Sunday, March 9, 2014

The long shot (Part 2)

"Oh, hi Dan, this is Isai."

Those are the first words I heard in my first telephone interview with Isai Scheinberg, CEO of PokerStars, the guy who would become my boss, and would go on to lead a billion-dollar business and change the face of poker. 

Isai had a noticeable accent, but his English was perfect. I couldn't quite identify the accent on that first call - I would later learn that he was born in Lithuania, educated at Moscow State University and had lived in Israel and Canada. When he said "hi" it came out sounding much like the Hebrew word "chai," with the "ch" being a gutteral sound. "Oh, chai Dan" became a catchphrase in our house, as that's the way Isai started every call. The "oh" always amused me; it made it sound like he was surprised I was on the phone, even though it was almost always Isai initiating the call.

Isai and I had exchanged a few emails prior to this first call. I had sent him my resume, he had asked a few basic questions and we went back and forth trying to set up a time to talk. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this story, I was working for at the time, and this first interview took place in my late morning on a weekday, the only time Isai was available. I asked him to hold on for a minute, grabbed my cigarettes (a habit I've since given up thanks to Lee Jones) and slipped out the side door of our office to the parking lot.

I've been through a lot of interviews over the course of my career, but this was my first-ever phone interview. I'm a pretty good communicator, but I rely a lot on visual cues and intonations, skills that did me little good here. Isai's accent made it difficult to pick up anything of value; I was going to have to rely on content.

I don't recall all of the details of this first call. I do remember, though, that it didn't start off like any other interview I'd had until then. He didn't ask about past jobs. He didn't toss off any of the usual, often absurd, interview questions (like "What's your greatest weakness?"). He wanted to know what I knew about poker, and what had led to the success I'd had in marketing and other online businesses with which I'd been involved. The conversation rambled from one topic to another, but it quickly became clear that (1) Isai had something specific in mind for his new VP of Marketing, and (2) he cared much less about where I'd been and who I knew than how I thought.

After what seemed like twenty minutes or so, Isai told me that he had another call coming up, and asked if I were available for another call the following day. We set a time and said goodbye. I looked at my phone and discovered, to my great surprise, that we'd been talking for over an hour. I endured some questioning looks when I returned to the office, but I skipped lunch to compensate for the time I'd been gone.

The following day, I decided to take an early lunch to allay any suspicions that our CEO might have had - we had a typical Internet open-office setup, and I didn't want to be too obvious. I drove to a nearby Quizno's, picked up lunch and sat on a bench in a nearby park. Isai's call was almost a half-hour late, long enough that I started to be concerned that I had the time wrong. The phone rang, I said "hello" and heard the soon-to-be-very-familiar "Oh, hi Dan."

This second interview was quite different. Isai told me that we had a lot of things to talk about (an encouraging sign), but first he wanted to get my opinion about something (ditto). PokerStars was in negotiations with a very big name in poker, Chris Ferguson. Chris was indeed a big name - he had won the 2000 World Series of Poker and a few other major events, and had an immaculate reputation (unlike others we would later do business with, like the infamous Armadillo Tim). Isai wanted to know what I thought.

I was torn about how to respond. My honest reaction was that I didn't have a lot of faith in celebrity endorsements. I thought that they had some influence on customer behavior, but that they were largely overrated, a feeling I still have today, although the online poker business would develop differently and prove me wrong.

I considered a middling response. I didn't want to give him the impression that I thought his thinking was wrong - insulting the CEO didn't seem like the best choice here, especially because I had the sense that things were going in a positive direction. But I also had the sense that this guy had an acute bullshit detector, and I didn't want to set it off. I opted for the truth.

I told him that I thought he was in an interesting position in trying to develop the business. For online poker to be successful, it needed to do more than appeal to the hard-core players (read: players who knew the names of recent WSOP winners). There was an audience of perhaps 80 million people in the US who played poker regularly - that was the core audience. Just like live poker rooms, whose bread-and-butter was low-limit players, PokerStars would succeed by cultivating a core group of players whose poker bankrolls were in the two and three figures.

Isai didn't appear to agree. He told me the company had a 900 pound gorilla to deal with - Paradise Poker - and needed a way to distinguish itself. We went back and forth for almost an hour. I had played quite a bit on Paradise Poker, and thought the software was marginal and the customer service abysmal. I thought that these two facts were Paradise's Achilles heel.

I had no idea at the time, but I had just locked down the job. Isai believed exactly the same things. He had painstakingly overseen the development of software that would soon be the gold standard in online poker. And he had hired staff that built a support team with a single goal in mind: dazzle the player with service.

He didn't let go immediately, though. He circled back on this issue a number of times in this and subsequent calls. He approached it from different angles. He forced me to defend my position in a variety of different ways ("What if he would work for us for free? Would he behave differently if we gave him an equity stake?") While most of the interviews I'd been through in my life consisted of shaping the interviewer's perceptions of me, my career and my skills, in this interview I had to take real positions and defend them vigorously.

The thing that made me the most concerned about this call was that I had done something that seemed obviously dangerous and wrong: I had disagreed with the guy who could give me this job. I discovered as our relationship developed over the years that this is how Isai worked - there was no pride of ownership in the ideas he came up with. When he asked my opinion, he really wanted it. And whether I was right or wrong was less an issue than how well I was able to defend my position. And disagreeing with him turned out to be what he wanted - he needed people around him that were willing to stand up to him.

Once again, Isai needed to take another call. He wanted to talk again (!), and this time I was able to arrange a call on the weekend. We hung up, and when I looked down I saw that I had smoked five cigarettes during the call. I checked my phone and discovered that this call had been two hours long. So much for not arousing suspicion at the office.

The next day was a Friday. I came into the office early, as I usually did on Fridays, armed with a box of Noah's Bagels and cream cheese, which I always did on Friday. There was no one in the office yet. I looked around to confirm this, and then fired up PokerStars to see how many players were online. There were about 100, as I recall, a big number back then. I dropped in on a few tables to see what players were saying. After twenty minutes or so, I closed the software and went to the kitchen to get a bagel. My boss, Kamran, was getting a cup of coffee. 

"Come see me when you have a minute," he said. This wasn't normal - Kamran usually came and sat by my desk to talk. I had a call with one of our vendors, and told him I'd be in to see him right after the call.

The discussion wasn't pleasant. Kamran had seen me on PokerStars and was not amused. He made it very clear to me that playing games in the office wasn't acceptable behavior.

This was quite bad. I couldn't explain to him that I hadn't been playing - what would I say? I had been scoping out the company I might go work for? I said nothing. He wasn't done.

"I noticed that you were gone for a long time yesterday." I still said nothing. "Is there anything I should know?"

"No, and I'm sorry I was gone for so long. I had some personal business I needed to attend to." Kamran knew that I had recently been through a divorce, and had in fact seen some of the results. I think he assumed that this was what I was referring to.

"OK. Look, no playing games in the office, OK?" I agreed.

The next day, Isai called me at the agreed-upon time, and this was the longest call yet. He still asked me no questions about any of my prior positions. This call was almost strictly about marketing. He wanted to know what I thought about the company's launch and progress so far. He was very interested to know what I would have done differently. Given what I had already learned, I was pretty sure I was safe giving him honest reactions, and I did.

He then did something that I have had other prospective employers do - he asked for a work sample. He asked me to write a mini marketing plan - not a detailed budget, but some broad strokes about what I thought would be effective.

I'm usually reluctant to do projects like this. Work product like this has quantifiable value. It's not like a writing sample or a math skills test - it's something that can be used. I don't like working for free. But by this point, I was sold on PokerStars and really wanted the job. I agreed.

He then asked (prematurely in my opinion) the question that all interview candidates want to hear: "If I decide to hire you, when can you start?"

This is always tricky. The answer I really wanted to give him was, "How about today?" But PriceGrabber (my boss notwithstanding) had been very good to me, and it would take them some time to replace me. And I wanted to send Isai the message that he could expect that same kind of loyalty from me.

It was the first week in February. I told him that I needed to give PriceGrabber six weeks' notice. He said "OK," but with his accent it actually came out "Ooookeee..." (rhymes with cookie), and I could actually hear the ellipsis. I wasn't sure how to interpret this. I then told him that I thought I could give him something to look at by the following day (Sunday). We agreed to talk again late on Sunday. We hung up. We had been on for just over three hours.

The call the next day was comparatively short. I had sent him a two-page marketing plan, outlining a strategy and a few tactics, along with a budget. It was my turn to ask some questions - I had a clear sense that we were close to a deal, and needed to be sure I knew what I was getting into. I asked the hardest question first.

"Do you have the money for me to execute the plan I sent you?" 

Isai seemed entirely unsurprised at the question. "We have investors who are happy about where we are right now, and are ready for us to take the next step. You'll have whatever you need." I really liked the way he had put this.

There was a somewhat uncomfortable silence. I was determined not to be the one to talk - it was his turn.

"I'm going to make you an offer," he said, and then described the offer. To call it generous would be laughable. It was almost exactly double what I was making. I later learned that this wasn't specific to me - PokerStars' hiring strategy back then (maybe still) was to be way on the high end of the pay scale for most positions. It was a very sensible position - it made employees loyal, and made it much more difficult for competitors to poach them. And he took it one step further - he agreed to my six weeks' notice requirement, but asked if he could hire me as a consultant at half salary in the meantime. If you do some quick math, you'll realize that this meant I'd not only be making double my current salary in six weeks; I'd be making it immediately.

I told Isai that I needed to discuss the offer with Sharon, and suggested we talk again the next day. The only real question was how comfortable we both were with my taking a job with an unproven online company. The answer was "a little uncomfortable," but given the potential, it seemed like a risk we had to take.

For the next six weeks, I essentially worked two full-time jobs. I spent about nine hours a day at PriceGrabber, came home, had dinner and went to work on a detailed marketing plan for PokerStars. For that six weeks, my days started at 7am and ended at about 1am.

But don't get the wrong idea. This was the very beginning of the most exciting years of my life. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. PokerStars was the long shot that came in.

1 comment:

  1. I love this kind of stuff and especially hearing it from a mover and shaker in the business is intriguing. Thanks for sharing! I'm looking forward to more.