In line with the North East Local Enterprise Partnerships' Strategic Economic Plan to deliver more and better jobs for the North East, we spoke with James Beard, Chief Operating Officer at tombola to discuss its rise from start-up to market-leading international tech company.
Can you tell me tombola’s story in the time it takes to order a pint or brew a cup of tea?
tombola is a rapidly growing, market-leading international tech company headquartered in Sunderland. We employ more than 450 people and operate internationally. tombola develops and builds high quality online entertainment and historically our focus has been on online bingo however, in the past two years, the company has moved into developing our version of casino games. Our ethos is to put our players first, making sure we provide them with low cost, value for money entertainment in a responsible way. Also, we only operate in markets where gambling is fully regulated.
How has the company changed from its early days as a start-up to the larger organisation it is today?
The values and principles of the company haven’t changed and we’ve worked to maintain the things that make tombola an agile, entrepreneurial place to work. tombola is a family-run company with its roots in entertainment and the local community, and this has informed our vision and culture today. A lot of our team have been with the company since the early days, including our owner and CEO Phil Cronin, and although the business may be bigger, we’ve kept our focus on the values and principles that make us what we are. Having said that, we are constantly evolving and we invest in addressing the changes that come with growth. We make sure that when we do change, it’s in a positive way.
What qualities do you think the tombola team have that has resulted in the company becoming such a high growth, market leading online entertainment provider?
We have a really clear vision for the company – to responsibly provide affordable, community focused entertainment – and the people in the company are very connected to the business’s purpose and values. We’ve always had a clear strategy and have stuck to that. I think the team also takes a very long-term view and the things we do, for example entering the market in Italy and Spain, has been done with a very long-term perspective, which has been very effective for us.
What have been the main challenges or obstacles that you have had to overcome as you have scaled?
One of the challenges has been that, as we get bigger, we need to keep hiring to facilitate that growth and we need more space! We’ve invested £7m in a new headquarters on the banks of the River Wear here in Sunderland to house our growing staff.
It’s also been key to maintain our agility as a team. When the company started it was six people in one room and naturally, collaboration and communication can get harder the bigger a company gets. We use technology to overcome this challenge and to make sure our team can work effectively, collaborate and share best practice.
The other big challenge we have had to overcome is recruiting the best talent. This is across the business, but especially in our developer teams. We develop all our software and content in-house and the fact that it is unique to us is key to our success. So we always need smart software developers who want to make a difference and help us continue our success. This is an on-going challenge, so it is key to make sure that not only are we a great place to work but also that we maintain good relationships with universities, offer things like apprenticeships and maintain a high profile in the regional and national tech community.
What advice would you offer to leaders of other North East companies who want to scale up?
Historically, tombola has operated in a small niche within a bigger market. It’s easy to try to be all things to all people but we’ve stayed focused on what we’re good at. We worked to become the market leader in our niche and then expanded from a position of strength which has been a successfully strategy for us.
It’s important to have a clear vision and strategy, and to make sure everyone you recruit is connected to and understands that vision. It’s important not to compromise on either cultural fit or experience when you’re hiring.
I’d also advise companies to think about what their point of difference is – something that is durable and can’t be replicated by anyone else out there. Think about what will be important in five, 10 or 20 years’ time.
How has tombola’s growth impacted the wider North East community?
We’ve created jobs in the North East, specifically here in the centre of Sunderland. We employ more than 450 people and the vast majority of them are based in the UK, either in our Sunderland headquarters or working from home. There are lots of highly skilled tech roles within the company and we’ve created opportunities for people to be part of an exciting, high growth tech company here in the North East.
What’s next for tombola?
We’re sticking to our plan to keep doing what we’re good at. We’ve recently entered the casino game market which has brought significant opportunities. We are also expanding internationally and we’re looking at launching in two more regulated international markets shortly. We also want to make tombola an even better place to work and for the people who join us as apprentices or graduates to flourish and achieve their potential.