Starting your own online poker room. As we’ve sat shuffling the digital chips on the tables of PokerStars, PKR or Partypoker, how many of us have entertained the thought, albeit briefly, that we could create our own online card haven?
Would we make it 3D? Would we set it in space? Could you play poker as a character from Lord of the Rings? The possibilities are endless.
The harsh reality, on the other hand, is a little different. What does it actually take? One man took a brave next step and decided to find out.
Karl Mahrenholz, a celebrated English player and member of the Hitsquad, founded a room named Poker Encore. But creating that chip-shuffling dream was not without its challenges.
"It takes a clear vision of where your players are going to come from," says Mahrenholz. "What are you doing to do differently that isn't already well covered? I think people think it’s a lot easier than it is. Also, players aren’t going to come to play for you just as a favor. Everyone needs to be offered something, or else they will just play where they are already."
But when taking on the sizeable challenge of online poker’s big names, which boast thousands of users and healthy marketing budgets, Mahrenholz utilized already being a known member of the poker circuit to his advantage.
"It gave us a fair bit of visibility and I was able to build on my reputation to encourage players that they would be well looked after with us," he recalls. "That wasn't enough on its own though and we've always tried to run our own promotions on top of those offered by the network. The most popular of these has been our Las Vegas Team Challenge where we have sent three groups of friends to Vegas to play at the WSOP."
But building a poker room of even moderate means is a lengthy process, and Mahrenholz is quick to issue a warning to those who think it’ll be as easy as playing pocket aces.
"To be honest, in the current market, I don’t think it’s really possible for small players. When we started, iPoker was more open to smaller operators, and people like ourselves and Black Belt Poker were able to take advantage of that. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible anymore. I don’t see any of the smaller networks as viable alternatives. It’s a shame to see, but I guess it's the natural evolution of the market. If you have a genuine idea for how to attract players in volume then there may still be opportunities for partnerships but if you think you can set up and start offering huge rakeback, those days are gone."
But with such a crowded space, and with so much choice on offer for players, how does a poker room without a leviathan budget make themselves heard in the market?
The key, claims Mahrenholz, is to offer them something more; to set yourself apart with differentiation and deeper understanding of your players.
"As part of a network you can't differentiate on product," explains Mahrenholz. The key, for what his experience is teaching him, is to act at a promotional and service level - as that's where one can really make a difference.
According to Mahrenholz it is important "to run independent promotions and additional leaderboards" that can offer some extras to the players, as well as "to offer a very personal service to the players rather than to deal with them with a series of generic automated support response."