Anna highlights some of the difficulties that she, on a personal level, has faced over the last eight months before explaining the reasons why she remains optimistic for the months ahead.
Throughout February, rumours swirled in Ukraine about whether Russia would launch a full-scale invasion. Was the company preparing an action plan to follow if war broke out?
Given the nature of relations between Ukraine and Russia over the past few years, we were always considering what we would need to do in a worst case scenario, gathering key information to enable our team to know exactly what to do if war did break out. Equally, making sure we always have a plan A, B, and C is what we do as a business. But of course, you can never be truly prepared for war – it’s a totally unpredictable catastrophe.
The fact that we had done our homework definitely helped when the unthinkable happened, as we had an end-to-end risk mitigation plan, which firstly ensured the safety of our teams, and then the safety of our infrastructure and product. It also made it possible for us to return to some state of ‘normality’ as quickly as possible. All we can really do is make the best of what is a horrible situation for everyone involved, but I’m so proud of how committed everyone at every level of our business has been, of how we have all cared for one another and made sure everyone is safe and happy, with access to everything they need.
On February 24th, when the war broke out, what were your first steps as the director of BETER Live? What was the first thing you did?
One day before the invasion began, I arrived in Gibraltar to sign a number of agreements with some potential clients, and the following night at 3am I received a call from our operations manager who was in our studio, saying that they could hear explosions outside. My first priority was to finalise an evacuation plan for our teams.
I started to gather information on what each individual in the team wanted to do, because in a war situation when attacks are coming from all sides, there is no clear ‘correct’ decision, especially since none of us had complete information about what was going to happen next.
As a leader I feel a huge sense of responsibility for the safety of my team, and in a situation like that all you can do is help to coordinate between individuals and provide the most up-to-date and accurate information you have available. However, it’s important not to attach any of your personal opinions, because you don’t want to lead anyone away from where they feel safe, and ultimately we were highly aware that every decision we made in those moments had the highest possible stakes – the lives of your team members.
The following morning, two more people joined me in creating and coordinating a system we could use to check that everyone was safe and aware of what was happening. At the time of the invasion, our live casino team consisted of just under 300 people, and only three of us were outside of Ukraine at the time. For the next couple of weeks, every morning started with calls to our employees to check whether they and their families were safe and how we could help them.
Generally the best way to help was by providing information on where other team members are currently, when the next train would be leaving Ukraine, whether there are any stocked petrol stations nearby, etc. When you are running away from war to protect your family, you don’t have time to Google information. I even got my family and friends in Latvia and across Europe involved to help out.
We divided the entire workforce into groups and made sure that each group had a person responsible for its members, to make sure that nobody was left behind. In time this system became more structured, as more and more people found somewhere they felt safe enough that they could join our coordination team.
During those months, I can safely say that our team became like one big family. We had some incredibly brave and selfless employees who were risking their own lives by going into active warzones to rescue their colleagues. For the first three months of the war, I couldn’t even say “good morning” because every day started with fear about whether or not all of the team would pick up their phones today. My mornings only started to be good once I had received a message saying: “Hi Anna, me and my family are fine” – the sense of relief I felt then was immense.
For the entire time of operation since February 24, BETER Live’s GGR has never dropped to zero. How did you achieve this despite explosions across Ukraine and the difficult situation that the country is facing?
Just one week before the start of the full-scale invasion we launched auto-roulette, which essentially became our hero product. Our tech team, led by CTO Mihail Iashuk developed a solution which allowed us to control and maintain the table completely remotely. I am also so thankful to our brave security team, who kept our studio open and operating during this time.
So, basically, on 24th February when we switched off the lights in the studio, we only left auto-roulette – not traditionally a major source of income – running with our security guard keeping an eye on things.
During the first month, when we didn’t have any other products or tables up and running, our existing and potential customers showed tremendous support by prioritising our table, which allowed us to generate turnover and customer activity, despite the fact that the entire team was running to find a safer location and there was no one from the operations team on site to take care of things.
BETER Live also didn’t cut staff to reduce the company’s costs. How did you handle this situation, and why did you take such a firm stand to hold onto all your employees despite the potential difficulties?
Without any doubt, our strength is in our employees and we are going to get through all of this as a team. Despite all that has happened, some of our employees have never stopped working, such as our incredible, tireless developers, who were running up and down from bomb shelters with their laptops. However, not all of the team had the opportunity to do so. Our colleagues were dotted around the country, and the biggest group is our operations team, who need a studio to be able to do their job.
None of this was without its challenges of course, but the team has taken them all on them together. We were forced to temporarily reduce the salaries of everyone in the company, which enabled us not to lose a single member of staff during this time, when so many companies in similar situations were unfortunately forced to let people go.
Under the conditions of war, people were already being left high and dry in many respects, so having a source of income was absolutely crucial. The company needs employees who are ready to put their heart and soul into the work they do, but this is not a one-way street. The company also needs to be prepared to stand up for its employees, and only in this way you can forge strong, long-term relationships. I would also like to say a huge thank you to our investors, who supported our decision during these tough times.
Importantly, thanks to the efforts of everyone in our organisation, we are now achieving higher numbers than ever before. Our team’s performance has been outstanding across the board and has exceeded all of our expectations in terms of product releases and operations. The strongest connections in life can only be forged and tempered on the anvil of challenges, and this company has been fighting for each and every employee. Now, each and every employee is fighting for this company – to help it grow as it never has before by proving their loyalty with excellent results and admirable commitment.
Given that the war is still raging on, what are BETER Live’s plans for the next six months to a year? And how different are these plans from those at the beginning of 2022?
As I mentioned before, our auto-roulette has stayed up and running. In one month, we were able to implement three other measures, which allowed our business to recover fully and get back on track.
One such solution was turning our competitors into our partners. One of our close competitors, based outside of Ukraine, let us know that they were happy to look for technical solutions that would allow us to make use of their product, for which we were incredibly grateful.
Our developers created a new innovative solution which has allowed our operations team to continue to deliver the games and products our customers love remotely, even if they are far from the studio, in the form of our ‘picture in picture’ solution, which has become incredibly popular not only among our customers, but our teams too. This solution has allowed them to get back to work and engage with people, so they don’t feel quite so isolated during this difficult time.
And to top it all off, as part of an initiative led by our operations team, we began to partially re-open our studio table by table – as many as our available resources allowed. The studio could serve as a safe, protected space to which our team could return if they so wished, to be around people whenever they felt they needed to. Many of our colleagues have expressed deep gratitude for this opportunity.
Besides the fact that we have already managed to achieve even higher numbers than we ever did before the events of this year, this situation has also presented new opportunities for us to develop and grow as a business. We always had it in our plans to open additional live studio sites in new territories, but we couldn’t imagine that it would become possible so soon.
In our first year of operations, not only have we managed to launch our entire core Live Casino product portfolio and keep our business running during an active war, but also, by the end of 2022, we will be launching a new studio in Romania. Of course the main reason behind this is risk mitigation, but also it will provide us with a great opportunity to expand our offering with additional languages and the option of entering new markets.
Tough situations force us to grow, and although our previous plans for 2022 were definitely ambitious, they have now been through a baptism of fire and emerged even stronger. Things are happening so quickly, and we’ve learned to work so well together as a team with barely a chance to catch our collective breath, and now efficiency is the key.
We need to take on new, even bigger challenges and overcome new obstacles as we find new ways of working in new areas. We’re not just trying to fill the revenue gap which resulted from the first months of the war; we’re rising to meet the challenge of building an additional studio on top!
I am so proud of what we have already achieved as a team, and I am really excited to see how strongly we finish this year after navigating the unbelievable and tragic events of 2022. But most of all, I am thankful to everyone – every business, every individual, every customer, who has given us, or given any Ukrainian, any kind of support during this time.
However, my biggest thanks and praise have to go to my team. I could not ask to have a more determined, driven and effective group of people around me. Thank you all for everything. You deserve all of the success your efforts this year have contributed towards.