Close-knit brothers Boyan and Tzvetomir Naydenov founded the efbet sportsbook back in 2006 alongside their father Stefan. We sat down with both of them to discuss how a ‘love of sports’ has driven the development of the family-owned business ever since.
Keep reading to find out how the efbet launch came about, why it quickly became apparent that online betting was the future, how they have assessed the potential for markets outside of Bulgaria and what might be the next ‘big thing’ for the industry.
Laying the foundations
SBC: How and when did you create efbet?
Tzvetomir: We’ve been in this business, and in sports betting, in particular, even before 1990. It all started with our father and Toto 1. I remember he had a notebook where he would keep stats of English teams from the first, second, third, and fourth leagues.
The notebook got renewed with each new season. You could find it all in the notebook: when the home team won it was highlighted with a black marker, a draw with a green marker, while the losses- regardless if fore the home team or the away team were marked with red.
Losing game streaks, streaks without a draw or without wins were all kept track of. There were no odds back then and there was just a total of 13 matches played on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, while a mid-week game was just 10 matches. Today you have bets at every moment and every day.
Boyan: Yes, that was the beginning. We first created Eurofootball, while in 2006 we started efbet. It was the two of us, together with our father. Today we have more than 1200 employees.
SBC: Why did you choose this business?
Tzvetomir: Having played Toto 1 all your life, there would be no other business to choose from.
Boyan: It’s genetically inherited. (laughs)
Tzvetomir: During weekends, there were only friendly bets, matches, and watching live FC CSKA games. On Saturdays we would place our Toto bet and go to the stadium. There was a game of ‘Write, write’ that was played a lot. It involved betting ‘virtual money’ and people would make friendly bets with my father for 10 or 20 Leva.
Here’s how it went: the complete combination of 13 games and their outcomes would be equal to a bet of a few thousand leva (a single combination cost 10 stotinki/ 0.1 Leva) and since no one would possess that much money to place such a bet with the Toto, people would make a 10 leva bet with our father.
Their predictions, which could hold one, two or three single outcome bets, or one or two double outcome bets, combined with all of the rest of the game outcome combinations (that would normally cost 1 300 leva), would be enough to return the initial amount bet.
If the person got it right, he would win the bet, but if his accumulator would result in the equivalent of 1199 leva or less, my father would win.
If CSKA was at home at the ‘Army’ stadium, we would follow the same ritual and first sit in a local restaurant called ‘Under the linden’ (’Pod Lipite’), then go to the game afterwards. It seemed like that was the only restaurant with a charcoal grill in Sofia back then. And it was close to the stadium. On Sundays, we would listen to games. Yes, back then, one would ‘listen’ to the games on the radio.
Boyan: Only after we had done our homework first!
Tzvetomir: Yes, exactly. And it’s not that different today. We still watch games; we still go to the stadium. We just have the efbet business to run too.
SBC: And what is the business like today?
Tzvetomir: On the one hand, the business has changed, but from another perspective it seems the same. Today we enjoy the formulas, derivative tables, computers, systems and lots of information. No markers.
Back then it was just the BBC – you keep your ears open at 6.55 when you sit next to the radio transmitter and hear quickly the outcomes of games in the four leagues in England. If you miss the opportunity to put down a result, you wait until the sports news at 7.15, or way later at 10.00.
Boyan: Yes, so you could notify people about the result of the game.
Tzvetomir: We eventually created a telephone line that one could call and listen to a recording with the results. We would note results down on the Eurofootball program and that’s how one would know it all.
Boyan: Apart from that, my father would write the programme and the results, and stick it on the ‘Cafe Colombia’ glass.
Tzvetomir: Yes, and at the end of the day, you don’t have it much different nowadays – games, bets, and scores following. It’s simply on the internet.
Making the move from offline to online
SBC: So much of the industry has now moved online; what did it look like when you first got involved, for example in a country such as the UK?
Tzvetomir: Those leading the pack were William Hill, Ladbrokes, Coral and Paddy Power. My first trip to England was in 1993 and I went to a great deal of shops in order to get a sense of how things ran there and what are our common characteristics. It’s the same like this nowadays – I do the same when I travel abroad, I go to the shops and see how we fit compared to the competition.
Boyan: Honestly, I believe back then we were on the same level with the players in England, although one must take into account the fact that betting was already a well-established industry over there.
Tzvetomir: Yes, but they did operate with a different philosophy. They did not use a coding system, they rather scanned the bet slip. That gave you an option to include an unlimited number of games, while in an A4 format you could hardly print out more than 70 games. It’s a physical restriction.
Boyan: They used to offer mainly UK games also. At a much later phase, they started offering European competitions. Actually, it all began in England with betting on horses. Football games came a few years after that and people in England were mainly interested in horse and greyhound races.
During the 1990s, football would represent around 10% of the English betting market, while in Bulgaria it was 100%. In 1997, OpenBet came along and offered online William Hill bets. In comparison, we only started discussing online sports betting in 2003.
Tzvetomir: The first time I saw a live in-game bet being offered was during a match via Stan James on teletext. I don’t even remember the year. One could only bet pre-game and suddenly you had a UK house that allowed betting live with coefficients as the game progressed.
Boyan: We were following the developments daily and somehow online betting just came along rapidly. It was simplified and somehow we started convincing ourselves that this is the way to grow.
Compared to paper slips, that was definitely the future. With paper slips, you handled three copies – one for treasury, one was used to input the wagers into the system, and one was left with the bettor. Only brought together, could the slip be considered a winner.
There are no such things on the internet. You have the platform to do everything for you, so one may simply deposit into their account and start betting.
SBC: How would you describe your own transformation from handwritten paper slips to online and in-game betting?
Boyan: In 2003, we began talking about how the internet was the future and we would not be left out of it. Especially once you’ve been through the whole process, you can see the difference immediately – you do not bother printing programs, creating slips, double-checking teletexts, radio, and scores.
Tzvetomir: Yes, and actually it exploded when mobile phones came along. The PC was really a game changer, but it was either at home or in the office. Now you have your phone with you all the time.
SBC: Now that everything’s online, do you think the social element been lost?
Tzvetomir: I don’t think so. On one hand, offline betting is still around. If you want to socialise, you go to the shop. On the other hand, one could always sit at a sports bar, have a beer and bet via a mobile device.
Boyan: I believe the period of the so-called ‘online loneliness’ was short because, once the mobile devices came along, it started giving people social communication via applications.
There were no such things back in the days: you would go to a café to meet new people and hang out with friends. Now, the mobile device can keep you connected to everyone. No need to go to the shop because betting is available from any location. The lack of social elements gets compensated quickly.
Tzvetomir: In 2006, we obtained one of the first online licences in Malta, while the first online licence for Bulgaria was ours in 2013.
Keeping it in the family
SBC: Is it difficult to work for a family-owned company?
Tzvetomir: There have been times when we would argue constantly. Some 10 years ago, one of us would declare something in the morning, and the other one would overrule it in the afternoon. Then the first one would return it back in the evening, only to see it overruled again on the morning of the next day. Now, we get along well and we’ve distributed tasks so that we do not go into conflicts.
SBC: And what about you, Boyan. Is it easier to run a business with your brother?
Boyan: Yes, it’s definitely easier. You can talk about everything.
SBC: How do you describe a busy day?
Boyan: I honestly cannot remember a day that has not been busy. But my job is my passion. I watch the games on TV, I follow coefficients move, and I try to figure out where I could possibly win or lose.
Tzvetomir: I like being in the office on Saturdays and Sundays because finance and administration staff is off and it’s just me and the bookies.
Boyan: Not being present in the office does not mean you are not working. I am constantly on the phone and watching the efbet website, coefficients and games. Applications make interactions possible. Via sports betting, one can get involved in his own social network.
SBC: What do you love most about your jobs?
Boyan: Probably the fact that this isn’t a job for me in the actual meaning of the term.
Tzvetomir: Yes, the job is actually part of our life. We’re in the office Monday to Friday. Saturdays and Sundays I travel to the various locations we have across the country, or I am here in the office again. And then you have a new week starting all over.
SBC: How would you define your management style?
Tzvetomir: Generally, I like listening to what people have to say before making a final decision.
SBC: Was your father left to judge, or did he simply have the final say?
Tzvetomir: Yes, you could say that he was a fair judge and he prevailed when a decision was supposed to be made two in favour of one!
Staying close to home
SBC: What are the specifics of the Bulgarian sports betting space?
Tzvetomir: Compared to other countries, Bulgaria is capable of offering easy access to licensing and registration. But it has its peculiarities.
Boyan: With sports betting, one does not get involved simply to get a dose of gambling adrenaline or excitement. One must think it through, place a bet, watch the game. It’s a specific customer profile we have here.
Tzvetomir: One must be prepared and have his homework done prior to betting. It’s not as simple as just picking up a slip, inputting 1×2 and expecting it to be interesting. It’s good to know the teams, the players, who’s playing, who’s not. It’s a game of skills and that makes it not that accessible.
Those that are uninformed do not take part because they don’t have access to the information that would allow them to place bets. On the other hand, we constantly improve our platform and make it easier to use. You actually only need five minutes to learn your way around it and start playing.
SBC: Is the platform key to efbet’s success?
Tzvetomir: No, it’s a combination of factors. If it was just the platform, then most likely all of the software giants would have been the biggest in the business. Luckily (or not), it’s not just a single element that is driving success. No one can say. Even I could not state what the recipe for a successful sports betting website could possibly be.
Boyan: If you’ve noticed, there have been many online sports betting companies that came along and then disappeared throughout the years. Also, many offline companies were unable to successfully shift to the online space.
Casting your eyes elsewhere
SBC: Putting your home efforts outside, what other markets are you targeting?
Boyan: We first had a look at the countries that are nearest to us and have regulated markets: Serbia, Northern Macedonia, Romania, and Greece.
SBC: What makes you competitive in these markets, and how do you assess their potential before making your move?
Boyan: After looking at geographical locations and the ‘proximity’ factor, other large countries that have a great number of Bulgarians are Spain and Italy – where we just obtained licences. You have business potential in those places because wherever you go, you have to work with a team that is able to take care of your business.
There is a large Bulgarian community living in Spain which allows us to rely on a Bulgarian core. Language is still a key factor for communication, even today, and that way you have one problem less. Bulgarians over there adapt quickly and they are also aware of the brand.
We also tried to establish efbet in Cameroon as well, largely due to Samuel Eto’o. My brother was in contact with him and they tried working to obtain a licence there. Eventually, we realised that if we were to grow internationally, we needed to start from our neighbouring countries.
Tzvetomir: When deciding what country to target, we also look at the market potential. Spain and Italy have huge markets and even if you only settle for a 5 per cent market share – it’s still a lot. We would really love to go to the UK so that we could benchmark ourselves in the sports betting mecca. If you can succeed in the most competitive market, you can succeed anywhere.
For the love of sports
SBC: You mentioned your ‘genetically inherited’ love of sports; can you remember a time when sport wasn’t a big part of your lives?
Boyan: No, not at all, ever since we were kids and up to this day.
Tzvetomir: We graduated from a sports high school. My brother graduated from the National Sports Academy, while I went to the University of National and World Economy afterwards.
We never competed against each other because we were in different age groups, but we’ve always been athletes. We practised canoeing. I was better at short distances while he was better at longer ones. We also played football, of course, but not as professionals.
SBC: Who is your favourite football team and player?
Tzvetomir: CSKA and Emil Kostadinov. My favourite game was the one against Levski, 5:0 with Stoichkov scoring four goals in 1989.
Boyan: We attended that game. Our father took us to the ‘A’ seats.
SBC: Was your father your sports inspiration?
Tzvetomir: No, but he was our CSKA inspiration.
Boyan: I got inspired when I was at the 42nd school. Sports scouts would visit the school and look at kids during PE classes. I was asked if I wanted to begin practising athletics and canoeing. I was like ‘What’s a canoe?’ ‘You go to Pancharevo lake and you start rowing in a boat’ was the answer.
I decided to give it a try and that’s how I ended up applying at the sports high school with these two specialties. I was a first reserve for the athletics class, while for canoeing I got accepted first.
SBC: Do you need sports people in a sports betting team?
Tzvetomir: There are plenty of former football players among the bookies. Yet, in order to become a bookie, you need to be smart, have quick reflexes, math and English skills.
Boyan: There’s plenty of adrenaline involved in this business, so I would say having experience in sports definitely helps.
SBC: As a business, why do you invest in sports? Is it out of philanthropy or is it a marketing tool?
Tzvetomir: Philanthropy, marketing, advertising and social responsibility.
Boyan: It’s all in one. For the love of sports and football.
Tzvetomir: When your whole life has been linked to sports, you feel like you owe something back. Sports has given you a lot, it’s normal to give back.
Although I’ve practiced canoeing, football is the sport I watch all the time. I attend practices; I watch juniors and youth play. I used to play a lot back in the days, before I got injured.
SBC: How many teams do you sponsor?
Tzvetomir: Probably around 150.
Boyan: It’s not just football; it’s basketball, and volleyball too, where we support around 125 teams in the name of sports.
Tzvetomir: And not just the top teams. Those from the fifth and fourth league, amateurs. We plan on doing something similar in Romania and we are looking for a team we can start supporting. The market there is similar to the one here.
SBC: Does an avid sports supporter make a good punter?
Boyan: They say sports betting is not only for fans, it’s for all kinds of people. There’s no room for luck, it all comes down to knowledge. You have to know what’s going on, you have to be properly acquainted; you have to have things thought out first, and only then place your bet.
Sometimes I’ve observed the opposite – when betting as a fan, you have to eliminate the idea of being emotional and simply make an informed decision.
SBC: And do you have to first be a fan to create great products for fans?
Tzvetomir: It’s difficult to be successful if you haven’t delved into the problem. And that’s actually how I work too – I completely dive into the matter. I’ve been following the platform ever since day one and I know every last detail of it. And I also know what goes along with it: marketing, advertising, administration, finance, etc.
Without knowing all of that, there is no chance to succeed. I don’t believe it’s that easy for an executive coming from another industry simply to begin working in this business. And the opposite is true – I don’t believe I could be so successful if I switched from betting to a whole new industry.
Boyan: Most UK bookmakers started off as family businesses. Yes, some did go public, attracted capital, expanded their teams and became multinationals, but that’s completely normal.
Looking back and forward
SBC: If you could go back in time and change something, what would it be?
Tzvetomir: I would have started the online business earlier. I would have not wasted that much time analysing the trend and simply acted swiftly.
SBC: And, finally. What’s the next big thing for the industry?
Tzvetomir: The next big thing is esports. Betting on Dota, CS:GO and all the rest. These are still not that popular in Bulgaria.