Preface: You will find that some of the words in this introduction are highlighted. Please move your mouse over or click the highlighted word to reveal a small popup that will give you more context as you read. Their order of importance is determined by their color:
I built my very first website at the gentle age of 11 years old. Living in China at the time meant that I was living in general isolation to the rest of the world. Access to the Internet gave me a platform in which to engage and express myself and have others appreciate it. The first website I created was just a simple site that chronicled my different interests. It included things like a list of my top favorite bands, images of my favorite actors/actresses, and animations of skateboards and guitars that I thought looked cool. Nothing I did was too technical; nevertheless, considering my age it was actually a notable task to have accomplished.
The following year, however, I was sent to Korea for boarding school where I no longer had access to the Internet or a computer. I often wonder what I would have created had I stayed in China and continued to develop my online knowledge. At that time (1996), it’s not an overstatement to say that I was probably among the prepubescent Sean Parkers and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, who just like me were fixated on the emerging Internet, absorbing concepts and ideas into our fertile, malleable minds.
Fast forward about 3 ½ years and I’m back in China from boarding school attending High School at the American International School of Guangzhou. Computers were a necessary aspect of this school’s curriculum, so once again I was armored with one of the latest computer models and direct Internet access to my room. School took up most of my time and most of my Internet use was for research for essays and reports. It wasn’t until my Junior year did my interest in the Net begin to reemerge…
It was the comical incident of me leaking a shirtless photo of myself to those two girls in the grade below when I was running for Student Council Vice President that rekindled my focused attention towards the Internet. Up until that night, the day before voting, I was probably only a slight favorite to win over Nick, the other V.P. candidate.
I went to school the next morning forgetting about the events that transpired before I fell asleep. Girls from all the different grade levels giggled at me as I walked by them to my first class. It wasn’t until one of the hottest girls in my grade told me that she liked the picture she saw the night prior that I started to realize the breadth and speed in which the file passed hands. Could literally half of our small High School’s female population have seen the photo in less than 12 hours? It appeared so.
You already know the outcome; I ended up receiving 3x more votes than Nick… This event was specifically the moment that evoked in me a remembrance that the Internet was definitely the way of the future. For the first time, I was able to appreciate first-hand the power and velocity inherent in Online Word-of-Mouth, or in other words Viral Marketing. And this experience was the root of my initial interest in the subject, which over the ensuing decade would become somewhat of an obsession.
From a very early age, I made it a point to read business and self-development books as much as I could. Instead of fiction novels, I surrounded myself with biographies and autobiographies of famous and successful business moguls of past. From Andrew Carnegie to Sam Walton, I intuitively knew that being exposed to such potent information at a young age would offer me an incredible competitive advantage over my peers.
The reason I am mentioning this is because I want to illustrate that I’ve always considered myself an entrepreneur, not just a talented gambler or some Internet marketer. I never let myself fall into the trap of tunnel vision and compartmentalized thinking in regards to business opportunities, and as a result I’ve always kept a very open mind to all kinds of information and ideas.
An elegant example of my capacity of forward-thinking/logical-prediction was an epiphany I had towards the end of my Junior year (2001). Digital cameras were becoming increasingly popular and I had just received a brand new Sony Cybershot 3.1 Megapixal camera, which was an impressive device for the time. I was at my friend’s house and it must have been about 8am when I shot out of bed waking her up violently exclaiming, “I have an amazing idea!” I explained that Digital cameras were replacing film cameras, so the next logical technological change that would result was the emergence of digital picture frames! Duh, right!??
I Googled it immediately and found no result for “Digital Picture Frame.” Cha-ching! I just knew this was going to be the future, even though my friends thought it was a little bit of an outlandish idea – *remember, people were still printing out their digital photos if they wanted physical prints. But alas, despite my better judgment and also considering the fact that I lacked the wherewithal to bring the idea to light, this is something that I didn’t pursue. I let that one slip by me, and a part of me still regrets not being able to capitalize on a trending opportunity that was so clearly obvious – how often does an opportunity like that arise?!! Rarely. By the end of that year, digital picture frames started appearing online and by the next few years, they were being sold everywhere.
I learned early on in my life to listen to my instincts and to not be surprised if I am greeted with skepticism initially. I experienced it with the Digital Picture Frame concept and yet again the following year when I was met with resistance to the Bowl-a-thon proposal I suggested for our school fundraiser. That event set a High School record for the most funds ever raised.
Let me skip ahead a little bit. I ended up going to Drew University on a huge scholarship but I just hated it. I thought College was supposed to be an enlightening experience, instead I felt trapped, discouraged, and uninspired.
I was always a good math student and if it weren’t for my decent math score on the SAT I probably would not have received such a lofty scholarship to Drew. As such, naturally I was attracted to Online Poker, which was beginning to boom all over the place particularly on college campuses. Little by little, Poker drew me in while simultaneously my interest in my classes and professors waned. It came somewhat fluidly for me as I utilized my math strengths as well as my innate intuition to navigate the shark-infested waters of the global online arena. I was kind of a natural.
Undoubtedly, Poker played a pretty major role in my early adult life. Risk management, capitalization, balance, pattern recognition, mental focus, discipline, and emotional equanimity were all life-skills that I developed with great concentration and intensity through the game. After all if I lost focus, I’d feel the immediate impact of a dwindling bankroll, and since I had no lifeline to back me if I botched this up there were many real and active dynamics that forced me to overcome my limitations and distractions. It is my contention that if you can survive and be profitable playing Online Poker, in which probably less than 7% of the total players are actually winners, you possess the potential to thrive in virtually anything you put your mind into.
I had a strong beginning to my Online Poker career and I was able to make far more money than I should have been able to playing the most competitive and swing-intense forms of Poker: Cash Games. This positive turn of fortune further convinced me that I should consider taking some time off of school to focus on the game as it seemed to me at the time to be the only real logical move despite protest from my parents. Poker was not always fun and games, however. It was stressful and eventually I came to dread the lifestyle.
My girlfriend got accepted to Drew University the following year and we were ecstatic. She too was an Economics major and we shared some classes together. We both also possessed a mutual interest in business and began, like so many novice Online entrepreneurs, an eBay business buying and reselling UGG Boots for a modest $25 margin. Together we must have sold at least 200 pairs, but the business model was broken; we were still trading hours of our time for cash instead of having a residual, recurring income. And frankly, it was getting boring and tedious quick.
It had always been my intention to raise money from Poker as seed funds for some sort of Online Project. I began the process of learning Internet Marketing, SEO, HTML, CSS, etc. when I was 21 years old. The Net had changed quite a bit since ’96 so I had to learn a lot. I spent hours and hours learning and relearning online strategies, different available online platforms and services, and reverse engineering viral campaigns, which would emerge seemingly out of nowhere.
Three nights a week I continued to go from club to club or casino to casino with my other poker grinder friends to support my brother and myself. My heart was no longer in Poker like it used to be though. I’d already seen every single combination of cards and possible flop textures and I could predict with fairly decent accuracy the outcome of the hand based on that incomplete data. My mind was much more inspired by the living proof that viral marketing, online word-of-mouth, could be so powerful. And I knew that with the right plan and strategy anything could catch fire and spread exponentially.
A few months later I received a message from an online player that I used to crush for $1000s late into the wee hours of the evening. He switched poker rooms, reappeared a year later and told me he had made $100,000s playing ultra-high stakes heads up cash games. I couldn’t believe it since I used to crush him (I even took pity on him haha). But evidently what he was telling me was true.
So he knew that I had been spending a lot of time learning about Internet marketing over the years and he wanted to approach me about creating a Rakeback site. Rakeback is essentially a rebate to the player a percentage of the total rake paid to an Online Poker room. We, as affiliates, were entitled to as much as 50% of the rake generated by players we sent to their poker room! In return, the model is to give our players 30% of the rake they generated back so they could potentially utilize those funds to generate more profit, and therefore more rake. Anything beyond what we gave back to our players we could keep as pure profit. Needless to say, it was an attractive business model. A single high raking player could be worth hundreds of dollars a month.
But there were already some major Rakeback sites out there, which were firmly established. Not to mention, up to this point I had never developed any extensive membership site that required statistical tracking, databasing, and custom development. And the kicker, I’d never personally met this guy outside of communicating with him here and there via Online chat over the previous 2 years! I was turning 23 years old in a few weeks. Interestingly, he was turning 17 years old in 4 months.
I thought about it for a week. There were obviously a lot of issues to overcome. I had previously investigated Online Poker affiliate marketing, but not Rakeback specifically. And did I really want to get involved in the shady business of Online Poker? This wasn’t something I easily agreed to do, as I didn’t really consider it a noble venture and I’ve always wanted to dedicate my time towards a worthwhile cause. Nevertheless, for the past few years the only things I really spent my time and energy on were Online Poker and Online Marketing. A Rakeback site seemed to make the most sense. We became partners, called each other daily to discuss our plans of action. I would bring $5K to the table, he would bring $10K with the stipulation that once we began our marketing campaigns more funds would be allocated according to need. Since he was still in High School (I know, crazy), I was going to be doing the bulk of the work. It seemed like a fair deal and within 2 months we had our first Rakeback site…
But it was ugly and difficult for members to use. Since we were just starting off, we didn’t have many members at all so in lieu of our shortcomings in design and usability of the site, we offered them additional back-door Rakeback deals (technically not allowed but everyone was doing it~). In addition, we maintained close relations with our bigger players and constantly asked them for feedback. It took us about 3 months thereafter to realize that we needed to change a lot of elements. The infrastructure was in place but the site looked kind of dingy and it was unintuitive to use.
Realizing that we were pivoted against multi-million dollar Rakeback sites, I immediately began thinking out of the box looking for how we could leverage our small size and flexibility to give our potential members a compelling reason to join us rather than a bigger more established company. We made sure our promotions were at least comparable, if not more aggressive than the competition. With my recent experience and fascination with the power of viral marketing, I devised an elaborate multi-tiered referral structure that would simply be too negative-value for the bigger competition to replicate.
In essence, the concept was to allow members to refer other members and earn a percentage of their referred members’ rake generated. Most Rakeback companies had a 1-tier referral program where members they immediately invited would generate them a small percentage. Instead, we implemented a 3-tier referral structure in which member A could receive a referral fee from the person he invited (member B), the person member B invited (member C), and finally even a small percentage of the rake generated by the person member C invited. This way, in theory, our members could potentially become, in essence, a micro-Rakeback site individually through our website – without having to build and develop a robust tracking/delivery system.
We put this in motion and advertised our advantages over the competition. We decided to allocate an additional $20K to create an aggressive advertisement campaign. Within 3 months of advertising through different online mediums, we generated about 1000 members. Our income was systematically increasing month by month. It was beginning to look like we were going to pull it off in a big way!
We never spent an additional dollar advertising thereafter. Instead, every new member was generated their own personally customized Poker Economist website that they could use to share with their friends and others within their sphere of influence. If someone signs up to VIPRakeback.net after viewing the presentation, the person responsible for showing the Poker Economist presentation would be tagged as the referrer. Essentially, we created the first Online Poker Pyramid structure that was completely win-win-win: sign up through us and receive the highest Rakeback payout available, 3-tiers of referrals, your own customizable Poker Economist website, and comparable Online Poker promotions – essentially an unbeatable offer. From the initial 1000 members we gathered through paid for advertising, we eventually grew to have close to 4000 members, mostly through word of mouth viral marketing since we never spent additional funds on advertising. This was officially my 3rd direct experience witnessing the power of leveraging social dynamics and the Internet to spread information.
Initially these numbers may not seem very impressive, however, considering the comparatively small population of Online Poker players, our membership was quite impressive. Some actual Online Poker Rooms had less than 4,000 players on their entire site! It was exciting, yet also annoying, to see a year later the biggest Rakeback players in the game adjusting their offerings and referral plans to stay competitive with us, but by then VIPRakeback.net was already becoming a household name in the online poker community.
Part of the reason we got a lot of great publicity and validation is because we were directly involved with the propagation of a comedic Poker Song created by, believe it or not, 2 existing VIPRakeback.net members. The song was called, “Bling Blang Blaow” about these microstakes online players that think they are awesome to win $50. The song caught the Poker world by storm. I was directly involved with the main artist, Drybes, in creating the remix of the song which made it’s way onto multiple Poker Radio talk shows as well TV shows such as the World Series of Poker on ESPN and High Stakes Poker, in which Berry Greenstein said “Bling Blang Blaow” after winning a monster pot from his opponent.
Officially, I call this song the 4th project I was involved in that achieved viral status. Literally, there was a time when probably one out of four online poker players knew about the song. This project was particularly important to me because it’s spread also helped give credibility to VIPRakeback.net.
Around this time, there were talks circulating among industry members and affiliates like VIPRakeback.net that Online Poker maybe headed for some major disturbances. During this time I utilized my time and resources continuing my education. I flew out to California to attend a multi-disciplinary workshop for Internet Professionals, Authors, Coaches, and other Experts by Brendon Burchard. Ironically, Brendon has an ad in Entrepreneur Magazine this month and he’s now a NYT Best Seller. I learned a tremendous amount of knowledge and established some very vital contacts. Good thing I did because I spent $3K out of pocket to make the trip!
Among the interesting professionals I met was Dr. Wahls. I walked into one of the conferences about 10 minutes late and almost all of the seats were taken. The usher brought me towards the center of the room where Dr. Wahls and her son were sitting. Zach and I were clearly the youngest two people at the event so we immediately hit it off. During break I got to speak with Dr. Wahls. Turns out she has a miraculous story: in the year 2000, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. By 2003, her disease had transitioned to secondary progressive MS and was limited to a tilt-recline wheelchair. MS runs in my family so I was immediately interested to hear more about her transition to health.
Being an internal medicine doctor and professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, she researched her disease day and night trying to see if there was anything else she could do than take the recommended medicines prescribed to her by the best doctors in the field. She took the recommended meds and her health decline was slower, but she wasn’t improving.
Long story short, she devised her own protocol from her research and in 2007 nursed herself back to health utilizing intensive nutrition as the core of the protocol. Within 3 months, she could walk between exam rooms using a cane. Within 8 months she was able to ride a bike again, albeit short distances. But within a year she was able to bike 18 miles, ride a horse, and walk without a cane…
Obviously… it was fascinating and educational to witness, monitor, analyze, and understand the nature and tendencies of viral marketing success. This is the 5th “meme” that I’ve been directly involved in that spread virally almost exclusively on its own. Viral marketing has always been my main focus because frankly, it’s the coolest thing in the world to me. And you know what? I’ve been able to identify some common denominators that can separate a successful viral campaign from the failures – both of which I’ve witnessed directly or indirectly. It is my intention to utilize the knowledge, experience, and perspective that’s been engendered over the years to maximize future online projects.
Everything I suggest will possess the common denominators required to be considered ‘virally implicit.’ In other words, everything I have in mind is designed to explode.
Tags: Joshua Tobkin