As part of our ‘Building Against All Odds’ series, we invited Harsh Jain – CEO and Co-Founder of Dream11 and Dream Sports, to share his journey and key learnings with our fellow founders.

Harsh grew up in Mumbai, went to London in ‘01 for high school, and turned into an avid football fan. In London, he was introduced to the fantasy sports obsession. Six years of high school + engineering in locations where the fantasy sports market was mature, made fantasy sports an important channel for him to stay connected with his friends back home in India. 

In 2008, Harsh started Dream11 in India. In 2012, Dream11 went from being a season-long, free-to-play, ad-driven business model to a per match fantasy sports, freemium and microtransactions model. The team tried various experiments over 3 years and finally arrived at a model that worked. In 2010, to meet the financial requirements, they also started a digital agency ‘Red Digital’ which went on to become one of the largest digital marketing agencies in the country handling brands like Lufthansa, Pepsi, Discovery, etc. In 2012, when they figured out the new business model, they sold Red Digital and pumped all the money into building Dream11. 

Harsh & Bhavit (his Co-Founder)  raised a series A from Kalaari & Think Investments in 2015. Dream11 grew from strength to strength and ramped up from 2 million users in 2016 to 80 million sports fans playing on Dream11  today. 

How has the pandemic changed business thinking?

According to Harsh, the sports industry was badly hit when the pandemic hit and the lockdown was initiated. In April, they searched for sporting events being conducted in Covid-free countries and sponsored smaller leagues and monetized them on the platform. This strategy worked and users simply lapped up the new content. This also helped the sports industry in an unprecedented down time. They featured tournaments like Tajikistan Basketball, Nicaraguan Football, Belarus Football, and also introduced baseball and handball as new sports on the platform. 

During the lull, they decided to double down their energies on all those projects that were on the back burners.  They made a decision – for 6 weeks nobody was to work on any new features and they were to just focus on debt cleanup for the entire company. Engineers were thrilled. 

As the pandemic continued to wreak havoc globally, fantasy sports, to their surprise, proved to be resilient. With one-tenth of the pre-Covid matches, Dream11 still managed to do half of the pre-Covid business. 

Making the most of the given situation,  Dream11 implemented another of their mantras –  ‘Experiment – Fail – Learn’. No one ever had the guts to pull the plug on marketing for 3 months and witness their true retention. They pulled the plug and were truly amazed! 

The culture at Dream11

Pre-Covid, the team culture @Dream11 was heavily dependent on in-person meetings and discussions. Switching to complete WFH was a tough transition during the lockdown, with every team coming up with their own processes for collaboration, cross-functional team alignments, and expectation setting. They were one of the first companies to fully go WFH and managed to create accountability across teams and functions. 

Harsh also shared – Dream11 has a unique framework called ‘DO PUT culture first’, which everyone on the team follows

D – Data 
O – Ownership
P – Performance 
U – User 
T – Transparency 

Every quarter peers rate each other on  “DO PUT”. They don’t have OKRs, KPIs, etc.

Tier 1, 2, 3 consumer personas and ways to win these markets

Dream11’s adoption beyond the Tier1 markets is commendable – Harsh revealed some very interesting data points on this growth trajectory.

Tier 1 contributed to 95 per cent of their revenue a couple of years back and that number had dropped to 40 per cent in 2020. The microtransactions model was key for them to crack the tier 2, 3, 4 audience. 

For tier 2, 3, 4 audiences, focus was always on frequency, retention and monetisation. Daily engagement was important.

In his closing comments, Harsh advised founders to be more chilled. Along his journey, he has learnt that it’s okay if things don’t happen as planned – one shouldn’t lose control of oneself. It doesn’t always have to go the way one wants it to go. So his mantra is – Relax and keep introspecting