game experience.”The HTML5 gaming experience was completely launched in August 2014 and within three months of its operation the company has already seen 10% revenues coming from mobile. “When we see our data today we see better retention and RPUs on mobile. It is also converting better than our desktop campaigns.”
Like most companies the future is in mobile but for RummyCircle a lot depends on the ongoing Supreme court judgement that would decide whether Rummy is a game of skill or a criminal offense. Sachin is waiting for the good news so that RummyCircle further builds its existing brand. “We are one of the very few online businesses in India which became profitable in 15 months of its operations.”
Before winding up the hour-long conversation, Sachin left me with two very interesting data:
- Surveys showed that a strong portion of users learnt to play rummy online and are experts now
- The maximum traffic for RummyCircle comes from southern India
Clearly as a company the best of RummyCircle is yet to come and with a data-driven marketer like Sachin, that won’t be too long.