One Year In, Phil Galfond’s Run It Once Poker Just Getting Started

Phil Galfond talks Run It Once Poker
Roughly one year into the launch of Run It Once Poker, Phil Galfond peels back the curtain on what it's been like building an online poker site from the ground up (photo: WPT)

As Phil Galfond prepares to embark on an ambitious series of heads-up Pot Limit Omaha challenges against six competitors, PocketFives Managing Editor Donnie Peters talked to the three-time WSOP bracelet winner. In the first of two features, Galfond candidly discusses the challenges of running an online poker start-up and how poker prepared him the business world.

They say that poker is a hard way to make an easy living, but that didn’t stop Phil Galfond from chasing his dream, relentlessly, and rising to the top of the game. In fact, his life got so easy that he had a custom-made stainless steel slide installed in his multi-million dollar New York penthouse pre-Black Friday. Those days are very much in the rearview mirror, though. Now, Galfond spends his days trying to build an online poker site and its community, not break it.

Galfond has spent the recent years of his life dedicated to his upstart online poker site, Run It Once Poker. If his poker life became so much of a breeze that it can be likened to a can’t-stop-me-now, smiling-from-ear-to-ear, I’m-never-going-to-grow-up trip down his old slide, his time on the business side has been the opposite, as he tries to work his way from the bottom to the top by climbing a slippery, curvy slope with little to grab onto. One wrong move can force a slide back down to the bottom to start over, only this time the sliding doesn’t come with the same excitement.

“I always knew it would be difficult, but it has definitely exceeded my expectations,” Galfond said. “While software development has been our biggest challenge, that was one that we knew would be going in. The main difficulty with launching a new site that I didn’t quite appreciate is that you’re always paddling upstream with regards to traffic and liquidity. Until you’ve reached critical mass (whatever that actually looks like) at certain games and stakes, your product is at a disadvantage. Even if you have the best software, the best pricing, and the best game quality – if people show up and there aren’t games available for them to play all the tables they want to play, the product isn’t complete.”

About a year ago, Run It Once Poker opened its virtual doors, but the idea had started long before. About three and a half years ago, Galfond penned his now-famous blog post called ‘A Poker Site Should’ and the idea was thrust forward.

“A poker site should value poker players,” the first line read.

If you didn’t read any further, or if the remainder of the post was clipped from visibility, you still had a very good sense of the direction Galfond wanted to take. In a time when online poker sites, most notably PokerStars, seemed to be detaching themselves more and more from valuing its players, Galfond set out to fill the void for a player-first platform in the online poker marketplace.

For as much praise as Galfond received and belief that if anyone could do this it could be him, Galfond will be the first to tell you that it hasn’t been easy.

Poker vs. Business

The biggest difference between poker and business, according to Galfond, is that poker is very much an individualistic journey, whereas building a business takes more than one person. Not only that, but all parties involved have to work together.

“I’d say that understanding risk is integral to running a business and playing poker professionally, but beyond that, there aren’t a ton of similarities,” Galfond said. “Playing poker is an independent endeavor, and running a poker site is done by a team. Selecting the right team, giving them what they need to succeed, trusting and relying on them to handle decisions that you’d normally think to make yourself – these are all more important than what I can do for the company as an individual.

“It has taken me a long time to fully learn that – especially the part about not trying to weigh in myself on each and every decision. I have come a long way since we started the business, definitely, but I wouldn’t consider myself anywhere near an expert in any area of running a business, so my business abilities are very far behind my abilities as a poker player.”

Although he says playing poker and running a business don’t have many similarities and admits to not being an expert in running a business, one can connect the dots to see that Galfond is drawing from his time as a poker player to set himself, and his business, on the right path.

In order to become a successful poker player at any level, not just at the nosebleed stakes that Galfond once dominated, you have to be willing to want to improve. That comes with allowing yourself to be vulnerable to the fact that you’re not the best and there is always room for growth. Whether it’s in your weekly home game or at the final table of the WSOP Main Event, how many times have we seen poker players believe they’re the best, get ahead of themselves, and then be nowhere to be found? In poker, and in business, the game will always find a way to humble you.

When it comes to his team, that’s what Galfond says he is most proud about with Run It Once Poker, and he didn’t hesitate in pointing this out. He also didn’t hesitate in saying that “there’s still a long road ahead” for the group he describes full of “awesome, passionate, dedicated people who have worked insanely hard.” Galfond mentioned that many members of the team, himself included, have stepped into new roles during their time with Run It Once Poker and that it’s been “really cool” to see all of the development.

Surprise Obstacle

A more specific challenge regarding Run It Once Poker that Galfond pointed out involves attracting current online poker players that have spent most of their time playing at other sites, and this is something he didn’t fully expect.

“One other surprise has been the stickiness of pro and semi-pro players to their current poker site of choice,” Galfond said. “I knew that our mission would resonate with online poker enthusiasts, all the way from the frequent recreational player to the full-time pro, but I’ve been surprised by how much easier it is to get recreational players to make the jump to Run It Once Poker than it is for pros. Recreational players aren’t primarily playing for income, so the fact that we have fun-feeling software, great rakeback, and a mission that they believe in has led to a lot of sophisticated recreational players coming over to play on Run It Once. Pros, on the other hand, are deterred by game availability (they want to 4-12 table) and seem to be more resistant to things that are different than what they’re used to.  ‘Splash the Pot’ (one of our two rewards systems, which drops money onto the table for players to fight over) was a great example of this – a number of pros are worried about playing a format that they haven’t studied. Sophisticated recreational players see free money landing on the table and a fun new dynamic added to the game.”

Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was it fully built in a year. While many players may be reluctant to jump ship from whatever site they’re playing on and make Run It Once Poker their go-to platform, Galfond recognizes that it’s going to take time, even if the obstacle is a little bigger than he originally thought.

The selling points for Run It Once Poker are what Galfond has mentioned. The site has a good base of recreational players, inviting software, and creative promotions that aim to benefit players as much as possible. Although he doesn’t claim to be an expert at building a business, it evident Galfond has already checked off some of the most important elements to starting a successful venture – build a solid foundation and put together a hard-working team of like-minded individuals who believe in what you’re doing.

In theory, the pros should eventually come over and play. It’s just going to take time. Let’s face it, it’s hard for people to change their ways. But if other sites continue to stray further from the core values that Galfond is trying to adhere to, then Run It Once Poker has the potential to become a clear choice for players.

Sticking To the Mission

It’s no secret about how Galfond feels about PokerStars, but does he feel the same about other competitors such as partypoker and GGPoker? Although there’s no mistake that partypoker and GGPoker are competitors to Run It Once Poker just like PokerStars is, it’s hard to miss the player-first vision that these three sites, albeit separately, have in common.

“I’m a big fan of Rob Yong and partypoker,” Galfond said. “He cares about the game and is trying to do what he believes is best for it. GGPoker, I’m less familiar with as a player because the PLO rake is crazy, but I think they’ve done a fantastic job with their software and a number of other innovations.

“Honestly, I believe that Run It Once will be the best of both of those companies if we can grow and reach our goals – innovative with fun and user-friendly software, and mission-driven, making decisions that are in the best interest of the future of online poker and our players. I say, ‘if we can grow,’ because our software, while user-friendly, innovative, and fun, is still in its infancy. We haven’t yet added tournaments and a number of the other (exciting) ideas we’ve got. We’re already player-friendly, doing things that we believe are best for online poker and for our players, and I think that if you talk to our players, they’ll echo that sentiment.

If a player-friendly atmosphere and fun, entertaining gameplay isn’t quite enough to put you over the edge, take a look at some of the promotions Run It Once Poker is running. The site offers great rakeback and Galfond and his team are willing to go right at the competition with promotions such as the ‘Stars Become Legends’ one running in January that is directly targeting PokerStars cash game players with increased rakeback, added bonuses, and even a Run It Once training offer. It’s promotions like these that Galfond hopes can help Run It Once Poker achieve its number one goal for 2020 – to grow its player base.

“We’re always working on big improvements and additions to the product,” Galfond said for what’s on the horizon for Run It Once Poker. “Our next very big addition will be SNGs, which I was hoping would be out now, but you know how that goes!”