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From Teletext to Tech Unicorn – A Real Leeds Success Story

· Ali Turner · Discussion

Zero to 2.5 million customers in 20 years.

Sky Betting & Gaming

At Sky Betting & Gaming, they work hard and play hard. They’re one team and every voice is as important as the CEO. They work with groundbreaking technology and tackle the challenges of scale. Why not join them?

What started as a small betting company has become a huge tech company.

Sky Betting & Gaming is one of the city’s biggest success stories. In just 20 years, they’ve gone from start-up to industry leader, creating thousands of jobs in the process. Now part of The Stars Group, they have exciting times ahead, but how did they get here and what made it possible? We caught up with Managing Directors Karen Tyrrell and Steven Birch to find out.

The world’s first Teletext betting service

Sky Betting & Gaming

Credit: Dave Lindsay

Like any start-up, Sky Betting & Gaming had humble beginnings. Surrey Sports, as it was once known, was founded in 1999. Back then, it was a small telephone and online betting company with a focus on sports. When they were bought out by Sky in 2001, they had just 12 employees and they were based over in Harrogate.

In 2002, they’d rebranded as Sky Betting & Gaming and refocused on red button betting. No one else had done it, they were the first-ever Teletext betting service. Suddenly, you could watch the match and bet from your TV. But as the internet began to reshape the world, they realised mobile would outstrip TV in a matter of years, and ever agile, they moved their attention to that.

The business grew exponentially during this time. By 2008, they had 221 people on staff and they’d outgrown the talent pool in Harrogate, so they made the move to Leeds. Even now, they had a very small tech team – they outsourced their dev work and utilised the wealth of digital agencies on their doorstep, but the ambition was always to bring the technology in-house.

The split from Sky was a catalyst for growth

Sky Betting & Gaming

Credit: Dave Lindsay

Sky had helped transform Surrey Sports into a leading player, but by 2015, their stake in the business had become inhibitive. In an industry as stable and reliable as subscription television, the constant fluctuations and inherent risks of Sky Betting & Gaming unnerved shareholders, and as they grew, they inevitably became more exposed.

“Not long after we moved to Leeds, it became quite clear that with the right backing, we would be able to achieve something quite special,” Karen Tyrrell, Managing Director of People and Culture at Sky Betting & Gaming, told us. “We could invest more in our people, invest more in our products, invest more in our marketing, and actually with all those things and that investment in technology, it was a quick shift to the realisation that we could become a tech unicorn.”

It felt like the natural time to part ways, so when Sky sold their majority share to private equity company CVC, it was the start of an exciting new chapter. In them, they’d found a partner as ambitious as they were, but less risk-averse than Sky. Now was the time for action and they kicked it off with a challenge – 100 things in 100 days. It was, in many ways, a return to the entrepreneurial spirit from which they began.

The race to become a tech unicorn

Sky Betting & Gaming

Credit: Dave Lindsay

That’s when it all changed for Sky Betting & Gaming. They invested heavily in technology and started building up their in-house team, adopting a tribal model that allowed them to be agile in a fast-paced industry. Before long, they were releasing hundreds of updates a week, combining an obsessive focus on customers with an equally obsessive focus on tech.

Because they had more resources and more people, they were able to fast-track innovation. They upped the ante on development, building and testing new things at an unprecedented pace. That allowed the team to rapidly develop and release high-quality software, all the while maximising the stability of the service – something that was becoming ever-more important as their customer-base grew.

This innovation-led approach has led to a string of industry firsts, including Request A Bet, a new service that allows customers to create their own bet and get a customised price. They trialled it on Twitter for the Champions League Final in 2015 and it’s gone from strength to strength. But that’s just the beginning – in 2017, they launched the industry’s first-ever instant cash out service and they now use AI to identify customers who may need an intervention. It’s innovations like these that have accelerated Sky Betting & Gaming’s growth and helped them to become one of Yorkshire’s only tech unicorns.

The future is a sure bet

Sky Betting & Gaming

Credit: Dave Lindsay

Now part of The Stars Group, Sky Betting & Gaming continues to grow. But with growth, comes new challenges. In 2012, they were dealing with peaks of 1,800 bets a minute, those same peaks can hit over 16,000 bets per minute now. That’s a huge load to bear, so everything has to be built to scale, adding a new layer of complexity to their work.

And it’s not just their customer-base that’s grown, their team has too. They now have 1,450 employees, but they’ve worked hard to maintain the entrepreneurial culture they started with. “We’ve always had an open culture,” Steven Birch, Managing Director at Sky Betting & Gaming, explained. “No-one senior has an office, everyone is very accessible. From the CEO down, people will talk very honestly. If someone junior wants to go for a coffee with a CEO, we’ll go for a coffee with them. That’s how it’s always been since I’ve been there and it hasn’t changed.”

No idea is a bad idea at Sky Betting & Gaming. In fact, they go out of their way to encourage people to use their initiative and bring new ideas to the table. Just last year, one of their product managers turned their idea into reality through CoLab, their tech accelerator. Not only is Group Bet now live, but it’s already proved incredibly popular with customers. Add in initiatives like their Bug Bounty, an open-call to hack their site and get paid for it, and you’ve got a really unique, innovation-led culture.

Want to be part of the story?

Sky Betting & Gaming

Credit: Dave Lindsay

Sky Betting & Gaming is growing and it’s growing fast, so if you want to be part of an exciting, fast-paced business where anything is possible, this is the place to be. You can work with ground-breaking technology at scale, constantly learn new things and enjoy a work-hard, play-hard philosophy, all in a supportive working environment that encourages creativity and ambition. Get those applications in.