Austin Woolridge is CEO and Co-Founder of Players’ Lounge, a platform that connects gamers who want to play their favorite video games with money on the line. Austin and co-founder Zach Dixon were inspired by experiences playing video games in the dorms at Wesleyan University. Today, Players’ Lounge has $4M+ in funding from investors including Drake, Strauss Zelnick, Marissa Mayer, Comcast Ventures, Macro Ventures, Canaan, Sinai Ventures, Chetrit Ventures, RRE, and Courtside.
What does entrepreneurship mean to you and when did you get your start?
AW: Entrepreneurship means being someone who is constantly surveying the world, understanding problems, and figuring out solutions. Looking back at my life, I’ve always done entrepreneurial things. I made my Ebay account when I was 10 and bought, used, and re-sold video games. I had a business coaching children of family friends on video games to beat levels. They’d pay me $20 an hour to do so. Those are my early experiences being a self-starter and entrepreneur.
How did Players’ Lounge come to be?
AW: I really enjoyed playing FIFA in college with my soccer teammates. On Fridays, we’d all pile into a dorm room together and play FIFA and usually had money on the line. So, when we graduated college, my co-founder Zach and I really missed that experience. We started hosting video game tournaments at bars to recreate that environment that we had in college. We held FIFI tournaments at bars, the same way bars would host trivia night or bingo night. We did it for a year and a half and realized people were willing to travel from all over the Tri-State area to a random dive bar in Brooklyn to play FIFA. There was also a desire to play video games in a social and competitive environment without being too extreme where you’re playing against professionals. So, we took that information and pivoted into a more scalable business with a first-of-its-kind digital product. Players’ Lounge is a socially friendly communal place for people to bet on themselves playing their favorite video games.
How has your business changed in response to COVID-19
AW: Fortunately, it has changed for the better. Since the beginning of March, we’ve grown our business over 100% in terms of revenue and monthly active users. I think we’ve been seen as a sweet spot in a world without sports and a world without sports betting. There are a lot of people engaging in those activities who are looking for another outlet to do so. Video games and esports are obviously a very hot industry right now, so when you fuse those two together, you can have a perfect storm.
How is growth being fueled?
AW: We are offering new value to gamers. Right now, there are only two ways to play video games and make money outside of Players’ Lounge. You are either the professional assigned to a team and have to perform or you are a Twitch streamer and you’re reliant on charisma to make money playing video games.
Players’ Lounge is an opportunity for casual gamers whether they go to school, have a nine-to-five job, whether they’re a lawyer, security guard, or banker. It doesn’t matter who you are. You can just fire up your PlayStation or Xbox from the comfort of your home and play a $5, $10 or $500 dollar game. It gives normal casual gamers an opportunity to make money doing something that they love.
Is this the new way of gaming?
AW: I don’t think it’s a new way of gaming. I think it’s a new opportunity within gaming. I think our market is made up of casual gamers who are also fairly competitive. We make sure that we match by skill level so you’re not going to go on our platform and play a pro.
It’s more complementary to the overall gaming ecosystem. We’re adding a new vertical to it.
What was that a huge challenge in your journey that was a really dark moment or a tough moment?
AW: It was basically the first year. We raised a little angel money to build our minimal viable product (MVP) of Players’ Lounge. After that it was extremely difficult to raise money in 2016. No one was willing to give us a bigger check. It was really demoralizing. We were just scraping angel investment checks from friends and family for like $2,000 or $3,000 to pay rent. Deals would look promising but then they fell through. Term sheets were pulled out from under us.
What was a high point?
AW: Getting into Y combinator was a pivotal point. That really opened up the floodgates to give us a large cash influx to be able to test the marketing waters and also hire developer talent. Because we had that little war chest, we were able to really explode in growth during the three months at Y combinator. We grew our business 10X from January of 2018 to March 2018. And after that, we were able to raise money. At this point we’ve raised over $4M including from Comcast Ventures’ Catalyst Fund.
What is it about you that you think a has the trust of investors?
AW: We really care. We have a passion for the space. We’re not doing this because esports is hot. My co-founder and I care about this space. We are not trying to make easy money. We live, eat and breathe this. We are lifelong gamers and lifelong competitors. We always want to win. That mentality of being passionate for something you’re building is critical. Investors are attracted to the fact that we are among the most knowledgeable people in this space.
The way we’ve built our team is also important to investors. The team background we have from soccer days and in our business working together with people from diverse backgrounds is important. It is where the world is going. Investors are being more strict about who they invest in. Zach and I have morals that will make our parents proud and morals that investors agree with.
What would be your advice to others starting a business?
AW: When you first feel the inklings of comfort to do it full time, jump at that opportunity. You don’t give yourself the best chance for success if you are doing it part time. Zach and I had full time jobs and funded Players’ Lounge ourselves to start. We worked on it before and after work. We maxed out our credit cards. We were our first investors. When you have a tangible product that has built up enough to convince someone to give you angel cash, like 6-months of runway, you should take that. That’s what happened to us. We received an investment from a college teammate for $20k and I immediately quit my job the next day.
Do you have a credo?
AW: Do something that you’re passionate about because I personally could not have spent thousands of hours working and thinking about Players’ Lounge and thinking about thousands of problems that we had to solve without being passionate about what we’re doing, our mission, our industry and our customers. If I didn’t have passion for this, I would not have made it through trials and tribulations. There’s still more to come and I’m still passionate.
What does success look like for you?
AW: Professional success is being the biggest brand in esports and changing the way people can play video games casually from their own home, opening revenue streams for gamers and representing gamers as well. There are a lot of underrepresented gamers. PC gaming and traditionally esports make up the vast majority of awareness around sports like people playing Fortnite, Counter Strike and League of Legends. These are games that get broadcast investment and they don’t represent the vast majority of gamers. There are barriers to entry. You need money to buy an expensive gaming pc. There are a lot of white and Asian players. African-American and Latino gamers are also big gamers, and they don’t see themselves on the big stage. Players’ Lounge focuses on console gaming and sports video games so we can be a voice and be a brand that connects with underrepresented gamers.
What’s important to you as you build a team and what advice would you give to fellow entrepreneurs?
AW: You need to hire experienced people for most roles. It’s important to ensure that those people are passionate about what your company is trying to achieve. As you grow, and fill more junior roles, hire people who will be willing to speak up and argue and advocate for ideas that they think will work. At the end of the day, you get the best product or the best service when you have people working on it who aren’t afraid to give their 2 cents and provide opinion based on their unique point of view.
What do you want your legacy to be?
AW: I would like to be known as someone who built something that really changed the lives of its target audience. On top of that, I want Players’ Lounge to be something that that target audience’s parents or grandparents know and recognize. I would like to be known as an entrepreneur who built a gaming company that effectively transcends gaming and reaches all people.
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