The Power of Concentration
Imagine yourself in this situation: you are planning a high-priced vacation and you have two key choices to make about the upcoming trip.
Choice 1: You can go to one of two destinations:
One of the most beautiful places in the world that is not crowded with tourists
An average location that is extremely crowded
Choice 2: Who plans and accompanies you on the trip?
An experienced tour guide who understands the intricacies of the city, its history, and has relationships with its major vendors
A fellow tourist who has never really spent much time in this part of the world, but thought it looked beautiful in a magazine
The answer should be clear: you want a beautiful, less crowded location with an expert to maximize the experience.
The same logic applies to how one should invest. If you are relying on generalist fund managers with a broad mandate to generate investment outperformance, then you are choosing the investing version of a crowded, average location with a fellow tourist leading the way.
Discerning Capital and our focused investment mandate is built on two core investing beliefs:
Returns are maximized by concentrating in your best ideas in the most attractive parts of the market
Groups with context and expertise generate excess returns and mitigate more risks
We have built our firm to focus on an attractive secular shift from offline to online gambling, which we increasingly believe to be one of the most attractive segments of the global economy. Our investment focus has been described as “niche,” which we agree with and that’s honestly the point. We are purposefully concentrating on an extremely attractive part of the capital markets that we believe is under-addressed today and an area where we have the expertise to discern the right investments to make.
Marc Andreesen saw a similar thing in 2011 when he wrote “Software is Eating the World.” The tech world was on the cusp of asset light innovation cannibalizing the existing hardware-centric incumbents. We believe that our industry of focus is at a similar moment where one could argue that “gambling is eating the world of media/sports/entertainment.” The world of physical casinos is ripe for disruption and the cumbersome first generation of online gambling tech is going to be displaced by newer, faster, easier to use iterations of itself.
Why Online Gambling?
We believe that the online gambling industry will ultimately be much larger than the traditional offline casino market on a global basis. Depending on whose data you cite, that means a secular shift in an established $400B+ industry towards more dynamic, technology-driven businesses and away from old world, brick & mortar casinos. The gambling business is highly profitable at its core and the regulatory complexity of the industry largely insulates it from being a winner take all market. If you look at Europe, the largest operators have 20%+ EBITDA margins despite having a large web of more profitable suppliers supporting them.
In the US specifically, we believe that the online gambling market will ultimately be larger than the commercial + tribal physical casino market as the drumbeat of legalization marches forward. That means we believe that the long-term opportunity for online gambling is north of $70B and likely $50B in the next 10 years. Today 30+ states have legalized online gambling and we believe that number ultimately approaches 48-49 states (we will count out Utah for a while).
Why do we believe this transition will continue in the US? Casinos are inconvenient for most Americans to access. The average American likely must travel well over an hour from their house till they can sit down at their first table game. The only consumer markets that we have not seen move primarily online over time are ones where the offline version is convenient (e.g. a grocery store is likely 5-10 minutes away). The lack of convenient betting venues means that most Americans do not consider betting multiple times in a week. We believe that distributing a convenient sports betting, and eventually a convenient casino offering, through mobile devices will massively grow the gambling market while cannibalizing the physical casinos over time.
We believe that the online gambling market will be like the apparel industry, which was revolutionized through the switch from offline to online. Despite the cannibalization of physical stores & the declines in mall traffic, the apparel industry has continued to grow consistently over the last 15 years and has now reached the point where 48% of apparel will be purchased online in 2023 (source: Statista). Similar to how people buy clothing at night while on their phones, we expect that people will login and choose to wager for entertainment value. We have been involved in two surveys that showed 90%+ of consumers that gamble believe they would gamble more online than offline if it was readily available in their state. The survey also showed that less than 10% of Americans have a moral opposition to gambling despite what common perception may suggest.
The heavy regulatory requirements of our industry mean that there is a large and growing ecosystem of technology suppliers driving the industry forward. Whether its regulatory innovation (e.g. geolocation, integrity providers) or product innovation (e.g. same game parlays), the industry’s march forward will enable large sub-industries that profitably service the consumer-facing brands, as well as new and differentiated consumer-facing brands altogether.
Why Venture Capital?
This industry only became legal in the US in 2018 with the repeal of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act that had made sports betting illegal in America. That is the point in time when two things began to occur rapidly: 1) an invasion of European operators with their largely antiquated core technology platforms to service the market and 2) an explosion in the number of innovative American start-ups incorporating to meet the opportunities being unlocked. As the states that offered legal online sports betting went from 0, 1, 2, 3,…30, we have seen a step function change in the number of entrepreneurs focusing on the next great frontier of consumer entertainment. At this point, the first cohorts of companies that were launched in 2019 have reached a sufficient scale and proven product market fit to become investable for later-stage venture capital. We are just hitting the inflection point in the industry – it’s early innings.
While most investors are focused on the negative margin B2C providers in the US or the older generation of large B2B providers that are publicly listed globally, they are largely unable to access the fastest growing parts of the market. It is the emerging B2B companies that are powering much of the product innovation and market growth but remain inaccessible by most investors. We believe that this part of the market will likely accrue the greatest returns for investors as their products allow for fast and flexible innovation for their end customers and attractive incremental margins for their shareholders.
What makes this market more compelling is that generalist venture capitalists tend to avoid it given the high regulatory cost of doing business. As a general rule, if you own more than 5% of a company that is either an online casino or a supplier to an online casino, general partners must undergo personal licensure. While it’s not onerous in every state, there are some states where it’s more difficult and likely “not worth it” for a generalist vs. chasing the latest and greatest software company with no barriers to investment. That means the investors focused on online gambling have limited competition for most deals and, if anything, it’s a highly collaborative space amongst the small number of seed, venture, later-stage, and strategic investors.
There are multiple early stage investors (checks of ~$4M or less) and there are multiple later-stage investors (checks of ~$25M+), but we believe there is a material gap in the capital markets in between them. By focusing specifically on that market, we believe can generate excess returns through our access to largely uncompetitive deal flow, avoidance of earlier-stage company risks, and leverage of our industry network and knowledge.
At the end of the day, we believe there is a large, compelling opportunity to benefit from by enabling the next generation of online gambling. While we will build a portfolio of diversified investments within our niche – we believe that it’s best to concentrate our investments into this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is the digitalization of gambling.
In this blog we focused primarily on maximizing returns by concentrating on the most attractive area of the market and how it relates to investing in online gambling. We will save the concept of domain expertise driving returns for our next blog post.