Welcome to issue #5 of our recently launched Q&A series, Startup Spotlight.

This series is all about diving into the world-class technological innovation conducted by exciting UK startups. Getting to grips with the technology, the mission, and even the stories behind them.

In each edition, we sit down with a different startup founder, leader, or operator in an easily digestible conversational style Q&A format.

Today we’re diving into the story behind Yakkr, in an interview with the founders, Marcus Rowley and Rhys Birkinshaw.

After raising a pre-seed round from Athena Ventures, they've been busy building an exciting new gaming platform that enables fans to play online with their favourite celebrities, influencers, and gamers.

Highlights:

  • 🎮 How they identified a gap in the market for a new gaming experience
  • 🤑 How they raised a pre-seed round from pitching just *one* investor
  • 🚀 How they're tackling the 'cold start' problem of a two-sided marketplace

Do your digits spend a lot of time gunning for killstreaks in Call of Duty, hijacking exotics in Los Santos, or battling it out in League of Legends?

If so, it's fair to guess you're a bit of a gamer. And, like many gamers, you probably also follow celebrities and influencers on social media that're also into games and broadcast about it regularly.

Today, it's well known this is big business. Twitch entered mainstream culture a long time ago. Platforms like YouTube and TikTok are awash with gaming content. And, niche communities form around the individual creators and channels themselves.

But, excluding comments and Discord channels, it's kind of a one-way passive experience.

What if you could *actually play* online with your favourite influencer, music artist, or sporting superstar? At any game.

Imagine racing Max Verstappen around Silverstone in F1 22 or skydiving into Fortnite with Ninja.

The possibilities are endless.

Hold your breath... because Yakkr is about to make this happen.

But what exactly is Yakkr and how will it work? What are the challenges in launching a service like this? And, what market signals indicate people actually want it?

We interviewed Marcus and Rhys to find out. Let's dive in! 👇

Tell me about the origin story of Yakkr?

Marcus: So it all started in lockdown. I was working at PwC at the time. Working from home tends to be very quiet so I often had Twitch or YouTube on in the background. I probably shouldn't have said that!

I noticed a lot of people coming into the different gamer chats asking “Can I play with you?" or "Can I join your sessions?”. There was clearly a lot of demand from fans wanting to play with their favourite celebrities, influencers, and gamers. But, there was no way to *facilitate that*.

Wow. Now you mention it... that seems very intuitive. One of those "Why hasn't this been done before!?" type ideas.

Marcus: In addition, there was a ton of gaming action going on during lockdown that indicated fans want more engagement and a closer connection to their favourite celebrities, influencers, and gamers.

For example, in the UK, Premiership football players weren't going to training facilities or stadiums anymore. They were sat at home playing more console and PC games than usual - unsurprisingly, FIFA.

Clubs turned this into engaging YouTube content. The Premier League actually did a FIFA tournament between all the different clubs in the league.

Raheem Sterling represented Man City and played against Man United and Liverpool players. This generated a ton of interaction and audience engagement.

More recently, Snoop Dogg has joined Twitch. He's now a playable character in Call of Duty: Warzone and Call of Duty: Vanguard.

The key theme I noticed was increasing demand for experiences at the intersection of gaming and celebrities, influencers, and gamers. And, on the other side of the equation, an appetite from creators to tap into that.

Makes total sense. So, with your idea in hand, how did you go from PWC to Yakkr?

Marcus: I ran the idea by Rhys, my co-founder and Yakkr's CTO. I run all my ideas passed him. He's my go-to.

Rhys has worked on quite a few cool startups, one of which went to Silicon Valley for a few months. So he's a good person to run things by. When I explained the idea to him, he instantly recognised how this could work.

We were both working full-time jobs at the time, so we spent a few months fleshing out the idea. Plus, we were waiting on a particular (and very talented) UX/UI designer to become available for the project.

Once the team was in place we put together a pitch deck, some basic wireframes, and MVP documents.

Around this time, I received an email from the enterprise team at Durham University (where I studied). It was an email they'd forwarded on from an investment firm (TwinklHive) based in Sheffield, who were looking to offer £40,000 of grant funding to education technology companies.

Now, obviously, what we were working on was not education technology. But, money managers usually have their own money to invest, or, have people or other funds in their network that could invest.

So, we submitted our pitch and chanced it. They came back and wanted to learn more. After a walkthrough of the pitch deck, they were convinced it was a good idea!

It turns out they'd just invested in an esports coaching platform in America and were looking to enter into the space a bit wider.

We negotiated how much we needed to raise and made a deal. They invested through Athena Ventures, a child company of TwinklHive investments. From there, we made plans to quit our jobs and transitioned to building Yakkr full-time.

Love the hustle. So, let me get this straight. You pitched just *one* investor for your funding round and they said "yes"?!

Marcus: Yeah, it was pretty insane! 

The CEO and CFO are both casual gamers themselves. So they understand what we're trying to do, which is important for us.

You have put your name forward. You have to take the risk. We hustled, totally.

Once you get that first offer, you suddenly get a lot of engagement from other investment companies that you've not even heard of before. Within a day I received six emails from investment firms in America and Europe asking to speak to us.

Wow. Just... wow.

What are the major challenges with building Yakkr and making it a success?

Marcus: Rhys has a great saying, which is: "everything can be done, just at a cost". So, from a technical standpoint, whilst there are technical challenges and complexities, we do not view technology as the number one challenge. 

The end goal is to get the big names — athletes, creators, and influencers using the Yakkr. They're very expensive, so this is the biggest challenge.

If we had millions to spend we could get big names. Big rappers would have no problem charging $1,000s of dollars for a gaming session.

So, you're aiming to launch really soon... June. What is your go-to-market strategy?

Marcus: Since the big names are too expensive to secure for our launch, we are targeting smaller sized influencers. People with about 20,000 to 100,000 followers. Or, anyone with 300+ concurrent viewers on Twitch or Facebook wherever they stream. So far, we have 30 lined up for our launch. They're spread across North America and Europe.

The biggest issue for this target influencer is to change the psychology towards how they feel the fans view them. Creators find it difficult to think that people would actually pay to game with them. 

In contrast, top Premier league footballers know they are celebrities. They know they have a big fanbase that'll spend money to spend time with them. They can't really walk on the streets because they'll get mobbed by people and the paparazzi.

For creators of a smaller fanbase size, it's less obvious to them. But, that doesn't mean the fans they do have are less enthusiastic or passionate. I'm 25 and I've watched some creators since I was about 12.

They probably wouldn't think of themselves as influential or celebrity like in how they are perceived, but I view them that way. They question whether or not their fans would pay to game with them. The answer is yes! But, it's getting them to put themselves forward for that opportunity. That's the difficult part.

If you scroll through Cameo there are quite a few esports pros, YouTubers, and content creators on there now. They are charging £5 for short video clips. That's great in terms of a mindset shift, but I question is that where the *real value* from them is coming from? We think fans will pay more to play with their favourite gamer than receive a video clip from them.

First, gaming is what they associate that person with. Second, there is no interaction with a video clip. If I game with them I actually get to chat to that person that I've watched for 12 years! And, be like "How about a throwback... let's play Minecraft together".

It builds a much, much deeper and more engaged environment for the viewer, whilst also providing an incentive for the creator to do it because there's obviously a monetary value there.

We see ourselves as a kind of 'Cameo for gaming'.

Great plan. Within the 20,000 to 100,000 follower range, who are you targeting? What is your Ideal Creator Profile for launch?

Marcus: Gaming, across numerous titles and genres.

These are streamers: YouTube gaming content creators. TikTok influencers as well, because TikTok is absolutely massive at the minute and has incredible reach on it. 

How does Yakkr work for creators?

Marcus: Availability is driven by the celebrity, influencer or gamer rather than their customer. They say when they're free, what game they're playing and the platform. Then people can purchase tickets to join that session.  

A ticket will grant you access and privileges on our website into a video portal. 

We handle all of the customer admin. We take care of payments, customer services, email, security refunds, all that sort of stuff.

Rhys: All a creator has to do is say "I'm going to be playing on Tuesday night for an hour, this is the price who wants to join?". We do everything else.

Because our main customer is the creator, we want to make it as easy for them as possible. That's the most important thing for us.

Marcus: Safety is a big part of this. By keeping all the communications on our system the celebrity, influencer, or gamer has full control over it and can remove, block, or report people. 

What does the competitive landscape look like? How do you fit into that?

Marcus: The closest platform is called E-Pal. They became known in the gaming space about a year or two ago, because a couple of YouTubers did a video on them.

Originally, the idea behind was that you would pay to play with girls. It had interesting connotations - I think they used to be called E-Girl.

Today, it's mostly about paying to connect with a random player. There is not a whole lot of value in that proposition because if I wanted to play a few games of Call of Duty, I just text my mates and ask. If no one is about, I'll just find a random team that I can join.

We consider ourselves to be a premium version of this - paying to play with celebrities, influencers, or gamers as oppose to randomers. They have to meet certain requirements to get in, like audience size. This is the same with Cameo.

Additionally, there are a lot of esports tutoring services out there. They teach players how to play League of Legends or Dota really well.

With Yakkr, we want it to have a more casual vibe. People will come for an authentic experience, centered around a close-knit community.

Let's talk tech. What are the main technical challenges?

Rhys: Being a UK company servicing worldwide, there are some complications with handling the different types of situations. For example, taxes and currencies.

Also, we presume there's going to be a lot of demand for sessions and not necessarily enough sessions to potentially meet that demand.

What I've been thinking is... how do I make a system like this secure? Where 100 people are trying to buy one ticket over the course of 30 seconds. And, making sure only one of them end up with that ticket.

Other than that it is a relatively simple model, facilitating a marketplace. As time goes by we want to build more sophisticated ways for for creators to manage their availability and organise their sessions. They need to easily be able to understand "I need to be on this platform, I'm playing this game at this time, and I need to invite these people" at any given moment.

There's also scaling. Just going from nothing to making sure we can tolerate high demand globally - i.e. having a multi-node architecture around the world. This just means we want it to load fast and work well, no matter where you are in the world. And to do that requires a little bit more forward thinking than just writing one script and putting it on one server location.

Marcus: The 30 creators we're launching with have a global reach of over 6 million. And, we're planning on syncing the social media launches to go at exactly the same time. Even if only 1% of that audience click-through, that's 60,000 people that could be hitting our website in a very short time period.

Making sure it's scalable is important because the last thing we want is to draw all this attention, and then the whole site crashes and no payments can be made. That would not look good for the first day at school!

Haha. So, beyond June what's on the horizon?

Marcus: We have to meet certain monthly recurring revenue targets, and once we hit those we unlock our second tranche of investment.

We want to start releasing more services or more functionalities that opens it up to different types of creators. And, offer a free mode and implement a session request. 

We also want a strong charity integration functionality, so that the payments can be donated directly to charity organisations. This could be an appealing use case to sporting superstars such as Premier League players.

Sweet. I can totally see Yakkr being a huge success. I'll check it out when you're live!

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