Darko Gacov: Why the CIS region is ‘the perfect choice’ for growth

Darko Gacov: Why the CIS region is ‘the perfect choice’ for growth

Following a series of regulatory developments across the region, eyes have shifted towards the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a new frontier for the betting industry’s development.

This region, according to Darko Gacov, Founding Partner at Singular, has been on everyone’s radar ‘since Adjarabet exposed the market to the world’, with the market’s potential growing bigger by the day.

Speaking to SBC, Gacov reflected on the region’s perception of gambling as a form of entertainment, warning operators that they must be very careful not to be blinded by the similarity between the individual countries at first sight. 

SBC: CIS and the Balkans have been earmarked as ‘the market to watch’ when it comes to gaming and sports betting. What would you say are the biggest challenges for this market? And how does Singular plan to overcome these hurdles?

DG: I am originally from North Macedonia, the heart of the Balkans, where Singular has the Sportsbook development center. In addition to that, I had the opportunity to start an online gambling company in Georgia, the country that put the CIS region on the iGaming map Namely, I spent more than five years with Adjarabet and was practically part of the inception of the iGaming market in the CIS region. 

The CIS region, especially Georgia, has been on everyone’s radar ever since Adjarabet exposed the market to the world, and I think the radar blip gets bigger and bigger as time goes by. Following the regulation of Belarus, Ukraine, and the updated regulation in Georgia, there will be a lot of activities in these territories. I expect we will be seeing both organic growth and acquisitions in the next period.

On the other side, the Balkans, most of which is regulated, with North Macedonia and Greece joining the regulatory wave recently, is also an amazing opportunity for growth, both for the domestic and international companies. 

The CIS countries and the Balkan countries have one thing in common: the massive popularity of sports, highly competitive nations, which enjoy a great number of fans. Gambling in these countries has an entertainment and social aspect that drives up the popularity of sports betting. 

Having clients in both of these regions, I believe they are the perfect choice for growth and expansion, especially for Tier 1 operators who are competing in the highly saturated European market. But companies aiming to enter the market must be very careful not to be blinded by the similarity between the countries at first sight. 

On top of different regulatory requirements, players in these markets are very demanding, and their expectations and betting behavior can differ from one country to another. Addressing these unique requirements both, from a regulatory and players’ point of view, is the biggest challenge. We tackled this from the early beginnings when we built our solutions with flexibility as their core strength. 

I know it is a buzzword in the iGaming industry, but the implementation of flexibility is the actual key differentiating factor. For Singular, it lies in the modular architecture of our solutions that enables us together with the clients to quickly adopt all market regulatory requirements and empower the core functionalities of the Platform with innovative features tailored specifically for their market.

SBC: As an industry technology and systems provider, how have you structurally set-up Singular for CIS market growth and further opportunities? 

DG: The number one capability that has enabled us to, so far, enter three newly regulated markets within the CIS region in such a short period has been the ability to quickly adapt to different jurisdictional requirements. We can deliver full compliance of Singular Platform to a newly regulated market in less than five months. 

The modular architecture I mentioned earlier gives clients the opportunity for seamless integration of any additional features or services that we can develop for them upon request or integrate what the client has already developed internally as one of their business key strengths. In essence, the in-house developed Singular iGaming Platform is a combination of more than 30 different autonomous modules that work together to deliver the ultimate experience. These modular integrations create unique solutions for each client and each market. 

This way, the market localization strategies of our clients are maximized and adapted to amplify their strengths for specific markets. Another important thing to mention is that we allow our clients to take advantage of this modularity by taking control of certain features they choose to develop in-house. These are different for each client and each market. 

For some clients, this is the frontend (webpage), for others is the CRM and marketing automation tools and processes they have already developed, but the list does not stop there.

SBC: In an interview last year, George Shamugia explained that the mobile-first approach was one of the top priorities for Singular. As you continue to expand into the CIS & Balkans market, has this approach changed at all? Or are you taking more of a retail approach?

DG: We tailor our approach based on the client and the market, of course, taking our knowledge and experience into consideration of how we believe and predict that the market is going to develop. The Balkan region has been historically retail-centric, which is a combination of regulatory limitations and player preferences. But, this is a very general observation, and the intensity of this conclusion will change when comparing one country to another in the region. 

CIS, on the other hand, different across countries, but as a general observation, it is less retail-centric than the Balkan region. We do not discriminate on online VS retail, we approach each market with each client as a separate case, and we analyze it together to create the best business case and best client experience. 

That being said, I have to highlight that mobile is very, very important, and taking it further, we aim to deliver a seamless experience across all channels. Our clients, through our business intelligence tools, collect players’ data from all physical and digital touchpoints, communicating with our segmentation and recommendation engines. This way, the players will get exclusive suggestions for bets, games, and events that are attractive and relevant to that player regardless of the interaction channel.

SBC: What would you say are the key differences between the key emerging markets: the CIS region and the Balkans, Africa, and the US? Which region has the biggest potential for growth?

DG: Africa has been an attractive market for some time now, taking into account the surge of internet and mobile penetration, as well as the high popularity of sports betting. However, the main hurdle of the African market is the poor infrastructure that results in high-latency and slow internet connection that ultimately affects the user experience. Depending on the country, we have seen improvements but, at the moment, businesses who are looking into rapid growth will find it very challenging, but not impossible, to scale their business in Africa. 

In contrast, the CIS region and the Balkans have strong infrastructure, a high number of active betting players, and now, regulations are coming into place.  They have created the optimal environment for any operator looking into the expansion of their operations into new territories. 

The U.S is a whole different topic since player preferences are quite unique and the market will drive novel trends in sports betting and initiate an innovation spiral within the industry. The growth potential is massive and if we are speaking of long term growth, it is my strong opinion that there is no comparison with the US. 

The US market is still brewing and even though we see all the big players placing their chess pieces in a highly strategic and expensive manner on the market, there will be still space for disruption.

SBC: What new components do you have lined up for 2021 to keep pace with the most powerful and feature-rich platforms on the market?

DG: Working with Tier 1 companies and continuously thinking about the best approach to tomorrow’s technology, our vision is to further strengthen those parts of our solutions that would give our clients the possibility to take specific modules in their control. Most frequent abstractions are those that can make the highest impact in differentiation, for different clients would be different. Nevertheless, the most common would be those related to front-facing components, meaning webpage, and the ones related to the client journey, namely marketing. 

The platform has to be scalable and adaptable to the different requirements of our clients.  Also, the platform has to be flexible and able to address the requirements of the existing and new markets.  Regardless if it is a regulatory requirement, a requirement for local payments, content or services, or even a requirement for creating new features and solutions that would be beneficial to the accelerated growth of our client, the platform has to deliver.

That being one stream of our train of thought, we also work tirelessly on improving all our products with different features and novelties. The Singular team deserves big merit for the continuous dedication to innovation that is sometimes even driven with a bottom-to-top approach. Of course, it is worth saying that a big number of the product improvements come as an inspiration from our clients, some applicable to one market, others applicable across the board – but each of them no less important than the other.

SBC: From your experience, how would you advise bookmakers to execute a technology strategy capable of maintaining a mass market approach for CIS’ developing jurisdictions?

DG: First, understand the players betting behaviour at the local market. Second, create a tailored landing page taking into account jurisdictional requirements, the popularity of different games, and the preferences for data and content display.  Finally, and most importantly, create unique player journeys. In 3-4 years, there is not going to be a single application that does not take advantage of personalization and recommendation algorithms. Rich content, data, and endless opportunities to bet are only the starting point. 

The game-changer is presenting the player with relevant content tailored on an individual level. Push notifications and omnichannel touch points should be used in a smart way to avoid overwhelming the player. You have to know the player’s favourite games, teams, types of bets, even time of betting to engage him with the right message at the right time. 

Last but not least, think about the experience of a complex entertainment center intersected with media components and content, not only odds. Until this is achieved, my advice to bookmakers would be not to execute a mass-market approach.

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