15 February, 2021

The Swede smell of success

Erik Bergman, Great.com founder, speaks about his beginnings with Catena Media, the bright future for the Swedish affiliate market, and the struggles involved with building a social media presence.

Can you tell us about your journey with Catena?
The journey with Catena happened more or less by accident. It was me and my childhood friend, Emil Thidell, and we failed at everything else we tried. Then we started building bingo affiliate sites, which also completely failed. In the first years we actually gave up on that and started doing a bunch of other things, then came back to bingo affiliation after looking into the accounts and seeing $1,000 in there. That was around 2008 I think, and we kept building from there. It was always just a fun play around. We were building websites about bingo, but also mortgages, business cards fashion, everything we could come up with for about four years until 2012, when we partnered up with Optimizer Invest and decided to go full in on casino.
And that's kind of the inception of what became Catena Media, even though it started long before then. It was a chaotic journey, which almost ended in 2013 because we ran out of money, but we managed to turn it around luckily, and the rest is history. It mostly feels surreal. It's all just a blur in a sense but I had a lot of fun. We were a lot of wonderful people and we had perfect timing.

How would you characterise the affiliate market in Sweden today, and how much has it changed over the years, having been influenced by companies like Catena Media?
I think the Swedish affiliate market at the moment is in the worst shape it's been for a long time. It's really tricky now with regulations that haven't really been beneficial for anyone so far. It's getting even trickier due to Covid and extra regulations on top of everything. So I believe that right now, Sweden is in a really bad place from an affiliate perspective,compared to how it used to be. It used to be TV marketing running 24/7 for everyone and no regulations, no anything. And back in the days when we started, even the competition was low.

But I believe that Sweden is a future market. That's why we focus on it with Great.com. Sweden also has great internet, high pay in general, its people love to gamble, it has a long history of gamblers here, so I believe that the regulations will shift towards something that is sustainable for everyone involved. Right now the problem is that there’s absolutely no benefit to being a regulated operator, and they don't do anything to close out the other ones that have bonuses and do all the things that regulated operators can’t do.

But my belief is this will sort itself out over a few years. I believe that politics is slow, and regulators haven't really done this before. So my belief is that Sweden's market, if you look at it from a 10-year perspective, is going to be a wonderful market. But if you look at it from a two-year perspective, it’s in pretty bad shape.

Is it frustrating then looking at certain other markets where affiliates have developed and evolved over the years, with Sweden lagging behind due to the regulatory issues you mentioned?
Sure, but Sweden had a wonderful run, so you can't complain if you’ve been in the Swedish casino industry over the last decade. We can deal with a little rough patch now, it makes sense. It's been a magnificent run for anyone; more or less everyone made money if you were in the Swedish gambling industry for the past ten years. So I think that this just gives the industry an opportunity to clean itself up, get stronger, to not just be the one man show in a basement, but actually in need to figure things out.

So I believe this is a good thing over time, and I believe that whoever wants to go for the quick buck, whoever wants to go for India, Canada or Finland or whatever, feel free. Those markets are like Sweden were a few years ago. If you want the quick buck, there are opportunities everywhere, but if you want to build a big, long-term sustainable business, then I believe Sweden is going to be a great market over time, and that this is just a phase.

You made headlines a couple years ago when you founded Great.com, which is very different from Catena. You're an online casino affiliate that donates 100% of profits to climate change initiatives, but what inspired you to pursue this?
First, I wanted to build one big casino affiliate website because what we struggled with for Catena, and what I believe most affiliates struggle with, is they build a lot of websites, which means it's really hard to build one big website.

We have AskGamblers and a few others, but even with AskGamblers, which is run by Catena, which runs 50 other websites or whatever it is by now, it came back to me wanting to build one really big website. And when it came back to me, I wasn't really inspired by making money anymore. I had more money than I needed. I don't really care about materialistic things; I don't care about the car I'm driving and I don't want a big boat. So for me, giving the money away gave me a big inspiration to actually make a change by doing this.

So if I can build a big casino website, which is one passion of mine, and I can help a lot of people, which is another passion of mine, that just makes sense. It comes from bothwanting to add value to people in the world, as well as enjoying building casino affiliate websites. I love the SEO, chasing links and all the things around it, and figuring these things out. So for me it was a perfect match between two different worlds.

Can you explain your social media strategy, but also your thoughts on how it's used more generally in the industry and in Sweden as well?

“My belief is that Sweden’s market, if you look at it from a 10-year perspective, is going to be a wonderful market. But if you look at it from a two-year perspective, it’s in pretty bad shape.”

That becomes two very different questions. If we take the extreme and we look at Tesla, I believe it could be an amazing SEO company. They could get links to anything. And a big reason for that is Elon Musk, who is a superstar and the face of Tesla. If I asked you about who's the face of Mercedes you have no idea, the face of Ferrari you have no idea, the face of any big car company you have no idea.

But with a superstar like Elon Musk, you can drive publicity in a way that few other car companies or any other company could do. And to create a character like that you could either accomplish ridiculously magnificent things, which he has done, or you can be really good in social media, because there are a lot of superstars that have got big that way as well.

My belief is that if I can add a lot of value to a lot of people through social media - I have 600,000 followers right now who daily consume things that I produce - and if they feel that I add value to their lives, they will one way or another want to add value back. I haven't figured this out yet, but I'm guessing thousands of them have blogs or they have websites in one way or another, or they work in PR or media. And once I can figure out how these people could be excited about benefiting Great, I believe there’s an army of excited people out there that would want to do the same thing, where they want interviews, publicity and these kinds of things. I haven't cracked the code of how to translate followers into publicity and links yet, but I'm feeling confident that the more followers there are, the more times they have consumed the content, so the more value they feel I’ve added to their lives. Because I really pour my heart into adding value to their lives, I’ll one way or another figure it out.

Looking at the other side then, what you can do with social media for general casino business or affiliate business, I would say that it's ridiculously hard. I found it hard to do focusing on inspiring content and entertainment, to try and do social media with casino content and getting value from it that way. Personally, I would say it's a waste of time and energy. It's much harder than I anticipated it to be.

We're not building any social presence for Great.com as a brand because it's been too hard. So I wouldn't even do social media if I were an online casino or an online sportsbook if I didn't have a very clear idea of why I'm doing it, and I didn't have people who loved doing it. Because if you don't love it, you're in trouble. I love doing the content that I'm doing for social media in an educational and inspirational way, but without that passion, it would be very hard to stay consistent.

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