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TECHCITYINSIDER100: Plumbee is a Shoreditch-based startup making waves in the social gaming space. Its chief executive, Raf Keustermans, denies that it’s an easy target for a fast buck. Interview by Nico Franks

“It’s a combination of skill and luck, like most things in life,” Keustermans says, describing the mechanics of a profitable startup. But he could just as easily be describing Mirrorball Slots, the Facebook game that has made a name for Plumbee in the social gaming space.

Replicating the slot machine experience of a casino but with a fairytale twist, the game incorporates characters such as Rapunzel and Beowulf into the gameplay. It averaged around 1,150,000 active users online between April and May this year, while its average user is a 52-year-old woman from the US.

And, despite it being totally free to play and only 2-3% of users actually spending money on it, the game brings in over £1 million in revenue each month, Keustermans says.

“The 3% provides the revenue – it’s a numbers game. The group of spenders spend an average of $10 per week and that adds up to a meaningful number,” he adds.

“The advantage in casino games is that the game mechanics are proven and are sometimes decades old. The question isn’t ‘are there people out there who like slots?’ The question is ‘how do you reach them and build a product that is better than the competition?’”, Keustermans says.

Of late, the social casino space has been jumped on by games developers, who observed better levels of retention and monetisation in the genre compared to casual games. But the myth that it’s an easy target for a quick buck is wrong, Keustermans asserts.

“There is lots of relatively mediocre content in the social casino space. A lot of companies moved into the casino space away from casual games without thinking about what makes a good casino game.

“From the outside it might look easy – but to have something with replay value is quite difficult. We tried to deliver something rich, fun and immersive, rather than just another game,” he says.

Moreover, Plumbee, founded in July 2011 by former Playfish execs, identified a gap in the market left by a gambling industry busy targeting the minority of internet users willing to spend hard cash.

This left a large audience of people who had been neglected by online gambling companies, Keustermans says. Those are people who didn’t necessarily want to risk betting with and losing their own money, but who could be monetised via alternative means such as advertising.

“That’s where we see an opportunity to disrupt the industry, by broadening and making it more connected again to the world of entertainment,” Keustermans adds.

Together with CTO Jodie Moran and COO Gerald Tan, Plumbee raised its $2.8m VC funding not with a prototype but with “basically a couple of power point slides” outlining the company’s vision for better casino games online.

The company now operates out of Shoreditch with a staff of 43 and Keustermans is hoping to bring that to a total of 55 by the end of summer 2013. The Belgian-born entrepreneur admits that the biggest challenge now for Plumbee is hiring for growth.

“There’s a shortage of good engineers available on the market in the UK. It’s really tough. We’re actually quite a bit behind in terms of how many we wanted to hire. Finding the right people with the right skills and attitude is the number one challenge for the business.”

Previously, concerns have been raised regarding the effect of companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon locating in Tech City and poaching talent from far smaller but no less promising companies. Keustermans recognises this, but also sees the bigger picture.

“It’s good for the ecosystem – you need a couple of the big boys to drive the culture. People go into Google, but they also come out of Google, which allows customers here to tap into Google quality and get a broader view of the world.

“It’s good that those companies are here and hiring and investing in the UK. But in the short term it’s challenging because it means more competition to hire good engineers. It also means we have to get better and sharper. It’s positive for the ecosystem, but it doesn’t make our lives easier,” he concludes.

Next on the to do list for Plumbee is to get Mirrorball Slots onto people’s mobiles and tablet, not just on Facebook, something that’s proving more complicated than the company expected: “It’s a steep learning curve. It’s not just the technology that’s different between platforms, it’s the marketing too.”

Continuing to focus specifically on casino games will, ironically, prove less of a gamble than if Plumbee were to start developing its own games from scratch: “It’s a combination of making sure we keep the pace but also that we don’t start jumping at every opportunity we see. It’s a balancing act.”

Article available on TechCityInsider