It takes years of hard work, blood, sweat and tears to build up a successful affiliate business but behind all of that toiling comes success, rewards– and experience.
These are all things that Eric Sprague, the co-founder behind successful poker strategy forum Flop Turn River, has experienced and when you know your history, you can strategically plan for the future.
In this video interview, Eric talks about the early days of SEO, when the US market was unregulated– and lucrative– and how his past has poised his company to be ready at a moment’s notice when regulation does arrive. He explains some of the challenges he’s faced with running Flop Turn River over the last 10 years– particularly in light of the US regulation roller coaster– and what his team is doing to prepare for regulation.
With a background in Economics, financial analytics and programming, Eric has been growing FTR as one of the top poker forums since 2003.
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Warren: Hey, everyone. It’s Warren Jolly with CasinoAffiliatePrograms.com and I want to welcome you to today’s interview with Eric Sprague, co-founder of FlopTurnRiver, a leading US- based poker strategy forum that offers reviews, bonus codes, tools, videos and an extensive poker community.
In today’s interview, Eric will share his thoughts about the challenges of working in the current US environment and where he sees the US industry going. He’ll also tell us a little bit more about FTR’s strategy going into the future. Eric, it’s good to have you. Thanks for joining us.
Eric: Thanks for having me, Warren.
Warren: So, let’s start out by telling our audience a little bit about yourself personally and also the FlopTurnRiver history of, as well as how you met your partner Tyson and a little bit more just about the overall business.
Eric: Hi, everyone. My name is Eric Sprague. I grew up in Pasadena, California. I went to UCLA and that’s where I met Tyson, before graduating in 1992. My degree was in Economics, so that put me into accounting type of jobs after graduation. I became a financial analyst, and what got me more towards the web and programming was when I automated the monthly financial statements with Excel VBA macros.
After that, I got really interested in programming. So, that got me into the IT world and I started building my own personal little websites, just kind of tinkering around with them after work at home. As I was doing that, I was working with Tyson at a skin care company. I had a little blackjack site that had a little Party Poker banner on it, and I saw that doing the ads for these online poker rooms could bring in revenue.
At that time, Tyson was playing a lot of online poker. He said, “Hey, let’s make a separate site that’s just for poker. Separate from everything else.” That was in 2003, so he found the domain name FlopTurnRiver, which is nice and catchy because it’s the streets in Texas Hold ‘Em.
So, we put up a little site and, at that time, like I said, he was playing all the time so we used what he was learning as content for the website because he was doing really well and he explained it well, such that beginners could look at his overall strategy and tactics and they could be successful also. So, we installed a little forum and that’s pretty much the beginning of FTR. That’s how it started.
Warren: So, the site started as a forum in 2003, basically?
Eric: Yeah. I remember doing the forums. That was one of the first things we did. But not long after that, we started putting together reviews of… It may have been at the exact same time as the forums, I don’t remember. But we put up reviews of the poker rooms that we liked at that time.
Back then it was a different landscape. Like, you could play Party Poker in the US. You could play Paradise. We had our favorite sites up there. We reviewed them and that was basically the start of it.
Warren: Okay. So, what did you do from day one just to get traffic to the site? I mean how did you get visitors there from just putting up a forum and Tyson playing poker? You had to obviously get an audience to show up and participate in that forum. Do you remember how you guys did that?
Eric: Yeah. Like I said, Tyson and I were in the IT department at our company, so we knew about SEO because to get people to that skin care company website, we knew what was necessary. I think one of the things that was good for us is we would do a lot of the HTML ourselves, just in Notepad. When you break it down that way, you really see what’s important. You really see what Google sees. You see that the title tag needs to make sense, the description tag, your H1 tag… you see all that stuff.
So, we knew how to architect the website so that Google would be able to crawl it well. We also knew that none of that mattered if we didn’t have any links to our website. I knew that from my personal sites that I had been working on. So, we did whatever we could to get links to our site and that brought visitors, which brought forum members, and then it just kept growing.
Warren: Great. So, you’re basically focused on SEO initially. Now you mentioned hand coding sites. Is that something you still believe applies today for Google and its algorithm, or is it less prevalent and less important?
Eric: I think nowadays, there are products like WordPress that are really built well. I think that might be better for folks now. But back then, I think it was crucial to do some of it by hand.
Warren: Okay. So, how do you think SEO has changed since then, other than that component? What are you currently doing to stay cutting edge in terms of SEO and keep up with Google’s most recent challenging changes?
Eric: Well, yeah. Now the roles have kind of switched. Back at the very start, I was doing the webmaster stuff. Tyson was producing the poker content. Now, he’s doing a lot of SEO. So, he could probably better speak to how it is now. But as far as how it was back then, they used to say that “content is king” and you need to just publish quality content. But now, there are so many websites out there that have good quality content, that it’s a different world. You know?
Eric: Yeah, it’s changed a lot.
Warren: It definitely has. So, what types of marketing are you currently doing that you are aware of outside of SEO? Is there anything else or is it still pretty forum and content-driven?
Eric: Yeah. Almost everything we do is SEO, and then there is some word of mouth, like from our forums. But as far as, we’ve experimented with AdWords here and there, but nothing major outside of just organic results.
Warren: Okay. So, moving on to other affiliates in the space, what do you think are the three most common mistakes that affiliates make nowadays? You’ve been in that industry for nine years. What would you say some of the newbies are doing wrong?
Eric: I think people come in and then they sort of underestimate what it takes to make a cool website. Obviously, new affiliates come in all the time and they are successful, so it can be done. But I think a lot of people underestimate the amount of hard work to really make a new website that is valuable and that’s cool, that’s actually unique. So, that would be mistake number one.
Mistake number two, I think, is people build cool websites, but they don’t realize how much work it is to get it set up so that people can find the website. There is a lot of cool websites out there that you just can’t really find in Google. So I think people underestimate what they have to do in order to get other sites to link to it, to get it to show up in the SERPs, the Google search engine result pages. That can take a lot of time. So that’d be mistake number two, would be underestimating that.
Then the last thing is there are some cool websites that people can find, but that can’t really be monetized well. We have some of those. We have other sites besides FlopTurnRiver. We have some cool sites that offer really nice tools, free tools that we thought we could monetize and it’s just not every tool works the same. It’s like a different set of traffic, different group of visitors, and so not every site can be monetized well.
Warren: Can you just give a quick example of a site that maybe you were unable to monetize, what vertical it was in and why, just if you are willing to share that?
Eric: Sure. Videopokertrainer.org is a new site. I think it’s an awesome tool because it shows you how to make good decisions in Five Card Draw. But we haven’t been able to really monetize that yet.
Warren: Okay. Why do you think that is? Just the nature of video poker versus traditional Texas Hold ’Em?
Eric: Well, it could be a lot of things. People get confused with video poker because they think it’s poker but it’s not. We come from a Texas Hold ‘Em background, where it’s players against each other, the house takes a rake. Whereas video poker, I consider that to be a casino game.
Eric: Like blackjack, because you are playing against the house. You’re not playing against other players. So, for us I think that’s part of the challenge, is that our experience is more in the Texas Hold ‘Em poker, so to monetize the casino side is a little bit different. So, that’s part of it. I mean if I knew all of the answers it would be monetized.
Warren: Sure. That makes sense. Just it’s interesting to get the crossover perspective. So, back to the three points that you shared in terms of the common mistakes, what would you tell a new affiliate, just in terms of what would be your one piece of advice to mitigate those three areas?
Eric: I would say just to, if you work hard enough and you have a little luck on your side you’ll succeed, but it may not be the first website you try, right? Like, maybe you try ABC… The difference between a success and a failure is a success. They just keep getting up and keep trying. I think if you just work at it, if you manage your time well, you’ll get there eventually.
Warren: Okay, great. You’re obviously based in the US and a lot of the traffic that goes to FTR is US-based as well, although I know there is a good, strong international component that you’ve been building out. What are your plans with your existing US traffic? What do you think the future of the US holds, just from a legal standpoint? Then, are your plans to get more out of the US or wait until legislation occurs? I know it’s a lengthy question, but you can address it one at a time.
Eric: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I guess to answer that I’d have to go back in time a little bit. When the UIGEA came out, we were doing a lot of advertising for Party Poker back then. A lot of players in the US loved Party Poker. It was easy to make money there.
So when they left, that was scary for us because that’s our biggest advertiser.. They’re gone. The company we were doing the most advertisements for was out of the US market. Like you said, we have a lot of US traffic.
Warren: Yeah. I’m sorry when you said most of your revenue, how much of your revenue was coming from Party in October of 2006, call it, when they left the market, just percentage wise.
Eric: I was talking to Tyson before the interview. We don’t want to get too much into that part. Can we come back to that part of it?
Warren: Sure, of course.
Eric: But I will say that Party Poker was huge for us back then.
Eric: So, when they left the US market we started to panic again. We worked hard in other markets in Europe, Canada, but what happened is that PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, they came in and they filled the void. Those two websites became very big in the US market pretty quickly, so we were fine.
We were able to put up lots of ads for them. People would see their commercials on TV. Then they would come to our site, see the ads and go play there. So things turned out to be fine. But what happened last April was different.
When PokerStars and Full Tilt were indicted, at first we thought, “Okay, maybe it’s like when Party Poker left. Maybe other brands will come in and service that market.” But that didn’t happen. I guess the Department of Justice, they’re pretty serious about it and the US market is just… I was reading in the Wall Street Journal the other day that it’s 83% down from what it was before that, and we can see that.
I think everyone can see that. I think that affiliates that don’t have ads for US poker operators, they still have ads for poker coaching, videos and I think it’s fair to say that everyone knows the US market isn’t the same as what happened after last April. So as far as what we’re trying to do, we need to make money right now, as a company. We’re working very hard in Europe and Canada. England is nice because it’s regulated over there so you don’t have the gray areas. So, we’re working hard in those markets.
As far as what we’re doing in the US market, it sounds good to get ready for when it’s regulated and to prepare for that. But from a cash flow standpoint, we can’t spend too much time doing that because we really don’t know when it will be regulated. You know what I’m saying? I have no control over that and I just don’t know the timing of it.
Warren: Sure. So, are there any opportunities in the US today that you’re trying to maximize or focus on based on the shifts that have occurred? Or is it more of a salvaging strategy?
Eric: I mean, yeah, there are some smaller brands. But also I think, being in the US, I think we have to be a little more paranoid of the US laws than our competitors. If we have competitors in England or somewhere, I think you are going to worry more about the laws where you live, where you are a citizen. So I think that puts us at a disadvantage to competitors.
Warren: Okay. Now, moving on just to the global poker market, I think everybody knows things have slowed down globally, in terms of the boom is pretty much over. It can be argued one way or another. But until the US does open up again, poker is likely not going to experience growth.
So, how are you mitigating that? Are you looking at other verticals? Are you moving into casino? What’s the strategy to diversify out of poker if you feel that’s important for the future?
Eric: Yeah, we are trying to do more on the casino side, especially with the big brands, like in England, where it’s regulated like bet365. We are trying to do more in that space.
Warren: Okay, now on to the FTR brand. You’ve done a really good job of marketing and building that brand in the industry. How did you do that beyond the basic tactics that we talked about? What would you suggest to anyone who’s looking to actually build a brand in the space and not just put up a portal on a WordPress site that gets SEO traffic? How do you distinguish yourselves from that type of site?
Eric: Well, I think going back in time again, when Tyson and I first started the site… People think a site has to look great to get traffic and that’s not necessarily true. When we built it, we were getting visitors, but it looked pretty bad. So, early on we brought on Tyson’s friend, John Kwon, to help us with the design. I think when he redesigned the website and made it look really nice, along with just having the cool little forum community. At that time it was just a little niche that just kind of grew. Because our forums were, I don’t know, they were just a little friendlier than some of the other forums and it just kind of caught on.
Warren: You said you grew slowly. Do you think that also played in the component? It doesn’t look like you took big risks or radical changes in your strategy. Do you believe in that slow and steady approach towards running a site?
Eric: Yeah, I definitely believe in it. Especially right now, I think companies that are highly-leveraged right now, when the industry slows down they can get in trouble really fast if they’re in debt.
So, for us as a company, we’ve never taken on debt. We’ve always managed our expenses well. It’s six of one, half a dozen of another. Maybe we haven’t grown as fast as we would have if we would have taken more chances. But times like this, when the market in the US is uncertain, I like not having debt.
Warren: Sure. You mentioned one important component to your business is bankroll management. For our users out there that are just entering the poker affiliate space or our casino audience, can you just tell us a little bit about why that’s so important for your business and how it relates to the overall picture?
Eric: Yeah. I think you want to start out in the beginning doing a lot yourself. Just so that you learn it, you know it. Then, when you do outsource it, you have an idea if you’re getting what you are paying for. So, now we have almost two dozen freelancers, but because we started out by doing the work ourselves, we know what our expectations are. It’s easier for us to manage the company that way and to manage the numbers.
Warren: So, just remaining cash flow positive? When you say bankroll management, it’s really about just maintaining reserves in the company and spending wisely and being ROI focused? Is that correct? Not so much like bankroll management for your players?
Eric: Oh. Yeah, for the company, it’s the cash flow. For us it’s important that we watch that closely.
Eric: Yeah. For us that’s been key.
Warren: Okay, great. So, what’s the future of FTR? What does it look like?
Eric: Well, we’re hoping that the US market gets regulated soon. That would be great, not just for FTR, but for the poker world. Until that happens, even after that happens, we’re working hard in Europe and Canada to add value to the poker world there. So, for FTR itself we just want to continue growing.
This year we’ve had a good World Series. One of the players from our community Max Steinberg, he got a bracelet in one of the events.
Eric: Hopefully we can see more of that type of thing.
Warren: Nice. That’s always a good thing for a community.
Eric: Yeah. We just interviewed him. We haven’t posted the interview yet, but I was watching it this morning. It was really cool to me how part of it he said that he’ll come in the forums and beginners will ask questions. He said that by helping them, it made him a better player. So, sometimes when you teach someone something it makes you stronger too.
Warren: Sure. Okay, now on to our most important and final question. We’ve seen you guys at the conferences and we’ve seen you and Tyson like to party hard and play hard.
Warren: So, how do you strike that balance? Obviously the affiliate lifestyle is one where it’s about your freedom, having fun, and enjoying traveling. How do you manage to run the business and still have that flexibility and make sure you guys always have a good time, which seems to be everywhere you are? Tell the audience who’s starting out a little bit about how you manage to make that work.
Eric: Well, I think my wife and kids keep me grounded. Because I’ll start out going to a conference and it’s exciting, you’re traveling, you’re getting open bars, free drinks. I enjoy all of that for sure. But then after a few days I’ll start to get home sick. Then after a week it’s like, I just want to get home. So I think for me personally, just having the family.
Warren: Now, Tyson doesn’t have that excuse. I know he’s not on our interview but let’s… He’s a colorful character. How does he manage to do it?
Eric: I don’t know. I can’t keep up with that guy. I’ll have to actually go into training mode before each trip because he expects me to drink with him and I don’t have the same tolerance. So I’ll have to start drinking a little bit before the trip just so I don’t get blown away.
Eric: I don’t know how that guy does it. He’s a genius. He can party at night, but then during the day, there’s no one smarter than that guy. So, I don’t know. He’s like a freak of nature.
Warren: All right, well we’ll have to bring him on separately one day and get the answers from the horse’s mouth. Eric, it’s been great having you. Thanks a lot for your time and sharing your expertise.
If anyone would like to get in touch with Eric, feel free to shoot an email to email@example.com and we’ll be happy to put you in touch. Thanks for watching and stay tuned for future interviews with live iGaming industry veterans.