South Africa’s wagering landscape has changed in the last decade and if there is anyone who knows just how dramatic that transformation has been, it’s Tasoulla Hadjigeorgiou. “Ten years ago in South Africa, there was maybe one online bookmaker,” recalls the CEO of LottoStar, the Johannesburg-based fixed-odds betting platform.
Back then, strict regulations barring online casinos along with an entrenched culture of bricks-and-mortar bookmaking services meant that most South Africans had never even considered going online to have a punt.
That was until eight years ago when Tasoulla, together with her business partner – her husband – set out to change that. The pair saw an opportunity for a fast-paced, dynamic betting product outside the established sports betting market that could be played from the comfort of people’s homes.
But they knew that to win the hearts and minds of their sceptical customer base, they would have to be bold.
“We were thinking, we’ve got to turn the industry on its head, because bricks-and-mortar businesses are just not going to make it in South Africa. They only offer traditional sports bookmaking – so betting on sports such as soccer,” Tasoulla recalls.
This country’s been very good to us, so we have to be good in return.
“What we did is look at the legislation, which clearly said we can take a bet on anything. That’s when LottoStar was born.” When LottoStar entered the market, it offered customers fixed-odds online bets on the live outcomes of international lotteries – something that had never been done before.
As a licensed bookmaker, it could offer users lucrative payouts on games that were taking place multiple times a day and pay out winners almost instantly. The company’s portfolio soon evolved to include bets on the live outcomes of traditional casino games like blackjack, poker and roulette.
“We evolved very quickly. The market was a little bit shaken by us in the sense that we are incredibly aggressive advertisers. Our campaigns are large, and we entered with a bang. Compared with traditional sports betting, we went totally for a niche market,” Tasoulla says.
While beginning with a bang was one thing, countering public misconceptions about the legitimacy of online betting would prove a harder task. It took LottoStar several years to earn the trust of South African consumers.
“One of our major strategies was to educate the public and build trust. We tried to get the message out that we’re legal and we’re safe – that the money you deposit with us is safe,” she explains.
“We even went as far as to say that if you win a bet today, you’ll have your cash tomorrow, so people feel they don’t have to wait seven or eight days.” That strategy has paid off. LottoStar took in €1.7 billion in bets last year. Today in South Africa, Tasoulla says the LottoStar brand is synonymous with trust.
“At the same time as we were building a business, we were also building a brand. Eight years later, I am very proud to say that people confuse us with the national lottery. They actually think we are the national lottery,” she laughs.
Needless to say, in 2021, the online betting landscape looks incredibly different. Today, there are more than 30 online bookmakers in the country, each offering their own unique products as they attempt to carve out their own slice of the lucrative market.
The gaming industry is very male-dominated and yet 70%of my colleagues are women. All of my department heads are women, except one.
It is a trend that has only grown stronger during the COVID-19 pandemic. While online bookmakers thrived under lockdown, traditional sports betting bookmakers were forced to pivot towards new offerings in order to find new streams of revenue, driving many of them online and into direct competition with LottoStar.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Tasoulla says this competition is what drives LottoStar to keep improving and innovating. “Our competitors are catching up with us now. There are a lot of people offering what we offer now, so we’re really focusing on improving our retention of clients and keeping them happy,” she shares.
“A betting customer will always jump across. That’s why we are first to market new products. That’s a core focus for us because as soon as we launch a new product, we know that the others will be three to four months behind.”
In an industry that’s constantly evolving, part of the reason LottoStar is able to keep one step ahead of the competition is because of its healthy culture of experimentation. Tasoulla believes that a workplace where employees are encouraged to voice their opinions and embrace making mistakes is integral to an innovative, agile business.
“The most important lesson that I have learned has also become a company motto: try everything once. We believe you cannot know if something works or doesn’t without trying it. Sometimes, what seems like the most obvious idea doesn’t work, and those ideas that are long shots surprise us and work exceptionally well,” she reveals.
“We have a thing in this company where we all have a tick mark to some idea that didn’t quite work. Of course, this works both ways, but what it comes down to is that if you never try, you’ll never know.”
One of the many initial challenges LottoStar faced in being a market pioneer was the slow and resource-heavy investment in building a workforce from the ground up. However, this has set the company apart in its ability to attract the right talent and focus on building a workplace that encourages creative thinking.
“The gaming industry is very male-dominated and yet 70% of my colleagues are women. All my department heads are women, except one,” Tasoulla proudly points out.
“We have some of the most agile and creative minds in the industry, and so allowing my employees creative licence in everything that they do creates an environment of growth and constant out-of-the-box thinking.
“I run a very open-door policy, which further creates a culture of openness and allows my employees to voice any idea or opinion they might have. What may start off as one person’s idea will certainly grow with everyone’s input and creative flair.”
For the stars
It’s not just in its agile workplace and its innovative products that LottoStar makes a point of distinguishing itself from the competition. Since its inception, social responsibility has been integral to building trust with the community and combating long-held taboos about the gaming industry. Philanthropy is part of LottoStar’s DNA, according to Tasoulla.
“Our customers know that with LottoStar, when you bet with us and game with us, your money is going back into society and it’s going back to the people in need,” she points out.
LottoStar regularly teams up with its major radio partners for on-air campaigns and charity drives that attract sizable donations which go towards a range of charities, not-for-profits and community-building projects as well as directly to individuals who are facing hardship.
In the short- to medium-term, it plans to build on its legacy of social responsibility through The Star Foundation, a not-for-profit partnership between LottoStar and several radio stations, set up to oversee and formalise the company’s philanthropic endeavours.
The foundation has funded 11 different projects this year alone to the tune of ZAR14,500,000 (€839,000). “Gaming has a stigma to it, but what people don’t see behind the scenes is that most gaming companies also have a social responsibility that they take very seriously. Everyone makes assumptions, but in the background, a lot of good things are happening,” Tasoulla stresses.
“That’s why we decided to launch The Star Foundation. That’s a big thing for us and everyone else. Everyone has put in their time here to make that happen. This country’s been very good to us, so we have to be good in return.”