Harsh Jain says it's an "open secret" that he doesn't use his own fantasy sports app — for fantasy football, at least.
"I am still committed to fantasy football on Fantasy Premier League, the reason we created Dream11."
Fantasy sports are online games in which players create virtual teams of proxies that track real sports players. They can earn points and win cash prizes based on the real-world performances of these players.
Fantasy football was already hugely popular in the U.K. in the early 2000s and Jain caught the bug while studying in high school there.
After introducing it to his childhood friend Bhavit Sheth, they set out to look for a fantasy cricket platform in India. When they didn't find what they were looking for, they created their own in 2008.
According to Jain, it's the "first mover's advantage" that brought their company Dream Sports — the parent company of Dream11 — to great heights.
"Once you and your friends are … connected over one network in fantasy sports, for a rival to get you to play there, you have to move all your friends with you," said Jain, who is also Dream Sports' CEO.
"Because you have your leagues set up, all your friends are playing against each other."
Dream Sports is not only India's first sports tech unicorn — the company also reportedly holds "almost 90% market share" in the country's fantasy sports industry.
The 36-year-olds share three tips on how to run a successful company.
If there's one "fundamental principle" that Jain and Sheth live by as leaders of their company — it's making sure their business isn't reliant on either one of them, they told CNBC Make It.
Jain said, "What happens if you get hit by the bus? Are you building scale and systems in a way ... not dependent on [a single person] and … having one person make a decision?"
That's why the co-founders enforced a week of "unplug" time for every Dream Sports employee, including themselves.
"Once a year, for one week, you're kicked out of the [company] system … you don't have Slack, emails and calls," Jain added.
"Because it helps you greatly to have that one week of uninterrupted time and it helps the business to know whether we're dependent on anyone."
Anyone who reaches out to another employee during "unplug" time has to pay a fine of about $1,200, Jain added. That has been effective so far, the co-founders said.
"No one wants to be that jerk who called someone who was on unplug," Sheth, who is also the chief operations officer, said with a laugh.
Jain and Sheth said they heard "no" at least 150 times from venture capital firms when they were trying to secure early stage funding 10 years ago.
"We went to all the Indian VCs, and they said, 'This is a U.S. concept. Fantasy sports aren't prevalent in India … Why don't you raise money in the U.S.?'"
But it was equally trying when Jain attempted to raise money in New York and San Francisco.
"All the VCs there told me to go back to India. 'It's an Indian company, raise money in India!'" Jain recalled. "Then I realized that it was just a polite way of saying no."
Instead of feeling discouraged, Jain and Sheth gained fuel from the rejections.
"The takeaway was that from every meeting, you can get to know why they said no, you can ask them, 'What's your biggest area of concern?'"
Jain and Sheth said it took them nearly two years before they finally nailed their pitch.
"Early stage investors are actually looking for deeply passionate founders, [and products] with a large market," Jain said.
"Early traction, high retention of users … and founders [who] will stay in there and will not give up. I think that's what helped us finally crack the pitch."
Dream Sports' vision of connecting with India's millions of sports fans has since drawn big-name investors such as Chinese tech giant Tencent, American investment firm Tiger Global and Hong Kong- headquartered Steadview Capital.
Its last round of fundraising in 2021 fetched $840 million, giving the company its $8 billion valuation.
The life of an entrepreneur is "always sexier from the outside," Jain said.
That's something the childhood friends know all too well — they lost "a couple millions of dollars" worth in starting capital when they were just 26 years old.
"Every founder, when you start something, you truly believe that this is going to explode, you're going to change the world … and ours crashed and burned."
Yet, even after a successful pivot from a free-to-play to "freemium" model in 2012, the challenges did not stop.
"2008 to 2012 was difficult in finding the right business model. 2012 to 2014 was difficult in raising money. And 2015 till now is difficult in matching investors' expectations," Jain said.
But Dream Sports says it has been in the green since 2020, and according to news tracking site Entrackr, it is also one of the rare unicorns in India making a profit.
"As a business, we've always focused on having strong unit economics," said Jain. "We have no complaints … but yeah, you're always fighting something."
What kept the childhood friends going was "sheer persistence" and an unwavering belief that fantasy sports could take off in India.
Jain said they knew it was going to work one way or another, and they "just had to be patient … keep pivoting and finding that right hook that gets that flywheel going."
"The whole world is going to tell you, 'It's too hard. Give up,'" Sheth added.
"But if you have that belief that you're working on something big ... you just have to have that ability to shut off the noise and continue."
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