Each spring since 1970, thousands of poker players have converged on Las Vegas for a chance to win the biggest tournament in the game: The World Series of Poker. Fewer than 600 players to date have walked away with the coveted gold bracelet and mountains of cash. Don Baruch joined that exclusive club in 2007—winning the $1,500 No-Limit Hold’em Shootout event—and pocketed $264,107. This might have been the first time Baruch won a poker tournament, but he was already accustomed to holding the winning hand in business. He not only earned an MBA from a Top 20 Business School, but he also has 20-plus years of experience running successful businesses—from small Internet startups to multinational Fortune 100 Companies. Today, as President and CEO of Rounder Inc., Baruch is living his dream of merging his two passions into one promising business venture. “I enjoy playing poker, but I also enjoy solving problems, generating new business ideas and concepts and turning them into something viable,” he says.
Rounder Inc. strives to capitalize on technology, creativity, reputation and expertise to develop and exploit opportunities in social networking, real and virtual online and live gaming and Zynga-style micro transactional gameplay. “If this concept works the way I think it will, I’m already prouder of Rounder and what we’ve built than anything I’ve worked on in the past,” adds Baruch. “We have worked tirelessly to get it off the ground. From where we were to where we are right now is pretty amazing.”
Opportunist: How did you become involved with Rounder Inc.?
Don: A couple of years ago I started looking around for a chance to take everything I’ve learned in my life, such as my love for poker and my playing skills, my education and experience—and tie it all into something I truly had a passion for. Sure enough, I came across this opportunity through a couple of business contacts. It fell into my lap at the right time and I was presented with the opportunity to incubate a company that had been a successful brand at one time but had fallen on hard times and needed leadership, expertise and capital to turn itself back into what it could be. Online gaming and video gaming is a potentially lucrative proposition, and Rounder is a labor of love because I believe in it. If you don’t love what you’re doing it’s hard to be really good at it for very long. We just recently took the company public, and I am working on executing our strategic plan, which I wrote. We are also raising the capital needed to execute our plan. We have a great board in place, and we believe we are in the right market with the right people. We just need to capitalize the revenue and figure out where the priorities are, and raise the money we need to ensure the business is successful.
Opportunist: You have an impressive background Don. Please tell us about it.
Don: Well, I’ve lived in Florida most of my life. I graduated from Sarasota High School and received an advertising and business degree from the University of Florida, so I’m obviously a huge Gator fan. [Laughs] After college I decided to work for a few years and then I enrolled in business school at Emory University in Atlanta, where I was a merit scholar.
Opportunist: Did the corporate world beckon?
Don: When I came out of grad school, most of my peers were going into high-profile corporate type jobs in investment banking and firms with headquarters in Atlanta such as Coca-Cola, UPS and Home Depot. I went to work for Taco Bell, which raised a bunch of eyebrows amongst my peers and professors.
Opportunist: Why Taco Bell?
Don: Taco Bell appealed to me. Perhaps it goes back to my willingness to take risks, but I took a look at the bigger picture of the payoff of maybe going into something a little less glamorous with higher reward potential.
Opportunist: How did that work out for you?
Don: My starting salary was good, but they had me frying beans and making tacos. [Laughs] Their idea was to choose two people from around the country to test pilot a program featuring highly educated, nontraditional restaurant people, who didn’t mind rolling up their sleeves and getting a little dirty, and stick them in a restaurant environment. Within six months at Taco Bell Corp., I was promoted four times. So, by the time I was there a year I was making more money and had a lot more authority than any of my friends in the corporate world. That was kind of cool. [Laughs]
Opportunist: How long did you work for Taco Bell?
Don: I was there between five to six years, running the gamut of operations. They moved me several times. Then I took a position with McDonald’s Corp., which is kind of unusual.
Opportunist: What was it like to work for the world’s largest hamburger chain?
Don: McDonald’s has a very traditional corporate structure that is quite different from Taco Bell. I was hired for the senior executive program and brought in at a director level, but I had to go through basic training once again.
Opportunist: Were you really required to flip burgers?
Don: Yes, and make french fries. [Laughs] It was all very formal, though, and they were very successful doing things a certain way. They weren’t particularly open to more radical ways of reassessing their business, so as someone who was more a high-risk, high-rewards type, I found myself unhappy there. I eventually left Atlanta, moved my family back to Florida, and bought up all the Southwest Florida franchisee rights to the Atlanta Bread Co. restaurants. They were more competitive than Panera Bread at the time, and we had the option to open up 10 franchises, but I didn’t see financial support and so we sold the restaurants.
Opportunist: Did you become disillusioned with owning a business?
Don: No. I had been working since I was 14 years old, but that was really the start of my true entrepreneurial career. After selling those franchises, I started a consulting firm for restaurants. It eventually turned into more of a strategic management firm, where I focused on turnaround situations to help companies get back on their feet. During that time I also opened up a secure on-site storage franchise called Easybox, which was a PODS competitor, and became the local franchisee until I sold the business a few years ago. Amidst all of this, I had the greatest moment in my poker career.
Opportunist: You sure did! How did you get started in poker?
Don: I have played since I was probably 10 years old. I’m 47 now. I’ve always been a bit of a gambler and enjoyed it. I studied hard and took the game seriously for a few years. It was just one gambling game where I had an edge and was quite good at it and was playing against other people and not the house. It became more than just a hobby. I started attending the World Series every year and would play one or two events.
Opportunist: What was it like to win the gold bracelet and more than a quarter-million dollars?
Don: It is my greatest personal accomplishment besides raising my two beautiful daughters—I’m extremely proud of the self-sufficient young women they’ve become. I played perfect poker for two days, and I’m proud of that. The event was called a shootout, and it cost $1,500 to enter. You had to beat 899 other people, including all the pros. It was a pretty big deal. After that win, I was convinced—typical of the male ego—that I was the world’s best poker player and could make a living at it. The rest of that year I tried to make a living playing poker but I determined pretty quickly that I couldn’t. [Laughs] Just like in life, you have to take things in measurable amounts. Winning is something to be proud of, though, and it taught me a lot and gave me motivation. I still enjoy playing a bit of poker, but it’s a very difficult means of raising and keeping a family.
Opportunist: What is your role at Rounder Inc.?
Don: I cover all aspects of the business. We are a very small, lean company right now, and we are run almost like a family because we are so focused on all the things we want to do. Each of us has such diverse talents that it’s relatively informal. One of the things that was so attractive to me as we relaunch the Rounder brand, was that the company had a lot of great things in place already—with its Trump relationships and doing promotional events for them. We have a beautiful tour bus, and also the Rounder Girls. At the end of the day, they all tie back to the name Rounder. Our goal is to build the brand of Rounder. That goal affects every decision I make as the president of the company. I always ask, before we do this or that, how it helps the brand. We are an incredibly valuable brand that needs to be re-established and put out there as the premier online and really, quite frankly, the premier live poker brand that exists.
Opportunist: Please explain how Rounder works.
Don: We’ve never been involved in real gaming for money. The only kind of poker we’ve ever had was for play. That’s one of the big areas of our business model. The world of play chips, or virtual chips, is becoming as valuable a marketplace as the actual gambling sites were in the past. Zynga has made a multibillion industry out of these micro transactions and virtual chips. A year ago we thought we’re getting ready for real gaming when gambling is legalized, but we learned that, while it’s going to be a monumental thing when that happens, there’s an even bigger market in Zynga-style virtual gaming. I am willing to compare Zynga with what we can do with our brand because of (a) the things we have at our disposal and (b) the team we have in place to help us maximize what we can do with the brand.
Another development, which we have going for us, is that last year some of the biggest players were knocked out of the market and sent to jail because they were making billions of dollars a year illegally. That was good for us because we weren’t involved in that. It leveled the playing field by removing all the bullies. When online gambling is legalized one day, which it will be, there’s an ability to figure out how the gaming system can do it and the government can make tax revenues out of it. In the meantime, we have other means to generate revenue.
Opportunist: Tell us more about your plans for tapping into the social networking arena.
Don: We have a chance to take our poker application to Facebook and become involved in this micro transaction business and do it better than anyone else. Whether you’re my age or my daughter’s age—even our parents’ age—almost everything is done through social networking. The way businesses are run and owned has changed dramatically. It’s fascinating to go to Facebook and play with Farmville and Mafia Wars and Zynga poker and see how people trade and live their lives in these social virtual environments. What we are aiming to do is to start to provide the top poker experience within the social network—one in which people can actually order drinks for their friends and trade chips and use them for things. Beyond that, we are becoming involved in an entire world that envelopes more of a social aspect than even the poker side and includes other gaming as well as a virtual casino environment.
Opportunist: What is Rounder’s target market?
Don: Naturally, you’d think that the average target market of traditional online poker players would be 18-34 year old males, but that’s not really true. Many don’t like to admit it but we have just as many housewives playing. It’s somewhat anonymous really, and when you get into the whole social networking aspect your demographics expand dramatically. Once people learn the basics of poker, we are going to have some sort of social interaction and networking as they do with other games they play online at sites like Facebook.
Opportunist: Who is your competition?
Don: There are a number of sites that do a good job of non-gaming poker. World Poker Tour, which is probably the best one out there, has established their brand and put a lot of money behind it and turned it into a successful online experience. That was very smart—not that I’d want to model us after them—and there are good lessons to be learned from them.
Opportunist: Please tell us about your website, magazine and TV shows.
Don: If you go to the site, rounderlife.com, it takes you to our whole social poker network and links to previous TV shows and tournaments we’ve done. We do an electronic magazine, which was updated recently as more of a gaming lifestyle magazine—hence, the girls and exotic locations and yachts and things like that. We are in the process of printing a physical magazine as well, which will further our goal to build brand awareness. Our site itself will take you to our poker website. The technology behind the way you play poker at Rounder is changing. Part of what we announced last week is a new platform with all new graphics and technology because we wanted to put together a more profitable business model. Revenue sharing was a central point of our old poker site but it didn’t have a lot of creative authority. We stepped outside of that box. It’s going to be a huge improvement for us in trying to set ourselves apart from others who offer some form of poker in the social-networking world.
Opportunist: Can you share some specifics?
Don: I can’t be specific at this time except to say that it will be financially better for us. We are setting things up to generate a nice revenue stream from the site that we aren’t going to have to share with anybody else. That’s obviously more money in our pockets. We are also partnering with someone whose background, not only in this business but also in the movie and video games industry, is quite impressive. We are working on trying to get a demo of that done so we can share it.
Don: Within five years I believe, without question, that online gaming will be legal in the United States and an enormous revenue generator for the government. I’d like to think we will be the No. 1 brand not only in online gaming but also the most recognizable—right up there with Caesar’s Palace and MGM—and I’d like to think we’d be so diversified that we’d be recognizable as a full-fledged publishing and media company. I would love to see us involved in the movies and the music industry. One of my pet projects for this company is something called the Rounder Room, which will be a 1980s Playboy style club and gaming franchise—not a casino—where people can enjoy a great Scotch and a nice cigar and play pool, darts, cards, etc., in a private setting. I believe there’s a marketplace for that. I see us fully diversified into all different kinds of businesses and interests that today may not look like a natural fit but for us but are definitely part of our long-term plan.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in the Orlando area.
Rounder, Inc. – www.rounderlife.com
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